Category: writing Page 1 of 3

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

thoth tjaj scribe god ancient egypt

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

salonen score

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

books collage mine

#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

nigella favorite books

#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

books mine

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

Auld Lang Sigh

photo via my Instagram

At this time last year, I was laid up on a sofa, tissues at the ready, sick with the flu. My mother had gone to a nearby friend’s for the New Year’s Eve countdown, with my assurance that was fine to leave me alone; I just needed rest and relaxation, and there was nothing further she could do past the jello-making and soup-heating and tea-freshening she’d been doing for twenty-four hours.

Wrapping herself in a thick, woolly, vintage Hudson’s Bay coat, a jaunty hat, and chunky knitted scarf, she sauntered down the snowy street around 8pm, returning just after midnight, eyes watering from the cold, but her face flushed with happiness.

“I had three glasses of wine!” she marveled.

It seems incredible, thinking back on that night, how physically strong she was, how capable I was, even with the flu, and how much 2015, as it rolled further and further along, took out of us both.

There’s a belief that hardships are sent to teach us something — about ourselves, about our attitudes; we endure them as a means of hardening our survival instincts and honing our notions of identity. It’s true, I’m grateful for the lessons each year has brought me, but no year has taught me more, on so many levels and in so many ways. No year has made me more cynical and yet more curious, more angry and yet more accepting, more honest and yet more aware of the drive to deceive and the great, frightening need some have to throw a theatrical, rosy cover across motive, intention, behaviour, and character. 2015: harsh, painful, important. I’m glad it’s over.

Realizing many of my local relationships aren’t as true as I thought has been a good thing, but it’s also been a painful lesson. I’m grateful to the good souls who call to check on me, who take time to visit or meet up despite poor weather and busy schedules, who don’t make excuses but make time. I’m equally grateful to the far-off people who send good wishes via social media, who follow my updates and share my work —they’re people who engage, interact, actively encourage and communicate; they take the initiative to stay in touch. They get it. Expressions of support and basic concern over the course of this horrendous year, many from quarters I hadn’t expected, were, and remain, very moving. It’s meaningful to know there are people out there listening and watching, who take the time and energy to stay in touch despite busy lives and schedules.

photo via my Instagram

Of course, nothing beats an in-person conversation. Taking the initiative to gently, lovingly pull me out of the cave of grief I frequently (and often unconsciously) retreat into is something I cherish, and to be perfectly frank, I wish it happened more often. In years past, I would always be the one planning, producing, pulling people together. I stopped doing that in 2015; illness and death left me too exhausted and grief-stricken. When the realization recently hit that the only holiday party I attended this year was the one I threw myself, I became both troubled and curious; should I work on being more popular? Should I find an outside job? Ought I to subscribe to the hegemony of coupledom? What about me needed to change? Then I realized, as I have so often throughout 2015, that some people — many people — are, in fact, self-involved assholes. There’s no getting around that harsh, if unfortunately true, fact.

Good moments from 2015 happened in direct relation with, or as a direct result of, my work. Teaching in the early part of this year was one of the best professional experiences of my life; being around students with an abundance of energy, curiosity, and so many incredible stories and passions was a life-enriching thing, and I am greatly looking forward to returning to it. Deeply satisfying writing and reporting opportunities blossomed with CBC, HyperallergicOpera News and Opera Canada magazines, as well as the Toronto Symphony. Likewise, many of the best conversations, connections, and concentrations happened in and around, or because of, music and art. Good people and great moments came into my life because of shared passions. Such happenings were like shooting stars: bright, magical, brief. That is, perhaps, all they were meant to be, but their memory is beautiful, a work of art, something I go to and stare at in mute wonder.

Wonder is what shimmers around my favorite cultural things from 2015. I generally dislike “Best of/Worst of” year-end lists — to use one of my mother’s old phrases, it’s no fun looking up a dead horse’s ass — but there are certain moments that stick out: the thick, heavy lines of Basquiat’s paintings, bass baritone Philip Addis’ expression as he leaned, Brando-like, against the set of Pyramus and Thisbe, Daphne Odjig’s bright, vital colors, the way soprano Kristin Szabo and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus looked at each other in Death and Desire, Carrol Anne Curry’s laugh. I don’t want to get too trite and say “art saved my life this year,” but, in many ways, working in and around culture, sometimes through very harsh conditions and circumstances, was the best kind of therapy. My mother worked for as long as she could; it gave her a sense of accomplishment, pride in a job well and thoroughly done. Work for her was, I realize, a necessary distraction through the horrible illnesses she faced in her fifteen years of her cancer. More than a distraction, work was a kind of beacon of security, even when the nature of the work wasn’t entirely secure; the nature of the work, and the feeling it gave her, were. I get that.

photo via my Instagram

And so, as 2016 dawns, I’m tempted to want for more: more art, more magic, more satisfying work. But as 2015 so succinctly taught me, you can’t plan for pain; you can only ride its high waves, and hope, when you get sucked under, you don’t swallow too much salt water. I didn’t emerge from that sea a tinfoil mermaid; I emerged battered, bruised, with an injured foot and a sore heart. I don’t feel strong as 2015 comes to a close; I feel different. I’m more suspicious of peoples’ motives, less tolerant of bullshit. I love my work, and the possibilities it affords. There are places I want to travel, people I want to meet, things I want to see. I wish for more sincerity. Such a desire isn’t on a timetable, unfolding precisely over the course of one year, but I suspect that it helps to stay curious, critical, controlled in reactions and devoid of drama.

2016: less assholes, more authenticity. It’s a start.

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we’d look at the festive lights and decorations; I’d be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, “We are very extravagant!” I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 
Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn’t really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I’d go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.

Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I’ve been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother’s absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn’t have many traditions. That doesn’t mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends’ for merry deliveries — isn’t sorely missed. She’d always laugh whenever I’d put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

“You’re a big kid at heart!” she’d say. True, I’d admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie’s hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don’t have any photos from last year’s Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, “your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!” 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I’m not sure I’ll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it’s been very joyful to see updates of others’ families on social media.  “Christmas is for kids,” my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn’t agree more. So it’s nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I’ve seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who’ve provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother’s love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that’s the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

Digging In The Dirt

Illustration by Kerrie Leishman via

Continuing with my tradition of being terribly late to cool parties, I recently finished reading The Luminaries (Little, Brown and Company), Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning novel released in 2013. I had delved into the mammoth work late last fall, and had gone through phases of intense and dedicated reading (mainly over the Christmas break), followed by weeks of leaving it aside in favor of focusing on my own work and on the million responsibilities that built up over late winter and early spring.

The Luminaries requires an intense amount of mental energy and focus; author Eleanor Catton paints a gorgeously rich and detailed world of prospectors and swindlers, dreamers and dawdlers, with each character aligned with either an astrological sign or heavenly body. Every story (and character) is carefully, deftly, beautifully interwoven, with the book eventually becoming a pattern of spiderwebs hung against a canopy of stars on a cold spring night. You want to stare and attempt clarity, even as something inside tugs that, to paraphrase Duchamp, the desire to understand it all fills you with a certain horror. It’s a Victorian-style novel, yes, and it’s also a ripping good crime novel, but, like any good crime piece, is also a profound meditation on the nature of greed, identity, and existence.

For book-lovers, finishing a book is akin to the ending of a special relationship, one you know is destined to come to a close, but will nevertheless leave a gaping hole in your life. It’s a hole you know will be filled by many other things (and authors!) but the prospect of that hole existing is sometimes made all the worse by the anticipation involved in its digging. You carry around the ideas and people and world the author has laid out, even as you remember the experiences you had through the process of reading the book. With The Luminaries, my memory is as full with frequently-painful experiences as the book is with unsavory characters and situations. Over the course of the 800-page-plus work, I endured a series of bladder infections, a violent flu, and the start of what became a two-month health odyssey that necessitated multiple surgeries and visits to the emergency room. I also experienced the start of a serious decline in a family member’s health that necessitated huge lifestyle changes for both of us. I can’t begin to remember how many waiting rooms and hospital beds Catton’s tome was taken to, how many times it functioned, alternately, as a soother, a lullaby, a thriller, a prayer, a pillow, a pilgrimage, or, most always, an escape.

Cover print via

As I consumed more chapters (which become progressively shorter, reflecting the movement of the heavens, apparently), I started to read more and more slowly, hoping (in vain) to draw out the last bits of goodness, like sucking at a bone for the most minute dregs of marrow left in the spiny crevices. At a certain point, as the last words of Catton’s work were read late one night (and it should be noted, the book ends on a light, casual note, like an expert nurse giving a needle you didn’t know you needed), I felt a sense of something lifting — not heavy or demanding, but a certain conclusion, as if a very unsettled chapter of life was drawing to a close. It’s funny how we can become addicted to bad things happening, as if adrenaline keeps us awake and needing another fix of the terrible, over and over, so accustomed are we to the dramatically awful. It’s so strangely hard to let those phases go sometimes, to sit back, accept what has passed, and gently remind one’s self that it’s time to break up.

Dear Luminaries, I love you, but this had to end. I’ll always remember Moody, Anna, Lydia, Carver, Mannering, Clinch, Frost, Lowenthal, Gascoigne, Devlin, Ah Sook, Nilssen, Prichard, Quee Long, Balfour, Te Rau Tauwhare, Emery Staines, and poor old Francis Wells. They’ve become permanent residents in the rattling, haunted attic of my life these past months. I may be just coming out of the gutter at last; I’m definitely seeing the stars, wondering at the heavenly bodies, and remembering the glint of spider webs, the silence of moon glow, the rough-smooth texture of gold, the heavy fog of smoke, and the smell of heavy wool after a New Zealand rainstorm. These things live with me, just as much as my surgical scars do. But the story is over now.

Maybe it’s time to see what the attic looks like from the garden. Maybe it’s time for sunrise. It’s time to dry off and see what I’ve mined.

Work It

After reading several accounts of the Ghomeshi scandal engulfing Canadian media lately, I decided early on I didn’t want to comment. I didn’t (and don’t) want to exploit the tragedy of female abuse for personal gain — for page views, for clicks, for hype. Like my delayed public reaction to the passing of Robin Williams, it feels so, so wrong to digitally benefit from such an immense tragedy.

So this post isn’t about sexual abuse or harassment. It’s about company culture, but more specifically, it’s about the opening that has been created in criticizing Canada’s public broadcaster, and the ensuing questions I’ve been considering lately in my position as a freelancer. Plenty of people are braying about the end of the broadcaster. Others are questioning its internal culture, and wondering how abuse could’ve so easily flourished in such an environment. I didn’t experience anything but respect in my time there in the mid-2000s, both from my fellow employees as well as from outsiders. I have friends who’ve worked there, and some who continue to.

While it’s painful to watch former colleagues deal with the Ghomeshi fall-out and all its implications, the situation has afforded the unsavory if important opportunity to look at some of my uglier character qualities: envy, anger, rejection, sadness, a constant feeling of not being good enough. A part of me is glad I didn’t get that backfill job at Q —and yes, I did interview for one this past spring, just to be clear — but a part of me also wonders: what if?

There’s a certain amount of envy on the part of freelancers toward those who’ve had longtime CBC careers. Freelance life entails a hell of a lot of hustle, and much of that hustle, at least for me, hasn’t strictly been in the journalism-world, but in the I-need-the-money one. As a human being, it’s logical, but as a writer, it’s galling. You want to be doing what you love most (fiction, non-fiction, research, interviewing, cobbling sentences together, revising those sentences over and over)… but you just can’t. You’re dealing with wads of competition, and a number of outlets (too many) who refuse to pay for your time and talents. Much as I like the freedom my work provides, some days I do wish I had the validation and steady paycheck of full-time Big Name Outlet employment. One young man I used to see in my CIUT days (who had his own cool music show back then) is now a full-time Q producer. I’m happy for his success, but a narcissistic part of me feels stupid and useless and far less of a real journalist by comparison. How come I can’t get a full-time arts-journalism job? Should I even bother reporting anymore? Should I continue on my hamster wheel? Can I keep up the crazy hustle? Does anyone appreciate a shred of what I do, much less understand the immense amount of work that goes into every single bit of it?

The questions close in and become claustrophobic when you realize how often the proverbial velvet rope snaps shut. Life is very different when you work for a Name (CTV, CBC, Rogers in Canada): you’re not kept waiting for close to an hour for a rushed ten-minute interview (this has happened to me, more than once), someone else who works for a Name is never slotted in front of you without your knowledge or permission (this has happened to me, more than once); requests for further information (quotes, clarity, photos) aren’t delayed or outright ignored (mine have been, regularly). You’re not at the very back of the acknowledgment line when you work for a Name. Respect and professional treatment come (whether you’re competent or not) with having the power of a Name Outlet behind you. So, even if your host is (allegedly) awful, even if your workplace is abusive, even if you are being harassed and you’re feeling miserable, you’ll still be treated like gold — by people who help to make the stories happen, by those who facilitate its telling, by those who help its dissemination, by the public, whom you are ultimately accountable to. You look amazing. You are amazing. The unquestioning applause and constant praise keep the status quo firmly in place.

That kind of hierarchy is crazy-making, and it isn’t conducive to a healthy working life, freelance or not. Something I took away from my time at NYU last fall was the sense that people, not outlets, are their own brand; people follow people, no matter where they wind up or who they write for or contribute to. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, its cutting sharpness driven home through the Ghomeshi/Q crisis; the man was inseparable from the show. Their identities were intertwined, and damn near inseparable. You heard chimes of The Clash, you saw red and black, you heard Jian. It’s unsurprising a makeover is now in the works — how could it not be? — but that doesn’t change the fact that independent journalists need to be their own brand in order to make a living. A show is indeed more than its host, and a journalist is more than the single outlet he or she contributes a story to. All things being hopefully (pretty please) equal in terms of talent, ability, and perhaps most of all, curiosity, there really shouldn’t be any reason to discriminate, much less disrespect, whatever that journalist, that One-Person Brand, brings to the table. Everyone deserves a safe, good working life with fair treatment. Everyone. And freelance-life hustle is stressful enough without the hierarchical bullshit to complicate your sense of professional self-worth.

So please: Name Outlet or not, respect… as a journalist, a woman, a human being. It’s high time to level the playing field. If not now… when?

(All photos are mine.)

Hero

(Photo via)

For the first time in a (very) long time, I sat down and watched a favorite movie from childhood. I’d only ever seen James Cameron’s Aliens on video cassette I was too young to see it in theaters, and, in truth, I never would have, being far too nervous and prone to nightmares. But I remember endless grey-skied afternoons spent glued to the screen, wide-eyed and short-breathed, biting nails and breathing sighs, over the exploits of Ripley and the Marines. Then I’d hit rewind, make a bowl of popcorn, and watch it all over again.

Recently I had the movie on my television in the background, as I prepared for a very stress-filled move within NYC. I found myself, as a woman, strangely relating to Ripley and her uphill battle against the malignant forces that seemed bound and determined to follow her. Far be it for me to make an action movie into some kind of deep metaphor (it wasn’t meant to be, was it?),  but, for a few brief minutes, between taping, shaping, squishing, folding and molding, I found myself marveling at the mastery of James Cameron’s 1986 work its hard edges, gleaming surfaces, dripping corners and long silences. I also fell in love with its feisty female heroine… dare I say I even drew a bit of inspiration?

This past fall was nothing like I’d imagine it being. I thought moving to NYC would mean I’d slip into a life I’d long wanted to be part of, one filled with work and friends and the media world I so deeply love; instead, I found rules and loneliness and desolation. Without going into too much personal detail, suffice to say the last few months of 2013 were very dark. Never have I felt more rejected, more more disillusioned, and more singularly alone. Everything was wrong, horrible, dreary and lonely; I felt less like the heroine of my life than the victim of a cruel prank. My romantic vision of New York was ripped away from me in a series of bruising, blackening experiences. I spent weeks telling myself things would get better, that it was my attitude, that it was my fault, that I wasn’t good enough, trying hard enough, that I wasn’t doing enough or being enough or bringing enough to make my NYC experience all it could and should be. I was wrong; things were bleak; it was awful. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do work I’m damn proud of, however – I just wish I’d done more of it, and made my culture writing, radio reporting, and social media activities (creativity and communicating, the stuff I love, the stuff that makes me the happiest) more of a priority. I plan to in 2014.

(Photo mine)

It was a supreme relief when, exiting Billy Bishop Airport last month, I breathed in the cold, clean air of a Canadian winter. Never has the term “home” meant so much, or been so personal, as that moment. Being back in Canada with my mother, my dog, the snow, and a warm, familiar house full of functioning heat, good food, and plenty of light in the day and silence at night has been deeply healing. Just as rewarding have been the many warm, welcoming messages from old friends reminding me there’s still a place I’m accepted, valued, and loved.

My return to NYC (at the end of month) will be done with more even-keeled approach, not expecting anything but with real attempts to keep despair at bay too. I am traumatized from my experiences last year, but I will not be defeated or defined by them. I’m keenly aware of my sensitivities, and I plan on wearing a better armor in order to protect them from the harshness the Big Apple is so good at serving up. I’m not about to bust into a chorus of “Survivor,” but I will be thinking of my favorite movie hero. I don’t care how corny that sounds. Watching Ripley fight off and ultimately escape the darkness that stalks her, with such fierce determination and return to a place of stillness and love, not quite whole but not quite defeated seems like a good way to welcome my second chapter. In my mind, Aliens never has any sequels; that ugly Mama Alien remains floating around, forever, always watching. Ripley knows. We always know. We can only move forwards.

Nowhere Is The Place To Be

The concept of the void -emptiness, nothingness, ground cleared away entirely -made an interesting return in my life this week.
Philosopher Richard Kearney mentioned it last week during his chat at the Rubin Museum Of Art; together with philosopher Joseph Prabhu, he parsed the connections between Catholicism and Buddhism, bringing in his own experiences about being at a holy cave in India (one central to Hinduism), and confronting the inevitable “void within.” There was nothing, he said, that could’ve prepared him for being in such a dark, dreary place so entirely devoid of human contact and life. Seeing as he was on a pilgrimage, he’d planned to stay for two weeks, and had made the proper arrangements with local monks and authorities. As it was, he lasted three hours.
It’s scary to confront this aspect of ourselves, where the external concerns both overwhelm and fall away, and ther’es nothing familiar or comforting to cling to anymore. Kearney brought up the pertinent example of Jesus calling out on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?“, drawing attention to the its perfect distillation of the concept of ‘void’, and what it means to confront that in order to move past it, and into a more meaningful existence. Experiencing this intense, intensely frightening, vast sense of inner emptiness and abandonment is, Kearney noted, a regular part of human experience; it doesn’t happen just once, and it shouldn’t. “Every day I die again and again and reborn…” Indeed.
This concept manifest into a hard reality after I left the talk, as news came about a potential job having fallen through. Encouragements aside (and I do thank every one of you who’ve sent them), it was, and remains hugely, painfully disappointing. Simply put, I don’t know how I’m going to stay in the Big Apple without paid work. That’s a hard reality, and a scary one to confront. Talk about staring into the void.
It’s true that the experience of making a new home for myself in New York City has provided several opportunities to stare into -indeed, fully steep in -my very own gaping, airless void, and to examine the relationships between spiritual, creative, and practical aspects of my life, integrating the muck of the past with the even muckier-muck of the present, and the absolutely blank, white-on-white question mark of the future. After Wednesday night, it feels like I’m embarking on a different kind of pilgrimage – searching for meaning, yes, earning a viable living, yes -but balancing that with all the colorful inspiration gained from writing in Soho, from meeting people like Edna O’Brien, from seeing the beautiful couples doing tango Union Square Sunday afternoons, from making inspiring new friends in old places, from small showings of kindness and the incredible vibrancy of living in a city where life can change in an instant.
I’ll definitely be returning to the Rubin for more thought-provoking talks, to see their upcoming exhibit about pilgrimage, to be illuminated by the kinds of ideas Kearney and Prabhu exchanged, and to sit and quietly examine the place where the void stops and life begins. Am I on the right track? Only time will tell – but I suppose it’s all part of the journey of making a life in the Big Apple.

Write Round

As I walked around Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful white spirals in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, I ducked into a special exhibition, Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, and… there it was, in all its orbular glory: Several Circles.

Like seeing the work of Klimt recently, experiencing Kandinsky in person was a deeply emotional experience. It forces a reset, a re-focus, a re-adjustment of perception, a realignment of attention, requests complete and utter presence, whispers for a magically pure blanket of silence. In the same breath, the work beckons, like a lover, to come closer, examine its velvet surfaces, its soft curves, its intricate, ovarian details, and slick, areola-like smoothness.
The Guggenheim website offers insight:

“The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”

In its magnificent, lidless, concentrated, and sensually concentric presence, I sat, mouth agape, staring at its hip-swirling dance of color, form, light, and texture. The fourth dimension indeed. There are few things that take me so directly there as painting and the written word.

I write, every day, in a real, actual journal, with a real, actual pen. It seems almost quaint. In this world of iPads and iPhones and digitalthisthatandtheother, writing in a journal seems fabulously oldy-world-y, and vaguely old-fashioned. It takes more time to write than type; this forces a stewing of thoughts, a quiet, patient consideration and re-consideration, one that ultimately transforms expressions and observations and perceptions into stained, messy, occasionally wine-spilled musings that melt, all over the pages, like soft, salt-water taffy slowly expiring on the tongue. ‘Do I like how this looks on the page?‘ becomes every bit as important as, ‘What am I trying to say again?’ and I’m often surprised at how much I miss my journal the times when I go out and forget it. I don’t always use it; it’s more an observational talisman that makes me look at things -and smell them, taste them, hear them, feel them – a little more closely.
This re-discovery of the joys of physical writing happened by chance. I was sent, not long after I moved to New York, a gorgeous red moleskine journal, by a friend and favorite journalist. It was both a congratulatory gift, and, I suspect, an acknowledgement, from writer to writer, of the fierce and passionate love we hold of words -particularly the tenuous, occasionally frustrating act of bringing them to life. This act, for me, involves a full engagement with the senses. I love things I can touch, things that I can be stained by, things that leave an impression on a page, that have a smell, a taste, a certain eye-catching color. It explains why I cook. It explains why I paint. It explains a lot.
So I was delighted to attend an event celebrating the tactile -recently. Called “Objectivity”, the event was held at Eyebeam, a digital art space on the west side of Manhattan. The event was part of A vocabulary of objects, a formal Moleskine event that saw workshop participants make their very own journals. On one side of the sprawling warehouse space, a massive piece of paper had been tacked onto a broad wall that dominated one side of the room. It had a mottled projection across it; black drafting pencils had been set out to encourage attendees to add their own markings. People were riotously, joyously drawing as they balanced glasses of prosecco and chatted. I added to the markings with a few wild lilies. I didn’t see one person texting or talking on a phone – only drawing, drinking, watching, creating, and connecting.
When the projection was turned off, and the lights came on, people stared in awe at the motley collection of markings, as the lines formed their own little colonies and empires across the vast expanse of manila. It was awfully refreshing, and even beautiful, to see people so intimately connected with the sensual act of drawing and making things,, and appreciating the after-effects. Is this the power of the sensual world? Are we coming full circle, back to the tangible arts? I pondered these questions as I wandered around and saw Moleskine’s designs for iPads and other digital gadgets. I was reminded of the re-ignition of interest in vinyl recordings, and how heartened I’d been at seeing contemporary albums proudly and prominently displayed at the front of record stores. This isn’t mere nostalgia or irony -this is the scratching at a more transcendent experience through earthly means, a knock-kn0ck-knockin’ on heaven’s door through the gates of dirt and mud and bruised knuckles, sharp needles and blood on the tracks.
And so, the Moleskin event At Eyebeam was a bit of heaven, here and now in New York City, 2011, amidst the hub-bub of technology and the joy of digital connectivity. Those have a place. So do the tangible arts. Being able to draw with total strangers felt like a strong reaffirmation of the vital role of the tangible in everyday life. Even as we ostensibly move further away from experiencing daily life with our five senses, at the same time, we move closer to it, taking pensive, tip-toe steps into that “fourth dimension” Kandinsky referred to. Can we make it? Can we commit? I freely admit to being addicted to the bonbons of modern life: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Soundcloud, Linked In … blogging. But I’m circling back to sensuality, being reminded, in tiny spiraling whispers, that I never left. That fourth dimension is beckoning me, to enter, and re-enter, again and again. I want to keep walking, I’m curious what I’ll find in the middle, on the outer rings, and along the way. Stained fingers? That…and a whole lot more.
Photos: Taken from my Flickr photostream.

Tea Time

As I poured hot water over my Bewleys tea bag this morning, I thought about the art of tea-making, and how much it’s changed, or at least been simplified and degraded by the busy nature of modern life. I enjoyed a thorough education in the fine art of tea and its enjoyment yesterday afternoon at the lovely In Pursuit of Tea, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.

Housed in an inconspicuous part of Soho, IPOT specializes in fine teas and hosts regular tastings. My host, co-founder Sebastian Beckwith, graciously made the assembled a variety of teas –white, oolong, green, black, and pu-erh -in the classical style: using delicate pieces of fine china to brew, and providing dainty Oriental tasting cups for attendants. Sebastian provided a wonderful background to each tea, too, in a casual, conversational way, sharing stories about his recent travels through China and about the vanishing arts that contribute to the manufacturing of certain types of tea.

Like my last tea-tasting with Stratford, Ontario’s very own tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Toronto’s Hart House, the experience of tasting various teas, and of sharing my observations with the assembled, transported me into an older, more deeply sensual world, one where the eyes, ears, tongue and heart work in perfect harmony. Having Led Zeppelin play in the store’s intimate environment added a sexily jagged rock and roll vibe, and provided the perfect bridge between old world and new.

A big part of the old world, Sebastian explained, is the way various teas are handled. Women who know how to treat and process certain green teas – with their own hands – are slowly dying, and they aren’t passing on their knowledge to a younger generation, not because they don’t want to, but because the younger generation isn’t interested in learning. The same processing could be done via machine, but it just isn’t the same, in either taste or experience. It would be, I observed, akin to kneading bread by hand or using the quick-rise, no-knead version. Sure, good, but… not the same. It’s a question of personal taste.
The same holds true for writing. I recently attended an event at the wonderful Eyebeam New York;. the happening was done with Moleskine, the good people behind the beloved, legendary journals, notebooks, and other fine writing accessories. In my next blog spot, I’ll be going into more detail about the nostalgia for older, more tangible forms of art. You see it reflected in the craze for vinyl records, for gardening, for home cooking. People want to experience life sensually, while holding on to (and developing) their digital identities. In fact, they’re interested in linking the two. There’s a fascinating kind of circular experience happening in popular culture.
That became achingly apparent yesterday as I inhaled the earthy, flowery aromas of infused tea leaves, listened to Robert Plant “ramble on”, chatted and laughed with other tasters, and let the buttery (or grassy, or vanilla) flavors roll around my palate. Tasting life never seemed more rich. Who knew it could fit into such a tiny cup?

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