Honeybees depend not only on physical contact with the colony, but also require its social companionship and support. Isolate a honeybee from her sisters and she will soon die. ― Sue Monk Kidd
Stories by their very nature are connected to community. You as a teller may at times feel like you are birthing or midwifing a story. However, I would argue that in this analogy, where the story is the baby, and the community is the placenta, you dear storyteller are not the midwife or the mother but instead you are the umbilical cord! Yes that is a very unique, if slightly disturbing, visual. Biologically the placenta (which in Italian means a small flat cake) feeds the baby during almost its entire growth process. Without it the baby could not survive, just as stories don’t live without community. And you, as a storyteller, are the conduit between the story and the community – so in this scenario you are also known as the umbilical cord.
Story, community, and teller are each a part of a circular pattern of exchange that feeds all three. This is one of the reasons oral storytelling can do such an incredible job of giving people exactly what they need, at exactly the time they need it. This is also why, even though we as tellers like to see large audiences, it doesn’t matter how many people show up. This is why sometimes the most impactful story you will ever tell is the one you tell to a grieving relative across a kitchen table, or to a stranger at a bus stop, not because you need to tell it, but because it needs to be told. This is why stories have so much potential to heal, and they can be the most particular and potent prescriptions.
It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling. -Khalil Gibran
How beautiful it is to do nothing – and then rest afterwards – Spanish Proverb
Painters wash their brushes, carpenter’s oil their tools, musicians clean and tune their instruments, singers exercise and care for their voices, doesn’t it follow that storytellers must take care of the tools of their trade as well? And yes, you, dear storyteller are the tool of your trade. You, all of you, not just your voice.
As an artist, creative or storyteller (or however you define yourself) it’s important to prioritize self-care. Of course no two artists are alike, and there is no simple formula for this.
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. – Audre Lorde
One of my biggest challenges when preparing for a performance, or in the days following one, is to avoid overextending myself. I had a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) last Sunday, because I wanted to attend the free events at the Reference Library as part of the opening weekend of the Toronto Storytelling Festival. My mind wanted to, my heart wanted to, my creative-self wanted to, but my body was saying, “No!”
Yes, we are storytellers but we are also human, subject to the beauty and limitations of our very human bodies.
I participated as a poet, in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Wychwood Barns the night before, and although I didn’t have a lot of prep to do (because I knew my poems well) I wanted to/needed to: show up to sound check, arrive at the venue early, stay to see all the performers and schmooze afterwards. The pre-show adrenaline rush, combined with the energy needed to perform, and the effort of the social interactions (yes, I am part introvert, so sometimes it is draining) and all the walking I had done the previous day meant my body really needed some rest on Sunday afternoon. Yes rest. In the end, it came down to whether my preference was to take care of my physical health, or push my limits and drag myself out of the house based on the fact that if I didn’t go, I might miss out on something (FOMO).
You suppose that you are the lock on the door, but you are the key that opens it. – Rumi
Reality check, we are probably always missing out on something! So it’s really a matter of figuring out what your priority is at any given time. Yes, we are storytellers but we are also human, subject to the beauty and limitations of our very human bodies. Relaxation, healthy food, clean water, adequate sleep, movement, social connection, financial status, stress level, access to artistic expression and health care all play roles in how we feel, and inevitably how we will perform. These are just some of the things that can affect the energy we have access to when we are ready to create. We are not fully in control of all of them, but we can still be mindful of how and when we take care of ourselves.
I know, I know, you are reading this on your phone, computer or other tech device, and now I’m about to suggest that you take a break. TV, movies, phone, radio, computer, video games, they all have a way of taking us outside of ourselves. Yes, they can be magical, entertaining, enlightening and even educational but like many things life, they also benefit from some moderation, and maybe even a digital fast every once in awhile.
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. – Anne Lamott
There have been times where I’ve forgotten my phone at home and have had really interesting conversations or made connections that I might not have if I was looking at it instead of the world. There have been days where I have intentionally turned it off, or even taken it as step further by covering all the clocks, and mirrors I have at home. It never ceases to amaze me how calming, nurturing and healing even a short break can be. This unstructured “me time” is often the catalyst for new creative inspiration.
So whether it’s a long soak in a hot tub, a leisurely stroll in nature, blocking out time for meditation, contemplation, or daydreaming. Whether you decide to curl up with a great book, spin some vinyl, or concoct a culinary masterpiece, try consciously making space for non-digital relaxation in your day, your week or your month. In the end, you might find it is the most powerful creative tool you have at your disposal.
For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms – Anne Morrow Lindebergh in Gifts from the Sea
Here is a link to a great blog I read, if you need some more ideas regarding unplugging, or limiting your phone use.
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow. – Mary Anne Radmacher
Over the holidays, I had the chance to spend some time with one of my younger grandsons. The first night, when he was ready for bed, he asked me to read him a story. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to tell him one instead, and he happily agreed. The tale I chose was a favourite of one of his older cousins, it’s called, The Hyena and the Seven Little Kids (Best Loved Tales for Africa).
As I told him the story I noticed how straight he was sitting up in bed, and how wide his eyes got. When I was finished he told me it was “a scary story”. Not wanting to leave him feeling uneasy, I offered to tell him another, and chose something lighter, funnier and with cute animal noises. As soon as it was over, he fell asleep.
What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination?
He fell asleep but apparently was so affected by the story that he told his dad (my son-in-law) about it the next day. After hearing that, I was concerned that maybe it was too much for him, and I planned not to tell it to him again, at least not until he was older. So at nap time, when he asked me to tell him a story, I said, “You want the one about the monkeys right?”
He surprised me with an adamant, “No.”
“Are you sure? I thought the other story was too scary for you?”
“No” he insisted.
And so I began again, embellishing it, painting word-pictures for him, but always keeping a close eye on his reactions to be sure he was okay.
When I say “scary” let me explain. It’s not the kind of story teenagers tell around camp-fires to terrify one another, where blood is mysteriously dripping from the ceiling or ax-murdering ghosts haunt the woods behind the cabin. No, it’s a version of a Grimm’s fairytale titled, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats. It is typically Grimm in its lack of sugar coating and yes goats or “kids” are eaten by the villainous hyena. Thankfully the villain is overcome in the end, with the help of the youngest child, and his Grandma Go Go. Grandma knows just where the beast siestas and how best to make life difficult for him.
Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. – G.K. Chesterton
This isn’t about how or even when to tell that type of story but rather to show the value of allowing children (and adults) to use a story as a vehicle for overcoming thier own fears.
So often in European fairy tales, the youngest child is the wisest and the victor. In many Anansi stories from West Africa, Anansi the spider (one of the smallest creatures) uses his wits to overcome his most ferocious adversaries, like Snake and Tiger. In North America folktales, Brer Rabbit has that honour. Somewhere inside these stories lives the theme of the small, the weak or the disadvantaged overcoming great odds, with clear thinking, kindness, courage or all three. Who better to teach a child that courage does not require large stature or physical power to manifest? What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination? As my grandson contentedly drifted off into sleep, I imagined him dreaming himself a hero.
Thinking about it later, I remember Celia Lottridge, a very well respected storyteller in Toronto telling me of her experience telling a story with a bogey-man type character at an elementary school. When the teacher questioned whether this was too hard for the children to listen to, Celia asked the students to tell her more about the “bogey-man”. One of the students raised his hand, then gestured, creating a space about an inch high between his thumb and his index finger and said, “The bogey-man is this big”.
It’s my belief that good stories, told with integrity, have the possibility of making our fears small enough to manage.
“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” – Leslie Marmon Silko
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
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.
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.
… 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.
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
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.
“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
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.
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