Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Rejection and Relationships

I wrote the following as an email to one of my closest friends who has been going through a break-up, and on reflection, I’d like to share it with you, my dear readers in the blogosphere, as well. I decided to retain most of the email in its original form, though I changed my friend’s name to Sophie, the protagonist of my first novel and my third and current novel. I did edit some of the letter for privacy as well.

This letter is for you who might have experienced rejection from family, friends, or a romantic partner. It is for you who feel alone or who might not feel as though you experience all the types of relationships you yearn for in life.

Dearest Sophie,

I have spent a lifetime trying to find substitute family-figures. I am so grateful for Andrew, for he was the first person to unconditionally love me and has been there for me for the long haul, but I feel sad when I see others with a close loving family and friends. We’ve moved around every few years, so it’s been hard to make lasting friends and to have a real community. I remember in a previous email I mentioned it gets me down a lot. And then you email me and fill my world with light and love! I’m introverted, so I typically only have one good friend with whom I hang out a lot at a time. And I’m intense with my friendships as well, which might turn people off.

In this new year, I’m coming to some revelations about people and relationships which I’d like to share with you. Although I understand your situation is more severe than mine, as yours was a romantic attachment and my relationship issues are with family/friends, I think these thoughts might help.

1. In Buddhism they say that everything changes (see recent blog entry on change). We can look with loving eyes at the relationships of the past, but realize we and the other people have moved on and evolved and no longer belong in each other’s lives. It’s okay to be sad (I think of the memories in the movie Inside Out turning from joy to sadness) and nostalgic, but we must live in the present and put the past behind us. These people are part of who we are but also a part of our past, they don’t belong in our present except in how they changed and touched us.

2. We must accept rejection, no matter how much it hurts, and treasure those who truly appreciate and accept us for ourselves in all our messy imperfections and flaws. We only really need one or two people in our lives who accept us to feel we share meaningful human connections. Not everyone gets the ideal family, romantic attachments, and friendships maybe in a lifetime, but if you can have one or two people from one or two of these groups, that’s enough. We need to focus on the people we do have in our lives and not the people we don’t have. The ones who reject us might have poor judgement and don’t deserve our love (platonic, familial, or romantic). We can be sad but need to accept the truth that there will always be people we like more than they like us. But there are some people who reciprocate our affection (like you!), and we should concentrate on connecting with these people. Some people don’t have any meaningful relationships, and we need to be grateful for what we have and focus on our gratitude rather than focusing on what we don’t have.

3. I think forgiveness comes in somewhere. We need to forgive ourselves for desiring the company of those who reject us, and we need to forgive the other people for rejecting us.

4. It’s good to exercise or do something to distract oneself from being lonely sometimes. And to get an Alicia Keys Girl on Fire attitude. The best way to fight feeling badly, the best revenge, is success (I learned this from the Hugh Grant movie, Music & Lyrics). In becoming who we are meant to become. In doing great things.

5. And finally, in seeing the sadness wrought by rejection (which I’ve had from family and friends), we learn to appreciate the people who unconditionally love us (people like you and Andrew and some others for me). Maybe we need the sadness to appreciate the joy? Like we need night time to appreciate the day? And even in night there is a sky full of stars…I don’t know what this means, but maybe it’s my way of saying there is a silver lining.

Much love and light and gratitude to have you in my life,

Becca

Be bold. Be fearless.

I don’t think we ever really need an excuse to reflect or turn our lamp inward to assess and to consider. Yet as the days are spent as much in shadow as in sun, and we mark the completion of the elliptical path of the earth, we can generally find such a reason to ponder our personal journeys as well. A year ago I committed to a new year’s resolution essentially not to make any specific goals for the year, not to try to confine my aspirations to a specific elusive routine, plan, or agenda.

And, indeed, I succeeded.

At times I might have temporarily relapsed and tried to write an algorithm for living my life, but I always surrendered these prescriptions in favour of living more organically, naturally, and less punitively. I finally accept that my spirit and moods don’t thrive caged by routine. It’s not to say I didn’t make general goals for the year which I compiled in a list and dutifully checked off to help steer my course, but they were more stones I placed on which I skipped across the stream, rather than some overarching plan. For example, I intended to write at least one blog and one Wellesley Underground interview a month, to read books on a list I made, to write my second novel and to submit my first, to earn pay for writing, and to do more music, all of which I completed. I also aimed to prioritize with the thought that should I perish in six months time, I would die without embracing regrets. I mentioned this philosophy to a friend recently who reminded me of it at a later meeting. I conveyed to her that my intent is to live such that when I die I’ll die with a true acceptance of my life and without wishing I had lived differently.

Be bold. Be fearless. My voice teacher advised me of these principles to live, or perhaps sing, by in a recent lesson. I think most of her instructions are geared more towards my approach to singing, but I find them even more relevant to moving through life.

Be bold. Be fearless. Should we die sooner rather than later, what would our legacy be? Is it what we would hope for it to be? What would our epitaph be? What truly matters to us? Would it be that we were beloved by a partner, family, and/or friends or would we want to be defined by some specific achievement? What do we value? What are our priorities? Do we try year after year to achieve the same aim (perhaps some number on a scale, either figuratively or literally)? How do we remove ourselves from possible recursive loops in which we might find ourselves? Or worse yet, an infinite (to) do-loop (sorry, I’ve spent most of my life computer programming)?

Maybe figuring out what we don’t want is easier than figuring out what we do want. I don’t want to be static. I don’t want to self-sabotage. A former voice teacher once told me she learned at a workshop that when we choose to spend our time one way, we choose not to pursue some alternate activity. This makes the question of self-sabotage difficult, because we might think we are acting to fulfill one dream, and yet this expenditure of time and energy might deprive us of satisfying another. I also think we make many choices in our life based on psychological blocks and saboteurs who reside in our heads. I know this is the root of my obstacles in music as well as elsewhere.

Be bold. Be fearless. I guess directing my life with these words as my guide is my new year’s resolution this year. Whatever your resolutions are, or if you choose not to make any, I wish you a bold, fearless, lovely journey.

Happy New Year!

Change

I am listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. I grew up with Glenn (yes, we’re on a first name basis); the first recording given to me at the age of three or four was a recording of him playing piano, mostly Bach if I recall, and intended for young children. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t occupy a part of my life, when I hadn’t known of The Goldberg Variations. As it turns out, about eleven years ago I decided I liked the 1981 version best and usually listened to that rendition. I gave my PhD co-supervisor a boxed set of The Goldberg Variations when I graduated, since I listened to it almost daily during my graduate school years. But over the last few weeks I’ve turned to 1955. This might seem an insignificant change in my listening habits, but a change it is indeed.

Change. How comfortable are you with change? Do you follow a routine? Is it helpful? Is it comfortable? Or does it hold you back?

I’m not sure how comfortable we are with change. I’ve lived in seven cities in my life, some of them multiple times, not including the ones I lived in for a month to ten weeks, also some for multiple times. People say a constant in life is change. We grow older and have birthdays. We evolve. Many of the people in our lives change, especially for those of us who have lived peripatetic lifestyles. But then, would we want to stay stagnant? What if we ate the same meal every day for dinner? Wouldn’t the repetition become tiresome and loathsome? What if we listened to the same music and never added to our repertoire, or if we watched the same film every day?

I think we hold ourselves and others to an expectation that we will remain the same, but there is so much possibility for beauty if we embrace transitions in ourselves and in our lives. We can write our own new stories and learn. Isn’t acquiring and assimilating new information part of the process of building our selves? And should we hold on too dearly to the past, to our past selves, and even to our past dreams if we have adapted ourselves to new versions of ourselves with eyes for different possibilities?

I just finished watching the movie Her about a man, Theo, who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. It’s fascinating to see both Theo and Samantha develop and evolve, but I especially find Samantha’s development intriguing. She transcends her original purpose and discovers new colours in the palette of life. She possesses maturity and emotional curiosity, and her transition is a hyper-intelligent multidimensional coming-of-age story. I admire her independent thinking and lack of resistance to change. In fact, rather than loathe change and moving from her comfort zone, she enthusiastically experiments in a wide range of prospects for herself, intoxicated by the variegated experiences open to her.

I have to admit I’m becoming less resistant to the idea of change than I used to be. My New Year’s resolutions used to be lists of a daily routine I would prescribe to myself in the hopes of attaining a better life. They always soon failed, as most people’s New Year’s resolutions seem to do. But why would I want my life to be confined to predictability? Isn’t novelty what teases our senses? I used to nurse nostalgia for the past, especially the friends who have passed out of my life and have become lost. That too has ceased. Change is often the harbinger of discomfort and tragedy. And uncertainty and instability. This is true. But it is also the herald of possibilities and growing into new identities, carving out new niches in the landscape of experiences. Opening our awareness to new dimensions in life.

Some romances are lifelong attachments. As my husband and I grow, we adapt to each other and develop in compatible ways. And maybe I’m listening to a different recording of Glenn’s. I find the 1955 version of The Goldberg Variations to be stimulating, novel, and welcome. But Glenn is still with me on this journey.

I Choose

I choose to part my lips
to open the hollow between my jaws
and let the air fly through my mouth
caressing my vocal folds
– organs of freedom
that allow my voice
to erupt in the primal scream
that is my singular Howl

I choose to sing my stories
both those that weep
and those that ascend the mountain
of my aspirations
harmonizing both
those that cross the bridge of sighs
but also those on paths alit
by the very secret stars I conceived

I choose to sway my body
and dance to the hymns
of my freedoms
of my dreams
of my rights
of my duties to my self
not of the preachings
of those who know me not

I choose to embrace my power —
that in my mind
and in my body
to craft my life
into a work of art
both original, yet flawed
in its humanity
steering to my destined point

I choose to accept my Self
as I am
a unit complete as myself
in all my choices
that colour this journey
paved in hues of every kind
mapping out a life
for my future & for my dreams

I choose to live by my principles
and those that govern me
that give me
my voice
my body
my power
&
my choice

Thanks to the Winnipeg Women’s Health Clinic. I became a professional writer with this piece because of you this year.