Among the Stars

Gord Downie was our neighbour. The house he lived in for most of his Riverdale years stands just behind the Bain Co-op where I live. Some in the neighbourhood knew him only by sight or reputation, some knew him more intimately; sometimes he passed by unnoticed with the brim of his hat tipped down, other times he could be seen joyously raising a pint at Dora Keogh. Maybe we skated past Gord at the rink in Withrow Park or played hockey at Riverdale with a masked goalie we weren’t aware was the Tragically Hip’s frontman.

Or, we only knew him by his music, which meant sure knowledge of his heart & soul: Wheat Kings, a song about David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, offers some of his best lyrics. Gord’s honorary aboriginal name, Wicapi Omani, is Lakota for “man who walks among the stars”. We’ll miss Gord in the neighbourhood and in the world but we’ll see him among the stars, and we’ll always have his music, and the wisdom and joy and solace it bestows.

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Sundown in the Paris of the prairies
Wheat kings have all treasures buried
And all you hear are the rusty breezes
Pushing around the weathervane Jesus

In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer’s face
Maybe it’s someone standing in a killer’s place
Twenty years for nothing, well, that’s nothing new
Besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do

Wheat kings and pretty things
Let’s just see what the morning brings

There’s a dream he dreams where the high school’s dead and stark
It’s a museum and we’re all locked up in it after dark
The walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister
Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers

Wheat kings and pretty things
Wait and see what tomorrow brings

Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, “We always knew that he’d go free”
They add, “You can’t be fond of living in the past
‘Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re gonna last”

Wheat kings and pretty things
Let’s just see what tomorrow brings
Wheat kings and pretty things
Oh that’s what tomorrow brings

Gord Downie 1964 – 2017

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Listen to Wheat Kings here: bit.ly/1TYtIy6

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Special thanks to Jennifer Hazel & Slim Twig

photo: Withrow Park by Marie Wilson

City Saplings, Urban Ancients

For many years, this tree has given shade to sinners & angels alike, judging neither. Churchyard trees bear testimony, provide shelter, give life. Children who’ve hopscotched beneath their boughs grow up & go away but still the tree stands, noble & uncomplaining. Its leafy past commingles with the ancient moon & the old church & together they form a trio of historical importance on First Avenue.

We revere the ancient & pander to youth, often forgetting how important the latter are to the planet’s future. Like a gangly but bright child, this sapling might go unnoticed by passersby. But to those who stop to take note, it may remind them of the great cycle of life. Its presence enlivens the solidity of the great wall on Bain Avenue near Withrow School.

Like pigeons, urban trees hang in there despite all the concrete & pollution. This maple thrives in a laneway near King & Yonge, just around the corner from the Beer Bistro. It reaches up to the sky-scrapered sky with leaves of almost-impossible-green and beckons to the rush hour traffic to slow down & take a breath of the air it helps supply.

The Rooster Coffee House provides field glasses for anyone caring to play spy or ornithologist while sipping java on Broadview. With or without binoculars, you get a vast view of Riverdale park & the downtown core (this must be how the street got its name!) Front & center is this grand old lady – her natural splendor compliments the unnatural splendor of the city beyond: in summer her emerald finery blots out buildings but in winter she welcomes the great grinding metropolis into her boughs; woven throughout her majestic branches are bank towers, City Hall, the CN Tower.

Photos: Aaron Schwartz

If I Ventured in the Slipstream

 

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1969. I’m sitting on the floor of my high school gym with my friends, wishing we were outside skipping the light fantastic. Yawning at the monotone promises of Student Council candidates and picking the neon-pink polish from my nails, I glance up at the clock. Time never crawled so slowly. My stomach growls.

And then, a young bearded man dressed in white robes takes the stage. He is presidential hopeful Timothy Treger, and I am suddenly alert. A restless murmur goes up in the audience as he announces he will be reading from John Lennon: In His Own Write. This is no usual campaign speech, this is a nonsense story called Snore Wife and Some Several Dwarts, and mere words into it I’m rolling on the floor with laughter. (I mean, I really did roll on the floor with laughter: the story was funny, and if my friends and I found something funny that’s what we did –  even if we were out walking we’d stop and fall to the sidewalk to split a gut.)

Timothy did not become president of Centennial Senior High in the sleepy suburban land of Coquitlam, B.C. Jocks and preppy kids were not ready for this peacenik with the long hair and flowing robes. I voted for him of course. And the day after his speech I spotted him in the cafeteria, incognito in jeans and a T-shirt. I introduced myself and he invited me over to his place after school.

Tim had his own apartment in the basement of a house and there on a hotplate he cooked brown rice and vegetables. A vegetarian with his own pad, how utterly new all this was to me and how very cool. Tim told me that out of respect for the earth and the people who grew the rice I should eat every last grain in my bowl. I did. And afterwards, he lit some incense and put Astral Weeks on the turntable. I’d never heard Van Morrison’s first solo album in its entirety. Now, as Van growled and whispered and cajoled out the title cut, I sat in silence, my eyes closed. I was floating “in another time, in another place” and Van’s sensual swirling utterances were taking me there.

“Got a hormone high,” I heard him sing over and over again. Years later I would discover the lyrics are “got home on high”. In keeping with the musician’s oft repeated theme of transcendence, “home on high” connotes a place above the throng: “We are goin’ to heaven.” But “hormone high” is what I heard back then. It is also what I felt, at age fifteen, as I tripped out in my crushed velvet bellbottoms and love beads. And the mounting intensity of the seven-minute-long Astral Weeks track was a sublime musical accompaniment to my coming of age. The song reaches ever so sweetly for climax then upon arrival sustains the ecstatic mystical moment with shimmering instrumentation wrapped in soft spiralling vocals.

This was the time of free love but Tim and I were never lovers, at least not physical lovers. We went on peace marches and attended sit-ins together; shared wine and cheese and bread with other protesters; rubbed tiger balm on our temples. At school we started our own chapter of SDS without really knowing what it was. I wrote angry missives for the school newspaper and Tim booked Big Brother and the Holding Company for a school concert.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world”, Van croons in Astral Weeks. Those lyrics cut deepest for me, floundering in a sea of adolescent insecurity as I was. But the day Timothy Treger walked into my life, dressed like Jesus and reading comical stories out loud at sombre events, was the beginning of the end of my strangerhood. Some people shrink your world, others expand it, Tim did the latter in spades in one exciting eventful year in my life, a year that confirmed for me that rolling on the sidewalk laughing was better than staying in your room crying and that being kooky was better than being cookie-cutter.

Morrison was twenty-three when he put Astral Weeks out. It arrived at the end of the sixties, the end of an era to be sure but simultaneously the beginning of something fantastically new for me. That visit to Timothy’s place with the grains of rice and quivering music, heralded a new dawn: I was stepping out into the world and I was doing it to a soundtrack played by the one and only Van Morrison.

I never saw Timothy after that school year ended. He was moving in universes I was barely aware of at the time. I bumped and banged my way into the seventies and university, went from ragged patched jeans to corduroy hot pants, from psychedelic light shows to discos with revolving coloured lights; David Bowie and Lou Reed took the spotlight. But there was always Van the Man, transporting me, transporting a generation. And every time I hear him sing “We are goin’ to heaven” I am reminded of the man in the white robes who, just by virtue of being who he was, gave my soul permission to fly.

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Photo: left: the author (age 15) with her friend Suzanne & some cats. In the rockery at 616 Rochester, Coquitlam, B.C.

Title: from Astral Weeks: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaduct of your dreams…”

Wardrobe: Dress on Suzanne created for the author by Terrill Marlow, big sister extraordinaire.

 

Mr. Pecknold, Picasso & Me

Originally published in The Globe & Mail, the following story is a tribute to my Gr. 9 English teacher, Lynn Kenneth Pecknold.  I hadn’t seen “Mr. Pecknold” in 46 years when my story reunited us in 2014. We met each others’ spouses (& few family members), posed for some photo ops & did some serious catching up.

After Picasso

After our parents’ divorce, our mother moved her bedroom to the den and my brother took over the old conjugal quarters. Like a 1960s version of Tom Sawyer, he sloshed a purple-wash over a beige wall, then got his teeny bopper little sister to finish the job. I was only too happy to turn the whole room into nighttime for his new black light.

I was a skinny girl of 14, limbs flying loose from oversized wooly sweaters and mini skirts, flailing in this direction and that; legs dancing, leaping, flying; just as free as all those answers blowin’ in the wind Bob Dylan sang about. But when the school buzzer sounded its mechanical call I stifled the wild child and filed into the drab hallways and classrooms of Como Lake Junior High, an institution where I was about as far from free as my hem was from the grey linoleum floors.

Forced to sit still in a little prison they called a desk, I clenched my fists and dug my nails into the palms of my hands while my hormones raced to the beat of some wild symphony only I could hear. While the teacher’s voice droned on in the stale air, I sought salvation in daydreams but if I was called back to answer questions, I had to confess I hadn’t been listening and I didn’t know the answers; they were blowing in the wind.

What is the square root of Free?

My creative and theatrical impulses made themselves evident even in school. When I had to sneeze I made the loudest “aaa-choo” in the land, making kids laugh and teachers scowl – except for my English teacher, Mr. Pecknold, who encouraged that sort of bold expression. “Bravo!” he would say after a volcanic sneeze punctured the sedate pen-scratching soundtrack of his classroom. He was also an Art teacher, although not mine, and when he found out how much I liked to paint, he lent me a handsome volume with page after page of colourful plates of great works of art.

I decided to copy one of the paintings onto a canvas board in my brother’s studio. Every day after school, I rushed home to my very own Girl Before a Mirror in progress. With a kind of ecstatic concentration I endeavoured to mix the same blues Picasso had once mixed. I squeezed and stirred the oozy colours, rust red, spring green, tar black. The smell of the oil paints as I slathered them on was as fragrant to me as the hyacinths that grew in our rockery.

On the closet door that used to hold our father’s tie rack, my brother painted three fluorescent hearts. In one he inscribed “Sonny and Cher,” in another I put “Romeo and Juliet,” and in the last he wrote: “Mom and Dad.” Since our mother and father’s marriage had ended in nasty betrayals and terrible battles, this neon pink inscription made us smile ironically beneath the black light, glowing teeth concealing pain, confusion, fear.

One day while I stood before my easel in breathless abandon, a blob of turquoise paint landed on the book my teacher had given me, right next to the Girl, on a border as smooth and white as virgin snow. I was mortified and hurried to wipe it off, but the pigment had seeped in and left a vivid blue stain. I had deflowered the Girl, and the repercussions I imagined for this deed gave me nightmares.

When my masterpiece was done, I took it to school to show my teacher. Appraising the two-foot by three-foot canvas he smiled thoughtfully, and in a voice full of warm approval, said: “Call it ‘After Picasso.’ ” He told me to enter it in the school art show. I scrawled its title on the back and entered it that day.

Then, mustering all my courage I gave my teacher his book back. Quivering in my white go-go boots, I opened it to the blue blemish and apologized. He eyed the blotch with the same critical eye he’d given my painting. Then he looked at me and said: “I am honoured.”

My painting won a prize. I was awarded a sketchbook.

Thirty-six years after Pablo Picasso painted the Girl, I laid eyes on her for the first time in my teacher’s book. Thirty-nine years after that, I finally saw the original at MOMA. That was last year, and as I gazed at the painting, so large and vibrant and colourful, I became intensely aware of something about the Girl’s face. One side of her face is a soft lavender pink, the innocent child; the other side of her face is bright yellow accented with rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow, the emerging sexual woman. I realized then that I had painted a self portrait.

I had come a long way since tying my blonde Twiggy hair up and wearing bell bottoms. As the seventies kicked in, so did my sun-yellow woman, but I was still the lavender girl, too. Picasso painted the Girl’s future as contorted and anxious in her reflection in the mirror. I too was destined to know the dark night of my soul.

Violet, ochre, rust, black, verdigris, they’re all me. But mostly, I am that renegade splotch of turquoise paint that landed in my teacher’s book so long ago, that dash of joyful colour that didn’t go where it was supposed to, that runaway blob that made its worthy mark. And to be all those colours, I am honoured.

Breaking Up Into Small Pieces

Yvonne’s hands glide over your body with a touch as smooth as velvet as she takes you deep into the relaxation provided by Lomi Lomi Hawaiian Temple Bodywork. Relax your muscles, open your heart, be transformed.

IMG_2363_phixrOver the course of two hours you’ll feel like you’re flying with frigate birds over the sea (whose sustained flight has inspired Lomi Lomi Flying Dance) or just floating in a world where there are no thoughts. Beautiful Hawaian music fills the room as Yvonne practices the ancient technique of Lomi Lomi, which means “breaking up into small pieces”.

“In other words Lomi Lomi breaks up old patterns in one’s life and presents an opportunity for new awareness and conscious choices for one’s life to move forward.” – from Yvonne’s website:alohalomi.com. Check it out: you’ll find testimonials, information, & a video of Yvonne in action, moving like an ocean breeze over a happy client.