I tiptoed up the carpet stairs, noting like a personal judgement all the ancient stains and popcorn crumbs and clumps of hair that had accumulated in the angles of every step. I slipped into my empty room, then quietly into our bathroom, sneaking the door shut behind me. I sat down with great thump and all the dust bunnies poofed out like I had fallen into a pool of water. And then…I cried. Sobbed. Not a once-in-a-while welcome release cry, but a Wednesday pandemic cry. Ugly and messy, full of gasping and snot. Just hideous. How am I supposed to handle these long days on my own? How do I know my kids are gonna be okay? When will this end? How will this end? WILL THIS END?
It had been months of this. My husband had been working full-tilt, managing employee mental health crises, public health mandates, temporary lay-offs and his days were long. Which meant mine were too. At home with three boys under the age of nine, facilitating online school for two of them and entertaining the toddler the rest of the time. And the cracks were beginning to show.
The boys were becoming frustrated and depressed, the toddler was bored out of his mind, I was exhausted and feeling like I was losing my ever-lovin’ marbles. All the while watching my profession as jazz singer disintegrate in real time. Some clubs were holding tight, surviving on take out and a tiny trickle of government support, while others were shuttering down permanently. My job – to make people gather in dark rooms, breathing together, listening, laughing and talking moistly – was becoming even less viable than it had tenuously been before the spring of 2020.
At first, my coping mechanisms included mainly a steady diet of evening cocktails at 3pm and whisper-crying in my bathroom in the middle of the day. But then one day I sat down at the old piano that came with our 1886 home in Uxbridge, Ontario. (It’s a 1908 upright, made in Hamilton, Ontario. It weighs about 6 tons and miraculously still hasn’t fallen through the parquet flooring in the dining room).
I sat there and I thought about a friend and colleague whose husband is American. He lives in Toronto and his husband is in Memphis. The borders to our neighbours to the South – if you recall – were closed entirely for months. I thought about how these two lovely people were forced – by circumstances beyond their control – to be separated at a time when all you wanted to do was be with the people you love. To hold them, to tell them it was all going to be okay someday, to make sure they were okay, to make bread and buy toilet paper and make jokes about the horrible, horrible news. To have some stability in a tremendously uncertain world.
I recalled my own history – my hubby and I started out the same way. I was in university and he was working out the last days of his visa, teaching in Northern Ontario. After a teary goodbye, we spent the next two years loving each other over thousands of miles, I from my dorm at school and he back and forth between Ontario and various temp jobs in the UK. His plan to immigrate had also been halted by circumstances out of our control when a group of terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Centre towers in 2001. It was two long years of hellos and goodbyes, arrivals and departures, letters and emails, sleepless nights and teary phone calls.
I sat there on that old piano bench with the sticky varnish that rips the skin off your legs on hot summer days, and I realized there was something in me that hadn’t been said about those years. That watching my friends navigate the painful uncertainty of their forced separation was speaking to my own history.
So, I started to play around with melodies and chord changes and within a handful of days, out came a song.
“Hey baby, it’s me, about quarter to three, early Saturday/And I just wanna say that you’re on my mind…”
A phone call. A check in. Someone calling an old friend or love to just say, “I hope you’re okay in the midst of this mess.”
Then I made my first Instagram video and threw it online. The responses were swift and profound. Whatever voice I’d spoken had landed with lots of friends and friends of friends and even complete strangers.
And so soon, I was sitting down daily – instead of slipping away to the bathroom with a mimosa and feeling of dread in my gut - and banging away on the old piano, poor thing, working out more and more melodies and stories. Not all winners, in all honesty. I realize now that for every great song you write, you need to squeak out and labour over about twenty really terrible ones.
In the minutes here and there that I managed to escape from another episode of Paw Patrol or between the hunting and gathering of goldfish crackers and dirty socks, I would commune with the melody Gods and Goddesses and try to unblock my pent-up creative flow.
What has resulted is a new and developing skill as a songwriter, not an entire career and life shift, but a way to both exorcize my demons and enhance my music career. These days, the melodies are harder to procure as the world and my family resumes its fast pace and beforeness, but all it takes is a little time and quiet and though it’s scarcer, it’s just as sacred as in the intensity of the last three years.
I would encourage people to explore their creative sides – in addition to appropriate treatment recommended by doctors and specialists and people with actual degrees n stuff – when working through pain and confusion. Make some noise, squish some paint around a page, plant and riotous flower garden, throw some clay, tell your story in all its darkness and light. In the minutes here and there that you can eke out for your own mental health, get into it, get messy and find your way through.
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