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.