I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.
Don’t worry, he’ll still be here, walking Toronto’s sidewalks in ten years’ time. Stopping to hug a stranger who puts a hand on his shoulder and opens her arms. Like her, we need to find someone to hold hands with, the way he holds Pearl Wenjack’s hand. We need to find someone to hug and kiss the way he kisses his band mates and holds them close. It’s quietness, that’s his trick. A silence where you hear soft voices and gentle breathing, the first opening of trust. You might not know it’s arrived. As you may not realize that Gord’s walked by. Just another guy in a jean jacket and toque. Scraps of paper in his hand and spilling out of his pockets. His brother walking beside him, arm around Gord’s shoulders. Sound of boots on the sidewalk, air moving aside as they pass.
It won’t matter that time passes if you carry the memory of her kisses with you. If you remember the feeling of arms around you, when she last hugged you. Gord doesn’t need to write those memories down. He carries them inside him; on his skin and clothes. When he passes away, he’ll still be here, walking with us. You’ll have to watch and listen for that friend you used to know ten years ago. He might be downtown. A guy walking by. You don’t want to mistake him for a stranger.
In his time, he’s tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he holds a little girl’s hand. Helps her find her way back from residential school; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. He’s walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You can hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wander home.
You’ll run into him one day outside a café perhaps, and he’ll wrap you in his arms. You’ll feel rough denim on your cheeks and his jacket’s buttons pressing in. Your tears will fall on his sleeve and his hat’s feather will brush your hair. It will be as if you’ve just returned here from a long time away, to this sidewalk, this bright window, the cool softness of his cheek.
Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.
Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?
I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.
I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.
When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.
My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing. I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.
So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.
I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.
Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.
Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.
It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.
I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.
But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.
I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.
When we tried to buy Gord Downie tickets, we were stunned to find that all of them sold out in about four seconds. Were scalpers to blame?
In Ottawa and Toronto this October, Downie will launch his reconciliation project, the Secret Path, to raise awareness about residential schools and raise funds for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
My friend and I tried to get tickets the Ottawa show, which will take place at the National Arts Centre. The Ottawa show will be held at Southam Hall, which only seats 2300 people.
Given how many people were probably trying for the general admission tickets, we knew our chances were slim. Especially since half the tickets were sold in a pre-sale, which I think was for NAC members.
However, when my friend tried to buy tickets, she was stunned to find that all of them sold out in about four seconds. She wondered if scalpers were to blame, since they use bots that take up all the connections on the Ticketmaster’s servers so no one else can buy tickets.
I was thinking maybe not, since for this show, Downie requested that all the tickets be “paperless”, meaning that you buy them with your credit card, and in order to enter the venue, you present your credit card along with government-issued photo ID at the ticket booth. This way, only the actual owner of the ticket and his or her party can enter. All tickets are non-transferable. This makes it more difficult for scalpers to profit from artists who are in high demand.
I also figured that around 30,000 people where probably all clicking furiously away at their computers and mobile devices at the same time, hoping to score one of maybe 1200 tickets.
I did some research, because I wondered if the paperless method actually lowers the number of scalped tickets, and because if I was wrong, and it was scalpers scooping up all the seats, well, that is just infuriating.
In my research, I learned that to get around the paperless method, scalpers purchase tickets using gift cards from credit card companies and send the gift card to the purchaser. At the venue, the gift card is swiped. And many venues don’t bother checking ID. I also read that in some cases, scalpers will send someone to the venue along with the purchaser, and that person has the credit card and required photo ID. He walks the group into the venue and then leaves. I could see doing this for a few, very expensive scalped tickets. But hiring someone to do this for thousands of people would be really expensive for the scalpers and a logistical nightmare.
To find out more, I opened an online chat session with a customer support rep for Vivid Seats, an American ticket “reseller”.
Here is part of that conversation:
Jennifer: Hi, I was wondering about buying tickets for the Gord Downie show in Ottawa, Ontario this October. How do you guys handle paperless tickets? I was told that you have to have the original credit card, plus photo ID to get in.
Lauren, from Vivid Seats: For the paperless tickets, the venue does not check IDs, they only scan the gift card and then you receive your seating voucher. We have not had any venues check IDs when scanning the gift cards.
However, our sellers will make sure you receive all of the necessary information to enter the venue.
Jennifer: The NAC says they do check. It’s a small venue. [I was just making this up, since I hadn’t spoken with the NAC yet.]
Lauren: Our sellers have special relationships with the venue and would not sell the tickets if they could not be used by someone else. If there is any other information or anything else required to enter the venue with the tickets, our sellers will make sure you receive that information.
Jennifer (losing my temper): Wow, that is so awful. Downie is doing a fund raiser and you are exploiting his efforts and artistry, while shutting out fans who can’t afford your prices.
Lauren ends the live chat.
I guess I blew my cover as a potential buyer.
After that, I called the NAC box office and asked them what information they require when processing paperless tickets (I did not ask if they accepted gift cards, or if they asked for credit cards or ID, because I did not want to provide any leading questions).
The woman I spoke to said that for Downie’s show, they will be checking credit cards and photo ID for every purchase. And they won’t accept gift cards. She also said they have never done paperless tickets before, and that Downie requested it because of the high demand for tickets.
I told the woman I was glad to hear this, and mentioned how apparently many venues don’t other checking for ID and accept gift cards. She assured me that the NAC would not be taking this approach.
In the end, I expect that there will be people at that show who did not purchase their tickets in a way that is fair to the artist or his fans, but I guess there won’t be very many. I also wonder if some people with scalped tickets will be turned away, because the NAC will not accept gift cards.
Ticket scalping is so unfair to everyone who cares about music, fans and artists especially.
I wonder if we should stop selling tickets online and go back to requiring fans line up and buy them, like we did when we were kids. And limit the number you can buy to four, and still require a credit card and photo ID at the show.
I’m sorry I won’t be sharing an evening in October with Gord. But I really hope those who have the privilege bought their tickets fair and square.
On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.
“I think it was Algonquin park; it was so cold and winter dark. A promised hibernation high; took me across the great black plate of ice.” – The Tragically Hip
On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.
Gordie’s been reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the North’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and where pelicans fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.
I used to think that place could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land you mostly can’t live on. That we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.
Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above; fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities; more highways with line after line of cars. A pinched, stodgy and secretive government casting a grey pall.
There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs that rise up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and along Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? Maybe there, the wind is nothing. Pines and firs not worth thinking about. Wild strawberries are for the birds. You’d be looking for a signal from the cities, a new transmission, currents of life.
This country was meant to provide gold and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Iceland, China, Japan, India; folks from Africa who came to escape slavery and fight for that Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and gold mines? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?
But what about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?
What about the east coast Mik’maq; the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins of Ontario and Quebec? The Mississauga? The Cree of Quebec, Ontario and the prairies? The Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Siksika, the Dene, the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place, and friends for enemies; saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of wide-open space. People wanting fences and roads; treaties and land deeds; cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.
Gordie makes me think of a Canada I used to love; one that listens to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tune into a concert. I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution; or smug multiculturalism; or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.
In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper; their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.
Gordie doesn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He writes about it anyway; goes on the adventure, and finds himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He holds hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba; so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He meets polar bears, black bears, black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.
The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest; driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up there; what do they hear in the wind?
August 26, 2016