Posts Tagged: personal truth

ethel merman, bay street suits and other layers

The other night I’m walking down Adelaide Street toward home and can hear bits of song in a woman’s voice hurling through the air in pieces.  On advancing a half a block it’s clear to me it’s the wild-eyed but otherwise attractive, middle-aged woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk ahead.  She’s looking back in the direction I’m coming from, waving her hand toward the bank towers and the new Trump hotel in that kind of drunken-like joy you’d see in schmaltzy old musicals.

“I love this towwwwnnnn!”  she bellows in her best Ethel Merman.  Her voice sounds pretty good actually, and I love where she has placed herself in her mind.  I love schmaltzy old musicals.  More – I envy her ability to convey this Ethel Merman aspect of her self-defined truth out there for the world to enjoy with her.  Granted, many people are crossing the street to avoid her not seeming to want to share in her truth, but there it is.  Despite my own wariness, I like it.  Anyway, it reminds me of my sister who has been known to do a very funny Ethel Merman; but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t share it with the Bay Street suits on a Tuesday afternoon. 

“I love this town too” I think as I skirt by her, and listening to her bellowing behind me I wonder if maybe her gestures at the bank towers and the hotel with the famous rich guy’s name aren’t of irony rather than joy.  But joy sings more often than irony does and I’ve never heard Ethel Merman being ironic have you?

It gets me thinking about a discussion I’d been having with my current batch of writing students on ideas around authenticity and expressing one’s truth.  I put it out the idea of the human capacity for people to re-invent themselves, and how this is usually a person’s way of redefining a personal truth, or bringing forward one or more layers of a personal definition and pushing other layers to the back, for whatever reason.  Personal writers do that with words. 

So many times I have seen mentally ill people in the city streets that seemed desperate to share elements of themselves, some truth that strangers are not interested (or comfortable) in knowing.  I wonder about the other layers of that lady – the layers underneath Ethel Merman.

It’s kind of like earlier in the week when I’m having an afternoon tea break in a large food court area near my office.  I'm watching a guy, who is sitting by himself, practicing for a job interview.  He reviews something on sheets of paper on the table in front of him and then verbally practices a response to the imaginary person sitting in front of him.  I know that layer he is pushing to the front; knowledgeable, competent, confident, intelligent.  A Bay Street Suit.  Beneath the table his hands practice their corresponding gestures: purposeful, passionate, trustworthy. 

I silently wish him luck as I walk by, imagining a celebration with a significant someone on his great new gig later that night.  I get more engaged with my imaginary version of his reality than with the one he is assuming.  But then I don’t find Bay Street Suits and the truths they convey all that interesting.  I'd rather know what's going on at his kitchen table.

All week I've been thinking about they layers of me I push forward, and those I push to the back – both in my physical aspect and my writing, wondering how I can use them to enhance or grow the latter.  I hope my students are thinking about that too.

image from www.flickr.com

a magpie question: what’s your story?

This is a response to Willow's latest Magpie Tales visual creative writing prompt.  Visit Magpie Tales and find all kinds of wonderful writers and poets and their takes on the prompt and giving hearty support to each others' creative efforts.  Give it a try! A creative challenge is good for you!

 Magpiepencils 
"Some may think that to affirm dialogue–the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world–is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans."  ~Paulo Freire

Once, when I was a teenager, I was away from home for a weekend with my family, and my [now former] stepfather kept repeating statements like “Jen is always so grouchy when she wakes up, ”or “ good MORNING grumpy!”  It was when he started to mock my “miserable” face I thought, how do you EXPECT me to feel?  I didn’t recall ever being grumpy or monstrous when I woke up in mornings, except, maybe, when my sister was hogging the shower and I was late for school.  What made me grumpy and irritated was being told over and over again that I was miserable.  And if I was miserable, I can assure you, it had nothing to do with the process of waking up; it was about someone else creating what I felt was an unfair and inaccurate picture of me and me feeling helpless to change it.

We understand our world through stories.  Family stories, history books, religious parables, pop songs, news reports, art, employee manuals, report cards, mathematical theories, police reports, gossip, family photo albums, fashions, magazine ads… a mosaic of stories creates the backdrop to our perceptions and helps to form the way we see things.  It’s up to you to decide if these things represent the reality of your experience.  And if they don’t – it’s up to you to tell your story in a way that does. 

When I was in university, I analysed lots of media.  I intensively read papers and watched news shows and movies and deconstructed and compared and scrutinized and examined and questioned, and to my naturally critical and questioning mind I was in my glory.  But more and more I was shocked to find the stories that were being used to define my community, my gender, my nation and my own role in my family were not how I was experiencing them myself. 

During that time a new provincial government came in that lowered taxes by way of reducing welfare benefits and education funding and punching other holes in the social safety net. 

This government knew the power of a story.  Suddenly, there were attacks on certain groups in the media, such as, coincidentally, teachers and single mothers.  I can tell you, this single mother did not enjoy being stereotyped as a lazy, beer swilling, cigarette smoking couch potato on welfare who fed her kids pancakes for dinner every night because didn’t know how to manage her grocery dollar.  One notorious politician of the day graciously gave welfare mothers tips on how to stretch their reduced budget by buying dented cans of tuna and day old bread.  Lots of people bought the stories these politicians were telling.  Lots of us didn’t. 

Whenever I speak with someone who is considering telling a personal story of any kind, I feel like something important is happening.  Because I believe that when a person tells her own story, she is taking ownership of it – she is claiming her history.  I believe that when someone tells his story, he is empowered to think critically about his place within his family, community, society, world.  And when a person is empowered, opportunities for change arise, both personally and socially.

Maybe a group can alter the history represented in a text book, or a politician can take advantage of stereotypes to create a new community understanding, or a family member can try to paint a picture of you.  But not one of them can change your story if you tell it.  It’s up to you to determine how you fit into the grand march of history.  

“Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen”. 
~From Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie