What We Say and What We Mean

January 7, 2011

So back in August, when we first moved to Toronto, I posted a blog about how I was going to write about all the interesting people I had brushed past or who had lightly touched me.  That is what I said.  What I meant was that I wanted to get to know said people, dip my hand in their pools and cup something to show you under my microscope.  What an unpleasant thing to want to do.  I realize now that this is not a good idea.


To really write something worthy of your time and theirs I have to strip my own bark off and be exposed enough to receive what they mean, not what they say.  I need to be a conduit from them to you, not a waiter serving up hors d’oeuvres.


And I know I have been silent and it may seem as if I did not mean what I said.  The main reason, or so I tell myself, is that I have been kind of busy settling into a new city, taking courses and writing a screenplay: that is what I say.


What I mean is that I am flooding myself with the busyness so as not to peel that bark off.  And here is why: I seem to be drawn towards people with sadness behind their smile.  Extraordinary people masquerading as ordinary and you just know that their stories will break your heart.


Here are some people I am not going to write about in the interests of cardiac health:


The old man who goes to Tim Horton’s every day and makes his coffee last for hours.  He folds his hat neatly and stretches out the minutes with every small task.  He hangs his threadbare coat on the back of the chair, he sprinkles sugar a little at a time into his coffee and then carefully folds the rest of the packet and puts it away.  He counts out exact change into neat piles before going to order.  He is painfully shy.  He has a small tuft of white hair that sometimes escapes his attention and refuses to join its brethren in submission.  He has holes in his shoes.


The woman who has run the coin laundry for 35 years.  She tells you what to do and what not to do with every visit.  She opens machines mid-cycle to have a squizz at what you are washing – small pink items usually, and alas no, they are not mine but belong to my 3 and 5 year-old daughters.


She is snappy and directive.  She assails you with rapid-fire questions the minute you sit down with a book while your clothes are drying:


“Taking a quiet moment for yourself, I see?”


I nod as nonchalantly as possible.


She peers critically at whatever I am reading.

“Don’t think much of reading myself. Waste of time.”




“What are you having for supper?”


So I give in.  I tell her what we are having for supper, who is doing what when, answer questions about not only my family but the neighbors downstairs.  I have very little to offer on them as they are 3 Chinese students who are addicted to computer games and only emerge blinking into the light on rare occasions.


She knows a lot about me and my family because I have given in to her interrogations.  I was shocked though when someone told her to mind her own business the other day.  Actually told her to shut up and go away.  You see I know two things about her: she was open on Christmas day and she cried when the girls made her some cookies.


And then the young woman I met the other day.  I was sitting having a coffee at the mall during the just-before-Christmas frenzy.  I was with my 3-year-old and she came and sat at the table next to us.  Everywhere was packed and we were very close, I could have reached across and touched her.


In France she would be described as “Baba Cool”.  She had a happy hippy feel to her and smiled a lot.  I would say she was about 25.  We exchanged small talk for a bit but then paused mid-sentence when a woman of a certain age walked past us.  She teetered on impossibly high stilettos and seemed to be wearing a small tube of leather that could either be unzipped in the front or the back.  We couldn’t help but smile.


“Don’t you just love people!” she said “They all have their story.”


I said that indeed I did love people but in the back of my mind was not sure I could show as much enthusiasm for all people.


“That is what I am doing” she said decisively, and picked up a notebook full of writing.

“I am writing everything I see”.


I didn’t want to disturb her so occupied myself with my daughter, my shopping list, my mundane thoughts.  I glanced over at her and sure enough, she was writing as fast as she could, and smiling.


Just before I left she started to unravel a headscarf and readjust it.  My heart sank.  She was completely bald, the very specific kind of bald that comes with chemo.  She retied her scarf, caught my eye and smiled.  She picked up her pen and continued to write and in doing so exposed the vulnerable underside of her wrist.  On it was a tattoo: it said “LIVE”.


But there are happy stories out there too.  In fact, most of them are happy somewhere.  Maybe the old man has overcome huge odds to be sitting in that chair at Tim Horton’s.  I think he is Eastern European and how he came to be in Toronto is surely a story of triumph.


The woman in the laundry came out of extreme poverty and now owns two properties.


And my young friend reached across and touched me even though I had never met her before and probably never will again.


I wonder if you want to hear these tales patchworked together? I do believe that somehow the telling of them collects us together for a quiet moment to celebrate.  To embrace what is means to be human.


A New Year bright with promise lies before us – lets fill it with wondrous things.







12 Responses to “What We Say and What We Mean”

  1. Alicia said

    Hi Kerry! The world has come to a stage in which we wonder what the fierce capitalism, we have been immersed in in the last times, has produced. When you see those people segregated by poverty in a society in which all strive to get more and more… we come to the conclusion that those who claim that we are in fact united must be right. In this individualistic society it is difficult to understand that the laundry lady and me share the same essence and the poor man counting the coins is in fact another me. Airs of change lie ahead and I hope these sad times of isolation will give way to a world of sharing where there will be lots of successful stories to write about. Your number 1 reader, haha…

    • Happy New Year Alicia,
      I won’t be able to stop turning these stones over even if there is sadness underneath. Sometimes there is joy too. Lots of love for the New Year and once again thanks for being my no 1 reader! It is comforting to know you are out there!

  2. Excellent Kerry! like usual 🙂
    it is always a wonderful experience reading you!
    Love and kisses from Africa.

  3. Jan said

    oh these are wonderful non-writings! I have missed you. Glad to hear your stories again and I do know what you mean – are we stealing a bit of them or trivializing them with our stealthy captures? Not sure but it is a drug I can’t quit.

    • Jan! Happy New Year! I am so touched you haven’t given up on me. And I will join you with our drug of choice – there are a lot worse things out there than reaching out and being reached. I am currently writing a screenplay set in the maritimes – Canso, Nova Scotia. I look forward to visiting there this year – maybe we can meet up!

  4. Elchico said

    These stories gave me goose bumps. I love the way you capture each person’s authenticness and introduce us to every one of them.

    It reminds me of a quote from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”.

    I’m curious about the first paragraph though. Why is it horrible to want to show us parts of the people you have touched you?

    • Thanks so much – goosebumps are a compliment of the highest order. I love the quote from Plato – I am going to print that one out and stick it up somewhere. What I meant by the first paragraph is that perhaps it is a kind of voyeurism to do this show and tell. But I am going to continue with it because I think overall it is a good thing to share the humanity that finds us. I am about to visit your blog. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Elchico said

    And I will definitely come back to read more!
    Thanks for anwering my question. In my humble opinion, your showing of people’s portraits is a good thing also because it makes their stories exist for those of us reading them.
    And of course, because you do it so well (hence the goose bumps!)

  6. Peggy Cameron said

    Your storytelling is memerising Kerry. The insights into these people’s lives is very humbling.
    I am sure your screen play will be just as riviting.
    So keep peeling off that bark dear friend and I will too.
    I wish you a wondrous 2011 too.
    Big hugs
    Peggy xxxxx

  7. Di said

    Embrassing humanity,in all it’s facades, at whatever level is just about all we can do to give life meaning and understanding. I love your patchwork of stories X Di

    • Thanks Di. I need to be more trusting of human nature. When I looked at your blog post about your run by yourself (with your camera) my faith in human nature was not intact. Take care of yourself and don’t go too far off the beaten track!

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