The rain intrudes on our rooftop picnic, so Mom, Cathy, Elaine and Mia and I take the party down to my apartment. We still have a good time, and are joined by Kelsey later. Anyway, you have to forgive rainy skies that can produce post-event shows like this.
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.
Saturday, Ceri and I are at a local pub having a late afternoon beer and snack, and at the table next to us are three people having a conversation about work. We know this because the voice of the guy dominating the conversation gets louder and louder as his stories progress. He’s bitter. Apparently his employers are idiots and have created a horribly unhappy environment to work in. He talks about how he would manage the sorry people he is forced to work with, and tells tales of one in particular. He talks about how he would “fire her ass” and about how good he was at firing people when he was the boss. The conversation goes on and on and the guy gets louder and more incensed with every tale of the horribleness of his workplace. And as we get up to go home, all I can think about is how glad I am that I don’t have to work with that guy.
Later, just as we get home I shout, “wow, look at that!” It was this year’s “super moon” beginning to rise over the lake. We go out onto the balcony and start photographing it. It’s a giant luminescent ball of gorgeousness drifting there in the sky, causing ribbons of light to fall across the water. I recall overhearing a gal talking about last year’s super moon and saying “I was so disappointed.” I wondered, was she expecting it to sing and dance too? Looking at it this year I can’t imagine how anyone could find it disappointing.
As we’re watching the moon float higher and higher, lighting the cruise boats sailing beneath it, we notice two young guys in the parking garage next to my building taking pictures in the opposite direction with a fancy camera with a long lens. We’re not sure what they’re shooting, but we can’t believe it could be more interesting than that moon creating such drama over that lake.
They see Ceri and I and our cameras on the balcony gazing southward, and look as if they’re wondering aloud what we’re taking pictures of. Ceri points in the direction of the moon, but they just stand there. Eventually they walk over near the south facing wall and look in the general direction where Ceri was pointing, but the wall would have blocked their view of the moon.
A few minutes later we see them walk out into the street, right under that magnificent orb, oblivious to its show.
It never disappoints me. For that reason, it's beautiful thing number ninety.
live in there
amidst the scratches on a windowsill
and in the triangles of dirt accumulated in the corner of the floorboards pushed there by generations of janitors’ mops
under decades of floor wax
and stained walls
reflecting the colours of the words that once rang within
every action has a consequence, they say
every breath, every movement contributes to who we are
and what we will become
what occurred in that alley or in that cellar or behind that window
skewed the particles of the universe just that much
so it would never be the same
as it was in an instant before
I imagine stories murmuring
in that pile of rubble
swirling in the spaces
and I want to dig in there and find them
before they drift off into the atmosphere
like fine dust
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.
I’m in a good space. Recently someone was going on about my choice of home and work locations citing with disgust the dirt and grime and pace of the city core. “Yeah but,” I interjected, “I’m really happy.”
I thought of that as I walked to work this morning with the delicious September air on my skin. It was warmer today after a few overcast, chilly, damp days. Everybody seemed grateful. Or maybe it was just Friday Mode: you sense a relaxation in the bodies collecting at the street corners – hands gripping bags a little less tight; shoulders a little looser; conversations with friends a little lighter. A pretty, smiling girl in a floating dress sails by on her retro-styled bike riding standing up, her hair tossed back. TIFF is everywhere, adding to a mood: white tents and sections of red carpet and temporary stages and other photo op units dot the downtown core. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought of striking a campy, movie star-ish pose in one of them.
The oft-mentioned getting off the subway for two hours a day and onto the sidewalk for one, is doubtless a major factor in my current feeling of strength and contentment. And that one hour walking is just the commute. Having given up my transit pass, I’m walking over all those distances I wouldn’t have thought anything of covering on a streetcar months ago. Sometimes I curse that once-handy card, but really only when I’m overloaded with groceries, collected after work when I’m hungry and my lack of judgement in gauging things like how much that giant Ontario cantaloupe will impact the weight of the bags holding the other fifteen things I’ve got to get home with me.
Work itself is coming together. Changing jobs is never an easy adjustment. For the first few months I felt like I was floating in the wind, unknown amongst my far-flung colleagues, but my [new] manager has been putting effort in getting my name out there and I’m finally meeting people and getting to know those that work around me. After months, I’m finally feeling like I belong.
This summer I joined a gym. Yep, me. The new job gave me access to a great corporate rate and the new location gives me access to a small women’s gym where I go at lunch to engage weights and strength training, but mostly indulge in all things related to yoga. I’ve practiced yoga off and on for many years, mostly at home. There are some fine instructors at my gym and I’m working harder, posing more courageously, challenging myself in ways any recorded instruction could not generate. If you practice yoga, you’ll know what I mean when I say my body is breathing, my hips are singing and my spine is floating.
My girls and I are gearing up for a road trip tomorrow, back home for a wine festival on the rolling grounds of Fort Malden at the edge of the Detroit River in Amherstburg. I may need to detox by Monday when I come home. But right now, being in a good personal space is the right frame of reference in which to take myself back home to my always loving people for a couple of days.
I can say confidently in advance, after a couple of days in the country and the space and timing of a pretty town on a river amidst old friends, my good space will be shining like a diamond when we return on Monday.
It’s hot. I’m not complaining; even when it’s upwards of 35°C, I can still remember February.
It’s hot still when I go out for my walk at 10 pm. The minute I step outside the air hugs in close like that blanket I’m dreaming about when I walk outside in February. I get across the street to the lake and it’s not much better. Everything and everyone has slowed down, even the water swells lazily against the piers, and ducks lollygag around, probably wondering why the stupid humans don’t just get in the water. I know I’m tempted.
Even the moon looks hot, so deep in colour it looks like it’s encased in amber, hanging sluggish in the sky behind thin, black cloud ribbons. Lovers loll about on grass pushing hair off shoulders, kissing lazily. Dogs amble along behind their humans. A solitary skater doesn’t work too hard as he arcs on one edge of wheel, then the other.
As I approach York Quay, I feel the smallest drop in temperature; there must be a breeze coming in from the east. There’s a little more action down here as if the people feel it too. Restaurant patios are full, more groups of people are hanging about on the pier taking pictures of one another. While I stop at the end to look at that orange moon still reluctant to climb higher, a guy behind me is hitting the wooden pier with two sticks in a repetitive beat. I might normally enjoy that, but he’s not very good at it; the beat doesn’t roll out of him naturally, instead it seems forced, with missed hits and awkward pauses. I find it annoying and intrusive against the hot night and so I move on towards home.
Back on the quieter end, boats sway against their docks. Most are dark, residents shut inside against the heat. Except one fella, stretched out flat in a chaise lounge on his deck. I’m envious; I wish I could sleep on a boat deck tonight.
I get home and I’m soaked through like a wet rag. Not willing to go anywhere near my lovely clean sheets like this, I take a cool shower and sit down to write while my hair dries.
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.
Today was the next-to-last class for the current run of my Creative Non Fiction course. I don’t talk much about my classes here. That’s because for any person taking a writing (or any kind of art) class, there is a level of personal risk invested. For lots of people, just signing up for a class like this requires a measure of courage. Whatever kind of art you make, it’s part of you. And when you share that art or even your own special process of making it, that’s like baring a part of yourself for what is to you, scrutiny and judgement. My job as facilitator is to create a safe space in the hopes that people will take those kinds of risks and take their art to a new level. I like to think of those classrooms as a nest: where ideas are born and fostered, where the world is not allowed in until those ideas are let loose to fly.
I know what the rewards are for anyone who dares tell a story, that’s why I do it. And being able to participate in the unfolding of a story is a greater gift than its new (or old) writer could ever know.
If I’m honest, after twelve weeks I am looking forward to getting Saturdays back for awhile. But, as always, I’m also thinking I’m really going to miss spending Saturdays with a group of people who have grown and evolved into something very special. Kind of like a snowflake – most beautiful and utterly unique. Today I’m feeling like I’ve grown a bit more, and that I’ve got an even greater appreciation for the story than I did when I came in. Each person in this class has contributed a little bit more to who I am – as a faciliator, and as a person. I couldn’t be more grateful.