November 30, 2010

Do You Hear what I Hear?

I come from a family of singers.  In fact, when my dad was the cantor for our cathedral choir, which sang hidden up in the choir loft, little Joe Chirico who grew up to marry my friend Rachel thought his booming baritone was the voice of God.

Everyone in my family can sing.  My sister Pauline has a big range and both my brothers have deep, rich, resonant voices.  My other two sisters and I are competent singers, and my mom is a lovely mezzo-soprano.  This ability has been passed down to much of the next generation, and as my nephews, nieces and children grow up, they are letting their own voices be heard.

My son, Ian let us hear his singing voice last year.  He had started writing songs and his sister, Emma told us she had heard him rehearsing at school and said, surprised, that he sounded 'not bad'.  One evening when he was doing some recording, Ian let us hear him sing as long as we turned our backs to him.  His voice was a little shy then but it was clear and fine, with notes of his uncles and grampa, his cousins and something else I couldn't identify besides perhaps being from his dad's side;  I've never heard any of them sing except for my husband.

The other night, Ian performed at a fundraiser put on by a friend.  My friend is raising funds for her daughter and two other girls, all friends of my son's, to attend World Youth Day in Madrid next year.  The main attraction of the evening was a Christian pop group from Vancouver.  They are all skilled musicians and put on a good show, if you like that kind of music (which I confess I generally do not).  I went to support my friend and the three girls whom I have watched grow up into lovely young women, and to support Ian.  After the first set the MC announced Ian and he came up to the stage with his guitar and his signature black fedora perched as usual atop his head of shoulder length blonde hair.   He greeted the audience, who greeted him back good humouredly, and then launched into his first song, which he had written.  As Ian sang and played his guitar alone on the stage, the audience, filled with people from the Parish and various members of the community, most of whom had never heard him before, were very quiet.  Ian's second song was The Maker by Daniel Lanois, and at one point I swear you could have heard a pin drop in the gymnasium. When he was done, my daughter and I clapped proudly and then the other group came back on the stage. 

I left the concert soon after Ian's performance and had taken my daughter home, when I realized I had forgotten something at the gym so came back.  I was standing at the back of the gym during the group's last song when the owner of the local print shop came up to me and shouted over the band, "Your son did very well.  His voice reminds me of Cat Stevens'". 

After the concert, my husband and I went to a friend's annual Beginning of Season party.  A couple who had been at the concert came up to talk to me.  The husband of the couple has a strong Swiss German accent and he is very expressive when he speaks: 

"Your son, I saw him tonight.  He was amazing!  When he sang I felt it (he put his fist on his chest) here.  Tell me, does he sing country?"

me:  "No, he doesn't really like country music, but he does like folk music."

"Oh, too bad!  Does he know that singer, though, Young Neil?  You know, he sings that song 'Heart of Gold?"

me:  "Oh, you mean Neil Young!  We like him very much, of course, and Ian knows that song well."

"Okay, because your son, he should do that song because he is just like Neil Young except without the stupid hat." 

And then he asked me lots of questions about my boys, and how they got interested in music. 

The next morning, I ran into an older lady who had been at the concert:

"Your son last night, Rebecca.  He was wonderful!  You know who he reminded me of?"

me:  "Who?"  ( Neil Young?  Cat Stevens? A young Gordon Lightfoot, as my friend Molly said when she'd heard a recording of Ian's I put a link to on Facebook?)

"John Denver!  He has that same kind of melancholy, warm way about him."

Later, when I repeated all these conversations to Ian, he laughed and said he liked that he reminded everyone of someone different, and took it all as the great compliment it was intended to be.  Of course, to me, he will always remind me of the various voices in our family, but the people in this adopted town of mine don't know my family.  They had never been to a jam session at our house, hadn't heard my parents sing in the choral society or my dad sing 'Dream the Impossible Dream' as Don Quioxote in the Nelson Little Theatre production of Man of la Mancha.  They hadn't heard my brother sing with his band in the Civic Hotel bar or my sister at various venues around the Kootenays. They will refer to the voices they know and have stored in their hearts in order to express their appreciation for what they heard the other night from my son. It is only natural.  However, when all is said and done, Ian's voice is Ian's alone, and I am sure, as he gets older, he hopes we will all see it that way...or hear it that way.

Here's a link to a video of Daniel Lanois singing 'The Maker'.  The photo is of Ian in his bedroom, surrounded by some of his influences.

November 24, 2010

Driving Miss Crazy

While I was watching a movie set in Manhattan recently, I came to a realization.  The characters never drove themselves anywhere, never fought traffic, never had to gingerly back out of a supermarket parking spot suitable, not for a minivan, but more for a mini-scooter, never had to strain their eyes to see the lines on the road on a dark and stormy night, never had to keep alert to 'new drivers' acting like Mario Andretti, or young cyclists jumping out into traffic without so much as a warning.  They hailed taxis and rode trains and subways, or they walked, and I suddenly envied those people and had a sudden urge to live in a big city with a well developed system of public transit. Instead, I live in a small town twenty minutes from a mid-sized city where most of the shopping is and where my son goes for violin lessons and Saturday orchestra rehearsals. Minor bus service is available between our town and the nearby city, but is not usually practical for our schedule - and taxi fare is out of the question. Driving for me, and most rural or suburbian North Americans, is a necessary evil. 

After my last accident over ten years ago, I confided to a friend that I was scared to drive and his response was this:  "Well, you'd better get back up on that horse, and soon!"  He was right because at the time I was living miles from the nearest town.  Back up on that horse I did get and with practise and time I even became a better driver than before my accident.  The last few years, however, I have noticed an increase in my anxiety level when it comes to driving, and on a bad day, I find it hard to trust in my experience as a driver.  Recently, while reading an article about road sense in the newspaper I learned that drivers who have been involved in accidents, even accidents which were not their fault, have higher anxiety towards driving and tend to make more mistakes.  When my husband and I embark on a road trip now, short or small, he never has to fight me for the car keys.  I hand them over most willingly.  I suppose I could take a defensive driving course or sign up for therapy like the article suggests.  I mean, I'm hardly a candidate for the reality tv show, Canada's Worst Driver, it's more that I've developed a sort of...distaste for being behind the wheel.

When we moved to the Fraser Valley, a sprawling, continuous suburb of Vancouver, I thought, "Here's my chance to become a real city driver."  I imagined myself working up the experience to take trips into the big city, using MapQuest and high doses of caffeine as 'courage water'.  Seven and a half years later I am no closer to being a Vancouver driver than I was before.  In fact, I may even be farther away.  I simply just do not fit in with the aggressive, tail-gaiting style of the other drivers and I sincerely doubt I ever will.  I like a reasonable amount of space between the next car and me when on the freeway and I don't feel safe driving over 120 kms per hour.  I never was very good at intensely crowded situations, let alone on the road at autobahn-like speeds or at a bumper-to-bumper crawl.  Sometimes when I'm out on the freeway I begin to think like a Woody Allen character - one of those sort of neurotic philosophers obesessed with death:

What does it all mean anyway?  Look at all these cars, these killing machines travelling at crazy speeds.  Don't these people know they are risking their lives, not to mention the environment?  We're hemmed in like sheep, except we're like sheep with high powered engines and wheels careening down a six lane freeway.  Why do we do it?  Look at that girl in the next car talking on her cell phone, laughing away.  She's got one pinky, the only finger not holding her Starbucks, on the wheel.  Look at her change lanes without signalling.   Doesn't she know she's going to kill someone with her bad habits?  Maybe I should envy her lighthearted view of existence.  

Okay, so maybe now I'm starting to sound crazy, but I think I'm old enough not to care about that sort of thing.  And besides, my husband says he knew that I was crazy when he married me and he still loves me, so I have decided to be content with my lot, and leave the big city driving to the experts:  the experienced commuters who listen to books-on-CD while weaving their way through rain-soaked traffic; to my husband who in his younger days, on his trips abroad to New York, Paris, Stockholm and Philadelphia with a certain Swedish modular furniture company, was always asked to be the rental car driver among his workmates; and to the bus and taxi drivers.  I salute them all.  You go! - I'll hold the map.

November 17, 2010

I have a new post, I really do

I am trying to figure out why my post from yesterday, "Comfort and Joy at the Christmas Faire" has not turned up on any dashboards as far as I can tell, not even mine (where I included it to make sure it works).  I've decided it is because I reposted it by merely changing the posting date on the bottom and adding on to the original post with a bit of a preamble.  So, I hope my friends will read my new post, and in an effort to entice you, I will post the photo that goes with it.  Cheers! And thanks for reading.

Comfort and joy at the Christmas Faire

For the past ten days my husband was on holiday.  He is back to work for a few weeks and then, hopefully, if all goes well, he will take another week early in December.  My children don't see him much during the Christmas holidays; he works in a busy resort hotel and school holidays are the hotel's busiest times.  Our kids have all enjoyed having him at home, to greet them after school, to get after them about the messes they leave around the house (okay they didn't really 'enjoy' that part, but they took the opportunity to have fun bantering with him) and to skip school to spend Friday shopping and enjoying the artwork, beautiful food market, and shops full of handmade treasures on trendy Granville Island in Vancouver. 

When my husband is on holiday from his demanding job, we have to make the most of it.  Instead of thinking about what I was going to write on my blog for this weekly post, my brain was occupied with what I could accomplish around the house while my husband was home.  Without making too many demands on his well-earned holiday time we managed to put the yard in order for the winter, plant the garlic and the flower bulbs, trasplant the shrubs that have been staring at me for months, etc.  So, for today, I am reposting something I wrote last year around this time.  I have recently noticed all the ads for various Christmas Fairs in my area and they, as well as the beautiful craftwork we saw on Granville Island, have triggered some rather special memories from my childhood. 

Every year around this time our family friend Pauline would phone us to ask how many of us would like to work for her at the Kootenay Christmas Craft Faire. She paid well - around seven dollars an hour, so those of us without previous commitments would jump at the chance. I think I was twelve when I started working at the entrance gate. I had to dress warmly because the table where I sat to greet people and take their small entrance fee, though inside the badminton hall in the old Civic Centre, was directly downstairs from the door to the cold and wintry outside, and every time that door was opened a whoosh of cold air would descend the stairs and hit me with its fresh chill. I didn't mind. It was an excuse to drink endless cups of hot chocolate from the canteen.

Pauline's Faire was a magical time in my memory. It wasn't just a bunch of people selling stuff in a big gym, it was an event. Pauline had a vision of the kind of Faire she wanted to put on and she did it with resounding success every year. At one end of the hall near the canteen Pauline set up a stage for live music. My brother and sister - both singer-songwriters - were included on the schedule of performances along with several local acts, and I had a little sister's adoring pride in them. Chairs were set up by the stage for people needing a break from shopping to sit and visit. In between the live performances, Pauline played good recordings of Christmas music, mixed tapes many of which my family put together for her - we had a lot of records.

The Kootenay region is known for its artists and craftspeople ( and its colourfully dressed hippies) and the Faire was one of the occasions when many of these people came out of the proverbial woodwork and gathered to sell, to buy, and to just be together. I spent all the money I earned working at the entrance gate at the Faire, buying presents for my family and friends and maybe something for myself, too. How I loved to wander from table to table, smelling, touching, looking with wonder at the incredible things people had made with their own hands and imaginations: rods of iron forged into treble clef hooks and wall mounted candle holders; beeswax candles dipped in rainbows of colour; pottery of exquisite thinness or delighful chunkiness; hand-knit mittens and toques of hand-spun wool; handwoven scarves of jewel-toned silk; crocheted animals and doll's clothes; enameled copper barrettes and brooches; wooden toys and painted letters linked together to spell a child's name; tooled leather wallets and belts; crystals big and small to catch the light in a kitchen window; stained glass kaleidescopes; handmade beads and buttons and on and on and on. There was something for everyone of every budget. My first year attending the Faire I bought a tree decoration for $1.50. My last year I bought a handwoven wool scarf for $45.00.

Pauline has since retired and I have moved away. Most of the craftspeople I mention are now represented year round by at least one craft cooperative in my hometown. I can, when visiting my parents, see and buy these crafts at will (which of course is very good for the crafters and artists!). I would not for a second say that the quality of these crafts has diminished, but I will admit that something of the mystique surrounding them is lost for me. It is forever bound up in a dreamlike swirl of childhood memory.

Thank you Pauline.

The photo above is of the main street of my hometown of Nelson on a wintry afternoon.  Twenty years ago, I could be found sipping a special coffee in the Library Lounge of the Hume Hotel after a long day of Chistmas shopping.  I wish I knew who took the photo (found on google images), but I don't.

November 10, 2010

If the Truth be Told

My friend Donna once told me a strange story from her childhood.  Every time the film The Sound of Music came on television her family would watch it together.  Immediately after the wedding of Maria and Captain Von Trappe, Donna's mom would jump up, turn off the TV and say, "Now isn't that a happy ending?"  It wasn't until she was an adult that Donna learned there was a lot more to the movie - a concert, an exciting, frightening escape from the Nazi soldiers - who can forget the scenes in the Abbey when the family is hiding behind the tombstones?  "Would this be a time to sing about my favourite things?" asks little Gretel - and a midnight climb over Maria's mountain to Switzerland.  I'm not sure why my firend's mom didn't want her kids to see the last part of the movie;  perhaps it was late and she wanted to send them to bed. My own mother took my brother Stephen and I to see the movie in the theatre when I was ten, but then, she had read me the book and I already knew what was going to happen.

I cannot help wondering if Donna's mom wanted to protect her children from the part of The Sound of Music that had to do with war; perhaps she thought they would be traumatized and have nightmares if they knew the whole story.  If that is so, I find her actions rather foreign because I was brought up quite differently.  From a young age I knew that life involved joy, rainbows and picnics in the park , but I also knew that the world was full of tremendous sadness and horror.  My family had been given a book of photograps called The Family of Man.  I was fascinated by the pictures of child soldiers in war-torn areas, migrant workers, flowers growing in the midst of destruction and chaos- images planted on my brain for eternity.  At my elementary school we watched films of the Developing Nations:  bloated tummies, children surrounded by flies, endless bowls of rice and powdered milk distributed by kind looking bearded men and caring women.  Sadness and pain, yes, but always hope, too.

I have a vague, dreamlike memory of my mother lining my brothers and sisters and I up in folding red chairs all in a row when I was very little and telling us where babies come from.  There were no euphemisms, no cute terms for body parts, just the plain, awful truth.  According to family lore I refused to beleive her then, when I was little and for years after.  In fact, until I was ten I decided that babies appeared suddenly and magically after the wedding and the bride's beautiful white dress were done with:  no blood, no mess.  When I was a teenager, my older sisters, sister-in-law and mother sometimes drank tea and talked at length and with great enthusiasm about disgusting things like giving birth, umbilical cords, amniotic fluid, etc.  I distinctly remember announcing at one point, "If you say the word placenta one more time, I'm leaving!"  They laughed, of course, but sympathetically.  Interestingly enough, when I gave birth to my first child, I was more prepared than I realized, and the process felt natural.  To my surprise I was not overwhelmingly upset by the realities of birth - the pain, the blood, and the 'mess' - and I was able to see the incredible beauty of what I had just achieved, a healthy baby.  It was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. 

That being said, I am learning as a parent that timing is everything when it involves sensitive souls and painful realities.  A few years ago, I was forced to fudge the truth to my youngest daughter, Katie.  For three nights the Tooth Fairy had forgotten to come.  Three mornings in a row her dad and I had to face the embarrassment of having forgotten to replace the tiny tooth with a coin.  Finally, on the morning of the third failure I said to her out of desperation, "Let me tell you something, Katie.  There is no Tooth Fairy.  Mommy and Daddy are the Tooth Fairy and we have been forgetting to take your tooth for the past three nights."  At first I thought she was going to be okay.  She was smiling like I had just told her a big exciting secret (which I had) but soon her eyes filled with tears and I knew I had done wrong.  I took her onto my lap and began to mutter things which opened up the possibility of there still being a Tooth Fairy.  She immediately began to cheer up, and off we went to Kindergarten.  Later that morning I remorsefully purchased a Cinderella toothbrush and put aside a one dollar coin.  That night I wrote the following note: 

Hi Katie, I hear you mom tried to tell you I'm not real.  Don't believe her for a second!  I haven't come for the past three nights because I have had the flu.  So, here is an extra-special present for your tooth:  a new toothbrush!  your mom was probably trying to protect me when she told you I'm not real.  I'll bet she was afraid I'd never come.  Anyway, enjoy your toothbrush and see you next time!  Love, the Tooth Fairy.

The next morning, Katie was overjoyed to see the tooth fairy had come and had even left her a note.  I half expected her to look at me sideways with half closed eyes and ask, "Did you write this, Mom?"  But she didn't.  I realized she was still in love with the idea of the possibility of fairies and it was my job, for now, to play along, to enable her imagination - just as my own mom had signed our Christmas presents 'love from S. Clause,' until we were nearly grown up, and smilingly refused to admit they were from her (whose initial is also 'S.")

My four children are all involved in Remembrance Day ceremonies at school today.  My youngest, Katie, made a poster for Remembrance Day for a contest at school and each day she comes home with new information about the commemorative day when all the schools and businesses are closed.  "Some kids aren't very respectful," she tells us, "and our teacher gets pretty mad."  I have been thinking about this.  Every year we have to renew the purpose of Remembrance Day for a new crop of children.  When I was a child, World War II was still fairly fresh in the minds of my parents and grandparents.  Now as living veterans of that war are few, our children must be taught the importance of remembering our past so we are not doomed to repeat it.  In a world filled with endless digital distractions and video games like Call of Duty, the truth about war and the painful reality of it in our present world needs to, once again, be taught with grave sincerity to our children.  They may still believe in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, and in my view, so they should, but as they grow and mature they can also handle the truth, told with fresh perspective and sensitivity, about very real things.  We owe it to their intelligence.  And to their future.

November 2, 2010

All Souls Day

Today I am taking some time to remember
 all those souls I have known
who have moved on from this mixed bag of beauty and sorrow: 
Lea, Peter, Nana and Grandad, Granny and Grampa,
 Grampa Warren, Great-Grandad Matthew, Nana Brown,
and schoolmates 
Pat, Laurel, and Jason
For whom we now Pray.

Also those souls I did not know but think of nonetheless: 
my brother Michael who was born and died long before I came along,
(Would I be here had he lived?)
various ancestors whose DNA I share with my children
 and authors and artists who filled the treasure chest of thought and vision
I look to for inspiration and comfort -
'We read to know we are not alone,' says C.S. Lewis' student in Shadowlands

And then there are those with no one to remember them
in November we look upon the trees
singing their swan song in ruby red dress
Spirits waving in the fields
seem to say 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,' 
'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' 
My heart reaches out to lift them up and set them free
to the place where I hope to go
someday long from now
if only someone will remember me

This beautiful photograph is by Ciara of Milkmoon (see my sidebar to access her wonderful blog).  She picked my name out of a hat (lucky me!) and I got to choose a favourite photo from her vast catalogue.  I chose the one above and am looking forward to finding the print of it in my mailbox.  It was this photo which inspired me to write this little bit of a poem today.