“Once told, stories are loose in the world”
-Thomas King Massey lecture The Truth About Stories: “You’ll never believe what happened” is always a great way to start.
For the purpose of this essay, the artist Rae Spoon will be referenced in the gender neutral pronoun: they/them. I recognize the grammatical problems this may pose to some readers but until the language evolves, the gender binary of “he” and “she” and the gender neutral “they” will continue to be a necessary grammatical issue for readers, writers, presenters, performers, and anyone whose identify does not fit in either singular binary pronoun.
Stories are a funny thing. When they happen, they feel unique: like no one else could ever fully understand the experience that created that story. When written down, fiction or non-fiction, they are very much the story-tellers – until suddenly they are not. No matter how hard we try to hold onto our stories, to control the metaphorical revelations or the key elements as they pertain to our experience, as soon as we let them out into the world, as soon as we let others take part in our experience, all bets are off. What was once personal is now public and what was once in an intimate relationship with the teller may now have a relationship with someone else.
Rae Spoon is one of my favourite singer-songwriters which also makes them one of my favourite storytellers. Rae’s album, My Prairie Home, is a personal collection of stories about growing up in Alberta while navigating a number of unique circumstances both personal and familial. Amongst the collection is one story that I felt particularly drawn into a relationship with. The song “I can’t tear it from me” is a personal story of which I have no life experience to parallel, yet I can’t help the visceral reaction I have when I hear it. It stops me in my tracks every time. It’s about their grandmother. And though the story is short as told in the song, it continues in my mind long after the song ends. I see Rae’s grandmother watching this teenager on the verge of implosion and I see her remember them as a baby. I picture a fat cooing baby that grows into a curious little toddler. Their Grandmother probably remembers pink dresses for Sunday school and bell bottom pants for hanging upside down on the monkey bars. Rae is the same age as me so I imagine them in my old clothes doing things I would have done (I guess that means Rae wore pink dresses to hang upside down on the monkey bars too, then). Rae and I grew up in the same Calgary. In fact, geographically, we went to high school only five minutes away from each other. But we also grew up in very different Calgary’s. Rae’s story reminds me just how different. When I hear it I find myself sitting with their Grandma, watching her gangly teenaged grandchild trying to make sense of who they are. This child, unsure of what it means to feel safe, struggling for acceptance that goes far beyond trying to make your parents accept the blue dye in your hair, fighting with peers over the right to be in a relationship, and I realize I never had to ask those questions in my Calgary.
September 2014, the Epcor Centre’s Art!Flicks showed a screening of the documentary, My Prairie Home of which the album is the soundtrack to. It was part of Alberta Culture Days and what better film to feature than a homemade documentary about a homemade musician with a homemade soundtrack. Rae comes back and shares with us the Calgary they knew. It seems obvious to say that we can’t run away from the stories that make us who we are. We can try, but at some point we have to stop, turn around, and see them for what they were. That is where stories as raw and honest as Rae’s come from. Each song on the album is paired with or highlights a story in the documentary. “I can’t tear it from me” accompanies a much longer telling of the circumstances which caused Rae to move in with their grandmother and Uncle. The two took Rae in just before things got to the point of no return in Rae’s parent’s home. Not every kid like Rae has a grandmother like that, which only makes this story even harder to hear. Not everyone has someone to “pull them from the wreckage” (“I can’t tear it from me”) and even those that do often don’t get pulled until things have happened that can’t be taken back.
When I heard the story being told in the documentary, I instantly felt ownership of it. I felt like they were telling a story only I shared with them before that moment. All of the feelings I get when I listen to the song were instantly present in that small little theatre. Now when I hear the song, a new narrative runs through my mind. It’s similar to the old one but this new story includes Rae watching Wheel of Fortune with her uncle and grandma. It’s a little less sad, in fact it even has some comic relief, but it isn’t any less a reminder that my Calgary and Rae’s Calgary were very different. And maybe that’s why I developed such a strong relationship with that story. Not because I could relate to it but because I couldn’t. My grandmother taught me to sing “you are my sunshine” Rae’s taught them “to be strong and to sing [their] way through things. Without her [they] would have never learned to love” (“I can’t tear it from me”).
No, we didn’t live in the same Calgary, but that doesn’t stop Rae’s stories from permeating into my Calgary so that I can connect with someone I might not have otherwise thought about. That I definitely didn’t think about when I was in High School. I want to hug Rae’s grandmother. I want to shake every grandparent who has a gay or transgender grandchild in a home that is less than supportive and say, “your only job is to love them. Love them beyond reason. Love them beyond expectation. Just love them.” Because that’s the other thing stories do. They reveal connections. They take what you think and ask you to think again. As Thomas Kings says, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories). And if that’s true, that stories are all we are, then we have great power within ourselves. We can choose what stories to tell, what stories to re-tell, and what stories are given power in our social consciousness. We can shape our Calgary simply with our stories.