Summer reading | Summer music

I’ve devoured most of Anne Tyler’s novels in the last two years. It was one of those felicitous discoveries—a wonderful, prolific novelist I hadn’t read yet. Yes, I’d heard the title The Accidental Tourist, but it wasn’t until I found Breathing Lessons in a little free library on Brunswick Avenue, Toronto, a couple of summers ago, that I became engaged, in love with her characters, the messy lives, flawed people and relationships, random and serendipitous comings-together, the tenderness, the realness, the love. I was hooked. I read all of the novels available from the library and bought a couple that weren’t, and then, just a few weeks ago, I found Ladder of Years in a box of free books across the street. What a find! Read this:

“When my first wife was dying, . . . I used to sit by her bed and I thought, This is her true face. It was all hollowed and sharpened. In her youth she’d been very pretty, but now I saw that her younger face had been just a kind of rough draft. Old age was the completed form, the final, finished version she’d been aiming at from the start. The real thing at last! I thought, and I can’t tell you how that notion colored things for me from then on. Attractive young people saw on the street looked so. . . temporary. I asked myself why they bothered dolling up. Didn’t they understand where they were headed? But nobody ever does, it seems.” 

From Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

I was disarmed by that paragraph. My perspective about my aging face swiveled to a fresh view: the temporary beauty of my youth was just a rough draft. This idea appeals to me not just because it helps me consider my face as closing in on the finished version, the real thing. It’s also because I work with writers, and I see lots of rough drafts, and I found the metaphor very appealing. Not only are our lives works-in-progress—our faces are also works-in-progress. The changes I see in mine are not to be read as signs of deterioration; they are signs of me becoming more me

I am also reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Years ago, when Michael first used the verb “grok,” I asked him what it meant, and he told me about Heinlein’s science fiction classic. I’m finally reading it, discovering a new world, new words: grok (to fully understand, become one with), discorporate (to die), and water brother (someone you shared a drink of water with, which binds you together).

Valentine Michael Smith (the Martian in the novel) would have loved Vancouver Island Musicfest, teeming with water brothers. We were there last week-end, and still, I am digesting the banquet that it was. On Saturday morning, we found seats in the barn, one of the small stage venues. The place smelled of horses, and the was air thick with hay particles. On the stage, the musicians settled with their instruments—soundchecks, noodling. This was our first time hearing live music for a while—and I sat upright with anticipation. The workshop was well-titled “Great Guitars,” and soon I was swept into the greatness of a bunch of highly skilled and talented guitarists playing, singing, and sometimes jamming. 

Meredith Axelrod, who blushed beet red when she got a name wrong, sang an old Carter Family song called “Hello Stranger”: “Hello, stranger, put your loving hand in mine/ Hello, stranger, put your loving hand in mine/ You are a stranger and you’re a pal of mine.” Her charming manner and amber voice were a tonic to start the show. Her second song featured the line, “I’m gon’ wash my face in the Gulf of Mexico.” She rose, raised her jean-clad leg, and set one foot on her chair, cradling her glowing Wyatt Wilkie guitar. I liked her old-timey manner and voice. I imagined her scooping salt-warm water from the Gulf and splashing it over her face between blonde wings of hair.

I liked everyone on the stage. Jeff Plankenhorn, wearing his special “Plank” cross between a lap steel guitar and an electric guitar, sang that even a blind man can tell if he’s walking in the sun. Jack Semple was there, showing off with his masterful classical gas. Dave Kelly reminded me of Clapton with his British accent and easy elegance. He played a Son House blues tune as a pigeon flew up into the rafters. Then there were the old guys at the back of the stage who—not needing to be seen or noticed—had tucked their egos into the back pockets of their jeans. They picked away, nodding and tapping, studying their instruments, heads down. Music has its own rewards. 

The star of the show was Melody Angel, guitarist and singer from the south side of Chicago. When she sang “Hey Joe,” Michael leaned over and said, “I think she’s channelling Jimi.” Her muscular voice growled up over the crowd, and we pulsed along with her guitar. She pushed notes up the ladder of sound, climbing, climbing, raising our energy. Michael’s lit-up face was plastered with a beautiful smile, and he wiped a tear from his eye. My throat was thick with emotion as I looked around at the performers and the audience, all of us gathering to grok this powerful medium of music, the great connector, the universal love potion. As we clapped and clapped some more, I was filled with sound, in love with the world

In the summer of 2011, Michael and I bought tickets to the Edmonton Folk Festival. We knew we were taking a chance—we’d met only two months earlier, and to spend so much time together was a quick, risky test of our compatibility. We drove through the mountains, stopping at cheap hotels and laughing a lot.

On the way, I got schooled in the songs of Stephen Fearing, and then we listened to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy—the whole album—loud. I’d never really heard Elton John until that day. At the festival, we swooned over Matt Anderson and Taj Mahal and got closer and closer to each other. Our love was just a rough draft then, and the music we shared on the way to Edmonton and at the festival was like the first version you write—filled with exploration. The discovery draft, we call it at the Writing Centre. More than a decade passed. And last week-end, at another music festival, we added some nice touches to the current draft. We shared music, and that’s like co-writing a paragraph. We move slowly, inexorably toward the final, finished version, becoming more ourselves each day. 

Daily sojourn

I often despair of my monkey mind, the jumble of thoughts that keep me from noticing what’s present. At the same time, I appreciate my tangential mind. I love following its pathways through shadowy tunnels of white-flowering hawthorns. I seem to always turn a corner to find myself in an unexpected field of light. 

Today as I ate breakfast sitting at the kitchen table, I started to examine the ceramic trivet my father gave me years ago after a trip to Granada. The trivet is decorated with an Arabic design: a mandala in teal, navy, red, and cream. I love the waving flower petals that seem to be in motion, dancing in the wind. The Arabian design on the Spanish trivet took my mind to the poem I’d just been reading by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a mystic living in Spain after 700 years of Arab culture. St. Teresa was intimate with her God; you can feel it in her language. I re-read the lines,

A woman’s body, like the earth, has seasons;

when the mountain stream flows,

when the holy thaws,

when I am most fragile and in need,

it was then, it seems,

God came

closest.

God, like a medic on a field, is tending our souls

And then, a few lines down,

Why this great war between the countries—the countries—inside of us?

From “When the holy thaws” by St. Teresa of avila

My counsellor tells me that I aggress against myself—a pattern in my life. An ongoing war rages between the countries inside of me. I like to think of God as a medic tending to my wounds, lifting me off the battlefield, holding me close, bringing my countries to peace. I remembered the stage six mandala I drew recently, with a little girl and a dragon (my warring countries). I wrote tenderly to myself, “lay down your sword, little one.” Perhaps the holy is thawing. 

I’d snagged that wonderful book, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, from a cardboard box of free stuff. I love our neighbourhood. There is a little clearing across the street near the mail box where all of us take things we don’t want anymore. Neighbours and visitors from other parts of town come to adopt old things and bring them to their new homes—a brilliant system! 

This book caught my eye. What a great find. But boxes of free stuff and friendly dogs are not all that’s on offer here. The neighbourhood has other delights. Yesterday, I started work early in my home office in the basement, checking copy edits for a book. At 10, I took a break from the highly focused work. Michael, Marvin, and I walked down to the Gorge where a pop-up concert was in full swing. A local musician, Danielle Lebeau-Peterson, was playing her guitar and singing under a white tent. Danielle is the daughter of my eldest son’s first music teachers—Connie and Niels, and I marvelled at the “small world” (we’re all connected) feel of Victoria. Her mouth is like her mother’s.

The clouds in the sky threatened rain, but so far it was dry, and children and their parents gathered around Danielle as she sang and played, smiled and bantered. She knew songs from Disney movies, which delighted the younger crowd. The Tillicum-Gorge Association folks had set up a table with a big urn of Tim Horton’s coffee, cartons of donuts, and boxes of Timbits. There was a clipboard with paper and the question, “What do you love about our neighbourhood?” The cheerful woman behind the table filled my cup with coffee, and I took up the pen and wrote, “Everything.”

We sat on the grass listening, and when Danielle asked for requests, I called out “Blackbird,” that gem of a song written by Paul McCartney. It was one of my father’s favourites, and she played and sang it perfectly—her clear ringing voice floating up and over the Gorge: “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” I smiled while my tears fell on the grass, and Marvin tugged at his leash, tried to smell the woman sitting next to us. This is the first Father’s Day I’ve lived without a father. But he was there in the high, truthful notes of the song. He is still with us. 

And now, I am still sitting here with the book of poems on one side of me and the trivet on the other, back from that pleasurable sojourn, ready to fill the hummingbird feeder with sugar water and play with the dog.  I love my mind and my heart. I love the rich stuff of daily life that produces all of these memories, feelings, and thoughts. The tangents take me unexpected places, but they always lead me back home to love and beauty.  

Acquainted with grief–and joy

The other night, we watched the Bach Consort ensemble perform Handel’s Messiah (Knowledge Network). I’ve heard the Messiah hundreds of times, but this time one line resonated especially—Gaia Petrone, mezzosoprano singing, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) Yes, Jesus was acquainted with grief. And as we traverse our later years, don’t we all become well acquainted with grief? In the last six years the losses just keep on coming, so grief has become an intimate familiar to me. 

And yet, there’s joy! The chorus sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). My whole body is engulfed with joy tempered by grief; tears stream down my face. My intellect has no chance to do its fancy override of emotions, has no opportunity to ridicule me: You’re not Christian, Madeline, why so moved by this, you silly? The analytical brain successfully bypassed, I am immersed in the bittersweet joy­sadness of the words, bathed by a sense of the sacred: vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and flowing frescoes of a Viennese cathedral. The possibility of God. The swell of triumphant sound fills both church and body. 

The past rolls in. I go way back and find myself sitting beside my mother who gifted me with her love for classical music. We sink into the wine-red velvet seats of a hushed concert hall.  It was 1983, and I had my first job after graduating with a BA in English: I was secretary to the head engineer at the newly built Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. There was one marvelous perk that kept me showing up at the gloomy subterranean office: free concert tickets. When I got tickets for the Toronto Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth and invited my mother, she was thrilled. During the final movement, as the four soloists and choir sang the “Ode to Joy,” I turned to her and saw her cheek wet with tears, her dark eye sparkling with complicated joy. Just as my father retreated into jazz to feel his feelings, classical music was the vehicle for my mother’s deepest emotions. Many times, I caught a glimpse of her crying as she sat on the living room couch, listening to a moving passage from a symphony or quartet or aria. As I wept last night over the Messiah, I felt our tears intermix. We are connected. 

I noticed another sweet outcome from watching the Messiah: the opportunity to hug an old friend no longer with us. One of the second violinists resembled Hanna, who died in 2018. I went to sleep with that image of the violinist merging with the face of my dear friend: wide grin, glasses, brown bob laced with grey. When I met her in the dream, she felt real as anything, and I stayed for a while in her warm, familiar embrace. I love that I can still access my lost ones in the dream world. 

So, in a few weeks the year rolls to a close. Last December I wrote about all the things I had accomplished during the year—sewing and writing projects, starting my business. What did I accomplish this year? I put one foot in front of the other every day. This December it feels like more than enough to just write a few paragraphs and give thanks for the good things in my life. 

The Walker Sisters, circa 1963, Berkeley California

In August my eldest sister and niece moved from Yellowknife to Nanaimo. The three Walker sisters haven’t lived in such proximity since the 1980s in Toronto. Our closeness brings me comfort and happiness. 

Walking the dog day in, day out, has given order to our lives. Sky and earth, weather, sun, moon, trees, and birds break through my orbit of self-absorption, and I am grateful for them all. To stand in rain puddles and watch the fast scud of grey clouds, cormorants flying low over the steel-gray Gorge—is to feel alive. 

Although my writing group only met a few times this year, I appreciate each member. Late one recent afternoon, we sat in a beautiful room as the winter light slanted through the tall windows, Japanese oranges in a brown bowl, our faces rapt as we listened to one another read our work. We need stories now, more than ever. 

This was a year for intake rather than output. I didn’t sew or write much. I read voraciously and watched a lot of television. Grateful to the authors whose words I enjoyed this year, too many to list. But three memoirs stand out for me. I loved poet Elizabeth Alexander’s narrative The Light of the World about her marriage to artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, his sudden death and her grief. She writes with the poet’s delicacy and attention to detail, and her grief/joy is palpable on each page. 

Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, about her fraught relationship with her depressed mother, Bess Gornick, resonated with me. Vivian struggles for independence from Bess while loving her with the potent mix of passion/compassion limned with hatred and resentment that seems particular to some mother-daughter bonds. 

Perhaps you have to be a Margaret Drabble lover or a lover of puzzles to appreciate this one (I am the former). In The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Drabble leads us through her lifelong fascination with puzzles, mixing in portraits of family members, tidbits of the history of puzzles, and asides about memory, writing, and life. A circuitous maze-like quality to the writing brings form and content into alignment.

And so many good stories streaming on television. I was grateful for a daily escape from reality through hours and hours of Grey’s Anatomy, No Offence, Pretty Hard Cases, Succession, Shetland, The Chair, Shtisel, Lupin, and many more. . .

I look forward to the shortest day of the year and the return of the light. Thank you for reading, dear people. One foot in front of the other.

My last phone call with my father

In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.

That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before. 

So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.

So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet. 

I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow? 

But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here. 

A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign. 

Father

In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
a whisper:
hush, little baby, don’t you cry

From long ago
from far away
a thread
of red travels along
my bloodline

when that shark bites with his teeth, 
babe
scarlet billows start to spread

and meets a tributary.
I know your voice. 
You are mine.

I want you close
daughter,
but this trip
is made alone.

The woods in here
are dark and deep

I want to sleep, 
dear, but
a worry burns:

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

No, I hear you say, 
no more promises to keep.

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

Take to the sky papa,
Take to the 
red-blood sky.


Heavy bear

“That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.”

From “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” Delmore Schwartz, 1938

As much as I want to be one with it and to befriend it (as I wrote about here), most days I feel at war with my body. My mind is agile, quick. My body is a heavy bear. I know I should exercise, yet as I make another cup of coffee and settle into my writing chair, I convince myself that it’s not really that important. In August, I hired a personal trainer, thinking she would somehow fire me up, inspire make me to get fit. I had a few sessions with her, and she was lovely and encouraging. She set up a practical plan of cardio, weights, abs, and stretches for me. And then I found dozens of excuses not to go to the gym.  Well, getting motivated to exercise is an inside job. (I knew this but was in denial.)

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***

Clambering around a playground yesterday with the four-year-old girl I sometimes hang out with, I felt old, tired, heavy, and sore. I stumbled and floundered like a shaggy she-grizzly, a version of Schwartz’s inescapable animal. Then I realized on the bus home that I need to treat exercise like I treat water or food. A need. A requirement for living well.

***

Today I accompanied Michael to the rec centre where he goes for his daily run. I took my iPhone and headphones and tuned into Apple Music’s app, looked under “Music by Mood’s” Fitness category, and found it is crammed with playlists of every kind—“R&B Workout,” “Alternative Workout,” “Latin Urban Workout.” I went straight to the “’80s Workout” because there’s nothing like the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited” to get your heartrate up to its maximum. The record’s needle drops down into the disco groove and before I know it, my past self, my young body, is moving fast, moving sexily.

***

A year or two ago, I was leery of paying monthly for Apple Music, and I loathed the idea of the playlists, prepackaged music pabulum. I didn’t want to be just another baby boomer nostalgic for the sounds of her youth. I should select my own favourite music, make my own mix tapes. But I surrendered. Apple Music’s fitness playlists make me happy.  I warmed up on the rowing machine to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Rick James’ “Super Freak.” I had memories of going to aerobics classes with my sister in the big gym at the University of Toronto. After we sweated it out, we’d go out for a beer at a bar on Harbord Street (and for me—multiple cigarettes).

***

Moving to the treadmill, my heart beat faster with the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and Wham!’s hit, “Wake Me UP Before You Go Go.”  Peak heart rate with the Pointer Sisters, sweat pouring down my face. Following that, I did weights to the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams,” remembering a summer in my twenties when I was obsessed with that song, playing it over and over as I lay on the floor in a melancholic haze. Finally, my housemates started to complain about hearing the same song 50 times a day.  I forwarded through some songs, and came “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “Let’s Dance” by Bowie. Wonderful.  As I stretched post-workout, I shifted over to Botswana’s hit songs, another Apple Music feature (Daily top 100 in dozens of countries).

***

Sometimes my body is a heavy bear, fumbling like “a stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” My mind is electric and agile, my body a “caricature, a swollen shadow.”  As I age, my body can feel like a slow prison for a quick mind.  Her “mouthing care,” her “scrimmage of appetite” always playing out—wanting this, wanting that, buttered toast with jam, too many coffees, lounging for hours on the couch.  How good to feel, at least today, energized, young, strong, and compatible with my animal. How can we become one?

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Let me hear your body talk

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A curse and a gift of ageing is a growing awareness of the ways I have been inauthentic in my life. Lately, I have become profoundly aware of the disconnection between my body and my mind.  I have ignored my body for so long, shut it up into submission, taken it for granted. These pronouncements presume a Cartesian dualism, an assumption that mind and body are separate, and though I realize they are not, that is how I have felt in my life—my body and mind feel separate.

Two years ago I started a graphic memoir, Let me hear your body talk. It was my attempt to illustrate the life of my body from infancy to the present day. After a dozen or so pages, I stopped and let the project languish. My reason was that I was too clumsy an artist to render my ideas. But another reason I stopped was that as I worked through my childhood and teenage years, drawing and writing, I felt acutely uncomfortable with how I had regularly ignored my body’s signals. From emotional eating to having sex with somebody who repulsed me, to neglecting pain, to resisting the gut’s intuition. I had abused my body through various compulsions: I was addicted early on to the approval of others, and later to food, cigarettes, and booze. Never having learned how to honour my body as precious, I considered it as merely an appendage to my brain/mind, which I believed was more valuable.

Although I can’t speak for others, my memory is that as a family, we weren’t grounded in our bodies. Moving the body, appreciating the body, enjoying the body, listening to the body: these were not on the agenda when I was a child.  Sports, exercise, or creative body expression were not encouraged or modelled by my parents. Sex was rarely discussed or mentioned, though it might have been alluded to. When I took up running in my late thirties, my mother commented, “You’re not overweight, so why? It can’t be good for you, jiggling around like that.” I suppose when I was very young, I lived shamelessly and happily in my skin, but I cannot remember. In our family, intellect was prized above all.

Of course, this is not to suggest my body has not been a source of bliss.  Sex can be rapturous. . . the ruminating mind dissolves as every nerve ending sparkles and shimmers. Being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding: all gave me tremendous pleasure/transcendent pain and left me with gratitude, love, and respect for my body and its capacity. But as the excerpt from my memoir shows, as a young woman I tuned out my body’s sensations and needs.  My people-pleasing antennae were turned way up; I wanted not to be a problem to others, so I suffered, often silently. I wanted to please the man I was with; my pleasure was secondary.

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These days, I meditate daily. Although my thoughts quiet for minutes at a time, I still haven’t felt fully connected to my body. Looking to change this, I bought Reggie Ray’s book, The Awakening Body on somatic meditation. Ray provides instructions on six somatic meditations. One resonated more than the others: yin breathing. “The place of yin is in the lower belly, approximately a couple of inches below the navel and in about the middle of the body. . . In Taoist meditation, this place in the lower belly is known as the lower dan t’ien” (p. 67).  Ray goes on to write that the lower dan t’ien’s role in the body “is the inner expression of the fundamental space of the cosmos, the original womb out of which all energy and life arise. It is the microcosmic expression of the same limitless reality we meet ‘outside’ in the earth at its infinite depth.” The concept of the “original womb” may sound inflated or unbelievable, and yet I immediately understood this concept because I had experienced the yin space before.

A few years ago, I had felt this space, an oval the size of a duck’s egg located about three inches below the navel, as a mysterious source of deep pleasure. At that time, I welcomed it, but I didn’t understand it. It would come to me late at night as I was drifting off to sleep, a pulsing sense of well-being in my whole body, but originating there at the body’s root—tingling pleasure that was not exactly sexual. A radiating pleasure-consciousness that felt rooted, centred, yet expansive. It’s hard to explain. As I said, it’s mysterious.

Lately, I have been doing yin breathing, breathing in and out through the lower dan t’ien and thereby, “roaming on the boundary between consciousness (the ego domain) and the unconscious (the deep Soma).  As a result, my body consciousness may be shifting. Recently, we  went to hear live jazz, the Amina Figarova Sextet, and I enjoyed music more than ever before. Instead of listening in my head, my whole body heard and felt. I enter the piano’s thrum, the saxophone’s sugarplum melodies, the drum’s silvery beats; I swallow the flute’s shivers and I become the tall brown bass, plucked.  My body is a repository for sound and I can’t help but move to the rhythms. I fill with jazz colours, jazz feelings. Body and mind are one. Feels so good.

 

 

Sober is sexy in the Soo

As we drove, we talked about how we decided on names for our children all those years ago.  Michael mused that his first wife may have wanted to name their son Willie, partly inspired by Joni Mitchell’s love lyric to Graham Nash.  “Oh, let’s play it,” I said, and pretty soon Michael was politely commanding Siri to play Ladies of the Canyon, which we enjoyed for the next 80 kilometres. Early Joni Mitchell is smart and luminous, filled with gleaming surprises. I am constantly amazed by how privileged we are to have this kind of technology at our fingertips. To think of a song, to hear a song.

That was our hardest day, driving over 700 kilometers from Thunder Bay to Sault Sainte Marie (The Soo) while exhausted, as I hadn’t slept much in the cheap hotel in TB. We had a lovely short visit with an old friend in the morning at her place on Loon Lake outside of TB. I hadn’t seen her for 30 years, and yet when we hugged, the love felt fresh and our connection seemed unbroken. Unbelievable.  And then we booted it around Lake Superior, the lake known as gitchi-gami by the Ojibway.  We stopped at Old Woman Bay, a sandy beach on the Lake where I dipped my toes into the cool water.

Early evening, we arrived in the Soo and found an Indian restaurant where they gave us way too much food. So, after dinner we wandered around the historic streets dangling a carton of leftover lamb vindaloo and channa masala in a plastic bag, admiring the old Post Office and the many funky shops. As we passed under some scaffolding, we looked through the window of Winnie B’s Vintage Emporium, and I saw a lanky man wearing a black t-shirt that said “Sober is Sexy.”

“Hey, I love your shirt,” I called through the open door. “Thanks,” he called back, and he and Michael and I had a brief conversation about the joys of sobriety. Winnie’s owner, Patricia Bowles, had hired him and another guy to rearrange the stuff in her store. She came out on the sidewalk and introduced herself, then looked down at our bag. “Oh, your food is leaking!”  I had tipped the carton in my excitement, and reddish-brown Vindaloo sauce dripped from the corners, so she gave us a second bag to secure the mess.  The store wasn’t open, but Patricia invited us in nonetheless, and we stood among the treasures (a huge wooden bread bowl, beaded necklaces, old paintings, mid-century furniture) and chatted about the loveliness of the Soo, her mother Winnie, whom she named the store after, all of the different places she’d lived across Canada, and our trip so far. When I mentioned that the Soo was a pleasant surprise, we hadn’t expected such charm, she asked to interview us for her Facebook page (she is collecting testimonials about the little city), so we agreed and the result is here: https://www.facebook.com/WinnieBsVintage/videos/2080685375569309/

In the morning after a much needed sleep-in at the Sleep Inn, we got take-out coffee, excellent Sumatran pour-overs by Paul of Queen’s East Coffee and Clothes: https://www.facebook.com/queenseastcoffeeandclothes/

I wandered about the small shop, browsing the racks of women’s clothes while Paul worked his magic. He had only a small space behind the counter, and he told me that at the height of business, he can manage six pour-overs at once. Paul asked if he could rinse Michael’s travel mug.

“Sure.”

“I always ask because once, I just went ahead a rinsed this guy’s cup, and he said, ‘Hey, I had a shot of Bailey’s in there!”

“Hope he wasn’t driving,” rejoined Michael.

“Nope, just out walking his dog.”

As we settled into highway driving and a wonderful story by Stuart McLean (Emil), a call came through from the Sleep Inn. “Oh no,” I said to the front desk clerk, “What did we leave?”

“A phone charger.” Michael and I exchanged looks.

“It’s okay, thanks for the call, but we aren’t coming back for it.”

We were already well into our miles for the day. I started to freak out a bit inside my head, as this was the second phone charger I’d left in a hotel room in a week.

“It’s okay, honey,” Michael reassured me.  “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a gnat’s fart. It doesn’t matter. We’ll buy another. We’ll buy a case of phone chargers.”

We finished McLean’s Emil and then listened to The Fig Tree. Tears poured down my face, partly because I was so touched by the stories about tenderness and caring that McLean tells with drollery and understated love, but largely because I was so happy to be with a man who didn’t try to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, when I do dumb things, he makes me feel wonderful and any guilt or shame I might have feel evaporates into pink fairy dust.  So much love and abundance. I am blessed.

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Toronto is next. Michael’s turn.

 

 

 

 

 

In February, the Waters of March

My father’s 92ndbirthday arrives next week. A fond memory keeps cycling around my mind, a memory of music and love. Once my father and I sat on a couch in a rented cottage in Parksville, a place where a ribbon of warm sand meets the calm water of the Strait of Georgia. It was a family reunion we held a few years ago: two of my sons came with their girlfriends; two sisters,  one niece, my father and stepmother rounded out the group. For two days we cooked and ate, talked, played Scrabble and Frisbee, and talked some more.

My father and I sat on the couch together, close, holding hands. We like doing that, holding hands when we sit. After an absence, it’s how we reconnect. He used to say to me on those occasions, all those times I came from Victoria to his Ontario farm, “Is there anything we need to talk about?” That was his invitation for me to tell him what was happening in my life: my troubles, my joys.

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While we sat and talked, I liked to press my thumb down on the prominent veins that embellish the backs of his work-worn hands. His lean body has no fat those veins can sink into, so like swelling blue rivers, they crisscross his skin.

Again that day we sat together, holding hands, but this time we talked about music. I asked him, what song brings joy? Not unadulterated joy, but the kind that tastes bittersweet? What song wakes you up, yet makes you wistful? Makes you feel simultaneously fiercely alive and hip to life’s fleetingness, death’s certainty? Well I’m sure I didn’t use all of those words, but whatever I said, he knew right away what I meant because he answered without hesitation: “Águas de Março.”

I was familiar with Waters of March, the Brazilian song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, because my father had often played the version by Getz and Gilberto from the album, The Best of Two Worlds, recorded in 1976. I found a YouTube version on my laptop and we sat and listened to it together, my smaller hand finding his big warm one.

getz gilberto

Gilberto strums his guitar, then his voice starts to climb up and down those whittled Portuguese lines, like climbing up and down ladders in the rain.  Next comes the voice of his wife Miúcha, singing the English words.

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone

It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun

The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
A knot in the wood
The song of a thrush

Her light coppery voice lilts and lists, catalogue of strange poetry, then his voice comes in again with the round custardy Portuguese vowels. The words swirl around, eddying like the rain coming down in a Brazilian town, descending, rippling, flowing into the vortex of 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows.

A stick, a stone
The end of the road
The rest of a stump
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass
A life, the sun
A knife, a death
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of all strain
It’s the joy in your heart

What is it about that song? Husband and wife singing in two languages, listing and chanting, the dance of two voices, two worlds. That bossa nova rhythm, Getz’s swooping saxophone, the swishing percussion. Flotsam and jetsam of words caught in a whirlpool like little coloured scraps of our lives, moments in time, swirling, twirling. What is it about rain in March swelling rivers in a faraway country that made us both feel a catch in our throats, made us start to cry as we listened together?

After a time, my father asked me what my song was, and I told him June Hymn by the Decembrists. So we listened to that next. And then it was time for dinner.

aguas de marco

https://youtu.be/b9yc_bbp99c

June hymn

https://youtu.be/KusWM9AKfZg

 

Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart

We know that music can evoke powerful memories. A song not only takes your mind back, but takes your body back to another time. You feel the same sensations and emotions, the same twinges and secretions. Pure chemical magic.  In the past few weeks with the I-pod on shuffle during my commute to work, I’ve relived moments of my youth. My first experience taking LSD with Santana’s “Singing winds, crying beasts.” A prickly nerve shiver spreads out into my limbs as cymbals and chimes sing and hiss behind the piano and piercing guitar.  Driving, oppressive energy limned with sadness from an early sexual experience creeps over me with the Beatle’s drone: “I want you. . . I want you so bad it’s driving me mad.” Another time, a piano riff announcing Aretha Franklin’s edgy command “you better think” blasts out of the speakers, followed by “think about what you’re trying to do to me.” I sit straight up in the driver’s seat and start to move to the rhythm.  This one took me back to 1968, I mean right back into our living room graced with a faded Persian carpet and upholstered teak chairs. That winter, the radiators whistle as wet snow falls over Toronto. I dance whimsically while belting into a pretend microphone. Beside me, my father plays air drums and my sisters wail on imaginary horns.

I turned 10 the year “Aretha Now” came out.  It arrived at our house on Christmas day 1968 – perhaps my mother bought it for my father or my father bought it for my mother. But all I know is that that record album lit me up, moved me, and taught me about men and women, sex and love, power and desire. You could say it was formative.

Our record player was on a low chest in the living room. I’d lean the cardboard album cover against it, slide the LP out of its sleeve, and place the album carefully on the turntable. My father had taught me how to start the machine and use the little lever to gently drop the needle onto the first track, “Think.”  That piano groove followed by the drums, and then Aretha’s full, strong voice would set me moving around the room.

“You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to mearetha Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free”

I didn’t know what she meant–what exactly was he trying to do to her?  But whenever she boldly told him to “Think,” I’d feel the impossible power of speaking up. At the end of the song, she sang “freedom, freedom.” Her back-up singers, the Sweet Inspirations, laced with horns, pushed each iteration to the next level like leapfrog on a steep hill.

I fell in love with Aretha’s smiling—almost mischievous—dimpled face. She looked off to one side, as if she might be looking at her sweetheart, her green turtleneck mirroring the lime green letters spreading over her high coiffed hairdo. My body woke up to the beat of this delicious music, her big buttery voice, and all of those fascinating lyrics that stirred an inchoate longing in my pelvis, even if I wasn’t sure what it was.

If “Think” made me feel the power of female authority, “Say a little prayer for me” made me swoon with dreams of romantic love transformed into a religion.  I could imagine Aretha waking up in her shaded boudoir, sitting at her make-up table. Before she puts on her eyeliner she whispers a quiet prayer to the man she loves.   I liked thinking of her in her own space, choosing her dress, combing her hair, praying for his love. . . hoping he’ll answer her prayers and love her back. The passionate crescendos rose with the Inspirations crooning like taffeta petticoats under the full-satin dress of her voice: “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, forever, we never will part.” Listening to the song now, I hear the urgency and desperation in the ending “answer my prayer now, say you’ll love me too,” something lost on me fifty years ago.

Every song had a different flavour. I loved to sing along about the man whose love was “like a seesaw, going up, down, and all around.” Now the lyrics sound like they’re about an abusive relationship, but at the time, it was just another piece of the mysterious puzzle that was male-female relationships. Aretha sang Ray Charles’s tune, “The night time is the right time to be with the one you love.” Seductive horns like exclamation marks after Franklin’s lines were joined by a mix of other voices, all to that slow blues rhythm that intoxicated me.  I didn’t know much about sex at the time, but apparently it happened at night with someone you love. “Won’t you please tease me, but don’t leave me,” came out in big swoopy yells and I could just feel in my bones the aching-ness of desire, sex, and love. Somehow it felt really good but it was sad and complicated and caused great suffering. Women had to keep praying and begging their men to love them, but then those men might treat them badly, ignore them, or put them down.

“Darling you send me, darling you send me. Darling you send me, honest you do honest you do.“ After “say a little prayer” this one was my next favourite. Aretha actually sang “I want you to marry me” Wow! Little did I know that this was Sam Cooke’s song and she’d changed it from his “I want to marry you.”  It didn’t matter, it was revolutionary, a woman brazenly saying she wanted a man to marry her.  This one was a sweet mix of love and sex, being thrilled and being sent, but I wasn’t sure where one was being sent to.  It sounded very sensual but also spiritual, and I loved how Aretha pronounced it “shend” in the opening refrain. When I listen to the song now I keep expecting that little skip in the album just after the second verse, a skip tattooed in my memory, but of course it never comes.

In 1970, a year or so after I was first grooving to “Aretha Now,” my parents separated, surprising everybody and further complicating my labyrinth of male-female relationships. It was a labyrinth that I soon—too soon—entered, trying to figure out how to be alluring, how to be loveable, and yet how to appear “cool” and not too needy or emotional. The sweet, sexy, indelible music of “Aretha Now” had me saying little prayers, looking for thrills, and aching to be loved as I grew into womanhood.