I’ve long been fascinated by the concepts of identity and individuality. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how often seemingly insignificant blips-on-the-radar, as much as tsunami-esque life milestones (along with our response to them), play a fundamental role in shaping who we are.
Ever looked back on something that seemed so minor, so miniscule in your childhood and suddenly, it’s got a whole whack load of weight and meaning?
For me, it’s a book our mom read to us as wee ones. Standard childhood storybook elements: requisite simplistic-yet-charming prose, playfully vibrant illustrations, and of course, the moral lesson that the author hopes each reader will absorb… and the expectation that this will become rhetoric after multiple readings.
Side bar: remember when, as children, we found sheer joy in asking, night after night, for story time with a book we’d already memorized? When exactly in life do we lose that taste for methodical repetition?
Digress, yes. My Polish immigrant mother (though she struggled to master the complexities of the English language when she arrived in Canada alone as a young woman) had an uncanny knack for selecting the most relevant and captivating storybooks for her daughters.
“Whoever Heard of a Fird” by Othello Bach. A story about a hybrid animal: part-fish, part-bird…. on an ‘epic’ quest to find more of his kind. He was lovingly raised by a family of Dickens (part dog/part chicken, bien sûr), but he always felt different and as a result, lonely. He was uncomfortable with his uniqueness… longed to be a part of a herd, to feel a part of something larger. On his journey, he meets his fair share of other half-breed creatures but no one who mirrors him exactly…. until one fated day. He crosses paths with a total doppelganger, the answer to his life’s quest. Of course, he expects this creature to become his soul equal, until he discovers that this creature is in fact, a “Bish” and not a “Fird”: he is half-bird, half-fish - which turns out to be an important distinction. Other than looking similar and sharing similar dual-species status, these two creatures couldn’t have less in common. Rather than feel defeated, Fird learns to celebrate his uniqueness and how much richer life is when everyone shares their special qualities and talents with others. He learns that there should only be pride, no shame, in being different. And, when he returns to his family, he realizes that though they may look different on the outside, they share something more important on the inside: the same values and beliefs.
Cue the saccharine sounding violins if you must but, let me remind you that I was probably all of six years old when this book came into my life…
But here’s why it hit home. Growing up, I always felt the slightest bit different, coming from a mixed-culture home. In the primary school years, I noticed that my classmates tended to have parents that shared the same cultural heritage. Sure, it’s second nature, growing up in Canada, to ask someone you meet: 'where are your parents from?’ It’s a kind of quiet acknowledgement that our cultural fabric is woven by immigrants from all over the world. But, to this day, in all those years of posing that question to many people, I have yet to meet another Polish-Greek 'mutt’. In my parents’ dating years, the truth was that most immigrants arrived in Toronto and immediately sought out the comfort of people who also hailed from their homeland. Each of my parents definitely defied tradition, swam against the current, and created their own 'hybrid’ family. Is it any wonder my sister and I became captivated with the “fird”?
One book- that helped qualify my curious struggle to form my own identity.
One book- that ignited my fire to become a storyteller and journey through my words and the words of others.
One book- that my both my childhood and adult selves cherish for its moral lessons and messages.
Has my mother always been more intuitive than I ever gave her credit for? Here I am today, having spent the better part of a decade weaving storywebs with adventure, laughs, and lessons… and mainly for children. And only now I’m realizing my commitment, through media, to never let anyone’s differences make them feel unworthy or like an outsider.
I wont deny that I’ve quested for like-minded peers in the past (and recognized the egoism of seeking out friends, colleagues, and lovers who reflect myself back at me). A part of my identity is my insatiable thirst to help others uncover and celebrate theirs. Perhaps it was ignited by this book or perhaps long before it. Regardless, it makes for one hell of an exciting life quest that gives me a sense of purpose and passion….
Thank you, Othello Bach.