I had posted a photo of an intriguing billboard on my photo journal blog (now merged with this blog) a few weeks ago. This very morning I noted that a smaller ad board nearby had some equally intriguing photographs posted in place of ads. I knew this stuff was an art installation of some sort, but I didn't know why it was there or where it came from.
A fella called Serge stumbled across that post today and kindly pointed me to the source of the photos on those billboards. It's a project by Jim Goldberg, presented at the corner of Spadina and Front Streets, as part of Scotiabank's CONTACT Photography Festival.
So I stopped on my way home and took some more photos (in very bright, read: bad, light). I love public art installations, and I love the compassion behind this project, in which the subjects were invited to take part in telling their stories. I'm all about that.
The sun was so bright, I couldn't tell what the photo below would look like until I got home. Technically it's shit, but I like that it shows the context (condo-land) of where this art installation is located – you can see bits of the installation amidst the surroundings. And there's me in the bottom corner, taking that blind shot.
There is sidewalk art on King Street, depicting a yellow brick road. It’s advertising a free evening movie in the park next to Roy Thompson Hall. I was thinking it would have been fun to take my girls to see The Wizard of Oz in a park when they were small. But then again, neither was a big fan of that film. Kelsey wasn’t much up for malevolent looking green witch faces, or clowny scarecrow ones for that matter, despite how kind the bloke is. And Carly was less than impressed – the technologies of her day rendered old movies fake looking and therefore not believable. Besides, she’d heard the little people in the film had been abused, and even if that story about the little guy hanging himself on set was an urban myth, my little social critic was jaded.
Had I had the breadth of entertainment available to me when I was her age, I suppose I would be too. Nevertheless, I can still drum up the escape into Frank L. Baum’s world I experienced just from seeing that old movie on a small, black and white screen (unless we got to go to Aunt Martha’s and see it on their colour console) all these decades later.
So I was charmed to see people walking on the narrow strip of yellow brick road along the wide King Street sidewalk this morning. Maybe it was subconscious – their feet just following the obvious path. I was kind of hoping some of them were imagining they were walking into a world far away from their offices and meetings. Hanging around with weird creatures and rediscovering oneself while defeating witches could be considered a favourable alternative to another day of spreadsheets and emails; for a few days anyway.
I was thinking that as I noted some feet in high heels stepping purposefully along the yellow brick road. The woman in the sharp suit attached to those feet was wearing a hint of a smile, her thoughts seemingly not anywhere near King Street. “Carry on!” I thought, pacing my walk to the tune of the Yellow Brick Road song running through my head. I just know she was walking to the same tune.
The other night I saw a film presented in Toronto’s HotDocs festival, Imagining Emanuel. If you’ve visited me for any length of time, you’ll know I’m preoccupied with the power of the personal story, and how we can explore our own personal stories to gain self-understanding, understanding of others, recognize and act on our potential, even re-invent ourselves. Us bloggers are using that to marvellous effect, and the thought of our voices out there, adding to the beautiful mosaic of humanity is something I find immensely gratifying.
So it would have been from that perspective that I watched the film about Emanuel, a refugee who landed as a stowaway in Norway.
The only thing Emanuel has is his story. He has no identification, no “proof” of where he came from, he has never had any “papers” of any kind. He tells us he was born in Liberia, and because of the war, fled to Ghana with his mother. They lived on the streets in poverty, and she eventually died. He supported himself by helping market vendors carry their goods to market for pay in food.
He decided to seek a better life, and hiding in the propeller cavity of a ship, became a stowaway to an unknown destination. After days of either sitting or standing in the small, wet space with no food or water, he emerged and gave himself up and found he was in Norway.
Norwegian officials do not believe his story. They have determined he is not from Liberia but from Ghana. The illiterate Emanuel has never wavered from his story, it’s the only thing he has. Ghana has refused him citizenship papers that would allow him to travel, and with no status in Norway, he is in limbo. No longer incarcerated, he has been given a temporary home on the farm of a man who has befriended him. He has nothing to do – he can’t read. He can’t work, he can’t upgrade his skills; he can do nothing to provide for himself.
All he has is his story, and because the officials say it isn’t true, his story means nothing.
I think about the people who have taken my classes and how empowered they become when they get the opportunity to tell their stories. I think about how gratified I feel because you read my stories and you tell me they have made a difference to you.
I think about my own experience of the story against that of Emanuel. His story is essentially taken away from him and re-told, probably for the reason of not granting him refugee status. And the invention of him by others has left him with nothing.
But thanks to media attention in Norway, and a young documentary filmmaker, Emanuel is not invisible. The filmmaker took photos of the audience to send back to Emanuel, and it felt good to wave at the guy and let him know his story was being heard beyond the context of official "truth" – that his story might mean something in itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days. Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here. But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable. The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back.
Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language. Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits.
I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them. Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival. Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole. He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson. Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer.
They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs. Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day. He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night. Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business.
You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys. Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits. They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation. No vacation. Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.
Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons. Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture.
At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories. At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”
“Pffft” I said.
I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence. Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad. Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.
They were empowered. They found pleasure in it. And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me. They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper. I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest. Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.
The best thing learned was this: One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others. And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them.
I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did. But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared. I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.
*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.
My friend Lisa did this list over at her blog That's Why today: "what fifteen characters have stuck with you throughout your life?" Like Lisa, I sort of think of these meme thingys as "lazy blogging" – but on the other hand, writerly types, particularly fiction writerly types, who give some thought as to what makes a character influential, can open the door to some potential writerly insight. Me – I'm not a fiction writer - I did it for fun. And probably to avoid finishing the piece on authenticity to which I alluded the other day, and which some of my kind friends say they are interested in reading. Let's just say that thought process is not complete.
So here's the prompt: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen fictional characters (television, films, plays, books) who've influenced you and who will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. As do most of these meme things, the instruction is to tag at least fifteen friends, including the one who tagged you, to do same and you can all sit in the cyber story circle with glasses of cyber (or not cyber) scotch and cyber cheese dip and share. Instead of tagging, I'm going to suggest that if you're reading this – whether on my blog or on my facebook, and you want to be tagged – consider yourself tagged.
The fun part of this process for me was discovering the recurring themes and traits around my characters, especially the "adventurous, capable, resourseful, indpendent" sorts. As this relates to my childhood favourites, I like what that says about me as a kid. Me as an adult? Well a certain friend of mine will probably repeat what he's said to me numerous times over the past months: you need a vacation.
What are your most memorable characters – and what do they say about you? I'd love to know.
I wrote this post a year ago. So many of us have stories – of sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers – and first cousins once removed… Find the stories – tell the stories. We mustn't ever stop telling the stories. If we stop telling the stories, these events will never stop.
When my sisters and I came into this world, my mother had no parents, one sister and one first cousin. Her cousin Allan Park was a half generation older than her. Like most of our family, he was known to us more in story than life. That scar on his head was legendary. It was from a war.
World War II was mythology to us kids born in the sixties. I have fuzzy recollections of my dad watching the news on tv and seeing footage from Viet Nam but that wasn’t real, it was on tv.
Allan’s war, to us, was a story wrapped up in that scarred head we saw a few times over our lifetimes. All we knew was that we were lucky he was with us, that his injury very nearly killed him and if it had everything would be different.
In 1979, the story of that scar revealed itself via the words of national favourite storyteller, Farley Mowat, in his novel And No Birds Sang. It was a different story than the one any of us had known.
The blanket that screened the shattered cellar door was thrust aside and a party of stretcher bearers pushed in amongst us. Al Park lay on one of the stretchers. He was alive, though barely so… unconscious, with a bullet in his head.
As I looked down at his faded, empty face under its crimson bandages, I began to weep.
I wonder now… were my tears for Alex and Al and all the others who had gone and who were yet to go?
Or was I weeping for myself… and those who would remain?
- Excerpt: And No Birds Sang, Farley Mowat
You want to talk about how a story can bring new light to a family?
To a nation on Remembrance Day?
…what story would you tell?
I'm not sure how I even happened along the opportunity, but my new bloggy friend Fire Byrd has taken it upon herself to create a new bloggy collective: Beautiful World. It's designed to celebrate, well, you get the picture. She's collected a bunch of up-for-it-folks from around the globe to take pictures of their respective corners of said globe, and to interpret what they feel is beautiful about it.
As someone who has been wanting to become a more practised and effective photograher, I jumped at the excuse to take more pictures and share them. In fact, I'd been thinking about starting a new photo blog of my own. I like the idea of being a part of bigger photo blog project better.
If you fancy joining in and showing the internet world your version of "beautiful place" – then contact Fire Byrd via the website. There's plenty of room in this big ol' beautiful world.
I took these photos for my dad. When I told him where I would be moving in the Toronto harbour, he knew this ship, the Empire Sandy, was docked outside my door. And before I even walked down and had a look at her I knew that she is from Thunder Bay and that in another life she was a tug. You learn these kinds of things when you're the daughter of someone who has sustained an obsession with lake boats for 70 odd years.
I enjoyed the clear and subtly changing shades of the sky tonight. A perfect early summer evening to end a gorgeous Victoria Day long weekend.