Monday, 15 October 2012

This Whole Life

An interesting thing happened in 1971. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began to require that all radio stations in this country devote a certain percentage of their playlists to Canadian content - material that had been written, produced, and/or performed by citizens of this nation.

Prior to this decision, such material was considered more a quaint novelty than anything else; curious arisings of our backwater country, certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Actually, being thought of in this way, being thought of at all, was a bit of a best-case scenario for most musicians of this era; without a hit elsewhere, Canadian artists were typically denied airplay altogether. Even with a hit, however, they were considered generally inferior to performers from Britain or the States.

All this started to shift in 1971. After the CRTC ruling, Canada’s music scene began to take on new life - one characterized by exposure, esteem, diversity, and importantly, financial potential. By the 1980s acts like Prism, Chilliwack, Red Rider, Bryan Adams, Blue Rodeo, Jane Siberry, the Tragically Hip, and many more were enjoying the considerable benefits regular access to radio waves provided.

Of course new life takes time to gestate. In the early days, while radio stations did have enough native material to fill their content quotas, pickings often seemed a little thin and could, as a result, become quite repetitive for those listening.

I was over my head in the swimming world during those early days. By the mid-1970s I was doing a workout a day - sometimes two - which required a whole lot of driving. It took us twenty minutes to journey from home to pool. This meant forty minutes, sometimes eighty, were passed in the car, invariably listening to the radio: crackling signals from CFUN, CKLG, and, if poor reception necessitated such desperate measures, Victoria’s own CKDA.    

I remember these rides. Three or four swimmers packed into the cramped confines of our family’s pale blue Mercury Bobcat. The pungent scent of chlorine salted the air. The windows fogged white with condensation. I always leaned against one of those windows for support. Bundled tight in an army-green parka, hood often wrapping my head, the rumble of the engine and the bumps of the road shook me awake again and again as I drifted elsewhere.

In those days a great deal of Anne Murray and Terry Jacks was interspersed amongst international superstars such as Abba and Chicago, Elton John and the Captain and Tenille. I knew nothing about content quotas then, but knew the seemingly endless plays of ‘Snowbird’ and ‘Seasons in the Sun’ did nothing for me. The opening strums of anything by Gordon Lightfoot, however, was another matter.

Born and raised in Orillia, Ontario, his craft honed in the coffee houses and bars of Toronto’s folk circuit, Lightfoot was - like Murray and Jacks - one of the early beneficiaries of Canadian content regulations. ‘Early Morning Rain’, ‘Bitter Green’, ‘Sundown’, ‘Carefree Highway’ - all these became as familiar as the stiff white powder, the dried chlorine, that covered my skin back then. Warm and tired in the back of that Bobcat, I reveled in something I heard and felt in these songs.

Like Hank Williams and John Lennon and Karen Carpenter, there was something painfully resonant in Lightfoot’s songs. Something that spoke to me in my life. “I never thought I could feel this way / And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it” he sings in ‘If I Could Read Your Mind’. Huddled in my seat, head bumping against the rumbling window pane, I used to ache for these words as we moved through this song. My throat caught and tears watered my eyes every time these lines finally did arrive.    

Fast-forward a few years.

I was in junior high by this point. Swimming demanded two practices on most days, so I was still driving a lot and still listening to the radio. Lightfoot and the rest of his ilk, however, had been displaced by the next wave of homegrown talent: acts like April Wine and Trooper, Burton Cummings and Dan Hill ruled Canada’s airwaves.

I remember arriving at school one morning to find a group of friends huddled in the bike racks. Four or five in number, most attired in lumberjack shirts. One had a large white on blue patch reading RUSH affixed to the back of his jean jacket. The attention of this bunch was directed toward the newspaper somebody held in both hands. ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ a quarter-page black-and-white ad proclaimed.

The voices around the circle seemed excited. ”We should go!” somebody exclaimed. My heart started to pump. Even now, decades later, I can feel my eyes widen. My head turns and looks around. As that patch suggests, a new music was taking hold among my peers: Rush, Nazareth, Zeppelin. That I went along with this change does not mean I understood or shared these emerging enthusiasms. I still found something delicious in the occasional airings Lightfoot’s ‘Rainy Day People’ received. That these others, my friends, might feel something similar...     

“Yeah,” another in our circle cried. “We could rush the stage. Toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band!” Everyone burst into laughter; I was confused. The morning buzzer sounded and the group turned en masse toward the door. The person with the paper, crumpled the ad and tossed it to the ground. Someone used a hiking boot to rub it into the dirt and gravel.

While following the flow toward the day’s first class, I remember glancing back at that rumpled ad. Only a portion of Lightfoot’s wrinkled, shadowy face was now apparent. One eye was encircled in a soil-stain bruise. I remember thinking he looked really sad down on the ground like that and I felt bad leaving him this way. I felt I was abandoning him, betraying him even. I felt I was leaving him behind.

I was at the library earlier today. A thick-spined CD set caught my attention. Gordon Lightfoot Songbook the cover read, a career-spanning compilation. I have had our home to myself through the last hour or so, and this is what I’ve been listening to. Caren’s at Starbucks getting some work done. Samantha’s swimming with a friend. I was going to meditate during this time, but have been sitting here instead - a fact I feel simultaneously jubilant and guilty about. Jubilant because this is what I need to do; guilty because that, of course, is what I should be doing.

As these dueling feelings compete with one another, ‘Summer Side of Life’ is playing. I’ve turned up the volume loud enough to feel tremors under my skin. When Lightfoot’s vocals pick up for the lines "And if you saw him now / You would wonder why he would cry / The whole day long", I feel myself smile. I have no idea what he’s singing about here, but this isn’t really the point. This all just seems so good,so right. 
I have left so much of myself behind through the course of this life. I suppose we all do. From those junior high years alone a sudden cascade of images: A night spent wandering in the rain, soaked. ‘This is stupid,’ I thought. Words I would not air because to the others this, apparently, was “Awesome” and “Wild” and “Cool”. Same with the evenings passed cruising empty streets in search of fist-fights. Or the day I watched three of my friends push a schoolmate up against a locker and proceed to wipe heat rub all over his face. Some unvoiced part of myself sliced off in these moments. Like an iceberg calving, a piece of the whole broke away and disappeared silently into the cold, dark, murky waters below.         

In shamanic terms, leaving part of oneself behind is referred to as soul loss. For whatever reason - usually some form of self-preservation - we slice off difficult or contradictory pieces of ourselves and jettison them on our journey through life. Often these pieces are associated with moments of ‘Big T Trauma’ - illness, injury, abuse - but not always. Perhaps even more commonly these soul fragments are ‘little t’ parts of ourselves that we just can’t weave into the fabric of our present lives. Like wanting to see ‘Lightfoot In Concert’ while the rest of one’s peer group wants to “rush the stage” and “toilet paper the whole fuckin’ band.” 

Over time there is a cumulative cost to ongoing soul loss. Decreased energy, life force, joie de vivre, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and more are common. Soul retrieval is the shamanic response to such situations. A shaman journeys to the realm in which the soul fragment resides, and brings it back for integration and healing - healing, as always, meaning a return to wholeness.

This is worthwhile, valuable work. A question that arises, however, is this: Where is that ‘realm’ in which the fragmented self resides? My experience with meditation suggests the physical body might be the repository of those things left behind. Just today, for instance, there is tension in the jaw: biting, gripping, holding. Then the memory of wanting, needing to say something. I am so angry, feel so violated but voicing this feels impossible so I hold back, clench my teeth. This is one of those pieces longing to return, yearning to be healed. My task as a practitioner? Simply relax in welcome.      

So my experience with meditation suggests the realm of which shamanism speaks is the body. My experience with life, though, suggests something even bigger, even more encompassing might be the true vessel of my being - both those parts accepted and tended to, and those parts calved off and apparently left behind.  

I use the word ‘apparently’ here because I am beginning to suspect those fragmented parts of ourselves are never really left behind. They instead wait for us in the realms of shamanism. They wait for us in the meditating body. They wait for us as well - and perhaps most importantly - in our lives, in the ever changing cast of people and circumstance that plays through our days.

Here they flirt with our attention - that book that ‘jumps out’ at you, the person you unexpectedly meet on the bus - reminding us in ways both subtle and blunt that what has been left behind has, in fact not been left behind at all. Our fragments are nearby and wanting. Healing is ever close at hand. 

How else to understand the sudden (re)appearance of Gordon Lightfoot today? I suppose one could call this a ‘coincidence’, but what a shame to render this beautiful world without compassion or intelligence. Songbook has come because life for decades has gently held an uncertain fourteen year old who could not say to his galloping peers, “I really like this.” That calved off part has quietly - or not so quietly - bobbed beneath those dark, murky waters, and now, through a four-CD set published by Rhino Records, it has returned to the surface for welcome.

It’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that’s playing as I begin to type toward an end, a curious selection indeed. As I listen to this tale of a great freighter’s last moments, my spirits lift and bob. It occurs to me that I linked ‘whole’ and ‘heal’ earlier; another connection seems worth raising now. The words ‘whole’ and ‘holy’ are also relatives, which is really what we are talking about here. The wholeness of the world - it’s all here, everything we are and everything we need. The holiness of this life.

Back on the Fitzgerald the crew has been told there will be no food tonight, it’s too rough. At the kitchen table where I’m writing, I feel a tremendous appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity life is offering on this day. I am being given the chance to go back and pick up that soiled newspaper ad from long ago. The chance to smooth the wrinkles, brush off some dirt and grime.

As I do this, I see the face looking up at me doesn’t seem quite so sad now. It doesn’t appear anywhere near so abandoned, which makes a lot of sense. After all, when you get right down to it, the face that was left behind on that junior high morning, the one I am welcoming back now many years later, it’s not really Gordon Lightfoot’s at all - it is my own.