Once Upon a Time – guest post by Lucille


Twenty years ago, I made a series of radio shows on creativity in the arts. In the course of doing so, I interviewed actor and playwright Alan Williams. He was a tall lanky bloke with longish unruly red hair and piercing blue eyes who was born, raised and professionally trained in Manchester. His broad accent and absurd, self-effacing humour made him a pleasure to speak with. I became aware of his work when I attended three one-man shows that he had written and performed. The Cockroach Trilogy, as it was called, had played to packed houses all across Canada and critics and audiences agreed that this was wildly original, entertaining and extremely absorbing theater. I was keen to learn from Williams how he managed to write the way he did. He made certain observations that stayed with me and since I kept the original taped interview I am going to quote from it.   Alan Williams cockroach poster 2

“When I’m writing a play, I know I have an idea that will work if I can conceive of a situation in which conflict is bound to result which can be resolved . A good play involves people with something at stake having to make swift decisions in order to try and get what they want. Since this is the situation we are always in, we have a strong feeling of sympathy with the characters because we can see that they’re in the same stupid mess that we are – wanting something and being faced with a world that doesn’t particularly want to give it to them and having to decide on the spot how to get what they want….. At one point when I was travelling around, I went through a fairly rootless, actually homeless period !! I was trying to write plays and one of the things I would take with me wherever I went was a collection of Grimm’s fairy stories because they seemed to me to be a tremendous kind of guide to how to write. There is a sense to Grimm’s fairy stories that everything which happens is real. One of the biggest problems with writing is to try to work out when a conflict is actually real, when there is really something at stake, when something new is actually happening.”

Grimm Brothers Little Red Riding Hood

My first encounter with writing was a fairy tale. I cannot tell you which one. When my brother and I were infants, my grandmother gave us two thick volumes of fairy tales. She bought them at an auction sale and I imagine they were printed in the 1920’s if not earlier . Both were bound in cloth hard cover and had full page colour illustrations on glossy paper – each a work of art in its own right. The cover of the one containing tales of the brothers Grimm was brown and the other with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen was a burnt orange . I recall my mother reading these to me before I could read them myself. She claimed to have started reading to us well before we could walk or talk probably to put us to sleep. As a young child of 3 or 4 I can remember starting to understand what was being read to me and being much more frightened of the ‘orange’ stories as I thought of them, than the ‘brown’ ones which seemed simpler and friendlier. I also thought the former were much scarier in a grown up kind of way as if they were really stories for adults that were read to children as a special privilege like being allowed to stay up late to watch The Twilight Zone.

I can remember thinking that fairy tales were real. I believed they were actual accounts of events that had occurred at some point in the past and could happen again especially if magical and immortal beings were involved. Even if the magical beings were destroyed at the end, who could say that there were not others of their kind hanging out somewhere? This was both frightening and reassuring depending on the character. Who wouldn’t like to encounter the fairy godmother or the white rabbit in the vest?? I’m sure there are millions like me. I think part of this has to do with the fact that stories conveyed through the voice of an adult or the printed page have a certain degree of authority and credibility to the mind of a child. Before a certain age it seems that the line between what is possible and impossible has not been firmly etched. Above all I believe that children would not experience a fairy tales in this way were not the writing superb. By far the longest story in the orange book was The Snow Queen written in 1845.The_Snow_Queen

It is actually comprised of seven stories. I don’t think it was ever read to me probably because it was so long and the words were pretty difficult for my mother whose first language was not English. As a result, the story took on a sort of forbidden quality as if the content were just too grown- up for children. When I was finally old enough to be able to read it for myself, I was haunted by it because I thought it had been written about two children very similar to me and my brother . Here is how it begins.

Story the First, Which Describes a Looking-Glass and the Broken Fragments.

YOU must attend to the commencement of this story, for when we get to the end we shall know more than we do now about a very wicked hobgoblin; he was one of the very worst, for he was a real demon. clip_image001One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever. The most lovely landscapes appeared like boiled spinach, and the people became hideous, and looked as if they stood on their heads and had no bodies. Their countenances were so distorted that no one could recognize them, and even one freckle on the face appeared to spread over the whole of the nose and mouth. ….All who went to the demon’s school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like. They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror. They wanted even to fly with it up to heaven to see the angels, but the higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces. But now the looking-glass caused more unhappiness than ever, for some of the fragments were not so large as a grain of sand, and they flew about the world into every country. When one of these tiny atoms flew into a person’s eye, it stuck there unknown to him, and from that moment he saw everything through a distorted medium, or could see only the worst side of what he looked at, for even the smallest fragment retained the same power which had belonged to the whole mirror. Some few persons even got a fragment of the looking-glass in their hearts, and this was very terrible, for their hearts became cold like a lump of ice….. . There were still a number of these little fragments of glass floating about in the air, and now you shall hear what happened with one of them.

I believed that The Snow Queen was a real story that had been recorded by Andersen as a special message to me and other little girls in my situation.. It is the story of Gerda and Kay a little girl and boy who are best friends. One day a piece of the evil mirror fell into Kay’s eye and another into his heart so that it became a lump of ice. He changed from a warm and loving friend to an arrogant cruel boy who rejected Gerda. One day while playing on his sledge with the others boys, he is captured by the Snow Queen and taken to her palace near the north pole. Of course nobody knows what has happen to him and after months pass, all believe he is dead – all except Gerda. She is able to ask flowers, birds and other animals what became of him and slowly she is led on a quest to find him travelling hundreds of miles enduring all manner of hardships such as freezing cold, hunger, various forms of evil enchantment, robbery, and kidnapping. Finally she is in the hut of the “Finland woman” who is asked by a reindeer if she cannot give Gerda something to help her battle the Snow Queen.

“I can give her no greater power than she has already,” said the woman; “ don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is. She cannot receive any power from me greater than she now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart.”

I was born three years after my brother and he did not appreciate this occurrence one little bit. Although I desperately wanted his love and companionship he rejected me in every way he could (and has admitted this as an adult) He was often nasty and physically violent frequently making me cry. I found great comfort when I read The Snow Queen, since it seemed to contain some kind of explanation as to why he was the way he was- that his meanness to me and many others was a result of some kind of spell he was under and that someday I would be able to reverse it and return him to the way he really was. I was also consoled by the possibility that I had the same basic innocence and purity of heart as the heroine and therefore I had the power to do so.Gerda_and_Kay

The Snow Queen was my story. If I felt bullied The Ugly Duckling was my story. I went to The Nightingale if I felt undervalued. If I felt trapped I went to Alice in Wonderland or The Twelve Dancing Princesses. When I felt greedy my story was The Fisherman and His Wife and when my family didn’t love me enough my story was Babar or Curious George. I have always had a hard time knowing what I feel and fairy tales seemed to give form to my emotions and even explain where they came from. They also offered solutions to terrible problems. I could walk through a mirror, drink a magic potion, get advice from a tiger lily, spin straw into gold or summon the good witch of the north. The extreme unlikelihood of these possibilities never seemed to detract from the comfort and hope that they gave me.

I wonder how many children are able to endure the fear, sadness and loneliness of their childhood through fairy tales. I think this is only possible because great children’s literature carries them to these depths before the pain is resolved.

In her essay, Hans Christian Andersen, Father of the modern Fairy Tale, Terry Windling observes that “what many readers remember most about Andersen’s work is its overwhelming sadness. The Little Match Girl dies; the Little Mermaid is betrayed by her prince, the Fir Tree lies discarded after Christmas, sighing over past glories. Even tales that end happily — The Snow Queen, the Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, the Wild Swans — are heart-wrenching in their depiction of anguish endured along the way.”winterduckling1

After reading all this, you might be surprised (or perhaps horrified) to learn that from time to time I work as a therapist. I have had years of conventional university training in my profession and I work with adults . People usually seek therapy when they are unhappy but often are confused about the specifics : what they do feel and why they feel it. Therapy is a tough process. It requires a great deal of courage to confront emotions that have been suppressed or buried particularly if we see them as unattractive or shameful. . Even after many sessions a client may not yet be ready to delve into certain areas but they can often take in a similar story about someone else. Sometimes a real example quickly comes to mind but more often than not a fairy tale says it better. I guess when you are exposed to something over and over again from a young age it is never that far away from your consciousness and is easy to reach for.

Of course I wouldn’t say “I knew this rabbi years ago called Rumpelstiltskin ,although that was his name before he changed it.” or “Have I ever told you about my cousin Rapunzel ?” What I might tell them is that their situation reminds me of someone and I would not be lying. What does it matter that they remind me of a mermaid or a wooden boy as long as I can convey that they possess the same degree of courage, goodness, and strength of character that is needed to overcome their adversity. Fairy tales are considered great writing because the conflicts are utterly convincing and are often resolved through the development or complete metamorphosis of character. Elves and magic rings and ruby shoes and snow queens are simply catalysts for change. A person in therapy needs to know that transformation is possible for them and when they can’t imagine it for themselves the therapist may have to imagine it for them.

Little Match Girl

If you happen to be in the business, I can recommend some reading….

A Travelogue

If I wanted to put a positive spin on it, I’d call the last month “lying fallow”.

That’s what I call it when nothing comes to me in the way of writing ideas.
And I only call it that after the fact – after the relief of getting something to write about.
Now ensconced  in the city and sitting on the back deck with my morning winter coffee (reading Lights Out in Wonderland), it came to me not to wait any longer. In fact, in the spirit  of  “gotta use words” or just spitting it out, I decided to simply put down some thoughts on the last month, covering the transition from the burbs to the big smoke.
This has been more of a psychological transition than a mere geographical move of 25 miles.
It has been an editing of my possessions, a restructuring of my routine and a daily re-writing of lifestyle.

When I say an “editing of my possessions”, I mean it was time to divest myself  of 5 years worth of accumulated objects. It truly was for practical reasons: space.
This was more of an adventure than I had counted on.
For example: the culling of dozens of books went fairly smoothly. Of course, I wanted to keep them all, but settled for ones I knew I’d keep picking up or had such personal significance that I couldn’t let them go. I surprised myself how quickly I could sort them into two categories. This box for keepers, that box for “I can live without them”.
The adventure began with finding a good home for these “unwanted” books. Libraries don’t want donations, used book stores are extremely temperamental about what they’ll take. With help in making loads of phone calls to various stores and agencies, a good place was finally found: The Handy Book Exchange. What a gem this place was. We met Andy who runs the store and is a testament to the saying “you can’t tell a book by it’s cover”.
I did not guess from his burly exterior that this man was one of the most knowledgeable people I’d ever meet about the history of publishing. How else would I ever have learned that Buffalo was one of the biggest publishing centers back when having a printing business made you a publisher. He’s also written for the Wall Street Journal.
He got seven boxes of books and I got a credit for buying books. A good home indeed.

I won’t even go into the divestment of clothes, furniture, and appliances. Thanks to the services of a number of charitable organizations, most of my “edited out” goods were picked up and distributed where they saw fit. Nothing went into landfill, but much was recycled.

It seems it is harder to get rid of stuff than it is buy it.

There were more adjustments than I had dreamed of. After all, I had lived in the city for 30 odd years and wasn’t expecting any big surprises. I’d forgotten how different it is to “get around” in the city compared to the burbs. Here, parking is a concern that just didn’t exist before.
Before, I took for granted that I could park wherever I was going. I’d had underground parking which meant weather wasn’t an issue. Car travel to almost any kind of place  is as convenient as you could make it. But then you absolutely must have a car.
That’s the way they planned the suburbs. For cars and shopping.
Here you don’t  need a car, but it’s congested and takes a lot more time to get around in much more tricky and stressful conditions. Every time I think about driving somewhere, I think twice.

Another surprise about moving away from my suburban town was all the people I’d got to know.

My little pick-up audience.

Most of the people I’d met and got friendly with I initially met through retail transactions.
When I first moved there, it didn’t take too long to settle on a few favourite stores and soon I was on a more than passing acquaintance with those who worked and served at these places.
I didn’t have a social network in this town and these folks soon became my familiar faces. Over a period of months, “have a good night” became “how is the work going? How is your family?”

One of my treasured memories is of  meeting with a couple of great guys every Sunday night at the local all-night Metro grocery store.

fotibrian oct 4 09

Keep in mind that I was pretty much living a nocturnal life – see my previous post of Night Drives – and I was getting introduced to a whole strata of society that is alive and working all through the dark hours.
Even if there was no particular structure during my week, I could count on meeting Foti and Bryan at the Metro on Sunday nights. I’d either go out around 11 p.m. and drive up to the mall where the store was, or I’d be coming back from a drive in the country, writing and listening to audiobooks in the car. Either way, I’d usually meet up with the guys about 11:30 and they’d make coffee and take a break – just to talk with me.
Foti is Greek and a great scholar of ancient mythology and all things Hellenic. Bryan is a retired university administrator and hockey veteran, with a great affinity for Marshall McLuhan. His rec room is furnished with chairs and paraphernalia from the old Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. I got to see it all when he invited me to a barbeque at his house.
Then Foti and his wife entertained me (with Bryan and his wife) at his place and now we had a regular social relationship. I have been to his place many times now, I’ve helped him with his computer, I know his kids, and we will  keep this going. He’s a friend.

And then there was Music Girl. (I never knew her name).On my way out for my night driving, I would usually stop in at the local Starbucks. They play music in the background at Starbucks and often, if it seems “appropriate”, I will comment on it to the counter people.
One such person was a young 20ish woman who dressed a bit different, commented herself on the background music, and who was quick with a come-back line. It was fun, and a bit of a running quiz, to banter on about the big faves in her music listening. She would test me on my knowledge of bands like Japan, Television, Sparks, and many others whose albums I’d been around to buy the original vinyl of. A neat way to bridge a 30 plus year age gulf. I got a lot of free coffees and she would give me a hard time if I hadn’t dropped in for a few days. She would never acknowledge that she herself had taken some days off when I had been there and missed her. 20 year old brat.

A last example: the man whose name I never learned, who worked the cash at the local Esso station. Always overnight. He had been a lawyer back in Pakistan and often had a radio tuned to a local Pakistani radio station. He wasn’t just listening. He’d sometimes hold up a hand to me indicating “just a moment” and pick up the phone and call the station to take part in a live discussion. All in Urdu, so I didn’t get anything from it. Once, he suggested that I go outside and sit in my car and listen to him on the radio there – he was going to be on the air for a while and didn’t want me to have to stand in line at his counter too long. I did it. He also told me the best places to get Middle Eastern food.

Do I have to mention the strange ways we meet people? Do I have to mention the hidden stores of shared interests and feelings I’d found with people I’d normally not really notice? How everyone has their “stuff”?

This may sound obvious and ordinary but, really, my thought was that I was leaving behind a world and a “phase” of my life.
Kind of like I’d done my time in the wilderness.
Tibetan Lamas do  a silent, solitary retreat of 3 years, 3 months, 3 days (approx) and then they go back to the monastery. Most people might think you go to a monastery for  just those very reasons of solitude, isolation and refuge. For these initiate monks, going back into the monastery after 3 plus years of being alone and speechless, is  more like my return to the city.
Once, on a trip to the beaches of South Carolina, I met a couple who had come from the mountainous interior of that state to cool down by the sea shore. We had gone there for the warmth. Same place, opposite attraction.
And I’ve had to travel back to the burbs at least once a week since moving. The first few times it felt like home territory. Once I’d cross a certain line – a certain exit on the expressway – everything would get re-oriented (I’d get a new compass). This was  more real  than my new place was.
But not for a couple of  weeks now.  I still know how to get around like second nature, all the right turns to make and what lanes get me there fastest.  But more than ever, it’s where other people live. I’m still not a fish in water in the city, but the place lived in for 5 years has become  a series of photographs over the horizon.

oakville purple

In keeping with the theme of this blog (can we come up with a better word? It’s starting to annoy me as much as “significant other” used to, and as much as the comment “nice!”, the conditional “that being said” and the misused and clichéd “iconic” do now) … in keeping with this blog theme, the last month has seen the end of one narrative and then nothing at all – except wondering if I was going to slip into my old narrative or wondering what a new narrative might be. Was I going to try to recapture something or jump from the cliff and see what happens.  Well, inertia always wins with me and I bided my time.
Not that I did absolutely nothing. I poked around my favourite haunts, started shopping at the old markets again, cooking real food, reading a lot.
But the place wasn’t coming into focus. It was like every time I looked out the window either from my place or even from a car window, I would see places, people, scenes, through the lens  of memory.


There is a young women who lives across the street and she comes out onto her porch for a smoke several times during the day. She did this 5 years ago  when I lived in this house then. She’d been doing it for a number of years before then, starting soon after she’d left adolescence.
But when I look at her now, it’s like I’m going back in time. I’m not seeing her in the here and now, more like I’m playing back an old tape. It’s still her, the same porch, the same general view out the same window.  Time doesn’t not seem to have moved on.

toronto_old ford

It’s like this for me, too, when I drive downtown on old familiar streets and see glass and steel condos where  two-story shops used to be. I do a translation in my mind where I see the old shops first, then transpose the new buildings over them. It’s like I have to see the original picture and then do an update to see the new, real, streetscape. “Oh yeah, there’s where that favourite restaurant is. Used to be. There’s this new ugly condo.” That’s the process. It’s like I’m using old film.


I expect this will change. I’m maybe just stubborn and refuse to see these undesired changes. It will take some doing to get used to a lot of old familiar funky spots being replaced by those shiny condos. There is a lot more looking up than looking in.
And a lot of just plain old wrecks of stores around town have been “cuted”- up”  – you can smell the renovation bill.
Some places have defied gentrification: the downtown Chinatown and Kensington Market, where every  ethnic group has started out.

So, what’s been keeping me occupied all this time in transition. Reading, cooking, keeping 2 cats separated, figuring out the recycling and garbage scheme. That’s what.
I’ve stayed in the house a lot more than I thought I would. Maybe  only to adjust, like a diver decompressing.


Todays Listening:

1. In the Lost and Found by Elliott Smith fr: Figure 8
2. Real Emotional Girl by Randy Newman fr: Trouble in Paradise
3.  One More Town by The Kingston Trio fr: The Capitol Collector’s Series
4. A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square by Roger Kellaway fr: I Was There