The Ghostly Hounds Deliver Witch Folk With Soul

(as published in Naked Underground Montreal February 10th, 2016)

Like the siren enchanting the sailor into the depths, Francesca Daoust’s voice may drown you, but what a sweet death it will be.

At their EP Release Party at Le Cagibi last Friday, the Ghostly Hounds vocalist delivered a soulful performance that gripped the packed room.

“It’s such an intuitive thing for me,” Daoust says of her music, “I don’t have any music theory background, and I’ve been playing alone for so long that [on this EP] it was a lot of work figuring out compositions and how to communicate what I was looking for.”

Daoust began jamming with stand-up bassist and Massachusetts import Matthew Dorfman in mid-2015. Shortly after, they were joined by ex-Brass Mob trumpeter Suzanne Stirling and classically trained Syrian violist Zafer Zephyr to form Ghostly Hounds.

Zephyr plays his viola much in the same way he speaks: with a humanity and sweetness perfectly attuned to those he’s working with. “One of my favourite things to do is find parallels in different genres or hear a melody being expressed in different modes,” Zephyr explains, “I try to incorporate Arabic or Klezmer tunes that I’ve played in the past, and I always find something that fits -in my humble opinion -into what Francesca’s singing.”

To talk of an entirely different style, Stirling’s trumpet brings a brassiness to the group that underlines both Dorfman and Daoust’s backgrounds, as the singer attests to: “Jazz has been a huge influence for me, even though what I play isn’t jazz. Before I started playing my own stuff, I always sang in jazz bands. I really love having horns.”

Indeed, Stirling plays with a targeted ease that gives the Witch Folk group a laidback quality that makes their shows a joy to watch. At one moment at Le Cagibi, the West Coast native jumped playfully beside Daoust’s mouth trumpeting to do a solo that electrified the crowd.ghoustly hounds 2

“It just feels so good to have the other sounds, and it inspires me,’ Daoust expresses, “There’ve been a few songs that I’d started writing and just given up on that have turned into full songs since jamming with these guys.”

Daoust will be the first to admit her songs can be dark, but she denies that they’re depressing: “All my songs have been written when I’ve been at my worst, but I write to uplift myself and get myself through [the difficulties].” The tracks, which she’s been performing and reworking for years as a solo artist, are more hopeful than tragic. On “I Pray” she laments, “This flame gives life and yet it also burns. How many times before my lesson’s learned?” but wonders, “If I continue will I lose my skin, or will I break through and find the answers I hold within?”

“I Pray”, along with “Crone,” “A Cliff” and “Month of Tears” were engineered and recorded by stand-up bassist Matthew Dorfman in theCapsule Sound Studio mere weeks after the band was fully formed. While the exceptionally adaptable musician supports Ghostly Hounds unique combination of instruments beautifully, he was less familiar with the recording process. “I’d never done that [work] before, so the technical skills were really interesting to learn,” he reveals, “When you listen to your own music, it’s a very different experience than playing it in the moment. You’re forced by the recording process into creating a product that’s concise and polished, and it makes you listen and think differently about how you then speak as a musician, and how everything fits together.”

Looking to the future, the band is open to all possibilities. “I feel like the Montréal music scene is so vast,’ Daoust points out, “It’s a city that really nurtures creative growth and collaboration; there are so many people that are looking to play, looking to put on shows, looking to discover new music. It’s a big part of why I moved here.”

While this summer’s Westcoast tour and festival shows are still in the works, this March you can catch Ghostly Hounds on tour in Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and Ottawa. For venues and schedules, visit them on Facebook or Bandcamp.

The Tall Shadows’ Rock Orchestra

(as published in Naked Underground Montreal March 11, 2016)

I Shall Not Be Moved, the new album from Tall Shadows, is like a beaming smile on a brilliantly awkward teenager: “There’s a lot of weird shit going on,” admits vocalist and songwriter Owen Fairbairn, “[There are] little time changes [and] lots of dissonant chords, but I want it to sound pleasing to the ear and kind of fun.” The group is successful, because tracks like “Freight Train,” adapted from the song by legendary North Carolina blues/folk musician Elizabeth Cotton, and “I’m Glad” are equal parts moody and playful. The latter, Fairbairn explains, “is really a cover for dark emotions.”

This muggy underworld comes from a rich mixture of experiences, because Fairbairn’s storytelling is as much about bars and breakups as monsters and myths. His love of folk music informs many of the tracks, bringing a sense of journey to the album. “I wrote “Behemoth Leviathan” on a raft in my head,” Fairbairn tells, “Me and a friend hitchhiked to Whitehorse, built a raft and took it to Dawson. It took about 12 days. I only brought 2 books so at some point I had to occupy my mind with something.”

Yet, the depth of Tall Shadows musical awareness is impressive. The title track was inspired by a classic gospel song, originally a testament to one’s unmoving faith in God. With the addition of rock bassist Matthew Dorfman and jazz drummer Brandon Goodwin, the group turned it into a swinging ditty about life and death complete with enchanting choral breaks.

While Tall Shadows are purely a rock group, they have a genuinely academic past. Goodwin is a Concordia grad and jazz ensemble player, and Fairbairn began his musical journey with the violin at age four. “I was a classical kid, so [with Tall Shadows] it’s kind of like I’m trying to write chamber music for a rock group. I write more like a composer than a songwriter.”

A continuously evolving trio, their album reflects their ever-changing influences. I Shall Not Be Moved has been released in downloadable and tape-cassette forms, but the group hesitates to call it a finished project. “The instrumental tracks on the album, “Cassels” and “Challies,” were originally incorporated to make thtall shadows sitting.jpge stage set work better,” Dorfman says, “so there’s a certain intrinsic link between the recorded music and the live performance in a way that there isn’t always with other bands. The live idea is recorded on the recording, and the recorded concept gets reflected live.”

As the album continues to develop on the stage and in the studio, the group is looking to add ever more influences to its sound. “I want it to eventually be like a little [rock] chamber orchestra” Fairbairn declares, “I like to have independent instruments doing different things that squeeze through the cracks and fit in between what I’m doing.”

The next addition to Fairbairn’s dream orchestra will be the cello and viola, natural choices considering his past. They are set to make an appearance at the Tall Shadows album re-launch April 16th at La Plante. Before then, you can catch them atCasa Del Popolo on March 13th. To preview the tracks off of I Shall Not Be Moved, check out their Bandcamp page.

‘SPEAK’ at the TEDx Gastown Women’s Conference

In late May of this year, Anja had the honour of performing her spoken word poetry at the TEDx Gastown Women’s Conference in Vancouver alongside many other talented, powerful women. Below is the video of her talk, ‘Speak’, in which, through poetry, she encourages women to talk about their bodies.

Why Addressing Men’s Pain is Key to Our Collective Healing.

As published in Elephant Journal on Aug 10, 2015

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When I was invited to perform at the TEDx Gastown Women’s Conference in Vancouver, the last thing I thought it would do is inspire me to help men.

I came to the Fearless conference in late May ready to speak about the female body and connect with strong women—entrepreneurs, writers, adventurers, healers, artists, and leaders—on women’s issues.

I left with something even more profound: a change of heart.

One of those entrepreneurs, Devon Brooks, co-founder of Blo Blow Dry Bar (a blow-dry-only hair salon with locations across North America), was the one who made it happen. In her talk, Brooks told the story of her rape at 18, being held at knifepoint in her early 20s, and her consequent PTSD diagnosis.

She also told a story called “Sunday Brunch” that shifted my understanding of what it means to heal from harassment and assault. Brooks explained to us in her talk how, one winter day, as she locked her car to join her husband and son for brunch, a group of men hurled vulgarities at her. Later, surprised to see them in the same restaurant, she approached them. “Rage would have been easier,” she told the audience.

Instead, she sat down with the men and asked: “Do you have any idea how you made me feel? I’m a rape survivor. When you say those things to me, I feel unsafe in my own body.”

In her words, Brooks carried the air of someone who, long ago, used to choose rage. Someone like me. Someone like most women. In my own speech, I talked about sexual harassment at a young age, the medicalization of the female body, and the need to speak openly.

You’re sexy!” the boys would yell at me on the playground, “I wanna have sex with you!”

I’d go home shaken, unsure of what the hell that even meant.

I’d gotten past rage by the time I’d written my poems, but I wasn’t sure what was next. Could it be that Devon was right?

I sat there stunned by her bravery, and unsure of my own.

I asked myself, “Can we really use love—not rage—to reach those men who just don’t ‘get it’?’”

If I’d asked Brené Browne, author of Daring Greatly, the book that inspired the TEDxGastown Women’s Conference, she would have told me that we have no other choice. In one chapter of her book on vulnerability, Browne discusses the difficulty men have with vulnerability. She says, “men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: do not be perceived as weak.” Cue the conquest mentality that leads some men to sexually pressure, assault, and harass women in an effort to prove their manliness.

In light of this, I think that Brené Browne would have re-worded my question to, “How can we use our own vulnerability to access men’s?” After all, like the schoolyard bully and his victim, the true root of the problem is not how they treat us, but how they see themselves.

Amongst our men today there is a gaping collective wound. We are facing a generation of men that is struggling to align itself with ever-changing social norms, while still being constricted by traditional expectations of what and how a man is supposed to be.

In her chapter on men, Browne explains that because they are so afraid of being seen as weak, men live in “boxes” of shame. One male participant affirms, “You only really have three choices. You spend your life fighting to get out [and] you always feel angry and you’re always swinging. Or you just give up and you don’t give a shit about anything. Or you stay high so you don’t really notice how unbearable it is.”

That’s not exactly an environment that encourages love, respect, and intimacy in relationships.

In the media, it doesn’t get better. In Hollywood, our male protagonists are still James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Don Draper—stoic, cool, panty-collecting “lone wolves”—the only kind of man men are allowed to be. We’ve yet to see a male protagonist who shows his children he loves them, listens as his wife talk about her feelings, express his own sadness and fear, and respect himself. These images simply don’t exist, and it’s a tragedy.

On the other hand, we are slowly seeing an increase in strong, independent, feminine female leads like in Mad Max and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games on the big screen. Our young men are falling short of both the impossible and outdated traditional standards of masculinity and women’s expectations of them as equals in the modern world where gay marriage is legal and Bruce just became Caitlin.

In my own research for a project called The Storied City: Montreal, a participant recounted to me how he’d broken down after a female friend pressed him, in frustration, to talk about his feelings after his divorce. “She was more equipped to talk about these emotional issues. I was not.  I lacked in training. I didn’t have that kind of connection with my own emotions. When we are growing up men are completely disconnected, or we are demanded to be disconnected, from our feelings. No crying, no vulnerability.”

Yet, in Daring Greatly, Brown writes, “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us [women] recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.” Women learn these images, too. That’s why it is absolutely vital that, like the damsel in distress, we all subvert harmful male stereotypes that make it difficult for men to be their true, loving selves.

So how do we do that?

In the spiritual systems of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., the balance between masculine and feminine is essential to growth and wellbeing. We all naturally have our own unique combination of these qualities. The problem is that in the West, we’ve separated ourselves into two genders, each of which is allowed to have but one set.

But over the past 150 years (in the West), women have beat this segregation.

We’ve gone through suffrage, the workforce, and abortion rights with the help of masculine qualities—qualities like assertiveness, forward motion, ambition, analysis, and independence. Heterosexual men haven’t had these same human rights-based struggles, so they need to be encouraged—not shamed or shunned—to express their emotions (not just anger), be nurturing, and speak about their struggles. We need to instill the feminine—receptiveness, emotional awareness, intuitiveness, and communication—in future generations so that our boys can grow up to be well-balanced  men who are spiritually strong and have no rhyme or reason to harm or disrespect others.

If we want to truly engage men at the heart level (which is where healing happens) we have to let them wobble, stumble, and even cry. If we can do this as a society, we will not only ensure the well being of boys and men, but the safety and joy of women and girls. Until the roots of male aggression—frustration, pain, a sense of failure, shame—are addressed, they will continue to be expressed at the expense of women.

Yes, rage is easier, and yes, we women still need to defend ourselves and fight for our rights, but if we really want to see a shift, let’s teach through vulnerability, if not through love itself.

You

You’re a fucking puddle.
I looked in you and saw my reflection
and then I fell in and drowned.
No one ever taught me to swim
in something so shallow.

You’re a fucking rhinoceros.
One of those white ones
that only come out for queens and goddesses.
I’m sitting there admiring you
and then you ram me through
the fucking heart.

You’re a fucking mini skirt.
Some people say
you make my legs look long
and my morals look questionable.

You’re the fucking ocean.
You remind me of everything I am.
You nurse me back to health
and laying my hands on your skin
I remember where I belong.

You’re a fucking credit card.
One with a bad interest rate
that I usually keep in a drawer somewhere
‘cause you’re too risky to keep in my pocket
but every once in a while I pull you out
and ignore the realities.

You’re a fucking cowboy.
You ride me like no one else can.

You’re a fucking sunset.
You make me cry and smile at the same time.
One more or less,
depending on the colours in your skies.

You’re a fucking God.
I get on my knees and pray to you.
Pray that you’ll fit in my throat
and that you’ll always stay with me because

You’re a fucking mountain.
One with steep cliffs and jagged edges
that split my hands when I try to hold you.
One with slippery slopes I bash my face on as I try
to move towards you.
One with crevasses that threaten to devour me
if I make     one     wrong    move.

You’re just too large a job
for any one woman.
You’re a treacherous

fucking climb.

To The Sailor Tying Knots in My Stomach

fetal

The whole day
I felt three million faces pressed up against mine.
The whole day
I smelled their rancid breath and
all their dirty words and fake ‘I love you’-s and
what they mutter when they’re alone.

My best friends were too heavy for me.
I shrunk under their words.
The muggiest day and the most melancholy sunset
and the winning game couldn’t get me to come outside myself.

So I spent the night curled up in the fetal position in bed throwing up and yelling at the sailor tying knots in my stomach:

‘Whenever you’re ready you can stop!’
‘Whenever you wanna stop is fine!’
‘Just please stop, okay?’ I begged him,
‘Because I’m losing my mind!’

He just kept on tying them,
one-two, one-two.
‘There’s a storm ahead,’ he explained,
and I sailed off into the night, half-whole.

My dreams, they kept telling me things like

‘Stay away from Courtney!’ (or Caroline, or whatever her name is)
and, ‘You’re lazy, you’re falling behind,’
and, ‘I’ll never stop being in love with you,’
and, ‘Your heart is weak.  You’ve gotta do yoga,’
and, ‘The cancer’s back,’
and, ‘I know you’ve always wanted to try it with a woman,’
and, ‘He fucked someone else tonight.’

But I just want to sleep.
I just want to breathe
without all these disturbances,
without all these people whispering to me
constantly.

Their mouths keep moving, though,
and I can’t cover

my ears.

Venus

venus

Venus flows from my fingertips like new rain down a dirty gutter.
She wipes away the mud on my legs from my many falls.

Venus brings
flowers into bloom
cats into heat
and lovers together
just to see me smile.

Just to see me laugh.

She throws herself off bridges so I can see her float,
her chiffon dress made love to by the
warm       strawberry         summer         wind.

I feel her as I’m standing there in Marin, on the edge of that California cliff,
looking down past the rock grass, thick and           juicing.
Down, towards the ocean, now foaming at the mouth.

I smell her hair, her fingertips,
the smooth warmth of her inner thighs in
the ocean spray kicked up by surfers
licking waves
under the bridge’s bend.

She tilts my head to one side and          whispers secrets in my ear as
I look up at heaven in the

muggy San Francisco sky.

And I feel her here in this small town
where all the men know how to touch me.
Know how to be in charge and
grasp my hips and
hold my face when they kiss me.

I feel her as she overcomes me,
as she cuts away my bridges and barriers and spins wool
of my wants            and desires.
I feel her as I moan and groan in a room packed with people
and devour every sweet curve
of this man’s neck
in this small town
where everyone talks.

In this small town where the men tan like the sweetest olives and
lay with you under the summer sun
on towels faded from years of laying
with crazy women

under the Balkan sun.

Signal When You Walk in the Street, Grandma!

Pedestrian Rights in a Car-Centered City: Pula, Croatia 

The riviera is finished and Tito’s Park looks immaculate, but something is still missing in Pula’s infrastructure: the sidewalk.  Pula has parking issues.  Trying to find a spot in this city, free or otherwise, is nearly impossible.  And yet, when exactly did parking on the sidewalk come into vogue?  This ridiculous behaviour is making a fool out of what is supposed to be an EU country.  The municipal government has skillfully ignored the issue, choosing to allow sidewalk parking at the cost of pedestrian safety and comfort.  Not only is this killing the atmosphere of the city, it is also creating real problems for the elderly, the disabled, children, and parents.

Almost 40% of Pula’s population is over 65, and a large percentage of those are elderly, and rely on the strength left in their legs to get around.  Jovo (83) and Vesna (80), are a good example.  Jovo had a stroke in the 80s that left him with a useless right arm, and a fall a few years ago that broke his hip and left him using a crutch.  Vesna recently had a knee replacement, and also uses a crutch through her long recovery.  For her, navigating a sidewalk full of cars on her way to the supermarket is tougher than it may seem.  ‘It’s not simple for me to go up and down [the sidewalk] with how I am, and with a cart, especially after my operation,’ she explains.  As if this weren’t issue enough, parked cars have Vesna walking alongside traffic at dangerous spots.  She walks down to her garden every morning to water her raddichio and encounters the same situation repeatedly.  ‘There’s only a small piece of sidewalk and it has to be clear for you to pass. They park on that piece and I really have to go to the end of the street,’ she comments, anger now in her voice. ‘You could get hit by a car coming from any direction!’  With her physical difficulties, jumping out of the way isn’t exactly an option.

Vesna and Jovo’s experiences point to a general ignorance of pedestrian and elderly rights.  A resident of her neighbourhood for over 40 years, Vesna says, ‘there’s a whole bunch of us with crutches here in Kastanjer.  They’ve parked over everything, those people who live there, and they have garages.’  Jovo comments on an oft-used argument against the normalization of parking practices, saying, ‘it’s an understandable thing that these streets were made who knows when, and that they’re not meant for today’s traffic, but if people park, just park on one side!’  With clearly no respect for pedestrians, seniors are left to fend for themselves.  Without the safety and comfort of a clear sidewalk, Vesna is left with the sad reality that, ‘we probably won’t be able to go out when we’re older’.

What Vesna and Jovo are expecting is already a reality for many people in this city.  People in wheelchairs, the blind, and amputees all have enormous hurdles in front of them just to get down the street safely.  Sure, there are paraplegics who roll their wheelchairs beside moving cars, and blind people who feel their way around vehicles parked across the crosswalk.  Most people, however, don’t risk it, and instead lose their independence and their freedom.

This doesn’t only affect the elderly and physically encumbered.  Not only is this affecting our parents, grandparents, and neighbours, but it is also affecting our children.  Frana, an early childhood educator at a local daycare, believes in outings as an important part of early childhood development, but faces huge dangers in doing so.  ‘In the moment when we come across a row of parked cars on the sidewalk, we have to go on the street,’ she says, emphasizing, ‘children are unpredictable at that moment, they get distracted, and there’re cars driving on the other side.’  With caretakers forced to lead children onto the street alongside irritable drivers, the route to the park turns into a hazard zone.  ‘Children are physically less visible to drivers’, says Frana, and thus more at risk of injury.  On the other end of the spectrum, though, are those who don’t even get to the street.  She explains woefully that, ‘some children who are smaller, or have special needs, or who are unpredictable often have to stay at the daycare in another group for supervision.’  These children lose out on stimulating activities like trips to the theatre and the cinema because, she says, ‘of the very risk that something might happen on the street.’  The very children who would most benefit from time outside, in public life, are losing to cars.

There are way too many vulnerable populations put at risk because of sidewalk parking.  Whether we want to admit it or not, the City of Pula, by allowing this behaviour, has blatantly spit on the basic rights of pedestrians.  The EU’s Declaration of Rights states,

‘The Union recognizes and respects the rights of the elderly to lead a life of dignity and independence and to participate in social and cultural life [as well as] the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence [and] social…integration.’

How does not having a real, accessible sidewalk fit in here, exactly?  While stricter parking laws and fines are a first step to ensuring the protection of human rights, the long-term solution to this issue requires more thought.  I spoke to a local urban planner, Nenad, about the issue and its solutions.  He suggests that, ‘we need to secure pedestrian routes, [because] a city lives off of pedestrians.  In combination with public transport, [that’s] the solution to all of these problems that we’re talking about now.’ His belief is that a tram, as Pula had in the early 1900s, is a way out of this car-addicted mess.  ‘Pedestrians go together with public transport,’ he says, explaining, ‘a pedestrian only wants to walk up to 5 minutes distance in their perception.  Now, in order that they don’t choose a car after that, they need to be offered a tram that will transport them quickly and simply.’  This isn’t about making driver’s lives difficult, though. ‘You can’t get rid of cars, and it’s not good to get rid of cars,’ Nenad clarifies, but, ‘the idea is to maintain various cultures here, too, not a monoculture.  There need to be buses, and trams, and cars, and buses, and pedestrians.’  It’s clear that Pula, and Croatia as an EU country, needs to start looking at the big picture.

In this time of economic crisis, civil issues like pedestrian rights often get brushed aside, but Nenad insists, ‘This is a topic of conversation.  Not everything is about surviving financially.  There are forums for this, and money.’  He points to civil society organizations, which have found their own funding and human resources for years now, as potential leaders.  As a new EU member country, Croatia also has the opportunity to make use of European funds.  Many city councils, businesses, and public interest groups have already used the EU funds for other ‘public good’ projects.  There are absolutely ways about this problem if Pula as a city is willing to evolve, and evolve it must.  The damage done to the lives of so many people by such a practically simple problem cannot be ignored any longer.  It’s time to make a change, because while the mayor is looking the other way, Vesna is risking her life to buy milk.

And There She Found Herself: An Ode to Barcelona

I’m alone in my French friend-of-a-friend’s living room.  Everyone’s at work except the roomate, who’s passed out, drunk, in the next room.  I’m not doing so hot, either.  My eyes crawl up towards the courtyard window and I catch the late morning sun heating up the building across from ours.  It looks like it’s enjoying it.  The air is still, silent.  The only thing that cuts it is a mother’s call and the child’s voice that follows.  My nostrils catch wind of the soury-sweet cooking –Peruvian, I think -creeping its way under the single window pane.  It smells good at first, but then mixes with the smell of last night’s cocktails, and I have to double over to keep everything down.

My love affair with Vermouth began last night.  Was there ever a thing so delicious, so chic, so cheap?  I slouch around the apartment painting on my eyebrows and cursing the natural light, taking frequent breaks to munch on the half-bar of dulce de leche chocolate that graces the crumb-filled kitchen counter.  I wonder if I’m overdressed or underdressed or if my assortment of grey tones isn’t quite cutting it here in this city of color.  I pull on my black ankle boots and walk out the door.

There are three great mysteries in Barcelona: doors, floors, and elevators.  As I walk out of the ‘second floor’ apartment on the fourth floor of the building, I enter an elevator just big enough for exactly two miniature pinschers to sit down in.  I find myself spinning around to keep calm, but that only makes me lose oxygen, and by the time I reach the lobby, I’m sweating.  Using both hands to pull the front door from its frame, I burst out onto Caller Copons.

Stepping out onto a Barcelona street is like stepping into the heart, the pumper, the very life-giver of the world.  Copons welcomes me with that Barcelona smell, something like dried fruit and cobwebs.  To my right, a window holds a poster that reads ‘No es el crisis, es el SISTEMA!’ ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘there is nothing more refreshing on a hungover Monday early afternoon than anarchism on your doorstep.’  This is the Barcelona I know.  This is the Barcelona that changes me, that dazzles me, that nurtures me.  This is the Barcelona that inspires me at every new curve in the road and every glance taken backwards over my shoulder.  This is the city where my spirit flies, where it sings.

My hangover is old news and there’s a new pep in my step.  I pass through La Boqueria, grab a kiwi juice, and make my way across to Placa Real.  The Royal Square.  Leaned up against a fountain, I suck the juice down in the sun.

Three chocolate-haired boys run up beside me, barely taller than the fountain’s concrete edge.  They throw their arms up and over it, trying to reach the pennies on its bottom.  ‘Mira! Mira!’ one of them whispers, excitement spewing out of his voice.  His eyes droop down toward his chin, giving him a sadness much older than his years. ‘La mujer!’ he yells, pointing above them, and the other two look up at Venus pouring water out of her chalice.  ‘Wow!’ they breathe, their mouths left open.

‘Murat! Ven aca!’

A group of hijab’d woman stroll down beside the fountain, their voices moving quickly from mumbles to shrieks to laughter.  The quickness of their movements and the sun in my eyes make the lilacs and roses on their scarves dance as if alive in the wind.

The boys are still trying to reach the pennies.  Their faces contort every time their raw armpits slide against the fountain’s edge.  ‘Ven!’ the woman in lilacs yells, and the boys give up on their pennies and race ahead towards the street.

With my kiwi juice finished and the boys gone, I’m left with the warmth of the concrete underneath me and the lack of a desire to stand.  And then my scratched-up nokia rings.

It’s Brent.  He’s in town today, a stopover from Vancouver before he takes off to India.  He tells me to meet him now at some hostel near Placa Catalunya.  In honesty, I only half-looked at the map before I left the apartment, both hoping that I’d know my way around and loving that I knew I wouldn’t.  By the time I wake from my sun-induced paralysis and actually get up, I’m already ten minutes late and, against my instincts, rushing (this is a Canadian friendship). I rip around a corner and scurry down some street somewhere in what must be Raval judging by the Filipina accents on the schoolgirls yelling down the street and the Indian women wrapped in saris watching their kids from the park bench.  After asking for directions to La Rambla from a Filipina woman with a puff hairdo and a laundry basket on her hip, I slide down another street.  Here, on this street with no name, parents rush with smiles on their faces to gather their children from a building that could’ve just as well been a museum or a gallery or a national treasure, its charcoal façade teeming with the loveliest of ivies.  Poor, rich, light, dark children spill out, laughing, onto the cobblestone.  And the parents!  It is a poorly kept secret that people never get ugly in Barcelona.  They never look tired or lame or like they’ve given up.  Te ojuro.  And the style.  Oh, the style!  Suede and leather and brown-on-black, prints, florals, corals!  And oh, don’t get me started on the Desigual.  I’m telling you, it’s the fountain of youth. 

Incredibly sexy men much too old for me to be lusting after come to gather their children: chatty girls with easy smiles and spirits that float around them, too beautiful to stay in such a tiny package.  These girls are the heart of Barcelona, girls who talk with a self-knowledge and grace normally reserved for their mothers, girls who walk with their chins up and their hearts splayed across their chests.  You can’t take a walk through the streets of Barcelona and ignore that this city is a city of girls.  This is a city of magic, of wonder.  A friend once said to me, ‘children are born into this city alive and dreaming.’

Leaving the well-dressed men behind (well, one can never really leave them behind), I find La Rambla again and dart my way through fresh-faced tourists and little dogs and people dressed way too warm for the weather on their city bikes.  I can see Brent across the street by the metro station, already antsy, asking some security guard for directions.  I wave at him from the other side, but he’s too stoic in his search.  The light turns green and I run across the street to him before he has a chance to get away.  We hug, and it’s nice to see someone from my former life.

His hostel is a dim-lit, glass-on-metal joint too hip to call itself a hotel.  We melt into the kind of low-seated armchairs that make me want to write.  ‘So, what the hell are you doing in Barcelona?’ he asks me, and, over an overpriced jug of sangria I start to realize –no offense Brent – that I’ve never felt so far from Vancouver, and never so at home.

The Mumbler

I’m thinking: you’re like a ham sandwich.  I’d throw you sideways for a forkful of that Chinese kid’s lunch.  The Mumbler takes my hand and says, ‘I want you by my side forever.’

I don’t think we’re on the same page.  And maybe I meant spam sandwich.

He puffs on his ninth cigarette and slouches so that his gut fluffs out and his jeans tug tight across his legs.  On our second date he told me, ‘a man without a belly is like a sky without stars.’  I got it confused and told my mom he said it was ‘like a bird without wings.’  She laughed at the original and at the mistake.

He puffs on his cigarette and looks at me and all I can think is: the same honey brown as the dog’s eyes, gathering.  That’s what I wrote one night when I let myself believe it worked.  I look at those eyes now.  They toss my gently side to side like his hands used to, breaking away the tightness I was trying to hold onto. ‘I can’t have anything serious with you,’ I tell him.  ‘You know best what’s good for you,’ he throws back at me, looking away to blow out the smoke while he grabs my thigh and leans down in the boxy booth to put his head on my shoulder.

Yesterday he showed up stinking like he does now, like stale wine.  He showed up with some kind-hearted fisherman, a drunk. A stocky man with French-braided hair longer than a Punjabi girl’s, belly stuffed into a vested black suit, and the folds of his neck suffocating underneath a flowered brooch the size of a Yukon potato.  As soon as I sat down he tried to gift me his crushed velvet scarf.  I changed the topic, recognizing his attempt to make up for The Mumbler’s transgressions.   I was wet and cold, my wind-whipped hands throbbing and my feet barely there in my soaked leather boots.  I could see that the Mumbler was happy to see me and that he was ashamed and that he hadn’t showered or slept in days.  I sat with them while the fisherman repeated his stories and I avoided The Mumbler’s eyes.  Before leaving, I shoved the scarf back to the old man, lying, ‘don’t worry, he’ll buy me something to make up for it.’  When I got up to leave The Mumbler followed me and said, ‘I know you’re disappointed, I can see it in your eyes.  When I fuck up I make it up threefold, I swear.’  I could feel the alcoholic heat of his inflamed skin as he rested his forehead on my face, now turned the other way.  I didn’t know what to say so I mumbled, ‘my ride is waiting’, but he grabbed me and pressed, ‘I really love you’.  And I believed it.  I was relieved, though, as I ran out into the storm, the rain and wind whipping away the smell of warm beer and cigarillos so that by the time I reached the car only the bitter taste on my tongue was left.

Now, sitting in this café , he tells me that the fisherman has connections.  He tells me between mumbles that the fisherman offered him a job as a masseur on a cruise ship. A big one.  ‘Shit, that’s amazing!’ I push him now.  ‘You gotta do that, you’d be crazy not to.’  He says that he’d rather do it next winter, when I’m not here.  Fuck.  This red faced, alcohol-skinned man in working boots is the epitome of what kills me about people here.  They’ve got no dreams.  Or, rather, they have dreams, but they keep them dreams.  They sit in their café of choice with the friends they’ve known from childhood and puff out their chests as they spin stories about how they’re going to inherit millions from their mom’s aunt’s long lost cousin, or how their pizza business is totally about to blow up.

Three days later, we’re in the lobby of my apartment.  I’m un-makeup’d and sort of sick and hoping no one will pass by.  His hands are gripping my face as he asks me if he can kiss me.  I’m thinking about his hands. His hands aren’t beautiful.  They’re stocky and stubby.  His fingers narrow into points that make me think, ‘murderer’s thumb.’  But they’re strong.  I say ‘not this time,’ but he pulls me in anyways and kisses me, and kisses me.  I give him the twenty Euros he came to borrow.  He says he’ll pay me back in a few days.  I know I’ll never see him again, so I smile. I watch him through the staircase window as he zips up his jacket mid-stride, cigarette hanging from his mouth.

The Parking Lot

parking lot

Stories overlap

and my eyes can’t separate
yesterday from yesteryear.

And as I look out at this parking lot
with all its grey and nothingness
I see it so full of everything I’ve ever known:

Over there, alongside that fence
-the one that overlooks the train tracks-
over there, by that beat up black ford
is where I first heard about the two sisters
and shapeshifters and snow.

I remember looking up at those mountains I’d always hated
and suddenly I couldn’t hate them anymore.

And out here in front, by the paybooth,
He used to pick me up on his bike
dressed in leather and ugly jeans
and I’d hyperventilate in my helmet
before we left.

Now every time I hear an engine
I look around for long hair and a relationship
that never happened.

I’ve crossed this place a million times:

drunk
sober
bruised
breaking.

Over here, to the right
is where all of us had beer
and that burger I threw up years later
back when we used to talk about education
with all those revolutionaries we never became.

I took a picture by that fence once
for a boyfriend I left behind.
I turned out fat, and never sent it
but I still look at it sometimes.
If not for love then for all the hope
in the background.

I stand here and watch as people shuffle in and out of their metal boxes,
coming and going.

They cut through my relationships and
drive over my education and
run across my memories,
unaware of all the stories they’re stepping on.

Between

sex

An early afternoon pick-me-up.
A hold-me-in-the-night-time-‘cause-it’s-too-cold-to-hang-on-to-this-body-alone
lover.

A grab-my-face-and-kiss-me grab-my-ass-and-lust-me
kind of man.

You
kiss me rough            too rough
smear my mascara under my eyes
so it shows that I’ve been loving you
instead of sleeping.

Eat my lipstick before I smack my lips together
turn burnt brick into bleeding salmon.

You play with me while I’m trying to sleep.
I can’t decide whether I want you
or wanna cut you off
from my hips and ass and the curve in my side.

And as I’m leaning to the latter
you rise with the tide
of the blankets pulled over us and
pull words out of your jacket pocket.

You throw them at me,
off to wash dishes in my cold house
in your underwear
and socks.

And there I find you.
Between the lines.

I find the you between the drunken fighting
and the stupid jokes
and too much talk.

The you in your grip, in your honey eyes,
the ones that water when I smile at you too long.
The you that I could love,
whose back I could hold and who I could make love to in the night
after eating our end of the month meal:
pepper, tuna, and pasta (in that order).

The you I can see years from now beside me
writing        painting         smoking        drinking wine
late into the evening
or early in the morning
(whichever you prefer).

Do You Believe in God?

She says, ‘Do you believe in God?’
I think, ‘Do I believe in God?’

Well, yeah, but
not that kind of God.
Not that old-man-in-the-sky kinda God
no not that Judeo-Christian God
no not that pray-by-the-bedside-on-bent-knee kinda God
or that pie-in-the-sky, heaven-and-hell kinda God.
No not that church kinda God or that good book kinda God
No-
I don’t believe in that kinda God.

She repeats, ‘But do you believe in God?’
‘Do I believe in God?’

Well, no, not that sinners and saints kinda God,
or that back-in-the-country kinda God, no
not even that midnight mass, it’s tradition kind of God.
No, I don’t want to believe in that kinda God.

She repeats, ‘But do you believe in God?’

We’re standing at the bus stop at the lower loop and the mid November wind is cutting through my wool and leather gloves.
I look down at my hands, trying to find an answer between my fingertips:

God?
God was never a word in my house.
6 years old-
my mother tells me ‘you can believe in whatever you want’
while she hides the tarot cards between my comic books so my dad doesn’t see them.

We’re watching the Grammy’s –big family night –and some singer comes up onto the stage and thanks God- thanks God for the gift.
And my dad laughs.
And I remember my mom’s words: ‘you can believe in whatever you want’
while she comes home everyday from work and sings ‘Life is hard, life is hard’.

She asks me again: ‘And? Do you believe in God?’

I take my wool and leather gloves off with my teeth and press my raw hands against my heart and breathe, ‘yes. I believe in God.’

I believe in the God of pick-me-ups and ground-me-downs,
of hours spent writing out conversations with someone much
wiser and much more poetic than myself.
I believe in the God of hearing the answer inside me before I’ve finished asking the question.
The God of the red dirt road to my grandma’s chickens and potatoes and chard,
the neighbours’ dog running after me just as the wind turns and I’m left standing on the broken stone wall, summer’s end calling clouds and rain.
I believe in the God of seeing God in a melon, yellow as the hiding sun.
The God of visions, of caresses received, but not felt.
I believe in the God of loving myself,
and of being my own.

Yes. I Believe in God.

Thirst-Quencher

thirst quencher

Old News!
Turn the page!

I’ve been upstaged
again and again
by some story
I still don’t understand.

Cause you, you’re like some made-for-TV movie
I know is shit,
but month after month
I keep lingering on.

You’ve run me up trees
over hills
and out of town.
It seems that some days,
you just can’t get rid of me fast enough, can you?

‘Cause to you,
I’m nothing but a bottle of something
you keep in your pocket
for when you get thirsty:
a swig of whiskey for the weary,
for those trying to forget
what it means to eat.

Well, I’m coming to the conclusion that

I will not
be your thirst-quencher
your belt-undoer
your liquid courage
anymore.

No, I will not be
the smooth burn down your throat
the cloud in your head or
that sick feeling in your stomach
the morning after.

No, I will not be thrown in your pocket for later.

I will not be the cleaner of your wounds.
I will not be your friend maker,
your atmosphere creator.

I will not be your occasion
to say things you don’t mean and
I sure as hell won’t be helping you
pick up women anytime soon.

I will not be thrown in your pocket for later.

So just knock me over already,
just tell me it’s done.
Let me spill back into the earth
where I came from.

What It Feels Like When I’m Dancing

flamenco

Whether

I’m locked into another, hand wrapped around his shoulder and
our elbows glued, my right hand pressed into his, holding my form yet remembering to be soft be soft be soft

and I’m whipping my hips as he moves me back and forth
or left to right in the cumbia
and he spins me and spins me and spins me
until that moment when I completely let go
when I lose all control and
I hope that he can catch me -I know that he can catch me- and he does.

I drop into his arms, my back curving and
unwind my arm downwards over my head,
my wrist twisting my hand
like the wind does a leaf falling in autumn.

Or

I’m out on that
every-other-Wednesday, my elbow locked to Leo’s and
I have so little education but I trust him (trust him)
and trust myself (myself).

So I follow him when he guides me in that 8-step and
twists me around and around.

Meanwhile, my boots are flippin’ my feet up and down
I can hardly stay on the ground
I’m jumpin’ (I’m jivin’)
I’m getting carried away by that dapper young guy’s voice
(the one who plays the clarinet when he’s not singing).

And as Leo stops me by his hip and throws his feet out in those
oh-what-are-they-called- flat-footed-tap-steps (you know what I’m talking about)
I do it too and we make music under the music with our boots
and then we’re spinning again and I’m floating
and the sweaty joy of the night leaves my shirt soaked and my face aglow.

Or
I’m there at the hall once every 4 months
and the Orkestar is playing and I’m hop-hop-hopping
I’m turning the kolo into some celtic dance
my arms are out up above my head
and my shoulders are popping,
index finger and thumb held together like I’m playing some kind of balkan maracas.

And then they play Bubamara.

When that Romany singer drops down to the ground, quiet
(the band’s already out in the crowd by now,
I find myself somewhere between the accordion and the trumpet)
and covers her head with that ladybug hat, I drop down too
shim-shim-shimmying my hips to the sound in the silence.

And then I hear her.

Djindji rin dji buba maro cik ni je shu zi je aj de mo re koj romesa!

And I throw my body up to the rafters and jump! Break and catch myself.
I toss my head back and looking there I think –every time – this is pure joy.

Whether I’m swinging, smile plastered on my face
or busting out any and all of the flamenco I can remember,
hair from my black wig slipping by my clapping hands and heart concentrated on the pain pouring out of the
rum-pa-ta-pa-rum-rum
rum-pa-ta-pa-rum-rum
rum-pa-ta-pa-rum-rum
of my feet against the granite floor,

I am so incredibly whole.

Fields of Lavender

I’ve barely left the house this week.
The weather’s cold and there are realists outside.

They creep in and out of bars and cafés like stowaways,
whispering, bumping up against each other in the stale, cold, heat.
While fields of lavender await them
they sleep in the swamps and dusty corners of their hearts.
They grip to tears like weights of lead -not oceans of forgiveness-
and inhale the stench of their long-gone dreams
like babies, dead-born
delivered by mothers, fathers, lovers, and friends.

Witnesses (The Audience)

I crave witnesses to my madness.
Watchers.

People to hold my heartaches and joys and nostalgia.
To stuff them in their pockets and purses and palms
like rolls stolen at a hotel breakfast.
To hold them gently, like dying flowers-
ugly and beautiful all at once.
I seek overseers.
People to watch as I do my dance
as I sway side to side, broken and beaten at times.
To hold me up and my hair back when
all that junk from years past comes spewing out.
I desire holders.
People to push the walls back as they close in on me.
To hold the doors shut and the lights on.
People to keep my feet on the ground
and my heart in the sky.
I seek seers:
mirrors to show me
me.