something to say

10 November 2009

I remember sitting in the ground floor office where I worked in Detroit years ago and watching a man outside who was walking around with a large book; it looked like a holy book of some kind.  The man was desperately trying to get peoples’ attention about something that had to do with the book which lay open in his hands.  If he approached a car, windows were rolled up.  If he approached people, they crossed over to the other side of the street and hurried away.  And I don’t blame any of them, I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  Mentally ill street people are strange to us, often scary, and most of us aren’t equipped to know how to deal with them. 

But what struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is the tragedy that this fella had something to say, of seemingly great importance to him, and no one to say it to.  I just couldn’t imagine how that would feel.  I’ve said it before in this spot, but I think one of the most tragic things about street people and the homeless is that we make them invisible.  

Now I walk by as many homeless people begging as everyone else.  But sometimes I’ve found that just looking at them and acknowledging them is enough.  Well, it’s not enough – I’m sure money would be much more useful for whatever it is that sustains them one more day, but you do find gratitude when you look them in the eye and say “sorry buddy, no change in my pocket today” or “god bless you too” or laugh wryly at a jokester. 

Street people are hard to look at.  They’re usually dirty and sometimes roughed up and often mentally ill.  But at one point they belonged to someone, at some point in their lives someone cared for them.  At some point, they weren’t invisible.

I used to follow a blog semi-regularly, one of those humorous life blogs.  One day the writer posted a picture of a mentally ill street person that had ensconced himself outside her hair salon as she was getting her hair done one day.  And the fella was pretending that he was admiring his hairstyle and appearance in an imaginary mirror on a tree.  Maybe our guy was taking the mickey out of all of the salon ladies inside, but the hilarity that ensued among the readers of the blog was not with him – it was at him.  His strangeness and ragged appearance were put up for great enjoyment and merriment on the light-hearted blog.  I politely called them on it – I said: “I’m all about humour.  But I don’t see what is funny about ridiculing a mentally ill person.  What if that were you, and you were vulnerable – say you fell down in front of a large window and everyone inside thought it was marvellously funny and joked at your expense even if you were permanently injured?”  And I got a very kind reply from the writer who said she understood my point, but the merriment at the crazy guy’s expense continued on for a few days and my comment was clearly forgotten.

Those that have read me for awhile know that those people who live their lives on the outer edges of a society have always moved me.  Sometimes they’re trying with all their might to break through, like the man with the holy book in Detroit or the lady who used to sit in my English classes in university; sometimes they don’t seem to need to at all, like the man on the blue bicycle.  But more often than not, they have something to say. 

I thought of that again when I found this project: Signs, a collection of homeless peoples’ cardboard signs – a way of communicating used by that community for a long time.  These signs are a way to get a thing said in a one foot square piece of cardboard.  The project includes photographs of people which are striking, honest and yes, sometimes hard to look at.  For a few moments as you look at the pictures, these people are not invisible.

Thanks to John Foster and his marvellous blog, Accidental Mysteries for posting the Signs project.  I visit his blog daily, and it’s always worthwhile.


kreative_blogger_awardMy new friend over at Menopausal Stoners has kindly issued me this award.  And as I said to her, this kind of encouragement from writerly peers is the best kind.  So my job, as it should be, is to pass it along:

… if I could, I’d give it right back to PENolan, the terrific writer who gave it to me.  I just discovered her blog, Menopausal Stoners  last week, and I think her honesty, critical perspective, humour and forthrightness is something we could all aspire to. 

But I will pass it on to two relatively new bloggers, Roscoe Dialogues and London Lives, as I like both their styles, they’re good at painting pictures of their respective worlds, and I hope they keep writing. 

And I’d give one to Wandering The Road Less Travelled because she’s a truly creative soul, raising a bunch of creative kids, and she’s always trying new ways to express herself and no matter what blog she’s writing on I keep following her, if only to look at her gorgeous photographs. 

And Joy Frequencies – because like PENolan, I detect a kindred spirit in her, and her positivity is something this world needs real bad. 

Now I’m supposed to list seven things I like, not including people:

  1. September.  Mellow, sunny September with its foods and luscious warm days and cooling evenings and all its promise of things new.
  2. Patios, decks and porches.  Sitting, talking, partaking, sipping, sharing, watching, sunning…
  3. Cities – there is always something to see, some hidden beauty somewhere, something to write about.  I have fallen in love with every great city I’ve visited, and I love my own.
  4. The country – the slowed pace and quiet and sense of freedom are divine.  I’m staying with old friends in the country this weekend and my soul gets happier and my shoulders are feeling more a little more at ease each day the weekend grows closer. 
  5. The summer harvest.  Eating local foods in season is all the rage.  Duh!  Who wasn’t eating foods in season before?  It’s a goldmine for the  mind, body and spirit.
  6. Public radio.  Usually Canada’s.  But sometimes NPR and BBC and other international ones, thanks to this ol’ internet thing and CBC Radio Overnight.  Public radio is a treasure trove of stories.  If I haven’t mentioned it before, I kind of have a thing for stories.
  7. Blogging.  I’m not being original here, I know.  But the feeling of setting a piece of writing free is powerful.  And when people actually take time out to read it, it’s gratifying.  And meeting like-minded writers and artists from around the world is exceedingly rewarding.  I love being a part of this big beautiful exchange of ideas. 

Thank you Tricia.

This week I’m reading the Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Last week I read John Steinbeck’s memoir, Travels with Charley. 

Hemingway is reflecting on a time early in his career, living amongst artists and writers in Paris, struggling to make ends meet, and having doubts about his calling as a writer.  Steinbeck, near the end of his career, on an extended road trip around America with his dog Charley, had seen enormous success and recognition for his writing. 

So, I’m reading about Parisian cafes and shopkeepers and horse races this morning and it occurs to me, what if Hemingway never got famous after all that?  I’m struck with something akin to grief, thinking that if his fortunes had taken a different turn, would he have written these stories?  I mean, the events happened – what if I never got to read about them? 

For some reason I got to thinking about some balanced rock sculptures I saw in the Humber River a few years ago.  I walked by this spot regularly then; and one day, dozens of the otherworldly things were just there in the water.  I love the dichotomous nature of them: the ancient, permanent rocks balanced tenderly and precariously on top of one another – one swift wind or current and it’s all over.  A few days later, they were gone.  Not kicked over by unappreciative teenagers – there were no little piles to signify such a violent end.  The rocks that remained in the water were scattered as would any in a shallow riverbed.  In creating the mystery of the sculptures’ arrival and disappearance, the artist was telling a story.

So what if, like the rock sculptures, Hemingway’s life came and went and most of us didn’t know it?  His writing/living experiences in Paris could have been anyone’s.  And if the name Ernest Hemingway was as familiar to people as Joe Shmoe, would the story be of less value?

Steinbeck seemed to put effort into making his story less about John Steinbeck Famous Author than a man with questions, desires, doubts, faults and vulnerabilities.  And had this reader never have read one of his stories before this one, she would have fallen in love with him for the first time.

And she’d still want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s to sit at a café and drink brandy and eat fresh bread dipped in oil with artists and writers.

And she still thinks about the story of those rocks.

So if ten people – or ten million people read a story, would it make any difference?  Would it make any difference in your desire to tell it?  I think those ten people might have something to say about that.


A rock balancing artist making sculptures near my home in Toronto’s Beaches.

dancing for mitch

14 June 2009

There’s a scene that always really moves me in the movie Elizabethtown.  The scene is during Mitch’s memorial service and his wife Holly is on a stage, in Mitch’s world, far away from her world.  Holly is taking her turn to speak about Mitch to the reluctant audience that is Mitch’s family. The thing that is so moving is that she has her hackles up against the suspicious relatives when she walks into the room, but when she gets on the stage she gives them the whole honest truth about how she has been managing her grief.  About how Mitch’s death panicked her, and she felt the overwhelming need to accomplish and learn all the things she had never accomplished and learned while he was alive to share them with her. 

As she moves into a largely inappropriate comedy sketch (a result of her needing to learn how to laugh), she starts to break down the audience’s armour.  And by the time she sets the needle down on Mitch’s favourite song, Moon River, and begins to tap dance for Mitch, (another hastily learned thing), she finds loud support and applause.  Holly kicked away the hackles, and she was rewarded with love.

Once I took a writing class in which there was a young girl who overcame great personal fear just to tell her stories to us each week.  You could see that fear in her.  You could see her summoning inner resources even as she lingered for a moment looking in the window of the classroom before her hand would function against the door handle and open the door. 

Every one of her stories reflected her facing off against that wall with a determination that belied her masked exterior.  Her stories inspired us, and our reactions to her readings of them conveyed that.  But she didn’t finish the semester, and I remember wishing otherwise to my friend who was the facilitator.  “She’s just not ready” said my friend. 

There are lots of reasons why so many of us harbour the idea that risking honesty and truth will result in some sort of failure.  Maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests below, we could shift the responsibility of our expression to another force.  Our Mitch, our muse, or a higher power altogether.  And then maybe we can put it out there without those hackles that hold us back. The failure would not be ours to risk.

Last week, someone in my class took a personal risk and told a story.  That person reminded me of Holly.  Because like her, that person was rewarded with unbridled thanks and support. 

“We’re all in it together” said an old friend of mine recently.  Yeah, and that’s why we love to hear each others’ stories.  I really hope that young girl discovered that truth; that she’s found the gumption to shed those hackles.

I’ve been really busy with classes – one ending, with all the stories and feedback and grading that entails, and two starting – one of which is brand new.  The new class is writing memoir and family history stories, and it’s one I’ve been trying to get the college to let me teach since I started with them five years ago.  It’s the one I had in mind when I first decided to teach creative writing.   One of the strategies I’m exploring a lot in my lesson planning is how to mine our memories for meaningful stories.

It was a class in personal writing that set me on this road; where I decided that I absolutely had to help people tell their stories.  Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the seemingly random images that reside in our memories.  The famous Cesare Pavese quote, “We don’t remember days, we remember moments,” sums it up.  When you look back upon your life, I’m betting that you will look back upon a series of moments, or “snapshots” as I call them.  One of the authors I’m reading on the topic right now calls them “shimmering images.” 

Some of those snapshots are aggressive – bellying up to the bar, front and centre of the mind, again and again like an old regular.  Then there are others that come up suddenly, seemingly unprovoked, leaving you wondering where they came from.  And others you go looking for – as you talk with old friends, or tell your kids a story from your past, or dig out that old Rod Stewart record on a rainy day. 

I’m intrigued by these inner snapshots; I think they reside in our memories for a reason.  I think we’re supposed to remember them.  And as such, I think they’re ideal inspiration for personal writers.  And that’s why I’m having my class mine them for inspiration this semester.  And why I plan to join right in, the results of which will likely be found here in this spot. 

What about YOUR snapshots?  Which ones are old hangers on?  Which ones have surprised you, as if jumping from around the hedge up ahead just when you didn’t expect it?  Like me, you may begin to collect them, as if on magical beads strung on a long silver chain, woven in and out of your consciousness.  Some are ugly and hard to look at and may need to be tucked away for another time.  However, nestled in and amongst the lovely ones, they are part of the whole story.

First item to be checked off my new and improved BBC reading list is Brideshead Revisited, plucked from my own bookshelf.  I bought it years ago after studying, and enjoying, Evelyn Waugh in a literature class.  And I really enjoyed that miniseries based on the story back in the 80s with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.  Apparently there is a new (2008) movie version, but I’ve not seen it.  So far so good; as before, I’m charmed by his language and humour.

Anyway, I get to a passage wherein Charles is walking out on a Sunday morning heading to a cafe for breakfast:

I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a tea-shop opposite Balliol.  The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of the night. 

The passage reminded me of a radio documentary local CBC talk guy Kevin Sylvester did recently about church bells, and how they are starting to become a thing of the past here in North America.  Church bells have never been as fixed in our culture as they have been in Europe, mainly because such things as cathedrals – and as such their place within a community – are relatively rare.  And in today’s world, even the smaller churches, with their reduced populations and increased money problems, don’t end up repairing those bells that become damaged or deemed unsafe to use.   

One part of Sylvester’s story that really astounded me was that here in Toronto, in the area where there are several large and historic churches with beautiful bells, the churches are not ringing them on Sunday mornings because of threats from the neighbourhood people that they would sue the church for disturbing the peace.

On reading Waugh’s passage, I was filled with grief, for yet another tearing away at beauty for beauty’s sake because it’s not seen to fit in with modern day needs.  I understand that beauty is something us immigrant North Americans might never have really valued as a people – those early settlers had to first conquer the landscape and just survive.  And then it was all about the worship of modernity and all things new; all things came to reflect that focus, including our values.

I was filled with grief because the sound of churches all sounding bells together was once experienced as a weekly ethereal escape from the drudgery of weekday life, and is now, in Toronto at least, considered a disturbance of the peace.

I was filled with grief for us at losing, bit by bit, the value of beauty as an important and defining endeavour.  I worry what this is doing to our psyches.  And what have we replaced it with?  Money?

There is a meme going around Facebook at the moment which contains a reading list of 100 books, as devised by the BBC.  The list contains many classics, some “new classics” and some best sellers and you go down the list and tick off which ones you’ve read.  Apparently they reckoned that most people will have only read six.  Those avid readers and/or English majors among us jumped at the prospect of showing off our “well-read-ness,” and having done so I was less than pleased to find that I’m not nearly as well read as I think I am.  In fact I wasn’t even going to publish my meagre list of 26.

Okay, there are many, many books out there, and the BBC list couldn’t have hoped to be comprehensive on a global level.  I had my own complaint that the wonderful world of Canadian literature, of which I’ve always had a strong interest, was not adequately represented by Margaret Atwood and Lucy Maud Montgomery – not that I don’t exceedingly admire them both.  And recent years have seen me reading lots of non-fiction and biography, genres I love just as well as fiction.  And there has been lots of terrific contemporary “Brit-lit” and “Chick-lit” to keep one knee deep in fun reading for years.

So anyway, I swallowed my pretentious pride and published the list.  And I printed it for the purpose of keeping in my bag and accompanying me to the library.  In fact, a good number of those books are already sitting among my own collection.  So my spring/summer reading will see me revisiting the world of literary fiction and beefing up my BBC list.  And it’s not entirely for the sake of my meme-fed ego.  I’m seeking inspiration through immersing myself in an art form I hadn’t immersed myself in for some time.  

I’m sure I’ll get hung up on authors here and there; I tend to get obsessive when I find one I love and read everything s/he has written.  But I’m thinking that’s not such a bad thing.  A few of the books on the BBC list I have absolutely no intention of reading, such as Heart of Darkness and Gone With the Wind.  Several of them are lifelong favourites – books that have had big impact on me.  So, statistics would suggest that among the 74 books I haven’t read, at least several more of those big impact stories will emerge.  That’s reason enough, wouldn’t you think?

BBC Book List