The Restorative Power of Burning Things

A week ago on the new moon, I sat in a “circle” of 9 women over Zoom, and set a bunch of shit on fire… in my living room.

(Who knew, I’m also a poet. And a witch, apparently)

I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t done this sooner, because it felt AMAZING. Damn. Why don’t they teach us these things in school?!? “Setting Things on Fire is Pretty Fun 101.” Seems like a no-brainer where absolutely nothing would go wrong.

Of course I’ve enjoyed many a fire before. I grew up right on a beach in rural redneck Nova Scotia where nightly summer bonfires were as inevitable as the attending drunks who would stumble into our yard to pee (or pass out on the tent containing me and two other kids). But this wasn’t just any standard burning of rotten wood and Bud Light cartons…

I was burning my creative demons.

I mean, technically I was burning little pieces of paper on which I had scrawled the names of all the grade A shit-turds I have encountered in my life. I don’t mean the kind of shit-turds who yell at you for saying 2 words in English on the streets of Montreal, or who walk around the upper floor of an apartment on the heels of their feet. (These are grade B or grade C shit-turds at best; or simply, “turds.”)

I’m talking about the kind of shit-turds who see the embers of something beautiful in a budding artist… and make it their mission to stamp it out. If I only knew from age 7, when I met my first creative demon, what I know now: these people are miserable, and feel a lot more comfortable when everybody around them is on the same level.

Helene, one of my mom’s delightful partners growing up, would listen to me playing concertos on a 3/4 size violin and call me a sissy, preaching that I should be playing hockey outside like a normal kid. My violin teacher for the first half of my Bachelor’s degree in music treated me like I was 8 and made me play matching repertoire, crushing my desire to practice. The conductor of my first real orchestral job pulled me into his office after my winning audition and informed me how lucky I was that he had decided to take pity on me, he could have just as easily not hired me. The man then proceeded to bully me during rehearsal breaks all year, aka when nobody was watching. Mm, so lucky.

The list of creative demons goes on, and on. Snore. We’ve all had them. It doesn’t escape me though, that most if not all of my demons bared their ugly heads during my classical music career. I wonder how much of a coincidence it is, that during this pandemic when all of my normal distractions are gone, I have realized that I don’t really love playing classical music anymore. Did I ever really like playing it? SHUT UP, BRAIN!!

Let me just humor this passing thought for a second though. I mean, of course I loved playing classical music, and still do. Sometimes. When I love playing classical music, it is because the intention is pure. I, and everyone surrounding me, want nothing more than to share something meaningful and gorgeous with each other and everyone in the audience. This happened a lot in my youth when I used to take part in summer music festivals where we were worked to the bone for free room and board, not a penny more. We must have loved what we were doing if we were doing it for free!!

Now as I progress in my musical career and call myself a professional, earning a sizable chunk of money for my services (pandemic shit-show aside), I find I am often surrounded by people who have forgotten why we got into this business in the first place. If we are being paid, that must be why we are doing it. We get bogged down in matching up all of our bowings and articulations and playing it exactly as the composer intended, in the “correct” style of that period.

We are the highly-trained musicians of an internationally renowned professional orchestra, and goddammit IT HAD BETTER SHOW!!

If my poor stand-partner (I write this but I really mean me) is unfortunate enough to play an up-bow while the rest of us play down, or they hold a half-note for a fraction of a second too long, or heaven forbid, they misread an accidental… you would think they just audibly sharted during the slow movement of a Beethoven symphony, their face will flush such a deep red.

We shouldn’t be deeply embarrassed if we play a wrong note; we should be deeply embarrassed if we play an entire concert in the pursuit of perfection, forgetting our true purpose: to connect with each other. What we lose in technical accuracy, we gain in creating a transcendent experience for the audience, and ourselves. I miss the concerts of my youth, when there wasn’t so much at stake.

I remember during one of the summers I played with the Verbier Festival Orchestra, we were performing Mahler’s 4th symphony. The one with the famous scordatura concertmaster solos in the 2nd movement. All of our concerts were filmed for Medici.tv, so we always had a bit of an extra edge to our already youthful adrenaline-fueled performances. Not even 4 bars into the sea of difficult solos, our concertmaster Roberto’s E-string (or, F#-string, in this case) snaps clear off of his violin, and he has to suddenly transpose everything over to the next available string. It’s truly every violinist’s nightmare. But Roberto is almost fired up by the challenge, and performs the rest of the piece with flair, sporting a mischievous smile- as though to let the audience in on the joke. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s exciting as hell.

After the concert, a bunch of us sit on my twin-sized bed crowded around a laptop, and re-watch the moment when Roberto’s string snaps over and over, freeze-framing on his face the exact millisecond he realizes he now needs to recalculate every single note of the solo, in front of live cameras. It is just pure, undiluted horror… and we are absolutely PISSING OUR PANTS laughing. Not at him!! But just, in utter glee because this kind of thing isn’t allowed to happen in the classical world. We feel exhilarated! We just witnessed something entirely new, something we didn’t spend hundreds of hours planning for!!

When we shared the footage with Roberto, he was understandably dismayed at first, because he is a fantastic player and he wanted the audience to experience the music exactly as practiced. This is how classical musicians are conditioned. But our laughter was contagious and soon Roberto was peeing his pants too. What Roberto gave us, and the audience that night- was something real. It was vulnerable, it was beautiful, it was hilarious. It was art.

I have had so many great experiences during my classical music career, but I’m just not sure it’s sustainable anymore. At least, not as my primary creative outlet in life. All of my creative demons along the way have certainly rocked my boat, but I think what is finally sinking it is the unbearable expectation to be perfect all the time. To have to hide a significant part of myself in my art, just because “that’s how it has always been done.” When we are only willing to present our creative work to audiences in a perfect state, we deprive them of the most special part.

On the new moon I don’t think I was just burning my creative demons. I was burning my identity as a classical musician. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am here, on December 21st, 2020 (the winter solstice) standing on my figurative mountaintop and yelling my dreams at the top of my lungs. I need to be in a medium where I can be 100% myself. Where I feel safe sharing the whole, not just the polished exterior. Where I can make a giant mistake that becomes the story, and I make everybody piss their pants laughing.

“HEY UNIVERSE! I WANT TO BE A WRITER!!”

Does an Artist have to Art?

Sooo… it’s been a weee little while *cough* 4 months…since I’ve posted here- in this magical place I created in February 2019 where I can express anything and everything. Read: rants about horrible ex-boyfriends, and all my annoyingly preachy “advice” on how to live your best life- which I generally break within the week, because I’m HUMAN.

I started off strong, posting two epic over-shares per week. This I owe to the rigorous deadlines set by Kerry Clare in her online blog course, which I signed up for impulsively on the last day of registration. (All in one day, I thought of a DOPE domain name, bought it, and threw together this basic AF webspace on wordpress.com, thinking I’d update it later when things calmed down a little bit. *whistles and shuffles feet while looking at months of empty days in calendar*)

What have I been up to, you’re wondering? Ohh, so much, so much. I’ve just been so busy… um, refilling my cat’s food dish, hand washing artisanal masks that allow me to express my zazzy self even during a pandemic, and making various nut milks that ruin my morning coffee. I was thinking of hiring an assistant for the cat dish thing, because honestly it’s taking a lot out of me. The dish never… stays… full… and he stares at me with those perpetually judgy eyes that stamp my soul with the words “You’re a Horrible Mother…”

The key to filling up the days you see, is doing each task as it were shalt have been done’st in the Olden Tymes- washing thy socks by hand and wringing them through a treacherous metal gauntlet, making thousts own shitty gluten-free bread and contacting loved ones by way of dipping a diseased feather into a pot of ink and covering thine scroll in pretentious yet painfully boring goings-on to be sent by horse-drawn carriage (or modern equivalent: Foodora bike delivery person).

For real though, after a few months of angsty Facebook posts about how lonely I was during Covid isolation, I spent a month house-sitting a colleague’s farm, administering twice-daily antibiotic eye-drops to various 4-legged creatures (see previous blog post); and then two months staying with my mom in Nova Scotia YES TWO MONTHS fulfilling the delightful task of writing and applying for grants so I can pay my extortionate monthly rent as an artist who has no paid arts to art. More importantly though, I think the reason I haven’t posted in so long is because something CraAAazy happened to me between the beginning of the summer and now…

I lost my need for outside validation.

Just so you know how huge that statement is for me… here is an excerpt from my very first blog post:

“Oh hey! I have a blog now! As I write it’s still in pretty rough shape, but hopefully I’ll figure that all out in due time. But at least I have somewhere to barf out all my EXTREMELY important and relevant thoughts other than Facebook. Now here, I wish I had the skills to include a hyperlink over the words “important and relevant thoughts” that would lead you to one of my Facebook posts where I compare the size and shape of two different dog turds I’ve found in the street that got 3 likes… (Probably from: 1. my mother 2. a fellow turd enthusiast who is relieved they’re not the only one and 3. the socially inept aunt of an ex-boyfriend I broke up with 4 years ago who somehow still sends me Christmas gifts) But alas, no such post exists because I delete anything that doesn’t immediately get showered in heart and laugh emojis. Man if there was a Bizarro-Facebook where all of our panic-deleted posts go to roam free… now THAT is a place I would spend some time!!”

As much as I want to really explore this “Bizarro-Facebook” right now, the beefy part is that, while I write because I love to write, a HUGE part of my creative output is because I love receiving COMPLIMENTS. Validation. An acknowledgment that yes, I am an artist, and wow am I ever a unique/funny/lovable/good/tall one! God help me if I ever get famous enough to get trolled on twitter.

Anyway, at some point during Covid isolation, it hit me that constantly needing to get my validation from outside sources isn’t sustainable, especially when the only “outside source” right now is my computer screen. Some heart emojis may make me feel better today, but what about tomorrow, or the next day? My beloved facebook family will rise to the occasion for one overly vulner-emotional post on average per month, but on top of that, they have got more important shit to do than to butter me up and stick me in the oven! (I don’t know where that metaphor came from- it could either mean they prime me for optimum tastiness, or they burn me alive)

Where is my need for validation REALLY coming from? Can I get it from myself? Is there something I could do or create that would soothe me when I get to that anxious/vulnerable place that makes me super needy? And then, do I really need to SHOW that creation to people? Can I not just do it, and then let it disappear into the ether, never having “proven” that I did it on Instagram?!?

What ended up happening, is I just kindof did NOTHING for a while. Heh. And… that’s okay. You know what also makes it really hard to continuously produce creative stuff? Extreme stress. Yes. But even more so, in order to put stuff OUT there, we need creative INPUT. I find it pretty tricky to derive inspiration to create without the ability to go to live shows, meet new people, see new places, and I dunno, BE IN A ROOM WITH MY RIDICULOUSLY INSPIRING FRIENDS. So I went through a bit of a rebellious quasi-Buddhist, quasi-nihilist phase where I just experimented with BEING. Can’t that just be enough?! Do I really need to be constantly producing art to be an artist? And then, do I really NEED to be an ARTIST to EXIST?! WHAT IS LIFE?!?!?!

Fast-forward through a few hundred bags of kettle chips and trashy Netflix dating shows, and I have arrived at a place that is neither here, nor there. I create because I NEED to. It literally transforms me from a cranky passive-aggressive-letter-writing-blanket-person, to someone who smiles lovingly at screaming children as they crash into her while walking down the street. Classic list-maker/OCD organizer that I am, I came up with a flow-chart to help me through periods of anxiety, depression, bitterness, irritability- you know, LIFE DURING COVID. It’s a three-level system.

First, I get out of my “red-zone” by doing one of two things:

  • Call someone I love, who is able to mirror back my lovable qualities, not the dumb overly-critical ones. Aka, do not call Aunt Carol, who tells me I should really consider taking down all the videos of me dancing with a vacuum cleaner and what not, that it’s not good for my “career”
  • Turn my phone off

Then I get out of “Orange-zone” (aren’t these Covid references fun?) by doing one of these guys:

  • Rent a car and get out of the city into nature- either a day hike, or pitch a tent somewhere.* Someone’s backyard or an abandoned mall parking lot will do. I recently camped out on my back balcony, and while giant semis rattling by hardly rival the sounds of forest birds in the morning, it still felt like a fun adventure, and I could use my own bathroom.
  • Listen to some really good music with headphones.
  • Go for a nice long walk*
  • Go for a nice long bike ride*
  • Meditate, using a sell-out trendy app if I have to, even though all meditation IS is BREATHING

*I realize these need updating with the threatening glare of winter… I found some kids’ cross-country skis in someone’s garbage, I might try using those.

Next, and most importantly, I ask myself the question: “What am I blocking my inner artist from doing right now?” And the options bubble up to the surface:

  • Create/play music in Ableton Live like I’m playing Mario Paint on Super Nintendo as a child
  • Write a blog post, or write just for shits and giggles- stream of thought, only to be read in horror by my children after I die
  • Pick up my violin and create some gorgeous layers of loops over which I can improvise some grand, sappy melody fit for a movie about the Holocaust
  • Make a silly video. This, I haven’t done in a while, because I realized how much WORK it takes to edit them… but… not many things make me happier than dressing up and being a shit-head on camera. And maybe I can just let the editing suck.
  • Do something FUN and COMPLETELY USELESS. (What is this… “useless?” As an artist, should all of my efforts not in some way be a step towards my creative life goals?) Ugh. Just make some sock puppets, and film them making fart sounds for 4 minutes, Lauren. You know you want to. Chill the fuck out.

Boom, Yellow zone. No, wait what comes before yellow? WHAT WERE THINGS LIKE BEFORE YELLOW ZONE???

Anyway, I’m going to try to write here more often, I guess, even though I don’t technically NEED to, and every single goddamn day feels the same. Things ARE happening. Maybe I will write about toenails! They are short for eons and then suddenly, so long! Or I dunno, I could write about *cough* dating during Covid. I’m not dating, did I say I was? Cool yeah neither am I. I’M BEING VERY CAREFUL, OKAY?? Let’s say I was dating, it’s fascinating stuff. It’s like the olden times, but more intense. Lots of written correspondence, and walks around ponds 6 feet apart holding parasols to block out the sun. And basically waiting until you are married to hold hands. Maybe next time.

City Camping!!