On guilt, whelm, ego, and not wanting to be helped.

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Taken by my husband. Somewhere, a cluster of stars is smiling. Can you see it too?

It’s day two of September, and I couldn’t be happier to see the arrival of a new month. I’ve found I like to divide life up into chapters – my Facebook albums are neat, chronologically organized, and cover a span of precisely six months; my 1 Second Everyday (sic) videos cover a month each; I had a 25 for 25 and a 30 Before 30. and my schedule is planned in week-long bursts on Google calendar. It’s slightly hypocritical of me to see the arrival of this month as a new beginning when I’m eternally professing not having to wait for a whole new day to reset a bad one, but sometimes it’s the little crutches that get us through.

Last time I wrote,  I’d just released my EP, summer had barely begun, and I was a week or two away from getting married. I hadn’t stopped all year; I was determined to get that CD complete before my 31st birthday rolled around, I wanted to book and shoot weddings, I was prepping for a house full of international friends and family here for my own, and Fringe festival was just around the corner. I was re-designing my website and painting my basement and I was so excited for it all, but, in keeping with my INFJ nature, equally excited for a bit of downtime come August. If we’re friends on Facebook, you’ll probably already know that August was quite possibly one of the worst, and busiest months I’ve ever had – I don’t think I’ve ever felt so overwhelmed in life before that I’ve wondered whether my actions were consistent with what a complete mental breakdown would look like.

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Speaking of overwhelmed, as I sit here in a coffee shop listening to the bubbling chatter of the go-getting elderly and well-t0-do housewives (my favourite cafe has closed since I last visited), I wonder why nobody ever speaks of being “whelmed”. Is that a thing? And what’s the word for the actual state of being overly so? I feel that being someone who feels things at a greater extremity than what’s typically considered “normal”, I’m in a pretty constant state of being overwhelmed with sensation and emotion – and that’s normal for me. So when things go beyond that, not only do I feel like a failure for not being able to  handle things, I feel like an immense letdown to myself (I’m used to operating in stress mode; everything should be a breeze!) and to everyone around me, because I – and I’m finding, like most people – don’t actually want to be helped.

Break for a relevant quote I’d love the non-feelers to know about us emotional people:

“Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken, it is society that has become dysfunctional and emotionally disabled. There is no shame in expressing your authentic feelings. Those who are at times described as being a ‘hot mess’ or having ‘too many issues’ are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more caring, humane world. Never be ashamed to let your tears shine a light in this world.”
Anthon St. Maarten

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Without feelings, there’d be no love, no friendship, no cheerleaders or causes to fight or stand up for, no compassion. Without logic, nothing would ever get planned, made, or achieved. We’re all different, and just because we may operate differently from those around us, doesn’t make our way of being any less valid. We fill in each others’ gaps in hardwiring.

Back to the point – lately (and by this, I mean over the past couple of years), I’ve noticed a consistent pattern in others as well as myself. Nobody talks about these things, but I feel that deep down, our own egos cause us to resist help – even at our most desperate. Around the time I turned thirty, I lost what were then my two closest friendships. (I think the story is in that last link somewhere.) This naturally threw my world into disarray – I willingly and continually suspend my disbelief for the illusion of permanence, and though all things must come to an end in some way or another, even if through the final act of exiting this world ourselves, it always catches me off guard. This happened again around Christmas time, when someone I’d known for years resurfaced in my life and we quickly began doing everything together, only to completely sever ties right before her wedding. This happens with those close to me regularly, and only now that I’m noticing it in myself am I starting to truly understand why. It’s because I’ve decided one of the primary legacies I want to leave is one of helping or improving the lives of others in whatever way I can, and ultimately, people don’t want to be helped. In its simplest form, my desire to help others robs them of control over their situation, and everybody wants to be in control of their own lives.

Take, for example, my old friend T. We so close we called each other sisters, but when life threw her what would ultimately end up a separation and then divorce, I went into rescue mode. I checked in every day so she wouldn’t feel alone (because I would want to know someone was thinking of me), but this soon became overwhelming to her. I started making lists, action plans, and scheduling dates to get together and hug and talk. I started analysing and problem-solving – but this wasn’t what she needed. She needed to figure things out for herself, because in life, I think the only true change or solution to a problem can last if we believe we created it ourselves. (And they say taking Psych in university is a waste of money.)

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Take my old friend M., who’d become recently engaged, and asked me to be one of her joint Maids of Honour, and whose wedding was suddenly brought forward an entire year, forcing it to be planned in a matter of weeks. I saw she was stressing about it, and once again, went into problem-solving mode. I offered to design invitations, craft with her, book some of my photography industry people for hair and makeup for her… all of which I thought were taking away from the stress, when in reality, I was taking away control. When our friendship ended, she was very frank – at the time, I was upset, but looking back, it’s become another piece of the pattern that’s teaching me why this keeps happening, and lessons like this are priceless when it comes to future happiness. Once again, something I thought was helpful was in fact harmful when viewed as “controlling” – the ego will always find a way to justify its need to be right. (Sidenote: please read this book if you’re at all interested in the psychology of human nature and learning about our built-in destructive tendencies.)

We don’t like to offer up control of our situations because in doing so, it tells us that somebody else knows better, and that’s something we don’t like to admit. It took me a while to figure this out because for the longest time, this didn’t make sense – I’d been trying to act as the friend, colleague, lover, or family member I’d want someone to be if I needed help – but now in a situation where I do, I find myself resisting in the same way. But in examining, I’m finding that awareness of this tendency is allowing me to understand what’s happened not just in the past, but also in the present, and I’ll remember this going forward for the rest of my life. So, as someone who a) derives meaning from helping others, and b) as someone who, just like everybody else, also needs help from time to time, what to do?

I think when it comes to others, it’s important to teach your brain the habit of attaching awareness to situations, so when ones come up that threaten your way of being, you learn to automatically think before acting, recognize that just as we all operate in different ways, we all also like to deal with our situations differently too, and the way I can personally best be there for others is to give them what they need at that moment, and not automatically go into fixing – or “controlling” mode. Internally, I think we all have the best of intentions when it comes to being there for our loved ones, but if they are resisting, it’s probably because they want to figure the situation out for themselves, because that’s what will have the most meaning for them in the long run. Stop checking in on my schedule and try to get a handle on what they need themselves. Maybe people don’t need someone constantly asking if they’re okay, psychoanalysing things or offering up lists of solutions – maybe they just need to know you care, and figure things out on their own.

So why am I so overwhelmed; why am I in need of help right now? Two weeks after our wedding, I suddenly lost my job. The company had gone into creditor protection back in May, and everyone at head office was consistently told that things would be okay, and to operate as usual. Despite bills not being paid, and despite losing vendors and contractors as a result of owing and not paying. This continued to the day before the weekend after which we were all made redundant (I actually prefer the north American expression of being “laid off” here; it’s far less insulting!). We were all called into the board room and told that the company had been sold to a liquidator and would be going out of business by the end of 2016, but not to worry, we wouldn’t be coming back on Tuesday to locked doors or anything, and that we’d likely be okay until December. I was personally even told I’d be introduced to other potential prospects who showed an interest during the bid. That Tuesday came around, and I was out of the office for a couple of hours in the afternoon for an appointment. I got a text from my colleague, who informed me quite simply, that we were all done – that over half of head office staff were all told to hand in their IDs, given dismissal notices, and escorted out of the building. After months leading up to the wedding and not even a year into a mortgage, I had expenses, and naturally went into panic mode. This only escalated when I read the dismissal notice stating that as a result of being under creditor protection, we would be given no notice, no severance, and that any benefits would cease immediately. This being against the law, a few of us affected soon went to the Labour Board, who informed us that they could do nothing until the company was out of the protection period in December – and by the time that comes around, they’ll have declared bankruptcy, and would no longer be around to deal with anything. In other words: we were all screwed.

It’s been a month, and I’ve applied for Employment Insurance and filled out my reports, and I’m still in the waiting period. We pay so much into these programs while employed without any choice at all, yet when we need them most, it’s near impossible to get the help we need. We have to sit and wait while our case is analysed, continue reporting and jumping through hoops and trying to keep our spirits high while our bank accounts are steadily being drained simply by the cost of living, hoping that someone at the government will tell us eventually that we’ll be helped. I’m incredibly lucky in that my husband, being the smart man he is, started planning for this scenario back in spring when we were first informed the company was in trouble. He’s been able to help with my share of the mortgage and bills this past month, which I’ve felt awful about – in another life, without a credit card, I’d be out on the streets. But our joint account is being drained, and there’s still no hope in sight. I was paid out my vacation time accrued, which I was saving for some time in the future when I’d actually be on vacation, or toward finishing my album next year or equipment to hopefully grow a photography business – but after five weeks, I’m approaching zero, and those dreams have evaporated. The world’s expenses don’t stop just because your employment does.

A week after the layoff, I got the news that my grandfather had passed away, that my grandmother was now alone and already beginning the descent into dementia, and was halfway across the world. With no job, I couldn’t very well fly over there and be there, and it made me angry and sad. So I made some art instead.

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I also got the news that another member of my close family now had a cancer diagnosis, and got some medical results back myself that were also unfavourable. I also had to immediately get a new phone contract (having had a work device provided), and our area of the city, while absolutely lovely, also happens to be the Bermuda triangle of mobile phone reception, meaning climbing with a blanket to the top of a small mountain, building a fire, and sending a series of smoke signals usually has a better chance of conversational success. Responding to interview calls and trying to change my phone plan with the provider became so frustrating that I found myself shouting down the line from outside in the street as well as the very top of my house, and eventually bursting into tears and throwing the phone across the floor.

I also had to find a job as soon as possible, so I had to learn to hide my grief and panic, put on a face and go on as many interviews as I could land in the middle of summer when most executives are off on holidays, and convince countless people that I was a happy, competent, fun and skilled person they needed on their team. Putting on an act is something that does NOT come easily to someone with Fe, and after buying a house, getting married, losing a job and losing a family member – some of the biggest stresses in life one can ever experience – was not something that was easy, but it was something that was mandatory. I kept telling myself the same thing I’ve had printed and framed since 2009: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” I cried a lot, and didn’t get to see any of my friends for weeks because I had so much to do. For a very short time, I hated the world. But it amplified my gratitude for having someone to hold my hand. For having a roof over my head. For the forced lesson in being strong.

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I had messages from people offering their support, each one of which also made me cry, because people cared. But I resisted their offers of help. Why? I think I told myself it was because I didn’t want to be a burden. August seemed like it was pretty shitty for a lot of people, and I didn’t want to turn to anyone with my problems if they were having some of their own, but why, logically, if they were offering? I fell into the trap of what we all seem to do, and justified my ego’s need to prove I could do it on my own. I exhausted myself with bottled emotion, explosions of emotion, and the guilt of having an endless need to be doing, and as a result, didn’t do myself – or anyone around me any favours. In refusing help, I did what my old friends did to me – robbed carers of that from which they derive personal meaning.

I made endless to-do lists now I suddenly had time for things, but none of the items I checked off made me feel any better. I wasn’t nurturing or looking after myself, I was doing what I convinced myself I needed to – driving from interview to interview, writing cover letter after cover letter, keeping spreadsheets of applications, filing my strewn paperwork and organizing all my digital files, making sure I was on top of housework, catching up on laundry, ironing, washing dishes and mopping floors every other day, applying for grants, finishing other people’s photos, clearing out clutter, and compiling a portfolio. All I wanted to do was write a song, make art, grieve, see friends, finish my current book, get back to working on my novel, write a blog post, finish my scrapbook from last year’s adventure and make one for the wedding, and take online classes to learn more about photography, audio engineering and web design, but I didn’t allow myself to accept help, or to do anything my soul actually needed, because my ego needed to reclaim its control on the situation that had become my life. Was it making me a better person? Did it make me feel any better? And was it letting me be a good person to be around for anyone around me? No, it overwhelmed me, and either hurt or stressed those around me watching it all happen.

August was a really, really hard month, but September is a new chapter. And the best protagonists in any story are the ones who learn lessons from their experiences. I’ve learned a lot about human nature, about stress, and about my flawed tendencies lately. I’ve learned too that I can actually be strong when I need to be, and I’ve learned that the ego is far from being always right. I’ve learned to accept, and that it’s okay – even if the world seems like it’s ending – to take people up on their offers of help, as well as to take a little time to do the things my heart needs as well as the things my bank account does. Today, I indulge in reflection, writing, and singing. Last week, I wrote a song and learned a bit about mixing audio, and next week, I will start allowing myself to socialise again. I still struggle with the guilt of doing anything other than what’s strictly necessary, but I’m learning to practice being aware, being present, and to balance.

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That lesson in brevity will apparently sink in one day. Oh, and here are some fun photos from what actually was, for a hundred different reasons, the best day ever.

My last post…

…with my current name. In eleven days I will be marrying the love of my entire life, the one who has shown me more laughter, deeper feelings, bigger dreams, and magic realities than I ever could have dreamed of. I’ve been a little absent from this corner of the Internet lately, but all for very good reasons!

So I didn’t win the Searchlight contest. I did make the top Manitoba pick in the semi-finals though, and I did however also release the EP!! I needed to do this before 30 was up. From about last November to mid-June, we started with a living room cellphone recording of a song I was going to throw away, to a 5-track record that’s currently in international hands, in local shops, playing on some radio stations, and on iTunes and Spotify (please follow!). I can’t believe it. I can’t believe the outpouring of kindness, encouragement, time, and talent from others, half of whom I didn’t even know existed a year ago. I can’t believe people wanted me to sign it. I can’t believe some things I wrote on a tiny ukulele are now so full of depth and richness and other voices and instruments. I can’t believe it’s real.

Now Available

How do you do justice to the amount of gratitude you feel when your feelings are so much bigger than the language that exists to describe them? I’m more than thankful. There’s no word for that. So many hours were put into this – not just by me, but by everyone involved – other musicians, my producer, who spent countless hours working not just on the songs but the videos too – oh yeah, there’s a new one of those too – all those involved in mixing, mastering, shooting, being on film, and everyone that came to the launch/birthday party. To have had a dream literally be plucked out of my head and taken safely into the hands of the most incredible team, and then given back even shinier and more magical than I ever could’ve imagined… it’s more than humbling. It’s a gift from the universe.

Launch party

This video was released the same day as the record, and involved almost two months of filming, several trips to different parks and forests, lots of mosquito bites, singing in the woods to passers-by, stepping repeatedly in deer poo because I love being barefoot and can’t see anything without my glasses on, wood ticks, viking vests, piggy backs, drumsticks made of branches, climbing abandoned houses, and battles against the weather, but I am THRILLED with it and everything was so worth it. This one was directed, filmed and edited by Dave Swiecicki, mastered by Jamie Sitar, colour graded and stylized by Jeff Gordon of JAG Videos and Photography. Huge thanks also to Jason Gordon at Studio 11 for producing along with Dave, Murray Krawchuk, Luke Janzen, Sari Habiluk, Roger Fournier, Paul Little, James Culleton, Jason Gordon, Dale Brown, Rob Watson, Alex Edye, Rahim… and Robert Wilson for the use of his trunk! I hope you like it:

(Click here if you’re getting this via e-mail and the video isn’t showing :))

People seemed to like Polaris a lot, but the response to this one has been equally positive, which takes me by immense surprise considering it was the first song I ever wrote in my life!! It’s definitely come a LONG way (wanna see something terrible?? #progress!!), and it’s all thanks to the magic of what others can hear in something new, unfinished, and awful lol. I did a lyric post for Polaris, and I think it’s really interesting reading the story behind other artists’ lyrics, so I should probably do a quick one for this, too. Polaris was written about a job I quit because I was surrounded by people focused so much on the unimportant trivialities of life and losing sight of the big picture – it’s something I find we do all too easily, getting caught up in fleeting emotions that won’t be remembered a week from now, and I think it’s important to recognise that and ask ourselves, is this worth it? Because the answer is usually no, yet our pride convinces us otherwise.

The Triad and the Harvest Moon, as I mentioned, was the very first song I wrote. I wrote it just to see if I was able to write a song – if you know me, you’ll know that brevity isn’t exactly my forte, and it was a challenge to myself to see if I could tell a story in under four minutes. And somehow it worked! I caught the songwriting bug and I kept going. This was based, three years ago, on a midnight adventure I’d had with my boyfriend at the time. We’d gone for a walk down by the river, and there was this giant orange moon suspended in the sky. I’d like to think it was a harvest supermoon🙂 We’d stopped to look at it, and from where we were on the path, the branches of a tree formed a triangle that framed it. “Triangle” had too many syllables, however, for my song🙂 The chorus, about looking “to the stars, a reminder of the place that we call home” is a nod to the star stuff from which we’re all made; interconnectedness with other human souls.

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It turned into a “very Manitoba” (as my neighbour said) upbeat folk love song, about new love, secrets adventures, and the beauty of the universe; one I’d like to think anyone in those new stages of excitement can relate to. It’s a happy song, not too entrenched with symbolism this time, but a hand clapper and hopefully a bit of a foot stomper. I hope you like it🙂 Oh, and there’s a mailing list now! I’d love it if you joined. I promise no spam, only fun, news, events and adventures.

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Now? Well, first step, get married, and then straight back to the studio! Three more songs are written, with another three underway, and the goal is to have a full-length album in time for the new year. If I can get a band together (we all recorded our parts separately at different times!), then maybe even some live shows. I’ve learned I can perform (something I never thought I could do) if I’m up there with other musicians, but I still struggle to do so solo. And I think that’s okay. Maybe I’m not meant to perform solo. Maybe I was just supposed to get these songs out into the world. And now they’re out there, floating about, falling into different people’s lives. I’d love to know where they’re being heard. In kitchens, cooking; in cars on the way to an adventure… the world becomes pretty magical when you’ve made something that wasn’t there before. Especially when so much of that magic is thanks to such an incredible team. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone who’s shared this journey with me. So much love to you all.

Hurdles

The last month has been an absolute whirlwind. More press articles than I could’ve ever imagined being featured in. (I was in my home town’s local newspaper once, as a five-year-old, for donating a giant chocolate Easter egg to the children’s hospital, and that probably would’ve done me for life.) Being interviewed on national radio and having my song played on it, too. Letters, words of encouragement, people spilling their secrets to me and finding inspiration in some lyrics I wrote. New friends. TV interviews. Coming top by popular vote in Manitoba. And everyone I know pulling together in a huge pile of love to help me get there. I made a quick little video to sum up the experience as semi-finals were drawing to a close in which you can see the highs, lows, cries, love, where the song began, and what it became – thanks to an incredible group of kind, generous, and impossibly talented friends/musicians who’ve helped this journey become something magical.

About twenty minutes ago, I found out I didn’t make the final cut.

It was one of those moments where you feel a little bit like a science beaker into which somebody’s just poured two dozen different chemicals, and had a naturally surprising reaction. Except instead of chemicals, they’re emotions, and they’re all tangled up together fighting for the chance to be the sole one that can describe what I’m feeling, and instead of an explosion, there’s an implosion, an internalizing of all the feelings I’ve felt during the course of this contest. And that’s what it is – a contest. A stop on my journey – not the destination. But I can’t help but feel above all, that I’ve let everybody down.

#Searchlight

I submitted this song to CBC’s national contest with no hopes or expectations of actually getting in. I’m new to making proper music, I’m new to being in the public eye, and I’m new to even seeing myself as a musician. I give all credit to anything on my tracks to the wonderful souls that see a seed of potential and help transform them into real things, and for that I am, and always will be, eternally grateful. I still have an EP coming out next month, I’m still writing, and I’m still hopefully releasing a full album in the new year.

But right now – especially after kind and unexpected blogs like this, or this morning’s Metro article telling the entire city that I’ve “fought” my anxiety to “achieve” my dream – old thought patterns are emerging again, telling me that I haven’t achieved anything. That I haven’t fought anything – the fact that I’m sitting here after seeing the news, questioning why I didn’t make it and inventing reasons that surely went through the judges’ heads in deciding (“We can’t put her through because she used to struggle with bad anxiety – she’s too much of a risk.”) – means, clearly, to my old self, I haven’t overcome anything. I don’t mean that. I know full well that the person I was a couple of years ago would never have had the guts to put such a personal creation out there into the world because I wouldn’t have had skin thick enough to handle the potential criticism.

Now I am able to see that I have achieved something. I allowed myself to be proud of doing something I’d always dreamed of. I set out with a goal of writing and recording some songs. I’m still doing that, with the added bonus of having had a month of exposure, of having reached people who’ve told me I’ve inspired them, and of having my first song not only on national radio but on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify, just like a real artist! I’ve connected with other contenders in the competition, those of whom made it to the final 25 I wish nothing but the best for, and even to those who fell at the last hurdle – we all made it this far. We made something and put it out into the world that wasn’t there before, and people took notice. History is doused with dreamers and doers whose work never saw the light of day, who never stopped anyway. I never set out to be a star. I set out to tell stories through songs that might bring people together or make them think, and I have every intention of fulfilling that goal.

Triad video

This week, we began filming the second music video. The rest of this month will be filled with adding the finishing touches to the EP, and as of about a month from now, I’ll be able to share the rest of these songs with the world. And gosh darn it, I’m still going to go to my niece’s (well, almost-first cousin once removed, but who needs extra words when it’s me writing) Show and Tell at her school in a couple of weeks. “You’re a star in her eyes,” my cousin told me. “I’m going to face this fear because of you,” said others. And that’s more than I ever could have wished for.

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No words could ever describe the gratitude I feel for everyone who took the time to listen, to vote, to share their stories, to share mine, and to support me along this journey. I don’t take a second of it for granted, and I feel so incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such kind and generous souls. I’m free tonight, if anyone wants to grab a glass of wine, haha, but for the rest of the day, I’m going to remind myself of the message I tried to send to the world. This contest was temporary, and life goes on! And to the faint echoes of anxiety I’m feeling right now: When you speak, can you hear yourself? The hourglass is upside down. Will you remember any of this, when life is on its way out? I’ll remember the kindness, the journey, and the amazing people I’ve shared it with. Not falling at the last hurdle. Because the thing with a hurdle race is that you can pick yourself up, and just shoot for the next one.

When you wish upon a star…

… or perhaps the Moon, magical things can start to happen.

It’s been a busy few months since I last wrote, but busy with all sorts of adventures! J. and I are well into our first six months of home ownership, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster – every day I am in awe that I find myself in the most beautiful home I could’ve wished to spend my days in, but along with snow melting, we’re finding some interesting things to deal with, too. Like the fact that the previous owners poured a bunch of concrete over the sewage output, leaving absolutely no access to it (and definitely no X marking the spot under our lovely new carpets), so after several days of no water, jack hammering up the basement, striking gold (and by gold I mean what looked like miles of tangled dead animals), and covering it all up again… we can now wash our pants and flush toilets again. Huzzah!

Photography over winter has been slower, but this month wedding season kicks off again, and I’m also dying to show you some images I did for a big national commercial campaign! I’ve been trying all sorts of different shoots lately, learning lighting, and doing fun projects involving hopping into baths full of milk with my subjects – you can see some of my new images on my Facebook page.

But the BIG news lately has all been about music. I think last time I wrote, I was trying to raise funds to produce a little EP of a  handful of songs I’d written over the last couple of years. As of now, the EP is almost fully DONE, I was featured in a local paper, I have a music video, got local radio play, national play the very next day, and am somehow in CBC Music’s Searchlight contest 2016!

I need to take a step back for a moment. I need to reflect on the whirlwind that has been not just the last six months, but the last week. I need to let this sink in. Because when you wish upon a star, sometimes your dreams really do come true.

Exciting times! Had my first press interview for a local paper recently, had my first local radio airplay (reaction of which was filmed and kind of went all over Twitter…), and ended up being interviewed on CBC Radio the very next day. We finally recorded the video for Polaris, which was originally scheduled to be launched into the world a little closer to EP release this June, but it seems a chance submission I took into a national music contest liked it enough to include me in the first round, so it’s now live!

Originally we’d planned a wonderfully wintery outdoor shoot, but Winnipeg (being Winnipeg) had other plans – recording day arrived, and so did a giant weather warning of extreme cold and imminent blizzard-like conditions. (I can just about handle my minus tens, but minus forties in a dress… perhaps not so much!) Nobody wanted to give up, so we headed to Dave’s trusty all-purpose studio, where I stood in front of a white background, swayed around a bit… and lo and behold, we have a video!

I wanted to share a little about this song, too – my father recently asked me to sing at his upcoming wedding, and asked if the track would be appropriate. I couldn’t think of anything less appropriate for a wedding – though it may sound a bit power-ballad-y, the sentiment of the song isn’t about love at all. In the lead-up to the EP release (and during the course of this competition), I’ll be breaking down the lyrics to some of these tracks, and hope you enjoy learning a bit about the stories behind them.

I have the lyrics up to all the songs here, but if you wanted to read along, Polaris is:

The north star isn’t real unless aligning with my feelings
And life sometimes bleeds into the dreamworld

There’s thieves in my head and there’s a fire in my chest
And a madness that rides along the star-wind

When you speak, can you hear yourself?
The hourglass is upside down
Will you remember any of this when life is on its way out?

The compass is a lie, leaves you washed up in turbulent tides
And what’s true is fighting for survival

But there are whispers instead, a rush of light soaring straight to your head
And you’ll find this is where the real adventure lies

When you speak, can you hear yourself?
The hourglass is upside down
Will you remember any of this when life is on its way out?

You know it’s easy to fall into the mould
They’ll think you crazy, but you’ve got a hand to hold
And a wild heart, and a head that’s full of dreams
Don’t coast through when your spirit’s meant to gleam

When you speak, can you hear yourself?
The hourglass is upside down
Will you remember any of this when life is on its way out?

The north star isn’t real unless aligning with my feelings
And life sometimes bleeds into the dreamworld

In all honesty, this song was written after I quit a job I’d been at for a grand total of five months. It took a number of hoops to jump through in order to land the position, and I was so excited to begin… but things aren’t always as they seem behind closed doors. An organization that appeared to exist with a vibrant culture of enthusiasm and creativity was filled on the inside with reports, numbers, and a group of people that I just didn’t fit in with. In all my adult life, I’ve never really had trouble fitting in – when I visited Vancouver for the first time, I was quickly dubbed “professional friend maker” – so working in an environment where I felt deliberately excluded was… difficult. I don’t know the reason for it. Although I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with MBTI.

When I was hired, I took one of my favourite things – a psychometric test! I really believed that a company that would even invest in something like this as part of an onboarding process was one I’d really do well in – but alas. I received my scores, and quickly got involved in making a “corporate culture book” in which I got to interview all members of staff, get to know them personally, and include their results as well as a write-up on what they did, what they were passionate about, and who they were as people. I love stuff like this. When I’d finished, we had an all-staff meeting to discuss our results. Staff were broken down into their respective results groups – leaders, strategists, planners, competitors, etc. I was the only member of staff who scored empathy. This should have been my first clue. #INFJproblems

Four months into the job, my grandmother passed away. It had been a gradual decline, one that was made worse by living halfway across the world. I was in the middle of an evening assignment for work taking part in a tour I had to do a writeup on when I saw my phone ringing. I knew – I don’t know how I knew, but I knew this was going to be the call with the dreaded news. I had no choice – I couldn’t answer it, but as soon as the tour was over, I called back. My world froze. She’d gone. My beautiful nan who’d pretty much raised me as a child, who taught me all sorts of life lessons, who made me feel like her pride and joy right up until the end – had passed. I spent the evening with my father, holding each other, crying, telling stories… and informed my work that I might be off for a couple of days.

I returned to two things later that week: 1. Another member of staff had also had a family member pass in the same week. There were e-mails upon e-mails in my inbox talking of gathering donations, delivering flowers, signing cards for her. I felt awful someone else was going through similar pain. But I also felt… perhaps wrongly so, but a slight tinge of anger. There was nothing acknowledging my grandma’s passing. There was nobody asking if I was doing okay; quite the opposite – people were upset I was now two days behind on work and quickly put me straight back to it. My CEO was out of the country at this point on work business, but e-mailed to see how I was doing. I appreciated this immensely – despite being thousands of miles away, she took the time to make sure I was holding up okay. I let her know what had happened upon my return and that I was a little upset about it on top of the grief – it’s not like I’d wanted any recognition or bouquets or anything, but for not a single soul to ask if I was okay, while someone else was showered in sympathy? It stung a little bit. Forgive me if that makes me sound like a terrible person.

Long story short, CEO calls supervisor. Supervisor becomes irate that I spoke to someone above her, calls me into the office for a highly unpleasant and insulting conversation, where I decided that I could not work in a place that had so little heart, so little regard for human beings as humans and not just worker bees. I left that day, and amidst job searching, decided to write this song.

Verse one:

The north star isn’t real unless aligning with my feelings
And life sometimes bleeds into the dreamworld
There’s thieves in my head and there’s a fire in my chest
And a madness that rides along the star-wind

I’ve always been sensitive. A favourite quote by one of my favourite writers (an action figure of whom sits atop my desk): “Beauty, of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Another: “She said she usually cried at least once each day, not because she was sad, but because the world was so beautiful and life was so short.” This is what got me about that situation. Our life on this earth is finite. My first verse reflects the north star, Polaris, as the direction to aim for in a journey – and that if it doesn’t feel right, if you have a gut feeling that’s slightly off, then it’s not the right path for your journey. Life bleeding into the dreamworld was the frustration I felt at my everyday invading my dreams, thieves in my head telling me it’s simply what I had to do to make a living, stealing my time away from what felt right – from the fire in my chest – and thinking that this mode of living is like some form of madness. We are born into the world where creativity is encouraged, and as we become adults it is squashed out of us in favour of the mundane, bill-paying things. It’s sad, and it’s mad.

Chorus:

When you speak, can you hear yourself?
The hourglass is upside down
Will you remember any of this when life is on its way out?

This is what I want people to remember. I want people to remember that current occupations, chores, reports, fallings out – should never eclipse what’s most important in life. I’ve always tried my best to live life with the knowledge of life’s ephemerality in the back of my mind – not to be morbid, always thinking that one day the hourglass will run out – but to always remember that each waking moment is a gift, and at the end of this life, it’s not the things we place such weight on in the immediate moment that we’ll look back on and think of time well spent. It’s the moments we made a difference, the moments we explored the world, or the moments we were there for a friend, the moments others were there for us, the moments we loved and the moments we saw each other as real human beings. It’s easy to get caught up in the temporary, but it must never eclipse the eternal. The next verse echoes this theme, into another (more punchy) chorus.

The compass is a lie, leaves you washed up in turbulent tides
And what’s true is fighting for survival
But there are whispers instead, a rush of light soaring straight to your head
And you’ll find this is where the real adventure lies

The bridge talks about my desire to always be there for others, and harkens back to my anxiety-ridden days when all I wished for was to be able to unleash everything on the inside out into the world, but feeling so trapped – like nobody would notice, that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I was in the grips of fear and I had no way out of my shackles. I desperately want people to know that if they have a dream, they can make it happen – and I’ll be there cheerleading the whole way.

You know it’s easy to fall into the mould
They’ll think you crazy, but you’ve got a hand to hold
And a wild heart, and a head that’s full of dreams
Don’t coast through when your spirit’s meant to gleam

That last line is a bit of a dedication to a friend of mine back in the UK, who told me once when I first joined a singing class, that we don’t have these burning passions and dreams inside us for no reason – if we feel so strongly about creating or doing something meaningful with our lives, then we have every obligation to do so. We don’t feel this way for nothing. We feel this way because this is what we are supposed to be doing.

The response to this song, even though it hasn’t got too far out of the harbour yet, has been overwhelming. I received a message last night from someone in another part of the country I’ve never met that moved me to tears. She’d experienced a horrible loss of a spouse, and had been feeling terrified of living alone in the aftermath, also dealing with all sorts of fear and anxiety. She heard my radio interview where I opened up about the journey from there to here (an ongoing journey I’m sure will never be complete, but one that will be full of growth and adventure!), and reached out to me.

“We are the only ones holding ourselves back, I am proof of that and so are you. You might be able to sing and create while living in sheltered security, but your song is much more beautiful if you open the door and sing it as a free bird, not a caged one. K. I’m going to do it. Your lyrics in Polaris, as I am interpreting them for my circumstance, has given me the kick I needed… Thank you for inspiring me. Since his passing I’ve been asking myself “what now?”, what is expected of a grown woman with adult children, right? What do I do with my time left? Where do I go from here? My answer is to love, it’s as simple as that and to be there for my children, and to experience joy, but I’m a simple person without a bucket list as every day is a gift, but I feel that now is my time to create. Since I was a young child I always wanted to be a famous writer and I’ve been writing since then, literally. Thank you. Take care. And good luck. I have a sticky note in my daybook that reads “vote for Emily” so I don’t forget.”

I couldn’t be more humbled, or more honoured. This contest isn’t about winning. This is just a song I hope reaches and touches people, that asks them what’s important in life, and lets them know they’re not alone.

That said, if you DO want to take two seconds and vote for me, just click here.🙂 Soon I’ll share a clip of when I first wrote it in its rawest form, with just little old me in my living room and a cheap ukulele!

 

To Bring Out the Very Best in Others

I started writing this at the tail end of 2015, and the past few months have gone by in an absolute flash. It feels like just yesterday I was returning home from a whirlwind trip to Europe, starting a new job, and J. was moving in – a short-lived venture, as we bought our house the same week and moved into that in November. I can’t describe how thankful I am for the whole year – one that began on New Year’s Day in a sobbing fit alone on my living room floor, and one that ended with tales of adventure, journeys, growth, new friends, goodbyes, challenges, lots of growing up, and, come Christmas Eve, a beautiful ring on my finger that symbolises not just the never ending circle of infinity, but my own promises, vows, and endless love for this beautiful man. I’m honoured to be chosen by the one I still believe I dreamed into existence, and after a few years of rather terrible Christmases, I can honestly say December 25th was the probably the best day of my entire life.🙂 We’re just going to enjoy this for the time being – togetherness, happiness, and the brink of forever – but I’m sure we’ll start talking about plans and such in a little while.🙂 To me, I’d be happy making my vows in our living room in an old white dress- the only thing that matters, to me anyway, isn’t fancy decorations or thousands of dollars on dinners or lights or fireworks – it’s the moments those words are exchanged, entwine around each other, and are launched into the universe for all eternity.

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(That said, I wonder if we can be transported by hot air balloon up into the night sky and exchange vows floating in starlight? A girl can dream :))

I always find years wrap up with a word or two that does a brilliant job of encompassing everything that happened within them; a theme, if you will. 2015 was unexpected. In every way. I had no idea I would meet someone on Instagram, travel the world, lose the people I believed to be lifelong kindred spirits, and instead gain a new tribe of unconditionally awesome, genuine and sincere human beings. I had no idea I’d voluntarily give up a job I loved and end up with the word “Director” in my job title, go through three roommates, buy a house, go off all my medication, have a complete breakdown and go back on it again. I had no idea I’d start working toward a career in photography, or that my fiction, photographs, and modelling would all be published in print magazines. I had no idea I would gain and almost lose everything. I had no idea I’d write enough songs and grow enough balls to somehow find myself professionally recording an entire EP. I had no idea of the kindness of strangers and of friends, and that some of the worst and best days of my entire life would take place within these 365 days. If you are reading this, I imagine your year may have been unexpected, too. Goods and bads, successes and failures… we got through it. And we thrived.

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I added a clip of the MASTERED version of my first song to my campaign page. There are three days left. Click through to hear/please help if you can at all!!🙂❤ I can’t believe this little uke song turned into this!!🙂 (I also made a Facebook page! #becomingreal)

Work was a huge change for me this year. The circumstances that led to me landing my new position were interesting: I very much enjoyed where I was, because it was a place that not only allowed me to exercise my imagination, but being a creative female in a heavily male-dominated sales environment allowed me to stand out. I was welcomed on board along with my colleague as a breath of fresh air, and I was allowed to run with pretty much every crazy idea I had. (Star Wars Free Press ads and zombie TV spots included). I felt valued, and I had a supervisor who was willing, always, to teach with patience and kindness. I was congratulated and my work shown to the entire salesforce in team meetings and at trade shows. The positive reinforcement and patient encouragement and reception of new ideas was fuel for me, and as a lifelong overachiever, it motivated me to be the very best I could be.

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I now find myself in a much senior position. One in which I have someone reporting to me, and one in which I hold a large level of responsibility when it comes to an entire company’s corporate branding. The title is one I’ve always dreamed of, and upon hire, I was excited beyond belief to hear of a place where everyone’s opinion matters, where innovation is the name of the game, where I would be seen with the potential I could reach, and where I would be mentored to succeed. Leadership is always something I’ve been interested in – as an INFJ I derive my biggest personal satisfaction when I can be instrumental in helping others do well. I’ve just never formally been in a position to do so. This is why I am of the firm belief that anyone, anywhere, can be a leader, even simply within their own community, group of friends, or home.

25c29a664c3adbf6cb0376956dcc3b65I hoped to be given the opportunity to help transform a culture, and I was thrilled at the opportunity. (NF ding!) I want to be the kind of leader, in work and in life, that sees people for what they can achieve, not their immediate shortcomings, and help motivate them to become more. I want to help them see the potential within themselves and encourage them to chase after it. Because this has been done for me, and it has changed my self perception, and my life. I know not everyone is the same, but I think it’s pretty universal that people will respond better to positive reinforcement and tapping into intrinsic problem-solving than they will to fear and repeated messages of you’re not doing it right. Being shot down creates an atmosphere of fear – and results will undoubtedly reflect that. If your leadership cultivates an atmosphere of fear in order to get a job done, the job will get done, but it will not come with the enthusiasm, excitement, or additional effort or creativity that often accompany the most successful of projects. You will feel more likely to stay at home if you’re sick rather than coming in, because you will feel unappreciated and uncared for. If your leadership is one of inclusion, encouragement, and belief in your team – your team will be on your side and want to support and deliver on a project that does have those things. They will want to be your cheerleaders. Absenteeism will decrease, quality will increase, as will a sense of community and of belonging. The resulting job may be the same, but the added unseens, the team spirit, morale, contributors’ confidence, loyalty, excitement and motivation – can only exist when the tone is set from the start.

Am I wrong? I think this can also be applied to life outside of work, too, and it’s something that’s been on my mind a fair bit lately.

I’ve read a lot of John Maxwell’s leadership books in the past, and actually was fortunate enough to spend a few years working in a place that not only offered Lunch and Learns, where the boss gave everyone the opportunity to take part in a leadership course, share ideas, and develop ourselves over a few lunch hours, but also offered a yearly retreat, usually revolving around the curriculum of one of his books. The one I went on was based on the book Put Your Dream To The Test – an overnight, two-day stay together watching DVDs and reading chapters and having group discussions as well as fun dinners and board games in the evenings. This was a non-profit organization with very little money, but with a culture of truly believing in its team members, in unity, in a common goal, and in personal development. They thought outside the box and really helped develop everyone as leaders in their own right, helped them realise what their individual dreams were, helped foster a culture of inclusion where everyone felt safe to express and contribute, and helped develop better human beings. The CEO was actively involved in morning meetings, extracurricular events, and sold me on the idea of creating a personal board of directors (it’s worth reading, for the idea alone) for your own life. A brilliant idea: be selective in those with whom you choose to share your innermost everything, and trust those who’ve earned yours time and time again. A personal board of directors will always guide you in the right direction, without judgment, and certainly without steering you off course for reasons of their own.

I’ve landed myself in roles in the past and felt the familiar INFJ twinges tugging at my heart. Why aren’t people supportive of each other? Why is morale so low? Why are people more concerned about succeeding themselves rather than helping others? I encounter it time and time again. In each job I will try to bring extra things I believe will improve team spirit, increase positivity, and a feeling of belonging and being valued. Things like field trips, parties, pot lucks, MBTI assessments, internal newsletters… things that go beyond day to day duties and actually help people get to see each other as just that: human beings. Human beings whose skill sets are all part of a giant team effort to help the company be successful. When people feel seen, heard, and valued, that effort will multiply. Relationships will strengthen. There will be harmony. When people feel replaceable, or worse, are chastised when brave enough to think outside of the box – you’re not going to get that out of them.

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As a leader in our own lives, I think our goal should always be to help others be the very best they can be. In work, in friendships, in relationships, even in day to day interactions with random people on the bus. Everything we say, post online… everything we write in an e-mail, every tone with which we choose to wrap our words can be interpreted in a myriad different ways because no two people are the same. This is the cause of all life’s misunderstandings and overanalyses! We can choose to learn each other – to put the effort into truly knowing them and how they are wired, what their needs are – communicate accordingly, and watch them flourish – or we can communicate in the only, rather self-focused way we know how – branding anyone who thinks differently “too sensitive”, “rebellious”, “useless”, or “too emotional”. The list goes on. Contrarily, as one often accused of being far too sensitive, I see many people that I personally judge to be “too closed minded”, “too opinionated”, “too confrontational”, or “too cold”. Nobody’s not guilty of this. Anyone that differs from ourselves can easily be called “too” this or that. But if we all took a moment to acknowledge that everyone is wired differently (it’s all just various combinations of brain chemistry, after all), and took the time to see their potential and encourage them to reach for it by speaking their language, I think the world would be a much happier place.

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I used to think it came down to treating people as you’d want to be treated. (Grandmas know best!) But I’ve learned that life is infinitely richer, fuller, and deeper when you treat people as they’d want to be treated. At work? Take the time to learn about your coworkers or employees. See what they react to. Get a sense of their vulnerabilities and strengths, and nurture the latter. If you want somebody to become something more than they are, learn their language and speak it if you want to see results. People blossom when someone speaks to them in their own language, especially when it’s not one’s own.

12346342_10153900478369171_1587333639328318231_nA great example of this recently for me has been working with my friend Dave. Like most of the best people I know, Dave came from the Internet in response to a call-out asking if anyone might be interested in working with me to get my EP out of my head and into being a real thing. I had no idea who he was, but over the past few months he has taken my little ukulele song and transformed it into something people keep telling me “could top charts” (I DON’T know about that, haha). I’m still too nervous to sing in front of people, so in the recording process, he built me a fort out of blankets and room dividers. At the recording studio itself, they turned the lights off in the booth and put candles in there. When I cried because I thought I was doing terribly, I was brought tissues, and my subsequent vocals encouraged for having emotion in them. Every time I missed a note, I’d just be asked quickly, behind my wall of blankets, “that was great, can we try it again?” No reprimanding. No actual pointing out of my cock-ups, even though I knew they were there. Just positive encouragement. And that form of mentoring and leadership brought out the very best in me.

This is what I want to do for others. I want to learn them. In relationships: I’ve learned my “language” is, unsurprisingly, one of words. I like to be told things, and I like letters and notes and messages. Other people may like demonstrations of service (cleaning the house, picking up groceries), or physical affection. People communicate in different languages, and each is valid. I know very well that not everybody needs the same type of communication as I do – I’ve learned that my levels of feeling, caring, etc. can be… intense, and sometimes when good intentioned, can come across as overbearing and actually drive people away.  These are all good lessons – the bottom line being to pay less attention to your own needs and more to the needs of those around you. Becoming fluent in another’s language is like a direct line to their soul, and every relationship, whether at work, home, or in friendships, will flourish as a result. 

Happy new year, everybody. May it be full of harmony, growth, wisdom, fun, reflection, happiness, and adventure.🙂

Life Doesn’t Stop for Anybody

“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.” – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s hard to believe three months have gone by. I sit here in the middle of an unusually temperate November, sun shining and snow still a daydream away, and reflect on the weeks that have been with a twang of disbelief. Three months ago, I was still working at a car dealership (and loving it; though as always seems to be the way, the jobs you adore most are the ones that make it the hardest to make ends meet), living alone in a house I was renting from my father. Well, I say alone; Rose makes for the best roommate in the world but has never done much in the way of paying her way.

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panSince then, I have travelled Europe. The love of my life moved in with me, and I gained a cousin, too. I quit my job for a 32% increase in pay, a fancy title, a level up in responsibility, and a whole lot of Lessons In Developing A Thicker Skin. The weekend of the move-in, we also ended up buying another house. Though all incredibly exciting and terribly grown-up, all of this happened within about a month – the resulting excitement being rather diluted by stress and worry. Getting lost in foreign countries, changing friend circles, big new jobs and buying houses I’m told rank pretty highly on the stress scale, so the last couple of months have had their fair share of tears. But I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

I’ve seen lots of complaining lately. Friends, family, colleagues; I’ve been guilty of it myself. Starbucks Cupgate 2015? Makes me want to punch people in the face. I was listening to a news story on the way in to work this morning about a couple who’d planned to get married this Christmas and recently welcomed a baby into the world, after which the groom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They are instead getting married today, and the city is helping in droves with things like donated photography, videography etc. It’s a true lesson in perspective: nothing, no matter how important it seems in the moment, is more important than loving each other. Our life is finite. Every second spent focusing on something that, let’s be honest, we won’t even remember at the end of our lives, is a waste of a gift. Perspective and gratitude should always be at the forefront, no matter how stressful things may seem in the moment.

This idea was once inspiration for a song I wrote a long time ago. I was working in a position I could only remain in for about six months – when you invest the largest chunk of your everyday life into an environment and a vision, you really have to be on the same wavelength as those surrounding you. Sometimes you enter into new ventures and find, for some reason or other, the way you are and the way things are are incompatible. Sometimes it’s physical – I could never show up at a building site and expect to have a successful career as a 110 lb construction worker. But sometimes it’s mental, and though I pride myself on endeavours of unity, sometimes you are simply outnumbered. You’re a thoroughly sensitive INFJ whose strengths are in words, feelings, ideas and relationships, in a fishbowl of Ts who have no patience for such things, because such things don’t fit the corporate mould. My chorus:

When you speak, can you hear yourself?
The hourglass is upside down.
Will you remember any of this,
When life is on its way out?

Funnily enough, that song was resurrected over the last month by a new friend of mine. During the summer, my band parted ways, and I was left with half a dozen handwritten songs and an enormous longing for people to work on them with. After putting out a plea to every musically-inclined soul I know on Facebook, I was met with interest! Guitarists, vocalists, digital artists, producers! People all genuinely willing to lend their time and talent to collaborating with me. In a burst of disbelief, excitement, and giddy enthusiasm, I somehow went from wishing for people to jam with to creating an entire EP – and this song, which initially didn’t even make the shortlist, became first in line for a complete makeover.

Over the past few weeks, my friend Dave has taken this from a tiny little acoustic ukulele track I threw up on the Internet moments after writing (and promptly forgot about) to… an epic, radio-worthy ballad I’ve fallen in love with. It has more layers than I could count… harmonies, instrumentation, swoops and whooshes and texture and big moments that brought me to tears the first time I heard it. I am so incredibly lucky to know such kind and talented people. Words cannot describe how it feels to look back and remember how terrified I used to be of even speaking in front of people, anxiety-ridden nights spent wishing I had the confidence to let the inside out without fear of judgment… and now feel ready to put my heart and soul out there for the world to see. I’ve been doing it for years behind a computer screen, but to be able to do this now… is everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

Still on topic (trust me), I picked up a book earlier this summer: The Art Of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. I’ve not followed Amanda Palmer‘s career a whole lot, but I do know she’s married to one of my favourite authors of all time, and I do know that as soon as I saw the title, that book’s contents belonged in my head. I haven’t read it yet – but I think now is the perfect time. I’ve somehow found myself on the path that will lead me to one of the biggest dreams I’ve ever had for life, but in order to reach the destination, I do need help.

I was reluctant to start a fundraiser (stay with me!) because I hate asking people for money. I hate feeling like I’m begging (please never put me in your wedding party if you’re having a social), and I hate seeing all the people see your cause and choose not to help. I take things way too personally at the best of times, so this sounded like a recipe for disaster until I talked to a couple of wise musician friends of mine and learned a few things. Notably: “Crowd funding isn’t a begging platform (which is good because no one likes begging), it’s a sales platform. The people who succeed are those who already have an audience that would have bought the final product; it just moves the chronology of payment around. People contribute to a crowd funding campaign because they feel like they’re buying something they want to buy. And ultimately, they’ll receive something for their investment.”

Huh. It really is just a chronologically wibbly-wobbly way of exchanging funds for a product. Anyone who donates to this campaign will receive something in return, even if all they donate is the cost of a coffee. Music, handwritten notes, photoshoots, a free CD… all in addition to the knowledge that they helped make someone who was once scared of everything make their dream come true. Any and all funds raised will go to the cost of the production of this record. Two very talented producers have been kind enough to gift a month’s work (so far) to me for my first track, and have given me a good quote on the cost of producing the whole thing, but I can’t afford it. I also want to repay the kindness of those who’re collaborating with me – fellow musicians, singers, and artists (the artwork, done by my good friend Jen, is out of this world), in addition to the cost of physically making this a thing. A lot of people have seen the campaign, and a few amazingly kind souls have been generous enough to support, but there is a long way to go. I have another 57 days, and I know it’s going to go by in a flash.

If you have two minutes and can afford to help in any way, your support would mean more than you could ever know. Story, sample, and link to donate below. Thank you❤

The Horizon Is My Home

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain ’til you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac

I sit here with a thousand words inside me, and a thousand more memories on top, all bubbling away and zipping about, weaving themselves together in some sort of attempt to make chronological sense of the past three weeks, desperate in their endeavours to not be forgotten. I don’t know where or how to begin, as I sit here, freshly back from the trip of a lifetime, my regular world a stark contrast to the fantasy I was just lucky enough to experience. I left stressed, lonely, and hopeful. I return with a heap of new friends I grew to love dearly, memories of labyrinths and gas lamps, vast skyscapes, breathtaking architecture, soul-wrenching emotion, near-kidnappings, film festivals held on the walls of minsters, giant underground cathedrals, haunted houses, ruins turned into a bohemian revolution, the actual Moulin Rouge, epic EDM dance parties in enormous thermal baths with lasers in the sky, romance, friendship, highs, lows, stories you couldn’t possibly make up, and the ultimate in adventure.

Our time began in Amsterdam, where we’d planned on spending a night before heading over to join our Contiki group in Berlin the next day. Thanks to a bit of a cock-up at the Winnipeg end, our luggage didn’t make it off the plane with us, so we had to stay at the airport for a while trying to explain that our bags would also like to spend the night. Exhausted and eventually with suitcases in hand, we made our way to the hotel, which thankfully wasn’t too far away. After a bit of a nap, we realised we only had a few hours left in this beautiful city – so we did what any newly-on-holiday person would do and head out to the Heineken factory! The tour was fantastic (as was getting free beer for trivia), and we hit the streets (packed due to it being Pride day) in search of the I amsterdam sign to be massive tourists with. We walked through the city, stopping briefly as I was overwhelmed with deja-vu: I don’t often remember my dreams at all, but a recurring one I’ve had for years involves a rapid descent through a castle being chased by robots and escaping into a town square covered in cobblestones by a clock tower – the very place I found myself in that night in real life. It was bizarre enough to move me to tears. After snapping some photos, we found and climbed all over the sign, and went for a lovely dinner by a canal.

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Our first adventure came that night when we found ourselves separated on the streets of Amsterdam – unable to find J. and with no telephone on me, I tried for a while to hail a taxi, none of which would stop, and being me, promptly burst into a fit of tears. Eventually a man came up to me and asked what was wrong – and in my panic,  “don’t go with strangers in a strange city in the middle of the night” won over “you can do this”, and I followed this man, who kept assuring me he was taking me to the spot the taxis stopped. Knowing nothing about Holland but clogs, tulips and bicycles (none of which were available to help me get out of my predicament), I figured maybe there was some sort of taxi central, but after forty minutes walking around with him asking me if I wanted to drink wine or smoke pot with him (and occasionally asking people for money), we ended in an alleyway. Still sobbing, and at this point terrified, I told him I didn’t think the cabs came there, and that I was going to go and wait in the road. I ran. I ran fast. I hailed the first car I saw and hoped desperately the driver would know where my hotel was. Miracle of miracles, he did, I had enough money for it, and I arrived to find J. safe in bed. Lesson learned: NEVER wander off in strange cities in the middle of the night. Never go with strangers, never forget your phone, and always, always remember how lucky you are to have someone that cares about you. Never let them go.

So our time in Amsterdam was brief, but we head onward to Berlin the next morning to meet up with the fifty-two people that would become our best friends for the next two weeks. We had a couple of hours to kill before the official group meetup, so we found a very German sounding restaurant named Andy’s and sat with a pitcher of beer in the sun, making each other laugh and sneaking video clips of each other answering impromptu philosophical questions. After changing and heading to the hotel, I met a girl I knew instantly was going to be an amazing friend. She ran up to me and introduced herself as “Jackie, like Chan”, and said how she’d been following my stuff on Facebook and “had to meet this girl”. She was lively, bubbly, full of hugs, dance moves, and good vibes, and we became fast friends. Getting to know 50+ people didn’t take long at all, and over a traditional German dinner, very quickly, very good friends were made.

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berlThe next day we went on a walking tour of Berlin in the beginning of what proved to be a giant European heatwave. We saw the Brandenburg gate, street art, grabbed some currywurst, almost made it onto a hot air balloon, took in the Berlin wall (where I cried at a message of love graffiti’d on it), and head out that evening to two German bars. The first didn’t last long, as it was basically in a boiling hot, airless room, but the second was surrounded by deckchairs in the park under the stars, where J. and I sat hand in hand looking at the stars. The next morning, we went along the East Side Gallery (longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall), and headed on to beautiful Dresden, which was stunning. The town had been completely rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II, and was full of beautiful, baroque-type buildings. We climbed a tower, took in the views, and head across the border into the Czech Republic.

I must say Prague was the city I was most looking forward to, but it didn’t even end up making my shortlist of favourites. It was absolutely stunning, but it was also packed with people who don’t move and shove you out of the way, scary traffic, pickpockets (luckily we were safe), and in a case of horrible timing, my PMS followed by two entire weeks of ‘that time of the month’ (two months ago I’d had a miscarriage – something I don’t want to go into; but my hormones were definitely all over the place) in addition to heightened emotions and heat exhaustion led to a big fight I read too much into and almost wanted to drop it all and go home. After a difficult night, neither of us wanted to miss out on getting up to see the sunrise over Charles Bridge, and we rose at about 5:00 to walk through beautiful parks and cobblestoned streets to catch the skies over the city bursting with colour. That morning, we joined the group for a bike tour through the city – which was absolutely wonderful! We learned so much, saw gothic cathedrals, began our adventures in speed photography, and spent some time in the beautiful old town square, where historic buildings and churches surrounded cafes that spilled out onto the streets. Here we had quite possibly the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life – at Coyote’s of all places!! We toured a nuclear bunker, dressed up in gas masks, and spent the evening with the rest of the group at a traditional Czech restaurant, where I bonded closely with a beautiful girl named Irene, shared drinks with new friends, and watched some fun dancing and games.

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Next up was back on the road toward Vienna, with an amazing pitstop at the Sedlec Ossuary – something I’ve wanted to see my entire life!! I’d always imagined it bigger, but it was a smallish chapel basically built with the bones of over 40,000 people arranged to form chandeliers and decorations inside. Nothing can describe what it was like to be surrounded by such immense beauty made purely of human bones. When we got to Vienna, we stopped at the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace for a quick jaunt and some fun group photos, and then head off toward the Schnaps Museum for a fun tour and lots of tasting🙂 That night we were dropped off at the city’s Rathaus (city hall) – a stunning gothic cathedral upon which had been hung an enormous projection screen, surrounded by rows upon rows of seats. It happened to be the Vienna Film Festival, and we had our pick of glorious food and drinks from an open-air eatery to enjoy it with. Afterward, a dream was realised: when J. and I booked this trip, we realised we would have the opportunity to live a Frank Turner lyric (the song this post is named after, the one I dedicated to my busmates, and the one I’ll attach to the video I’ll be making of the whole trip) and “drink with drifters in Vienna” – we all went down by the riverside and sat by the water enjoying a beer. Amazing🙂

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The next day was a much welcomed free day – so a small group of us joined forces and began the day at a very fancy cafe, trying out their famous cake (I can’t remember what it was called, but it was VERY chocolatey!) and cream-filled, wafer-covered ice coffees. We went to the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, which moved me once again to tears – I’d never heard of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (“Sisi”) before, but her tale and her writings were so tragic they tugged at my heart. Here, as I read quotes of hers in big letters across the walls, I vowed to write a song about this character – a carefree young girl who was thrust into the spotlight at fifteen years old, marrying a king who loved her unconditionally, living in splendour, yet eternally searching for some unattainable solace, miserable, and yearning for death… eventually assassinated in the late 19th century. Having in the past been in some very dark places, her words of such beauty and loneliness struck a chord, and I bought the only English book available on her and her writing. Our group lay on the grass in the palace grounds, taking photos (myself getting a massive bruise I ended up rather proud of after launching myself into the air and tripping trying to take a group shot), sharing stories and lots of laughs, and from here we went into town to climb over 300 steps in blistering heat to the top of a tower. Totally worth it! We found a pretty little tea house close by and grabbed a bite and a beer, and J. and I celebrated our half-year together by going on an adventure, finding a wonderfully creative restaurant with a big sign saying “we’re all mad here” on the outside (throwback to Fringe festival last month!), had epic conversations and pizza, and reconvened with the group as they took us to Prater amusement park to end the night, where we rode rollercoasters, and I shot myself into the sky with Jackie on a giant slingshot. It was brilliant.

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Next up, we headed for what became my other favourite city, Budapest, stopping in Bratislava, Slovakia on the way. Again, words fail to do justice to just how incredible Budapest was. This was the city going into the trip I knew the least about, but became the one that stole my heart. I had no idea it was two cities rolled into one; Buda and Pest sit on different sides of the river Danube and brought a fusion of exotic romanticism filled with architecture, castles, parties and adventure. By night we first went on a sightseeing tour, getting a spectacular view of the entire city, and taking in the royal palace. Then came a highlight: a dinner cruise down the river, seeing the city completely aglow from the water as we ate a feast of local specialities. At first we thought perhaps birds were circling a giant cathedral, lit up in gold, but we soon realised they were bats as we stood on the bow of the boat in each other’s arms. It was nothing short of magical. Before we left, J. and I had hoped we’d have time to visit the thermal baths in the city – little did we know that the one night we were there just so happened to transform these baths into a massive EDM dance party!! “Sparty” (terrible name, but I bet whoever came up with it was high-fiving himself pretty hard, haha)… how does one go about describing Sparty? The Széchenyi Baths are the largest in all of Europe, its water supplied by two thermal springs. Usually, people flock to the waters for their “healing” properties – but this time, people showed up by the hundredfold to party. I’ve never seen anything like it. Great music, cheap drinks, fireworks, and a laser light show that created 3D objects in the sky and made you feel like you were in the Matrix… all in the warm water while under the stars. This was an experience I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

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Not too many people made it up in the morning for the walking tour, but around 11:00 we all started filtering out of our hotel rooms and into the corridors, where a small group of us teamed up and went on a mission to find a beer bike we’d seen the night before. These bikes can sit up to eighteen people, with ten sets of pedals. Everyone teams up together and drives the bike around the city with the assistance of one guide, whose responsibility it is supposedly to stop the bike ending up in a ditch or the river, as it’s also attached to kegs of beer and an unlimited supply! We were slightly disheartened when we found them all booked up, but lucked out when we found one on its lunch break, whose operator agreed to let us hop on for 45 minutes. It was perfect – we made it about halfway through the town square, haha, but enjoyed just being in such a beautiful part of town (Hero Square), relaxing in the sun in amazing company, then wandering through parks and learning about Dracula. We’d heard rumours that the labyrinth under the castle was de-illuminated after six p.m., and that it was still open for exploration for another hour afterward… by gas lantern. How could we resist?! We showed up at the castle only to find another handful of friends, and together we went down into the Labirintus on the adventure of my dreams. Lamps in hand, we went through sprawling dark hallways, thankful for the cool air and slightly terrified we weren’t going to get out. We took turns being tour guide (J.’s tales of Dracula in the best Schwarzenegger voice I’ve ever heard went down brilliantly), kissed in cages, and visited torture chambers, caves and cellars 16 metres under the ground. My love for these people grew so incredibly much as the trip went on, and I find myself so sad today wondering why some of the world’s best people must be so far away.

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That night, we went to an incredible place called Szimpla: the”ruin pubs,” a cult bohemian open-air collection of bars through which we roamed, marvelling (and trying not to collapse in 40-degree heat!) at the bric-a-brac-erie, the Christmas lights strung haphazardly across walls and tree branches, the live bands, the DJ who commanded a simultaneous spirit of chill and excitement, the various paraphernalia that adorned doors and walls, seating made from old bathtubs with mattresses in them and fairy-lit bicycles strung from the ceilings. We had what became my new favourite drink (which J. and I will make you at our next cocktail party), but escaped relatively early due to the heat.

Szimpla Kert in Budapest

Szimpla Kert in Budapest

After leaving this beautiful place, we found ourselves en route to Poland, where the entire coach took part in a music quiz (which we won hands down! Thank you, useless ’90s pop knowledge!), stopping briefly in Banská Bystrica. We were soon in Krakow, and first thing in the morning, explored (and got stuck in) the Wieliczka salt mines, once again heading underground into a labyrinth of tunnels, licking salt off the walls (Anthony: “So where’d they get the salt from?”) and learning about the oldest mine in the world. This place was incredible: we saw dozens of statues carved out of rock salt by the miners (including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose words make up a portion of my text tattoo) as well as several underground chapels complete with chandeliers. It was stunning, and the size of it too immense to begin to describe. Our small group of adventurers got separated from everybody else somehow, and we found ourselves not on the lift for normal people up to the exit, but squeezed in through a gate onto what felt like some kind of coal chute, shot back up to the surface. We grabbed food (I never want to see another sausage again) and danced in sprinklers in the heat until finally everyone was together again.

Krakow was also the place J. and I were determined to discover something called Lost Souls Alley – definitely not on the tour, but ranking hugely high on TripAdvisor! Escape rooms these days are all the rage (and with good reason), but imagine one located in a haunted house instead, at the end of an alley where your two choices were either strip club to the left or screaming and chainsaws coming from upstairs. Unfortunately they only had a single slot open that day and could only take up to eight people – so after feeding pigeons and splashing around in the beautiful market square, the most dedicated of us head over to the alley itself. Solving puzzles while being chased by monsters through room after room of absolute terror? Brilliant. We emerged alive, and went on to join the rest of the group for a traditional perogy dinner. I believe Krakow was also the place of the $1 shot bar… after our friend Danny bought at least a hundred, I’m pretty sure we’re all either barred for life or we’ll go back to find they’ve erected a statue of him. This may also have been Warsaw. I’m getting my Polish lines a little blurred.

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Quick sidenote: Poland was where I had to make an emergency stop for hair dye after Sparty destroyed all the beautiful purple in my hair and turned it grey! Do not buy hair dye in Poland! It does not come with all the supplies you’ll need, and your choices will be one of three. I grabbed the red one and ended up having to mix it with my own hands in the hotel sink and plop it on my head, hoping for the best. Rescue mission to come.

On our penultimate day, we found ourselves in the actual Auschwitz concentration camps. What to say about this place? It seems wrong to even utter words, instead taking the time to reflect once again on the horrors that took place in these factories of death. I walked past barbed wire, listening to our tour guide tell horrific tales of what could have easily happened to me or you had we been born in a different place at a different time. I saw endless shoes, spectacles, and luggage, stolen from real people who were gassed and burned. I walked through gas chambers and read about the experiments, and walked down hallways of photographs of those that lost their lives. Labourers. Hairdressers. Students. Ordinary people. I cried silently as the tortures were described, imagining there could be nothing more terrible than this happening to someone I love. These people were loved. And they were killed. My choice in atheism was affirmed again in this place: the religious among us may wonder where was God at this time of evil. The rest of us may wonder where was man. As we walked toward Auschwitz II (Birkenau), I told J. that when I got home, it was going to be so difficult taking part in our normal again. Seeing people complain on Facebook. Filling out spreadsheets. Things that, compared to these atrocities of broken bodies and deadened hearts, of faces without names whose souls reached for the sky as their physical shells of bodies plummeted into ash, mean nothing at all.  Nobody deserves to suffer, but nothing could possibly be anything close to what happened in that true nightmare of history. Be so, so very thankful for the life you have today.

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Last on our Contiki tour was Warsaw, and by this point most everybody was running out of steam and getting the dreaded Contiki Cough, yet all were filled with an eagerness to spend as much of the little time left we had together. J. and I spent the day eating perogies, wandering through a magic garden, enjoying a beer in the sun and packing up before heading out for one last night with our new friends.  We feasted, we drank, we danced, we embraced, and we all got up bright an early to say our teary goodbyes. I can’t handle goodbyes at the best of times, but when you’ve seen some of the most brilliant sights the world has to offer with these people, danced under the stars, sailed down rivers, launched yourself into the sky, got lost in labyrinths and witnessed the brilliance of human imagination as well as the madness of a man who changed history forever… when you spend every waking moment with these wonderful souls, these fellow dreamers, travellers, explorers and adventurers who flock from across the globe… you truly do leave a piece of your heart with each and every one of them. Saying goodbye was the acknowledgement that those pieces had shone brighter than ever, and as they splintered off back to their respective corners of the galaxy, life would from then on be that much duller. But, at the same time, each of those wondrous souls left a piece of themselves with me. New, glorious, exciting, brilliant friends with whom I’ve shared the memories of a lifetime. People I’m determined to do it with all over again. And that hope, that dream… shines on in its own way. A beacon to sail toward. I’m crying just thinking about how fantastic they all were.

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J. and I finished our trip by first heading to Paris, where I saw quite possibly my favourite sight of the whole trip: his face when we turned the corner and he saw the Eiffel Tower in person for the very first time. It lit up like a Christmas tree, and I was at once surrounded on all sides by beauty and wonder. Of course we ventured over and climbed it, despite the protest of our legs, which were at this point about to fall off, but we made it to the second storey and took in the brilliance of the city from above. A warm rain began to fall, and I pulled out the only umbrella I had – one covered in Union Jacks, of course, which quickly threatened to get us kicked out of France! We enjoyed a beautiful French dinner with a fantastic waiter, hopped the Metro to our hotel, dolled ourselves up as best we could in ten minutes and head for another wonder: The Moulin Rouge itself. I have to stop for a second here and express my heartfelt gratitude for the man I’m so lucky to be in love with. A Moulin Rouge show, in Paris, with him by my side. I felt like the luckiest girl in all the world. The show, Feerie, was absolutely packed, and the streets were lined with people queuing to get into this magical place. As we filtered in, we were transported to another world, one lit by warmly quiet red table lamps and veiled by drapes that hung across the ceilings like a great circus tent. We were seated, champagned, and treated to a show the likes of which I’ve never seen.

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Three hours later, we were due on a train to London, so we downed a couple of giant Red Bulls and hopped the Eurostar over the channel where we were met by my dear friend of 19 years, James. He’d planned the entire day for us, and treated us to breakfast, a ride around the London Eye, a trip through the Dungeons, a brilliant pub lunch in a pub that was restored in the 1600s, where we were joined in person by the lovely Elly, with whom I’ve been blog friends for probably near a decade! Great conversation and great food were enjoyed by all, and with our remaining couple of hours, we traipsed through the Tower, taking in the ravens, the crown jewels, and various instruments of torture. (Of course.) We ended the day back at the station, all I think holding in tears, and both of us feeling an immense sense of gratitude for the kindness and friendship we’d been gifted.

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I’m sitting at over 4,000 words right now (Contiki book deal, anyone?)  so I’ll wrap this up. Fifty-two new friends. Fourteen cities in sixteen days. Chickie Chickies and dead guinea pigs and Holas. “Moisto bene.” Memories, sights and experiences that made my heart soar and my soul occasionally sink, all of it coalescing and transforming me into something new. Coming back to where you started is infinitely different to never having left, and though materially I may be poorer, experientially I am blessed with the wealth of riches money couldn’t possibly buy, and more thankful, reflective, educated and inspired than I’ve ever been. The Eastern Road may have come to an end, but these friendships, these memories, these dreams… these are just the beginning of a whole lot more.

I’ll be working on a video of the whole thing over the next few weeks, and I can’t wait to share the spirit of this trip with everyone. Until then, here are about 700 photos!