Sunday, January 6, 2008

for the love of listening

I was driving down Mount Pleasant Avenue in uptown Toronto this afternoon when I passed by a small chocolatier’s called LeFeuvre’s. I have vivid memories of visiting this shop just over a year ago with my ex-boyfriend, MacKenzie.

Mac was an actor who did historical re-enactments; he went into schools and recreated characters from Canadian history. His repertoire included a French seigneur and the RCMP officer Sam Steele. His most popular character by far, however, was a First World War infantry soldier based on the real-life reminiscences of Fred LeFeuvre, a Canadian who served with the 2nd Division, 4th Brigade, 19th Battalion.

After the war, Fred returned to Canada and eventually opened his eponymous chocolate shop. Of the many staff which must have passed through his employ over the years, one – a young man named David Morris – took the time to listen to Fred’s stories, and later crafted them into an hour-long monologue that would give Canadian school-children first-hand experience of war.

Dave is founder of the educational acting company, History Comes Alive – and Mac was one of the company’s actors.

I think Fred LeFeuvre (Mac always pronounced his name “Le Fever”) got under Mac’s skin in a way that many of his other characters never did. Dave told Mac about his time spent working in the chocolate shop with Fred, and Mac wanted to walk through that door and see the sights – smell the smells – that were part of Fred LeFeuvre’s daily existence after his life-altering war experiences.

All Mac knew was that LeFeuvre’s – the shop – was located somewhere along Mount Pleasant. I was so new to Toronto at the time that I had no idea where to tell Mac to look. We traveled downtown on an errand, and on our way back we finally spotted the tiny storefront in the main commercial area along Mount Pleasant, south of Eglinton.

Mac was like a little kid – he could hardly contain his excitement. It was early evening, and the impenetrable December darkness had already descended. We weren’t sure if the shop would even be open, but hadn’t counted on the popularity of chocolate in the last-minute rush towards Christmas.

I remember how the aroma of the store embraced us in a heady, hot bath of bittersweet. There was no staff in the front of the store, but a door was open to the workshop in back where the chocolates were made, and a tired woman got up from her creations to step behind the counter, waiting to serve us.

Mac is a naturally gregarious guy, and he quickly sought to engage the proprietors – whom he knew were no longer connected to the LeFeuvre family – in conversation. But they were busy filling last-minute orders, and weren’t interested in indulging Mac’s curiosity, or listening to his story.

In the end, Mac simply bought several boxes of chocolates for family and friends, and we were pushed back out into the cold night.

There’s a quote that I came across a few days ago, from a woman named Barbara Ueland. She says: “Unless you listen, you can’t know anybody. Oh, you will know facts and what is in the newspapers and all of history, perhaps, but you will not know one single person. You know, I have come to think listening is love, that’s what it really is.”

I never saw Mac perform “The Soldier”, as he called it. He stopped doing the character several months ago; the raw emotion of the role tore strips off his beautiful tenor singing voice, and he didn’t want to risk permanent vocal damage.

But I think about the boy who saw things that no human being should ever have to see… and I think about the man who chose to make chocolate – a modern symbol of love – for a living.

I think about the love of a listening ear, lavished by a hired shop boy upon his elderly employer… and the love that hundreds of schoolchildren have spent upon this same man’s memory, via Mac’s proxy.

If love is the currency of exchange for storytelling, it seems to me that stories must be very valuable, indeed. Yet I have spent countless hours listening – to family, friends, lovers and strangers – and never once asked myself what I was receiving in return for my love.

One of the active ingredients in chocolate is theobromine, whose name comes from the Greek roots theo and bromis, literally, “food of the gods.” Among its many side-effects, theobromine is considered to be a vasodilator – that is, it opens the blood vessels – and a heart stimulant.

Call it poetic fancy, but I wonder if stories don’t act in exactly the same way. If stories, themselves, are nothing less than the food of the gods.

Come share in the listening with me…

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