Lessons in Music

We started with noisemakers, my brother and I. Spinning bells in rainbow colours and toy xylophone that made a joyous noise when held against the spinning bells. Use the mallets, mom would say. You’re going to chip it.

When I was 4, I got my first guitar. I suppose it was a parlour guitar, big enough to grow into, small enough to almost get my tiny body around it. It was cheap wood, but I’d pull a good 14 years out of it, until the body was held together with duct tape and the neck was warped.

And a few years later, I took piano lessons. A keyboard joined the fray at home, though I didn’t really practice much. I got the sheet music to “Imagine” by John Lennon for Christmas one year, a welcome departure from the unfamiliar lullabies I was learning from the piano teacher. I didn’t know these popular songs, the supposedly common songs from the piano books I tucked into my homemade tote bag. I knew the songs from my mom’s tattered folk song book, from the sections she liked, like Hard Times & Blues, and Mountain Songs.

There were some children’s songs mixed in, like “I Come and Stand”, a song about a child who died in Hiroshima, narrated by his ghost. We sang them together, songs about death and war and peace and aging and loneliness. We sang murder ballads, we sang the blues.

I took some voice lessons from the piano teacher too, but what she really wanted to teach me was the word of God. She sent me home with Bibles, including was a comic book version which I read, like any other book, cover to cover. It was a cool story, and good to know. The proselytizing crept up slowly, though, and began to take up more time in the lessons. I stopped going.

I jumped from the folk songs of the 60s to the rock n roll of the 90s, found a tab book for Hole and learned power chords. I got an electric guitar, and then a bass. My dad taught me how to use a distortion pedal. You can fuck up all you want and it’ll still sound awesome, he told me.

I never really played guitar out of the house, but I took my bass and joined a band, and another, and another. I took my dad’s advice about the distortion and extended it to my attitude: turn it up, and put on a good show. The lessons became more informal, more experiential. Advice in the van, before and after a show, in the bathroom over smokes.

I made the requisite noise at band practice, but at home I was silent. Hearing just my own parts with such precision, each solo sloppy bass note, felt clinical. It was too clean. I didn’t want to hear myself fucking up, I wanted to just throw my own little piece into a wall of sound.

I left a band, a band left me, I left a band, a band left me, I jumped around. Life got chaotic and I took a step back from bands, from shows, from playing with other people. I set up my instruments at home, in a little shrine of my own. I came home late at night and picked up my guitar. I’d learn a song and then work on it for hours until it was perfect. I’d rather sing and play than sleep, than eat, than work, than anything.

Those who knew me when I was always in bands would ask, are you playing with anyone right now?

No, I’d reply sheepishly.

There were times before this when I wasn’t in a band, and I felt like I didn’t exist. A part of me was missing without performing. I could barely go to a show without heartache, feeling trapped in the crowd. I want to be up there, I want to be on the stage was all I could see or think.

This time, though, it was harder to explain. I was playing so much more frequently, more passionately, more skillfully than every before. Just not in public or with other people. I felt like more of a musician than ever, but without that kind of public proof, that word – musician – seemed to land with a hollow thud. A short nod that whispered, yeah…right.

If you play at home with no one to hear it, are you still a musician?

Maybe if the short answer is yes, the long answer is yes and no and yes. There’s a part of this that can’t happen alone, and a part of this that can’t happen any other way but alone.

piano bag

My homemade tote bag, the one with music-sheet printed all over it that used to carry my unfamiliar lullaby piano books and cartoon bibles, is just the right size for records. And tonight I filled it up and carried it over to a new kind of music lesson, a mini DJ school for lovers of vinyl who also did a basic digital DJing class over the last few years.

We talked shop, talked music, practiced beat matching. We listened carefully to each other’s selections, learning a bit about different tastes. We all heard combinations of music we would have never thought about on our own. We were challenged to use our brains, ears, and hands in a new way, to try making cool sounds in front of a friendly audience.

None of us have turntables or mixing boards at home, so at this point, practicing at all is out of the question. But in these few short sessions, we can share our skills and love of music, and that’s what musicians do.


Day 26, or so

Well, it’s the home stretch, the final few days of blogging every day, or almost every day, at least. I may have missed one or two. I’ll have to go back and check.

I realize it’s a bit early to be reflecting, but at this moment, I’m really considering how this challenge has affected my writing and blogging practice.

There’s a lot I want to write about, and it crosses many genres and topic areas, and that’s fine. I think that there’s still room for all of it here. Room for politics, room for fun, room for reminiscing, room for exploring different writing forms.

But another thing I’ve realized is that if this is something I’m going to be doing, I need to make room for it too. This can’t just be an afterthought, as I’m brushing my teeth – oh, that piece that’s been swimming around in my head all day, it needs to be written (at 11 p.m.) And the night owl in me craves the night time for writing, but in the morning, I feel wrecked by the late nights at the computer, day after day after day.

In subtle ways, I’ve let go of other things to make space for this. Like writing for yeah write, which I miss. Like my bedtime routine, which was just getting its momentum back. Like a good chunk of doubt and self-criticism, which can keep running off into the horizon, thank you very little.

Continuing this kind of writing practice, I’m also reconsidering my role in a larger community of readers and writers. I’m considering my responsibility, and the kinds of messages I want to support and amplify. The world moves quickly, and if I’m to dive in to write about it, that needs its own kind of space too. Space to read, reflect, and then react in a measured way.

I often feel both relieved and nostalgic at the end of a project. As this commitment is coming close to wrapping up, I feel those, but I also feel motivated to move forward, excited. After almost a month of “just do it”, I know I mostly can. And now I want to do it better.

Hermit Girl Leaves the House

Is it the sudden darkness of an 7 pm that feels like the dead of night, or the weather, or the never-ending list of tasks, or a sudden turn towards introspection that inspired this longer-than-expected run of hermit-dom?

All of the above, maybe. But today, hermit girl has left the house, and not just in the daytime. Daytime and nighttime. She’s going to see a show, missing her brother who was going to be here with her, but is somewhere awesome instead. Off traveling and adventuring. So instead of brother, hermit girl is sitting next to her friendly backpack, early because the bus said so, waiting for the first band.

She’s wondering, as she’s heard many friends wonder for years, when she got so old and everybody else got so young. She thought they were joking, the friends. They didn’t seem that old, and everyone else (which, at that time, probably included her) didn’t seem so young. She hopes that if she said this out loud, someone would laugh at her like she laughed at her older friends when she was so young. She looks up and around, there are no faces she knows who would laugh.

Not yet, at least. Maybe they will show up.

Hermit girl looks around and tries not to judge. It’s a defensive reflex, a conditioned social reaction to the awkwardness of being alone, this sniping at others. It’s not really all that fun, but there ARE so many beards, does every guy wear a beard these days? Whatever. Live and let live. Ignore the beards, hermit girl. Alone is not so bad.

She turns back to her phone, pulls her jacket in from the aisle a bit, takes a deep breath, looks around. That girl over there is yawning, at least it’s not unusual to be tired this early.

It’s almost time for the first band. Maybe it’s time for a soda. Or maybe it’s time to find a new place to hermit down for the night, a little nook among the crush of bodies where somehow, in the midst of all these people, she can be comfortably alone.

The Luxury of a Long Table

None of the other blog posts I planned to write today can possibly come to the fore, not after another announcement of a flawed justice system failing, not after watching waves of heartbreak ripple through my friends, both American and Canadian.

As the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict news came in, I was sitting in a room full of feminists. It was a long table conversation, with many voices at the table. Women – feminists, activists, women of colour, queer women, trans women, and more – spoke of their experiences living under patriarchy. They spoke of sexism, but more than anything they spoke of racism. They spoke of the ongoing legacy of colonization, here in Treaty One Territory, of institutionalized racism, of the subtle “polite” racism. They spoke of violence, their missing and murdered kin. They spoke of violence in threats and violence in words. They spoke of so much that I couldn’t possibly capture here, and that is not the point.

The point is that we are not so far away, and we are all connected to this. Maybe there are other white women sitting in Canada, like me, and other white men, and they can’t see the connection. The heartbreak, how crushing this verdict is. This is more than theory and a discussion, even if, as an ally, sitting and listening and maybe helping out a bit is the role to play at the moment.

We cannot forget that racism, entrenched institutionalized racism, does not exist in the vacuum. The system is upheld by individual people. People who exist in the world with each other and who uphold racist, white supremacist systems with their words and actions. Silence is an action. Using words without considering their meaning, without seeing the harm that can be done on the spectrum of violence, that’s an action too.

Standing up and saying something is also an action. That happened too, here at the long table. When tonight’s conversation wound down, I felt hopeful, optimistic. I felt that people had listened, and people held each other through the difficult parts. I thought that hey, there are some pretty fantastic people in this city working to make it better, and I want to be a part of that. Maybe we can change the world, albeit slowly.

Then I pulled out my phone, checked the news, saw #blacklivesmatter all over facebook again, still. This theory, and the violence of language is part of it. But the actual visceral acts, of racialized physical violence, of murder, of protesting because there’s no other way to say that this is wrong, that’s the real consequence.

Tonight, in Ferguson, and elsewhere across the US, many folks will not have the luxury of coming to a long and open table to do the first step, to simply talk, to find kinship and build connections through dialogue, like we did in Winnipeg tonight. I only hope that those of us who are out here can support them in some way, whatever that is. Hold on to the hope when you find it, and reach out to those who are running low. Make space for the outrage. There is every reason to be angry.

If we’re talking about this, talk louder, talk more, talk to those who don’t quite get it yet.  And for some of us, those who have a disproportionate share of air space, talk less, and listen more.

The Empty Tap

I often try not to take modern conveniences for granted. I look at house life as only one step removed from camping, just with a more permanent kind of tent. It keeps me light on my toes. And when the modern conveniences fail, as they often have and often do, it feels a little less catastrophic.

Water is, so far, the most popular thing to fall off, and it really messes up my life when I reach for the tap and find it empty. Even when I think I’ve adapted to whatever work-around I’ve set up, I still reach for the same tap, expecting liquid.

Earlier this fall, my brother and mom replaced my bathtub taps for me as an early birthday present. The hot water tap started with a slow leak, and then would not shut off with the water pressure. The new taps are shiny and pretty and do exactly as a tap does: They keep the water on, or off, or at a desired level somewhere between the two.

Looking back, today, I think oh – what a luxury, hot water that won’t stop! And it was really only a small inconvenience, to turn the taps on and off at the source before and after a bath. Even after the fix, it was a few weeks before I stopped reaching for that shut-off valve, before I trusted the new taps completely.

This weekend, my water heater started leaking all over the basement floor. Not a colossal flood – phew – but enough to be trouble. Enough to find another shut off valve, and to make boiling water for dishes a safer bet than counting on the big tank.

So I found little tanks and filled them, and laughed to myself whenever I reached for the empty tap. At the moment, I’m still optimistic. I can still flip the “make the best of it” switch, to make small adjustments, to not feel so hard done by.


The little hot water tanks.

I know that eventually, like all of these systems I count on day by day, this too will wear out. Living in a house as camping won’t be novel, it’ll be demoralizing.

Eventually, I’ll get tired of the makeshift shower or using the bath as a sink (or the sink as a bath) or whatever the best possible option is. Eventually, I will just want to take modern conveniences for granted, to move through my day a little more seamlessly.

For now, I just hope to find a way to fix the latest problem before the supplies get too low – before my optimism runs dry.

Moth Shakes

The moths have been vexing me for the better part of a year now.

Last winter when they were bad, I cleaned out all the cupboards and found a large bag of flour that had become a moth colony. I saw it, then immediately closed the door and took stock of the physical sensation that had overcome my body, a brief episode of moth shakes, a fluttering kind of shiver travelling up my spine.

It’s a certain kind of creepy feeling inspired by seeing that number of insects living in such an intense clump. It’s not scary like scream-and-jump haunted house scary. It’s not creepy-crawly shivers like with the leggy bugs – centipedes, spiders. It’s not the “get it off” of leeches. And they don’t even really swarm, just flop about kind of erratically, drawn to the light by some invisible tether.

I’m not particularly scared or grossed out – well, the fact that I had scooped flour out of that bag without noticing the subtle webbing lacing its way up the side of the bag just a few weeks before, and baked bread with it, and ate that bread, I felt a little leery of that. But not the moths themselves. There’s just a lot of them, in a delicate clump, hiding in the dark.

I threw out the flour, scoured the cupboard, and moved on. The creepy feeling didn’t linger.

Tonight I found something that put the flour bag to shame. A small tin, cute and vintage, whose contents were absolutely unrecognizable. Opening the lid, all I could see was dark grey and whispering wings. It was a solid mass of moths that wouldn’t even budge when I turned it upside down over the garbage can. Mom looked over me and said, “Why are your shoulders up? Put your shoulders down, we have to take them outside.”

She reached one gloved hand into the tin and pulled out a clump of moth-matter, pale white beneath, flour, webbed with nests. Down they fell, in chunks, some fluttering, some now compost.

I couldn’t describe the feeling that kept spreading out from my spine, across the back of my skull, down my arms and legs. I felt like I was made of moths, shaky sparkly moths that were trying to escape the center of my body, out, out, to the light.


“But you can make it yourself” has almost reached cult status in my family. I can always count on hearing it from my mom if I mention wanting to stop to grab a coffee or a bite to eat – why, I could have just made that at home for (insert cost of said food/beverage). And it would be better, of course.

While I may have acquired the skills to make a lot of things myself, I haven’t quite perfected the routine of maintenance. This has been a sore spot, a failing, a source of shame for a while. Why can’t I just keep myself organized enough to do the most basic things?

To make coffee at home means I have coffee on hand, which means I’ve gone grocery shopping, and which also means I haven’t re-allocated my grocery budget to something more pressing. What could be more pressing than eating? Well, cats eating, for one, because they don’t really do logic and reason when I try to explain to them that kibble is coming even though their bowl is empty now. They will just howl. And my eating can be patched together with canned goods and leftovers, I can stretch it a little longer.

It also requires that home space be kept in workable order, building a foundation of items and order so that cooking and cleaning are tasks, not expeditions. But when did I last do the dishes? Well over a month ago, not counting a small refresher load of mugs and bowls after every single one was dirtied. Dinner tonight was pizza, frozen, because in a glorious burst of forward planning I bought 6 when they were on sale. Later on when I look back, and realize I was thinking ahead, I’m grateful that my past self was planning for my future self in some way, looking for an easier path through the day.

But for the regular things to be done easily, there needs to be more than sporadic effort. The infrastructure requires maintenance.

Evidence of last week's tiny flash flood of domestic ambition (Don't ask how long the muffin tins sat unwashed).

Evidence of last week’s tiny flash flood of domestic ambition (Don’t ask how long the muffin tins sat unwashed).

I’m sitting here tonight with dye in my hair, a half-hearted refresher to a well-faded purple last updated I can’t remember how long ago. I’m getting my hair cut tomorrow for the first time in six months. This used to be the one thing I maintained, either by shelling out cash or wielding my own colour brush and scissors. But I’ve let it slide, I’ve almost entirely quit the maintenance of my hair, and of personal aesthetics in general.

In a space without maintenance, routines dissolve. Sometimes, in the case of a kitchen, it can be chaotic. In other areas, like caring less about my appearance, it can be freeing. This thing that I thought I had to maintain, or that I thought I wanted to maintain, wasn’t a priority for a while. Eventually I had to reconsider how much of a priority it really was. At what point was I keeping it up for myself, or because it was important, and to what extent did this just become a habit?

Maintenance becomes routine becomes habit, habit becomes unquestioned mechanical repetition. Yes, in some areas I’d like to have a bit more consistency and take out the guesswork. But sometimes that guesswork is necessary, to try out new ways of thinking, of being, of opening up pockets of time and new possibilities.

Perhaps I could do anything myself if I really tried, including perfecting the routine of maintenance. But I’m starting to appreciate its rough spots, the little gaps that keep the days from falling into drone-like repetition. Perhaps it’s not necessary, or obligatory, or the price to pay for keeping up a facade of functional adulthood.

Maintenance, like everything else, is subjective, and taking a moment to observe the places it thrives and the places it’s never even visited – the piles that seem to be growing and toppling, constructing their own geography of abandoned domestic wilderness – might even be more important than trying to impose it everywhere without a second thought. It’s less of an answer and more of a question. What, here, is worth maintaining?

The first man I met who called himself a feminist

The first man I met who called himself a feminist didn’t know what it meant. Or perhaps his definition was slightly at odds with mine. My definition, at 17, meant that I got to do whatever the fuck I wanted regardless of the opinions of men and his definition, well, I’m not entirely sure.

His definition was kind of like the cut-out pictures of Ani DiFranco on his bedroom wall. They fit with the scene, but were somewhat static, lacking movement, lacking action.

Action is what he believed in, and he wore it in patches, proudly displaying his politics on tattered shorts and flight jackets. Vegan. Anti-racist. Anarchist. Feminist. It was all so perfectly late 90s political punk. It was exciting. I wanted to believe in this too.

But I soon found holes in his ideology that grew too big for screen-printed patches and statements of solidarity. I sang along with the whoa-oh-ohs and picked at all the down-strokes on my cheap Vantage bass while he screamed out slogans and choruses to the crowds of kids in community centres. He was my boyfriend and my band mate, and that dynamic suited me fine onstage. Except for the dress code.

Every scene has their own subtle dress code and snipey style detectives watching out for infractions (“why are you wearing a white belt? You’re not even emo” was a favourite of mine). But this wasn’t subtle, this was overt. This was the no-skirts-on-stage rule and it was implemented for me, and me alone, because I was female and because I was a girlfriend.

The logic was, according to the man who called himself a feminist and who was my boyfriend and band mate, that people would assume that I was only in the band because I was his girlfriend, not because I could play or was a musician. That was a fair enough interpretation of our world. Even at 17 I knew enough about music to know I be discounted due to my gender at every turn and would need to prove myself by being harder and faster and stronger and better than the boys.

But the next level of this logic was that if I chose to wore a skirt onstage, I would be even less than a girlfriend – I would be a prop, being used by him for sex appeal. And that would hurt the political image of the band and reflect badly on him.

Now, this was back in the time when irony was still somewhat cool, yet even he didn’t fully grasp the irony of the situation. He had to control what I wore onstage so it wouldn’t look like he was controlling what I wore onstage. I had to be pop-punk appealing so it wouldn’t look like I was only there for sex appeal. It was bizarre PR, even for a punk.

I tried to reason with him.

What if, I suggested, I show up in whatever I want as my own badass self and just kick so much ass that it would be super clear that no one is telling me what to do? What if I just play the pop punk as my own person?

Nope, that didn’t fly. It would look bad on him. No matter what I did, it wasn’t about me. Or the band. The members were interchangeable. My decisions reflected on him, and his political reputation.

His argument was that he didn’t want it to look like I was a pawn. But I was a pawn, dressed in baggy army pants in order to conceal my pawn-ness.

Perhaps the feminism he believed in was one that said that women shouldn’t have to look a certain way in order to please men. And what he took from that was that looking a certain way was wrong. It was the old “femininity is complicity in patriarchy” ruse. And yet the alternative was just as much of a cage, though it was decorated with flour-paste posters and slogans about freedom, about The Man.

As much as he made a show of counter-culture, he was just as much The Man as the men he was railing against.

To me, the point of feminism is to disrupt patriarchy on multiple levels, in multiple ways. But it always starts with the personal, and with personal dynamics. In many of our political movements, feminism has been put aside, or the failings of individual men to respect their female and non-binary peers have been brushed over for the sake of a greater cause. It’s not the fight for right now.

Or no one sees the fight, the struggle for power and autonomy that’s happening right in front of their eyes, on the stage, between a veteran of the political pop-punk scene and a young teenage punk who likes to be pretty and sexy and loud at the same time, but can only be one at once, for you, so it looks right.

When I left the first man I met who called himself a feminist, the one who did his best to control my appearance and behaviour on and off-stage, he was a pillar of the scene. He was a friend to many good people who are still friends to me now, and a lot who are still friends to him.

He kicked me out of the band, and I showed up for the final gig in the shortest skirt I could find. I don’t remember anyone commenting about how I was being played for wearing it that night. And for the first time, I felt at home onstage. I felt like myself.

But I lost the band, the scene, my friends, music. That part of my life went dormant for a while. I found my own politics and jettisoned his. And since then, I’ve met many other men who call themselves feminists.

Many of the men who were around then called themselves feminists. And many of the men who call themselves feminists are also around men like this one, they’re around men whose actual behaviour is antithetical to feminism. Sometimes they speak out against the other men who call themselves feminist but are actually just hypocrites or harassers or abusive. Oftentimes they don’t.

Nowadays, when I meet a man who calls himself a feminist, I nod. And I wait, alternately hopeful and resigned to a repetitive disappointment. I wonder, “this one, will he act?”

So much brighter

Mom was the first person to say something positive about our sudden descent into deep November.

“At least the snow is here. It’s so much brighter”.

It took me by surprise a little bit. That first coating of snow is the winter primer, the foundational layer that coats sidewalks and roads and blows in drifts, borne across roads, faces, and windshields in 70 km/h gusts and whisking itself into small mounds that will later grow into snowy mountains, that first snow that isn’t really enough snow to make the world snowy but just enough to be a pain in the ass is not usually greeted – by anyone I know, at least – with glee.

I like having the snow once it’s stuck around a bit. When I can ski on it, or the river freezes and I can skate, and when it’s frozen enough that I can just shake off my boots and not be both cold and wet. But the first snow, the acclimatizing snow, is more like a rite of passage. Boots and brushes come out. Everything moves slower, every bus is late.

There are moments of wonder with the first fluffy bright flakes, sparkling under streetlights, filling the air. Their very presence reveals the hidden vastness of the space around us, around buildings and streets and the things we take for granted as being permanent. When the air is filled with flakes, you can look up and see, really see, all of the space between and around us that is usually empty, taken for granted. It’s full. It’s impossible to ignore.

But I never noticed that it’s actually brighter when the world is filled with white. I suppose on some level I knew, but now I see the light reflected off the world shining into my window, not the same damp resolute grey light of post-fall pre-snow November. It’s colder, it’s more slippery, it’s a world that demands layers and layers of fabric heaped onto our frames, it’s more dark than light. But when it’s bright, in that short 9 hours of daylight, mom was right. It’s so much brighter.

Calling in sick…to blog?

My Saturday was a write-off due to a series of unfortunate events that started with a mouldy muffin and ended with [you probably don’t want to hear about it]. I lay in bed until maybe two p.m, and then dragged myself to the living room easy chair for a change of scenery.

Around three a.m. I toppled back upstairs, partially disappointed in my lacklustre and achievement-free day, and partially proud that I had still managed to put some items of food and water-like products into my body. I fulfilled the basic criteria of being alive. That, I thought, would have to be enough.

And then I remembered, at three a.m, that the day was past over and I had missed my daily commitment. I had not blogged, I hadn’t even thought of it. The day was over. I missed it. I hadn’t even called in sick, which I hate doing anyway.

At that point, I was far too exhausted to even care or try to salvage some kind of scrap-sentence to post, just to say “I did it, I didn’t miss a day”.

So I wrote nothing yesterday, and maybe I’ll make it up. Or maybe I won’t. I’m not sure yet, but I’m not going to throw in the towel just because I stumbled a bit halfway through the race, if this could even be called a race.

I don’t think the point is to type out the words NO MATTER WHAT. The point is to type out the words often, habitually, and consistently. To type out the words even when I don’t feel like typing out the words, but to also recognize that some days – the days when I don’t change out of my pjs or brush my teeth or even achieve much beyond the minimum of keeping myself alive, and that is enough – some days are not for typing words.

It sucks when no-words-typing days fall in the middle of a type-words-every-day challenge, but sick days can’t really be scheduled (and if they were, I would have chosen Monday, not Saturday).

Here I am, anyway, calling in sick for yesterday, typing some words for today, and considering some more for tomorrow.