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.

 

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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/

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Dictionary spines

 

Cultivating silence – the storyteller’s toolkit, part 1

Still waters run deep – proverb

As a teller of stories, as a creator of stories, silence is one of your most valuable tools. Without silence there is no place for the stories to land or to expand. Whether you are making space for understanding a story that you are learning, or maintaining the openness required to imagine something new, silence is your ally. Sitting in stillness or meditating is one of the ways you can cultivate silence but it’s not the only way. Anything that involves repetition or rhythm can have the same effect. Walking, swimming, jogging, knitting, cutting vegetables, dancing, drumming are all great places to start. And yes, dancing and drumming are not exactly silent activities, but if you stick to listening to or playing music without vocals those activities can create a type of inner stillness, energetically very similar to silence, where your mind is free from chatter, a place where you can just be.

The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear – Rumi

Why are you afraid of silence? This is an interesting question for a storyteller to ask her or himself. There are many kinds of silence but in this case I am referring to the golden kind, the silence that feels like a cool rain on sun-baked skin, or fresh water on a parched tongue. The silence that feels like sunshine after a long, gloomy winter, like light dancing on water when the clouds part. Refreshing, inviting, satiating. Why are you afraid of silence? A question I have been asking myself a lot lately, as I watch myself do anything and everything to avoid it, to avoid myself. I don’t have an answer yet but now, having drunk from it recently (at least from the shallows, if not the depths) I am less afraid.

Be the blank page, be the expectant surface.

Silence, the golden kind, is a very important part of the storyteller’s toolkit. Without short silences or pauses your stories can feel rushed, cluttered, like too many words on a page with no white space in between, overwhelming. With practice, silence can be used to create tension and expectation in your listeners, or to allow for a moment for you or them to refocus. Maintaining focus while listening takes a lot of effort, sometimes your audience won’t notice when their attention has strayed, pauses give them a chance to reconnect or to catch up.

Why are you so afraid of silence, silence is the root of everything, if you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear. – Rumi

In this day and age, our connection to and dependence on technology can be one of our biggest challenges when cultivating silence. We wake up to the incessant beeping of our electronic devices, turn on the radio while we are getting ready for our day or driving to work. Interact through social media or play games on our phones while riding the bus or even when walking down the street. When we finally turn off our devices and take our earphones out, the beeping of bank machines and cash registers, refrigerator doors, coffee machines, and a cacophony of traffic and construction call us out of our reverie. At home and on the street, noise pollution can be an issue, it can raises stress levels, affect hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, concentration and sleep. So you can see why cultivating silence is an essential tool for self-care as well as an important instrument in your storyteller’s toolkit.

The inspiration you seek is already within you, be silent and listen. –Rumi

There is an image that is often referred to when describing writer’s block, and that is the image of the blank page. It is supposed to invoke the fear of having nothing in your creative tank. Is a cluttered page any more inspiring? I think not. When your creativity is overflowing, what you long for is space. Space to move and to dance, space to sing and be heard, a place to jot down notes, a surface to slather with colour, a page to fill. And the page (the audience, the drum, the song, the story) is waiting for you. Be the blank page, be the expectant surface. Take some time to cultivate silence, you may discover it is one of your most powerful create tools.

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. – Kahlil Gibran

Why names matter

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. ~W.H. Auden

In one of the storytelling circles I attend, the host often asks new listeners what their name is, and the story of their name. I’m always fascinated when people don’t actually know what their name means, or what language it’s from and the translation of the word. I concede that it is a bit strange how few names in English have an obvious correlation to the language, such as Rose, Opal, Ruby, Pearl, April, May and June. In fact, right now I can’t think of any male names that fit the pattern. Perhaps it’s the storyteller in me that can’t wrap my head around not needing to know. As far as I”m concerned, names matter. Maybe it’s because I was named after my paternal grandmother, who died when my father was only four-years-old. She was a woman unique to her time, as she owned and ran three hair salons during the depression. Someone my father’s boyhood memories could not expand on. My grandmother Leah’s dark eyes called me, mutely, from sepia-toned photos. I felt the only connection I had to her was our name.

How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.

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My grandmother, Leah Dupuis

Names matter. During the transatlantic slave trade, captives were routinely striped of their names, and forbidden to speak their mother-tongue, or any language not understood by their captors. link The same tactics where used against First Nations and Inuit children attending Residential Schools in Canada. link In both cases there were times when the renaming or un-naming also became numbering. Some of your may know of the numbered tattoos that inmates of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp were given during WW II. What is less well known is that in the 1940s Inuit in Canada’s north were given identifying numbers, on identity tags, numbers that were often used instead of names. All such dehumanizing practices have the potential to leave scars, the kind that can’t be removed by lasers. link

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The little green warrior

When I was in JK, my mother was summoned to the school because the French teacher had a problem with my attitude. I remember refusing to answer to her in class because she insisted on calling me “Lay-ah” as opposed to “Lee-ah” as I was accustomed to hearing. To put it in perspective, I was a very compliant child, most of the time. So getting in trouble at school was something that rarely happened. I found the teacher’s refusal to pronounce my name correctly (when it was clear to me she could) intensely insulting. My name was not French and I didn’t see the point of making it so. Then the little green warrior inside me stood up and roared, and I explained to her once, that “Lay-ah” was not my name. After that I remained silent, stone-faced, and refused to respond when she called on me. As an adult I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering, “Give me an L, give me an E, give me an A, give me an H!” How wise and brave that little girl was! I don’t remember the outcome (and my Mom has forgotten this story) but I look fondly on the memory of that rare show of defiance. (Ironically my great grandparents and my grandmother spoke French, so they probably would have pronounced her name the way my teacher did, but I didn’t know that at the time). Of course I was too young to understand that not everyone has the luxury, of silence, of defiance. How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.

I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering.

Names matter. Names have power. Names carry history and meaning, tell stories, speak of our lineage and reflect something of who we are. Learning to remember and pronounce someone’s name is a matter of respect. Listening to their story opens the path for deeper communication.

green danu flow cropped black and white
Danu, pastel on paper, by Leah

Why your story matters and historical revisionism

barbed wire at sunset
Barbed wire, south coast, Jamaica

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak. – Audre Lorde

I’m feeling more than a little sick.  I went to listen to a talk at the AGO last night given by Charmain Nelson and I’m still trying to recover from one of the facts she stated during her presentation. She said that during years of teaching at a Canadian university (McGill) she asked her students to raise their hands if they knew there was a history of slavery in Canada and that none of her Canadian born students raised their hands. None. Let that sink in for a minute.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde

Really?  None? I knew that there were huge gaps in the curriculum in elementary and high schools in Ontario (the only place I went to school so I will stick with that). And of course all history is written by the people who have the power to write, repeat, fashion, shape and revise history. And yes, many have heard of Harriet Tubman and how she carried slaves on the Underground Railway from the US to freedom in Canada. But somehow it is never mentioned that there was a time before that when there  wasn’t anywhere on this continent to escape to. And before Africans were kidnapped and brought to North America, the indigenous people of this land were also enslaved. link

When the ax came into the forest, the trees said the handle is one of us. – Alice Walker

I actually didn’t realize that in 2016, there was still such ignorance out there about the way this country was “settled”.  It’s something I think we should be talking about more. It is “the elephant in the room” whose shadow is cast across this land (yes it’s a mix metaphor but so be it). And it is our collective responsibility to see that the fullness of this history is taught in our schools. And for those of us who did not learn this history in school, it is our responsibility to seek this information out ourselves. Black History, First Nations and Inuit history. The history of settlement and the history of our discriminatory immigration policies.

The only person who can tell your stories from your perspective is you. Period.

One thing I read in regards to the recent Truth and Reconciliation committee findings regarding Canada’s history of Residential Schools was that Canadians should take the time to educate themselves about First Nations history. It’s seems to be the best option, until that history becomes a part of the curriculum. I recently heard an interview on CBC where Audrey Rochette said that during a university class she was attending, when the topic of the Canadian Residential School system came up, students were actually crying. Crying because this was their first exposure to the topic. First.  Here is the link to the interview: link

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

On historical revisionism: there is a sin that Catholics call “the sin of omission” and as far as I know it is considered as serious as a lie. When you omit something of course, it means you leave it out. That’s why people in court are asked to swear to tell the whole truth. Obviously there is a lot of history missing in what passes for the “Canadian History” that is taught in our schools. I thought more had changed since I was in school (over 30 years ago). And I am beyond shocked, I am actually disgusted. Some of this shock I reluctantly admit lies in the White Privilege I carry with me. I have the luxury, on a daily basis, of forgetting (if I choose) how much work is still left to be done, and of ignoring how much racism remains a reality in Canada.

As a storyteller these omissions, more accurately called “lies” are among the reasons I believe so strongly in the power of  people telling their own stories. And one of the reasons I tell mine. If I don’t, who will? And through what lens? My belief is that the only person who can tell your stories from your perspective is you. Period.

All history is written by the people who have the power to write, repeat, fashion, shape and revise history.

There is so much more to say, but for now I will leave you with some resources:

The Freedom Seekers by Daniel G. Hill, the first Director and later the Chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Daniel G. Hill is the father of Lawrence and Dan Hill. Lawrence Hill an author and wrote the acclaimed novel, The Book of Negroes, (which has been made into a mini-series by CBC) Dan Hill is a Grammy and Juno award winner, musician, producer and author. The brothers grew up in Don Mills, which at the time was a suburb of Toronto.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada

APTN History Archives

The Ontario Black History Society

Black History Ottawa

Truth and Reconciliation on CBC

Marie-Joseph Angelique

 

Why spiderweft?

I’m a bit of a nerd, and when it comes to words, a total nerd. I love words (and they love me back, at least that’s how I feel) so let’s go with that.

weft – the horizontal threads in a fabric or on a loom. The vertical ones are called the “warp”. And while technically spiders don’t weave in the hash tag patterns that humans have adopted (i.e. copied from observing nature) it is a very “weaverly” word, and so I chose it. It also has a nice feel when spoken aloud, and rhymes with “heft” which gives it some weight.
spider – what isn’t there to like about spiders? Unless of course one is dangling menacingly overhead in the shower or crawling across your face in a nightmare – and hopefully, never, never in person! Yes, I used to be terrified of them, and now, fortunately, am much less afraid.
Spiders are a very powerful symbol in “mythology” (more on “mythology” later). And except for the very far north and south of the globe, beyond the tree line, I’m pretty sure they are everywhere.
alphabet – in some cultures, spiders are considered to be the creators of the written alphabet. As a storyteller I have great respect for the spoken word. But as a reader and writer, I am fascinated by the written word. And the first time I came across the idea of Spider as the creator of the alphabet I remembered reflecting on one of the things I used to think to myself as a very young reader, “What is the spider thinking?” You know the little teeny, tiny red ones, not much bigger than an asterisk that sometimes crawl across your page when you are reading outside? “What is that spider thinking of as it crawls across this page, and across the words that have so much meaning for me? What is it thinking, what is it aware of, and what am I moving or walking across every day that I don’t understand is even there?”

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I like the idea of a web, a web in terms of connection. Some people speak of a web of energy that connects all living things on the earth. And there is an awesome web of fungi in the soil that connects plants to each other by their roots. Really. It is mind-blowing. Read more here.

The trick with webs is that you have to know what your relationship is to them.

For the more scientific-minded there is the world-wide-web a.k.a. the internet or “www”. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life before it. Before it was possible to connect with friends and strangers at the click of a mouse or a touch on your phone. Before it was possible to find out the answers to random questions at any time of day or night, such as “How many months is a cat pregnant for?” “How to crochet a slip knot.” and “What does ineffable’ mean?” The idea of social and business networks also has a web-like feel.

The trick with webs is that you have to know what your relationship is to them. Are you the weaver or are you the prey? For me, the web is a great resource and way to interact with others but at the same time, it can be a tool I use to disconnect from myself. Finding balance is an ongoing process.
When I see a spider, I often ask myself if I have been neglecting my writing. The bigger the spider the faster I ask! Sometimes Spider is a sign that I need to get back to my creative pursuits, and sometimes s/he is a confirmation that I am going in the write/right direction.
Today’s questions for myself: Am I the weaver or am I the prey? What relationship do I have to others through networks? And are these networks beneficial or detrimental (in both directions)? As a writer, and storyteller, how do I connect to others doing similar work? How do I connect to the audience, reader or “village” and how does that energy affect me? Have I been giving adequate time to my creative pursuits? If not, why?

Links to Spider, creation and weaving lore, all links are meant to be jumping off points if you are interested in learning more:
Anansi comes from a Twi language and means “spider”. See more on the Twi language here.
Although this link is written for a younger audience, it gives a good overview of Anansi, Anancy, Aunt Nancy, the spider trickster brought to the diaspora from West Africa during the slave trade. Anansi is known as the keeper of the stories.
Spider in Celtic lore.
Spider appears variously as the creator of the world and/or textiles/weaving and the alphabet in many Aboriginal traditions, across North and South America:
Spider as creator.
And Spider appears in Greek lore
If you find interesting links in your search, please share them.

Beginnings and perfection

Is it possible to procrastinate about procrastinating? If so, I believe it may be one of my many talents (lack of humility in the afore mentioned statement noted). As of today, however, I have relieved myself of all excuses and am starting this blog. Simply because it’s January, and it’s time. I think of the winter months as a time for introspection and planning, as well as hibernating (although in a modern urban area that can be a bit tricky at times). So here you will find me, navel gazing, toe gazing and intestinal organ gazing (perhaps in that particular order, perhaps not) in print. Because I am a storyteller. Because I AM.

“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”~ Margaret Atwood

Beginnings can be terrifying (maybe not as much as endings but terrifying nonetheless). However, beginnings are precious and beautiful  in part because you never know where the next one will lead you. But if there wasn’t a pay off for delaying action, we wouldn’t procrastinate, so … what are the pay offs? (A great question to ask yourself when you feel that resistance happening). I would suggest that without beginnings we can hold all our perfect imaginings intact. All the images of the perfect friendship, perfect photo, perfect poem,  perfect novel,  perfect story,  perfect piroutte, perfect grade on the perfect essay…snore. Are you bored yet?

We like the imperfect because it reminds us of ourselves. ~ Randy Bachman

I think one of the most important lessons in art, is that there is no such thing as perfect. And personally, I think “perfect” can be boring. Diamonds have flaws (which is what helps to distinguish them from other diamonds) people definitely have flaws. Trail and “error”, taking risks and trying new things leads to innovation and creation (and yes, at times, disaster but that’s why they are called “risks”). Telling the right story, at the right time, to the right person (who of course wants to hear it) is my idea of “perfect” storytelling – The innovative, creative, risk-taking and not boring kind of course!

Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it. ~ Salvadore Dali

So today I am asking myself the following questions: What does perfection mean to me? Am I attached to it? If so, why? How does not taking creative risks limit me? What is the next creative risk I am willing to take? What have I been stopping myself from doing because I’m afraid of imperfection?

 Without beginnings we can hold all our perfect imaginings intact.