Category Archives: Short Essays

Wanna Make A Snow Angel? You Gotta Let Yourself Fall

This week I found myself thinking about nostalgia. Well, not so much thinking about it as sensing it ~ it is a visceral feeling like I am repeatedly stepping into a second-hand shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market ~ and every time the door opens the delicate scent of incense wafts over me. Now I am stretching out on my futon in the attic bedroom of my first apartment, sun streaming in the window. Particles of dust are lighting up like twinkling snow.

With the blogging challenge now officially over, I set myself the task of filming / editing the next video in my Homemade Music Video Project (you can read more about the project here.) For number three in the series, I went back to my 2005 album Hearts Fall and picked Angels In Snow. Emblematic of my mood and the unseasonably warm late winter/early spring all across North America, I chose a song about longing, love and the end of winter – of “early spring thaw cracking”.

Image of Karyn Ellis jumping from the roof of the tomato house. Screenshot #2 from the music video.

There I go jumping into nostalgia again.

Unlike the rest of North America where spring is kicking in full force, forty minutes from where I live – in the sleepy town of Wells British Columbia – there is still plenty of snow. Surely this is where fairy tales are born: in a setting ideal for ice queens ~ winter gardens full of pacing tigers and white roses. The population of this town shrinks to around 100 in the winter months, blooming again to 300 in early summer when the actors come to work in the nearby historical town of Barkerville.

And like Gretyl finds the frozen garden, I reentered the song Angels In Snow… my 2012 face singing along with my 2005 voice. (Hey! Seven is one of those fairy tale numbers, non?) I remember that youthful flutter in my chest – the dizziness of falling – best approximated by falling backwards into a bank of snow. Wearing no coat, no mittens. Making snow angels and feeling the icy cold clutching at bare hands and running down my neck. Watching snow flakes adrift in air and on eyelashes in the brilliant afternoons of late winter.

Image of Karyn Ellis making a snow angel. Screenshot #1 from the music video.

No stunt doubles or snow machines were used in the making of this video.


With Dizzying Certitude, So It Comes

In addition to (or perhaps as a subset of) that fuzzy warm feeling, this week I have also been awash with something akin to shame. Like butterflies, but the manic kind. Internal logic runs along the lines of this:

Me 1: Ah! This will be fun. I’m going to make a video for my song, Angels In Snow…
Me 2: That old thing? Shouldn’t you be spending your time writing something new instead of rehashing old songs?
Me 1: It’s a perfectly good song!
Me 2: Why didn’t you make the video when you released it? You had your chance. That window has shut. It’s catalogue now, baby.
Me 1: Wait a minute… Youtube didn’t even exist back then. Beside, I just discovered how much I love making videos!!
Me 2: Too bad, so sad! If you didn’t write the song this morning, how can you *truly* call yourself an artist?
Me 1: What, there’s a time limit on creativity?
Me 2: Gotta be fresh, baby.
Me 1: You’re a spoil sport!
Me 2: You’re cheating!
Me 1 & Me 2: You are! You are! [point & pout]

(etc, etc and so forth)

And so comes the poignant feeling that I somehow let the opportunity pass me by and that there is no catching up with time. <== That’s where the shame slips in. Tell me, what is this strange impetus to always be making something up-to-the-minute brand new… new… NEW!?! [Cue Tom Wait’s song, “Step Right UP!”. Now there’s a man who can ride the nostalgia wave to a tee.]

It is the ebb-and-flow of these periodic bouts of being deflated. But hang on now… isn't deflation the same as exhalation? Just a part of the breath cycle. So I did it anyways. I made the video.

And here it is…

Watch: Homemade Music Video Project – #3 – Angels In Snow

(Thanks: Kate Sulis, for helping with the filming. And Judy Campbell, for letting me tromp all over her Tomato House.)


Next week: Hibernating Bears
Look for my next blog update Monday March 26th.

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Filed under Music, Short Essays, Winter, Writing

My Guitar

I pick up my guitar, finger its strings. They are wound up, an old set that has vibrated through hours upon hours of song. I have been playing guitar for so long that it has become an extra limb for me.

My guitar, my extra limb. This reminds me of Oliver Sack’s essay about the man who kept falling out of bed. He had a neurological disorder, a perceptual disconnect. He couldn’t recognize his leg as his own, so every night he’d wake up to find this strange limb in bed with him. Horrified, he’d throw this phantom limb – his leg – out of bed and himself with it.

Sometimes I feel that disconnect with the guitar, chucking it from my proverbial bed (and me along with it) in the middle of my darkest hour. Despite the fact that I have been playing it for about half my life, there are still times I approach the guitar as if it were a stranger – a new acquaintance that I must be polite to, but not expend too much trust on even though it has shown me nothing but loyalty throughout the years.

Maybe it is because at the time when I was growing into adulthood, you did not see women playing guitar much (happily I don’t think that’s the case anymore). To pick one up was considered an act of defiance to the female role, either that or it was just “genetically impossible” for chicks to play the axe like guys could. Our job was to sing pretty. Add to that the house where I grew up: classical was king, piano was the shit, and to pick up the guitar was to enact rebellion towards my family – especially my father. A scary proposition.

I want to be loved, who doesn’t? Inherent in each act of rebellion is the risk that you will be cast out, become a ghost to the machine. Sometimes it seems safer to stay snug as a bug, be quiet and be nice.

But…

I am pleased that I chose to befriend the guitar – even though it scared me at first to give air to my words, my poetry, my opinions. I am proud of myself. The decision to play guitar was entirely for me. It became my independence. Time and again, I picked myself and my guitar up off the floor and made music that saved me.

The guitar has been there for me over the years when I was lonely. I could always sing by myself, give myself comfort. I have even fallen asleep with my guitar next to me in bed. Not a phantom limb, the real thing right there beside me.

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Some Days It Surprises Me.

Here is another excerpt from the book I created during a writing course in the winter of 2009.

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Some days it surprises me that I find the courage to step out of my bedroom and down the stairs through the living room, to the hallway to the door, to step outside the door. To be stepped out on the doorstep, to let my self step outside of it, when every cell in my body is screaming like an old washing machine, spinning with a rackety-clack. Getting off-balanced, complaining about the load. Tilting with the weight of the laundry. Hanging it all out to dry for the neighbours to pick through, pick apart like buzzards perching up on the feeder, looking for a little nectar, for a mouse gone belly up in heart attack after the gas kicked in and chased her and her babies from the nest behind the stove.

I am not controlling this; I am trusting these metaphors are for something more and not just the winding down of my brain, early onset Alzheimer, maybe or too much booze not enough sunshine, or a heart that is shattered and the layer of sebaceous matter forming above the wound to cushion me from the sharp pain of my brokenness. This piece I hold in my hand, like a pen ripe with ink but holding it back lest my feelings leak out all over the page.

And this surprises me, yes. That I would even care. For once I was the queen of love, and I broke hearts not the other way around. But now, like a rocket on its way home, I find only a narrow angle for safe reentry.

Lord I was born a rambling man. Lord, I was born. A man, a rambling man. A wanderer on the holy sands. Forty years I walked that desert searching for my people. And I am sure that I have found my God is no less a beggar than I. Pleading with the universe “Don’t leave me alone like this,” he said, “for in between matter there is space, and in that space is where we ask why.”

It surprises me that I am willing to become a member of the Lateral Thinkers Bowling League, to strike up conversation because I believe in the gutters between thoughts – that truth is truly alive in imagination, that my story is told through my willingness to tell a story. My pleasure of spinning yarn, knitting tea cozies, of keeping the teapot warm. Lemme pour you a cuppa while we sit by the electric fire in my grandparents house in post war England. Where I swing my arms wildly and still don’t touch the years already past. But that somewhere in this rambling page, there is a modicum of truth.

Some days it surprises me that I still yearn to be loved. You’d think my life had wandered far enough down the loneliness path that I’d be used to it and no longer minded being alone. Grab my picnic basket, and be satisfied by my jaunt through the woods to grandma’s house – enticed by the wolves. I want to be saved. I want to be consumed. Ah, now I am spinning fables, aren’t I? Aren’t I? How do I shake these creepy feelings, like brushing spider webs away from my face long after the attic’s been cleared out.

Some days it surprises me that I haven’t given up. I am relentlessly hopeful. In every stranger’s face I see the kernel of love. It surprises me that I have yet to be recognized by someone as the beautiful, adorable, complex, sexy, intelligent, creative, engaging being that I am. Or maybe what surprises me is that I have yet to recognize it in myself. Every year this aching sadness creeps further upon me like shadows creaking across floor boards, like an animated story of a little girl tucked up in the blankets of her bed, and the relief she feels to realize that it was never a boogie man. That she was always safe.

(FEBRUARY 17, 2009)

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Filed under On Writing, Short Essays, Writing

I Love!

I have a secret passion that I’ve been pursuing for about two years now. I have been studying improv comedy. Heck, I’m funny! Sure. Of course originally I started taking classes to deal with writer’s block, because when you’re standing on a blank stage with no idea what you and your scene partner are going to say, it requires you to get out of your head and say anything. I have been hoping to tap into this spirit of “there are no mistakes” as a carry over into my song writing.

I gotta tell you, it is utterly scary for me, getting up on stage without script or props or a guitar to hide behind. I spend a lot of time feeling like a dweeb, but there is something compelling about it that keeps me going back for more.

In spite of my nerves, yesterday I started yet another a new improv class at a place called Impatient Theatre in Toronto. My teacher, Jess Grant, is fabulous! My fellow fourteen or so classmate are also amazing, bubbling with energy and openness.

One of the first games we played is called “I love…” Using a stop watch set at two minutes, each person in the class got up and listed things off the top of their head starting with the phrase “I love…” Meanwhile, the rest of the class applauded and hooted uproariously in support. It was magical! A room full of strangers opening themselves to each other. An incredibly vulnerable thing to do. There were some overlapping themes, but each person’s list was unique to themselves, and fascinating to hear. Sometimes as a person spoke their loves out loud, they would surprise themselves. I discovered that I love cleaning my glasses! Heh.

I recommend you try this game sometime… or many times… maybe as an ice breaker at a party.

Today I did an adapted version by writing it down instead of saying it out loud. (Practical note: I made the time a little longer to compensate for the fact it takes longer to write.)

Here’s what I wrote (completely unedited, except for paragraph breaks to indicate breaths):

I LOVE

I love mint chocolate chip ice cream. I love the end of an ice cream cone when the cream has melted into the tip and it’s like a miniature ice cream cone, cuz you nibble it down.

I love my red plaid pants, I love how their pockets fit on me. I love wearing my soft turtleneck sweater with stripes on it. I love shiny things. I love collecting oddibles, oddities like junk from the curb that nobody wants. little curious knickknacks – figurines and my lite brite, and I love putting up different pictures next to each other – different colours. I love cleaning counter tops.

I love after the dishes are done and they’re stacked in the drainer. It feels tidier than when they’ve been put away. I love sleeping on the couch.

I love walking down Queen Street in Parkdale and making eye contact with people and smiling at them. I love when I take the TTC, and every transferring bus or subway arrives exactly 10 seconds after me, so that I can just hop on without waiting. I love when I’m on time.

I love coffee, like tasty dark roasted coffee, first thing in the morning (which means 10 or 11am on a good day). I love writing a satisfying sentence. I love finding four leaf clovers just by glancing down. I love my snow boots, my big brown sorrels that are so warm.

I love running into a friend at a live music show. I love singing at a concert. I love fingering CD covers and the surface of smooth books. I love getting shiatsu and how soft my muscles are afterwards.

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Filed under Games, On Writing, Short Essays, Writing

The One Book I Carry

As I was unpacking things in my new place, I came across a book I created during a writing course in the winter of 2009. Since this blog is turning into a journey about writing, it seems appropriate to add some of it here…

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February 3, 2009

LAVISH see PROFUSE
LAZY, indolent, slothful
PERFECT, whole, entire, intact

Not surprisingly, the one book I carry with me throughout my life is the thesaurus. Well, the actual book I’m thinking of is a dictionary of synonyms, which is slightly different than Roget’s thesaurus in that it also has the bonus of mini definitions for word usage, though everyone understands the broad category of “thesaurus” – synonym for “synonym”, perhaps.

Like fridge magnets I am drawn to words as the definer of self. My love of nuance between word choices a parallel of my love of fine detail. My love of metaphor, a lifelong effort to cleave meaning from the giant stone in my belly; the weight I have been lugging around with me. To chip away, form my sorrow into finely carved sculpture. To create beauty and art from pain.

I am quite comfortable on the page rolling words around the tip of the pen – and find joy in the physical act of writing and clarity in the written word. But curiously enough, it is not so to form those same consonants and vowels in air. I am always living on the tip of my tongue, like a girl peering over the edge of the diving board, afraid, nay terrified of leaping into the pool. Tongue-tied. Curious for a woman whose career places her on stage in front of audiences across the country, singing from the depths of that same water. But to speak rather than sing has the adrenaline squirting through my body in overdrive.

There is, I suppose, in the choice to bring the thesaurus with me in my travel through the years both an honouring of the beauty of the words, but also I wonder, should I get the larger, heavier full edition so that I can whap it against my skull like those monks in procession on Monty Python [based on a real sect, the ‘flagellators’ I think?] To acknowledge my deep seat inferiority complex. In an attempt to catch the smarty bus, I fortify myself with words, words, ever full of words – like a mitt full of tokens thrown down as fare as if this will put my bus into warp overdrive, and I will catch up with the years I’ve lost to the ravages of grief. The healing of my childhood, making up the lost time looking for the lost child.

But how reactionary to the idea that I would love words, could savour the subtleties of meaning, delight in the twenty shades of snow, the fifty types of rain. How many types of sadness have I experienced? How many shades of joy? This thesaurus honours my work at turning what was once a black and white world as a young woman standing on the doorstop of crisis to discover that the world is actually colourful, variegated, that there is more than the dichotomy of perfect and rotten. Rather there is a whole range of ambiguity, ambivalence, pondering, spontaneity and choice.

And now, speaking of choice, I’m thinking, hey, I could add to this book. I’m already teeming with the delightful realization that my story can be described with attention to detail rather than broad and clumsy strokes of “uh yah, her… she was born, she lives, she will die.” That my life gaily skips along the path stopping to admire minute details, spring foliage, moss on limestone, spackled light on an ash tree. And so, delight with words and my aspirations can even be greater. That I want to make *my* book the sort of book that is printed on onion skin paper, like those tomes set on special tables in the middle of libraries. Paper – soft, tactile invites both intellectual discovery of the text on page and also the discovery that the sensual world, the delicate crinkly sound as you flip the pages, is equally relevant to the discovery of meaning, the purpose of this life here on earth.

And I am inspired to tape maps of the Netherlands and places where I’d like to travel into its pages. Add collages I have made, and a recipe for shortbread. Add ink drawings, doodles in the margin, lyrics of songs I have written or songs I love that other people have written. Photos of work by people who inspire me, the copy of the string arrangement score that I recently wrote. Found poems and typed copies of these little essays I am writing for this course. A photocopy of a photo of my face pressed up into the screen on a window looking out into a winter garden at my old farm. I haven’t taken that photo yet, but I will have to.

I am trying to decide if this writing is helping to address this lingering crankiness I am feeling in the past few weeks. If I only could thumb through the thesaurus to find exactly the words that would have kept you interested in connecting with me.

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(1) I Like Lists

My notebooks are scattered with set lists, grocery lists, grand goals and mundane administrative daily to-do lists. Somewhere in the pages, I have lists of songs I want to learn, people I need to email and stuff I am curious about.

For example:
Things that are Spirals.

  • Whirling Dirvishes
  • Spinning electrons
  • Earth & planets spinning
  • Bathtub drain
  • Galaxies, black holes.
  • Streams of convected steam, smoke whorls
  • Skater’s axle

How are these things connected, I mean, beyond the physics?

I write these lists down in my notebook and on slips of paper in an attempt to dump out my confusion about what the heck to do next and convert it into tangible bullet points. To avoid being swept under the vastness of choice. Lists are comforting. Not that I’m any more certain about the “what’s my life about” question, but at least things are on the page and not in my head.

Often my lists are jumbled and expansive, spanning several pages and levels of priority. They are filled with everything from the dullest of the minutiae (“fold laundry”, “clean my room”) to the noblest of goals (“play massey hall”, “start a blog”). I include self evident things like “take out the green bin” and “make a to-do list” because it’s satisfying each time I get to cross something off. I can look at a page filled with horizontal strokes and think… “Ah, good. Done. I ate lunch.”

In contrast, my physical world – my room – is a manifestation of my brain and does not resemble a list. There is a huge stack of papers and leftover trinkets from launch parties heaped in a pile in front of the red book shelf. Actually, you can’t really say stacked because that implies there is a sort of order. Luckily “clean my room” keeps making the transfer from one list to the next, so I’m sure to get to it soon.

Sometimes I envy people who live in homes and work on computers whose shelves and document folders are neatly organized. Colourful, not cluttered! Their spaces are spotless and gleaming, and every kitchen utensil has its place and things are easily locatable in an emergency.

But it seems my affinity towards the disorderly is a function of an associative thinking style, and I don’t know if I’m willing to give that up to be able to find stuff more quickly. After all, it’s the b ‘n butter of writing to leap across chasms of disparate ideas and create synthesis. And in conclusion, surely it’s creativity not procrastination that explains my messy room and proclivity for list-making! (See how I leapt!) For now, any urges for tidiness will just have to be subsumed by the act of making lists.

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Happy First Day Of 2010! On Loneliness.

It is the beginning of a new year – indeed the new decade – and it is only fitting that today is the day I start my resolution to keep a blog. I’m not sure yet for what purpose. Musings. On. My fascinating life.

It’s snowing here in Toronto. Today the streets are sleepy. Quiet and warm. I am drinking coffee by myself and reflecting on loneliness verses being alone.

Last night I celebrated the turning of the decade by myself. I hadn’t meant to spend the evening alone, but I was out of town staying in a cabin for a few days sans phone or electricity and by the time I got back to the city there wasn’t time or friends around to make plans. My housemate has recently found love so I never see him. Apparently his girlfriend’s house holds heat a lot better than our place.

When you’re a single girl in the city, there’s no company-by-default when it comes to the holidays. You need to make plans in advance. Okay I’ve been kissing someone, but he and I agree, it is not a *relationship*. And he already had plans for New Year’s Eve sans me.

If I were to be honest  (and why not be – I’m writing a personal blog that could potentially be read by thousands upon thousands of people, why not spill my inner most secrets?) I have been feeling flaky this holiday and maybe even a little curmudgeonly, and I considered staying in watching movies or playing guitar by myself, maybe with a nice bottle of red in order to nurture my loneliness.

Turns out, though, I am ever social when it comes to the holidays. Despite my best efforts, around 11pm I ventured out. First I popped by Mitzi’s Sister, my local pub since my move to Parkdale last month. The Warped 45s were there giving a spirited, yet mellow hearkening to midnight. It was good to be among some familiar faces and snuggle into a few hugs at the countdown. And, I loved the music; they’re the sweetest guys, that band.

About half twelve, I hopped on the TTC (free!) and headed over to Lee’s palace to catch the tail end of another live music party. There I was greeted by a gregarious chorus of people banging cookie trays with wooden spoons as Elliot Brood rocked out the first hours of the new year. The band played amid a dazzling display of lo-fi lights including a giant “20” and “10”, which backlit the band. They were awesome and energetic, and I even danced a little.

After the show I grabbed the TTC (still free!), which by this time was packed to the gills with New Year’s Eve revelers singing Auld Lang Syne and chattering drunkenly, loudly. I smiled a lot, made eye contact with happy groups of people, but spoke to no one/no one spoke to me. I stopped en route to grab a slice of pizza before heading back home. These were the poignant moments when I most remembered I was lonely.

The night was a curious juxtaposition of being alone surrounded by hundreds of people. I wonder if my choice to be single-minded in my pursuit of art has doomed me to a life of aloneness / loneliness. I also wonder if I am odd and that is why I am alone. I wonder if we all wonder this, whether single or ensconced in relationships.

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