I had the great pleasure of hanging out with some of the nicest people at momondays Winnipeg last night! I played a few songs and shared an “abridged” version of my story but thought it might be worthwhile to post the full version here.
There’s a line in that song about not being able to breathe, “even with all these small holes you’ve cut out for me.” That line refers to a time when I was young and my older sister dared me to fit myself in a very small box & trapped me inside of it with large amounts of tape. I told her she had to let me out because I couldn’t breathe, she responded with “get out of the way” and began stabbing through the box with a pen, inches from my face. (True story!) Anyway, The “Let Me Be” Song is about feeling… trapped. And it was written during a period of not feeling ready, willing or able to be myself. A period that eventually came to an end.
When I wrote and recorded a song called “Renegade”. I had a feeling I had found a sort of personal anthem but had no idea what it would mean to me for the next ten years. After I released another album in 2007, I began writing about the strange and beautiful journey of reconnecting with my father during a challenging time that involved a cancer diagnosis, his progressive illness, and death. Ours was a relationship I both desired and feared. Loving someone will do that to you: make you simultaneously hellbent on pursuing and terrified of losing that very thing you hope for. And for most of my life, I hoped more than had a real relationship with him.
For the next few years I had the most beautiful and horrifying experience of growing closer and closer to him while he suffered more and more intensely… until it was all over. During that time, I experienced the fullest spectrum of darkness and light. Of love and suffering, beauty and pain. I observed not only strength of will in action but an unmistakable love which was carefully cultivated during the short time he had left. (Which by the way, ended up being much longer than expected.) But the uncertainty created the need for extreme honesty… and so we learned to be real with each other by having a real relationship.
When faced with the end, Dad refused to regret and he chose love over fear, over and over again saying: “when it’s my time to die, nothing and no one is going to stop that from happening. Until then, I’m busy… and I’ve got work to do.” And he got busy focusing on the things he was able to control, like running the business he owned and loved (just across the parking lot at the Tuxedo Park UPS Store) and building positive memories with the people he loved. But this story is not just about him.
While all of this was happening, other challenges presented themselves. And I chose to focus on being outwardly present with these experiences as they unfolded and turning inward to reflect on what they meant to me. These reflections ended up as poetry, prose, song lyrics and other writings in my notebook.
For example, here’s what I wrote one MRI filled day:
Taking Back Time March 3, 2009
Today passes like a ticking bomb, one that will certainly explode.
Yet I find myself strangely calm while trying to crack a foreign code.
Disarm attempts were a mistake; tension mounting as I tried
and wasted time, now mine to take as I interpret the danger inside.
It spins a web inside my mind, a trap that I can clearly see
and focus on until I find a new fate among the debris.
My time, no longer a real threat crawls forward, not revealing how
in time I surely will forget the volatility here and now.
I want to tell you about the process of finding my voice as I learned to use it. Basically, I discovered how to put into words and song all that I was experiencing by doing it. And I’ve been left with the strong belief that self expression is not only therapeutic, but that honesty and authenticity under pressure can result in incredible, healing growth. And often, incredible art!
Over six years, I wrote a new album and blogged my other writings openly. Recording this music and performing it live with some wonderful local musicians has helped me to become the artist that I always wanted to be.
I couldn’t do it alone. Dad couldn’t do it alone either. And he learned to ask for help by asking. Reluctantly, at first… (he had a hard time being driven around when he lost his license after a tumour in his brain caused a seizure)… but it seemed to come easier with time. Asking makes you vulnerable. It is an admission of what we already know, which is that we can’t make it through this life alone. But asking also requires trust and trust only happens when we open ourselves to it. Which, when this process began is something I had great difficulty with. Much as I learned to write by writing and to ask by asking, I would also say that I learned to trust by trusting. And in learning to trust others, I instinctively learned how to better trust myself.
It became increasingly clear that this project had a name, and it is “Renegade” – the resurrected, anthemic song that I had the honour of dedicating to my Dad the last time he saw me play at the 2009 Jazz Winnipeg Festival. After that he had 48 hours of chemotherapy, two days at the hospital with people he loved, and then he was gone. And when I stopped fighting, all of the grief and stress and fear that accumulated over the years surfaced… and eventually dissipated, leaving me feeling more like myself than ever before. But it’s almost as if I had to get to know that person all over again.
The grieving process inspired songs like “Monster” – about dealing with dark emotions and prose… like “Deflated” which includes the line:
“…It is as though the air was stolen from my lungs three months ago, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for them to be re-inflated ever since.”
Major change can be hard to define, but a clear transformation can be seen in the words that streamed forth as I allowed my life to fall apart and be rebuilt again from the ground up. Through writing about grief and gratitude, I found as much as was lost; and much more has been learned.
And somewhere between chemotherapy, the man I knew as my Father turning into ashes, and now, I learned what I am made of. I learned that creativity is always an option. And that despite my lack of control over the world around me, regardless of my inability to choose which circumstances I would rather experience or my preference to remove suffering or trauma from them… I have the power to choose what to make with what I have, at all times. And that great revelation (which has presented itself over and over again) is what offered me the gift of honest expression.
I discovered parts of myself that were unfamiliar: old emotional injuries that had not been allowed to heal, strange fears that were faced and new empathic skills that had not yet been effectively put to use. I fell in love, lost my religion and was involved in a number of car accidents, one of which left me unable to walk for a time. (That was pretty scary.) I went through countless mental and physical therapies (including one intense rehab program that left me with a new posture and a new pace), before being proclaimed “healthy” by myself and others. But more importantly, my previous self-image as someone who could not cope with such things was replaced by a different view as I was introduced to someone who is stronger and more courageous but also more gentle, open and allowing.
I began spending a lot of my time working musically with youth: writing, recording and performing music together, often resulting in some pretty cool jam sessions. (I have studied an extensive repertoire of the next generation’s favourite youtube videos and let me tell you… there is more to them than just Katy Perry and Kanye.)
By following their inspirations, I uncover so much tremendous potential that I find I learn as much as they do in this process. But the most interesting and rewarding experiences that I see surround positive pressure. That’s my favourite term relating to the exercise of showing up as we are and letting ourselves be seen. Which is usually made more difficult when “what other people think” comes into the picture. And with reality shows and social media dominating what today’s youth consider “success” in the arts, the opinions and votes, likes and comments of others have never seemed more important or more difficult to ignore. The good news is that: the greater the pressure, the more “Renegade-like” the result.
Whether through live performance, songwriting or recording sessions, or other challenging situations, when I witness reluctance followed by participation… fear followed by effort and better still, when that effort is followed by allowing creative expression to happen… I see growth. And I love seeing growth.
A transformation happens when “I can’t” turns into “imagine if”. Fear that we are going to be discovered for who we really are is replaced by joyful expression of who we really are! And “I made a mistake, I messed up – maybe I am messed up” turns into “hmm I think I can do that better” or “let’s try that again”… and all performance becomes more like practicing (NOT until perfect, but until mistakes are fewer and less important.)
It’s a privilege to witness the power of our creativity and it is worth every bit of pressure. Because even if these young people are not the next Katy Perry or Kanye, even if they decide to pursue something completely unmusical, the growth is lasting. The confidence is transferrable! And that’s what I’d love for the music makers I work with to know about all pressure: that one hard thing prepares us for the next. And as we continue to view difficult things as challenges and rise to them, we are able to use our energy to decide what we are creating more than we allow ourselves to be manipulated by circumstance. And our creations have the power to connect us in mysterious and miraculous ways. As we let go of our fears in these situations and embrace the power of our creative choice… not only are we enlarged on the inside, but life becomes so much more fun. And the more difficult the challenge, the more empowered we are in the process.
I love watching music heal scars that would not otherwise have been exposed. I love defining my job as making art and helping others do the same! And along with continuing to strengthen musical connections in my community, I’m also going to take my art on the road and let myself be seen in other regions as well. Because I’m finally ready for the world to meet the Renegade that I have become.
No one tells you up front what “grieving all that is lost until it’s ok” entails. (Mostly because it’s different for everyone.) And no one could have prepared me for my own difficult journey toward learning to love life, become healthy and accept and invite joy. But this option is available to us all: to seize the formative moments of our lives and allow ourselves to deeply experience them, without becoming defined by them. To ask and receive what we need to keep creating. And to decidedly turn away from the opinions and dictations of others in favour of a healthier, more authentic journey that empowers a steady flow of love and creativity. This is what it means to be a Renegade. It is the careful assessment of the tools within our own hands; deciding to make something of our choosing with them in a world that would rather we make something else. This is who we are and what we do. This is where our strength comes from. And this is “how our hands were really made.” This song is for you.