When Love Can’t Write Her Name & The Water That Lies Beside The Hill

We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors wisdom. – Maya Angelou

No one has ever said much about our family history. I’m not sure if it was just that way in the 70s, or if it was just the way of my family. There were a few anecdotes here and there but never enough pictures to piece together a puzzle. I only became interested in my lineage recently. Here I am, in the terrain part way between childhood and death, called “middle-aged”. And let’s be honest, that’s only if I live to be about 100. As time passes, an internal pressure builds, and I long to know more about where I come from, and to understand how and what I want to leave as my legacy.

I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone of telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia. – Isabel Allende

Learning about the fascinating characters that inhabit my family tree has been intriguing, enlightening, exciting, worthwhile, sometimes confusing and often emotionally complicated. First, I felt compelled to start by acknowledging the privilege I have even being able to consider the task. Then I quickly learned how many of my relatives are well-documented, especially the French-Canadians (thanks to Tangauy). The Irish and British ancestors from the monied classes are fairly easy to trace as well. Plus this day and age of the Internet and my access to it, makes records and information much more obtainable.

And of course there is my literacy. Literacy that I depend on, and essentially take for granted every day. Take for granted until I come across another name, another fact on the census sheet. There she is, Mary Love, my father’s great-great grandmother, on the 1871 census. She is listed as living in Brockville, of Irish origin, and married to a farmer. Then I noticed that little diagonal line, in a different box from all the others, and scroll up to the column heading where I read, “Over age 20 and unable to write.” Boom. Hard to imagine. But I also know, as a farmer, and woman in the 1800s she would have had knowledge and abilities that our consumer culture has encouraged us to let go fallow: all kinds of animal husbandry skills; an understanding of the best methods for planting, preparing and harvesting; maybe even a proficiency with the medicinal uses of plants. I imagine Mary Love, with rough hands, a lilt in her voice and a booming laugh, knowing how to make all the things a household could use, from bread to butter to beer.

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Still, there are many more relatives in my tree, especially women, who’s names have been at the least forgotten, at the worst, intentionally erased. Who’s stories, occupations and lineage I may never know. Their mother tongue no longer decipherable to my ear. Whose songs waft on scented breezes, whose muted drum beats echo only through my dreams. First Nations women whose skills made it possible for their French husbands to survive brutal winters and unfamiliar terrain. Whose hands crafted warm clothing, pounded pemmican and applied poultices. Whose names, stories, tribal lineage, places of birth, physical attributes, and skills were disregarded, unrecorded or lost in time. Whose ceremonies were outlawed, whose wisdom was ignored. Whose descendants began to deny or disguise the broadness of their heritage for safety, for survival, or by necessity, until DNA testing brought the secret bobbing to the surface.

When you steal a people’s language, you leave their soul bewildered. – John O’Donohue

And so it was confusion, mixed with pride, and guilt that grew inside me the day I learned my grandfather had renamed Bitimagamasing. It all started when my mom sent me an article about travel to Sudbury, and I asked her why. She told me it was because my grandfather had named a lake there. I had a vague memory of hearing the story years ago, but in my childhood imaginings the lake was about the size of a suburban living room. Curiosity piqued. I turned to the net and looked up “Lake Ramsey.” That’s when I found that Bitimagamasing, provides the city of Sudbury with 40% of its potable water. According to Wikipedia, it was once listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest lake located within the boundaries of a city. Not exactly the tiny lake I had envisioned. A huge lake, and not a coincidence, my grandfather, James Ramsey Sloan, was not a teller of tall tales my mother assured me.

According to Sarah King Gold, as quoted in a Sudbury.com news article, “Bitimagamasing roughly translates to ‘The Water That Lies Beside The Hill’ in Anishinaabewin, the language of the Ojibwe people.” I learned there had been a reclamation ceremony in 2013 and a new sign with the original name, Bitimagamasing, erected in an adjacent park. As well as a series of discussions and arts workshops, facilitated by Myths and Mirrors, related to the lake and open to the public.

On the one hand, there was my pride in my family history, after all, my “big-shot” grandfather, had named something! On the other hand, there was my mortification, renaming something is a very colonial act. And that renaming provides a very concrete example of my family’s participation, in the colonization of this continent and its peoples. Colonialism: “The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” (as defined by Google.)

To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root. – Chinese Proverb

It’s complicated and very Canadian, this family tree I inhabit. Populated by a kaleidoscope of characters: including barely documented First Nations ancestors, and my more traceable British, Irish and European forbearers: filles à marier, filles du roi, day labourers, farmers, builders, soldiers, winemakers, postmaster generals, railway men, professional hockey players, and female entrepreneurs.

It is not only the First Nations fore-bearers who have been pushed into the background of my herstory, it’s most of my great-great grandmothers, mother-in-laws, female cousins, and aunties, but something tells me that uncovering their stories is the beginning of a very rewarding journey.

When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves…sometimes even physically. – Raquel Cepeda

granny and aunt lucy for blog
My grandmother, Elmira Sloan and my great-aunt, Lucy Joy, in their confirmation dresses

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The Strawberry Queen and the City Pig

Sometimes the stories you tell are the stories you need to hear the most.

In these days of mass media, constant distraction and decreasing attention spans, oral storytelling is more important than ever. In the hands of the experienced teller it can adapt itself to the immediate needs of the audience. But no matter the scenario, or teller, stories carry power.

One year I went to an adult costume party at Halloween. I was invited last minute, so had to be creative when it came to my outfit. Not wanting to buy anything new I searched my closet, threw on my burgundy dancing skirt, a nice top, big earrings and a shawl. Voilà!

“What are you going as Mom?” came the question.

“A travelling storyteller,” I answered.

“That’s what you always wear when you go out,” was the reply.

Sigh. Slightly deflated but undeterred, I went out. And when someone at the party asked me what I was dressed as, I told them. Of course the next request was for a story. Not knowing them at all, having no idea what kind of story they would like or appreciate, I took a chance, stepped out on a limb and asked them to give me a topic.

“Generosity.”

What popped into my head wasn’t a fable or a fairy tale, it was a personal story. It was my first time telling that story to anyone outside our family, and it touched me so deeply I still struggle to tell it without tears welling up. I call it the Strawberry Queen

One year, while in grade 1, my youngest daughter went on a school trip to Patterson Berry farm. Instead of sending the students home with strawberries, the teachers sent them home with strawberry plants. At the time we lived in a townhouse and I had dug up a few square feet of grass and planted flowers just under our kitchen window. So we planted the strawberry there, among the flowers. I had no idea how to care for it, and no expectations.

The whole family was excited when the first bud appeared. The first bud, followed by the first flower. The first flower, followed by the first green berry. Then the green morphed into red. There it was, the first ripe berry, red and shiny like a tiny precious jewel. Did I mention, tiny? Smaller than a small marble, and not as plump. I told my daughter that it looked like it was ready to pick and explained to her how to do it without damaging the plant (this much I knew).

And here is the part that pulls at my heart strings. When my six-year-old had picked the strawberry, and we’d washed it, I thought she would immediately gobble it up. Instead, she cut it in four equal pieces, four pieces! One for herself, and a piece for each member of the family. Generosity. Sometimes the stories you tell are the stories you need to hear the most.

Kind hearts are the garden…kind deeds are the fruit – excerpt from a 19th century rhyme

You don’t have to be an experienced teller to make an impact. I often take one of my grandsons to a child-friendly story circle. I’ve been taking him since he was about four. He was always encouraged to tell stories, and when he started, he was brave enough to tell them as long as I assured him I would help out if he got stuck. Once, I left for a few minutes, and when I came back, he was telling a tale with the help of the group facilitator. I was very impressed. Progress. Not too long after that he volunteered to tell a story by himself. Intrigued, I waited to hear what he had picked. And I was shocked that I had never heard it before.

 

In a nutshell, it was a yarn about a pig who had noisy neighbours and hated her job. She went on a vacation, discovered kindred spirits, threw off the physical trappings of her work (in this case, her clothes) and she was free! After a great deal of head scratching, Internet research and by enlisting the help of two school librarians, I finally discovered the book was called, City Pig, by Karen Wallace. What was even more intriguing was that my grandson had added things that weren’t in the story, elements that spoke directly to me.

It was the right story, at the right time. The right story, from a novice story teller, with a deep intuition for what needed to be shared. Not surprisingly, he happens to be the son of my youngest daughter, the Strawberry Queen.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  – Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

A special thank you to my daughter and grandson for permission to share their stories.

Single strawberry on strawberry plant.

 

The Storyteller’s toolkit Part 2, Accountability, continued

… we have all been programmed to respond to the human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. – Audre Lorde

We (whether we care to admit it or not) are all products of our environment, upbringing, family, peers, education, and the biases, opinions, literature and mediums of our times.

We, dear storyteller, have decisions to make, many, many decisions. We, dear storyteller have ourselves as well as an audience/listener/observer/village to which we are accountable the moment we share a story.

When writing, telling, showing or performing a story try asking yourself:

1) Who is this story for? Who will I be telling it to? If you don’t know, then write/tell/show yourself first (it might remain as a journal entry, or even a confession).

2) Who’s story is it? Is it mine to tell? (this may require research, or even written or verbal permission).

3) Where did this story come from? Do your research. Is the story published? Is it a folktale, myth or religious tale? Are there different versions? How do they differ? Are these differences significant? From whose perspective will you choose to tell it? What did you consider when making these choices?

4) Why am I choosing to share it?

5) Why is this story important? In other words, why is it “urgent” – this is a direct reference to d’bi young anitafrika’s sorplusi method).

6) Why am I telling it now?

7) HOW will I tell it? Am I plagiarizing any part of it? In what ways will I give, or not give attribution?

8) Who am I accountable to when sharing this story? In what ways am I willing or unwilling to be accountable for the ways in which I tell it? Why or why not?

And finally, the one that people with unexamined biases often miss:

9) Am I harming anyone with the telling of this story? Does this story denigrate, ridicule or disrespect any person or group? In what ways am I willing to be accountable for this harm, intentional or otherwise?

Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for. – Alice Walker

This post was inspired by the recent debates in the media regarding appropriation.  For some very fulfilling mind-food regarding appropriation, I give the floor to two writers I carry a deep respect for, please read more below.

From Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-cultural-appropriation-debate-is-over-its-time-for-action/article35072670/

And Whitney French http://www.quillandquire.com/omni/whitney-french-examining-the-root-of-cultural-appropriation/

dictionaries
Dictionary spines

 

The Storyteller’s Toolkit – Part 2 – Dust Bunnies, Vacuums and Accountability

Stories do not exist in a vacuum. Well maybe stories about dust-bunnies do – but that’s a tale/tail for another time. Stories exist in a community. Stories by their very nature involve a teller, a writer or a performer and a listener, audience or village.* Accountability to the community is central.

To “call someone out”, to require accountability, to assert one’s opposition to a story, to question someone’s opinions and perspectives, to highlight biases and misrepresentation, to demand an end to appropriation is in no way a demand for the end of free speech. It is, in fact, the opposite. It is called activism. It is called dialogue. It is called standing up for what you believe in. It is called refusing to be silenced.

“Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde 

Stories can have many functions, they can: entertain, ridicule, protest, incite, inform, educate, heal, and open paths for dialogue or for reconciliation. They can also brutalize, humiliate, terrify, misrepresent, attempt to control, and yes, appropriate. Gossip is story, hate literature is story, rumours and propaganda are stories.

The status quo is naturally comfortable for those who have the status.

Free Speech comes with responsibility. This is where accountability is key. Can an editor, columnist, artist, or storyteller express controversial views without hurting anyone’s feelings? Unlikely. Can they make a point without relying on their own world view, speaking from their own perspective and exposing their own conscious and unconscious biases? Doubtful (and not necessarily the goal anyway).

Will the reader, listener, audience or village see something from another perspective? Hopefully. If the writer, storyteller, playwright, songwriter or journalist crosses a line in community standards and is called out on it, should they face consequences? Of course. Do these standards shift and change over time? Definitely. Should the goal be to keep the standards consistent, to insist that what was once historically acceptable remain so? Obviously not.

The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. – James Baldwin

Let’s talk about journalism for a moment. News articles by their nature are supposed to aim for objectivity. But if the news was actually objective, there probably wouldn’t be much difference in the way mainstream and alternative media outlets report it. Chances are you have a preference for a certain newspaper, on-line source, pod-cast, Internet site, TV or radio broadcast, and there is a reason why. The reason is slant and bias. In news reporting, objectivity like perfection is an unobtainable, sometimes undefinable, but still necessary target.

On the other hand, editorials and columns, are supposed to contain and express an opinion. And not everyone is going to agree with that opinion every time. Being able to express your views without being jailed or brutalized is central to free speech. The fact that editorial opinions exist and are expressed without fear of government intervention means that we have free speech in Canada. However, there is no guarantee that you won’t be questioned or challenged by other writers, by activists, by individuals or communities.

It is this questioning, this clarifying, this calling for accountability that forces accepted standards to shift.

Sensibly, free speech by necessity has a limit. In Canada, there is a line drawn in the proverbial sand. On one side of the line there is freedom of expression which of course is legal, and on the other side is hate speech, which quite logically is illegal. Drawing the line at hate speech is not censorship. It is part of the legislated civility that encourages respect, helps to protect identifiable groups from hate mongering, and allows communities to remain intact.

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom – Bob Dylan

Then there is a wide gray area where views are expressed that don’t fall clearly into the category of hate speech but cause a community or group to protest. Remember that the protest, whether written or verbal, also falls under the category of free speech. What it is not, is a call for censorship. What it is, is a call for accountability.

It is this questioning, this clarifying, this calling for accountability that forces accepted standards to shift. Without it, the status quo would remain intact. We see the world through our own unique lens, and we all have blind-spots when it comes to our own biases. Biases often reinforced by the prevailing attitudes and norms of the time and the society we live in.

The status quo is naturally comfortable for those who have the status. It is human nature to want to remain comfortable, and to complain when that comfort is challenged or disrupted. But if you want to be accountable, if you want to grow and mature, if you want to understand the world from a new perspective, if you want to be a responsible storyteller, then its time for you to push past that discomfort. It’s spring after all, so open the windows, turn on the lights, look under the bed and sweep out the corners. Befriend the dust bunnies, slay the dragon, question your view of the world, and try something new. Happy hunting.

On personal integrity hangs humanity’s fate. – Buckminster Fuller

You have come to the end of this section of The Storyteller’s Toolkit – Part 2 – Dust Bunnies, Vacuums, and Accountability – more on the same topic in the next blog post

Footnote * The term “village” used as an alternative here for “audience” is a term taught to me directly by d’bi young anitafrika. Here is a link to a brief description of her SORPLUSI METHODOLOGY

JA sand
Lines in the sand, south coast, Jamaica, 2008

Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of herstory.

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. – R. Buckminster Fuller

Like yours, there are so many stories in my family. Stories I know, stories I will never know, stories I tell myself to make sense of my past. Stories of serendipity, migration, and happenstance. Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of my herstory/ history without which I wouldn’t exist at all. Random, unexpected connections to things I find commonplace or take for granted, things like my morning commute for example. Although I travel by public transit almost every weekday, it didn’t occur to me until recently, that if it wasn’t for the subway, I wouldn’t be here.

subway anansi/ travels across time/ dimensions defined/ by sidewalk chalk

I don’t remember a time in Toronto before the subway, but I grew up in a pre-Metro Pass, pre-Presto era when bus drivers carried cash so they could make change, and an extra fare was required north of Eglinton. I remember my mother grumbling when it was time to pay, yet again. We lived in the newly developed suburb of Don Mills, almost at Lawrence Avenue, not far from the fare boundary but too far to walk comfortably.

In the Joni Mitchel, Gordon Lightfoot, Guess Who, Dan Hill, The Band and Ann Murray world of my youth; before Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Justin Beiber, Drake and The Weekend; before the Blue Jays, “We the North” and Canada’s Wonderland, transit was high on my list of what made Toronto noteworthy. Who else but New York had subways? Where else in North America could you ride a streetcar other than San Fransisco?

“Citified” I took for granted the easy access to downtown, the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario, the abundance of record and book stores, the proximity of major department stores like Eaton’s, Sears, and The Bay. The nearby mall and reliable transit, meant we didn’t have to have to order anything from a catalogue. In the early 70s, the skyline wasn’t distinguished by the unique shape of the CN tower, or a plethora of condos, stores closed on Sundays and corporal punishment was a legal and still practiced in schools. The scent of buttered popcorn and cigarettes mingled in movie theatres that only had one screen. Kids bobbed around unseatbelted in the back of station wagons, rode their bikes without helmets and tore down icy winter hills on wooden toboggans or scraps of cardboard. That was my normal but it was miles away from the Hog Town experience of previous generations. When my grandfather was growing up, the Royal York hotel was the tallest downtown building, men needed garters to hold up their socks, smoking jackets, pipes and silver cigarette cases spoke to the cachet and popularity of tobacco smoking, and photographs were always black and white, unless someone paid to have them hand-tinted.

I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway. – Toni Morrison

The reason my father’s parents moved to The Six from Renfrew is lost in history, I know more about the migration of my mother’s family. My maternal grandfather, was the son of a homemaker and photographer. He was a construction worker, nature-lover, and eventually a Civil Engineer, who returned to his hometown of Toronto in the late 1940s, with his Fort William bride and four children in tow. The family was temporarily gifted with a succession of empty houses expropriated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to make way for the first subway heading north from Union Station. My grandmother faced the thankless task of cleaning and making a sequence of hastily abandoned houses feel and function like home. Her husband worked hard on the project and even enjoyed a moment in the limelight, appearing on the cover of the Globe and Mail’s Saturday Night magazine. He’s there on the front of the November 1, 1949 edition, pictured beside the Resident Engineer. Standing on the right, my grandfather wears a summer suit, his fedora cocked jauntily to the left. The two men hold a set of plans, a large crane looms in the background, while they both stare off into Toronto’s transit future.

what prayers await you/ beneath/ cement catacombs?

My grandfather died before I was born, so I have no idea what future he was imagining, transit or otherwise. Although squeezed between other frazzled rush hour commuters, I’m pretty sure it’s not the overcrowding and inevitable signal delays, ubiquitous weekend line closures or the shuttle buses needed after disturbing and tragic injuries “at track level.” Still I can’t help thinking how strange it is that a gigantic 205,000 kilogram machine and the underground tunnels it barrels down is one of many cogs in the complex wheel of my family’s history, without which I probably wouldn’t exist at all.

cryogenic swords/ rocket past/ force fields/ and borders/ belong only to those/ who name them

Note: A special thank you to my mom for patiently answering my questions about our family history, again.

subway-train-cropped
Subway train at Davisville Station, Toronto

From rhubarb to tomatillos

“But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and prophyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.” – Edna Ferber

2012-10-18-10-36-15-2
raspberry with a heart-shaped centre

There are so many stories in my garden. Stories of the people who worked the land before me, clues to its history, scraps of tile, old nuts and bolts, snail shells, marbles, grubs masquerading as marbles; even a giant ring left by a troll. Towering over it, a huge cross, part sentinel, part scarecrow, one hundred percent repurposed metal streetlight post, now used as a laundry line. No wonder my maternal grandmother visits me there. Disguised as a butterfly, her white wings flicker past as I kneel on the earth.

 
This is my first year gardening, my first year since I was a young girl, helping my grandmother with hers. My help mostly consisted of watching, harvesting and eating. My favourite thing to do was pick raspberries for the table and it was understood that I would eat as many as I picked. My second favourite thing was eating rhubarb, delightfully sour, dipped in sugar.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks.

Fast forward: My partner and I moved into our new space in the fall, so we didn’t have the opportunity to do much in the way of planning or even preparing the soil. Nothing to do but dream, and the garden I dreamed of included raspberries and rhubarb. The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble. Sadly the raspberry canes did not survive the purge.

For the months of October, November, December, January, and February, the soil was frozen, and I existed in a tense state of anticipation. March brought seed shopping and research, trips to the dollar store for supplies, advice seeking and more research.

 
In late April I was finally able to start planting seeds indoors. The lighting was less than ideal, some survived, some didn’t. The greenness of my thumb seemed to be more of an indication of my inexperience rather than my success. In early May, corner grocery stores beckoned with small plants that looked hardier and more likely to survive than the scraggly seedlings I had been sprouting. In late May, the planting finally began. Still in a corner of my mind was the regret that I hadn’t been able to source a rhubarb plant, and I had discovered that the raspberry canes would take two years to start bearing again.

The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble.

After weeks of weeding, hours spent mixing in manure and organic fertilizer, watering, waiting and hoping, it finally started to fill out. In the end there was bok choy, sweet and hot peppers, celery, celeriac, strawberries, arugula, leaf lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos and so many herbs, cilantro, rosemary, culinary sage, thyme, lemon and African basil, lemon balm and a prickly borage plant that attempted to take over. Later I was brave enough to try planting okra and then the calalloo sprung up on its own, a happy surprise which required next to no tending. At some point I started to muse about how much my eating had changed and how much food had changed in Hog Town over the years. I grew up in an avocado-less household, where spinach was always cooked into an unseasoned fir-green mush. No one I knew had eaten okra, heard of tomatillos, tasted fresh cilantro or added anything other than ice berg lettuce to their salads, never mind arugula.

tomatillos-cropped
tomatillos, tomato, blackberries, pepper, green beans, calalloo  (in background)

It was a childhood culinary experience full of baked potatoes smothered in butter (the skin really is the best part) hot roast beef sandwiches, a uniquely named family casserole dubbed “suppog”, root beer floats, vanilla ice cream in cantaloupe boats, freshly picked raspberries, carrots still warm from the earth, and on holidays pies and cranberry sauce made from scratch. On the flip side there were canned peas, Kraft dinner, and to fill in any nutritional gaps, the requisite dose of cod-liver oil. The variety wasn’t horrible but it was limited, fortunately the gastronomic landscape has shifted tectonically over the years. Now Toronto is renowned for having some of the best and most culturally varied cuisine in the world.

 
I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks, even though I had never tasted one. Now the fridge is home to sweetly simmered tomatillo jam with lime and a hint of lavender tucked up against the jars of savoury tomatillo freezer jam, speckled with hot peppers. It might seem like that’s a long way from my grandmother’s garden but I know she would like them both because the tomatillos (a relative of the gooseberry) carry the slightly less tart but still very definable flavour of rhubarb. Seems like in a roundabout way, I got my wish after all. No wonder all the butterflies in the garden are dancing.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi

How the rare purple squirrel was saved from extinction

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. – Pablo Picasso

Father’s Day came, and Father’s Day went this year, and I was thinking a lot about my dad. It is a really hard day for me, some years more than others. I’m sure it’s a really hard day for a lot of people, given death, separation, family dynamics and abuse. But just like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, it’s very “in your face” in a public way, advertised for weeks with events and sales created around it and so much commercial hype that it’s not easily ignored. So every year since my father’s death I get through it, somehow.

A month or two ago, I passed a record store that had second-hand vinyl on sale, marked down to 50 cents. And there he was, a beardless, baby-faced, Gordon Lightfoot, staring at me. And there they were, in all caps, in a school-bus-yellow oval on the front cover, the words If You Could Read My Mind. Hundreds of other people had passed the store that day without knowing (or needing to know) that it was my father’s favourite song. But I knew. And so I picked up the album and took it to the cash, where I had a very lovely conversation with the cashier, who could relate when I told him the story (of course I told him the story, I am a storyteller). He was missing his father too, and I promised him a poem I wrote, a poem about my father that I didn’t start writing until 19 years after my father’s death. A poem about grief, loss, rage, reconciliation, acceptance and release. On Sundays/I plant flowers for you/folding tucking prayers into the earth/on Sundays. Then I went home, put the album on the turntable, dropped the needle in the groove, and cried (like I’m crying now incidentally). Fortunately the tears helped release some of the grief. And finally on the Saturday before Father’s Day, I put an end to my procrastination and dropped off a hand written copy of the poem at the store.

… a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure.

The story doesn’t end there though. The first time I heard the song after so many years the poetry of Lightfoot’s lyrics spoke to me across time and circumstance, it was as if my father was saying the words to me directly. I don’t know how old I was (probably in elementary school) when my dad told me that If You Could Read My Mind was his favourite song but even at that age, I knew it was important. As the child of divorced parents, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with my dad as other children might have with theirs. And so I held onto his revelation even more tightly, comforted by the thought that my father had shared something of his inner life with me that he may not have shared with anyone else. The imagery of the song is powerful, a ghost, a wishing well, a dark castle, a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure. “When you reach the part where the heartache comes/The hero would be me/But heroes often fail”.

We all have sad stories, and many of us have stories of abuse and trauma that we walk with on a daily basis. For me the key to healing is to become the hero of your story (I am using hero as a gender-neutral noun here). Examining your past and becoming a hero is not always an easy process, and it doesn’t come all at once, but it’s a worthwhile journey to embark on.

I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side.

This year on Father’s Day I was too ill to buy flowers and plant them, which is what I had planned, and what I had done on the first Father’s Day after my dad’s death. I’m not going to pretend it was an easy day this year, it wasn’t, and I moped and dragged myself through it. But this week, on the mend, I was asking myself what where the most important lessons my dad taught me. As a visual artist he was always excited to share his knowledge with me. I distinctly remember him showing me how to create a colour wheel and introducing me to primary and secondary colours. It still feels like “every day magic” to me, taking two colours and making another. It’s almost like watching a new species appear before your eyes (okay, so I exaggerate, another storyteller’s prerogative) but it is actually amazing. I remember learning how to sharpen a pencil with an X-acto knife (way before my mother thought it was appropriate) and actually being good at it. I remember how accomplished I felt in art class when I was the only one who knew how to do it before the teacher taught us. But most of all I remember the purple squirrel. And it was only this week that I really understood why.

Great art picks up where nature ends. – Marc Chagall

When I was growing up, colouring books were banned in our household. Not out of any puritanical need to stifle creativity, rather the opposite, because my dad thought lines on a page were too confining for an artist, and not good for my inner muse. My mother agreed and I always had access to lots of paper, but there weren’t any colouring books around. And so one day, when my dad brought me to visit his sister’s children, I had the rare opportunity to colour in one. The cousin closest in age to me (a few months older) took one look at my masterpiece and instead of admiring my work, went full throttle into ridicule mode.

“Squirrels aren’t purple!” she announced with astonishment, “Squirrels are brown!” And the rest of my older cousins joined her, laughing. Keep in mind, I was a very sensitive only-child, used to the praise and attention of mostly kinder adults, so when my dad asked me how the visit was, I told him the story. Until this week I thought his response was helpful because it confirmed my inborn artistic perspective and talents, because he affirmed me as a fellow artist and defended me as a proud father. But now I understand there is another piece that makes this such a powerful story for me. It’s because my father turned me into the hero of the story – rather than leaving me in the role of victim (that I was certainly relating to at the time). With only a few words and a lot of heart-felt emotion, he told me that I could use any colour I wanted, because I was an artist. What I heard was that while everyone else (being my cousins, who he was clearly mad at) thought that squirrels could only be brown, black or grey I (wonderful daughter, hero of the tale) knew in my brave, bold, creative, artistic heart that squirrels could be any colour, even purple. I could feel his admiration for me and my perspective shifted immediately. With the sting of ridicule erased, I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side. A few well timed words and a new way of looking at the situation had transformed me, not for a moment, not for a day but actually for a lifetime.

Art is not a thing, it is a way.  – Elbert Hubbard

Becoming the hero of your own story is not for the fainthearted. It is an ongoing and often challenging process. There is no one way to get there but with time, attention, counselling, and support you too can become the hero of even your most painful stories. And that is one of the many reasons it’s crucial for you to tell your own stories.

The hero would be me – Gordon Lightfoot

crayon box
Child’s crayon box. “But most of all, I remember the purple squirrel”

From Esu Crossing the Middle Passage to the Jungle Book, storytelling, integrity and watering

IMG_20160419_144343“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Philip Pullman

I’ve been almost too busy to blog, which is a lovely feeling. Busy hearing stories, busy listening, busy absorbing, busy eating stories, busy being watered by them.

Being watered by stories speaks to me on a very deep level.  I volunteered for the Toronto storytelling festival this year (2016) and was fortunate to be able to participate in part of the 3 day storyteller’s camp (for adults).  In between picking up the lunch order, helping to find a power cord and answering questions, I was just like any other lucky camper. Bob Barton asked me to decide if I was a circle or a square, a waterfall or fireworks, a kite string or a clothes line. Nicole Fougere had me expressing myself with movement. There were times when I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and “That’s a good thing” (I can’t help hearing Martha Stewart’s voice when I write that) because stretching increases your reach.

When Chirine El Ansary led her workshop she spoke to us about her challenge with adopting the word “storyteller” in English (she is trilingual, and also speaks French and Arabic). The struggle was about the word’s limitations. I can’t quite remember all the categories she mentioned but she told us that in Arabic there are 5 words for oral storyteller, based on the type of story the teller tells. For example, there are historical tellers, and poets (sh’er) but the one I aspire to be (and sometimes am) translates to “waterer” the one who gives the listeners the stories they need to hear. What a beautiful image. Especially at this time of year when the top soil is no longer frozen, the crocuses have bloomed, lawns are getting greener and migrant birds are returning. To water. I see a gentle stream trickling toward a tender plant, or a fine trail escaping from a watering can, and I can hear the plant’s gracious sigh. To water. There is a beauty in the imagery for me because it implies growth. No plant can grow without water, especially seedlings, which are extra sensitive to its lack.

This brings me to Esu Crossing the Middle Passage which I saw on Sunday. Written and performed by d’bi young anitafrika with music and vocals by tuku and Amina Alfred. d’bi is a storyteller who waters, in every sense of the word. She can make you laugh, cry, hold your breath and want to start a revolution all at the same time. For her, stories matter, and “the village” (a.k.a. the audience) matters deeply. Fed, raised and watered by many creative and dedicated people (including her mother poet/storyteller Anita Stewart)  d’bi teaches and tells with 8 core  principles known as the SORPLUSI methodology. (Check the links below for more info.) One of these principles is “urgency” which is demonstrated in part by the very real and  horrifying connections she draws between the bondage experienced by millions of Africans during slavery and the overt-criminilization and incarceration of black bodies on this continent today. She considers her shows to be collaborations, not only with the performers, musicians, choreographers and technicians that contribute to the production but with the village/audience itself.  There is no “fourth wall”. Esu Crossing started in the lobby of the Storefront Theatre, and from that moment I was part of it. Live storytelling has a unique way of feeding the senses, one that 3-D animation and D-boxing can’t replicate. Because of the show’s thoughtful curation, using minimal props, there was a moment when I smelled that earthy, goaty smell of the grease on the mask, and a cowrie shell brushed against my skin. Those sensations, coupled with d’bi’s 360 degree embodiment of the character, took me somewhere, in a hurry. Suddenly I was no longer an observer, instead I was on a boat, seasick and beaten, homesick and disoriented, enraged, determined, hopeful and terrified all at once.

Is it fair to compare a children’s movie made by Disney studios to that very visceral experience?  Probably not, but I’m going to do it anyway. Last Friday I saw The Jungle Book. I’m glad I saw it, the visuals were stunning, 3-D is always fun (I didn’t know what a D-box was until later) but it was so frustrating because I couldn’t find the story anywhere. And finally I remembered that’s why I never really connected with the book. When I was explaining this to someone later they said, “But it’s for children”. Which to me is like saying, “They are just seedlings, so they don’t need as much care,” when in fact the opposite is true. It’s even more important that children are fed and watered with stories that have integrity, stories with meaning, stories that can grow inside them and help them grow. And any child who has been fed on that kind of story will spot the difference, immediately. There is a very well know teller in Toronto, Dan Yashinsky, who titled a book he wrote, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, for that very reason.  His son had been raised on stories with substance and then one night (as Dan tells it) he was tired and trying to get his son to go to sleep, and was making up a random story to get the job done. His son picked up on this change and (to help his dad along) piped in with, “Suddenly they heard footsteps…”  If I remember correctly, his son was only 3-years-old at the time. Children know, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know. So it’s even more important that we choose the stories we expose ourselves and the children in our lives to with integrity. Life is short. Why spend it thirsty?

Notes and links:

I will be posting more about my experience at the Toronto Storytelling Festival soon

Today’s word: curate – I know it in relation to curating a visual arts exhibit or even a social media page (thanks Kim Katrin Milan). When I looked it up at Merriam Webster on-line it says it’s from Middle English, “to cure the soul” via Medieval Latin and the Latin “to care” so in the above use, I think it’s very appropriate to think of it as “to care for the soul”  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/curate

d’bi young anitafrika on the SORPLUSI methodology:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=So30jB93Q5c

http://www.thesorplusiinstitute.org/?_escaped_fragment_=methodology/cee5

What is D-boxing? http://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/D-Box

What is the fourth wall?  I really like this post: https://alwaysactingup.wordpress.com/what-is-the-4th-wall

 

 

 

Singing in the rain

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

There’s something about water that is inherently creative and healing. I find when I’m not creating, one of the fastest ways for me to reconnect with my inner muse is to have a long soak. Epsom salts are a must, so is candle light, and it’s extra nice when I add lavender and olive oil to the tub.
There have been other instances when water was the source of my inspiration. I remember after a particularly scary hail storm, I was traveling and wrote a really amazing story. Funny, it was about a child in the womb. Water, so inspiring, so fundamental.
There are so many ways to enjoy water. Because it’s winter, I’m thinking about skating. How about going to an ice rink, like Harbourfront where the live DJ blasts the tunes while you glide to the beat? Or check out a wave pool, there’s a huge one in Richmond Hill. I was recently at the Regent’s Park Aquatic Centre for a lane swim (and it was free). There is nothing like a swim or a soak in a hot whirlpool to ease muscle pain and relieve stress.
If you are near a lake, river, or the ocean, simply walking or biking along the shore is a lovely way to spend time with nature and get inspired. During the winter, you can find a restaurant with a view of the water, then sit back and enjoy. In the summer, outdoor patios near the beach, boat cruises, splash pads and water parks are all great ways to have fun. In “the six” you can take a ferry ride across the lake to one of the islands. If you check out Centreville there is the memorable log-ride (you will get splashed!) and paddle boats once you arrive. For more adult adventure, try stand-up paddle board, kayaking or canoeing. If you are lucky enough to live or visit somewhere you can snorkel or scuba dive, that can take you even deeper into the wonder-filled underwater world. If not, take a trip to your local aquarium and immerse yourself in the beauty and diversity of the creatures you encounter.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul – Kate Chopin

Looking for something more relaxing? How about floatation therapy? That’s you in a tank full of Epsom salts, in body temperature water with no other distractions. There is even evidence that floating increases your access to your own creativity. For something a bit more shocking that’s also meant to enhance your immune system, try a spa that offers hot and cold water plunges. If you haven’t tried it, or can’t afford it, you can do a mini-version in the shower by alternating the hot water with cold, naturopaths call it a “contrast shower”. But just so I’m clear, it’s way more fun at the spa!
The best cure-all I’ve found for the “blahs” is a leisurely walk in the rain. It’s most comfortable in a gentle rain on a warm day. You’ll probably find the residential streets will be nearly deserted, and anyone you do pass by, is more likely to smile. After a while, you may even find yourself singing. I know, “Singing in the Rain” is a corny song title, but they wrote the song for a reason.

It is better to dance in the rain than to sit under a leaking roof. – Vikrant Parsai

Whether you drink it, swim in it, float in it or just look at it, whenever you find inspiration in water this week, please share it in the comments. Have a creative, water and inspiration filled week!

I knit my love blue, the indefinable blue of the line that ties the sky to the sea – Leah