“But song, no wealth can buy.”

Something that tends to surprise new people in my life is that I was an award-winning musician in my youth. I played and sang in just about every iteration of musical ensembles in my high school, performed and ranked at high-profile national and international festivals, and took theory so that I could arrange and eventually compose my own music. I can read and play music in any clef and key signature, tell the difference by ear between classical composers, and see all the different parts of any song in sheet music form scrolling through my head if I shut my eyes and listen closely.

While performing music has, regrettably, fallen to the wayside in my adult life, none of this would have transpired if as an adolescent I hadn’t been a diehard metalhead with two bossy older brothers and very few friends.

I was actually sort of voluntold to take up the bass, as my brothers were already shredding away on their Jacksons (a midnight-blue Warrior named Layla and a black Randy Rhoads V dubbed Freya) and I was informed that if I wanted to jam with them I had to learn something that wasn’t lead or rhythm guitar. Our days as the Patridge Family Gone Metal were short-lived and we only ever did rock the high school gym, but as far as first steps go I’m pretty happy with where this particular instance of being bossed brought me.

The first bass line I ever learned by heart was from “Bed of Razors” by Children of Bodom. Using Guitar Pro 2.0 on an ancient laptop and the top four strings of my oldest brother’s abandoned five-and-dime six-string, I holed myself up in my room for hours on end until I could play along in real time to the song itself.

When I finally bought my first bass – a black LTD B-50 that I named Henkka after my COB idol and would later customize with ever-changing homemade decals of skulls, runes, Celtic knots, and grim reapers – I moved from the woodwinds to the rhythm section in concert band and joined the jazz band as well. I was encouraged to try the upright bass, known to some of you as a double bass or contrabass, and fell in love all over again with my instrument of choice. I loved that antique upright with its rosy finish and real band of ebony (exposed by a horrific chip from the time the tuba player clipped it with the U-bend of his brass noisemaker), its age and craftsmanship explained by the “Made in Czechoslovakia” stamp just discernible through the sound holes. And by the time I graduated in 2008, I played on three basses, having acquired a black-and-white Fender Jazz as well for the purpose of having an electric bass whose sound was more suited to jazz band and jazz combo than my so-called “axe” of a B-50.

Metal was my first love on the bass and it always will be, but learning to read a new clef and being exposed to all kinds of music really expanded my knowledge and skills as a young musician and, if anything, made it easier for me to play metal well. Whenever my short-lived career in music comes up around the dinner table, my mother always says that my fingers flew all over my instrument and that I seemed to unconsciously dance to the music. Those fingers played for so many hours daily that until now there are no prints left on the tips of my picking digits, and I still unconsciously move to music I really enjoy, even when on the first listen.

But I’m writing about all of this to tell you more than just the story of how I was a musician, once upon a time.

My dedication to music in my adolescence was born of an anger at an adolescent environment that rejected me, and an endless craving and need to be recognized as good at something so I throw myself defiantly back at whoever said I wasn’t good, thin, pretty, cute, or cool enough to be accepted.

If I was better at playing music than they were at playing sports, then I could walk into school every day with my head a little higher than it would have been without music. If I could say, “I can read and write English, French, and music,” then I wouldn’t get hurt as much by the other smart people in class who always teased and made fun of me if I got even one point less than them on a Math or Science test. If I had the best strings, straps, and amps that I could afford on my own dime it didn’t matter that my parents couldn’t afford name-brand clothing for me to wear to school. And from early-morning jazz rehearsals to concert band and music theory on alternating school days to nonstop activity on heavy metal internet forums, every way in which I encountered music in my adolescence helped me build myself up as an individual while also building up a small handful of friendships with other musicians which have lasted to this day.

And to this day, there’s music for every single one of my moods and emotions, with the exception of 2015. Last year pretty much the only time I listened to music was at the gym, but every song I had on my workout playlist was chosen to keep me in an upbeat, hard-hitting, go-get-em attitude because that’s what I needed to do: stay upbeat, hit back hard when life punched me, and be proactive about getting what I wanted out of the time I’ve been given. I will still howl into a hairbrush along to Bon Jovi when I feel empowered. When I am frustrated and angry I will still plug into Children of Bodom to channel the raw emotions. When I miss my father more than usual the only thing that eases the pain is Brahms’ “Lullaby.” When a long Montreal winter gets me down, I will play Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” until I’m upbeat again. Hallowe’en is never Hallowe’en unless I play St-Saens’ “Dance Macabre” at least five times and Christmas is never Christmas until I’ve gone through my favourites by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The theme from Pacific Rim will always pump me up for a workout, Iron Maiden will always put me in a mood to read and daydream, and some songs will always make me remember the good times I shared with people who gave those songs more meaning for me. And whenever I find myself in a mood without appropriate music, well – as you know from the last two posts, there’s always a judgey-ass music nerd of a friend to help me out with that.

The Andrew Solomon quote I’ve chosen for this post’s featured image speaks to me on so many levels, and mainly because forging meaning and building identity is exactly how I survived high school, too. Instead of trying to create talents I did not have to be able to do activities I loathed simply because those were the popular past-times, I found meaning in developing the talents I was given in ways I enjoyed. And then I built an identity for myself that didn’t conform and couldn’t be hurt, an identity that kept me practicing through hours that my peers passed without me and then put me up on a stage where I was untouchable.

I was not meant to be a musician forever and I was not meant to find either my entire life’s meaning or my whole identity in being one. But for the time that I was in peak musical form, being a young musician gave me reasons to think big and dream bigger, and ways to make something of myself in an environment in which I was supposed to remain a nobody. A performing and award-winning musician I may no longer be, but music still means as much to me now as it did back then and who I was will always be a part of who I have become.

Everyone at high school graduation can throw their cap and say they did it, but I don’t think that everyone can say they survived. Doing it is still hard because it still comes with challenges that require a measure of strength to overcome – I’m not denying that and I’m not belittling the achievement. I know everyone has their own moments of difficulty and their own hardships to bear, but let me tell you from experience – as a teenager it’s hard to see that when you’re the one who’s always excluded.

So doing it, while hard in its own right, is very different from surviving it. Surviving means that in order to overcome your challenges, every day you have to find something worth getting up for, and then find enough strength and true grit in yourself somewhere to fight through the day. It means every morning brings with it the additional challenge of mustering up the courage to even start the day – especially after a sleepless night when you’ve been kept up by wondering if anyone would miss you the next day if you weren’t there.

I speak from experience – and because of music, I survived.

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

“Sophistcated mud pies,” and what they’ve taught me

As a child, I loved getting my hands dirty – literally. When I wasn’t reading (up a tree, under a tree, on the stairs, in my closet…) I was most likely getting dirty. During free afternoons and all summer long, I would stomp around our back yard with the family dog at my heels to turn over rocks and logs and see what was underneath. I had a particular fondness for poking pill-bugs so they would roll up and gathering slimy worms in my hands to gross out my older siblings. After learning about geodes in a Childcraft book, I spent a whole weekend one spring trying to break open rocks that I pried out of the thick clay that lay under our lawn. Not too long after, I tried to make hand-built pottery from that same clay.

Then I watched Art Attack one rainy day, and I discovered a whole new way to get dirty.

Over the next decade or so, and much to the chagrin of my mother, the drab beige carpet in my bedroom became a ten-by-ten low-pile testimonial to my exploration of art. Splotches of paint from dropped brushes and overturned jars of paint, a rainbow of pencil crayon shavings and broken tips, snippets of bright cloth and embroidery thread – no matter how much I cleaned (when I could be convinced, in one way or another, to do so) that carpet was never pristine.

While I profess writing as my main passion – my life’s craft – I’m fond of saying that, “Once, I was an artist.” And that’s true. I drew, painted, sculpted, papier-maché-ed, coloured, doodled, and crafted my way through childhood and adolescence. When I hit university I had to whittle down all those hobbies due to time constraints, and I chose card making and knitting. Being too broke to afford presents and living within walking distance of a Dollarama created an ideal situation to perfect the art of handmade cards, while working with long needles and giant balls of yarn gave long winter nights a warmer, cosier feel. And, of course, I developed my writing skills to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start this blog.

But my hands yearned for more – more than just paper and glue, needles and yarn…more than just typing term papers, opinion pieces, and these blog posts. My inner child was beginning to need more entertainment than I was providing – something dirty and messy, something reminiscent of those afternoons in the backyard.

Being an archaeology student had given me quite the academic insight into ceramics, and once I’d spent a couple of years in the full-on grown-up world of working for The Man instead of sticking it to him, I could no longer ignore what had become a truly visceral need to create things with my own two hands. A Google search led me first to the Montreal Art Centre and then to the Griffintown Art School here in Montreal, and I was soon enrolled in a ceramics class.

A friend of mine recently asked me why I choose to spend so much money on making “sophisticated mud pies.”  The answer is simple:  it brings me joy because it’s two hours a week when I am working on myself while simultaneously creating for others.  It’s two hours a week when learning how to create with my own two hands allows me to learn more about myself and about life.

I’m halfway through my second eight-week course with Nicolas Ouellet, local ceramicist and fantastic instructor, and I have loved every second I’ve spent at the orange wheel in the studio. I have created more than a dozen pieces of ceramic ware under his careful, patient tutelage, learning the process of hand-thrown pottery from start to finish.   From wedging the clay to marvelling at the uniqueness of each glazing job, I have created a handful of pieces that are functional in my daily life and remind me of the life lessons I’ve learned that transcends my “sophisticated mud pies.”

Somebody else will always know something you don’t, so keep quiet and let them teach you. – I think this is pretty self-explanatory in both contexts of pottery class and the rest of life, but it’s still important to remember this every once in a while.

Creating something truly beautiful and unique takes patience and time. – From wedging a lump of clay to the first time you admire a finished piece, the creation of one piece is probably about a week and a half to two weeks. But this is true of anything you create, whether it’s a piece of flatware or the person you were meant to be.

 Never underestimate the effort of any creation process. – I kid you not when I say that after two hours at the wheel, my back and hips are stiff and that my fingers, palms, wrists, arms, and shoulders literally ache with the effort of turning a shapeless handful of clay into something recognizable. But again, whether you’re making a hand-thrown mug or becoming a better person, the amount of effort that goes into that whole process is largely unnoticed by anyone on the outside looking in.  Nobody sees how hard you’ve worked to be kinder, more patient, more loving, or more aware of the world around you if these things don’t come naturally to you, but the see the end product of those struggles to learn and grow.  Nobody outside of the gym will know how hard you’ve worked (even the other regulars at the gym probably don’t see that either) but everyone sees that you’re slimming down and putting on some muscle.  Life itself is a creation process — it is what you make out of what’s been given to you, and turning it all into something beautiful will always take more out of you than you realize.

Close your eyes and feel what’s going on.   — This is how I learned to understand my clay – how to know when it’s stable and centred, when it’s too dry or too wet, when it’s not the right thickness, and when it’s getting loose and tired. This is also how I learned to feel when a dry piece is centred and ready to trim, and during the trimming process how to know when I’ve trimmed off enough excess clay. And yes, this is applicable to the “real world” – when was the last time you just closed your eyes for a second and focused on the feeling of your surroundings or even how you’re really feeling inside?  When was the last time you looked in at yourself and saw what was really there, and then did something about it?  We’re always so concerned with our outward appearances and how we look to the people around us, but why are we so afraid to look inside ourselves and see what’s buried deep inside our hearts and possibly waiting to be let out into the world?

It won’t always work out the way you want it to, and even when it does it will still surprise and maybe even delight you. – I’ve had to turn a butter bell lid into an eggcup (or shot glass) because my clay was too thin. I’ve had to reshape a piece or two because I’ve deformed them while attempting to remove them from the wheel. I’ve experimented with beeswax, slip, and glaze. And every completed piece is a total surprise, regardless of what happened on the journey it took from shapeless clay to ceramic vessel – even the final colour is a surprise, because blue glaze starts out red and red glaze starts out blue. It’s the same with life: it rarely plays out the way we expect or want it to, but we forget that it plays out the way it’s meant to in order for us to become the best possible versions of ourselves. Just like clay, we start out with very little beauty or shape – but as time goes by we are formed, first physically in our mothers’ wombs and after we are born, which is when our emotional, intellectual, and internal formation also begins. Our families, friends, and other influential presences coax us into shape in our lives. Hard times bring us down, and positive times pull us back up. We are thrust into fire and coloured by our experiences…

…and at the end of it all, in the same way that grey shapeless clay becomes a beautifully glazed mug or bowl, we are revealed to be unique, beautiful, and useful in our own ways.