Friday, March 31, 2006

Notes from the 19th century

Today I found a poet's words on the street. A poet I studied years ago, but today, whose words made more sense than ever. I give you these words from Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memorium. Just lying there, abandoned and dirty around the edges, perhaps lost in a moment of hurried frenzy. Why was I the one to notice them, to stumble upon them? I give you these words, words that have, undoubtedly, brought comfort to many others. Is this not the soul of poetry?

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope...
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds...
That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess--
...No, like a child in doubt and fear;
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying, knows his father near;
And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands;
And out of darkness came the hands
That reach through nature, molding men.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson In Memorium

Monday, March 27, 2006

Word, yo

Found this little game on a friend's blog. After having entered various versions of my name, this is the definition I liked best. Ha, the advantage of being human, being able to choose thine own definition. Poor words, they have to take whatever they're given...

Jennifer Anne Ward --
Like in nature to a kangaroo
'How will you be defined in the dictionary?' at

The title of this post is dedicated to none other than Mark Barber himself.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hyperthymestic for a day?

I read on Al Daily tonight that someone has the opposite disorder as me, with my inveterate forgetfulness. A woman has been discovered who claims she can remember everything, in astonishing detail, down to the weather, day of the week, and events of random previous dates throughout history. I have often coveted this ability, or at least some scaled-down version of it. I begun to wonder what it would be like to live this way, neck-deep in the floods of past images, conversations and thoughts.

I am often frustrated at my lack of ability to recall learned data. I am sometimes left feeling like my education was a waste of time and money, yielding a vague set of proclivities and the rough sketch of character, but no
actual, reliable, cold, hard facts. Why don't we come with instruction manuals? Fig. 1: How the memory card functions. For optimal performance . . . blah blah blah. Oh to hear a theory or notable historical figure referenced and not have to say "Yeah, I wrote a paper on that once." Which is to say: A previous me knew something substantial about that there thing. But if I've learned it, shouldn't it be in there somewhere? I just can't seem to get to know the little elf inside my head, the one with the the tag on his desk: RECALL DEPARTMENT. He runs around at will, dragging in things I thought I'd left stuck securely under my desk in grade four. He's a stubborn little bastard, refusing to comply when I want access to something of beauty or meaning, beckoning me from eight years ago . . .

But then I got to thinking, would I want to remember everything? My late grandfather had this compulsion for labelling. I think we still have a couple of those old labellers lying around our family cottage up in Gimil, with their thick orange-brown plastic and the companion letter puncher, leaving a white indent. He had everything labelled, from his clothing drawers, to every tool in the old shed, perfumed by the gas from the derelict mower. How was his memory, I wonder. But I do not remember anymore. I too have labelled my life, in meticulously-kept journals. (My beloved storage locker on Higgens Avenue can testify to this, bursting with words behind her plywood walls.) My years have been documented like my grandfather's things, and still, my memory suffers to find footholds. What makes us remember, what makes our memory serve us well?

Perhaps I should be more grateful for my selective memory. For the filter that keeps back the sludge of past hurts, old and stale regrets, dusty days and mangled intentions. But I think I could survive those, if only allowed past the NO TRESPASSING signs into all the good stuff, into the smell of the rolled-up slide show screen, and hot oil-popped popcorn on the stove.

I think I'd like to live one day with a case of this woman's hyperthymestic disorder. Just one day would be all I'd need. Just one adventure into a saturated past. Clear, bright memory, like columns of light piercing the thick blankets of forgeting, making them like transluscent rags. Moments dripping with joy and laughter, like honey. But then maybe I'd be too sad that those moments were not here with me now. Maybe that is why I do not remember well, because I am already far too nostalgic. Perhaps the things we think flaws are the very things that keep us alive.

Maybe I'd go crazy if I remembered everything. Maybe forgetfulness is a little fortress that's been built around my heart.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Two concerts

Some pictures I took last night at the Blarney Stone pub down on Carrall Street. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Madriatic Woods at their second only show ever. I was honored to witness an up-and-coming Vancouver band show off their stuff. Let me know what y'all think of my photo editing. The red-orange glow of the room just needed to be enhanced.

At the break, a few of us were standing outside the pub, when a street musician decided to grace our presence with his guitar and vocal stylings. He played "Whole Lotta Love" for us, his long black braids swaying around his face, contorted in an expression of pure passion, eyes closed, intent on creating something for us. It was like a downtown Eastside private concert, just him and us, standing there on one of the most long-abondoned corners in North America. His voice echoed longer than than Led Zep's own front man, and his soulful rendition was more moving than an old Negro spritual, sung as the backdrop to an escape from slavery, sung in protest of an alien, white version of Christianity.

Wherever that man ends up, I hope he keeps on singing.

The Madriatic Woods Back-up Divas

Ben himself

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Sometimes I look back on previous versions of myself and pity those who knew them.

Most times while looking at current ones I wish I could see them from the outside.

Oftentimes I just wish there were a better word for sorry. One slightly more poignant, a little heavier on the tongue, a little less emptied out of meaning.

An ode to new weirdnesses

Listening: I do dig a certain girl -- Devendra Banhart
Mood: Fugitive

I love music writing. Whether it be a particularly good review in Exclaim or Pitchfork, an overheard conversation, or a friend who can put someone's sound into perfect, provocative prose, I reminded how music and writing go together, like celery and peanut butter. (Ok, I won't quit my night job!)

I remember discovering the University of Manitoba's radio station, (while robotically labelling millions of tax returns, back when I worked at Revenue Canada) and being truly amazed at some of the DJs' abilities to reference, to ramble, to make their writing resonate with the same magic of the music itself. They were gods of some underground religion of coolness. They were the ones who saved me through that monotony, the ones who made the fluorescent lights and Transcona trash-talk somewhat tolerable. They later became my friends. It was through this radio station and other less-tuned-into ones that I discovered good music. To them and to others who have mentored and recommended and dragged me out to unforgettable shows, I am forever thankful.

One of the best compliments I've ever received is as follows: "Jen you are a musical lexicon." Thanks, David. For some reason it is really important to me, like good coffee and black Uniball pens, to have a consistent dose of new and live music in my audial diet.

When I come across a description of music, or a name for a new and emerging genre that fits better than a pair of old jeans, I am truly pleased. These moments are memorable, like when I read a review of Sigur Ros that used the term glacial post-rock. I still can't shed that shimmering image of what a glacier should sound like if it decided to sing the Magnificat. So when a friend with very good taste introduced me to Joanna Newsome, pictured above, I immediately resorted to the tantalizing task of celebrating her voice with words. My friend won, saying she sounded simultaneously like a very young girl and an old woman. I haven't heard enough yet to form my own witty opinions, but I came across the BBC's Collective Magazine's review, wherein I discovered Journalist David Keenan's term for a new genre: The New Weird America. And I love it. Devendra Banhart, another one of my recent discoveries, fits into this cave carved out by some of our era's most skillful songsters. The term is a call-back to the stylings of Old Weird America's darlings, such as early Bob Dylan.

Music is like literature. Does calling it American (or Canadian or British) mean anything, other than that the writer calls that particular nation home? Does it have anything to do with content, style, or in this case, sound?

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to see Spirit of the West live. Though I don't listen to them much anymore, SOTW were instrumental in my musical formation. They were one of the first bands I saw live. They were one of the first "not-specifically Christian" bands whose lyrics and melodies seemed more full of glory and grace than any packaged Christian pop group's ever did. They opened their Commodore Ballroom show with Canadian Skye, a building, soaring ode to Canada that would put Great Big Sea to shame. “Here’s where I feel it, funny how it’s, funny how it’s here…” I couldn’t help but dance. By the time they’d hit two of my favourites, “D for Democracy” and “Political,” I was transported immediately to grade 9, to sitting on tour buses with choirs and bands, to holding my little yellow walkman, to my few kisses that meant anything, to feeling undoubtedly free. I was surprised that I still knew every single word.

Sometimes going to see a show is a better investment for me than buying the album, if the choice comes to that. What do all of you connoisseurs out there think?

Tomorrow I am going to see a friend’s band play. The last time I saw him he described his music as “Dracula Folk.” We’ll see if my neck gets good and bitten this time around. I’d better bring some garlic.

So here’s to all those struggling artists, to those impassioned collectives of soul and raw ability to articulate our most profound disappointments and hopes.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Egomaniac slide show

The pictures seemed to go over well last time (hooray for you faithful commentors!) so I decided to throw some more on. I've recently purchased a digital camera and can now share a bit more of my life with all of you! (It also helped that I had a resident photographer visiting.) So here's a peek at how I spend my days out on the West Coast...

"There used to be a bridge here!"

even bikes need some lovin'

gazing out over False Creek

the gardens at UBC

Catching a downtown sunset

sitting on the driftwood

Breathing in the cedars

Sippin a JJ Bean java at Granville Market

Well how did this one sneak in! Ok I promise, no more cheesy pictures. I couldn't resist, the composition on the left side was just so exquisite...

Sometimes just the presence of another person can be a vacation in itself, a time of rest, a time for renewal and a break from the regular patterns of our life. Sometimes you don't need exotic foods or a plane ticket, for another soul is enough to grab you by the wrists--as if you were a child swinging between grown-ups on a warm summer night's walk--and throw you to the sky. Monday faces me with promise and the gift of chosen solitude; with words to be written and plans to be settled. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said that Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. Mondays would then be the first few pages, possessing the power to set you on your course for the week, to reel you in or turn you off, to push you with gusts of possibility forward into all those days not yet lived. Enjoy it folks.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I've had little time to post...

because what I like to do the most,

is walk round English Bay with Mark

just before the world grows dark,

then waking to a rare clear west coast noon,

and later ski beneath the moon.

So all my time's been taken up-- and more
by candle light moments by the shore

and bike rides through the cherry trees.

So please re-join me soon to find,
more posts of a slightly different kind,
for until then you'll find me glad
to spend my days with this here lad!

Cheesy poetry by Jen

Friday, March 03, 2006

One Uplifts the Other in Learning

Some of my favorite notions of friendship come from C.S. Lewis. Yeah, he's the one that wrote the recently-popularized Narnia books, which, up until Disney got ahold of them, were these secret chests of imagery I felt I was part of an elite few to know. When not writing books about children, Clive had some fascinatingly profound things to say:

"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival."

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, "What! You too? I thought I was the only one!"

This morning I got up to a rather normal day off in the life of Jen, which usually consists of a numerous amount of "you shoulds..." piling up at my feet. "You should" bike the trails at UBC. "You should" go running. "You should" finish that article for the heritage gardening site. "You should" go grab an americano at your favorite Vancouver coffee shop, and visit your friends there. And so I did.

There seems to be a trend developing. I almost have Fridays off, and I almost always venture down Commercial Drive for a coffee. Last week I started up a conversation about cameras with the man sitting next to me on the Turks patio. Turns out he's a freelance writer in from Japan, and he recommended a great writing website for me to check out. (Thanks, wherever you are!) Today, while waiting in line for Kyle's perfectly pulled espresso shot, I ran into Kat, from my salsa dancing classes back in December. She's a pretty cool cat, pardon the pun, and all you locals should check out her concert review blog. (Guess who just figured out the quick way of doing active links? Oh, me me!) I love days that surprise you. Days that make you say with conviction what I said over the counter moments prior: "Yeah, me and Life are getting along pretty well these days." The hours melted into hours, leaving coffee-stained rims on the metal table; and I was reminded by her of why I write, why I moved here, why I am happily unsettled right now, and of the sweetness of instant connection.

I don't know why I am so surprised when I meet people so much like me. I mean, there's only so many ways a person can be, right? They are infinite, yet limited. By processess of socialization or molding or whatever term you may give it, our "raw matter" is shaped into the creations we become. Meeting someone who is a lot like you--liking the colour green, with similar music tastes, reading the same book(s), a "dabbler" of the many rather than honer-of-the-few. . . can startle you into the notion that somewhere along the chain of each of your development something happened to produce these twin qualities. It's like looking into a semi-fogged mirror; certain things remain clear while others are completely blocked out, unknown, underexposed.

Our little table brought Brandy, Lara, and Jen over, (a girl I had Thanksgiving dinner with in October and haven't seen since!) and I was reminded by Lara how Lent can become just like Valentine's day, Christmas, and New Years. A time where we are sort-of "forced" to love, to give, to resolve. Shouldn't we be striving for these things at all times and in all places? Shouldn't we always be looking to rid ourselves of the trappings that hold us? So, as a result of this conversation, I've decided to do a week-by-week Lenten journey. Each week I'm going to give up something different. This way I will achieve a greater breadth of renunciation, a greater range of asceticism. (Extravagant of me, I know.) Starting today, it's no alcohol. (Strategically placed during the week before Mark comes. I like drinking beer with him. . . ) It won't really be that hard, but I'm sure there will be times I'll just have to be strong. Like this weekend, for example! We'll see what no no's next week brings. I'm open to suggestions, or if you want to live your giving-ups vicariously through me. (This could get dangerous!)

Tonight's Gathering meeting is on Time. I just finished listening to Dee Carstensen's Time in preparation. For those of you not familiar with her angelic harp-laced folk melodies, here's a snippet of the chorus: Time gets me wound up like a clock inside my head/Time gets me spinning my own wheat/and when I think that there ain't one more inch/this worn-out heart can give/Time's gonna teach me how to live/ Time gets you wound up like a clock inside your head/Time gets you spinning your own wheat/and while you're losing what you've found you're finding out that's what you need/Time's gonna teach you how it feels.

So back to the theme of friendship which I somehow lost along the way, I'll finish with an observation I wrote last Friday in my new Moleskin journal (the legendary journal of Hemingway, Chatwin, and Van Gogh . . .good omens, think I):

The concept of friendship is stil unbelievable to me. The miracle of progression from acquaintance to mutual enjoyment to die-hard loyalty leaves me breathless. Looking around at pairs of companions, I wonder about the time those two chattering mothers, pushing their strollers now on a sunny afternoon, had only a cursory knowledge of the other. There is a light that breaks through, exposing our cracks, when friendship is found. We cannot plan for it. We can scarcely name it. We do not know when it will drop down on us. All we can do is raise our hands to the sky--perhaps the most honest gesture towards the Divine we can manage--and say "thank you."

(Yeah, and picture is again taken from Jordan Bent. I just really really like him. Entitled One Uplifts the Other in Learning. Acrylic on canvas. Sweet.)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Opposite of Hallelujah

Listening to: “The Opposite of Hallelujah.” Jens Lekman

I used to have a piece of calligraphy on my fridge, given to me by my friend Laura. It said "Enough is a Feast." It always made me stop and think before I opened the fridge. Well, usually anyway.

This quote came back to me yesterday, on the first day of Lent. This year was different than last, in many ways. For one, I spent Shrove Tuesday (the night before the season of Lent begins) as Mardi Gras this year. That’s French for “Fat Tuesday.” There were no St. Margaret’s pancakes for me this year. Instead, only some wobbly jello-shooters and cheesy decorations.

There’s something about nights of “forced partying” that really bug me. Of course, I often partake of New Years’ Eve festivities, birthdays, and other celebrations—they are part of our shared humanity. So I guess I’m torn on the issue. I’ve never really celebrated Mardi Gras until last year, where I flipped pancakes for about 2 hours, and then went out dancing at the Die Maschine (in Winnipeg) afterwards, reeking of grease. It was a strange experiencing both versions of the pre-Lenten festivities. The Church's and the culture's. In a basement in Wolseley there were a bunch of people chowing down on fat and carbs. Laughing and talking and joking. Later at the bar there were line-ups of people downing rums and whiskeys and ales, laughing and talking and dancing. They were both wonderful celebrations of being alive, but because we don't have to deal with scarcity, perhaps we can't possibly appreciate true abundance.

I didn’t start observing Lent until a few years ago. This was a gift later given to me by the Anglican tradition, my doorway into the widely-observed Church Year. Up until then, Easter would come upon us like a great storm, startling us like a loud clap of thunder, unintroduced. All of a sudden there would be food and lacy dresses and hats. Chocolate and hunts and bunnies and bustling grandmothers. It was all so wonderful and fresh, different than Christmas in its sunny promises, smelling of rich earth and lilies.

But what is feasting without fasting? What is celebration of life without the mourning of death? How can we know love without loneliness? Fullness without emptiness? The opposite of hallelujah is an interesting though. Thanks to Swedish musician Jens Lekman for that one.

I want to give something up this year. I really do. I have never done it successfully, and I believe it’s important to fully grasping the solemnity of the death of Christ. I mean, if we can’t take forty days out of our year to sit with the emptiness he felt in the dessert, the horrible paradox of his humanity and divinity, what does that say about us? If only to fully understand our own humanity, perhaps Lent can focus us away from the material by highlighting our very reliance on the material. We are both material and spiritual beings. We grasp at the things of this world-- carved in wood, etched in stone, housed in barrels--so that we can begin to seek out our own identities. We also cling to the non-material, relationships, memories, our ideas of self and God. And we do things like write and fling paint at canvas and run marathons and cook dinners, all in order to understand. To dream a little more of what it might mean to be human.

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.” –Anne Lamott.

I’ve been struggling with what to give up. What would have the most profound effect on me? I’ve heard of everything from chocolate to alcohol fasts, to “negative self-image” fasts. The problem is, I don’t know if anything’s really THAT important to me, enough so that I’d actually notice its absence. I could go 40 days without meat, no problem. Same with chocolate. The only item of consumption I can’t imagine living without is coffee. I guess that makes it the perfect candidate for a fast. I don’t like that string of logic very much at all.

It is amazing how quickly the excuses come flying in: “But coffee helps you write.” “It’s been given to us for our pleasure by God!” “Why deny what you love.” "Oh you're not really addicted to it." And on and on and on.

And so the battle of the flesh and spirit begins…

I’d be interested to hear how everyone out there is approaching the season of Lent. For those of you who never leave comments (which is pretty much everyone, and I know who you are!) it’s really very easy. But I won’t feel like less of a person if you don’t.