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How We Are At All

Posted in Adventures With Humans

Neanderthal Tango

I’ve hit a milestone in my life. It has nothing to do with time, but rather the realization that the trick to being around people–being in ‘relationship’, depends on your ability to be ‘present.’ Life depends on relationships, so this little grok is significant, certainly something I wish I had learned early on. I suppose that, yes, kids are authentic, purely themselves as they grow from that unsteady wobble, to being able to tie their own shoes; it is from newborn to eight years old that is generally considered the most important phase of life. The child is completely dependent on its’ parents, particularly the mother, and of course the whole process is influenced by environment. While there was delight in our family, there was also a tough darkness, hooked and hauled in by my father’s side of the family, specifically his mother. She pulled the rug out from under our mother with her harsh, unrelenting criticism, so by the time I was ready to figure myself out, my parents were not fawning over us, posting our drawings on the fridge, but instead, pacing through the house, apart from each other. I have no memory of my parents going out for a walk together, whether that was out to the barn, up in the fields, or along the gravel road, you know like partners in something, working together. They would look at each other during dinner, my father mulling over a problem from his corporate gig, and my mother wondering what it was all for. Children notice things like this; a terrible example of people in a relationship. Not surprisingly, when I went out into public I was painfully shy, and had no opinions. There were days when it felt like I barely threw a shadow. This was when my friend’s mother came to the rescue. We’ll call her ‘Mrs. M.’
One day, I was sitting with my friend in her kitchen when her mother, Mrs. M, came into the room and launched into a fierce lecture directed at my friend, or so I thought. She started it with, “It irks me”–I remember that clearly. “It irks me when you walk into a room and don’t introduce yourself,” was part of it, and also, “when you don’t speak loud enough for anyone to hear.” I think she threw “eye contact” in there, and possibly “shaking hands,” covering most of the rules of good manners. Sitting there, it dawned on me that my friend did all of the things that Mrs. M was talking about. She spoke up. She introduced herself, and “ooohhhh”–I got it. Mrs. M was talking about me, pretending to focus on her daughter so I wouldn’t flee out of embarrassment and fear. But I got it. I did. I went home and did some thinking. That was the beginning of my timid tip-toe into the world. I was still shy, but I began trying things once in a while, like pretending that I was Kathryn Hepburn before I walked into a room full of people. “Oh Norman.” It worked, to my delight.
I was still essentially shy, not so much around my peers, but adults mostly. I got my license and was just beginning to act out at school, actually putting a tack on my Spanish teacher’s chair. Drugs were waiting around the corner–that’s the regimen, from tacks to tokes! My parents sent me to a boarding school in the states to finish high school and stop the slippery slope of tack use. I liked this school, and though I remained shy through those two years, I think it offered at least a chance for equilibrium instead of a bad spiral. I didn’t really figure anything out there, other than it was a relief to be away from my parents. University was okay, but uneventful. I still occupied my skin rather tentatively. I was a full-on fan of Second City, and began driving into Toronto on Wednesday nights for an improv show and then classes through the week. I loved the community there, and met my husband-to-be. It’s not outlandish to suggest that the rules of improv are helpful in the real world. The underlying concept is to be open to the offer– whatever is coming, and to be present so that you can discover more of life through relationship.  Not everyone is an angel, so it’s good to develop discernment and good boundaries so you don’t get into trouble. Aside from that, actively participating in life, making an effort in the world instead of sleepwalking is what makes it all compelling; accept the challenge and think on your feet.
Work life was its’ own thing: In 1989, I had a job as a production assistant in a large film company in the city. The owner was a big shot director, a man anal and controlling enough to demand that his secretary match the colour of the coffee she made him with a paint chip because god forbid you should one day add a little too much cream, or not enough; good to have priorities. One day, he asked me to drive him and two of his secretaries somewhere. The three of them piled into the back of one of the company cars, and I drove it out onto the street. The director suggested a route, and soon we were driving through Toronto’s China Town. The three had been talking, and then began making racial slurs aimed at the Asian people on the sidewalks. I couldn’t believe it. Their banter was despicable, certainly nothing any of my friends would have said. As I drove, I had to decide if I was going to play along, so as to win favour with this dickhead, or be a human with integrity–ignore them and just drive. I chose to drive, and offered no hint of approval of what I was hearing. I looked at the road. I looked out the window. I gritted my teeth. After only a minute or two of this, dickhead asked me to drive them back. We pulled in, got out of the car, and dickhead smiled, came around to my side of the car, put his arm around me and took me into the offices to introduce me to his staff; he had been testing me, curious to see what I would do in the insulting, reprehensible situation he had orchestrated. So maybe he wasn’t a complete dickhead. He was sneaky to be sure. Thing was, I was glad to have had the integrity to maintain my self-respect, to not relent to ‘sucking up no matter what.’ I quit a few weeks later and went to work for a bigger production house, but was grateful for the lesson.
Then there are just odd, surreal situations where none of the normal rules apply: At the death of my father, a suicide in December of 2004, I found myself sitting at our farm kitchen table with my mother, my sister, two people from a crisis team, the coroner, and a detective. Before sitting, the coroner stood beside me and handed me my father’s glasses behind my back so nobody else could see. I don’t know why he picked me, but he did. I took them and hid them out of sight of my mother who was of course in shock, not only because of her husband’s suicide, but because she had tried to revive him there in the barn. As we sat around the table, the woodstove going right there in the room, snow falling outside, we talked about–well, I can’t really remember the details; clues, I suppose. I do remember that discussions would dip in and out of the tragedy, and sometimes veer off into normal things. I remember that, though I no longer lived in the area, the detective and I discovered that we had a mutual friend, a writer whom we both knew. He was nice, this detective, likely familiar with the brutal quality of the event and fully expecting our inability to accept what had happened; his kindness, his delicate tending of our broken hearts made it easier for the wafting through of moments of lightness, ‘gallows humor,’ where we could take a breath before the reality of the evening would stomp us to tears again. It was in discussion with the detective that questions were raised, so I showed him upstairs to my father’s study. There, on a green velvet chair cushion, was the trigger lock left from the shotgun my father had used that evening, the key still in it.
In that situation, I was not shy, nor timid. It was as if I was doing my duty, sitting with the coroner, the two of us going through my father’s medications most of which I had no idea he had been taking. The problem was that neither did my mother; evidence of  non-existent, broken communication and that made me sad; that was clue enough.
Since then, and since I began running solo after my marriage ended, I have found myself in situations with people, short interactions that were lovely. Once, while walking along a Toronto sidewalk, I noticed a man walking towards me from a side street. Our paces were such that we were both going to arrive at the street corner at the same time. He was wearing a pinstriped, button-up shirt, and a baseball hat, attire that could hint at either a business owner, or a homeless person. He wasn’t threatening, so I let him step in and walk beside me. I asked where he was headed. He explained that he was on his way to an outdoor arts fair. He was to look after a booth for an artist friend of his so that she could go get lunch. He talked about some of the art that she was selling, specifically one piece, a painting that he liked, but when she told him the price, which I remember to be maybe five hundred dollars, he replied, “What! Is it made out of GOLD?” I’ll never forget the way he said ‘gold.’ And it was nice to walk along with him as he was, a little down on his luck, me, on a walkabout, trying to figure things out; luck neither good nor bad.
A few years ago, pre-Covid, I found myself behind an elderly woman in the checkout line at the grocery store just before Christmas. She was dressed in a beautiful antique hat and a formal winter coat. You could tell that she had class. I watched her looking over the display of gift cards from various chain stores. She chose a couple, and then started muttering and shaking her head, turned and we made eye contact.  I was smiling and she began telling me that she had to buy gifts for the other people in her book club. She looked at the handful of gift cards and said, “None of them deserve it!” I laughed out loud. We began talking about the season, and the stress around it. She had finished paying and was gathering her loot at the end of the counter. She told me about when she was a kid: She and her two siblings once got a pair of skis for Christmas, “one pair for the three of us,” she said, and then with perfect Dorothy Parker timing, she added, “We didn’t even have a hill!”  She was lovely; a crisp breath of fresh air, the kind of person you’d like to go have a martini with, and sit and listen to her stories. I know many people, but none with the comic timing she had.  
I hope I don’t sound like a flake, but I often wonder about the mystery of being drawn to the right people seemingly just in time; there’s got to be something going on with that. Not too long ago, I was downtown waiting for the walk light to change so that I could cross and get to the subway. It was evening, winter, and I thought I had heard a bird chirping. I looked around. I thought I heard it again. I looked over and up at the man near me. He looked directly back at me, made the chirping sound, and then smiled. We began talking, and then he sang something. The light changed, and as we crossed together, I complimented his voice, clearly trained, and added that my admiration was partly due to my shortcomings in that area; singing was right out, but even speaking so people could hear me was a challenge. I told him that I seemed to collect stress right in my throat, that it just tightens up, and I can’t project. He said that he could hear it right then, as I spoke. Now we were going through the turnstiles. He told me that he had an idea that would help me. He went on to describe a breathing exercise where you blow out as if across the top of an empty beer bottle at the same time singing the scale notes up and down, careful to use a supported breath from the belly. He demonstrated and I took note. Now we were seated on the subway, and he began to sing an aria, I mean full tilt. It was powerful and so beautiful. I thanked him. The mystical part of this story was the timing of it all: a few days later, I was supposed to participate in an Arthur Murry dance showcase. Why would my voice be a concern? Well, my instructor and I had decided that we would perform the tango. Yes, I know, and yes it’s a sexy dance. When it came to discussing outfits, instead of getting all glammed up, I suggested we go as Neanderthals instead. We came up with a plan that involved an entrance where we would both be making grunting, growling sounds, you know, like true, dancing Neanderthals would have. The studio was big, so we needed to be able to make big sounds to fill it. During a practice session, my instructor actually asked me, “Do you think you’ll be loud enough?” Even I wasn’t sure. I practiced the beer bottle exercises, especially on the day while driving down to the show. When it was our turn, we made our entrance dressed in brown, velvety blankets in place of real skins of course, tied at our waists with string. We crouched, pretended to pick fleas, and I began eating a piece of kale I had hidden earlier in a potted plant near the door. My instructor fondled a rock he had carried in. People looked at us and then–then I growled. The sound of it came from deep in my core instead of my throat– filled the whole room and we went on from there. Our tango was perfect; it had to be if we were going to do it dressed like prehistorics. We grunted and howled our way through it to the delight of the crowd, whose members laughed and pointed for the right reasons. I was in ‘I-have-a-voice’ heaven.
A curious lesson running throughout is how we can change if we are brave enough to try. Whether this involves discovering our voice, or participating more fully, the result is that our relationships change too, as we are no longer the same person deep down. Some new relationships develop, some shift, and some lose their steam and end, as happened during a December 2022 phone call with a friend. I told him about that past October, finding the suicide note that my father had written before his first attempt in 1972. I was struggling a bit at the time of the phone call, still reeling from finding that note among other things, and really needed an ear. The friend was well-meaning, but went on to describe things he found while going through old boxes that had belonged to a relative who had died from old age, almost treating the discovery of my father’s note as if it was nothing more than an old shopping list. I ended the call without raising a fuss, because what was the point. Unless you’ve experienced suicide within your close circle, you can’t possibly understand the gravity, the brutality of its’ effect, even decades later, but I was disappointed to not be heard by that person out of simple compassion at least. To listen is not a skill to be taken for granted, case in point. This man isn’t a monster, but I’ve got some pilons up against seeking solace from him again–makes it hard for me to want to connect, but this is where we are if that’s anywhere at all.
I hope that I am a good listener; I think I am, having learned from some really good therapists over the years. I am grateful for them, and all of the people I have met along the way who have taught me about myself and the world in subtle and myriad ways without their knowing it.  I don’t think I could have made the big leap from the moment of Mrs. M’s lecture to now without so many incremental, and meaningful interactions along the way, each at the perfect time.  We do the best we can. If we are brave enough, we can do better. We can sing opera on the subway. We can watch over someone else’s gold, and we can share a funny story in the check-out line. I love those people. I’m serious. I really do! Even now, when I find myself in conversation with someone who is not listening at all, so insecure as to barely take a breath for fear of leaving a moment of silence, instead of being frustrated, I let them at it. There is something deep in–I know it, some knot robbing them of their ease, awaiting their commitment to work it out, and if this opportunity for them to talk helps them discover something–get closer to that knot, then I am honoured to have been a part of that.