The Storyteller Is In
March 11, 2014
Starting this series of writing as Baycrest’s first artist-in-residence, it is an amazingly warm March 11 day. After such a severe winter, how nice to sit on a chair outside Apotex and eat a Dr. Laffa wrap. I’ve just started working at Baycrest as a storyteller and writer, a program being run through the Arts, Culture & Innovation program. My first thought when I saw the job posted was: MUST stay up late and write an application letter! I did so, and sent it in, and then had my second thought: storytelling at Baycrest? Everyone there is a storyteller! Do they really need another one? It reminded me of being at a storytelling festival in Tel Aviv and being introduced as a “storyteller”. I could feel a kind of collective “nu?” (i.e. so?) emanating from the audience. So who isn’t a storyteller? The Israelis, of course, were wonderful listeners.
The Jewish writer Martin Buber tells us that when the great storytelling rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov told a story to the people gathered in the village square, “under the touch of its words, the secret melody of each person was awakened.” This is how I envision my role here at Baycrest. As a writer, teller, and listener, I’d like to add to the strong storytelling culture that is already alive and well in this community. And perhaps some of the stories we tell each other will awaken a “secret melody” along the way.
I’m not completely a newcomer here. My father Jack Yashinsky, of blessed memory, spent his last weeks in the palliative care unit here. On a similarly warm afternoon, my mother and I took him outside to the same area where I just ate my sandwich. My good father enjoyed the sunshine, came back to the ward and, within days of this last jaunt outdoors, left us. The care he received here was excellent. I mostly remember the nurses and how, even in the darkest moments, they were able to remind me that life was full of beauty and joy. I hope I don’t shock anyone reading this if I tell you that the night before he died, I offered an aspirin to a nurse with a headache. When she saw me digging in my jeans pocket for an aspirin that had escaped its bottle long ago, she began to laugh in disbelief. A nurse taking such an unsanitary aspirin? Even with a headache, she couldn’t bring herself to take it. She laughed, and I somehow did too. It was the last laugh I had for a long time. One thing I learned: never offer medical personnel pills dusted with pocket lint. And another: even in the palliative care unit, laughter is possible.
Speaking of my father, like so many of the men and women here, seeing him so frail in his wheelchair in his last days, it might have been hard to guess at the astonishing life he’d led to the very brink of his illness. His first job after serving in the submarine corps of the US Navy was running his own used car lot in Detroit. At night he took French classes at Wayne State University. He eventually became a French professor at the University of Toronto. I’ve often wondered how many ex-used-car-dealers transform themselves into French professors. Even though he’s been gone for many years now, I can still hear him murmuring his wisdom and encouragement. This is one of the great mysteries: the voices of those we love keep speaking to us, even after they are gone.