Category: inspiration

Dear Lord

Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788.

Like a lot of adolescent girls, I had romantic visions and tendencies, and Byron’s work was the perfect reflection of that gooey, goggley-eyed disposition. He was the first celebrity as we understand it, and fled his home country to escape the ruinous gossip that surrounded the dissolution of his marriage and his questionable relationship with half-sister Augusta. Through all his trials and tribulations (and there were a lot, his club foot being the least of them), there was -is -something undeniably intoxicating about the way he blended the heady and the common, and his love of both the high life and his robust embrace of the gutteral, in both his work and his life.
I have a huge collection of biographies of Byron, as well as several volumes of his poetry, including a three-volume set of his collected works published just after his death in 1824. When I lived in London, I would go by where he lived at the Albany, and at one point, was even given a tour by a kind doorman; he gently motioned toward the ground-level door that lead to the apartment where Byron lived, adding that “an Hungarian doctor lives there now. He has trouble walking.” I was a regular visitor to John Murray’s offices (once located in Albemarle Street), where Gini Murray -married to the then-current publisher (and directly descended from Byron’s Murray) -would kindly welcome me with tea and allow me to wander the famous upper floor, taking pictures and looking at the immense volumes of books lining the walls, as well as the cabinet containing a few of Byron’s personal effects (including one white shirt I longed to bury my nose in). I wandered down Piccadilly Terrace, where he and wife Annabella shared their unhappy moments (and where the brilliant Ada was born), and gazed up at windows, imagining Byron popping the tops off soda bottles as his wife was in labour. I’ve been to the church where he is buried, and recalled the stories I’d read about the creepy 1938 opening of his coffin many moons ago by a group of curious investigators. The entrance to the crypt was closed, but is small and narrow, the church dark and grey and cold. It felt like an incongruous ending for such a dramatic, colorful life.

This visit to Hucknall Parish coincided with my poetic visit to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey (near Nottingham) one fresh spring day. I wandered around the seemingly-ancient quarters in a daze, touching the stones, door frames, stairs, shrubery, and avoiding the squawking peacocks (little wonder Byron wrote about their noisesome fierceness -eeek). I’ve painted and drawn countless works of art based around the photos I took there, and even now, ten years later, I’d love to return, if only to wander the gardens. Though the house is much different than it was in Byron’s day (ancestral misdeeds meant the Abbey had fallen into terrible disrepair when the poet lived there), I felt a palpable presence of … something… during my visit (a feeling akin to the ghosts in New York recently.) I left utterly appreciating just how difficult and painful it must’ve been for him to part with such a beautiful, magical place.
Still, I hate admitting that don’t read as much Byron as I once did; I’d like it to be far more often, but he asks so much energy, attention, and care. Finding the time to provide those things -in full, without scrimping or cheating -is challenging, and yet I feel it might be worth it. Every time I return to his work, I’m taken back to a specific time in my life -one I’m proud of, thrilled by, and continually in awe of -and I’m re-awakened and energized by the power of human imagination and our capacity for creation in the midst of incredible, painful circumstances. It’s no understatement when I type that Byron’s work emboldened me, opened my eyes, ripped my heart out of my chest, & put it back again whole. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of his poetry, as well as his life, and becoming so familiar with each has immeasurably enriched my own artistic output and worldview. Out of all the poems I know and love, this one has become my personal favorite; it takes me back to a specific time and place, day and face:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.


Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours – can their joy or their bitterness cease?
We repent, we abjure, we will break from our chain, –
We will part, we will fly to – unite it again!

Oh! thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt!
Forgive me, adored one! – forsake if thou wilt;
But the heart which is thine shall expire undebased,
And man shall not break it – whatever thou may’st.

And stern to the haughty, but humble to thee,
This soul in its bitterest blackness shall be;
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.

One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove.
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign –
Thy lips shall reply, not to them, but to mine.

May, 1814.

Swirling

A little piece of inspiration, amidst the Christmas/holiday nutties.

The ocean has always been a source of inspiration for me. When I lived in Dublin, I used to have to take the DART south for work twice a week; I loved being along the Irish sea and looking out at the swirling waves. It was a hell of a public transit ride for a wide-eyed Canadian girl more used to seeing concrete and tracts of homogenous suburban town-boxes along commuter routes. I marveled at the many people who simply fell asleep on the ride. How can you miss this?, I thought. Maybe it’s something you get used to, and sick of, the way us Canadians are about snow and winter scenes.

On the (few) days the sun shone in Dublin, the watery landscape turned into a glinting kind of jewel; I only wish I had been painting then. Still, I had my trusty Minolta with me. The photos I took are languishing somewhere in Ireland. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again; the feeling of seeing that dance of sky and sea will be with me, though, forever. Another ride along the DART is inevitable, both physically and otherwise.

The Grind

So much seen and done over the past week. Nuit Blanche, the opening of the Canadian Opera Company season, and the Brickworks Picnic within the last few days (to say nothing of the myriad of wonderful people I’ve interviewed on-air recently) … you’d think I’d choose something more timely to write about than a concert that’s still over a month away. But thanks to a fabulous Twitter contact and a bit of online listening (along with a whack of sentimentality), well … sometimes the music chooses us, softly crooning -or in this case, mawkishly shrieking -a chorus of angular ‘musts’ and jagged ‘nows’ -as in, Write Something Now. Sometimes I ignore that call; sometimes I toss away the turgid details of everyday life away and just dance. Then I pour a glass of something wonderful and write.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was not the first band I saw solo -but the first time I saw Nick Cave et al I did happen to be solo. The difference is fine but important. Special is the artist (or collection of artists) that I’ll merrily throw away social anxiety to become purposely lost in the Enchanted Forest of Noise. But Cave is that special breed of artist. Recently I came across a review I breathlessly typed up many moons ago for an international music zine. In those dot-matrix filled pages, I enthused, admired, mused, and wondered at the sonic noise/poetic genius of the Bad Seeds. At the time Nick Cave had a sizeable troupe with him; not only was he joined by original members Mick Harvey, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, & the ever-amazing Blixa Bargeld, but he was joined by two musicians who, in retrospect, changed the course of his -and their (and possibly even my) creative output. Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos added a creepy, dramatic, other-worldly feel to an already-raucous musical outfit. I remember beeing especially impressed with Ellis’ stomping and passionate embrace of his violin, conjuring evil, twisted spirits, whacking his instrument’s wooden body and plucking its strings, a possessed look on his (then-handsome) face.

I came away from the evening with a wholly new appreciation of musicianship, the art of the band as a concept, and the joy of spontaneously solo-show-going. There was something about being alone that rendered me much more open to everything. It was as if my aural/emotional/spiritual absorbative powers increased twenty-fold. And, as a woman, I was suddenly free to expore -and embrace -the amazing power of my own aggression within a positive context. Even now, more than a decade later, that night lives within me. And re-reading my young and breathless review makes me want to step out of my grown-upish, self-imposed (and kind of boring) safety zone, even just for one night, to jump and dance through that mad forest of sonic mayhem again.

The internet gods seems to be with me. A few nights ago, I engaged in an online conversation about Cave’s other band, Grinderman, and the wonders of their live set. I’d been debating going to Grinderman’s concert here in Toronto in November. There are so many “unlike” factors: I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, and I most definitely don’t like being pushed and shoved. My short stature renders me a near-target for boots-in-the-head and obnoxious tall people who can’t dance standing in front of me. That’s to say nothing of the wild, horrific social anxiety I feel when entering a club gig alone -it’s like there’s a sticker on my head reading”Lone Thirty-Something Woman Lacking A Relationship.” I bring little but my opinions and big hair; the heels stay firmly in the closet. But social anxiety and the fear of being judged melt away like butter in a hot frying pan the minute an artist (or group of artists) I love takes to the stage. The magical, and frankly, sexy melange of lights, costumes, body language, sound, and frankly, the knowledge there’s a few hundred (or thousand) sweaty bodies behind me is, all together, deeply, almost dangerously intoxicating. I wind up staying awake long after such experiences, staring out windows, drawing, sipping wines and trying not to leap to easy definitions or categories. Some experiences are too deep for that.

But try my darndest I did back when I first saw the Bad Seeds. That sense of joy, that freedom, that wiping away of time and space and social anxieties … they touch on something profound about the power of art, and the role it plays in shaping identities. I think I’ll go see Grinderman. Maybe I’ll write a breathy blog. Or maybe, this time, I’ll savour the experience like a tasty, sweet bonbon enjoyed in a dark, silent room. Either way, being a part of the magical sound of Nick Cave and (as I put it in 1998) his “band of unmerry men” will always be a treat. I may not be able to come down and write about it for a while, though. And that’s probably a good thing.

Don’t Sign This

I came across this incredible piece of animation courtesy of my illustrator friend Kit on Facebook, who kindly provided a link. It’s taken from The Beatles‘ Rock Band game. Yes, it seems the Fab Four are everywhere these days, what with videos and box sets, and, from what I can glean across social media networks, a whole new demographic coming to know and adore their enormous -and enormously influential -body of work. Watching this animation, with its combination of running, flying, playing and well… playing, I was struck by the sprightly, fun spirit of the piece, and how it perfectly encapsulates the madness that was Beatlemania.

Equally, I can’t help but look at the footage with confusion and a discomfort. I’m immediately reminded of the masses lined up outside some of Toronto’s swankiest hotels for the past few days. People are breathlessly waiting for some kind of glimpse of a celebrity -a wave will suffice, never mind the pandemonium around a handshake or an autograph. There’s a surreal kind of madness around fame that I do not pretend to understand. Perhaps my own time around the famous and celebrated has jaded me, although, in all frankness, I’ve seen people of all stripes and levels of notoriety at their very best, and at their very worst. When it comes to artists, the guy playing the back room of a dirty beer joint is sometimes more awe-inspiring than the stadium-fillers (and the latter will cop to this, too); the violinist on the subway platform can produce a more transcendent experience than a symphony, a spontaneous piece of graffiti inspire something deeper and more stirring than any framed canvas. I guess it depends on one’s mood, and perhaps more tellingly, perspective.

But at the heart of it, people are people, whether they walk around barefoot or they’re escorted everywhere in Cadillac Escalades. Artists -not ones playing at art or fussing around its edges -are seeking some kind of connection, to a wider world and experience than is easily granted. Does fame water down artistic output? That’s a tough one -one I’m still at odds to work out. Does the public actually want to be challenged? I engaged in a debate around celebrity reporting earlier on my Twitter feed, with Doug Saunders and I both agreeing that, from a journalistic point of view, offering intelligent, insightful reportage is harder than ever (though if you’re looking, check out Lynn Crosbie, who is one of the best). The Beatles manifest in cartoon form is, on many levels, a keen commentary on the nature of popular perception around fame -we like our heroes two-dimensional, don’t we? Don’t make a mistake, don’t get too weird, don’t be political, and talk in a language we all get. (The whole “Dammit, be normal and stop the weird crap, you’re one of us! / Dammit, you’re so awesome and stratospherically awesome, you’re not like us!” dichotomy is a whole other argument, and perhaps, future blog post.) The fact you can now play along with The Beatles, and thus claim your own little slice of Beatles-dom, makes it even more interesting, twisted, and surreal: “You too can be Paul, John, George or Ringo… just press a button!” Forget practise and craft. Pffft.

For me, artists -the ones I really admire, am challenged by, and who open up ways of perceiving existence and point at (indeed, celebrate) the world in all its maddening, chaotic horror/splendor -they aren’t two-dimensional (even if some choose to take that by-now-tiresome ironic pose, or play that damn role into the ground -especially annoying if you know they’re actually interesting). In the same vein, I don’t buy the airbrushed version of celebrity. I don’t want to. Messy, human, faulty, wrinkly, fat, grey and ridiculous: kind of like the rest of us, only with flashbulbs, sharpies, Whole Foods and questionable taste.

I’ll be on the Park Hyatt‘s roof shortly -not because I want to meet any celebrities, but because it’s simply one of my favourite spot in Toronto, and I want to enjoy the September sunshine while it lasts. If anyone wants a chat, famous or not … you know where to find me. Leave the cartoon-you on the street below.

X & Then Some


I took a much-needed semi-rest yesterday. I write “semi” because I had several interviews to prepare for, so I couldn’t entirely ignore my responsibilities. But it was good, once the work was finished, to just float away; there’s something about easy Sunday afternoons, with glasses of wine and bare feet, volumes of Yeats and rolled-down sweat pants, that makes for some wonderful mental and spiritual space.

It was in that space that I came across a note an artistic friend had shared on Facebook; this friend, a former journalist, is one of the most non-linear thinkers I’ve met. Interested in all ideas and eager to take creative tangents previously unseen, many of the notes he writes and shares are related to his keen observations of the world, and are frequently based on the seemingly-mundane things we take for granted. Yesterday’s note was about the letter X -as a concept and idea. He included beautiful photos and some insightful ruminations.

Think about it: “X” is rife with possibility, isn’t it? The playful-meets-probing style of the note, and its idea, intrigued me greatly. Though I wasn’t immediately aware, my friend’s mental wandering set off a delicate mental spark, and I tiptoed along the cliff of a response, when I hit “delete” and quickly – as if on auto-typist -opened a Text document, and started my own path of poetic rumination. Having the mental fog cleared, and having made time yesterday to sketch, read, and cook, there came a beautiful kind of clarity and light. And a playfulness.

…X decides everything and names nothing
X is definition non definition sublimation
submersion submission
X began the name of a King
X is Jesus sideways
X finds God in byways and highways in skag lines and bread lines
two lines intersecting
two bodies connecting
X is heaven and earth
angels and dirt…

I love Sunday afternoons. Perfect set-up for a busy week. Having done five interviews and started my next video project today, it’s good to know I gave myself permission to clear the clutter yesterday. Going to do that more often.

X marks the spot -and the spot says “play.”

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