Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

The Music of Laughter

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Collage by Leah Dockrill titled "Layers of Illusion" showing sheet music among other items.

Layers of Illusion by Leah Dockrill

I am eleven and standing in the hallway of my apartment in Block 545 in Singapore. From inside, I hear the horrible sounds of cats being tortured. The only problem is that we don’t own cats. In a panic, I fling the door open and I see my mummy sitting in front of her brand-new musical instrument, a table-sized pump organ. A harmonium that was screeching and bellowing. Mummy looked up at me and laughed; genuine happiness radiated from her. Her eyebrows danced and her lips parted as melodious sounds emerged from her belly. I had never seen mummy look like that. Something was different.

“I have decided that I am going to be the best harmonium player and temple singer in Singapore!” she said.

“But Mummy,” I screamed, “you don’t know any music! You cannot sing. Where did you even get that thing?”

She winked at me. “Meeta, my friend from temple, bought a new harmonium. I grabbed the chance to buy her old one. She even came in her car and dropped it off this morning.”

Then, Mum put her right hand up to silence me. She raised her chin in defiance. “Cannot? Why not? Just watch me. Everything is possible, beti, if you believe it in your heart. Whenever I go to the temple, I watch the priests play beautiful music on the harmonium. I feel happy from inside. It was fated when Meeta said she was getting rid of her old harmonium. The universe is showing me the way. Now, go and eat your cheese bread I made for you.”

My mom was thirty years old at that time. She had been a child bride at sixteen, shipped from Delhi to Singapore, and had lived in a prison of tradition and patriarchal rules. Always silenced. How on earth could she learn music when she was not allowed to go out, talk on the phone, have friends, work, drive, or go anywhere without my father? There was no chance of even getting a music teacher.

As a young girl, I was worried about my mom’s rebellion. I decided that I would keep a close eye on her. Secretly, I spied on her. I was puzzled by the nonsensical diagrams that she scratched in her palm-sized notebook. With intense scrutiny, her nose scrunched, she pounded each key on the harmonium, listened intently and repeated the sound. Then, she drew more secret diagrams with arrows. This went on for hours. She tried to copy English songs from the radio that blasted in the background and the harmonium bleated her Frankentunes.

She practised her music every day when my father went out. She cleaned. She cooked. She prayed. She played on her harmonium. My brother and sister learned to tune her out. We ignored her command to join her when she practised. We shook our heads and burst out laughing; then we ran for our dear lives.

There was more and more laughter in the house from everyone it seemed, thanks to mummy. Absorbed in her self-taught music lessons, she laughed and it filled the house with calm and peace. Papa was a strict man and he expected all of us to follow his rules, especially mummy. I recoiled when Papa’s angry voice boomed through the house if the TV was loud or mummy disagreed with him. Now, this innocent laughter from mum overshadowed the air of dread and smoothed my fears, at least when Papa wasn’t home.

But one day, Papa came home early while Mum was practising. The scowl on his face worried me. I knew that mom’s rebellion would fetch a price. He thundered in the door and bellowed, “You are wasting your time. You will never be a singer or play that thing. Now go and make my dinner.”

Mom laughed sweetly, so as not to provoke him, and said, “Why not?”

I followed her into the kitchen. She hummed her tunes and swayed her head. She winked at me and I swear she put extra chilies in Papa’s portion of chicken curry. Then, she hugged me and giggled like a teenager. Her quiet laughter reverberated round the apartment and cocooned me. The tension slowly dissolved. I even heard Papa chuckle.

And so this madness from my mummy went on. Music. Laughter. Singing. Two months later, I came home from school and heard a familiar tune I could not place. My mom looked up at me with her smile and said, “I am playing ‘Like Virginia.’” She played the tune again. Suddenly, it hit me. “You mean, ‘Like a Virgin’? By Madonna?” My mom threw her head back and the sounds of pure joy gurgled from her belly. The red dot on her forehead between her dancing brown eyes bobbed up and down. “Yes! The one with the pointy….” Her hands waved around her breasts. “Moooommmm,” I screamed and danced like Madonna while she played her bizarre Indian version of “Like a Virgin.”

Eventually, mummy joined the women’s singing group at the temple on Wednesday afternoons. The temple was the only place she was allowed to go alone, and my father dropped her off and picked her up. I heard such raucous laughter and music erupting from these gatherings on the rare occasions that mummy succeeded in dragging me with her. The women sat in assorted groups, cross-legged on the carpeted floor, enthusiastically discussing new tunes to play. Some would beat the tablas. Others grabbed finger cymbals. Together, each group created harmonious new hymns. They laughed without worry or censure, safe in their collective space. They clucked like hens when they disliked a new tune. They guffawed in approval when they perfected a tune. Even I picked up the finger cymbals and joined in with mummy’s group.

Today, mummy has sung in temples in Indonesia, India, Australia, and Calgary. No one can stop that five-foot-tall woman. With her megawatt smile and infectious laughter, she brazenly invites herself to any temple podium that she can, anywhere in the world. She has even played for the Prime Minister of Singapore at the Singapore National Theatre!

Growing up in that house, I learned the meaning of passion. Within the confines of her tradition, mummy created music and laughter—she created harmony. She permeated the walls with mirth. And as a young girl, I too started to believe in possibilities. I began to learn how to manoeuvre those restricted wings, quietly and covertly. Now I toss my head back and laugh from the depths of my soul whenever I think of my mummy. Because that’s how she now laughs. Eyes twinkling. Cheeks dancing. Unrestrained music that rises to the sky.
 

Listen to Kelly Kaur read “The Music of Laughter.”

Delivering the Tragic

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It’s January 2020 and I’m on stage at the Burdock Brewery in Toronto. I know the room is packed but it’s so quiet I can hear a pin drop. All I can see are the blinding lights shining into my eyes and my microphone. Fifty strangers are waiting to hear a story about the most harrowing thing that has ever happened to me.

When I open my mouth to begin, a single thought crosses my mind: I hope this is as funny as I think it is….

*

I can’t recall the first time I told a joke. I only remember how exciting it was when the result was laughter. I’d somehow found the power to disrupt my boring elementary school classes with punchlines. From then on, my mouth was unstoppable, producing a constant stream of wit that frazzled my teachers.

But as we all know, funny children (and people) are often hiding behind their humour. On my thirteenth birthday, my father had his first heart attack and the fallout destroyed my family. Instead of rebounding once my father recovered, my parent’s marriage festered and they both turned to alcohol to tolerate their lives. During this time, the only thing I could control was my sense of humour. Rewriting my narrative with a comic spin gave me power. Delivering morbid and self-deprecating jokes about my broken family was the only thing that converted my radiating sadness into consolation.

As an only child, I lived alone in my country home with my parents while they became verbally abusive and neglectful. I turned to my television for comfort, staying up past my bedtime every Saturday night to catch the latest SNL sketches with Molly Shannon, Darrel Hammond, and Tina Fey. I hoped that, one day, I could do what they do. Fantasizing about my future in comedy kept me from succumbing to paralyzing depression as I grieved the ongoing loss of my parents. It didn’t take long for me to be known to my friends and extended family as a funny girl.

At nineteen, I was diagnosed with PTSD but was able to recover after nine months of a treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). By the time I was twenty-one, I was ready to leave my childhood behind. I’d decided to become a comedian. How does a small-town Canadian girl chase this dream? She goes to university for pre-law because she’s afraid of financial instability, hates pre-law, and abandons her fledgling career for The Second City, the renowned school that has produced the best comedians in North America since 1959.

For two years I devoted myself to improv, stand-up comedy, and sketch-writing classes in Toronto. I had a knack for writing but lacked the charisma of a performer. After three failed auditions for The Second City’s famous Conservatory Program, and thousands of dollars of debt, I gave up my fantasy of becoming a comedy sensation. I was fortunate to fall into a position in the film industry, paying off school while going to shows after work and watching comedians tell jokes similar to the ones I scribbled in my notebook.

I worked as a digital technician on film sets for five years before my life derailed. I was away from home working on the biggest movie of my film career when my body suddenly changed. My hair fell out in clumps, my period disappeared, and I was having episodes of heating and cooling at all hours of the day and night. I was twenty-eight and had unknowingly hit menopause.

My journey to diagnosis was tumultuous. After my symptoms were dismissed by three doctors, my body transformed so drastically in under four months that I was convinced I was dying. By the time I was diagnosed with autoimmune premature ovarian failure, I was having forty-two hot flashes a day and had to stop working because my mind became a barren wasteland where my memories evaporated before I could grasp them. I was unable to remember who I spoke with on the phone five minutes before—which was not conducive to working in the high-pressure world of filmmaking.

Being symptomatic and undiagnosed is the ultimate stress position because there are far too many unknowns for a brain to process. A chronically ill patient will likely never know everything about the origins of their symptoms and having no choice but to navigate your disrupted life is a waking nightmare. The only thing that kept me holding on each day was landing jokes about my situation, while everything else that ever mattered to me—my career, my partner, my dreams—slipped away. When lupus, a brain tumor, MS, and ovarian cancer—as well as early menopause—were on the table as possible ailments, I made jokes to relieve my growing fear: “Of course I’m in menopause! Haven’t you heard that 28 is the new 51?” The more tension I released with comedy the more I felt connected to myself.

Photo of performance artist Debbie YJ Lin, showing a woman speaking into a microphone and a hand on the sound controls.

Horizontal Sowing (still from performance) by Debbie Y.J. Lin.
Photo by Yoon KwanHee

When my mind spiralled into thinking my life was coming to an end, I promised myself that, if I survived, I’d tell my story to everyone who would listen so that symptomatic women who are dismissed by doctors would be validated. I believed the best way to do this was by unifying an audience with laughter.

But how could I make my tragic twist of fate funny?

I have never believed in destiny, but six months after my diagnosis, I got a call from The Second City Training Centre. I had an unused class credit I’d completely forgotten about. I’d taken most of the classes except storytelling; their website said I would learn to tell my true stories in an engaging and performative way. I was anxious at the thought of going back to something I’d failed but my hormone replacement therapy was finally kicking in—see you in hell, hot flashes!—and I felt comfortable leaving my couch to return to the world.

It turned out that this art form was, for me, the perfect intersection of writing, improvisation, and stand-up comedy. From the first day of classes, when I told a story about my humiliating rollercoaster of an eighteenth birthday party, I knew this was something I not only could do but had to do for the rest of my life. My classmates said they loved my energy and my comedic delivery of the tragic. No one aside from close friends and family had ever believed in me this way before.

Once the course ended, it took a few months of telling five-minute stories at Toronto open mics for me to feel ready to tell my menopause story. I penned a sixty-minute, one-woman show about my experience with misdiagnosis and menopause and called it Hysterical Woman! A popular Toronto storytelling show accepted an excerpt and booked me for their first show of the 2020 season.

*

So there I was, January 2020, at the Burdock Brewery with stage lights in my eyes. I’d rehearsed my fifteen-minute piece for two weeks straight. When I’m finally called on stage, I float past the crowd and up the steps, palms sweating, heart palpitating. I get my first laugh in the first thirty seconds. The adrenaline rush invigorates me. The laughs keep coming, charging me with electricity which further fuels my delivery.

I don’t remember most of this performance because my mind was screaming, “I can’t believe this is happening!” When I wrapped up and stepped off stage to applause, two producers I’d never met booked me for paid shows on the spot. Then a swarm of people approached me to tell me their own stories of doctors and misdiagnosis.

For the next two nights, I couldn’t sleep. I was high on adrenaline. This was more exciting and more healing than I could have imagined.

Then the pandemic hit. Soon after, all my booked performances were postponed indefinitely. Most storytelling shows moved online and although this shift expanded my audience from Toronto to the whole world, telling stories into my laptop camera does not have the exchange of energy I thrive on as a storyteller. I hope 2022 will allow me to return to the stage. In the meantime, laughter continues to heal me more fully than any doctors or any therapy ever could.

Listen to Set Shuter read “Delivering the Tragic.”

Smiling Is Not Professional

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I come from a long line of laughers. My father was a prankster who loved to play jokes on people. His favourite day of the year was April Fool’s and, as a gullible child, I always fell for his pranks. One morning, when I wanted an extra dose of sweetness in my cereal, I discovered that he had replaced the sugar in the bowl with flour. I knew immediately that he was the culprit. My mother was a hearty laugher. I remember her playing cards in the evenings with friends and there was always boisterous laughter involved. My grandfather was a talented storyteller, and my uncles and aunt were natural entertainers who would easily fill a room with music, singing, and merriment.

I was known as the serious child. At a young age, I was described as responsible and methodical, and my older sisters often told me to “lighten up.” But my mother peppered me with opposite advice. I remember her saying, “Never laugh too loudly or too heartily in public,” and “Cover your mouth with one hand if you giggle.” In a class-oriented society such as ours, laughing too much or too loudly outside the home was considered rude and uncouth.

The Portuguese are not known to be a happy people. This is a stereotype, of course, but I wonder how it came to be. When I think of Brazil, also a Portuguese-speaking country, I conjure up images of Carnival and the samba, and dancing in the streets. Their Portuguese ancestors? We are better known as seafarers and masters of nostalgia—a people of saudade—famous for the bluesy tunes of the fado. My people are not a smiley lot, at least not in public.

I remember visiting my home island of São Miguel in the Azores when my children were teenagers. Both of them remarked that people did not smile much, that they looked so unhappy. Even my husband agreed. “Everyone looks like they’ve had a really hard day,” he said. I issued a daily challenge: “The first one to spot a person smiling or laughing gets to choose where we have lunch.” It turned out they were right—smiles were hard to come by. Some days, I feared we would starve.

My attitude now towards joy and laughter is different than what this public persona of the Portuguese seems to convey. Despite my sensible character in childhood, my humour genes became more prominent as I grew up. When we moved to Canada and I started school, I covered my discomfort and loneliness with humour. I made so many mistakes when I was first learning English. Each time I said “tree” instead of “three” or “sink” instead of “think,” I knew my classmates would laugh but I liked to head off the chuckles by laughing first. Later, as I grew more comfortable with the language, I would offer quips in class to make others laugh. Sometimes, the teacher laughed too. “Don’t do that too often, you don’t want to be the class clown”: my mother’s words resonated in my head. I was learning that it was best to be reserved in public settings, but among family and friends, it was fine to laugh and have fun. I learned later that it wasn’t just a Portuguese thing; society in general seems to dismiss laughers and prize seriousness, especially where women are concerned.

I listened to my mother and tried to be more serious in class. I looked forward to the evenings when I could relax with her and my sisters. I no longer needed to be prodded to lighten up. We would poke fun at each other and laugh till the tears came.

When I landed my first permanent job, a researcher for a government department, most of my co-workers were male, except for the administration staff, and I was the youngest by at least five years. As I eased into my role and grew more comfortable, I started joking around with my colleagues. At one meeting, I remember sitting around a big table, flanked by a dozen older men wearing suits in various shades of dark blue. Afterwards, my boss took me aside to give me advice on how to thrive in my new professional role. “Don’t smile so much. When you laugh easily, people don’t take you seriously.” I wondered then if he would have been inclined to give the same advice to a male employee.

Cartoon by Dawn Mockler showing a male and female surgeon wearing masks and operating. The male is saying, "You should smile more."

Smile More by Dawn Mockler

I gravitated towards the women in the office and shared lunch with them in the boardroom or joined them for brisk walks. The men worked at their desks or went for the occasional “liquid lunch.” I noticed that they took extra-long lunches on Fridays and would come back more jovial than usual, filling the hallway with laughter. I later learned this was due to their excursions to the local exotic dance club. I called them out on it and said that I noticed the men-only nature of these outings. They responded by inviting me to join them the following week.

I did not enjoy myself and I felt objectified, even though I was sitting at a table, with all my clothes on. I asked my boss who was sitting next to me, “Why is this okay for a professional but smiling isn’t?”

Within a year, our group was disbanded, and I was transferred to a different department. The atmosphere was more casual, and I enjoyed the camaraderie I shared with my new colleagues but, on some level, the message had stuck: smiling is not professional.

It was tricky to manage my image as professional at work and relaxed at home, as reserved in public and carefree in private. I juggled my mother’s advice and my boss’ opinions and tried to conform but at some point, I must have decided that it was too exhausting, and I became less concerned about what others might think of me. I gave up trying to convey the ideal polite, professional image.

I often wish I could go back to that boardroom and observe the young me, navigating my uncertainties among all those men in dark blue. How much did I smile, and did I really laugh too much? I imagine my youthful exuberance has been tempered over time by age and experience, but do I laugh more or less now?

There have been times in my life when the ability to laugh has felt remote. There were the years when I was the primary caregiver for my ageing, ill parents. My days revolved around tasks, duty, and responsibility and I don’t remember laughing much then. And there were the times I lost people I loved. That’s when I feared I might never laugh again.

But one day, inevitably, I would catch myself smiling. Maybe it was when I noticed the first crocus poking out of the soil in the spring or when my neighbour’s cherry tree burst into full bloom. And then one evening over dinner with my husband, one of us would say something silly and we’d both start laughing. We’d laugh so hard that I would snort, and he would wipe tears from his cheeks. And we would agree that it had been way too long since either of us had laughed like that. And I would carry on, grateful that time and beauty conspire to soften the sharp edges of grief and help me return to laughter.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I examine the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth. I have developed some pretty significant laugh lines. I see them as signs of resistance. I have somehow managed to keep laughing, even when I’ve been told that I shouldn’t.

 

Listen to Esmeralda Cabral read “Smiling Is Not Professional.”

Falling in a Pandemic

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Yesterday, I saw a woman fall and everything changed.

I decided to go for a drive with my dog, Bella. Roll the windows down so she could take in the scents of another neighbourhood. I just wanted to drive. No music, no inspirational podcasts, just silence and the cool air, the bright sun and us, just driving.

I set off east on Queen street. No decided direction. What rare moment in a day is this? To do something without aim or task to check off the list. To meander in a kind of illusion of freedom. Reminds me of being a kid when the days seemed so long and we could hang out in trees or wander through the woods aimlessly, spontaneously, joy-fully. Inventing each moment as it arrived. I miss that kind of presence that seemed to flow in us so effortlessly. Now, we have to make time for it. Set a schedule so you can “fit in” the meditation, the journaling, the exercise…reading.

Maybe I set out in the car looking for that sort of presence within myself but also, around me. To trust in the accuracy of each moment drawing my attention; each red light, each stop sign, a cardinal that flew by, a little girl walking her dog, all those CLOSED signs in the window, my own breath.

And then I saw her fall as she tried to run to catch her bus.
Full frontal whole body fall down.
I gasped. Hit the brakes.

I rolled my window, calling to her.
“Are you okay?”
She pushed herself up onto her knees. She seemed a bit stunned.
I called again, “Are you okay?”
She looked (sort of) in my direction. Nodded.
I guessed she was in her 70s.

She stayed there, kneeling in the middle of the street.
A forced genuflection. To whom? To what?

The car behind me pulled out and drove around me. Same with the next car.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I called again.

She shook her head “no” looking at her hand, still kneeling on the cement.
She started to crawl. On her knees.
Holding her wrist, crawling to try and get off the street.

“Okay hold on, hold on, don’t move,” I called out as I quickly scanned the traffic around me and oncoming, pulled off Queen street and pulled onto a side street.

I scanned my car for what? Gloves? There were none. A mask? Nothing.
What the fuck has happened to me that I would even THINK to look for these things?
The palpability of everything about the world (these days) had penetrated and I loathed that these thoughts were in me at all.

“Fuck this,” I remember thinking as I pulled the parking brake into place, turned off the car and hit the hazards.

She was still there. On her knees. Looking at her hand. Still stunned.

As I approached her, I said, “You’re okay. I’m going to help you. We won’t take each other’s hands but I will take your arm and help you stand, okay?”

She looked up at me, “Oh, right…that…Okay. My hand….” She lifted it toward me to show me the gravel coated cut and bit of blood.
“Yes, that.” I thought to myself. That.

We looked each other in the eyes and oh, my heart. My heart. Her eyes were aged. Red ringed and so utterly tired. I must have looked the same to her for I felt in my body what I saw in her.

“You’re okay, I got you,” I said and as put my left arm under her right arm, bracing my legs to support my back (as they teach—and we somehow never forget—in those How To Lift Properly lessons), I wrapped my left hand around her forearm and cupped my right hand onto her elbow and….it seemed like time stopped moving.

My small hand
a gentle firm grasp around the thin bone of her right arm through her navy winter coat.
My mind notes what seems fragile.
And so thin.
My bicep muscle pressed into the bone of her upper arm. Careful, Jenn.
Bone and muscle.
Fabric and grey gravel cement.
Hands not touching.
Arms linked. Bracing. Cupping. Holding.
Knees bruised and pebble pressed, no doubt a bit of blood under her black pants.
A glimpse down at her catfish-grey-coloured rainboots.
I blame the boots. Who can run in those?
Faces close, sharing breath.

I got you. You’re okay. Here we go and…

Up she goes. We stand.
She’s still stunned. Still looking at her hands.
A leather glove drops. I didn’t know she had gloves. How did I miss that detail?

I pick up the glove…I pick up the glove.

I hand it to her as I see the bus driver crossing the street towards us.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. Still stunned.

“We’re all a bit dazed these days, it’s okay. Were you trying to get this bus?”

She nods. She’s wants to cry but she won’t let it happen. Oh, I know this place, lady.

As the bus driver approaches, I say, “She’s trying to get to your bus.” He nods, he takes her arm.
He takes her arm.
And off they go.

“Thank you,” she says to me.

I can’t even remember what I said then. If I said anything.
I know I smiled at them. I think I did.

As I stood there, watching her go, watching her walk, I choked my own tears back as I realized this was the first human touch I’d experienced in…I don’t know how long.

I hoped that was not the case for her.

(Original link with readers’ comments here.)

An Unexpected Delivery

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A package arrived yesterday afternoon via UPS, just as John was taking Rudi, our little dachsie, out for a pee. Well, bedlam ensued. Rudi and I were squeezed in the storm porch between open doors. My husband John was on the front steps trying to shut the door. The delivery guy was trying to give the parcel to John. John was trying not to take the parcel. The dog was barking—a lot and loudly.

I started running around trying to find a plastic bag for the package that John was now holding on my return to the door. John called for scissors to open to package because he didn’t want to bring it inside.

I ran back to the kitchen and yelled that I was getting a bag from under the sink and to leave it all outside…. Good grief.

It was like someone had just delivered a bomb. God.

We have to “cam down,” as they say around here. My friend said that her father, who was a fisherman, used to say about the sea some days: “It’s a flat-ass sea.” So we must be.

The package is now in isolation for a week.