On to Montreal

Back on the train with my train of thinkers friends and colleagues, on our way to Montreal. It seems like ages since I have been on the rails with them. Circumstances have led me to be always meeting up with them for the past week without actually traveling together. Now we are on the train and it feels great. Two students from Concordia University came to Ottawa in anticipation of being part of the group of students who will be hosting us in Montreal. Kelsey and Marie-Hélène are with us on the train now and they have devised a community art activity to do on board. They have made beautiful hand-crafted envelopes that they give to us and to other passengers in our two train cars. We are welcomed to keep the envelopes and we are invited to write on the paper inside. One is marked “story” and the request is to write a story about the land—whatever that means to us. The paper is a long rectangular yellow post-it note. Here the request is for us to write a message for someone in another seat on the train. It can be someone specific or anyone at all. Kelsey and Marie-Hélène will deliver them. I write:

“Sometimes, at the end of a day, you might find yourself asking someone who you’re close to—‘how was your day?’ Consider changing the question a bit. Ask—‘when did you feel loved today?’ Give her or him a chance to reflect on and share some of those moments with you.”

I learn from Kelsey that the woman she gave it to read it and then held it to her heart.

We arrive at the station in Montreal and we are greeted by musicians and acrobats from Concordia—students of Rachael Von Fossen. They have been waiting for us. In the days that follow we enter into their world—taking part in workshops they have designed for us as part of a special summer course “Encountering Train of Thought.”

I love being in Montreal and especially love spending time with Rachael’s students and with some of the graduate students she works with. One in particular is Lisa Ndejuru, a delightfully smart, funny and passionately enthusiastic PhD candidate. Lisa was born in Rwanda, then went to Germany with her parents when she was still a baby and grew up there. Her project, “Honouring story: speaking, listening, creating in the aftermath of violence” certainly captures my attention and we spend hours talking like we are old friends. The students take turns leading/facilitating workshops based on their study of what it means to encounter the other—part of Rachael’s ongoing research focus. One of the workshops, facilitated by Marie-Hélène, is called “Doing Justice.” The point is to find a partner, listen to that person tell a five minute story about a personal experience about encountering the “other” and be fully attentive. Then you tell your story while your partner listens. Afterwards, you each have one minute to adopt the stance of your partner—telling an abbreviated version of the story you heard to the rest of the group as if you were that person. The intention is for you to “do justice” to the other person’s experience. When the time comes, my partner introduces herself as Will and tells my story as me. I introduce myself as her and tell her story as her. It is, of course, an impossible task. The point of the exercise is to make the attempt and in the attempt to put oneself briefly in that other person’s position. As I listen I am struck by the difference between this work and Playback Theatre. Playback, when it works well, elevates a storyteller’s personal story into delight and invention as a team of actors replay it in performance. In this exercise, there is no focus at all on the virtuosity of the performers—all attention is focused directly on the story itself. The exercise Doing Justice isn’t a substitute for Playback Theatre, but what a reminder this is for me that the point of Playback is for the actors to leverage their virtuosity in calling attention to the nuance of the person’s life story, not their cleverness in telling it entertainingly.

Along with our own “in-house” Train of Thought reflection session facilitated by Nikki Sheffulah, there are more activities the students take us through and later, during a feast they have prepared both for us and some community members, there are performances. One performance, by Rachael’s Encounters Project / Projet Rencontres opens with a song with unfamiliar lyrics but a melody that I recognize quickly.

Quatre vents forts qui soufflent calmement
Sept mers qui se déchaînent
Toutes ces choses qui ne changent pas quoi qu’il arrive
Maintenant, nos bons moments sont tous partis
Et je suis sur le départ
Je te chercherai si jamais je repasse sur cette route

It is marvelous to hear this quintessential Canadian tune sung in French here in Montreal. I have been walking the city streets at night, drinking it in and pleasantly surprised how much of my French language comes back to me when I have occasion to use it. But now, the morning of our final day here has arrived. We bid adieu to this marvelous place and to our friends here and board the overnight sleeper train to Halifax.

Follow From the Heart

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