From January to September, the light lasts a little longer each day.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Lake Thunder: Part Five
A slow 10 am start to Saturday started with Joel grabbing a DAB and getting it into his gullet. "I need to release the hounds", Steve said, referring to his bowels, and with no running water, we headed to town for some relief and to obtain some live bait. We rolled into Smiths Falls - our familiar jag from the country, and felt comfortable and strange all at once. The sun was high but the cold was a finger cut that you couldn't shake the sting from. We hit the bait store. An old man reached into a dark water tank like he'd done it a million times, and looked at Joel and said "6 bucks for a dozen or 12 for two. How many?" Joel shrugged "Probably just the one." We forged onward, and re-traced our trail knowing that young Spencer would be arriving soon. Steve stressed about reinforcing the shack.
Minutes after we hit the cottage driveway, Spence's VW rolled in behind us. Laughs and hugs were exchanged, and pillies were cracked to start the day. The whip snap of the cold cans opening reverberated off the pines. "Let's get a good day jig on, fellas", said the eager, smiley Spencer, as he pulled on a few extra layers. We hit the ice and cut a new hole about thirty yards from the shack in deeper ice. Steve stayed behind to work on a door with the new lumber. Joel couldn't cut through the new ice with the 16 inch chainsaw blade, as it only kicked out dry snow and ice - not a lick of dampness. It had to be almost two feet deep. After cutting diagonal strips, we all took a few swigs of fireball in celebratory mode as the midday cold was ramping up in monstrosity. My face and beard felt like it might fall off.
After a meeting in the shack and some questioning of Steve's door design, Sambuca was passed around for warmth, and we decided that we needed to go on a trek - Big Rock. A once favourite summer diving spot that now gets thicky lacquered in seagull shit, Big Rock is a historic place for all of us. Except instead of paddling or motoring, we were walking there. We set out in a striate formation, all staggered, and Joel drank from a giant bottle of Pabst as he held his battery powered ghetto on his shoulder. Tila the dog tagged along, looking desperately for any warmth. We felt like ants on a giant snow dune - small flecks in the winter wilderness. The winter witch did not slow her sting, and after a few spills and Spencer running off in tangents in his snowshoes, we reached our destination and met Jill for a quick bevvie. Our beers were half slush, and caked on to our facial hair. After walking for over 40 minutes, we decided to head back about 5 minutes later, and Jill was on her merry way back to prepare a sermon.
We hit the snowy ice and watched our footsteps sprawl out like the map of a conquering king and his army. The burly, surly Steve led the way, and took a different route home, and met us on the ice. After he was delayed in meeting us in the now icy shack, we later found out that he went in the cottage to get some lasagna and fell backwards in a chair, and put his elbow through a window and fell behind the ancient tv set. He was fine, though, and pledged to help Joel fix it in the spring.
With Spencer and Steve gone to make their beds and get warm by 7 pm, Joel was asleep in the shack beside me. I poked at the rekindled fire in the pot belly stove with a stick, and felt my face warm. I smiled and thought of the Life Aquatic.
As I left the yard parking lot with a load of MDF board and 2x4's for the shack, the late January sun stayed a notch higher in the sky than usual at 4:33 - a deep grapefruit tone soaked the cold blue sky, and let me know that spring is marching. My belts squealed louder than usual. "I gotta get those checked," I thought, as I rolled over crusty, squeaky, deep cold snow on Mitch Owens and booked for Kanata. I needed music. I slapped on some Blue Rodeo to help my mind ease from work into cottage mode - 5 Days In July. A great record, and one that embodies any true Canadian summer lover with cascading tremolo Gretsch riffs and soothing Cuddy vocal soundscapes. 5 Days In May is still one of the best songs to ever emerge from that band, and the opening harp hit my speakers as the sun was making me squint. "Wish I had sunglasses," I said aloud, as I honked at a slow, indecisive road hog in front of me. 416 bound.
I picked up Steve within a half hour, and he said his tender farewells to his lady, and we were off. At half past five, the sun was already dying and pulling the deep-black night-drape over everything. The cold was setting in. Steve puffed on his tobacco vapourizer forming clouds all around us, and poured over engineering plans for the ice hut in my packed, squealing vehicular device. We were like boys heading to a tree fort we left in the woods. We stopped in Carleton Place to get booze for the long cold night. Power was out in the LCBO. "Bullshit," Steve and I both bellowed. On to Smiths Falls. We shucked road back like corn peel, leaving no kernel of concrete untouched. We couldn't get there fast enough. Joel was waiting for us, already a tad slurry from warm juice, and called us to pick up a light as his kerosene lantern was dying.
Two more stops in Smiths Falls (including the snag of a discount jar of peanuts, some granola bars and a flat of Old Style Pilly) and we had arrived. We unloaded our gear in the frozen cottage, and watched our breath fill the indoors. The carpet felt like a sheet of ice on my socked feet. Steve carried the drinks and extra wood down to the lake. Joel knew we had arrived and coyote-howled at his pleasure of our showing, and Jill showed up shortly after. We had ourselves a time, and some fond laughs by the stove, and let the night take its jagged course.
Your life is an open road map of pins and destinations that you can never fathom. The pit stops that end up becoming homes will blow your mind.
For a long time, I was convinced that I'd never live close to Ottawa. It wasn't for lack of trying, mind you, but pomp and circumstance kept me away from my away from my beloved childhood haunt. For many years, I dwelled in a hazy existence of anxiety, pining and un-love. I wasn't alive. I longed to be somewhere else constantly. I walked across a bridge that led into downtown Saint Catharines for three straight years on my way to my call centre job, and I longed to be refreshed in the deep green water below the city. I even haphazardly thought about jumping into it a few times - just to see if I could break the barrier of sound and sense. I was locked up. Imprisoned by myself. But that was 2004-2007...and so skipping a few chapters, for the last year and a half, I've been privileged enough to spend long chunks of time shucking off the roads of the golden Lanark County that surrounds the capital of Canada.
The golden glow of these lands is something to be astounded by - it harkens and harrows. It pulls you close to listen to the stories of fine folks that populate it. It's sad and it's unique and it's gorgeous.
I don't know what I would do without country drives. I've basically worn a groove in the 416 between Ottawa and Kemptville over the past 18 months. And to be true, I am thankful for all of it. Every shorn piece of tire. I am grateful for every goop of gas I've sent into the atmosphere, because I've made some amazing friends, connections and beginnings in that place and in the tiny overlooked towns of this life.
My existence has changed quite drastically since those frantic days of harboured guilt and disdain, but I still have insecurities. And lost wishes. And hurt. And hatred. And hunger.
But I shall truck on - here in the smallest big city in the world.
Tonight, in an effort to help my parents clean out some of my childhood possessions, I found a card envelope that was obviously penned by my deceased grandma Betty, but with no adjoining card. Immediately, I felt sad and happy - and I searched for the card and never found it.
Betty was the best person in the world, and I miss her like hell.
And somehow I knew that despite all of my destitute searching and missing her, that I am right where I need to be - and right on the cusp and the verge of whatever needs to happen.
Sometimes, the words come out wrong. We are faced with an ellipse with these tongues that rattle around inside of our heads. We have this pivotal movie scene in our minds with some glorious thing we are about to say, and it comes out clustered or with a frogged throat - and we fumble around and fuck it up.
For someone who has a love affair with adjectives and parsed sentences, there are times when the verbiage I reach for just doesn't cut the mustard. There is something amiss. I stroke the keys, like my tiny white pets, and I get them to do what they do, but they elude me. I am evaded by language. Dodged.
We all want to give the great speech. We want to be the one who inspires and who says just the right thing that cause the lights to come on in someone's life - but that happens maybe 0.000001 percent of the time.
The truth is, more often than not, our words are for shit. We can't explain what we mean. We forge on the forest floor of description, but we come up with blistered knees - wanting and exhausted. We search for that perfect phrase, but it's somewhere in the ether - in that moment before your dream connects with your awakened state, and everything magically makes sense.
The power of silence is so overlooked, but we need to adhere. Granted - we can't all be monks, but there is a deft power in shutting up and being present.
There is truth in just allowing the page to stay blank.
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” -Jack Kerouac
You can't fool anyone.
There is an uncut, uncultured beauty underneath all of the caked layers of manufactured makeup, and the world needs to see it. Your eyes bring out the best of you. When you laugh uncontrollably, the universe shivers. Stop hiding. Your brave spirit will bring others to the light, and it will help you to understand more about who you are.
I hate the way the world makes you feel. I fucking despise it and I grind my teeth at it. I see you - hiding in the shadows and looking at the Joneses and hoping you can keep up with the status quo. You have to be so tired. I wish I could take you away to a different planet - to a stratosphere where no one judged and where everyone saw the guts of you, and listened to your every worry, and held you close while you cried out your insecurities.
Everyone needs to chance to run in the long grass and to be completely one with who they really are. I'm finally getting to that place, and it's a relief. An epiphanic breath. It's a hammer anvil of a weight that is lifting off my psyche. I don't want to mince words anymore. I want to cut through the cemented walls of bullshit that line the hallways of my past and my clouded thinking and my manly bravado. I want to show you that it can be done.
And it won't be easy. Some people will look at me like I'm a froth-mouthed fool - like I'm mad with some sort of fungal brain rot that has insecticided my soul. They will scorn, and they will hate my honesty, open cut guts with a fervour and a fire that comes from a place of pure disgust. But they will be the mad ones - because they are the ones in a trance, and they will hate everything about me.
I want to get to a place where I don't have to hide behind societal status or toys or religiosity. I want to tell people the things that have hurt me, or exactly what I'm thinking in the childish whim of a moment, and I want you to do the same.
I want you to be you, and when you do, I will smile at the firework light of your soul exploding across the skies of cynical society in a technicolour eruption that will make born again believers out of the coldest, crustiest cynics.
I'm starting to learn, with a lot of lamenting and head-nodding "I know" moments, that community plays a bigger part in your life than you realize. Even if you're not a social person, who lives for the butterfly moments of multiple conversations and the energy that people create, you need to take stock of those you surround yourself with.
Kemptville, Ontario used to be nothing more than a 'why would I stop there' highway marker on the road map of my life. And to me, it represents the shapeless, jelly-like blob of our lives - as it can take many forms and be augmented in ways that you never imagined.
On a late Sunday start, after a busy night at the Branch, I had the chance to sit by a sunlit table with two of my friends - Brad and Kathy - and share some homemade bacon, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit and a cornucopia of breakfasty delights. Brad is a music dude, and has one of the sharpest and driest wits imaginable, but he is one of the most caring, sincere folks going. We often end up talking for hours on end about our shared love of standup comedy, podcasts and pop-song construction. Kathy is one of the coolest people around, and her smile lights up any room, as she has a way of welcoming you that makes you feel like you are the most important person on the planet.
As we all slowly woke up with some coffee and food, and their dogs Rufus and Maui sat near us, Brad told a story about Kathy's dad that involved a joke about Bavarians and cows (it may sound sexual, but it really wasn't). The joke wasn't really that important, but Brad explained how this lovely man could barely get the joke out of his mouth because he was absolutely gutting himself with stop-short laughter way before the punchline. The wry detail of the story made Kathy and I feel like we were right there when it happened, and we all howled at the silliness of that moment - of a man being so laughter-consumed by something so silly that it overtook his ability to get the words out.
But what I truly love about B and K is that they always have time to listen to their friends and talk about the reality of changes, and some of the hardships that most superficial folks won't ask about. They were asking me questions about my well-worn life and some of the things I've learned, and some of the hard truths I've trudged through. They always have a way of making me feel like I'm looked after. In a time where I haven't had many constant life-guides, Brad and Kathy have been kind to me. They have taken me in when I needed a bed, they have fed me, and they have always made me feel welcome (even when I'm sure they were tired and could have easily shook their heads and said 'Ugh - not that Matt bastard AGAIN!').
As we ate and laughed and listened together, I looked at them realized how much I've come to appreciate these two unique individuals, and how I hope to be a part of their lives for many moons to come.
I always felt that when I lived in Cobourg and all around the GTA corridor, I never felt like I found my people. My folks. My crew.
I'm a part of something - something that I'm helping to build with many others - and I'm thankful that I'm finally starting to see some of the pieces come together.
We bolted down the steps with board and tarps and nails. I carried the homemade, ramshackle gutted, propane-tank pot belly stove and Joel brought the needed tools. We were hurrying, but we didn't know why. Daylight burned around us and a mild January day became witch-like on the open lake.
We were back in the shack-like thing that we built - our escape pod.
I brought my skates, and I laced them up quickly, as I sipped a half chunk-frozen Old Style Pilly from the can. Joel stoked the fire.
I pushed across a few patches of crusted bumps and snow humps, and found a half decent piece of glass to dance on. I pumped each leg and watched the shore move as the ice was cut by my blades. I made marks no one had made before, and in the exact same spot that I was swimming in 5 months ago.
Tila the dog stayed warm in the shack. Joel and I made dumb videos with our phones and made ourselves laugh about all things childish as I skated to and fro.
I stopped for a second, and took another pull from the Pilly in the middle of the lake, and I soaked in the dusklight moment. I marvelled at nature and her glory, and I felt connected to that dark frozen, glassy mass beneath my feet.
As a month that usually drags us through the dregs, I'm amazed at how January is just ripping by with bullet speed. This leads me to believe that February might end up being the real bitch of the bunch, but whatever the case, I'll take it where I can get it.
I've been playing more music lately, as my minor lumber-related wrist injury seems to be lessening. The sun has been shining a little more and staying out a little longer.
But in this winter deep freeze that makes our cars and teeth clink a little more than usual, it's important to take stock of what we have. The North American way seems to always be pointing us to what we DON'T have - but how healthy is that? That sunny destination vacation. That ski trip. That new shiny toy. That dream house. That high interest savings account with hundreds of thousands in it.
The still small voice inside of us knows that those things are dreck. Toilet paper. Window dressing. They don't make us who we are - and in fact, they can often help hide ourselves FROM ourselves. It's important to let yourself smile from that deep well inside of you - when you realize the good that is waiting to be tapped, like the rows of icy maples in the forest of your heart.
I remember watching a documentary many years ago about fishmongers in the Pike Place Market. I didn't think much of it at the time, but I remember that a huge part of their job is a conscious choice - a choice to be positive and to make an effort to be happy and inspire their customers to do the same, as they football bomb heavy, slippery trout, salmon and largemouth bass over people's heads with pinpoint precision. We've all seen depression rear its ugly head in many ways - in family members, friends, over-medicated people and in ourselves. And yes - don't kid yourself - there is darkness. Everywhere. All you have to do is pick up a local rag to see that gut-splitting truth. But when that's all you focus on - if that's all you let into your view, it will take over your horizon.
There's a better way - and I'm working towards that.
Come along for the journey, and let's see what we can dig up in the snow.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in a stall pattern. We don't think that where we are is where we should be, and so we pine and we wane and we dream of greener grass.
But the truth is that you were always meant to be right where you are. It's something I firmly believe in, and something that has made the difference in understanding the universe around me.
For a long time, I fought to change everything and everyone around me. I was fairly zealous in my twenties, after I experienced something pretty profound and spiritual in the basement of my Guelph apartment. I thought this new awakening was what other people needed, and for a time, I pushed my beliefs on friends, strangers and anyone around me. I led worship. I raised my hands to try and experience God. I even did something called 'random evangelism'. Pretty strange stuff.
Although I'm still a big fan and follower of Jesus, I don't really see the importance of church now, but I see the merits of it in my formative years. I made some great friends - some of my best friends in churches and at spiritual camps. And I view things through a bit of a rose coloured lens now - and I understand that it was important for me to begin to see beyond myself. To pray. To heed words and to listen to others and shut up. To look outside of this self-obsessed, ego-stroking North American culture and see that solitude was achievable. To serve others - as best I can. To help and to be be kind.
And now, as I push into my latter thirties, I still haven't arrived at any sort of spiritual destination - but at the very least, I have an open mind.
If you had told me two years ago that I would become such close friends with the people that I'm close to now, I wouldn't have believed you. Would anyone? Would I have seen myself working at a Christmas tree farm for hours on end on bitterly cold beautiful days? Or building warehouse bins at a lumber yard? Noway. Our lives unfold in a pretty unbelievable majesty and mystery, and it's pretty damn cool to watch.
And I see now that it's all happening around me - all of the time. And there is beauty in that.
Otter Lake is one of the country, cut-from-rock corners of my mind that I go to on a frequent basis. There's something about the stripped down simplicity of its openness and darkness that makes my soul come alive and shine out the clearer.
In these wild, strata-obsessed times, it seems like most folks think of a cottage as a massive mansion that sits atop a cliff, miles up from the shore - posing its superiority upon all. Luckily, none of my friends or family members growing up had mansions by the water. In some ways, I'm sure that fact has made me appreciate the simplicity of an open lake (and it probably made me less of an asshole).
Sometimes, I just want to write. I want to get in a boat, undo the anchor, and float out on a semi-windy day with a pad and a good pen and my guitar.
Other days, writing is a chore. That seems to be more of the case lately. It's not that I don't have anything to say - it's that the delivery method stays the same and I become a victim to a bit of a routine.
The lake, like writing, takes work. I used to be mostly a visitor and not an owner of the lake. I would show up somewhere, use the facilities and then leave.
In the last few years, I've seen the merits of elbow grease and I've spent some time helping my friends who live near old Otter. Docking boats properly and tying the right kind of knots. Getting windows winterized, boarded and covered. Staining wood. Sanding. Cleaning out fire pits. Building tree forts. Putting docks in and taking them out.
The city can stay where it is - and it has its mystical beauty - but the rawness of the lake cannot be lost.
Did you hear that? Boom. Crack. Deep, earth-lung bass tones that ripple beneath the mysterious surface that supports your frozen feet. Miles of frosty peace, and an eternity of snow capped pine shores.
We set out on the lake with our hammers and boards and tarps and whiskey. Snow squeaking with every step. Crunch. Crunch. No power tools - only manual instruments that forced us to ice-burn our hands from time to time in the unadulterated, howling January north wind. We laughed like kings and our faces stung. Boyishness never leaves a man, I thought.
Bit by bit, my two best friends in the universe and myself pulled plywood and two-bys and cut trees together and constructed a ramshackle ice station. With tarps for walls and no ceiling, we sat by an emptied out and re-jigged propane tank that became our fireplace, and the icy mistress lessened her mad screams as we admired an overcast January sky. It must have looked like a pitiful, crude
shanty, but it was our fortress away from the world.
Winter cannot be hidden from. Eventually, we all must face it.
The lights of the town went down
In some county line can that's kicked around
The drunk, he pulled his face from the gravel
And didn't know how his life had unraveled
"Old wooden telephone poles
Lead the way into a forest of souls
The city, it makes too much noise
Full of neon monstrosity toys
Everyone needs to get away
To discover the truths in a day"
He bellowed these words in the air
As if answering an invisible dare
He thought about finding higher ground
But he just chugged his last swigs and lay down
The lights of the town went down
On a mid-lifed, no-jobbed sad clown
He lay on his back, head askew
And these words, to the galaxy he threw
"If I lived to see one more day,
I would have never let her get away."
He wiped the dried blood from his chin
And hoped he could sleep out the sin
I hope that as old as I get to be, I never lose my childish infatuation and joy with listening to the mysterious tunes of a newly acquired album.
In my childhood, I took piano lessons up to a grade two level, but my true consciousness was never really kicked open until I started sliding one finger around on an electric six string guitar. There was a white Ibanez rip-off that my brother had borrowed from a friend in our basement, and for some reason, I decided to start fiddling with it when I was 13 or 14. Eventually, the finger sliding made me ask people about chording and shapes and how to make cool sounds. And I thought it would probably make girls like me, too.
One of those people who was a big part of my musical influence and makeup in my younger years was my friend Jeff. Jeff moved into town from Toronto in his junior high years, and our friendship was formed out of him inviting me over to his house in Centrepointe, on a Sunday afternoon after church, to play Nintendo. And oddly enough, that's exactly how he phrased the question on the phone: "Hi Matt - do you want to come over to my house and play Nintendo?" How could I say no to Nintendo?
Jeff is and has always been a bit of a savant musician. His ability to master an instrument has always been semi-maddening but inspiring to me. He has an understanding of theory and the beauty of notes that was always in his genetic makeup. Over the years, we have played in many bands together, and taken many road trips together - where we would play new songs for each other's ripe ears and marvel at the sounds, and distortion techniques, and solos, and compare the songs of our new bands to other old bands we already knew. I don't think anyone has seen Sloan live more than Jeff - nor does anyone in this galaxy own more b-sides by Low.
Just a few weeks back, I asked Jeff about Uncle Tupelo because my friend Chuck from Halifax mentioned their name when he was rooting around about my influences. Sure enough, Jeff is and has been a fan forever, and he assembled a 20+ song mix of his favourite UT tunes and mailed it to me. The simplicity but raw gut-power of picky, ploddy tunes like Wait Up and Black Eye have been dancing in my head for weeks like a fading, laughing pixie of youth - waving sheets around in a green meadow that is disappearing from my memory. Gorgeous and sad. March 16-20, 1992 is an album worth acquiring, and it will probably show you things about yourself.
Music is my elixir. It's my lifeblood. It lights little fires in my bones and it puts a spring in my step. I pray that never changes. I hope everyone has a friend like Jeff - someone who can continue to open your eyes to the world around you.
"As we live, we all get caught and torn by various traps. Writing can trap you. Some writers tend to write what has pleased their readers in the past. They hear accolades and believe them. There is only one final judge of writing - and that is the writer. When he is swayed by the critics, the editors and the publishers, then he's finished. And of course, when he's swayed with his fame and his fortune, you can float him down the river with the turds." - Henry Chinaski ("Factotum" by Charles Bukowski)
The character of Henry Chinaski is a complicated and sad one. Played seamlessly by Matt Dillon in the movie version of the book, Chinaski is someone who appears in five different Bukowksi books, leading the reader to believe that he was basically Bukowski's literary alter ego. But for all of Hank's bar-brawling, no-job-holding alcoholism that scares me, there is something in the centre of this character's truth pursuit that strikes the core of me.
Chinaski is the ultimate example of a man who understands existentialism; the fading, REM beauty of a life that seems to speed by with jet force - and all the while genuinely appreciating it, while it grows and dies around him.
He is a man who, despite some unhealthy vices, is seeking something lasting - and he gives no time to anyone's view of how he lives his life. And in following that example, I want to be honest. I want to spill my guts in the words and leave some of my blood on the keys.
As a writer, I've been a victim of writing flowery, poetic bullshit when I should have written the thing that scared me. Sometimes, when I've been most anxious, I've appeared to have it all together to my closest friends. I've told lies. I've put on smiles for social functions when I should have let the smile wait and brew a bit, and come from a real place inside of me. I've hurt people. I've been prideful, thin-skinned and quick to retaliate when I should have stepped back and shut my mouth. I've been a coward when I pretended to be a strong manly man with big shoulders. I've been scared shitless of this life at times, and feeling like I was a near overboard passenger of a sea-ravaged vessel. I've been quick to outwardly judge and label people when I should have listened and seen the inner beauty. I made people look dumb to make myself look better. I've put myself on a pedestal. And it sickens me.
I could have been a better husband.
So yeah - I've done some bad shit. And I have sobbed deep, dark, bitter weeps of disdain for those deeds on long car rides and dusk walks on vacant city streets, and I have let the hard moments of oblivion and darkness wash over me.
As someone who doesn't believe in regrets, though, I've only come to that place because I've known them personally - and I've seen their ghosts in my life.
But I will not, for one minute, brood in self-stewing sadness that comes from that cyclically stunted thinking. I will know my demons and my past battles, but I will move forward from them. I will jag. I will move parallel and cut a new path. I will keep learning - even when all of the voices of our culture tell me that I should have 'arrived' by now. I will search for that ever-evasive lasting thing, just beyond the horizon, and hell - I may even already know what it is - but that's not the point, is it? I will not feel shame - even when the world says I should.
The hunt is on, and I will not be satisfied until I look back upon my words without scorn or disdain, and my soul nods and agrees.
Sometimes, I dream about an old world where there were still so many undiscovered, rugged lands. The map was still unwritten and no one knew what gems lay ahead of every seafaring adventure.
In our modern, breakneck world, it can sometimes feel like the mystery is gone. Everyone has a pent up desire to pull back the curtain and see the wizard. There are very few secrets. Technology creeps into every corner of our existence, and we wilt and let it happen. We see the rest of the world acting a certain way, and we fall in line and keep up.
I think the modern trailblazers are the ones who are not afraid to be lost. They are okay with a dark forest, winding path, and they understand that the anxiety and excitement are both part of the adventure. There are always people to ask. There is always a compass. There are landmarks. But we settle for the digital pinprick of a GPS and let the rightness of those ones and zeroes calm our nerves.
Sometimes, it's okay to be lost. We will all find our way through it.
There are days that go by that don't seem to slow down. The march of time is a rhythmic but steady one - but on some days, it feels like the metronome has been cranked up a notch.
On a day where my body told me to take more time off before re-starting manual work with a bum wrist (mild sprain of some kind), I had a wild thought. I was already in the downtown core doing some postering for one of my part-time gigs, and I did something I barely ever do - I took myself out for lunch.
In 2008-09, in my rock-band, bar tending Centretown days, there was a Chinatown haunt that I used to love called New Mee Fung. I was introduced to that same place by my friend Skippy. When he first took me there, and squeezed the lime into his bowl, I felt like I had stumbled into a new dimension of vivacious flavour. With a flair for the spicy side at times, I've only ever ordered one thing there over half a decade - #136 - the spicy sate pho with your choice of chicken or beef. Since then, I've only taken a few people to this place, and I'm sure those special folks have felt the simple magic of this basic decor, Booth street walk-up.
Sometimes it can be a chore for me to put my phone away, and to just spend some time alone, but there is something about the forced trudge-pace of winter that makes me accept the practice of me-time. I smelled the uber-fiery broth and let the spicy-peanut, rocket-fuel-injected aroma hit my nostrils. I looked out the window on to the very non-bustling Chinatown street, I sat back in my slip cover chair, and I was grateful for a reflexive Monday moment - and for doing something fun all by my lonesome.
Many, many times in this wild, hypersonic, technicolour life, we can get lost in listening too much to other people - and not listening enough to ourselves. If you don't listen to yourself and care for yourself first, how can you care for others?
Life is what happens when you're making other plans - or so the idioms of pop culture tell us.
But there is a lot of truth in that overused, catch-22, pop-sugar phrase. When we think back to the golden, green-grassed days of our youth, it's important to ask the question - 'How much is actually remembered and how much is idealized by our sentimental minds?' In youth, we want so much to run. We want to move. We want to hit the dusty trail and take no prisoners on the paths that lead us away from everything normal. We raise fists and we declare our mission, and we go.
In adulthood, we understand and appreciate, with a little more trepidation and anxiety, the importance of soaking in the rays of a sunny day - and stopping, and letting the power of that vitamin D pour into our veins - because the rain may not be far off. We still move, but we evaluate the moves a little more carefully. There's more to lose. There's more water in the glass.
We have no control over what will decorate the halls of our past or our future. We might think we do, but we so do not. All we can do is make the best choice that lies before us, and sleep in the bed of the fretful and worrisome decision that we make. If a branch is dead, we can throw it aside - but if a small twig needs nurturing and attention, we need to work on it. Massage it. Help it to grow. We live in a castout, knockdown-dragout world with no grace and little compassion.
In the end, our hallways will be scattered - hoarded. Cluttered with golden stars, odd postcards and faded photographs that we never expected would be fair representations of us, or who we are.
There's something about old town Elgin Street in Ottawa that churns up the memory machine for me.
Last night, I had the chance to spend a few hours with my brother Adam and our friend Dave at a local haunt we all have come to love and despise equally - the Fox and the Feather. The Fox is one of those pubs that looks the same inside as it did in early 90's. Not much has changed - including the menu. Dave is one of those characters who seems like he could have been a Seinfeld character in a different life, and my brother and I ping-ponged comedic at him and each other like a writing room roundtable.
There was no hint of worrying about our appearances or putting on airs to impress anyone. We were just three dudes who enjoyed the company of each other, ate some steak slowly, watched some hockey and let the night unfold.
Oddly enough, it was the three of us who used to hang out on a regular basis (Adam and Dave much more than me) with our friend Dale who passed away from a nasty battle with Leukemia in July of 2013. His name even came up a few times last night, both in admiration and in laughter. But in a way, his memory warmed us on a cold January night. Our steps were a bit heavier but we were also a little more reflective - seeing the busy Saturday night scrambling around us, as well-quoffed dudes with no toques and scantily clad gals scuttled through the main artery of downtown. But we didn't care about anyone else.
We were there to be there with each other - and no one nor nothing else mattered.
When I was a kid, I had never heard anything as powerful as the busting rock sound of Springsteen. The first record I ever purchased, with my own allowance dollars, was Born In The USA. There is something that connects me to Bruce - something that I can never deny or avoid. With an American mother, I related to the simple chord, blues-rock progressions of every Bruce tune that was straight up and hit-based.
Another interesting fact that enters into the stew of this equation is the fact that Bruce and I share the same day of birth - September 23. I found that out at young age through the help of Entertainment Tonight - before internet was even a blip on the radar of possibility.
The first thing Bruce showed me was melody. You don't need to kill a song with complexities. It can be easy - it really can. As Benmont Tench said in the Tom Petty documentary, "Don't bore us - get to the chorus".
Born In The USA is a study in music. It is a warning sign for prog-rock lovers and technical junkies, and a flag to fly for any aspiring songwriter. The verses and intros bring the listener in, but the chorus brings everything home and makes any awkwardness blast apart. The chorus is the finisher - the final touch of crescendo. You can hear it in Glory Days, Dancing In The Dark, Born In The USA, and many more.
Bruce is a study of musical exasperation. He doesn't stop. He keeps going. He never gives up. The man, in his 69 years of life, can still play three plus hour concerts. Anyone who talks shit about Springsteen doesn't understand the nuts and bolts of music - the real heart and guts of a song comes alive in the words and riffs of this Jersey born blue collar rocker. There are many who try to channel him - but there is only one of him - and I'm thankful for that.
It's important to let the silence hit you - especially in a culture that praises loudness, bells and whistles and bright lights.
In 2006, I ventured into the deep desert with my old friends Matt and Mitch. We went to rural Arizona on a three hour hike from the top of a canyon into the deepest, darkest badlands I've ever seen. When we finally hit the tiny town under a blanket of pitch, we were greeted by unfriendly dogs that ran from farm home houses to bark their lungs out at us. We fumbled for flashlights and we were tired and blistered. We asked scurrying locals how to find our campsite.
Coyotes howled. I even had the thought that I would die in a tiny Arizona town, at the age of 30, and that life would be all over.
Eventually, we made it to a roadside, pitched a tent off a horse path, and one of the most beautiful, sandy silences befell all of us in our tent. Through the screen roof, I saw some of the brightest and richest stars I've ever seen.
Sometimes, the stillness teaches you how to let everything go.
There are some things in this life that you can't explain, and the more you try to justify your words and actions, the less meaning they have.
I grew up in a family that promoted a belief in God - and to this day, it's difficult for me to write the word 'God' without a capital G.
As much as I despise the church and a lot of the sanctions and religiosity that come from that sector, I do understand the healthiness in thinking outside of oneself. I think that we are at a cultural crossroads - where people are far too self involved and don't take enough time to think outside of their own spheres.
Even the most unreligious writers of all time like Kerouac, Hemingway, Bukowski and Thompson took the time to think outside of their own skulls - they looked to the possibility of a great beyond.
I had the chance to meet for coffee with my sister Laura today. Laura is someone who lives a pretty quiet, non-public existence, but who understands and listens with an unjudgmental eye to every word that is uttered to her. She once ran a B&B on a fucking ISLAND in Nicaragua (oh - and that same island has two volcanoes on it and is surrounded by a fresh water lake). I've known her for a long time (over 20 years), and even though she is someone I don't see often, when I do, we get down to business. We talk about the heart. We talk about longing and loss and what the future just might hold.
We had the chance to talk about friends today - and how sometimes, friends start relationships with people that you don't want in your life - but how, in the end, you get past your own bullshit hangups and learn to accept people for who they are and how, if someone truly is your friend, you accept their decisions and back them up. We sat at a Starbucks, stared out of a Merivale Road window, and let this truth sink in.
If there is a 'God', I'd like to think that He or She would hug any boyfriend or girlfriend of a friend with open arms and pure childish enjoyment.
It was a good moment. And we were both passengers on a ship of something beyond ourselves.
Sometimes, you become unsure of your surroundings - but in the end, you will become more familiar than you realize.
In September, on the day of my actual birthday, I took up work at a lumber yard I had not worked at since I was in my early mid-twenties. Much has changed since those youthful days, but in other ways, much is still the same. The yard has become a much more prestigious place with a large raft of employees, but some of the strange characters I left in 2002 have stayed and have bulilt something interesting there.
In my twenties, I was always in a rush to leave. I never wanted to stay anywhere or see anything through. When I worked at the yard back then, I despised every moment I was there. Hard work was my enemy and I wanted a luxurious life with friends and camp and sleepovers. And most of the time, I wasn't even doing gruelling labour - I was driving all over the city as a delivery guy.
In my recent return, I've had more of a slow burn in my view - a desire to learn and pick up skills and to not be so afraid of slivers. One of the most tedious jobs I've done is sticking cedar. Basically, when you stick, you're putting layers of thin sticks between every row of western red cedar 2X whatevers. The point of sticking is to dry out the wood completely before it can be milled. It takes a long time and there is always buckets of it to do. It's awkward, fairly backbreaking and you never get to see the end result, even though you write your initials on every pile that you stick
Today, however, I got to see the end result of some earlier work. As I was pulling strips of Laff (lattice wood) through a machine, I saw something on the side of one of the pieces: WR CEDAR - OCT 17 - MM.
And so there you have it - in an odd and uncanny way, I got to see the very end result of sticking - and from a pile that I personally stuck and prepped three months ago. I showed the guy (Ryan) who was running the machine the engraved evidence of my handwork. Although not nearly as jazzed as I was, he smiled and I knew that he understood the importance of seeing something though to the end.
Sometimes, we are awaiting the massive payoff to crest the horizon - but more often than not, the little victories are already there and waiting to be seen.
Sometimes, when life gets real quiet, and I take an opaque-skied, icy winter morning drive to work, I think about Dale and Jay. Having never known each other to my knowledge, they both had the same last names of Smith.
Dale was a friend of my brother's and mine and Jay was a guitarist for Matt Mays and a mutual friend of many of my friends - and they are both people who were in my life for a period of time, and who are now gone. Passed. Adiosed. Dale was one of the kindest souls that I ever met. With a wit as quick as a whip and penchant for cinematic trivia, he was always willing to offer a kind word, a heartfelt shoulder nudge and an encouragement amidst his real-world humour. Jay was also a kind man, an all-world guitarist and songwriter, and someone I only really had one conversation with, but who I realized, in the briefest of moments, had an otherworldly mind on him.
I miss them both, in different ways, and I'm still sad about them being gone.
At the ripe ages of 43 and 34, it's sad, sudden and still shocking to this day that they are no longer here - in the same consciousness that you and I inhabit. I wonder about those guys. I wonder about their last thoughts - what they'd hoped for, what filled them with gratitude, and what regrets they clung to in their final moments. It makes me wonder where they are, and what is truly beyond the great stop.
And it is here, tonight, on this cutting January eve that the spirit of Dale came alive, as I was browsing through some old blog entries and found one of his comments that still lives in the annals of cyberspace. In November of 2010 (see my last blog), I decided to take one of the hardest steps I'd ever taken as I didn't like the way my life looked and I was in a rather depressed state. Dale, otherwise known as Fisheye Lens on his blog (who was first encouraged to blog by my brother Adam), took the time to write something affirming and wise on my post in a moment of sincerity. When I found this comment tonight, a few hot tears rolled down my face in the memory of that kind fellow. And I feel okay about that.
"I'm at a similar crossroads in my life -- just trying to sludge my way through it. Keep your head up, Matt." -Dale Smith (Nov 2010)
Everybody must travel down a different path. Perhaps the hardest and most frustrating experiences come in this life when we prematurely try to walk in someone else's shoes, and fail miserably, because really - there is absolutely no earthly way to ramble down someone else's path. We all must face those dark nights of the soul and those lonely solo evenings of yearning to thrust us back to where we need to be.
Sure - travels and communities and relationships may put you on the same course as another for a short time, but in the end, everyone has a different road - and the road never waits. It is always winding, it is always bending and mysterious - and each road for each individual is beset with different obstacles, demons and delights. Your journey is your own. That is an immutable truth.
One of the best and most refining decisions I made happened in 2011. I was tired of my life the way it was in Cobourg, and I knew that I needed to get more serious about music. That decision came with some scorn, and some ruffled family and social circle brows and feathers, but I pushed on because I knew it needed to be done. So I contacted a few musical friends who I used to work at the same summer camp with - one was from Winnipeg and one was from Whistler. Trish and JD. Never in my life did I experience more highs, lows, frustrations, frictions and fortifying connections in such a short amount of time. Tears were shed, prayers were thrown and smiles and laughs beamed out of places from a different stratosphere of the soul. It was truly the best and the worst of times. I've done smaller tours since then, but never one of that distance and magnitude. The above photo is from that tour, and it is a book I'll never take off my shelf. It showed me that as scary as life gets, it can always get scarier - and when you think you're at your limit, you're probably nowhere close.
We don't know how much time we get. We don't know what our legacy will be - but we make the decisions, we stick to the path that we need to stick to, and we push on. But no one is going to make decisions for you. Only you can decide and only you can take action.
If life is something that bores you, you should drive to Osoyoos BC and play to a room of 4 people where a man in a ten gallon hat chirps you the whole night. If you are sick of your job, you should drive through the coquihalla pass and wonder if your van is going to make it through the centre of a mountain and down the steepest of roads and tightest of hairpin turns. If you want a change, you should drive through a ten hour snowstorm, between Vancouver and Calgary, and feel penned in by deep blue darkness, mountains, snow and sleet in every compass direction. If you want more challenges, you should argue with a venue manager in Calgary who tries to stiff you out of $100 that they guaranteed you in an email.
And yeah - I did all of those things. And since then, I've taken some steps to make my life more about music and writing - but I know that I need to do more, and so I'm going to take more action to do just that. I want to live out loud - in technicolour and with full volume. I've met so many people who are slaves to an invisible, self-defeating master - and I know these people well - because I've been in that same captivity before. But there is a way out, and there is always a road that waits for your four black tires that is ready to guide you, challenge you and push you to your next destination.
May these words challenge you, as they have challenged me.
There are some things that the city can never show you. I've had a penchant for old, heartland country music since my dad took my brother and I to see Grandpa Jones play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville when I was 13 (sidenote: it was also on this 19 hour drive that I had to urinate really badly, but my dad, in his desire to drive like the wind, did not want to stop the car and forced my brother to use an empty MacDonalds cup to catch my fluid trappings) - Since that trip, I've always had a bit of a fascination with the classic cowboy character.
My grandparents on my mom's side lived in Colorado for many years, and visiting them was the ideal of the highly fabled, open cowboy plains. Rugged. Dusty. Craggy. Mountainous. Sprawling sunsets. A lone howling coyote, somewhere deep in the backdrop of night, singing a lonely tune.
But as much as I love the road, a cowboy, no matter how far and hard he rides, always needs a place to hang his hat.
I don't have much Colorado in me anymore, but there is a quiet latitude that creeps into your being when you put on your favourite track, add a little extra gas into your tank and venture out into the night-coated quiet, beautiful, rural regions of the enchanted Eastern Ontario flatlands. Farm fields turn into a burnt gold at dusk, and the busyness of day is draped in a blanket of stars and blue-blackness.
Over my twenties and early thirties, I've strewn my living quarters all across different regions of Ontario and Canada. Saint Catharines. Sudbury. Guelph. Kingston. Cobourg. Barry's Bay. Toronto. But I was never really happy in any of those places, and I always knew at one point I would return to the Cap City region.
There is something simple and majestic about the mild, magical peace of the Ottawa valley that speaks to me. I love having a nearly million-person city at my fingertips, but having gemstone countrysides just a 15 to 20 minute amble away. I love having time to think between drives, and fewer cars on the roads. Although I am truly someone who never really feels at home, and who is always looking for that just-beyond-the-horizon greener grass, this is as close as home has ever felt.
For as long as I can remember back into my teenage years, I was someone who never really fit in.
I was a big-bodied kid, and fairly chubby for a good chunk of my adolescence. I had some growth spurts, and sporty periods, but I was lucky enough to never be ostracized. I had enough of a sociable disposition to always be able to get along with many different groups of people, and I used humour and smiles as much as I could - those were two of my greatest weapons of youth. But I definitely spent a lot of time away from school traveling to different universes within my mind - and most of those were contained within my headphones. In fact, I can only remember going to maybe one high school dance in my whole life. High school was definitely not my bag.
But it wasn't until I left the socially charged, macho-bravado strata of Sir Robert Borden in 1993, and entered the strange forest of Bell High School that I began to see the world in a different light. Bell, a 20 minute walk away and on a semester system, was a new beginning - and though I never ascended any ranks of popularity, jock-dom or prom kingship there, I began to understand something among those pale-yellow lockered halls.
I remember spotting these eye-popping t-shirts at Bell that I had never seen before. In particular, Ted Wilson and Ryan Bresee (two nice fellas who I knew through a few classes) wore these purple shirts that had a band name that caught my eye - Dinosaur Jr. I immediately needed to know what this supposed young dinosaur was all about. When I bought Green Mind, I had never heard guitar work like that before. It was from another planet - it pierced, it stung, and it was formed from a distortion that seemed to scream out of the amp. And yet, at other times, Mascis was someone who showed an incredibly mellow, flower child side with acoustic-picky tunes that plodded along in meadows of reflection. Changing tempos, moving from pop-rock into a wild metal explosion - but never, ever, EVER forsaking melody - this was a sound that captivated me.
It was this wailing, weepy, ethereal, college-slob-thunder-rock music that helped my 17-year-old self start to see that I didn't have to fit into a circle - I just needed to be me. It is a rule I have fought for and sometimes struggled with, but it has made all the difference in my understanding of self. And although I've waxed and waned in my love for J and his many different projects over the years, he is someone who will always be thought of with a smile and a skyward thumbs up. In fact, 20-ish years later from those non-glory days, I just bought his latest solo record today, and he is still someone with a beautiful understanding of music - and he definitely does not fall into any category.
Thanks J. If you ever read this, I hope you feel like your music made a difference.
One of the first things I loved about chunk-riff master poet David Bazan, both in his solo recordings and his early Pedro The Lion band incantation, was the fact that he was a man who was not afraid to let his voice be genuine and different.
Gaining his first real exposure as a professed Christian rock band leader in PTL, Bazan is a man who has gone through countless shifts of faith and belief, and who has never shied away from expressing those things openly - fears, doubts, worries, questions, and raw-cut honesty about life and death. I'm sure it's saddled him with some controversy and shaming from certain circles that he was once connected to, but I'm proud of his legacy and his devotion to soulful, rock-folk melodics that are all anchored through a stark, genius lyricism.
As luck would have it, I even got the chance to have a beer with and interview him, back in 2010, when he played a full-band show in Ottawa at Mavericks. We talked about many things - the church, life, death, lyrics, sweet snare drum recording tricks and the blasting guitar sounds of Jimmy Eat World (who he had recently toured with).
In 2009, I vowed to write a blog entry every day as an act of commitment and growth as a writer. Although my life has changed dramatically since those days of living in a funky basement apartment on James Street, in Centertown, bartending, administering at a community centre/church, and playing in a five piece rock band, I think it's about time to take on another task of that magnitude.
In reading through those old 2009 posts (and yes - I did write 365 of them), I realized that even though the monotony of scheduled writing annoyed me at times, it forced me to express. It pushed me. It changed me. It helped me to better formulate what I was feeling and thinking - even if I felt like after a few hundred posts, I had nothing to say. But even then, even in the dregs of discipline, I still had something to say. I think we all do.
So in my quest to be more about love in every facet of my life, I'm pushing forward. I want to rekindle my love of words.
So, here we go. Only 364 more of these to go. A harrowing quest? Perhaps. But we have each other, and we have some good music to listen to along the way. As Bazan says in one of his finest tunes Hard To Be, it truly is 'Hard to be a decent human being'.