BOOK REVIEW: ‘love is a mixtape: life and loss, one song at a time’ by Rob Sheffield

*some small plot detail spoilers contained in the description below*

When I found this book on the stacks of Halifax Public Libray, as I navigated through the careful architecture pathways – looking for inspiration in environment or education or both – I noticed in the Table of Contents that the second chapter (all named after playlists and important songs to the story telling) was titled Hey Jude.  So, naturally my interest was piqued, if i am to play into this Beatles ascribed identity for this life. As I read the story at the beginning of chapter 2, Rob describes building a mixtape of only Hey Jude for the entire length of the cassette by repeating portions of the record into an album of filler “hey” “na na na nanana” and “JudyJudyJudy” – I knew the storytelling would continue to balance musical entertainment with heartache and joy in careful harmony to tell his story.

The story of his wife unexpectedly dying, and his coming to terms with their romance’s untimely end is eloquently explored by describing their relationship in a series of mixtapes from their life together. The mixtapes were evidence of their mutual adoration of music at the time, and the changes in the alternative-punk legacy with albums which had in the duration of the track length, each contributed to this love story.

His wife, Renee, completed the music part of his life, and soon filled in the gaps he didn’t know he needed filling by a southern accent and sassy comments. Their love feels so true off the page, being in their company must have been a simple treat.

And so, while reading this comfortable love story, the despair of her loss being within each story about his memory, I am comforted by the peace he has found in the joy they shared. It’s their love story, and it has ended – in the sense of no longer continuing into the future. but I can understand the need to preserve what was, for the sake of the beauty of the story. for the perseverance of our belief in love.

Reading into their life together, i was cheering for the happy couple the same way they were living it – until, as abruptly as it happens, Rob carries you into the truth of the situation. that in less than a minute, his wife dies from a brain aneyursm.

In the flurry of the grief and frantic planning of memorializing her body + memory he recalls not sitting with the immensity of the loss until later, on solo drives in the days following when music on the radio (no matter the station) would remind him of her. Stating what I feared was true, “I knew I would have to relearn how to listen to music, and that some of the music we’d loved together I’d never be able to hear again.” (149)

Soon after, this thought is followed by the assurance to the reader that as the story began, it continued:”mix tapes were the life raft I held onto” – and understandably so. It seemed this was what was happening while they were living and falling in love, but now more than ever, it would be the best self-made therapy to keep creating new memories in the style of the old ones.

—-

Where this hits home the deepest, is how there are plenty of unwritten stories kept within my personal memory of music intersectionalities. And how I share some of the songs with this tender couple’s experience, but how many of the songs were briefly popular during the late 80’s and into the 90’s – and they never made it into my working memory of the time period (okay, I was a small child living in a rural place..). Even with the missed association with the value of some of these songs I could appreciate their organization together as even song titles creating simple, abstract poetry of shared living in a globalizing community of shared stories.

And how, the era of the mix tape is unique all in its own. But we still understand the value of compilations, of sharing collections of music; track order does, and sometimes does not, matter. In many senses, technology is advancing faster than our ability to make use of it in our own time. When i was a kid I used our family’s CD/tape player to record copies of my sister’s CD tracks into a mixtape for the car (which only had a tape deck) or create strange CD mixes based on whatever music I had used our computer to download via Limewire, Napster, and whatever software at the time was able to translate a cool song into a digital file. As a child, I didn’t believe anything could happen by copying music in this way, because it’s just like making mixtapes and sharing music across the street, it’s just across the world now.

My history with music as a transition aid has been the most valuable part of the loss of places, people associated with those places, and the soundtrack we build underneath it all will be what holds us together when the rest falls apart. That’s where Riverhouse/Heartwood are a foundation – or atleast two deck posts- of my grief; layered with changing places (“we’re not us anymore”, unfortunately) and the loss of people who created them.

So I have an undercurrent of favourite songs which have and will continue to guide me along the path of getting over yesterday and growing into tomorrow. It’s in reading this book that I can put my experiences into the greater context of loss, and understand them to be far less consequential than the abrupt end of a marriage due to the loss of the person while the love remains. And then, it clicks, that’s what I’ve been chasing. Closure from the love that never ended, rather the physical presence was removed. So, I’ve learned to love the music and people of the place differently, without necessary discussion of why we are all connected, because it hurts too much.

And, some songs stick with you even after the loss is fresh. Hearing the song by the Replacements mentioned in this book brought back memories of the first year of infatuation with my Edmonton interest – who made sure I knew to listen for Unsatisfied during their set at Osheaga. But I didn’t, I slept through. And that was some cosmic joke played to remind me of a number of ‘read between the lines’ meanings. But also to remember that it is a song worth listening to, because of its legacy, and great lyrics, and weight. Hearing Leonard Cohen sing on a recording, and knowing you’ll never hear new music by him again. Or, in the heart of the loss, the warm fatherly baritone of Bobby Gibb recite the ode to the haggis on Robbie Burns day. Or see Shotgun Jimmie with Mark Kroeker – though the year he came through the prairies we each caught a show in our respective cities and congratulated the other on accomplishing that Bagtown goal. Some people are always going to be memorable. And if they’re lucky, they’ll get a mixtape of memories all to themselves. Keep the music makers close and the family of appreciators closer. (sometimes outdoor concerts are chilly!)

The nostalgia coded into a song’s storytelling and melody is crucial for its soul to come through, but it needs to transcend an individual’s nostalgia and become ubiquitous into the human experience. That’s where mixtapes – good ones- can communicate more than a kiss in some scenarios. They can be better than a therapist. (not a replacement, but enough to know why you’re unsatisfied, perhaps)

And if you’re lucky, you get to have someone narrate all the reasons why they chose the songs they did to you, with introductions and stories. Appreciating the community this music has created on the airwaves alongside the chaos of living.

I’m not sure if this book was an antidote or an amplifier for my retrospective tendencies, but flipping back through pages of the book now completed seem as familiar as floating backwards into my own memories – smiling at experiencing that joy with the lucidity of deja vu. flashes of curious familiarity mimicking past emotion.

And now, in the phase of my living where I am finding more courage to start learning music and developing unique style + character in playing piano and guitar, I understand the challenges involved with creating a ‘new’ sound, if only for the immediate frustration involved with the pain of not knowing how to get the sound you don’t know you need. So, my gratitude meter is restored with each new song, and each time I pick up a guitar and default to D chord, because it’s the transition from uke to guitar and I feel comfortable there. But i’m getting really sick of that note in particular. Thankful for all the sharers of music ability and advice. Without them my inspiration meter would have no traction against the current of modern life. With them, i have a memory of a time of my growing up and out of naivete.

“a mixtape steals those moments from all over the musical cosmos, and splices them into a whole new groove. … I’d rather hear the Beatles’ Getting Better on a mix tape than on Sgt. Pepper any day.” – pg 23/24

there’s more of my story to be told – about radio synchronicities and mix tape ironies. but for the moment i’m glad to have indulged in someone else’s. Highly recommend this read to you, internet person; if i haven’t spoiled it for you with the plot leaks.

Connectivity of Joyfulness

This past Sunday was celebrated in United Church families as ‘joy sunday’. 

A reminder of that being the original inspiration for my middle name, at it is around my birthday each year. In fact, the first year of that annual proximity was inspiration enough for it to be inked onto my birth certificate. 

So, it is a continuing reminder of ways to be joyful in the face of everything else. That strength has always been a superpower of mine. To access joy as a motivator, as a function of memory living forward – harnessing joy for future motivation. 

This persistence of happiness, in all of us, is what allows us to survive in the capacity we do. This year my strength has been tested, and yet as December exam season comes around again, I feel resilient and capable. 

I credit the connectivity of happiness to have supported this journey. Casual acquaintances are knit together in webs which keep the world afloat. Best friends nurture the love we feel when we experience this joy. 
as Year 25 comes to a close, I am so grateful for having the joyful reminder of love embedded in the places we share. The number of towns I briefly participated in were echoes of the one I was shown to love.

and to have wound up in the middle of the best dream, for it to be reality…is hard earned bliss.

productive nostalgia

archetypes are our fears

given voices, given chances

to bring us to tears

without speaking to years left behind

are you prepared to unwind

the cables of string theory

linking this life with continuous rewinds

a year in the past

keeps denying fears

from becoming regrets

a day in the life

stands stronger among the rest

pushing towards the best


keeping idols on pedestals is no way to look them in the eye

dreams become our benchmarks for understanding

ways to become truly free

through words, paralyzed by possibility

comparing the best moments

without ever having sight of the hurdles

to be overcome

dare we risk

reaching our goals




at the beginning of the end

I can't imagine who else to be

but in love with being on the mend




'he who does not weep does not see'

spoken by the miserable ones

to declare their desperation for clarity;

though pain can be overcome

we do not know

what benefit we can offer

to the greater good found in

 living, while in our time,

many use the energy they contain

demanding a breakthrough.




falling deeper into the gravity of assurance

keeps the strength I've summoned to be a greater

force than foresight can predict

the brevity of our experience cannot explain

how our desiring

can breathe new life

through eyes of enlightenment

through eager encouragement




healing hurts

and we are not told often enough

because it aches to consider

in moments of anguish

how things could possibly get worse




yet, many days of our life are spent knowing

we've got it pretty good

and no amount of gratitude can bring that happiness to light

once it has been erased.




kitsch-y desperation for understanding

leads us to hunt value in discount bins

and lonely breakdowns;

exasperated from false passion

learning  to make the best of leftovers

culture informs our lessons,

relearning importance in lost generations

always

questioning

why, why, why




Do you ever truly know what you've got til it's gone?

have you ever known a greater delight

than standing in the light

of a sun-soaked moon

reflecting wisdom into the night

determined to make everything right




capsizing the halos on our dreams

emboldening our life with changing seasons

finding ways to live, ending our failure by

remembering how to give

more than is asked




With that in mind, do we ever truly know home?

except as reflections in nighttime windows

and fleeting glimpses of memory

when we are weak, caught in a loop

idealizing the past

clinging with a fierce grasp more tightly

on the confusing past

rather than receiving an open future




with circumstances of our belief

we understand motive to be meek

yet pride haunts this daily churn,

always finding ways to spend what we earn




it may cost more than what you are paid,

we're told to do it anyways.

Keep doing it until the end of days.




Get used to goodbyes

they are evidence of ways we try.




better still, get used to quiet

it will always return

each time with more wisdom

and greater defeat




with hazards of helplessness our obstacles during

soulless fantasy

do you ever really know what was meant to be

or is that the greatest game we like to play?

straight lines + colonial times (poem)

we’re taught how geography is straight lines, 

in clusters, 

forming cities. 

so we learn the names, who runs them, 

and his-story’s take on how they came to be. 


these straight lines occasionally bend around curving water

and rising hills. 

we know them because of

the flat maps of documentation

we inherit, these important memories

reduced to textbooks. 

we memorize. rarely feeling their textures of culture.
 

part of this learning, of how to carry this tradition,

is about building more and better, always. 

never ceasing to explore. 

document, collect, report back. 

this is the formula of colonialism // our heritage


we learn how to cross the river, not how to follow it. 

skipping over the earth’s chapter on flexibility. 

the inherit importance of curving around a rock, 

not blasting through it, 

may be one of the quietest secrets

eroding from our awareness 

with each new set of lines


this type of geography - systematic at best - denies understanding

of cultural nuance. spatial play. 

what it means to explore, truly and gently. 

rather than rape our land of its value. 

we are learning. we must. always. 

how to carve out cravings, and how not to. 

differently from tradition, if tradition is only a temporary gain


the same way feminism redefines equality 

against hard-headed men

in new ways, each generation’s own bra burning is different.

yet the redefining teaches the crude essence of humanity. 

passionate individuality our greatest and most cursed gift. 

emboldened community our saving grace.


to speak for all the world, and yet hear nothing, 

is a failure of many ‘great’ leaders. selfish explorers. 

fearful of what they might find in places ‘untouched’. 

fabricating myths and drawing such fear on maps. 

for them the value of the world is in power; 

what namesake can be stolen, ascribed, and profiteered.

redefined in industrial lenses. 

resources for the marketplace. 

we are told that is the worth of the earth.


as colonial byproducts we can hardly justify

any of our biases. but as humans we must do something 

(or many tend to feel strongly we should try)

is equalized stasis the goal? 

socially and psychologically, 


in this moment of security

as you cup that hot mug of cumulative achievement

and satisfying refreshment


look outside and notice your reflection

alongside the others in the glass.


question this moment, 

is it time for it to pass?

heart work

the connoisseurship of wonder
has discovered great stars
from naval gazing,
reflections in waves

we’re all meant to wonder
we all tend to wander away
from repetition and patterns
wishing us to stay
& waving us away

mixed signals & foggy skies
flags warning danger ahead
observations made with careful eyes
each version uniquely terrifying
for the vulnerable honesty within

guide your compass outward to receive direction – magnetic attractive guidance
is encouraging to our voices’ resonance
turn this compass inward, triangulated by experience and intuition.
underneath a troubled climate
respect attitudes of authority
if only to change them kindly.
share understanding like chocolate,
tasting each layer of nuanced flavour.

cultural privilege is having chocolate to share, but we’ve normalized it.
how deeply in the pool of reflection will we notice our ignorance?

for all of this, give your heart to your work. work on your heart. the art of not giving a shit is a careful routine.
this price of peace is expensive.
a bill containing kindness and listening.

a piece of this golden opportunity is to reach toward being cosmically united.
set loneliness aside for only a moment.

that gilded moment can be your new pedestal. the humility of honoring intelligence can be our new currency.
objectively delighted for peace.

making The Best out of breakfast

each day upon waking

i congratulate myself

for taking unconscious breaths

and remaining alive

this, the celebration

is performed with breakfast,

with breathing, with warming liquid.

ritual strengh brings importance to regular

recalling eagerly declaring ‘the best’ things..

a reminder of how it quickly grows tiresome, forethought

predicts if everything’s better;

nothing competes at all.

 

positive acceptance is different

than competitive ultimatums.

do not sell yesterday short by

prioritizing tomorrow.

each experience, no matter how we judge,

is ours for the taking, and making

‘the best’ out of it.

in this way, i guess, where nothing is best over lost

rather finding the Best part of living,

find joy in each agony. Find this jar of

collected best moments in a thousand tomorrows,

thanking yesterday’s martyrs for sacrifice.

evening cyclist + solo wanderer

I truly enjoy making tracks at night,

Travelling lightly across streetlighted paths,

knowing silence deeply against the rain

escaping from demands of regular bustles

city rules and cyclists’ despair

Jane’s walks are infrequently important reminders of care.

Care for the parents and children in community.

Gentle acknowledgement of citizen equalling responsiblity

Enjoy this city, don’t let sleep keep you from truth.

navigate, dessicate any blind spots of fear

 

‘Hey Jude, don’t be afraid’ echoing in these inner ears.

 

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Happy National Poetry Month! // 6Q (+ a few more) with Shane Koyczan

Shane Koyczan’s name to our generation inspires a familiar comfort; his story is worn like a heart carefully stitched on his baggy t-shirt sleeve. Growing up awkward in a unique family bred social troubles; his stories about empowering this vulnerability has become a trademark strength.

I almost didn’t buy a ticket to see Shane this past Saturday, but I’m glad I did. Though, yes I did see last year’s Edmonton performance for April’s National Poetry Month, this year in Halifax was an entirely new context. Like last year, I laughed, cried, and grinned with heartwarmed connection with each stanza of his spoken word art guiding the room of similarly secret broken souls through group therapy. This year, I was with friends new and old in a beautiful Maritime United Church; last year I independently ensured I wouldn’t miss an opportunity for a live performance at the Royal Alberta Museum. Each time, Shane’s words resonated with depth and sincerity, however this time the context of my own appreciation had shifted. I was also surrounded by a support system, we shared in the vulnerable experience. (for the United Church creed to truly take hold, one mustn’t feel alone.)

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For the audience in the pews of St. Matthew’s magnificently colonial church building in downtown Halifax, our discomfort was met with an opening joke from the stage when Shane explained he was still coming to terms with his “ecclesiaphobia”, or, a fear of churches. Though, it was a fascinating combination. The modern religion is self-awareness and mental health activism. United churches are about social justice and providing community. This building was a meeting place, our preacher was an uncomfortable poet who enveloped us under his poetic wing and cared for our fears with soothing, and often accidental, comedic cadences. Some accidental ‘ecclesia-profanities’ were met with an embarrassed hung head and anticipatory glance up at the wooden rafters (expecting a lightning strike). It was a key way to break the tension and just settle in for a mildly hedonistic evening of honesty.

Between particularly emotional stanzas, or in moments following applause, he was regaining composure to be able to approach another similar but separate emotional memory location. Memories being particularly precious following a cycling accident which he references for context to explain the tablet attached to the microphone stand. Memory is a tricky thing, we have a selective database to choose from, and a picky one at the best of times. It is innately the most personal possession we have, for many memories have never been shared. This poetry is one way to communicate what is otherwise challenging to give voice.

This attitude is why each word of poetry has been warmly received – it is our composite experience of which we can be most proud; standing up to bullies, or standing up against them 20 years later, it is mostly important to ensure we come to terms with our ability and not their judgement. Any day we resolve this dilemma within ourselves is a positive day to look towards being the person we’ve always wanted to be. That is what is at the core of this movement. To resolve these feelings within ourselves first, and all the rest is what comes from a changed perspective.

Shane’s answers to the same six questions I have asked numerous times are characteristic of the person we know from the stage. He has curated a public persona very close to the heart which persists into his approach to the realities of living. Our group in attendance at the Saturday evening church venue was swept away by his sincerity with story, wisdom, and acceptance of what cannot be changed. He has graciously accepted his past as inspiration, not something to be ashamed or apologetic over.

Q1: what is a favourite piece (of your own)?

SK: It’s always changing. A lot of the time the newest piece will take the first position, but there are always some pieces that are always hovering in the top five. Turn On A Light is one of those pieces… I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what the others might be.
 JK: My particular favourites are More Often Than Sometimes, and Move Pen Move (in collaboration with Dan Mangan) being the first piece I heard; both having significant emotional weight of nostalgia and importance.

Q2: what is a ‘cover poem’ you particularly like to perform and/or hear?

SK: Geoff Kagan Trenchard has a fantastic piece called Jason that I love to cover. I think it really captures a lot about growing up awkward and the strength it takes to be who you are. The small victories are often hard won.

Q3: while touring, is there a road trip go-to album/artist/podcast/etc?

SK: Not really. I listen to a lot of different stuff. There’s usually som Ani Difranco on deck, but then there’s also bands like We Are The City. Lots of classical music too.

Q4: what has been an outstanding place to play a show (venue and/or location)?

SK: They all have their own flavor (something that makes the special), but I was really happy to have just played The Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto. Beautiful venue and it was a fantastic show.

(+ where would you like to go that you have not yet been? )

SK: I suppose I’d like to see more of Asia. I’ve hit a few places there but it’s a huge continent and I feel like I haven’t seen enough of it.

Q5: what is a spirit animal you identify with in your performance, life?

SK: Octopus. No question. Any animal that generates its own ink is destined to be some kind of writer or artist

Q6:  when in recent memory, or ever, have you laughed the hardest?

SK: I laugh best when I travel with my band, The Short Story Long. Just a great group of folks and we love making each other laugh. 


JK: On your career, success, vulnerable storytelling, and connection to many:
– how does working with musical accompianment change your performance?

SK: Music makes it easier to get back to an emotional space… it’s not always easy to do in a solo performance.

JK: Your gracious presence is called heroic by many, SuperShane being a popular graphic to accompany the popular To This Day poem.. “For the bullied and the beautiful” sums up the audience you’ve built. How has this changed perspective affected how you relive each poem  motivated by memory?

SK: I’m not sure it has. I certainly don’t feel heroic… these are just the challenges I’ve faced… I know people who have faced and are facing much more. 

JK: What do you envision/hope for Poetry’s future?

SK: The future of poetry is always going to depend on people. Poets and lovers of poetry… as long as we have those two ingredients the world will supply enough love and turmoil to bake up fresh poetry. 

JK: Did you get a Halifax donair?

SK: Still picking chunks of it out of my beard.

Shane’s performed words dance lightly among some of the hardest subjects. They have become definitions our human experience of pain, rejection, bullying, shame, and romantic desire.  As an audience we continue to use these moments to reflect on our own identifications and come to understand the rooted human nature in the experience. It is not just our problem, but a cultural one. Perhaps it’s not a problem at all, it’s just life. For actions which are problematic – bullying attitudes, fearful rejection of each other, and dismissive anger, these words are our tools to fight against the anger which boils up in us.

These words he has curated for personal release has been met with ongoing support and resonates deeply with other artists. One amazing production is the graphic novel “Silence is a Song I Know All the Words To”, filled with beautiful illustrations by Gareth Gaudin of some choice favourites of Shane Koyczan’s profound work.

Thanks to Shane, and all poets among us for inspiring active words of healing. Release is often the most valuable form of growing past our problems, yet is one of the hardest things to do. Spoken work brings a visceral appreciation because one must be present to hear each word, not allow your eyes to dart across the page as one often does through reading, which is why myself and others familiar with ADHD often appreciates this live performance’s intensity.

This National Poetry Month, I have been inspired to keep the octopus appeased – let’s produce useful ink!

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A mural in Dartmouth, NS supporting tentacle spirited battles

Collections of Stardust, part 1 of Yesterday’s Tale

2 years ago, give or take a wrinkle in space time, she met a pale blue dot of galactic gravity.

He helped her find mirrors to shine sunlight into the deepest part of her caves. with eyes that shone like diamonds and a track record of defeat, he knew he may be more than she could handle. still he offered two diamonds shaped by a hard world, polishing her as reciprocity for being tough enough to shape complicated carbon into mantles of trust and collaboration.  Neither had any plans for living next to despair forever, wondering how long this game could last. Pompeii had no time for rest or vests, Vesuvius claimed active history; our humanity swept away by more forceful dust.

She used bars as litmus tests of emotion. Radio at a high frequency promised highly metamorphic metaphors sustaining sympathetic cymbals on well timed existence. We hardly know our selves, we’ve always learned through others. Jesus can’t help you find the mental health you lost. Mocking you from the dismantling foundation of certainty in hospitality you’ve always celebrated. Stumbling into another’s shared third place; another Monday for the books. The first day of creation, Gregorian decided. The first step on collaborative connection with this environment. Culturally shared geographical spaces become places. How many of our shared stories have taken place similarly? There is earthly consistency for destruction bringing new life.

This undercover spiritual scientist had other intentions in mind, not just our collective best. Challenging this, our upbringing, against understanding synechdotal synchronicity. We mustn’t put up a fuss for the end to arrive just in time for grief. It’s all been a dream, one that plays out in patterns and smiles. We keep using words like good and bad, pretenses for emotional evacuation posing for sympathy. Forging our own ways through habits of forgetery.

It’s hard to believe this is more than a dream. A hard world, a heavy bag, the weight of how it all seemed. Next to happiness and enjoyment. Falling through cracks and finding a rabbithole of generosity and communal city.

Released from fibres of a familiar weave, this freedom from winter’s sleeves challenges everything I knew about creating seams in time’s fabric. No longer tethered to expectations of next. No longer disappointed by a withering eternal ‘yet’.

SAVOUR IT. The love, the feeling of peace. Compliments + congratulations. Beastial pedestals of ceremonial competitive complacency.

SAVOUR the moments of simplicity as record of potential, of patterned culture. Even on days when every movie seems like yesterday’s script; you hardly had time to memorize the lines before fame’s curtain closed. They say try again tomorrow, with less enthusiastic repose. Yesterday’s script inspires today’s always. And never. We know we can always be better.

One such movie, The Giver, narrates this well: “it is the memory which keeps me going.” “Life. The More I Experienced, the more I wanted.”

Triggering self statements of actualizing truth:

I treat those around me like dirt, thinking I am the greatest seed. But I tend to myself, and plan to leave after sharing pollen with other flowering seeds among common weeds.

Unhealthy avoidance of these truths and fears bleed us out, organically faltering, continually altering, each thing we pretend to consider.

Narcissus waited for the Echo to guide him home. Familiar moments of faith, lust, diminished fifths, and captive in reflection.