“The truth about stories is, that’s all we are” said the writer Thomas King. The words have stayed with me since I read them as a college freshman.
While the details of our stories are intimately unique, the circular themes of separation, challenge and redemption are universal.
My story begins before I was born. When my Mom, my baby sister and I first immigrated to Canada, we lived in my dad’s second floor walk-up, above a business of some sort. It didn’t much matter to an eight year old homesick girl. The owners were heavy set and black and barely greeted us. I don’t think they did anyway. It’s all a blur to me.
I’m one of those people who can’t remember much from her childhood. Certain odd memories stick out — the Halloween where I drew on my face with a blue marker and wore a hood to become Hoodman. Or hearing my Muslim friend tell me about her forbidden crush on a gang member at the local park. I remember enough to tie ta few events together, but no so much that any of it seems all that important.
When I work with kids now, I remind myself of that simple fact: They will barely remember any of this. A lot of what I say and do will be lost on them. How I make them feel will not. The horrible paradox is that I’m not as important as I think but my every gesture reverberates. Kids are more resilient than I give them credit for. They are more impressionable than I’m comfortable to admit.
I do remember my dad sleeping through the day to prepare for the night shift at a plastics factory. His income was not enough to raise two kids, so my mom quickly found a job at the Nina Ricci jewelery factory. She did not have the privilege of taking English lessons or finishing up her 7th grade education.
For two years, she worked all day carefully arranging rare gemstones for minimum wage. She quickly became a skilled worker and many of the tougher pieces were sent her way. Her number would be called out with arriving orders; earmarked for her delicate hands. Mom told me this story with pride. “I would have stayed if your brother wasn’t born,” she said, “I was learning all the tough designs.”
Mom stayed home to take care of my baby brother for several years. Dad had to withdraw his RRSP to pay for our computer. We couldn’t afford to visit family in Turkey. I wore the same rotation of outfits to school and knew not to push for more.
When they saved enough to make a down payment on a semi-detached home, we moved to Little Italy. Our morning breakfast baguettes were always fresh from the bakery and I learned how to mispronounce cannelloni. I overheard a woman in the McDonald’s washroom frantically asking if anyone could pee in her urine sample.
My brother was now old enough to ride a tricycle and play unsupervised in the neighborhood. Or so we hoped. One day, he rode down a hill to a busy street. Mom got woken up and ran screaming in her PJs to the sight of the accident. I watched her faint in shock and get carried away in an ambulance.
“If it weren’t for this job, this accident wouldn’t have happened,” she said. She had started work as a worm picker. Every rainy night, a white van would pull up to our home and carry her and a gaggle of Turkish women up to some remote region of the Greater Toronto Area. I don’t know how far they travelled or where exactly. I just knew she came back the next day with muddy boots and dirt covered bags. She would wash up in the laundry sink, have a shower and stumble off to sleep. Often, she was in a foul mood. We hadn’t cleaned the house properly. There was too much left undone. Other times, she was quiet and retiring. Once in a while, she would stay on the phone, discussing the payment schedule for the week. I never knew what to expect.
It was an under-the-table cash job and paid by the crate. Anyone desperate enough could do it. It was seasonal; busiest in the spring and fall. One time she got fed up and tried out a cinema cleaning job. Another time it was hotel cleaning. “They make you cough up blood for $8 an hour,” she said. She quickly returned to farming.
At one Turkish wedding, I overheard a Kurdish woman talking about publishing an article in the local community paper. “We should take pictures and show the community what these women really do,” she pleaded.
I remember a vacation in Turkey, sitting on my grandparent’s balcony, my Mom trying empathetically to explain to my grandpa how hard she worked in Canada. Grandpa smiled, bemused.
It all just felt so abstract to me. How hard was this work really? How exactly was she pulling these worms out of the ground? I decided to find out.
The women in the truck treated me like a pet doll. “What did you bring to eat?” “Are you going to try picking with us?” “Do you want a coffee or a donut?’ There was gossip, sharing and loud boisterous laughter. A long field trip into the dark.
I woke up suddenly to spitting rain and loud voices. Our truck driver had parked on a pitch black field. The women surrounded the truck, gearing up with headlights, boots and bags. I put on my hood and Mom and I walked down to the valley. I watched briefly as she slowly made her way through the field; waiting for worms to poke their heads out of the ground. When she saw one, she pounced, and quickly tossed it’s slimy body into a bag. She did that several times before she turned to me and asked if I wanted to try. I could barely stop myself from screaming ‘No’. Mom smiled. “You will catch a cold,” she warned, “You should go back to the truck.”
I must have sprinted back because I don’t remember much else. I woke up as the truck approached home.
“What happened last night?” I asked.
“You slept through the night,” Mom replied, “It was an average night.”
“I can’t believe I just slept!” I cried.
“It’s good you didn’t catch a cold,” she said.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
That was worm picking,” she laughed, “What did you think?”
“It looked really hard,” I said, “How do you do it?!”
“I have no choice, she said, “I just adapted. I was like you when I first started. I said ‘I will never do this work’ and ‘It’s too hard’. I didn’t catch many worms my first few months. But now I’m up to 40, 50 thousand a night. Humans can adapt to anything.”
“I don’t want you to do this work,” I said, “Can’t you do something else?”
“All the other jobs I’ve tried don’t pay anything,” she said, “That’s why we came to Canada — so you don’t have to do these kinds of jobs.”
Years later, I tried researching worm picking. What exactly where they using these creatures for? Was there not a more efficient way to get the job done? It all felt very hidden and secretive. Not many photos; hardly any info. Mom had said they used them for lipstick. Was that true?
I didn’t recognize the heroism that ran through my mother’s veins, until I embarked on my own hero’s journey. I didn’t understand worm picking until I became a night farmer.
After far too much time spent hiding out in meditative states and being the clinically detached ‘observer’ of my mind, I journeyed into the landscape of my body. When the story of spiritual bypass didn’t work, I faced my dragon head on: in my very flesh. I discovered that when we bury stories, we don’t bury them dead. We bury them alive. And they are just waiting for a chance to be resurrected.
I unearthed all sorts of slippery worms I never thought I could stomach. I peered into the corners of my psyche, guided only by the light of my consciousness.
I dug up torturous scenarios in therapy, in satsang, on retreat and alone after dates and parties. I picked myself apart and I sorted my worms, in the dark — cold, wet and exhausted. Desperate for rest, yet knowing I had to keep picking. I went into the night, without sight and without sound.
I’ve picked a litany of worms from my family line. I’ve met the persecuted Kurdish freedom fighters and the desperate suffocation of working class survival. By giving voice to their screams, I’ve found my own. Tortured lightworker, sacred prostitute, persecuted intuitive, covert herbalist, psychotic shaman. You are not separate from me.
My story is intimately universal — a grand paradox. I’ve met many night farmers over the years; meeting and feeding their own worms. I don’t need to ask about the arc of their stories anymore. I’ve felt them. I don’t bother wondering how they ended up with an achingly open heart or patience or courage. I see their redemption in who they have become.