Bullying can be defined as an aggressive behaviour that is intentional and implies an imbalance of power and strength between the bully and his victim, and comes in repeated, sometimes relentless, forms. As a child, I was a victim of bullying, although I suppose in many ways we could all say the same.
For me, it was never a chronic thing. I wasn’t afraid to show my face on the school, or worried to leave my very own backyard, for fear of whatever cruelty might await at the hands of my tormentors. But I was different, this I knew, even back then. I stood out, even in the most subtle of ways. As a child, I was small for my age, skinny, awkward, with thick glasses, and a cow lick that, despite repeated ongoing coaxing, would never stay put. I remember the start of the school year in Grade 2, stepping onto the school yard, my shy and quite nervous younger sister clutching my hand at my side. On that particular day, I’d worn new overalls to school, one’s I’d chosen with my mom from the local Kmart where she worked late evening shifts so she’d be home in the day to drop off and pick up my younger sister and I from school. I was proud of that stark, crisp, rough blue denim, the straps snug over my shoulder as they secured and almost protected me in a way from whatever unexpected things this new school day might bring. I felt happy, comfortable, confident, ready to take on Grade 2 in all it’s wonder and glory, and then suddenly….a small group of kids, mostly older, surrounding me, taunting me, calling me Old MacDonald (you know, he of the farm) and laughing at my bold new “look”. And before long, a tap to my shoulder, a slap to my back, a push to the side, and hands seemingly flying everywhere, boys jeering in my face, singing about cows and ducks and laughing….and then one curly haired boy in particular, direct in my face, snarling and laughing the most, and my little sister, frightened and tearful by my side. And then, with some primal instinct I barely recognized, I felt my hand fly out, in some semblance of a punch I didn’t know how to throw, and pain shooting through my knuckle and wrist as I connected with a nose, a nose soon bloodied, and then a shocked cry and a stinging slap across my face, resulting in my also recently acquired and quite expensive new glasses flying off my face and skittering across the pavement, to the sound of broken, tinkering glass. And next… silence. Followed by the sound of little bodies scurrying away, and the fast approaching and booming voice of the vice principal, a giant of a man, his strong hand clamped tightly on my arm and that of the bloodied boy next to me, dragging us off to the office, my sister inconsolable and screaming my name, with a duty teacher trying to comfort her, left far behind.
As an A + student, this was a rather traumatic moment. Not so much listening to the painful howls of the boy who teased me most (at the time, I wished I’d knocked out a tooth or two as well), but rather visiting the interior of the dreaded principal’s office. I’d never been in trouble at school before….I didn’t KNOW what trouble was…but I did soon come to realize (possibly after seeing the hurt, disappointed look on my parents faces later that day) that my actions – my aggressive, irresponsible actions – were in no way a solution to the problem. As I grew older, however, the school yard bullies came calling much less. I won’t say it’s because of that incident, although at the immediate time I’m sure it made some think twice. With all due modesty, as I grew older I simply looked different, and when it came to the part of the victim or the “geek” let’s say, I didn’t quite look the part, even if inside it was how I sometimes felt. Now I’ll never be mistaken for a Greek god, not even close. However, I like to think of the way I look as the equivalent of the performer with the heart of a small indie actor but with some of those leading man looks. Or, truth was I became taller, with strong, broad shoulders, a quick wit, and very soulful puppy dog eyes, and suddenly it seemed girls (and, in retrospect, boys) LIKED me, and wanted to be around me, and so the invites to parties or the junior high dances became more common. But still, I was something of a gentle soul, nothing so much rough and tumble about me, and smouldering glances aside,that was something I could not so easily hide. My brothers could be mean, not out of hatred or viciousness but more out of ignorance…..they loved Rambo and Rocky, I loved Footloose and Flashdance, and that, it seemed, was simply that. And to make matters even more difficult, I was somewhat in awe of my pretty, popular and ever so worldly seeming older sister, and modelled myself after her in a way, so they’re hockey lovin’, beer sneaking, girl chasing ways seemed rather foreign to me, and to me that seemed just fine.
S T O R Y T E L L E R S
Storytelling is defined by Wikipedia (that oft-times questionable but yet still vastly knowledgeable source of all things definitive like) as the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment….Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and…to instill moral values.”
I like to think of myself as a storyteller, back from the very moment I could grasp a pencil in hand, and perhaps even before then. ( I mean….I can’t really say where an idea for a story comes from, but it has to come from somewhere, before it’s pulled, all raw material just waiting to be molded, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the “real world”). And in this act of storytelling, like all good storytellers I suppose, I hope to entertain, engage, perhaps titillate, and, in this case, through this medium, provide what I’d like to think is an informed opinion or two on those matters, things and events important and of interest to me, and I hope, in return, to you.
During the recent Word On The Street festival in Halifax, a national book and magazine festival celebrating reading and advocating literacy, my partner Shawn and I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize Winning Author of “Light Lifting”. Now truth be told I’d only come across MacLeod fairly recently, when the Giller Prize nominees were first announced…and “Light Lifting” seemed only the latest rave amongst ever-expanding East Coast book offerings that continue to gain a wide audience and a well deserved national spotlight. And if MacLeod’s leading a charge, he has an entire army behind him…a new generation of writers who are paving the way through this Atlantic Canadian Literary landscape, with stories filled with humor and drama and emotion and pathos and beauty that could only come from our rugged country and coastline. This impressive list of new literary heroes (and heroines) includes great new talent like Chad Pelley (Away From Everywhere), Michael Winter (The Death of Donna Whalen), Kathleen Winter (Anabel), Christy Lee Conlin (Heave), Ami MacKay (The Birth House), Sheree Fitch (Kiss The Joy As It Flies), Lisa Moore (Alligator), Jessica Grant (O Come Thou Tortoise) and Chris Benjamin (Drive By Saviours – and I mean, seriously,aren’t those last two just totally awesome titles or what? ). And happily, that list could go on and on. All unique new voices, all exciting and masterful in their command of time and place, mood and language, atmosphere and tone…and, in my own writing, I can only someday hope to equal their talent, enthusiasm, and expertise.
But Alexander, a distinctly talented author in his own right, comes by an auspicious pedigree of his very own, one not shared by the others….He is the son of the legendary Alistair MacLeod, THE literary giant from the hills of Cape Breton, who’s short story collections “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun and Other Stories” I – along with thousands and thousands of other students – had dissected in loving detail throughout junior high and high school english classes, and then later went on to study in more detail in Contemporary Twentieth Century fiction during my English majoring days at Dalhousie University. So meeting the son of this literary idol of mine was a bit of a surreal moment, and one I was more than a bit star struck by. (But then again, it’s not everyday you get to hang out in front of a wooden boat by the Maritime Museum chatting to one Alexander MacLeod of THE MacLeods, now is it?) But before that moment when I struggled to put two words together (and can we just say THAT never happens?), I had the opportunity to listen to Alexander talk about growing up in this famous family. And as I listened to this bright, funny, insightful, and handsome man tell a tale or two of his upbringing, I was struck by how much this life he described sounded so typical of any Cape Breton family. (I actually told him I thought meeting him would be like talking to royalty, but hey, what do you know? It seems he’s like everybody else.) And when later I was….you know…hanging by a wooden boat, talking to the son of Alistair MacLeod… Shawn asked if he knew who his father was growing up, if he lived some sort of life one might expect of a son of a writer type. And to this he replied….no, not at all. That, in fact, no one who entered his family home would ever have guessed his dad was a writer. That there were rarely books about, that his parents rarely even read to their children, and that he and his siblings shared a love of sports, food , music, laughter and good times with both friends and family, all those good things that most good families share, Cape Breton or otherwise. But how could this be? His dad’s a world renowned master of his craft, who wrote stories that shaped and defined in many ways the hearts and minds of students in classrooms all across our country. But then again, what did I expect? A reading jacket and smoking pipe in some old world library,with rows upon rows of shiny books, all with that new book smell, and perhaps a sign saying “Shhhhh! Genius at work!”… You can see how my imagination might run wild with it.
However, just because it wasn’t a houseful of academics and scribes didn’t mean the ancient traditions of storytelling weren’t alive and well within his family. In fact, Alexander went on to describe how everyone back in his childhood community was a true storyteller within his or her right. You see, growing up in rural Cape Breton, the act of visiting your neighbors was an active and expected and oft encouraged past time. But if you went all the way to visit someone, often miles and miles of road in not so pleasant weather, and they went all the way to prepare a huge meal and pour a drink to welcome you, well, as a trade-off, you had better have a story. And that story had better be a good story, told with punctuations of wild laughter and broad humour or high drama and dark intrigue. And so these tales were woven, tales from the past of fishermen and hunters and farmers, or of things just glimpsed and imagined, of what wonders might lay just around the corner. Gossips of budding romances or dying love affairs. Of children born out-of-wedlock or loved ones taken too soon. Of far exotic places, the bustle of some big city life, or the quiet solitude of small town living. Regardless, these stories were told, and passed on, around campfires and kitchen tables, backyards to playing fields, entire generations of storytellers, weaving all the magic and wonders of everyday life that they so artfully described.
When I moved in to my first grown up apartment – and no, I don’t mean those 6’x8′ cellar dungeons I used to call home during university days….the small, cramped space where I’d stockpile my expensive and rarely used textbooks and musty vinyl collection, with a noisy refrigerator whose sole purpose for being was to keep the beer icy cold – I literally had an overstuffed and well cat clawed blue couch that travelled with me from my parent’s home in CB, a small TV liberated from my older sister, a 5-year-old Dell computer that worked best depending on how hard I might kick it, an eclectic and rather obsessively organized CD collection, and a small crowded bookshelf, filled with Stephen King and Anne Rice’s finest, next to classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye from my former English major days. The small kitchen contained a few mismatched pots, pans and dishes salvaged from the aforementioned and ever so helpful big sis….but no kitchen table. There was no need, as work and a fairly active social life left little time or desire to eat at “home”. The open concept living room/dining room contained neither a coffee table or end tables, as it seemed to me that might only collect mess and clutter. And, as you might recall, the misguided words from a kindly ol’ nun from my childhood left me somewhat deeply changed, with the undying impression that clutter was somehow… wrong. Bad. Evil , even. And so I’d have none of that. In a sense, I learned to recycle long before it became vogue or….you know…necesarry to save our environment and the future of all humanity and all that. Mail would quickly be opened, then filed and/or shredded. Empty cans and bottles collected and dropped off on the curb, where some poor homeless dude would quickly make off with them. Countertops sparkled, floors shined, and dishes safely stacked away behind cupboard doors, avoiding any prying eyes. If I needed to take note of something or write it down, I would often need to write it on my hand or home to remember it, as a scrap of paper to simply jot things down was simply nowhere to be found. Things seemed sterile and safe, clean and simple, and I often joked with friends that if I needed to move away quickly for whatever reason – say I finally won a million dollars or decided finally that my arch nemesis of the moment must die and I needed to flee the country quickly -I could probably pack all I needed or wanted in a small box and be off into the sunset. And I continued this way for years, and my orderly universe continued to spin neatly on its axis, a life lived clean and clutter free. Where everything had its place, and it’s place was….well, tidy.
And then….along came Shawn.
Growing up, our house always seemed to be the central hub of activity in our neighborhood. On any given day, you’d find a posse of screaming 7 and 8 year olds, running through the yard swinging taped together leftover Christmas wrap holders substituting for light sabers as we acted out our favorite scenes from Star Wars. Or find a gaggle of teenage girls crowded into a small pink bedroom around a portable record player, talking about boys they liked, and dancing and singing to the likes of Donna Summer and KC and the Sunshine Band. Or a herd of teenage boys draped all over the furniture in the living room, cheering for their favourite baseball team on TV (Toronto Blue Jays!) all the while pretending not to notice or care about those teenage girls giggling away just a floor above. And as much as our house was so often full of people, it was also full of stuff. Lots of stuff. My mother, for instance, had a fondness for Blue Mountain Pottery, Royal Albert Blossomtime china, and her own rough-hewn but lovingly handmade bowls and oddities that she spun into creation twice a month at her ceramics class, and you’d find examples of these on table tops and wall shelves and mantles all through the house. My father was a huge sports nut, particularly hockey, and there were many nods on walls and shelves to his favourite team, the Leafs. My oldest brother suffered a rather gripping fascination with all things militaristic, with a growing collection of amry and navy memorabilia to commemorate the same. My other brother was practically a bowling legend at his junior high school, and seemed to arrive home with an even bigger and increasingly more garish trophy once a week to complete for the already limited shelf space. My older sister was the pretty, popular girl at school, and with her came all those trappings of clothes, makeup, and hair products aplenty, enough to overwhelm her bedroom and our tiny shared bathroom. As for my younger sister, her interests were mostly my interests, and she seemed agreeable to whatever toy, movie, game, or TV fad that struck my fancy at the time. And so we’d often alternate from having my 12” GI Joe action figures (not dolls!) rescue all the Tetley tea animals from the war zone that became our dining room table, to running over those evil Barbies gifted to her by a cousin of ours with my Tonka Trucks in the driveway (so um….maybe that part’s a bit disturbing in retrospect), but never remembering to clean up after ourselves once finished our great make-believe adventures. And so with all these varied people about, with all their varied interests , stuff began to accumulate. And the house, with both it’s inhabitants and their belongings, always appeared very full. Although we were each charged with our very own individual chores to aid in the upkeep of the home – my oldest brother was praised as being the world’s greatest vacuum cleaner guy, while my specialty was window washing, mainly because I was so obsessive I wouldn’t walk away ‘til it was spot and streak free! – and as much as our parent’s worked hard to instill the very ideals of good proper housekeeping, things inevitably always ended up feeling a bit cluttered and….well….lived in.