The female roots of my family tree

This morning, I woke up at my mom’s house. She and I spent an evening out together yesterday — dinner, coffee, a short lecture about the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and then the BNC’s ballet performance of Don Quixote at Place-des-Arts. It was our way of celebrating Mother’s Day (which is actually today here in Canada). With the memories of the previous evening’s performance running through my head, the first thing I experienced this morning as I reflected was a sense of pride.

We’re not Cuban or any other kind of Latin American by any means, but we share the same Iberian passion, heart, and exuberance that the dancers of the BNC displayed last night, and that honestly all Hispanic people display on a daily basis. But seeing it on stage in all the sumptuous finery of classical ballet was a pivotal moment for me, I think. From the music featuring tambourines and castanets and the distinct rhythms of Spanish dances right up to the sheer joy and love of life expressed in the movements of the dancers, Don Quixote put me in touch with a side of my heritage that I’ve never really felt connected to before.

My Spanish heritage is something I don’t often consider — I have always been first and foremost a Canadian, even before I became a citizen, and of course Filipino culture reigned supreme at home — but lately it’s been creeping to the foreground of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot more about my identity, which is probably why I’ve finally started poking into the Spanish and Spanish-influenced chapters of my family history. And, as it turns out, much of what links me to these roots comes from the women of my family.

Although the hot Iberian blood runs on both sides, I know more about my mother’s side of the family than my father’s. The primary factor playing into this imbalance of knowledge is that my mother’s family were all in Canada when I was growing up, including my maternal grandmother who was full to bursting of family history. By marriage she was a Gomez but by birth she was a Garcia, a direct descendant of the Mercado-Alonso union that would become known as the Rizal family, and so the family history is extremely well documented and archived. They were blessed with an abundance of daughters but only two sons, though they’re more well-known of course for the legacy of José Rizal than they are for anything their daughters did.

But that doesn’t mean any of them, or any of the ladies to follow, led boring and insignificant lives. Thanks to my maternal grandmother, whom we referred to as “Lola” in our family, my earliest recollections include stories of the great-grand-women of the family: women whose most formative and defining moments were in harrowing experiences such as world wars and civil uproar; women who, for their time, experienced the privileges of education, personal wealth, and careers — things that we today believe are normal components of the everyday life of a modern woman, but back then were considered to be firmly in the domain of menfolk; women who, in short, have created for my sisters and me an unbroken legacy of strength, grit, and resilience tempered by love, kindness, and faith.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to that kind of family history. Here I am at twenty-six and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life; at any rate, I’m more comfortable with myself and more loving and accepting of who I am now than I ever have been. But although I’ve been down the foundations of my adult life for the last few years when I compare myself to the women of my family tree when they were my age, I always feel like I’m found left for wanting in their presence. But then I remember that you can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty — and the fact of the matter is, my world is very different from the worlds of these ladies, so of course it makes sense that my story is being written at a markedly different pace.

I often wonder (and honestly, worry) if I’ll ever be able to be as strong, poised, gracious, confident, and beautiful as the women of my family before me. Even when I compare myself to my sisters I find myself in a brief panic over the thought that I’ll never be anything remotely like them.

There’s a quote that I’ve seen everywhere on social media today and I’ve been pondering on it while I’ve been preparing to write this, and by putting those thoughts alongside my insecurities in the face of my feminine legacy, I’ve realized something important: it doesn’t matter if my experiences at age twenty-six aren’t quite as earth-shattering and life-changing as those of the women before me, or that I’m nowhere near as well-established in my life and my career as they were at this age.

What truly matters is that the iron-clad strength of their souls that allowed them stand upright in their convictions and the passion that burned in their hearts to fuel their lives was passed on to me, along with many examples of what one may accomplish if one looks life straight in the the eye and never backs down. It doesn’t matter how I do it myself, just that I harness that strength and passion in my own bones and heart, and live life to the fullest as they did…in the best way I know how. That is how I might live up this legacy and embrace this heritage of mine.

And so:

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” 

Trusting the journey

One of the constants in my life has been, and I hope always will be, the lovely cacophony of different languages spoken by my nearest and dearest. Even though English is my mother tongue and that of my parents, I still grew up to the almost sing-song quality of the Tagalog my parents, older sisters, and extended older family spoke.

Going to school in English and French alongside a myriad of foreign exchange students and being a young pioneer of internet music forums added new sounds and writing systems to this wonderful confusion: English from the United Kingdom and Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand have mixed with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Bulgarian in my ears over the years.  And they’ve all been interwoven with my own English, French, and (albeit limited) Tagalog in my mind into a warm blanket for my heart.

Being exposed to so many different cultures through these friendships, along with all the books I ravenously devoured in my spare time, awakened my sense of wanderlust at a young age and I’ve been longing to travel ever since. And finally, after more than a decade of such yearning, I’m finally able to do something about it.  The problem is that there are too many places to go to – a good problem to have, I know – especially with a Canadian passport, but at some point plane ticket prices start creeping even higher.

Choices needed to be made, and I’ve finally made them…and come September my well-worn boots will stir up the dust of older lands when I set foot in Sweden and Ireland. More than a decade after first messaging them on online music forums, I’ll finally be able to bother some of the humans I love best in this world right to their faces.  (Sorry in advance, guys.)

In all seriousness though, life is all about the journeys we make. Internal or external, it’s more than just about getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s about experiencing to the fullest what’s in between Point A and Point B, and if you have to take some detours along the way that’s not always a bad thing.  The scenic route always leaves lasting memories, after all.  As long as we keep making our away, eventually we’ll arrive precisely when we mean to and as the people we were meant to be when we get there.

The current leg of the adventure of my life has been a long one. It’s lasted a few years and the last two have been particularly fraught with uncertainty and worry, life-changing events and realizations, and daily struggles with my personal sense of identity.  In the last few months, I’ve had to throw a lot of things out the window, especially particular opinions, prejudices, and beliefs whose origins I could not discern.  Did these views come from me, or from others?  Were these things my true views, or did I adopt them in order to be accepted?  How authentic was I really, and how much of my identity was made for me by someone else?

Doing my internal spring cleaning has led to new discoveries about what I’m really made of and therefore who I really am. As a friend of mine told me once, “Trust the journey.”  And to me, the first step on that journey was learning to trust myself enough to start over from scratch.

I am a free spirit. To be happy, I need to know that the final decisions of my life come from within me and are made under circumstances where I feel totally informed and totally free to choose in the first place.  With this comes a personal need for openness to curiosity and exploration, to informing and educating myself about the world beyond my social bubbles, and to forging my best self out of what I have learned in this process.  I know my foundation intimately – what it is made of and where I stand on it – and I know it is sturdy enough to build a new self upon.

I also came to realize that I am made with a wild heart. A wild heart takes in and learns to cherish every experience.  A wild heart loves passionately and lives exuberantly.  A wild heart cuts all of the strings that would keep it flying in circles but still carries what’s necessary for the journey.  And a wild heart can’t be broken.

Transitions. Changes.  Growth.  A better version of myself, discerned from looking and listening inwards, that can stand firmly upon any physical ground because the internal foundation is strong and well-made.  The road rises up to meet me, and I am on my way.

 

 

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.

The Classics FamJam

Here in Montreal, I’m typically the youngest in any of the groups I’ve run with ever since arriving in 2008. Coming from another province, my high school diploma was sufficient to gain admission to university; however, here in Quebec there’s this college system called CEGEP that means Quebecois students in university are usually in their early twenties by the time they get to university. And so, at age 18 I found myself invariably the youngest person in the lecture hall by at least two years and often, more.

The Department of Classics, Modern Languages, and Linguistics at Concordia University is, as you can imagine, pretty small. (The fact that the university merged three distinct fields of study into one department should be painfully indicative of this.) By the end of my first week at Concordia I was already pretty familiar with many of the faces five different lecture halls, but it would take about a year for me to really work up the courage to talk to most of them outside of class, if at all.

Eventually though, I was able to squeeze out of my shell just long enough to make a few friends in my program – but then most of them left Montreal to go pursue other things in other countries. From graduate and post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom to perpetually backpacking around the world, they all had something else to do somewhere else in the world.

I’m pretty lucky, though, because the post-graduation “something else” of three of these friends involved staying in Quebec (in the case of two) and coming back to Quebec after graduate studies in England (in the case of one). Ever since Marianne came back from York and successfully managed to get Amanda and Mario downtown for our first reunion pub night, the four of us have kept up the sporadic but deeply meaningful habit. Pardon the pun, but it’s a bit of a hangover from our days in Classics: not only were there pub nights with the former members of our crew, there were also pub study sessions in between classes. Some of the best second- and third-year Latin translations we ever did came directly out of the campus bar.

I will be 26 later this year, but Marianne, Amanda, and Mario are all hitting 30. But the funny part is, I don’t really feel the four-year age gap – nor have I ever with them. In fact, during Amanda’s birthday party this past Saturday I told Marianne, “I know I’m four years younger than y’all, but I still feel old too. Maybe it’s because I feel close enough to you guys to forget most of the time that there is an age gap to begin with, but you guys have also never made me feel like I was too young and too uncool to be a part of this.”

Not all of my friends from Concordia left the city once their Bachelors’ degrees were done, but of the ones in Classics who did stay it’s not just physical proximity that keeps us close to one another. There are common threads made up of shared interests, ideas, and perspectives; they weave in and out of one another and between each of us. One week before gathering to celebrate Amanda’s birthday, we were around Amanda and Mario’s dining room table discussing Star Wars over wine. It was just one discussion in stream of continuous chatter that lasted over multiple bottles of wine, and we continued long enough after the last one to sober up and dry out to get home safely. I crashed at Marianne’s that night, and the next morning she sent me on my way back downtown after making sure I was suitably caffeinated and fed for the trip from Laval back into Montreal.

The important part of all this is that the whole reason why we were at Amanda and Mario’s house instead of at the pub was because we were all a bit too skint to afford a night out, but they had plenty of wine to keep us well-sated. Though the plan changed a little last-minute, there was no question: Marianne and I would trek out to have dinner at home with them on a Friday night. This evolution in our age-old tradition of hitting up the pub reminded me that no matter what you do, if you’re doing it with people you love it doesn’t matter when or where things happen. It just matters that they happen in the first place when you’re together, because that’s what keeps you together in the end. Whenever I look around our table, whether it’s at the pub or in someone’s house it feels like home — like family.

At age 18 during my first week in Montreal, if you had told me I would have found an amazing group of friends who would soon become family to me after I had uprooted myself all the way across Canada to start over, I would have said you were crazy.  I came to Montreal via several burned bridges and with a deeply scarred and wounded heart, and I skulked around campus that first week like a scared lost puppy.  I had no idea that my childhood love for mythology and archaeology would lead me to far more than a degree in Classics, but as it turned out I graduated from that program with three amazing people I’m proud to include in my extended family.

It was really only at Amanda’s party that we officially dubbed our quartet as The Classics FamJam, but in retrospect there was never anything else this particular friendship could have ever turned into besides a family. It’s a weird, quirky, geeky, artsy-fartsy family whose motto is In Vino Veritas, but it works and is full of warm fuzzies and unquestioning support, and that’s what matters above all. We’ve known each other for more than five years now but this past Saturday night was the first time we took a group photo – our first “family portrait,” if you will. But it’s clear from how we all look, bunched up together with our arms around each other, that we’ve built something that’s going to last a whole lifetime.

FamJam

19 March 2016 – Amanda, Marianne, Mario, and Angela at Luce for Amanda’s Big Three-Oh

“Just for a second a glimpse of my father I see…”

Last week I dragged my electric guitar out of my mom’s storage locker and made a Saturday evening of playing scales and riffs that I used to spend hours as a teenager perfecting until I could do them in my sleep. Though I was primarily a bass player and a singer, when my favourite second brother abandoned music for other pursuits I inherited his axe and decided to shred my way through a few hours every day until I could sing and play a decent repertoire of heavy metal. I was really into Iron Maiden and a lot of other bands that rode along in the wake of the NWOBHM, but as I’ve mentioned before I was deeply steeped in the sounds of everything coming out of Scandinavia too – especially Finland, and especially Children of Bodom. Between the respective online forums for Iron Maiden and Children of Bodom I made many friends around the world, a handful of whom are still dear friends today.

Recently I found myself wondering how on earth I managed to get away with being a young teenager with such a flourishing online life in the early 2000s, especially with my father being the kind of man who definitely always wanted to know the crowd his children were currently running with, regardless of how totally uncool it made him (and us) look. True, my ancient but reliable old laptop was stuck in his home office because we didn’t really have WiFi back then – but still! I’ll probably never know what possessed my father to let his youngest child (his little girl, no less) go down the rabbit hole of music that on the surface seemed to be made and performed in one Circle of Hell or another.  I certainly don’t know what went through his mind when I started calling teenage boys (and a few young men) I knew off the forums and who came from Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Bulgaria my “best friends,” and I certainly don’t even want to know what he was thinking when I said a boy from the Netherlands that I had also been chatting with wanted to come to Vancouver and meet me. (That would be my first boyfriend, and he actually came two summers in a row before the relationship crashed and burned — right before my senior year. Yeah, I got away with a lot more than I realized…)

My dad and I were always close, and the “father and daughter” dates we had when I was a little kid evolved as I grew up and as his disabilities progressed. First there were long walks during spring and summer evenings around the neighbourhood, and then as he gradually lost his mobility we sat together on the front stoop or in his office while I read out loud to him. And those afternoons and evenings always had time in them for talking, and my dad was my best and wisest confidant. So maybe he saw in my eyes and heard in my voice the trust I had and judgement of character I made on these friends, and maybe not pulling out my blue Ethernet cord and sending me to an all-girls private school was his way of telling me he trusted me. And at that time in my life I think that degree of control over my friends and over the music I listened to was exactly what I needed to lock into some sense of stability during an emotionally and mentally tumultuous time.

In my last year of high school there were a lot of horrid rows shaking the walls of our home in the Valley, starting off with one in particular that was the direct result of me announcing that I had no intention of going to university and instead wanted to move overseas with my bass and my guitar and my voice and live the life of a twenty-first century heavy metal bohemian. After I was exiled to my room, I did the only thing my teenaged self knew she could do to release all the anger and frustration: I plugged in my Rhoads, cranked my stereo and my amp, and power-chorded my way through a mix-CD of Iron Maiden, Iced Earth, Metallica, Helloween, Children of Bodom, and Nightwish.

After a while my father came in to talk to me and of course I stopped playing to yell at him. Sitting on my bed and clutching my Rhoads, I ugly-cried while I tried to explain that I didn’t want to be boxed in, I didn’t want to do what was conventional, and I didn’t want to waste time when there were so many things to see and do in the world. As my yells died down to sniffles and as I fought to keep snot from dripping onto a set of brand-new strings, my dad said nothing; he remained silent for a long, long time. I broke the silence at some point with a defiant demand: “What was the point in me getting this far through life if all I’m going to do after high school is put myself into a bigger place with no friends? All my best friends are out there, Papa. What’s wrong with me wanting to go be with my best friends?”

I won’t ever forget what he said to me afterwards.  It was an explanation as to why it was important for me to get a good education without taking time off between this school and the next, why I had to set myself up for the real world and not be a broke and starving musician clinging to the hopes of making it big, and why getting a degree and entering a professional job as an adult would set me up for more opportunities anywhere in the world than going to Europe as a teenager with a guitar on my back and a dream in my heart would ever give me.

“You are my daughter and I love you, which is why I’m not allowing you to run away to Europe.  I like knowing that how I’ve raised you has made you aware of a bigger world, but you have a lot more learning and growing up to do before you can appreciate that world,” he said.

But the one thing that made me listen and the one thing that made me trust in my father was the fact that he came over to me after this lecture, put his shaking hand on my shoulder, and said, “If you won’t listen to me, listen to those lyrics you love and sing so well. Your time will come. I promise you — your time will come.”

And so, I went to university and earned a double-major in two of the most useless fields imaginable at just an undergraduate level.  But earning that degree got me a second job, and working to put myself through that degree in the first place has taught me many valuable lessons that I’ll never forget and put me into friendships that have enriched my life beyond all measure.  In that one moment during my adolescence my father knew exactly what to say to make me believe in his wisdom for just a little longer and trust in him, and I will never forget that.

When my dad passed away exactly four years ago, the European guys who, during adolescence, I had dubbed my best friends were among the first to know what had happened, and they were among my strongest supporters who rallied around me with kind words, reassurances, and blood-brotherly love. They are now men with degrees and jobs and lives and I am now a young woman with the same, but music still kept us together even though those long-discussed plans of making an overseas journey had yet to become reality. My father’s acquiescence to my choice of music and my way of making friends allowed me to keep these people in my life — and in my opinion that makes them a part of my father’s legacy.

It’s a legacy of trust and faith, of seeing the good in all things and in all people; of wisdom and understanding, of knowing when to fight for control and when to let something beloved run wild; of willpower and strength and courage, of being fearless in the face of the unknown.

And my father was right, even nearly a decade ago: my time has come.

When the heat of late summer is blown away by the cooler, refreshing breath of early autumn, I will set my heels down on ground across the sea and kick up its dust with all the surefooted strides of the confident and strong woman that the tempestuous and petulant girl has become.

I am my father’s daughter, after all.

“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.

Holding on to what I’ve got

At various points in my life, I’ve felt like certain songs defined exactly what I was going through at that exact phase of my life. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon before and we all have a mixtape of songs that for one reason or another we felt were all about ourselves.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what song defined my life at the end of 2015, but I can tell you what happened and how I emerged in 2016 to be howling “Livin’ on a Prayer” into my hairbrush while powerstancing on my bed.

In the last few months of 2015, I actually went through a crisis of faith. Having already gone through similar experiences twice before, you’d think I would have figured out how to prevent them from happening again – especially with all the tools and formation I received from growing up in a devout Catholic household steeped long in theology, philosophy, and Catechism. Having faith was just as normal to us as breathing and the reminder to “just keep praying” was heard as often as “clean your room.”

But I was and still sometimes am a spoiled and rebellious child, and when things don’t go my way I get upset with God. And, depending on what didn’t turn out the way I wanted and how it didn’t turn out, I can get pretty temperamental and stubborn. Yes – right up to the point of throwing in the towel on my faith and going off to a dark corner to sulk and ignore God. “You gave me free will,” I once said in a Parthian shot to Him, “so I’m going to use it the way I want to.”

This last year in particular, on the two bookending occasions of 2015 that broke my heart, the pain I really encountered after abandoning my post at the Foot of the Cross was far greater than the pain I thought I’d had while abandoning myself to the Lord. During Advent, a season in the Liturgical year during which the rest of the Christian world is preparing to greet the Holy Child at Christmas, the hours I once spent on prayer were given over to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (No, really — I think I cried more in 2015 than I ever have in all the other years of my life put together.) For the first time in many years I didn’t receive Communion at Christmas Mass or on New Year’s Day, and for the first time ever I found myself really considering just breaking off from Catholicism altogether and giving up entirely on religion.

But I couldn’t jump off that side of the ledge upon which I teetered for many weeks, because if there was one thing I learned from my human father it was that even if your faith is in shreds, if you can find a piece of it that’s still big enough to hold on to you really should. And if there was one thing I learned how to do in 2015, it was how to look at something for what it really was and discern if it really ought to be in my life – to use logic and rationale instead of just blind faith to figure stuff out.

I’m definitely no expert at it because hey, I kind of just started doing it, but I’m beginning to at least get enough of a handle on it to start using this skill more often in my life. And when I took that long, hard look at myself on Epiphany Sunday, I realized I was a little too good at letting go: too good, because up until now the rejection, betrayal, or pain from one person was enough to make me let go of everyone in my life – including God.

After all, pure logic would dictate that if I believed God put people into my life for some unknown but good reason, then I should believe He took some of them out of my life for an equally unknown but supposedly still good reason. Along that same line of thought, twisted logic would say that if I wasn’t happy with anything, including God, I should just chuck it all overboard. But that didn’t make sense to me when I thought about it, because in a way that was saying I believed in free will but only when it was convenient – in other words, only when good things happened – and that whenever one of my choices, even a good one, cut me to the core it wasn’t on my hands but on God’s.

Once I figured that out, I spent most of Epiphany Sunday this year in dialogue with myself about all of this. I moved through the day talking myself through all the reasons why I kept abandoning my Catholicism when relationships didn’t work out, when I lost meaningful and formative friendships, or when I didn’t succeed at something I set out to do. I tried to determine why failed relationships and soured friendships had the effect of pulling me away from God so much to the point where the inevitable crash-and-burn in these instances unfailingly results in me uprooting myself from my Catholicism and putting my relationship with God on hold while I try to deal on my own.

The answer, in a nutshell, was that my efforts for others were often fuelled by fear – of being left behind, inadequate, forgotten, or expendable; of being seen as imperfect or ordinary; of being perceived as too outspoken and needy. I bent over backwards for many people who, in retrospect, I can now see as people who took me for granted, overlooked me anyway, or didn’t appreciate my acts of love beyond seeing them as things that got done for them.

Now, this is not to say that every past experience was wholly negative. In every relationship and friendship I’ve had that’s now just a memory, there really are good times. But the pain of the bad times and my own selfishness prevented me from keeping what was good and finding solace in the blessings I had received in being with those people. And because I couldn’t see the blessings I’d been given, I could not see God’s goodness – and so I abandoned Him, too, when I abandoned those relationships.

Before evening Mass on Epiphany Sunday, I went to Confession for the first time in many months and, perhaps for the first time in many years, I made it a good and thorough one. (I apologise profusely to the rest of the line – but if they haven’t experienced this kind of Reconciliation before I hope one day they will, because such a Confession can be one of the most beautiful and liberating experiences in life.) After I did my Penance I remained in prayer, taking the time to be in conversation with the Father I had ignored for so long to ask him for the grace I needed to do three important things.

One To rebuild and strengthen the good relationships that had been damaged by conflict with and fallout from others, because these were the people who stuck by me when I was too selfish and too wrapped up in my own pain to see the gifts of comfort they were trying to give me.

Two To see which connections in my life were damaging and toxic to the good relationships I was trying to heal and repair, and to eliminate them from my immediate sphere of concern – but without malice and without anger.

Three: To learn how to recognize good people when they came into my life as people intended to enrich my experiences and bring out the best in me – people who would inspire me through their own ways of giving to give of my time, talent, and treasure to others not for my own security and assurance, but for the greater good and well-being of others.

My father taught me to believe and to have faith, but my life experiences have taught me to question and discern, and writing has taught me that the simplest questions lead you to the most complete answers. So if I still believe in God and still have faith, then what I have to do with it is ask myself: what has God given me, who has God given me, why these blessings have been put into my life, where I can use them to fix my life, and how I can use them to bring joy into the lives of others?

All three things have been going rather well since Epiphany Sunday, and I’m glad to say that the third in particular has already brought blessings into my life in the form of new friends who encourage me to bring forward what’s best about myself and inspire me to share my authentic self with them and the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to connecting more often with them and to building up strong friendships with these incredible individuals. I truly do believe their paths crossed mine at this moment in time for good reasons, and I know that it’s up to me to make something good come out of these encounters and connections. Some of them believe in the same things I do and others believe in very different things, but I appreciate them and love them all the same because they each bring out the same good qualities and talents in me I’ve ignored or kept hidden until now.

So how does this all lead to me singing Bon Jovi into a hairbrush while standing in a powerstance on my bed, and why is “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song that defines my life of renewed faith, hope, and love?

Well, even though Bon Jovi didn’t mean it as a song of praise, it rather succinctly sums up how I’m moving forward with my life: holding on to what I’ve got, understanding that what I do have really is quite a lot, and remembering that inasmuch as I can and should take agency of my own life I do need my faith and keep praying. I can’t live on just a prayer indefinitely, but when everything else disappears there’s always a way to find it all again through keeping my faith.