Joy Beneath the Ruins

Our lives are ennui and insomnia and alarm clocks and endless contradictions. They are caffeine and bills and cortisone. They are machines that don’t work, and relationships that challenge, ever-hungry chequing accounts and equally hungry souls. They are ever-more demanding jobs and ever-more fatigued bodies, and they are deception, messes the scale of Fukushima, which is still, I learned this morning, seeping a daily 300 tons of radioactive water into the wonder and gift that is the Pacific Ocean.

So what else is there to do, but try to transcend it all, regularly and often? And what better way to do this than through music and love and beauty and play? These are tried and true modulators of stress hormones and blood pressure, boosters of endorphins and dopamine and oxytocin and all things gold. They help us integrate the shards of our dreams and make a semblance of peace with the ruins we carry around at our core.

This is why I continue to fight for my pass to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

At Gallagher Park, sun and fresh air and beauty are abundant, as are smiling faces and friends and apple cider. But most abundant is the music, music with the ability to split us open and penetrate past the rubble of our crumbled castles and down to the existential joy still there beneath the weight of the years.

The sounds coming from the mouths of the artists and at the command of their fingers on instruments of all kinds drew smiles and shouts of surprise and joy. Some of it, as in the case of LP’s stunning vibrato, and John Butler’s equally stunning guitar skill, was literally jaw-dropping.  Jam sessions on stages crowded with talent willing to risk themselves by giving in to the current infused energy into our muscles and bones and cells as we synchronized with the sounds and rhythms and each other.

Some of it, like Bruce Cockburn, was deeply integrating, calming, comforting. With him, we swam deeply in an ocean of beauty and felt no need to come up for air, as he evoked images of mercy, of the rose above the sky, the light behind the sun, a story beyond that which we see and understand in this moment.

We walked home late that night over the footbridge crossing the river under a starry sky, most of us quiet, calm, deeply nourished, warmed by dopamine, reset in some primal way.

But come up for the air of the quotidian we must, eventually, though hopefully, after the initial shock of adjustment, we come up a little more integrated, a little more able to see our way back to the existential joy still there, beneath the ruins.sunflower


Freedom to Read Week

jeff and chris hedges
It was an evening I’ll remember for a long time. First, randomly, in one of those lovely unwrapped little surprises the universe just drops in our laps, the man of the evening walked up to us in the lineup (we arrived very early), grinned, allowed me to swoon ecstatically for a second, and snap a photo. He then asked directions and moved on. Young again for a moment, that’s how I felt coming unexpectedly face-to-face with someone who has so often profoundly inspired and moved me.

It was an Edmonton Public Library event held at the University of Alberta, to kick off Freedom to Read Week—many, many thanks to them!!–and our guest was Chris Hedges.

At the podium, he stood and spoke to us, apparently not in need of any notes, just spoke. Brilliantly, about dark things like working class hopelessness and the erosion of civil liberties, about our broken electoral politics and our slide into totalitarian capitalism—but he did it with hope and clarity and passion, and a dash of defiance.

He knows what he knows, and he knows it well. He knows what we need to do to protect what is truest and best about human beings. He knows about the ways good returns good, about the futility of violence and greed, about what he witnessed for decades as a New York Times journalist covering conflicts and rebellions and uprisings the world over, about the inaccurate picture of events we come to believe as true when we stop reading and rely instead on television sound-bites, about the decisions made far from the eye of the public, about the unwritten rule of the corporate media not to alienate too deeply the hand that feeds.

Though he has been criticized for being angry in his writings, I saw no anger, only sorrow alongside the hope, and the soul of an honest human being.

When he was finished, we stood and applauded and some of us wept: the ovation had the flavour of ovations we give the rock stars of our youth. There was simply something about his words and being that had the most powerful ring of truth, something that resonated deeply and made us feel infinitely more alive than we did coming in a few hours earlier.



cruel, bone-chilling -35 degree winds
warm and safe in here
hot tea in my hands
soft support under my body
surrounded by pretty
the sound of the furnace
the pantry full

in the news: Edmonton’s Hope Mission
our city’s several thousand men and women without a place to call home
a handful of agencies providing plastic vinyl-covered mattresses
for a night
a bowl of soup
shelter, for a little while, from the killing cold

a universe unknown, impossibly far away,
or so it seems
in truth, a single hard fall away

I have a disagreement with you who refuse to acknowledge this:
mental illness
bank accounts flushed away
any number of falls from good fortune—I am not immune
you are not immune

it is hubris, and infinitely dangerous
to our spirits
to claim we built our little worlds on our own,
that they are indestructible

A Hint of a Smile

No amount of bright paint or floral wall décor can make the place feel less frightening to me. None of the cheery smiling faces can really take the edge off of simply being there.

Sure, there are amazingly beautifully brave people all around—inspiring—as the staff who love working at the Cross Cancer Institute is quick to say. Still. All I could think about was those whose news today—or yesterday, or last week or last month—wasn’t good.

Cancer is a thief.

But you go through the motions, almost robotically, answering the faces behind the desks “how are you” with “fine”, even though you’re not. (I did append my “fine” once today with “that’s a lie,” which registered just a hint of a smile on the face of the clerk.)

But I am fine, now, and very, very thankful.

And I’ve forgiven myself for being short with my husband this morning, telling him that no, I’m not interested in what Chris Hedges is saying, not today, and yes, I know we’re normally on the same page, but I can’t think about political and corporate corruption, not today.

The tears came when I got home, within the safety of his hug. Then the joy: I can tell my family the good news. And the kids are coming for dinner.


Determination, and Convocation

English: A publicity photo of the Davis Concer...

This morning at the gorgeous Winspear Centre, which was practically bursting with the majesty of the pipe organ and the excitement of those gathered, I eagerly watched the procession for the face of my sister.

Somehow, in the face of full time work, a busy family life, friends, her husband’s triple bypass surgery, and having to put it all on hold for many months to recover from a serious bleed on her brain a few years ago, she managed to rally the determination to recover fully, sacrifice her weekends for writing papers, and earn a degree from Grant MacEwan University.

She was smiling when I spotted her under her cap.

I was deeply moved from the first second of the ceremony. The vulnerable and terrifying months after the hospital came back to me for a moment, and then made room for relief and pride and joy. And awe. Like my sister, many of those graduating didn’t party their way through university at someone else’s expense; they worked hard to clear all kinds of hurdles, big hurdles. One young woman had earned her certificate in the face of an obvious developmental disability.

Being there to witness this moment made me proud to be a human being.

You did good, little sister, earning this now, after all these years, and all these reasons not to persevere.

Afterwards, my brother-in-law took us all out to the Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, where we imbibed a little more abandon than we normally might on a Tuesday afternoon, and then we went back to our ordinary lives, the reality of rubbing along with family, co-workers, friends, domestics. But the memory of the morning will linger.

Music, Madness and Magic

We paid our endlessly-long-line-up dues, got our wristbands, and were granted entry into four days of chaos, fun, Porta Potty unpleasantness, love, over-heating, joy, and amazing sound. We kicked off in our usual way, with friends, cider, beer and wine, and then tentatively tested out our dancing feet with Corb Lund. We let Emmylou Harris lyrics tap into our dark places and make us weep, and then infused the Afrobeat sounds of Amadou and Miriam into our psyches to recharge.

In the evening (I can’t remember which one), a cool breeze coming off the now-damp grass, the sounds of The Barr Brothers baptized us in beauty. Perfection. In the hot afternoon sun, we happily bumped into each other and (less happily and accidentally) swapped sweat with total strangers to the energy of Arrested Development and a stage so full of talent and humour that I vowed to continue returning to this spectacular music festival on this spectacular hill in this wonderful city until I’m too old to navigate the hill, even if my friends tire of it and I need to go solo.

I know, I’m easily mesmerized at the hands of musical magicians, but still: I don’t think it is possible not to be at least partially hypnotized at some point during this extravaganza of sound and beauty.

Of course, participating in four-day events as rich and sleep-deprived as this means reaching upper limits of pleasure and the sudden bloom of at least one bit of conflict. (I have a pathologically low tolerance for conflict and emotional withdrawal, and consequently wept through the entire gorgeous set of James Vincent McMorrow.) But workshops like La Bottine Souriante, Lennie Gallant, Martin Joseph and the Paul McKenna Band—all crowded together on one little stage and playing together—infused enough joy and energy to make it all worthwhile. Later, the gorgeous sounds of the gorgeous Bahamas from about five rows back was divine.

After a month of daily severe weather we saw not a single drop of rain or hail all weekend, nor a single lightening bolt, and despite mosquito warnings, I used no repellant and got not a single bite. I gorged myself on pleasure, on sunshine, on Fat Franks and cider and other wonderful foods, and on beautiful, beautiful sounds and beautiful and happy and wonderfully weird people. And I’ve squirreled a bunch of it away for the barren winter a few short months ahead.


Yesterday, at TEDxEdmonton I discovered I may still have superhero potential after all, at least by neuroscientist Paul Zehr’s logic. It requires not extraordinary giftedness, he says, but rather years of being a decent human being, and rather than being unusually good at any one thing, being pretty good at a wide range of things. This is good news to me, being a decent human being, but very unspecialized in our highly specialized world.

The event was an independently organized TED event held in Edmonton every year in the spirit of TED’s mission—ideas worth spreading—and, while the quality of the presentations varied, it delivered some really great ideas truly worth spreading.

It was an excellent reminder that the seeds and the soil provided by our poets and artists are as essential to innovation as the expertise and talent of our scientists and entrepreneurs. The ideas come first, then the technology, which made the poetry of Mary Pinkoski  the perfect beginning and end to the day’s presentations.

Edmontonian Gerry Morita of Mile Zero Dance also captured this essential but often-overlooked truth about the value of the arts, with her focus on creative collaboration, as did Kris Pearn of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame, who presented a marvelously entertaining illustration of using art to turn failure into success.

Randy Marsden of Cleankeys brilliance illustrated beautifully how scientists who know little about biology can come up with a solution to our seriously high risk of hospital acquired infections, which is our fourth leading cause of death. Darrell Kopke of Lululemon success presented a convincing case for the value putting generosity before profits, and that this order of values need not be in opposition to profitable ventures.

There was much more, and the day’s pleasures included taking in some of the Pride Festivities at lunchtime, and a yummy lunch provided by Elm Cafe’s Nate Box, sitting at a little table in the street outside in the sunshine.

After it all, inspired and energized but slightly stiff from sitting for so long, we pretended to be French and enjoyed a lovely glass of champagne, and then went to check out the street festivities. The rain put a damper on things, quite literally, but we had a fine supper and soaked in the energy of Edmontonians happy to end their season of hibernation. The evening ended on the pleasure of watching my friend (whose strappy sandals had begun to hurt) run barefoot through the rainy wet streets of downtown Edmonton. She’d been complaining of feeling her age and not enjoying being the oldest patrons at Lit. Who cares about age, I wish I’d have thought to say; you’re at least as much fun as the young crowd.