Story Untold: “Life Is Too Short to Worry About Getting It Wrong”

Story Untold with TiRon & Ayomari

In a music industry driven by fitting the mould, TiRon & Ayomari defy easy categorization.

Not exactly hip-hop. Not quite R&B. Ditto for indie and pop music. In the midst of this landscape of carefully-curated brands and genres, of target audiences and defined demographics, the Los Angeles-based duo’s music raises a question: can one be all of the above, instead?

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“We legit had A&Rs tell us, ‘I love [your music], but it would be better if y’all were white. It’d be easier to sell this thing if you guys were white,’” says TiRon. “We used to get talked out of a lot of shit.”

The experiences come out on the duo’s latest offering, the full-length W.E.T. (Wonderful Ego Trip) — a follow-up to 2015’s The Great New Wonderful. The album comes after a two-year period in which, after earning fans out of the likes of hip-hop luminaries in Q-Tip and Diddy, and reaching new heights in commercial success, the duo’s manager, Dominique Trenier, passed away.

“We kind of shut down,” says TiRon.

Ayomari adds, “where do we want to go from here as a group, you know what I’m saying?”

After the early success of 2011’s A Sucker For Pumps, dubbed an album about boys and girls for men and women; and TGNW, an album about self-love, the two — who originally connected online as aspiring artists — felt as though they’d reached a breaking point. What began as an ego-check turned into a spark for TiRon & Ayomari’s new music: a chance to harness that ego and put it under the spotlight.

“It was really just grabbing the bulls by the horn and realizing that we had something to say,” says Ayomari. “Realizing that we were on the path ourselves, and we were growing ourselves. And regardless of what we were going through, it doesn’t mean that we should stop doing what we do.”

“Really connecting with all of that anger, all of that frustration,” says TiRon. “We have to look at the evils and the negative of who we are and deal with it. Because the more we sweep it under the rug, the more we hide it, the stronger it gets.”

“It’s that, and it’s also dealing with the ego within yourself,” Ayomari adds. “Ego doesn’t always come in the form of anger; it could come in the form of self-loathing or self-doubt.”

In the end, the Chicago native concedes, W.E.T. carries the torch from their previous albums.

“This is another album about relationships,” Ayomari laughs, “the relationship with the ego.”


Photo provided by TiRon & Ayomari. Photo credit: Ed Cañas Photography.

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Story Untold: “[I Want] a Community Where We Can All Live Together”

Emma Cubitt on Story Untold

What if the key to growing a vibrant city isn’t in endless suburbs or more condo projects? What if, instead, it lay right in our backyards?

Hamilton’s Emma Cubitt sees big potential in small houses lining the city’s laneways. Along with Good Shepherd Hamilton and the Social Planning and Research Council, Cubitt — a 37-year-old architect — is working on the production of 26 smaller duplexes for single women who have experienced homelessness.

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“My goal is to create more places for people to belong, and to gather, and to find their place in the community,” she says. “With laneway housing, the idea is that you’re maintaining the existing fabric of a city — especially residential neighbourhoods.”

For Cubitt, originally from Chicago, it’s a passion that dates back ten years to her master’s thesis at the University of Waterloo. At the time, she says, laneway homes had been building momentum in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

“There’s this essay that I love by Gary Michael Dault… he calls this idea of inhabiting the laneways an ‘inverse city.’ It’s like turning a neighbourhood inside-out like an old sweater,” says Cubitt, “and I love that description, because I think you see a different kind of city from the lane than you do from the street, or than you would from the front lobby of a larger tower.”

Cubitt’s hope is that with the success of this laneway housing development, similar projects will see the green light to go ahead across the city:

“My hope is that we’ll be able to build pocket communities, like we’re doing with Good Shepherd, but also individual laneway houses across the city. There’s definitely capacity for hundreds, if not thousands.”

As Hamilton and the rest of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area continue to see a rise in real estate prices, the smaller, more affordable laneway homes could offer a welcome alternative to home-seekers feeling left behind. For Cubitt, also the co-founder of Mustard Seed, a food co-op in Hamilton, it’s all part of a desire for community-building and belonging:

“People say Hamilton is the biggest small town, and while it’s starting to grow quite a bit now, and gentrify and change, we want to be able to keep that feeling that everyone has a place, no matter if they’re a newcomer or they’ve been here for generations.”


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Story Untold: “[My Experience with] Homelessness Is the Greatest Asset I Have”

Story Untold with Joe Roberts

Ask Joe Roberts about the worst part of homelessness, and he’ll tell you it’s not the cold or the rain. It’s the isolation.

“You’re seeing a world going on around you, but you’re not actually part of that world,” he says. “[You feel] invisible as you’re sitting on the sidewalk and people are walking by, going about their business.”

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It’s a feeling Roberts knows all too well. For close to three years in his early twenties, the Barrie, Ont. native lived homeless on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, wrestling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol — an addiction which, at his lowest, led to Roberts selling his only pair of boots for $10 worth of heroin.

“[Heroin] was a drug that shut me down emotionally. The problem is, it’s highly addictive, it has an increasing tolerance, and it’s not a cheap thing. My life became consumed with [getting the next fix].” – Joe Roberts

Now over 20 years sober and after finding success as the CEO of a multimedia company, it’s a feeling he hopes no other young Canadian will have to experience — and a cause for which he spent the better part of the past two years pushing a shopping cart over 9,000 kilometres across Canada. Starting in May of 2016, Roberts set off from St. John’s, Newfoundland and continued his way across the country for 517 days before arriving in Vancouver on September 29th, 2017. In total, he walked over 450 half-marathons along the way.

“The truth is, I’m a community investment gone correct,” says Roberts. “You know, most of us when we were growing up had that defining moment where our lives could’ve gone sideways. But because we had good people in our lives, we were afforded the ability to make a mistake or two, and it didn’t create dire consequences in our lives. But the truth is that not all families are created equal.”

“The whole walk across Canada was to raise dollars and awareness to support a conversation of what we need to do to better support and create prevention models that catch kids early so they don’t end up on the street pushing a shopping cart.” – Joe Roberts

“The shopping cart was that symbol of chronic homelessness — the thing we’re trying to avoid for kids,” he adds. “In the 1980s, I was one of those guys pushing a shopping cart around the Downtown Eastside.”

Along his journey, Roberts met with the Prime Minister of Canada, spoke at WE Day, and did over 450 presentations, often speaking to children about his journey. Dubbed The Push for Change, his mission is one that connects right back to his time spent on the street — and one that continues, even after the walk across Canada is over.

“The greatest gift that you can give somebody who is experiencing homelessness is to see them. To engage with them. They have a story,” says Roberts. “We need to get to a place where we better understand what the issues are, and then we won’t be judging a person who’s sitting on a piece of cardboard and going through that experience.”


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A Song of Ice and Fjords, Part 2

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I can see my breath. Dear God, I can see my breath.

I lay curled in the fetal position, extremities drawn inward like a tortoise retreating into its shell. Burrowed deep into my hand-me-down sleeping bag, I was wrapped in every layer I had, fleece hoodie pulled tightly around my head. Tendrils of cold air crept through the tent, like glacial fingers sent forth by some vengeful Norse God. To my right, my girlfriend had metamorphosed into an actual sleeping bag, nothing but polyester visible in the dark of the night.

Beyond the confines of our draughty tent, another twenty-odd brave souls had set up camp for the night, pocketing the soggy, moss-covered, rock-strewn terrain with colourful splashes of nylon and canvas. Mere metres away, the mountain vanished into nothingness, the rock face plummeting into the abyss below.

We were fools, all of us. Lemmings on a cliff.

Perfectly normal, reasonable people will do all kinds of stupid things for social media adoration. The Duck Face. Planking. Neknominations. Hell, entire product lines of selfie sticks and Snapchat glasses have been born out of our collective obsession with documenting and disseminating life’s minutiae to anyone within earshot. Dear friends, I must confess: I am among those people. My latest lapse in judgment had led me to this place, over a thousand metres above sea level outside of a small town in Norway.

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It’s the kind of place that looks like a screen saver come to life. Mountains – lush and green, and topped with glacier snow – rise endlessly into the distance. 700 metres below, the perfectly still waters of the Ringedalsvatnet mirror the clouds above. Like a grand balcony above it all, a promontory juts out almost impossibly into the open air above the lake, like a tongue stuck out in mockery of its maker, daring explorers to peer over its edges.

I am talking, of course, about Trolltunga – literally, Norwegian for Troll Tongue – a place which reports estimate draws over 80,000 adventure-seekers a year. It’s not your grandfather’s travel hotspot. Not even your father’s, for that matter. Less than a decade ago – and before the advent of Instagram, I might add – less than 800 made the trip to Trolltunga in any given year. In other words, it’s a place whose popularity has skyrocketed seemingly hand-in-hand with our social media use, becoming a veritable Hashtag Wonder of the World. Like any self-serious backpacker with an Instagram account, I was determined to see it for myself and had convinced my girlfriend into joining.

Full credit to any tourist who makes it to Trolltunga: the way there is not easy. There are no tour buses you can take to the top, with cheery guides prattling on about legends of Norway’s trolls; no funiculars or gondolas offering breathtaking panoramas as you sip from a latte bought at the cafe and gift shop below. The way there is as it always has been: 27 kilometres round-trip by foot. (In fact, they’ve added an upper parking lot to shave eight kilometres off the trek, but the lot – with space for only 30 cars – fills up well before most reasonable folks have eaten breakfast.)

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My quixotic quest was to hike to the top of Trolltunga, camping gear on our backs, and spend the night at the summit, taking in both sunset and sunrise when all the day-trippers had long ago returned to their tour buses and plush hotels. It was going to be glorious. We had rerouted our entire weeklong trip in Norway to make sure the Trolltunga hike lined up with the best possible weather in the forecast, and all week, the momentum had been building to this moment. It couldn’t fail.

We had made the drive from Flåm in the morning, alternating through tunnels, mountain passes, and ferry crossings to reach this village in the foothills. (It should be said: for a country as beautiful as Norway, there are an ungodly amount of tunnels. Not only do the Norwegians boast the longest road tunnel in the world – at just a shade under 25 kilometres – they’ve also build tunnels so large and vast, there are roundabouts in the middle of them. I guess that’s oil wealth for you.) By the time we reached Tyssedal, otherwise known as base camp for Trolltunga hikers, the early afternoon sun was shining bright and warm above a cloudless sky. After paying $100 CAD in advance for overnight parking – perhaps another indicator of where all of Norway’s wealth comes from – we scarfed down a couple sandwiches, loaded up our bags, and set off for the summit.

14 kilometres and 900 vertical metres to go.

There’s a familiar rhythm that endurance athletes strive for, that magic moment when the mundane becomes effortless and time passes without register. It’s the same thing writers and creatives cherish so dearly: that fleeting headspace called “The Zone.” I had my own share of encounters with “The Zone” two summers ago while cycling across Canada: hours of riding that would dissolve in the blink of an eye as my churning legs and the bike’s spinning wheels became one, a marvellous marriage of man and machine.

This hike to Trolltunga was not one of those encounters.

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The first four kilometres are probably the hardest: nothing but steady climbing up a gravel switchback road, before a dirt trail branches off and eventually levels out at the much-welcome plateau of Mågelitopp. Thinking ahead to the cooler temperatures at the mountaintop, I had made the mistake of starting the hike wearing a thick – and remarkably unbreathable – jacket, and by the top of the road, I had broken into a sweat so fierce that Richard Simmons would have been proud. My hair was plastered to my face, and as the sweat mixed with the SPF 60 sunscreen I’d put on less than an hour before, it found its way into the most vulnerable of places for anyone wearing sunscreen: the eyes. Holding onto whatever shred of dignity remained, I blinked through the pain.

As the trail levels, it becomes a beautiful terrain of rocks, marsh, and charming cabins with near-360-degree glacier views. For sensible people, this would be a worthy hike on its own. Indeed, we saw more than a few Norwegian couples out for a walk with their dogs, enjoying the calm of their surroundings. The spell lasts for less than two kilometres before reaching the second significant stretch of the ascent, another two kilometres of nothing but climbing up boulders formed into a giant mountain staircase.

I had stripped my jacket at this point, exposing a soggy long-sleeve t-shirt underneath. My shoulders and hips – bearing the weight of a tent, sleeping bag, warm clothes, and cooking supplies – had begun to protest in earnest. Hoping that we would find another plateau like before at the end of this part of the climb – or perhaps a cafe and lodge with free WiFi, if we’re playing the wishing game – we were greeted instead by a trail that would continue rising and falling through marsh and mud for another six kilometres before reaching its end. Here I was, a child being made to eat his vegetables before getting a taste of dessert.

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Right around the 11 kilometre mark is when you really start to feel it. The sun continues to bear down from above, and as water supplies dwindle, you wonder if the end will ever be in sight. Compounding the problem is the fact that there isn’t a single outhouse on the trail to Trolltunga, let alone a rest station with pumps for refilling empty bottles. 10 hours round-trip is a long time to hold it in, especially with little privacy to be found on the trail. All that food and water you’ve been relying on as fuel for the trek has got to come out at some point. I prayed it would happen on my terms.

The final 200 metres of the trail is a beautiful moment. After hours of trudging along, you come to a place where you can see people gathered up ahead: some pitching tents; others huddling around their tiny camp stoves. At some point, the rocks part and there it is: the famous cliff ledge. And for all of social media’s tendency to ruin places, it really is quite the sight.

At peak moments during the day, tourists wait up to an hour for a chance to get their photo taken on the Troll’s Tongue. We had arrived late enough that the crowds had dissipated, leaving only a small gathering of those that were planning to stay the night. You get your smattering of characters on a hike like this: one man stripped naked for his photo on the ledge; another proposed to his girlfriend. One woman struck a series of poses with a beach ball for some reason only God knows. Never one for heights, when it came to our turn to get out on the ledge, I inched forward with the reluctance of a man on his way to the gallows. My girlfriend was already peering over the ledge. Photo captured.

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We spent that night shivering in our tents, before making the long return trip to the parking lot the next day. The latest crowd of Trolltunga’s visitors had already gathered by the time we reluctantly poked our heads out into the chill of the morning. By 9:00 a.m., a line had formed – the next group of tourists, cameras in-hand, eager for their shot on the ledge. I laughed at the predictability of it all: tens of thousands of tourists, driven by the desire to see this place and be seen doing it – across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a dozen other social networks. All for a few ‘Likes’ – a tap of the thumb, really.

As I pondered the absurdity of our species, another thought came: I wonder which Instagram filter I should use.

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Story Untold: “Your Interpretation Is What Matters In Life”

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Sean Stephenson has made a career out of making lemonade. When the Chicago native was born, doctors predicted he would not survive more than 24 hours because of a rare bone disorder, Osteogenesis Imperfecta.

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“My bones are more fragile than most people, and because of that […] sneezing could break ribs, or putting on a pair of pants too quickly could break legs. By the time I was 18, I had fractured over 200 times,” says Stephenson.

The condition also left Stephenson three feet tall and wheelchair-bound. Despite these challenges, the 38-year-old therapist has become a world-renowned motivational speaker and author, his message reaching everyone from Richard Branson to the Dalai Lama. In his early twenties, as a university student at DePaul, he interned with President Bill Clinton and wrote his first book, How You(th) Can Succeed! For Stephenson, the key to life has been about interpretation.

“You can be in a prison cell and be elated, or you can be in a mansion and be in despair. And it comes down to how you are interpreting your reality,” he says. “You don’t have control of practically anything in life. But what I do know we have control over is what we make something mean.”

“You have to recreate the reality you want every single day. I don’t think anything positive ever really sticks. I think you have to re-stick it like a Post-It note every day in a new position.” – Sean Stephenson

A longtime fan of Tony Robbins, Stephenson started his motivational speaking career as a teenager, talking to elementary school students about his disorder. Soon enough, those audiences grew to include hospitals, then corporate audiences, then executives. Stephenson, a natural on the stage, found he had a gift for captivating an audience.

“I had an advantage. And the advantage was that everybody was already staring at me, so I might as well give them something to remember me and remember life by,” says Stephenson.

“When a three-foot-tall man in a wheelchair tells you that you can live life without feeling bitter, and you can live life and look at what you do have instead of what you don’t have, you’re more likely to listen to that.”

Today, Stephenson’s message of optimism, love, and self-care has been heard in over 16 countries and translated into nearly a dozen languages, with appearances everywhere from The Oprah Show to The Biography Channel. When asked what keeps him motivated, his answer is a simple one:

“I’ve faced death so many times. And yet I’m still here.”

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Story Untold: “You Can’t Buy Happiness; You Need to Go Find It”

Searching for Sero on Story Untold

Home for John Rathwell and Tracy Guenard is a pretty small space these days: since May of 2016, the Gatineau, Quebec couple has been crisscrossing Canada and the United States in a newly-polished 1991 Volkswagen Westfalia, meeting people and sharing their stories of pursuing happiness.

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“It’s a beautiful van,” says Guenard. “It’s small — 15 feet long — but it’s got all we need, really. It’s got two beds — actually, we could sleep four in here, if it’s a tight space — we have a sink, a two-burner stove, water, a little fridge […] and on the roof, we have stand-up paddleboards, a big Thule box with gear if we want to go hiking or camping, and in the back, we have our mountain bikes.”

The project, dubbed Searching for Sero, aims to shine a light on mental wellness and suicide prevention. It’s a topic that has touched the two quite closely: within a span of mere months, Rathwell lost his father to suicide, and Guenard lost her aunt.

“My dad had just retired,” says Rathwell. “Standing on the other side, to me, [he] finally had his whole life in front of him. He worked seven days a week; he took every overtime shift he could get; he drove an hour and a half just to get to work. And now he’s retired; he’s finally free. But I guess that wasn’t really the case.”

“You wonder about life in a very different way than you would if someone you loved died from natural [causes],” adds Guenard. “There’s a lot of thinking associated with it. And not only do you question that person’s life, you question your own as well — and that’s what we found ourselves doing.”

“I had what most people call the ‘golden ticket’: a permanent job, good salary, good pension, all of that. I had a condo in Gatineau; I was pretty well settled, but then I decided to let it all go and go for a life of adventure and something quite different.” – Tracy Guenard

With a growing feeling that there was more to life than what they were getting out of it, the two eventually came up with a plan to travel across the continent and collect stories from the inspiring people they met. Rathwell, a renowned adventure sports photographer, would gather the photos; Guenard, with her background in criminology and youth intervention, would handle the writing. After Guenard told Rathwell about her readings into the connection between the neurotransmitter serotonin and happiness, the project’s name was born.

“At first, it was just going to be a summer thing […] It kind of started to take its form over the course of that winter and spring into what it is now,” says Rathwell.

“[It’s] a ridiculous idea,” Guenard laughs. “You roll into town and randomly look for people you don’t know, and hopefully they want to talk to you, and let you take photos, and write their life down on paper. Yeah, that’s going to work, right?”

So far, it has — with over 60 stories amassed over the past 16-odd months spent travelling across Canada, and then south into the United States. The couple’s story has spread across the continent, amassing thousands of followers on social media.

“The variety of stories we have now […] everybody’s is so unique. And everybody we talk to motivates us in their own unique way,” says Rathwell.

As for what the couple has learned from the experience?

“Nobody can tell you what brings happiness. That needs to come from inside. That needs to come from you,” says Rathwell. “You can’t buy happiness; you need to go find it.”

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/story-untold/id1226851327?mt=2&ls=1
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Story Untold: “What You Can’t See Is Often More Important Than What You Are Able To”

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At 17, Richard Holmes had everything he had wanted: a successful career as a mountain biker; a life in beautiful Whistler, British Columbia; sponsors wanting to endorse him. Despite the accolades, he had one other thing that was tearing at his confidence and progressively worsening in the process: a stutter.

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“My speech was definitely the worst that it had ever been,” says Holmes, now 25. In a sport that requires networking with sponsors, the Waterloo, Ontario native found himself shying away from the spotlight.

“You want to advertise yourself as much as you can, and I would give people a name I thought was easier to say. I think about that now, and I think it’s absolutely hilarious: that I would rather this person not remember who I am, even though I’m trying to do this as a career, than for them to hear me stutter.”

For Holmes, the events epitomized the social anxiety he had felt around speaking for years, ever since he had first met others outside of his immediate circle of family and close friends.

“When we [would go] around introducing ourselves at a [dinner] table, [I would] spontaneously go to the washroom so I wouldn’t have to introduce myself,” he says. “I always associated those social situations with people I don’t know with this constant feeling of trying to avoid — avoidance and hiding.”

Determined to stop the cycle of embarrassment and hiding, Holmes left his promising career in British Columbia to undergo intensive speech therapy at the Speech and Stuttering Institute in Toronto, approaching it with the same intensity he had used in training as a cyclist.

“I would go out of my way to put myself in challenging situations,” he says. “So even things like approaching random people on the street, there was a point where I would go up and do that: approach different people and ask them about something random. I almost made it into a sport, where I was seeing how much I could challenge [myself in] this new way of communicating.”

Holmes took acting classes, enrolled in Toastmasters, and started competing as a public speaker. In 2012, he was invited to share his story at TEDxUW — a talk that has amassed over 20,000 views.

“One of the most rewarding things about [therapy was] learning how much of communication is not [about] fluency,” says Holmes. “When you’re a person who stutters, you really think that’s what’s holding you back, but I think just working on general communication skills was great.”

Now a Master’s student in speech language pathology at the University of Toronto, Holmes has seen his story come full circle — helping others experiencing the same struggles he sought help with not too long ago. He credits his stutter for giving him perspective on life:

“Nothing is going to be easy, ever. You’re going to have to put up with frustrations, and struggles, and things are going to be hard. [But] if you do it for the reason that’s meaningful to you, that’s what makes those things worth it.”

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/story-untold/id1226851327?mt=2&ls=1
Subscribe on Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/m/Isnntxssdjkna5vdbzqhnjmouru?t=Story_Untold
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