Today I’m hammering away at my computer in my office with its rectangular windows with their rectangular venetian blinds overlooking a landscape filled with other rectangular concrete office buildings under rainy skies and I get a text from Debbie: “Thinking of you. Taking pictures of lupines in Parry Sound.”
It’s a nice thought – that a bunch of bobbing, wild lupines make your friend think of you. And that she tells you so. And that at least she is standing in a place where they are.
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These days more strangers seem to be smiling at me on my walks to work. It’s probably because last week I was listening to the wonderfully charming audio book, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” and this week I’m listening to David Sedaris read his stories. I’m grinning and snorting and chuckling (and sometimes crying) all the time on my walks to work these days, and finding many passers-by with open faces smiling back at me. Reminder to self: Smiling at strangers always pays off – and it doesn’t even have to be intentional.
* * *
Summer hasn’t even shown herself yet, and still, people are already complaining about the weather. Maybe all of those people are the types that ACTUALLY LIKE seemingly endless winters with seemingly endless snow and ice and seemingly endless strings of -25° days with whipping winds that hurt your whole body when you go outside. Me? I prefer a season with lupines.
Frank sat at the edge of my class near the door, a row behind everybody else. That wasn’t unusual; in the space of a classroom – churches and restaurants too – lots of people feel more comfortable sitting at the perimeter of the room. And in the Continuing Education realm, people enter the class with all manner of experience with writing groups, often no experience at all, so it’s not uncommon either that some folks rear up like a deer in headlights when I provide the structure of the lessons, particularly the story circle which makes up the latter half of every class.
The story circle, in which the writers read aloud the product of the past week’s labours, can cause fear to strike down like lightning. It’s like having to give a speech but WORSE! You’re being asked to share your art. Your baby. This thing you’re compelled to make even though you feel like a big fake and it’s all folly and if you share it with other people everyone will look upon you as the ridiculous fraud you feel you are.
When learning of the story circle aspect of the class, Frank pretty much said, “I’m not doing that.” His face said it first and he upheld that decision his face made for the rest of the twelve weeks.
Of course I’m not going to force anybody to read their stories. I know of that fear. I know of that wanting to hold my creations close to me where I know nobody will hurt them and ridicule them and look upon me with pity and say “Look at her, sad thing, thinks she’s a WRITER.”
But I also know what it feels like to release my art to a supportive family, and the importance of doing that in the creative process – how it builds in one the courage to try new, reveal more. I held out hope that Frank would change his mind because it’s never failed that each class does become a family, always generous with encouragement and support. And it never fails that I see the gratitude and sense of exhilaration washing over writers when they have shared a piece. I hear it in their sometimes shaky voices, see it in their often trembling hands as they hold their pages; I feel it lingering, palpable like heartbeats, after the last sentence has been delivered.
One day Frank thrust an envelope at me – it contained a stack of memoir stories from his childhood. “They’re just a bunch of crap” he said, “but will you have a look?” It was a memoir class and I think he was hoping some of them would do for the assigned writings.
They were so not crap. The stories were engaging and lively and full of movement and the memoir writer’s goldmine – “moments.” They reminded me of one of my writerly heroes, Roddy Doyle who has so beautifully captured the perspective of a child. I’d been reading them on the subway that subsequent week and met up with my sister after work one night for dinner on a patio, and handed her the stories to look at while I visited the restroom to freshen up. She shared my enthusiasm for them and read some of the passages aloud in character as we sat there waiting for our salads.
My reaction to the stories wasn’t enough to convince Frank to read any of what he still called “crap” in class, but he did eventually concede to have one of his peers read aloud another story of his. She was a beautiful and elegant orator, and read his story with reverence. And even though she was so different from Frank, so far from his personal aspect, when she finished the group let go approving outbursts and applause. That remains a seminal writing teacher moment.
Another of those seminal moments occurred recently when Frank showed up on Facebook with a professional photograph and images of his published book, Our Land is the Sky – a series of stories about a family of crows he wrote for his grandson, which I had enjoyed in their draft stages.
He sent me a copy of the book and that up there is what he wrote inside. It represents a validation of all the reasons I work to encourage people to tell their stories, even though I have to do it outside my day job, and sometimes I complain about having to read yet one more story. That up there is the payback. Riches.
Keep telling the stories Frank, I know there are a lot more in there.
And if you have a little story lover in your life, why not put the stories about Jimmy Fastwing under the Christmas tree? Click on the images below to find out where you can get a copy. You won't be disappointed.
It’s cold again this morning, but not as cold as the past couple of days. When it’s above 0° C, it’s tolerable. Nevertheless, when I get to Don Mills station this morning, I wait inside for the shuttle to my office. As I’m standing there looking out, a young couple walks up to the door on the other side. The mom is pushing a child, under two, in a stroller. I know it’s a part of growing and aging and every year the phenomenon gets more remarkable, but I’m stunned at how young this mommy and daddy look. They're teenagers.
The mom is small and round – little more than five feet tall. She’s fair, childlike and pretty. And smoking a butt. She stands for a minute outside with the child to smoke it while the dad walks inside to play with his phone. Eventually she pushes the stroller inside, instructing the dad to take him while she finishes her smoke.
The dad is a little taller and slight, of mixed race, with cafe au lait skin and long, relaxed curls pulled into a sloppy pony tail. He continues playing with his phone, occasionally talking to the child: “it’s cold out there huh?”
The child is a darling combination of the parents: cherubic face of his mother, crowned by his father’s chocolaty curls. He’s a picture of patience. He acknowledges his dad’s occasional dragging himself away from his cell phone to speak to him, but doesn’t seem to require it.
He spots me and gives me a grin. It’s the grin of a self-assured old soul. He’s not playing coy with me, or making shy aversions with his eyes like so many little kids do. He seems to just like my face, and gives me another closed mouth grin – not looking away but just grinning a little more when I smile back and give him a little wave.
That grin has me thinking that this tiny boy seems much older than his teenage parents. As I’m considering that, the mom comes in and they whisk him off toward the elevator which will take them down to the subway.
At the other end of the work day, I’m sitting in a subway car, heading down to meet up with my sister who is working near Union Station. I see a woman come on. She’s cute, artsy looking with that marvellous look of having thrown a random collection of clothing on her body and it just working. She’s smiling to herself. The smile doesn’t wear off – in fact it undergoes a number of variations as her thoughts carry out. Her eyes meet mine and the smile is erased for a moment, but after a few seconds it’s back. I bandy about a number of reasons for the smile. I hope it’s because she’s in love.
I turn from the woman and down the way I see a man. In a suit. Not her age. Not with her or like her in any way.
But he’s smiling to himself.
This morning I get on the subway car and it’s really crowded. I grab the left side seat in a group of three and pull out some student stories to read over the trip. Soon after a man sits in the middle seat, and he immediately starts getting in my space as he twists around to find a place for a used commuter paper, then looking through another one, apparently scanning the headlines. I take a deep breath and try not to let annoyance wash over – it’s going to be a crowded journey, deal with it Jennifer. One would think that after living in this city for four years I would be more tolerant of these inevitable invasions on my personal space, especially as I choose to take public transit, but I’m just not.
He’s a clean cut bloke, dressed a little oddly in grey pin-stripe suit pants and a casual fleece jacket. There is that steely, unwashed clothing smell coming from him, mixed with a fainter, sweet scent of what could have been last night’s whiskey. I cram into the corner with a story and hope the smell doesn’t transfer from his jacket to mine.
As the car rolls on, I’m feeling more and more aware of him, and with each station stop I find myself silently begging, “get off…get off… get off….” I’m not exactly sure why, he’s facing forward now, still, no longer fidgeting or elbowing, stoic like the rest of us in the crowded car.
Then I realise – he’s muttering. It’s like a faint whispering of some character in my ear. It’s like one of those moments when you think you hear someone say something, only to turn around and find no one there and you wonder if you’re schizophrenic or if you’ve heard a ghost. The muttering is steady – I turn and look at him and his lips are barely moving; I smile inwardly wondering if he’s practicing ventriloquism. Or maybe he’s practicing a speech. Or maybe he’s simply a person who talks to himself as a matter of habit – going over the matters of his day aloud, instead of, say, writing a list. Given the steady drawl of the muttering, I guess it’s prayer.
It is – or maybe meditation, for his hands are cupped together like a vessel on his lap. The soft muttering continues to waft over into my ear and I can’t concentrate on the story I’m holding. I turn and look at him and he’s facing straight ahead, barely moving his lips as the sounds waft from his mouth to my ear. By now I’m feeling invaded and I wrestle with why the seemingly harmless, tiny sound amidst the busy car is bothering me so much. Lots of people pray on public transit, there’s nothing annoying about a person praying. But there’s something about this man – it’s as if his most private moment is trying to enter my consciousness, and my consciousness is fighting it off.
I’m reminded, suddenly, of that person we used to have to call “step-father.” He was the king of personal space invasion and making people uncomfortable. One of his favourite ploys was to give us these fierce, long and most unwelcome hugs, and the more you tried to push him away the tighter he grabbed, seizing with a vengeance something he would label love and reverence, neither of which he deserved or would ever get.
I feel guilty for being so annoyed at something like a guy praying under his breath; certainly I encounter MUCH more annoying actions and events every single day. I look down at the cupped hands and see that the fingers of the upper hand are stumps – red and chaffed, as it it’s a relatively new injury. My guilt is escalated as I sink further into the wall trying to escape the muttering.
He begins to count off something on the whole fingers of his left hand – unfolding one at a time in sequence, “one, two, three, four, five…” and again. Then he brings his hands up in a hugging himself gesture. After about the third time he leaves them there and the stubs are resting on my jacket sleeve.
My stop is next and I’m grateful for the excuse to jump up and stand by the door – to tear myself away from the wafting mutters and thoughts of those awful hugs by that manipulative jerk who should be residing out of mind, far in my past where he belongs. And I’m wondering why I’m applying the qualities of that former step-father to this praying stranger.
Maybe, similar to that step-father's unsuccessful attempts to force love and respect, there is a similar futility or false intent in that particular prayer. The pollyanna in me is shouting "shame on you!" But I can't shake the sense of that unintelligible muttering as thick and substantive – not going off to where it was supposed to be going; but hanging about in my brain like an dead weight. Or a malevolent hug.
Yesterday I get off the subway downtown and as I’m climbing the stairs to the street I see a lady, attractive, in her forties or so, leaning over a wall above and watching the people come up the stairs. She’s got short purple hair and black clothing that suggests she works in a vintage clothing or music store. But then I notice she’s hollering things incomprehensible at various people and I think maybe she doesn’t work in a store after all. She’s gesturing with her arms while holding a small, child-sized broom.
I head off down the street to my bank three or four blocks away. When I get there I’m kind of glad for the excuse to wait in line and cool off as the day is close and humid and the sun really hot.
Suddenly, in the door walks the lady with the purple hair, sweeping the way in front of her with her little broom. “Oh!” she purrs as she drapes herself across a counter, “it’s SOoo hot!” She sighs some great dramatic sighs, but none of the people working there seem to notice her.
She then starts to search amongst the brochures and papers on the counter and finds herself a pen. And with more dramatic flourish, she bends over and holds the broom upright and starts to write something on the handle near the tip. There is intention in her pose – she is performing an act for the purpose of being watched. It takes her well over a minute to write on the broom’s tip, but from where I stand the message doesn’t look to cover more than an inch of space.
Then she leaves the broom propped up against the wall and leaves.
I get on with my business and then preoccupied with the few more things I need to accomplish before I go home I leave too, forgetting about the broom. Until I get back to the subway entrance where I originally saw her.
As I wait for the train I wonder what would become of the broom with the purple haired lady’s communiqué. I wonder if she’ll come back to get it. Maybe she was hoping someone would write a message on it in return. Maybe she was offering it as a gift, watching outside and hoping she see someone leave with it. Maybe the message was for me, since I was only person in the place who seemed to notice her. I feel a little regret for not stopping to at least take a picture of the thing.
I'd like to think the message on the little broom reached someone.