Monday, July 23, 2012

summer songs, volume 3: the rolling stones.

I'm a fan of the early days in a relationship. Those nerve-racking, gut-wrenching times when you wonder when he's going to call you back, think about him casually putting his hand on your back as you wait in line at the movies, lose ten pounds by sheer virtue of your heart beating ten times faster, always. There's an incredibly exhilerating quality to that uncertainty, especially when your gut tells you that things are heading somewhere wonderful, wanted, and strange. In hindsight, I've come to realize that the best relationships I've been in had protracted, far-reaching early days, courting periods of sincere shyness and endearing reluctance that lasted months.

It was like that with Stefan. We both knew and didn't know where we were heading in those first funny months: walks of shame back and forth between the boys' and girls' residences at Trinity, long nights out getting into trouble on the ledges of the music faculty building with our friends followed by turtle-slow walks back home, holding hands. School finished just a couple of months after we became a couple (because you didn't date back then, not really; you just flirted and became best friends and went out with each other's friends occasionally and then finally stayed up all night this one time and admitted that you really, really liked each other and then suddenly, there you were, boyfriend and girlfriend. Magical thinking is an important cornerstone). This meant the prospect of a summer apart, Stef in Oshawa and me in Hamilton (following my brief sojourn in Moscow, the details of which shall be the lynchpin of my memoirs one day). We left Toronto with an emotional question mark hanging between us. I cried all the way home in my dad's car that last night at St Hilda's, overwhelmed by the year behind me, the summer ahead, the deep-heart knowledge that I was falling in love with this goofy, literary, mix-tape-making guy. It was still too scary and too secret to reveal.

What followed was a summer of counting down Friday afternoon, the kind of summer where you do not give a fuck about anything else but your precious Saturdays. I spent my weeks working at the library and my weekends either hopping on the Go Train to visit Stefan in the 'shwa or borrowing my parents' car to drive to Burlington and pick him up for a couple of days with me in the Hammer. It was the start of what Stef would later term our Go Train Romance. We'd spend our time together getting stoned in movie theatre parking lots and watching summer blockbusters, walking around the Royal Botanical Gardens and feeling soulful, cooking each other dinner, and makin' out, a lot. We'd make each other mix tapes for the rides back and forth. And the whole time, I could just feel it getting serious. I could feel us falling for each other more and more with every visit. He told me later that he'd felt it too, but like me, he just couldn't get the words out. We'd both been burned before, both said things we shouldn't have, both felt the weight of admitting how we really felt and the possibility of complete disaster. But we soldiered on, our weekends getting more intense, our late nights later, our goodbye hugs harder.

One weekend, toward the end of August of 2000, I headed up to Oshawa for that most auspicious of early adult partnering rites: the meeting of the hometown buddies. I suppose I passed with flying colours, partly because I really dig playing mini-putt and shopping for used CDs and making fun of Thin Lizzy. That night at a backyard party Stef loaned me his hoodie and kept his arm around me all night. We went home and fell asleep in each other's arms, and woke up the next morning still perfectly entwined. Granted, there is not much room to move around in a single bed. Not much room at all.

That afternoon he drove me to the train station and we didn't say much. All morning I'd felt the words on the tip of my tongue. I love you, I love you, I love you. I was so scared to say them. I didn't say them, not then. Neither did he. But you could just feel it, some sudden knowledge that our worlds were intertwined, that this back and forth forever along the Go Train Line was leading us somewhere scary and crazy and wonderful.

But that afternoon we didn't say much. We listened to a tape he'd just made me, and as we barreled along the highway, You Can't Always Get What You Want came on. That familiar choral opening, that steady seven-minute build, that anthem of catharsis. As the choir and band crescendoed toward that final drop, Stefan reached over and put is hand on my leg, squeezed my thigh as hard as he could. I placed my hand on top of his so our fingers interlaced. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. He leaned back into me. He kept driving, and neither of us said a word. We just let it hang there.

Sometimes you do get what you need.

On that train ride back home I rewound and relistened to that song over and over, eating a plum his mum had given me from her trip to the Farmer's Market that morning. Summer was nearly over. Soon we'd be back in Toronto. Soon there would be a party during frosh week where he would finally spit those words out, and soon I would finally reciprocate, and we would stumble back to his room and fall asleep tangled up in his single bed, where we'd sleep together every night for the next year. Soon, but not yet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

summer songs, volume two: sam roberts.

If you run in circles like mine--that is, circles who skew more toward hippie than hipster, who prefer outdoor picnics to thumping bass lines and value a jump in a lake over pretty much all else--Sam Roberts is one of those guys that you just end up seeing live a lot. I can't remember the first time I saw him, but it doesn't matter. Anyway, this isn't a story about first or last times. It's a story about times in between.

I went to a Sam Roberts concert in August of 2005. It was the end of my first summer in Vancouver, the end of my first year on the other side of the country. I was a little world-weary and unbelievably ambivalent about my return visit to Ontario, which had been planned months earlier, before a phone call from Toronto broke my heart. The man I'd planned on spending the rest of my life with had suddenly decided that he couldn't bear the burden of our temporary bi-coastal arrangement, and called to tell me so on a Monday evening just a few days before I was coming home to see him. Suddenly we sat on opposite sides of the fault line that runs through the Lower Mainland, suddenly there was a seismic shift. For the first time in five years, I was on my own. Instead of running home into the strong arms I'd counted on for the better part of my grown-up life, I skulked eastward wearing my bruised heart on my sleeve. My parents picked me up from the Toronto airport when I arrived on the ass-end of a red-eye flight. As we drove back to Hamilton I felt his absence heavy in the car. Sitting in the back seat of their car I felt like I was a kid again. I kept looking over at the seat next to mine, wondering why the fuck it was empty, why the fuck he'd forsaken the chance to sit next to me, why the fuck he couldn't even say it to my face. It was, by all accounts, a low point.

If you run in circles like mine, you will be fortunate enough to have people around you to keep you steady, lift you up when you cannot lift yourself. If you run in circles like mine, you will rest easy in the knowledge that someone is going to help you pull your heart out of the gutter and give you a ride to the cottage and spend three days telling you everything is going to be okay. That's what happened that summer. I fell, hard, and let everyone around me just carry the weight. They carried me from Hamilton to Ottawa and then on to Muskoka, where I cried and kicked and pounded back booze-soaked berries and let everyone console me.

And then we got ready to go out.

Here is a really excellent way to mend a broken heart (or, at the very least, spend one glorious night deluding yourself into believing you're on the mend): go see Sam Roberts play a show at the Kee to Bala. If you've never been to the Kee, you really ought to go at least once, although I'm afraid to say that the older you get, the sketchier it will probably feel. It's like seeing a show in a grotty old cedar-planked road house in the middle of the woods. Actually, it IS, that, exactly that.

Here is the only way you should ever get yourself to the Kee: rattling around on the seats of a rented school bus (better known by its airbrushed logo as the Magic Bus), speakers blaring Livin' on a Prayer followed by Pour Some Sugar on Me, ignoring the bleary, weary glances of the bridal party occupying the seats ahead of you as you sing along like your life depended on it. "I can't believe this is legal," one of my friends marveled as we shouted out requests and guzzled smuggled cans of Keith's. "I'm pretty sure it isn't," someone else replied.

Sam played his heart out that night, just like he always did. I drank pint upon pint of draft beer and resolved to make this the first night of the rest of my life. "There's no road that ain't a hard road to travel on," he sang. I'd already travelled my hard road back and forth across this blessed country too many times that year, and I knew that many more trips lay in my future. But for that night, at least, all I had to do was dance.

The next time I saw Sam Roberts was a year later, at my first Bluesfest. I had just moved to Ottawa and into my first solo apartment and was dating a new boy (the colossal train-wreck details of which we shall never, ever speak. Seriously, never.) and was pretty much feeling like everything was going to work out. Freya and I had bought full passes for the festival and were giddy with the idea of so many of our favourite bands playing every goddamned night for the next week. Ottawa during Bluesfest really is Ottawa at its finest: vaguely rebellious, beer-sodden, sunny, efficiently celebratory. For ten glorious days, everyone stumbles around town, counting down to the evening's show; you can tell who else you'll be rocking out with that night by their unfocused stares in the coffee lines each morning, the tell-tale festival wristbands. Sam played on a sweltering Tuesday night. Just as he started his set, a misty rain began to fall, just enough to cool everything off. When he got to that line about your friends saving you in the end, Freya nudged me and grinned. We kept on dancing.

I haven't yet found the love that will lead me through my darkest days, but I've found the people that will stand next to me, dance with me, help me find the road again. That's all you need, really.

Friday, July 6, 2012

summer songs, volume 1: ray lamontagne.

On this, the hottest day of the year, let's start a little trip down memory lane to hazy days past, through the glorious lens of the songs that have defined my summers over the years.

1. For the Summer, by Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs.

Ray LaMontagne has a voice that's both smooth and gravelled, soft and bellowing. He croons. His songs make me pine for things both real and imaginary. I first heard For the Summer on the radio in December, 2010, when CBC was playing songs from their top record picks for that year. I'd been so wrapped up in my own drama over the past few months that I hadn't even bothered to seek his new album out. Yet another thing that suffers at the hand of personal turmoil--a decrease in quality of one's music library. One cold evening in my Kingston house, those opening chords played, and I thought to myself, "Is this a James Taylor cover?" It reminded me of Country Roads, and for a moment I was angry at anyone who would rip off a master. (It should probably be noted that anger as first reaction was my resting state at the end of 2010.) Anyway, that lowgrade rage disappeared when Ray's voice crooned on in, sweet and longing. "I'm tired," he sang. "Can I come home for the summer?" he asked. At a time when I had no idea where home was anymore, this song was a balm. I listened to it a million times over the next few months as I made my own way home, uncertain and unsettled, hoping that, like Ray promised, I could slow down for a little while. I moved, but I wasn't entirely convinced that home was actually home. I missed my people, my life, my old world. I soldiered on, but I didn't really slow down.

Last August, I saw Ray LaMontagne play at the Harvest Picnic in Dundas, an incredible day-long festival at Christie Conservation Area. My best friend Freya and her family came down for the occasion, mostly to see Gord Downie (Freya's husband Greg would probably go to an antique car rally in a parking lot in Denbigh if Gord Downie was playing). The actual process of getting to Harvest Picnic was a horrifying, hilarious-in-hindsight sort of affair. It included a visit from the emergency plumbers ("the 600-dollar flush," as Greg put it), a trip to the emergency room (the elbows of toddlers are shockingly easy to dislocate), a dinged up truck (to protect the victims I shall not elaborate), and a baby who cried all the way to the picnic. When we finally got ourselves through the gates and opened up the first tailgate tall cans that afternoon, the whole lot of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. The day improved significantly after that.

Ray didn't go on till after dark. I'd never heard him live before, and he didn't disappoint. He had a quiet presence on stage, and his voice was as beautiful live as it is on his records. He opened with a solo song (I forget which), and then the Pariah Dogs joined him for the next number. As he played the beginning of For The Summer, I felt my whole body get warm, my heart nearly beating out of my chest, butterflies in my belly. I looked around as he sang, and I saw the park I used to visit as a child, the lake I swam in every summer. I saw my best friends in the world at my side, and their babies sleeping tight on the blanket nearby. I saw the moon rising over the countryside on the edge of my city. I realized then that I was home, for the summer and forever. "Have I been away so long?" Ray asked. What a difference a few months can make.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Oh, Canada.

The first Canada Day I spent in Ottawa was a few years before I actually moved there. It was 2004, and I was a couple of months away from moving to Vancouver. I quit my job at the end of June with the intention of spending as much of my summer with my friends and family as possible, and when July first rolled around, I was already deep into living the dream. On the last day of June I drove to Ottawa from the cottage on Twelve Mile Lake, near Minden. These were the days before cellphones (or at least, they were for me, and even if I had one I don't think it would have worked on the roads I was wheeling along). I was driving my parents' borrowed Civic, and my mother was quietly beside herself, as she often was when I was tasked with driving anywhere on my own. My father was the picture of calm, drawing out the route for me on an Ontario map, tracing my trail in pink crayon. My father taught me to paddle a canoe and drive a car, and read a map. Or at least, he did his level best.

It was my first drive down those beautiful back roads near Algonquin Park and the edges of the Canadian Shield, my first solo trip along that path that would become so much more familiar in the years to come. After dinner I arrived at Freya's house on Smirle Street. A few hours later, my boyfriend came in from Oshawa, the first of many friends who would trickle in over the course of that evening and the next day. My memories of that Canada Day proper are generally out of focus. We hung around my friend Sarah's incredible Glebe backyard, that neighbourhood another foreshadow of my later life. Around sundown we stumbled down the Rideau Canal past people and families much less intoxicated than we. We stared up at the fireworks over Parliament Hill as overzealous Sens fans shouted in our ears. We stumbled back home and kept the party going, a great, sweaty, enthusiastic hoarde. The next morning, or maybe afternoon, we all woke up from pass-out points in stairwells and sofas and drove back out to the lake for a few more days of lake swimming and long sunsets. At the time I remember thinking, this is the happiest I will ever be. And in a certain way, I was right.

Years later, about two-thirds of the way through my Ottawa years, I celebrated what would be my last Canada Day in the capital. My parents came up for Canada Day as they often did. I hated living in Ottawa, I really did. The best times I spent there were when I had visitors, though, especially visitors who cleaned out my refrigerator and helped me rearrange the furniture. I'd taken a few days off at the end of June and was about to start a new job right after the holiday, and I was a delightful ball of nerves. As usual, part of the reason for my parents' visit was to calm me the fuck down; if you have ever spent Canada Day in our nation's capital you will realize what a tall order that was during the most hyper and frenetic few days in that frozen cursed city. Nevertheless, I put on a brave face and attempted to enjoy the fruits of the capital celebrations, or at least do a decent job of pretending.

On June 30th, we walked down to Parliament Hill and wandered around a little, visited the tourist centre my mom always liked to check out (my parents are the reason tourist centres exist). The sun was setting, and across the street they were doing the sound checks for the big Canada Day concert the next day. We were planning on coming down for that too, mainly because I knew that Joel Plaskett was on the bill and in spite of my severe agoraphobia and ambivalent nationalism, I'd be damned if I was going to miss a chance to see my secret husband live. As my parents thumbed through pamphlets I heard a sudden, familiar strain, the sound of a twelve-string guitar strumming a pattern I'd know anywhere, the opening chords of Face of the Earth. I squinted across the street and saw Joel's tiny frame on stage. "It's him," I said to my dad. He nodded, and I dashed across the street like the spasmatic fangirl I was. There were some people milling around, but mostly the area around the stage was deserted. I pressed myself up against the barricade and got as close as I could. No one else stood between me and Joel as he sang that heartbreaking song, the song that had so perfectly summed up the beautiful sadness that I felt in my Ottawa years. When he finished playing, I felt so quiet. I turned around to see my parents standing right behind me, and I don't think I said anything at all as we walked back to my little Glebe apartment. Within a year I'd leave Ottawa for Kingston. There are very few moments of my time in the capital that I feel truly thankful for, but that up close and personal moment with Plaskett on the Hill is definitely one of them.

There are other Canada Days I'd like to write about, and maybe I will, but not right now. Right now I'm slicing strawberries in my kitchen on Canada Street and waiting for Freya and her family to get here. Right now I'm making gin punch and watering my flowers and feeling the profound feeling of gratitude that comes with being home, strong, and free. Oh, Canada.