Throw Your Arms Around Me

I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.

We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.

For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.

Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.

When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!

https://youtu.be/0ZbqV_qfWfg

Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.

As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.

John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.

As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.

For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.

https://youtu.be/ZvlMMEKV3Qk

I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.

Leaving For School

My mother is 87 years old. Her mind is still sharp and she will make you a hot cup of tea should you care to pay a call. Catch her in the right mood and she will tell you stories. Mention that you know me and she will tell you stories of my childhood. One of the stories she will tell you is of the day I left home.

I had graduated from High School and had been accepted at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in their Radio and Television Arts Programme. On the last Saturday in August, 1982, my mother took me to the train station and watched as I boarded the VIA Train (Canada’s version of Amtrak, for my American friends) taking me to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. I was only 18 years old. This was the first time I had travelled alone.

It was some years later that I got to hear my mother tell her version of the story of this day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had watched the train pull out of the station and immediately got in her car and drove to the next station stop down the line, in the hopes that I would have changed my mind about leaving and had gotten off.  I passed through that station never knowing she was even there. I never knew she had been at the third station stop, either. But, she had.  Then, at last, she turned the car around and went home. I understand that there were tears.

As for me, I made it to the heart of downtown Toronto in one piece. Dazzled as I was by the sights and sounds of a city bigger than any I had ever known, struggling as I did to find my academic footing in university, tempted as I was by the alcohol and girls that were made readily available to me at parties that seemed to be everywhere, all the time, I did not call my mother for a full four weeks.  Needless to say, that first phone call was met with a mixture of emotions on both ends of the line.  I have called her every week since, for the rest of my life. I never realized, up until that first phone call, how much I really meant to my mother. Children, sometimes, take their parent’s Love for granted.

The scene that I have described is not unique to me and my family. Every year, parents take their university or college-aged children to far flung locales and bid them teary goodbyes. There is always a mixture of sadness and pride amid the tears that flow. As parents, we want our children to be happy and safe and successful in life so, at some point, we have to say good-bye and trust that they will be ok without us. It hurts. But, at the same time, it fills our hearts with Hope.

Regardless of any family’s specific story, the general truth is that these separations are planned for well in advance. There is a whole process of applying to various schools, gaining acceptance at one or more, discussing the pros and cons of each choice, dealing with finances, accommodations and much, much more. There are timelines to follow and milestones to pass before there is ever the chance of the tearful goodbyes at an apartment building or dormitory steps. That is the way it was for me and my mother. It is the way it is for countless other families, too.

But, at one time in Canadian History, the idea of children leaving home to attend school far away was, in fact, viewed as Government policy; not for all families in the new land of Canada but, specifically, for the children of Indigenous families. Indigenous nations existed in all regions of, what became Canada, long before European settlers crossed the Atlantic. Their cultures and traditions were rich and well-established. However, as European explorers arrived and began claiming tracts of land for foreign masters across the sea, they did so with a mindset that dictated the need to “civilize the Natives”. By this, they meant forcing the existing Indigenous populations across the land to abandon their own customs and beliefs and adopt those held by the European settlers. One way these beliefs were turned into actual policies that were set into motion came in the form of the Residential School System.

The thinking behind the establishment of the Residential School System was relatively simple; if they could “educate” children in the ways of the Europeans then, these children would grow up to be, more and more, European and, less and less, Indigenous. If successful, the Residential School system could completely transform the thinking, attitudes, beliefs and customs of the entire Indigenous population in only a few short generations. Assimilation would be complete. Indigenous life, as was known at the time, would disappear. Canada would be “civilized” from coast to coast to coast.

When these schools began operation, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families. They were sent to schools which were, in many cases, hundreds of miles from their homes. Once they arrived, their hair was cut, their clothes were taken from them, they were not allowed to speak in their own language and they were treated with harsh discipline.  It was a terrible time for these children and their families.

 

To get a sense of how Indigenous children suffered in the Residential School System, please watch Gord Downie’s cinematic re-telling of the life and, subsequent death, of one such child, Chanie Wenjack. There is no happily ever after in this story.

 

Eventually, the Residential School System came into disrepute and ceased to exist as formal Government of Canada policy. But that was not before lasting harm was caused to  many Indigenous Nations, their families and to the children who were taken from their homes against their wills. The utter failure of the Residential School System can be seen in a renewed call for understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness between Indigenous Peoples and those of us who call ourselves Canadians.  One of the first steps taken on this healing journey was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Many victims of the Residential School System were allowed to appear before the Commission and share their personal stories. Many Indigenous elders were asked to document the toll these policies took on their communities. The pictures painted by their words were not pretty. When all were heard, the members of the TRC issued a number of “Calls to Action” aimed at raising levels of awareness of Indigenous issues across the country, as well as, helping to implement systemic changes in how Indigenous culture is recognized, celebrated and appreciated.  One of those calls to action can be seen in public schools all across Canada in what has become known as “Orange Shirt Day”.

Today, in classrooms all over Canada, students are being encouraged to wear an orange shirt. They will hear the story of how a young girl, Phyllis Webstad, had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day of Residential School. These modern day students will come to learn of the broader story of what happened to so many Indigenous children and that it was an attempt at, what some, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, term “Cultural Genocide”. Hopefully lessons, painful as they sometimes are, will begin to be learned and younger generations of Canadian students will grow up with a greater level of respect for Indigenous culture, customs and beliefs, as well as, those of other countries, too. When we all take time to appreciate the beauty and wisdom found in cultures different than ours, we all grow richer as a result.

So, when my mother tells her story of the pain she felt as I boarded that train, I have no doubt that her pain was real. But, the choice to leave home that day to go to school far away was mine to make. My mother was involved in every bit of planning that led up to our train station goodbyes.  Despite of a few forks in the road, my life has been a happy and successful one since that day.

But, I can’t even begin to imagine how different everything would have been if I had been forced to leave. If soldiers or police officers had dragged me away from all I had known to a life completely unknown. In Life, the freedom to make our own choices is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of how we live. During the time of the Residential School System, freedom to make decisions that affected the most important part of life….Family……was taken away. Powerlessness and anguish followed in its’ wake. Those were terrible times for Indigenous families and stand as a black mark on Humanity.

As my daughters left for school today; Sophie with me to her school and Leah, with my wife, to Leah’s school, all four of us wore our orange shirts. Orange Shirt Day is a somber day but, a hopeful day, as well. Sometimes, going to school brings academic lessons. Today, on Orange Shirt Day, the lessons will be a bit more primal. They will be about the bonds of Love that unite families and how nothing is more important than Love and Family.

back

Leaving for school and then, coming home to those you love, should always be the bookends to one of childhood’s most important memories. May it always be so for all children, forever more.