Full Moons, Dirty Feet, Blunt Hammers

valley trailAugust is the most delicious month. I can taste it, despite the activity of gremlins in my genes and the giant tangles of disillusionment and uncertainty that have settled in my bones.

August is perfection, abundance, glorious maturity. I have no words for the magic of the canopy of leaves over the path I walk; all I know is that I see the miraculous more easily at this time of year than at any other. The rest—the early morning rush of trying to untangle yesterday’s problems, the late night flow of sorrow over the day’s events—it’s all there, but August, with its strong and hopeful song, has a way of expanding the moment to make room for all of it, with little effort on my part.

Dead centre in the glory of summer, hitting me like a large blunt hammer, I see in my friend
the crippling effects of her multiple sclerosis, and in another (and in the mirror) the fatigue
and fear that laces cancer treatment and oncology visits and statistics that scream defeat and recurrence. In my body, I feel the effects of confused and bruised mitochondria, hungry cells. But for now, there is August. August with its overgrown gardens and fresh greens in abundance. With its built-in gratitude. With its books. (The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, for those of you with a hungry, science-minded streak, curious about FF hill 2014why all your efforts of positive thinking and movement toward your goals still haven’t built a solid grate over the deep hole you sometimes fall into.) August with its muddy, sweaty feet, with its outdoor music powerful enough to get thousands of us dancing barefoot under the full moon on our river valley hill.

The Alchemist

My daughter, looking a little vulnerable to my maternal eye, greeted me with a hug despite my warnings about a nasty virus I’d given refuge for the past week. We’d met for a bite to eat before the show, and talked a little about the mountain weighing heavily upon her, and for a moment I feared her sorrow might take away from her evening. But an hour later, less than thirty seconds into the show, she reached her arm around me to squeeze my shoulder. I squeezed her hand in response, she smiled widely, and then Brandi Carlile, as always, gave us her soul.

How do I describe the experience of her voice and guitar-playing and foot-stomping alongside the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra? I thought nothing would top the acoustic experience she gave us last year, but I was wrong. Almost immediately, her honesty tapped into something deep inside, and she seemed more grown-up somehow, and then she was no longer just singing, she was soaring miles above an entire symphony orchestra. She takes you with her, and then she drops you and you’re surfing a giant ocean swell about to break on the shore, and she’s laughing, and pouring out all this love, her voice magically soothing one minute and then shredding both the song and your heart in the next, and it’s much more than entertainment.

It’s wild, and primal, and a deeply spiritual ride.

With or without amplified sound (their unplugged acoustic piece sent chills down my back again), and with or without the twins’ voices and guitars, and with or without the entire symphony orchestra, she filled the auditorium and those of us present to overflowing. She can out-sing a thousand cellos, and she did, and I just have to put my thank-you out there to the universe. We’re born for connection and joy; they are deeply spiritual and sacred experiences.

Nights like these change nothing, and yet in deep unseen ways, they change everything again.

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

Mercy Now

surf 5

A warm summer night, a tiny venue, an adoring crowd. Outside the window, buckets of water pour from the sky, and a few claps of thunder loud enough to override the noise level indoors break through.

Inside—in addition to happy chatter, and later, magical music—are love and beauty, failure and heartbreak, all held in her soul, pouring out via her words and melodies into our souls, as we smiled and smiled, and, in some cases, wept.

Inside my being, the warm glow of what my family and friends and teachers give me. You’re big enough to hold it all, one of these told me again last week, you can be solidly anchored at any time; you need only remind yourself of this more faithfully and more deeply, to be prepared when the storms blow in.

It’s true, I know this. Haven’t we all weathered, over and over again, failure, illness, abandonment, the death of our dreams? And the smaller waves too, being judged, misunderstood, set aside; not being liked, not being wanted, not being respected?

Little squalls keep blowing in; the surf’s been unusually high these past few years. Breathe, I remind myself often, breathe. Surrender, detach, let go, expand, feel the wind at your back. There is no need for flailing and grasping, no room for judgment or condemnation or fear, only room for the truth, all of it. I don’t need to be all things to all people. I don’t need to be liked be everyone, nor to like everyone. I just am; they just are. My idea of what is just and fair may not be yours. I may not understand the ways you have found to survive; you may not understand mine. Your experience may be foreign to me, mine to yours.

And then, occasionally, there are those who—either because they have lived something similar, or because they are naturally highly empathetic, intuitive and brilliant—occasionally there are those who get it, and with whom conversation resonates deeply. These people are treasures.

Remember, I tell myself this morning, what Mary Gauthier sang deeply into our souls on Saturday, “Every living thing could use a little mercy now/only the hand of grace can end the race/towards another mushroom cloud/people in power, well/they’ll do anything to keep their crown/I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now. Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now/I know we don’t deserve it/but we need it anyhow/we hang in the balance/dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground/every single one of us could use some mercy now…”

We Dance

We DanceI have an 8 AM appointment. I’m delighted to be outside, walking, breathing the cool fresh morning air, passing others on their way to work, feeling the muscles in my legs, glad for bare feet and sandals.

Later, in the heat of the day, hiding out in the cool shade of our cave with some time to focus, I read about Family Constellations Theory, and am happy not to fall asleep three pages in, which is what happens when I read before bed. Reminders: accept with gratitude the life our parents gave us; accept the particulars that life and those around us have given us, both the good and the bad. When we do this for ourselves, the pain of others in our constellation is mitigated too. This is very hopeful to me.

I have a conversation with my daughter. I am proud of her, and of her brothers, proud that for all the pain our little constellation has carried, we are busy pursuing joy and compassion and forgiveness.

I tear up fresh butter lettuce, and I mince sweet peppers and cucumbers and shallots and radishes for a crisp cold salad. I top it with mango Stilton cheese, and fry up a couple of eggs to go with it. It’s a nice summer supper. Afterwards, we go climb those green, green river valley hills, me and my husband, and I even manage, for the second time this week, to do it without falling and skinning my knee. (I’m going to credit my new runners; I’d had the old ones for about 15 years, and they tell me that’s too long.)

Overnight, a storm brews, though not outside. In the morning, for reasons that only now in retrospect make any sense, I wake up remembering all the other stuff of my life—the not-happy stuff, the betrayals, the very real challenges currently staring me in the face. And when I say I remember them, I don’t mean they are benign little facts in my brain. I mean I remember them, loudly, as if they are, all of them, happening this very second. Yesterday’s sunny skies are gone.

I make some plans—work is, to my mind, the best medicine for most things. There are a few problems with this however, one being that I am at the moment a tad underemployed.

Still, I keep busy, though I remind myself not to rush, that I sometimes break things or hurt myself when I rush. In the evening, I sit outside and feel the breeze, watch the rain, the hail. It is soothing.

I listen to a CBC podcast, and from Daniel Levitin learn that in most of the world’s languages, the word for music and dance are the same—there was no reason to have two. Listening to music, singing and dancing, mirroring another’s movements and vocal sounds—these activities create empathy and bonding. They produce a cocktail of pleasure chemicals, one of them being Oxytocin, the hormone of love, trust, bonding. The neurons in our brains synchronize to music. And they also synchronize us to each other as human beings in the absence of music, when we walk together, or listen to each other, look at each other. We actually begin to converge physiologically within seconds.  Cooperative work brings about deep neurological changes, a sense of purpose, being connected to a larger whole. We are dancing with each other all the time.

This, I decide, is at least part of the reason for the current storm. My work is mostly too isolating.

The new day dawns gray again, literally now. I carry on with my get-through-the-to-do-list approach. But today, I am also meeting a friend for lunch. On my way, deep in thought on a narrow sidewalk, I notice the big yellow school bus nearby, sort of. It has only partially registered. It makes a tight turn, and swings its very long back end into the pole I am standing right next to, barely missing me.

Minutes later, I splash coffee not quite hot enough to scald me on my hands. Over lunch, I have face-to-face conversation. The clouds burst outside the window, and we share my umbrella as we leave. It really is, as my friend said, a lucky day.







Lift the Silence

“Take me to that place, where music sounds good again,” sings k.d. lang, and she did, she does. The sound two nights ago filled every inch of the auditorium, every pore in the room, and she took us there.

And all night long, and the next day, walking with other Edmontonians who’d come out to Lift the Silence, the refrain went on and on in my ears—take me to that place, where music sounds good again. That place where it is enough just to be alive, where facing each new day with a smile comes easily. That place where walking through dewy morning grass in bare feet is the purest pleasure, one worth getting up early for. That place where walking anywhere, the feeling of elastic hamstrings with each bounce of step, is the purest pleasure.

Take me to that place, before. Before I knew it wasn’t always enough to try hard, to pay your dues, to be kind and good. Before I doubted the motives and authenticity of our leaders. Before I knew dreams could be shattered and rupture us wide open and leave us raw to the elements. Before I watched that happen to my children, and my friends’ children. Before I knew about neurological or mitochondrial damage, before the stranger in the mirror, before we were orphaned, before we broke each other’s hearts.

Before I knew some who heard the music and loved it completely, only to have it silenced in a moment by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by some runaway cells that moved in and took over.

Before I knew the music could morph into cacophony, go quiet, even stop altogether. Before I knew some who panicked in the silence, and left us forever.

k.d. lang took us there the other night, not back to before all that—that’s never possible— but somehow, to that place where music sounds good again. And maybe the echo will be enough for a while again, for most of us at least.