on the hidden delights of being an outsider, learning to disappear, and how searching for belonging from place can lead us astray
When Alison grows up she wants to be a magenta bougainvillea.
I met the award-winning author and performer at a writing conference in Victoria, British Columbia. As the keynote speaker she beguiled the audience with her thoughts on music, mythology, and finding the heart of truth in nonfiction.
“Music is my mother tongue,” she said. Her energy and eloquence rippled through the writers around me and pulled me out of my jet lag. No wonder she’s won awards for two of her one-woman plays. Alison doesn’t perform one-woman extravaganzas. She is a one-woman extravaganza.
When we talk online, Alison has just returned from a weekend roughing it on Manitoulin Island with her husband and son. She plunks herself down on her sofa, pushes dark curls away from her face, and smiles like we’ve been friends for years. Shelves of books peek out from behind her shoulders in the terracotta-coloured room.
“It’s the tamest room in the house,” she says.
Alison looks to colour for energy during Canadian winters but I suspect it also gives her a sense of connection and belonging to her adopted home of Mexico and to the vibrancy of life around her. As Alison talks about the power of music to unite and refresh, I can’t help but wonder if colour is part of the glue that binds her belonging in this expanding world of ours. She surrounds herself with the warmth of intense tones: on her walls, in the rhythm of her words, and in the counterpoint of her intellect.
Music is my mother tongue
“Music is an interesting place to begin because that was my sense of home. I say music is my mother tongue because it was the way I first interpreted emotion and life. When we’re preverbal we find other ways of communicating. Obviously we’re communicating energetically, we’re communicating physically, and for me there was so much being communicated through music in my household, not just through my parents who were musicians but through their friends who were also musicians and who came to the house to make music. They would laugh and laugh and laugh if one of them flubbed a line.
“My dad, he taught at the university, but he also conducted a choir and conducted musicals every year, so I would watch those as well. Music was a way not just of bringing people together but of communicating with hundreds in the audience. That fascinated me. I didn’t analyze what was happening then obviously. It was just the way that I lived. But when I began to look back on my childhood that really stuck out for me.
“It’s only now that you bring up the question that I realize I sought belonging through music, particularly at times of my life when I’ve felt like an outsider. That is the thing that I turn to when I’m lonely: music. Even when I’m home, as I am now, that is what lifts me most and it’s not that I listen to happy music necessarily, but it does connect me to something greater and something larger and it reminds me that I’m part of something larger and I’ve always found that very helpful.’’
We are woven into the song of place
After travelling all over the world, Alison believes in the power of a childhood place to form and hold us. She echoes author Lawrence Durrell’s famous lines from The Alexandria Quartet: “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.” But this isn’t how Alison felt as a pre-teenager in the 1980s. When her father openly acknowledged he was gay, she lied to cover it up. Her initial connection to place was shattered.
“I grew up in Peterborough, Ontario and felt very much a part of that place. When I went to write about it, it was very clear to me in the first page I wrote, the first paragraph, that there was this sense of being interwoven into the place. I had just never questioned that I could belong anywhere else; it would have been like ripping up the floorboards to see what was underneath. It never occurred to me to question that sense of belonging. And I used to feel, I still feel, actually, that we are woven into the song of a place in which we are raised in a very visceral energetic way: in a way that trees, leaves, birds, seasons, winds, they all carry their own song, their own energy, their own way of being, and that’s partly why we have very visceral connections to places that we may not have visited for twenty, thirty, or forty years. So I was very connected even to winter, to that song of the snow falling from the sky and having it land on your nose. That was part of who I was and where I belonged.
“And it very abruptly changed when my dad came out because it was very clear that we did not belong there. That there was no place for us in that neighbourhood, in that community. There wasn’t really even language for what was happening. We didn’t have the word gay yet in Peterborough, Ontario. We had fag and faggot and all that, but we didn’t have anything that fit my dad.
“So I don’t know at what point I felt torn from that, I just remember, particularly when I began to wonder what would I do next…well it was very clear to me that I needed to get out. That I needed to be in a place where I could be anonymous so I could exhale and not have to keep lying to people. I did fantasize. I did think, Oh, if I go to France I will arrive and it will be this romantic scene where I step off the plane and I will just be French and mature and sophisticated and beautiful and that will be the end of it. And of course the opposite happened. I was lost. I was intensely lonely and overwhelmed.
“It was a great lesson in learning to disappear. It helped me become a writer, as all of those travels probably do. By removing yourself and being the observer rather than being so self-absorbed that all you think about is how the world is perceiving you, you realize no one actually cares, and you can look outside and see the rest of the world. I had a sense of not belonging, but it was precisely that ‘not belonging’ that allowed me to learn to be an observer. Some artists manage to be the observer from within their world but they are few and far between and it’s more difficult. We tend to learn the skill of observing by being an outsider.’’
Wrestling my life to the ground
During Alison’s outsider years, travelling and studying in France and throughout the world, she kept trying to find a place where she belonged. Music might have sustained her but she didn’t find belonging until she returned to the small city of her childhood. Alison’s experience encourages us to heed the words of author Natalie Goldberg in The True Secret of Writing: “What we avoid corrupts and deforms us — we are always twisting away from it. And it shows in our writing, in the way we sit and walk. If it is true that we are interconnected, then, in avoiding something, we avoid ourselves.”
“I did a semester at a university in Paris and I stayed at a residence. I found a piano in the basement and I spent a lot of time, far more time that I ever imagined I would, in the basement, playing the piano. I thought I’d be out at cafés. No. I was in the basement playing the piano, just trying to wrestle my life to the ground.
“I tried that experiment several times. I did it in Germany a couple of years later. I did a year of university there and then I also tried in the Middle East and Yugoslavia. And each time I really felt I was looking for that sense of belonging to a place and it never quite happened.
“I moved back to my hometown at the age of 29 and finally made peace, not just with my family life, but also with the place. I really forgave it for rejecting me or what I felt was rejection. I forgave it its parochial visions and culture, prejudices, and its Anglo-Saxon origins, all of the things that I’d held far from myself as not me not me not me. I had thought my rejection of those things actually helped to define who I was, when in fact, it had prevented me from moving into the fullness of who I was because I was all of those things and by rejecting them I’d actually just rejected parts of myself.
“I had been at war with myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, that that rejection of home had actually promoted this subconscious self-loathing. It hadn’t allowed me to just make peace with myself or who I was with all my faults and unusual history and the cultural baggage that we all have. It’s only when we accept something that we can finally put it down. We think that by pushing it far away we’re putting it down, but no we’re not, we’re just making it worse. Imagine holding a weight in your hand and as you straighten your arm and move the weight further out, it gets heavier and heavier. That’s what actually happens.
“And so I went back and — not formally, not consciously — I began to see the beauty in the place where I had spent my childhood. I began to see the beauty in the place I had so forcefully rejected and began to see that there was so much that was good and creative and fulfilling there, and that actually I was tremendously fortunate to have grown up where I had. That had never really dawned on me before. I knew economically I had been fortunate but I recognized how fortunate and privileged my life was from so many other perspectives. That really helped. I was no longer at war. So I went to the other extreme. I planted a garden and saw myself living back in my home. Then I had a child who was born twenty kilometres from where I grew up, which I never imagined I would do.”
I used to think peace was a place
“What happens once we stop looking for home outside of ourselves is that we can actually be at home anywhere. That sounds clichéd but there is some truth in it. Not that we don’t still identify more strongly with one place or the other and not that we don’t still belong to that song of the land, of our birth place or the place where we spent our formative years. When we stop deriving our sense of self from a sense of acceptance from other people, we are able to settle more freely within ourselves.
“I used to think peace was a place. And that once I found the place I would find peace: a sense of happiness, belonging, whatever the word is that we want to associate with that feeling, I realized that it’s not actually about place. It’s not even the place where we grow up. Peace isn’t a place and that is very liberating because it means we are able to find it anywhere. Some places more easily than others, sure, but when I made peace with my birthplace, it allowed me to move out into the world and find it elsewhere. The reason I hadn’t been able to find a sense of belonging elsewhere was because I had never actually done the work of finding it in myself and accepting all of who I was. Once you do that you really can go into the world and be anywhere because you’re not seeking yourself somewhere else. You’re just being somewhere else as yourself and that’s very different.
“What subsequently happened, which is maybe not ironic but sounds ironic, was that no sooner did I feel at home and have a child in my home then we moved to Mexico. I couldn’t wait to get out. He was not six-months old before I was searching, desperately searching, for a way to live elsewhere. It’s a strange ending to what seems like a happy story.’’
Little separation between ceiling and sky
Alison and her family spent the next eight years living mainly in Tepoztlan, Mexico because they wanted a less materialistic and more ecological lifestyle. Through Alison, who speaks French, Spanish, and German, as well as English, we see how we absorb other cultures and languages into the fibres of our personal story. We’re not just living somewhere else on top of the land; we’re sinking our feet and bodies into the cultural soil so it infuses us and becomes part of our deeper selves.
“I have felt equally at home in Mexico as I have in Canada. Partly it’s the language. That language came to me like a song. I have never learned a language more quickly, more easily, and more enjoyably in my life. I felt so much a part of that place that when I left I really felt as though I’d torn a part of my body away. It was terribly painful to leave and come back to Canada.
“It was a bit like when a cat is lounging very comfortably in the sun in the window and you try to move it for its own good because it wants to be outside. You’re about to leave and it doesn’t like being inside alone so you lift it and you try to move it and it hangs on with its claws. That was me leaving Mexico. It was for my own good that we were leaving. Mexico was changing. It wasn’t a good place to be raising our son at that point but I could not let go. It was so painful and so hard to let go of that place.
“That sense of belonging came partly because we were in a community that had a very strong Indigenous population whose rituals and festivities and festivals were still celebrated and central to the identity of the place and of the people. It was the kind of place where there really was very little separation between inside and outside and the doors are constantly open. There was little separation between the ceiling and the sky. I love living that way. In this Canadian climate, it’s impossible to live that way. So I loved that element of Mexico. I loved how present nature was in our lives. We lived at the base of these mountains and we had a waterfall in the rainy season that would just launch itself off the cliff behind the house and it was glorious. Mexico has its own set of problems, as we all know, but in those days it was still fairly innocent in our village. We would come up here to Canada and then we would go back and feel like we were falling into the lap of love. People lead with their hearts in Mexico and when you are there, you are just so taken in.”
“When I go back to Mexico now, my heart does ache upon returning to Stratford, Ontario, because life just isn’t as celebrated and shared here in Canada as the way it is in Mexico. And it won’t be. It doesn’t matter how involved we get in this place, we as Canadians just don’t live that way. That shared living that I found in Mexico was so much a part of why I felt connected to the place because we shared food, children, time, so much time, we shared dance, shared joy, shared sorrow, everything was shared. It was a beautiful blessing that I’ve tried to recreate here, but it’s a bit like wearing Mexican clothing in a Canadian climate. It just doesn’t work.’’
The belonging of books
Alison’s performances are so filled with music and movement, humanity and humour that I couldn’t help wondering whether writing, dancing and performing are linked to a deeper sense of connection and belonging.
“That’s a more spiritual belonging. That’s when I feel I just move into something bigger, something that is truly beyond me in the best sense. It is no longer about me anymore.”
When Alison was writing her latest book Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing up with a Gay Dad, she sent a draft to her father. She wouldn’t normally show people unfinished writing but because she had used excerpts from her father’s diaries and journals she wanted to make sure they were accurate and that he was happy with the draft.
“He got very uncomfortable at that point and just didn’t return my calls, which is very unlike him. The next time I saw him, I asked So how are you feeling about it? and he said Well… and took a big breath in, you know, now that I’m really thinking about it and thinking about the neighbours and former colleagues reading this, I’m not really sure. So I said We don’t have to do this. If you’re not comfortable, it’s not worth it. He offered to think about it.
“A couple of days later he got back to me: You know, you just go ahead and use anything you want, he said. I had wanted him to co-author the book because I was using so many of his words. He said No, you’re in the driver’s seat. You use what you want, use it the way you need to because this story doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to everyone else.
“It was a very profound moment for me. It was such a generous offering for one, but I hadn’t thought about the moment when we detach ourselves from Our Story but it is a crucial moment. Me and My Story is ultimately just the immature ego and once we detach from that, Our Story becomes ‘a story’ that can now belong to anyone who picks up the book. I do think that’s ultimately a more evolved state of belonging: when it’s not about us anymore.
“We obviously have this connection to land and to me that is very profound and it’s not something we even should desire to evolve out of. The search for me, who am I?, is a beautiful, honourable, necessary search and journey. If we arrive, I believe that we arrive nowhere in the best sense because we are actually looking for something much bigger in the end and we’re seeking it through ourselves, but it’s like the universe getting to know itself through us. I love the idea of our purpose on this earth being a way for the universe to speak through us in our own unique way.
“American author Wendell Berry wrote about looking at the Milky Way and realizing that because he sees it in his own unique way, the Milky Way is becoming aware of itself through him. I know it’s very esoteric and maybe getting away from the traditional realms of belonging, but when my father said, My story is not mine anymore. It belongs to the world, that’s where, when I’m writing, performing, dancing, whatever it is, that’s where I end up going. This is not my story anymore even though it sounds like my words. It’s my history. But it’s just coming through me. It doesn’t belong to me at all. It belongs to everyone in the audience. It belongs to everyone who’s reading the book, who needs it, for whom it offers something. That’s actually who it belongs to.’’
Alison’s most recent book Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing up with a Gay Dad is a best-seller in Canada, Germany, and Portugal. It was short-listed for Canada’s Edna Staebler Award for Creative Nonfiction. Alison’s first memoir, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, is a luxurious collection of the people she meets travelling in Iran and their shared experiences. Alison devotes much of her time to performing her one-woman shows, including a stage adaptation of her latest book. You can check out her yoga pose on her website and get a taste for the energy it requires to be a one-woman extravaganza.