lend a hand
~5 minute read
Scheduled extracurricular activities were a rarity in my childhood. Once a week I attended voice lessons during school hours. I’d quietly leave my desk and walk down the hallway to an unused classroom that housed a piano. A petite and tense woman from a nearby town would be waiting for me. In each lesson she prepared me for either music festival season, an RCM exam, or her own year end recital. It was a joyless arrangement, aside from being permitted to leave class regularly.
Any other formal augmentations to my education were limited in a small community such as mine. I was a girl and it was the ‘80s, so hockey was completely out of the question. Figure skating was too expensive. My parents didn’t have (or want) large farm animals and thus 4-H wasn’t even mentioned. Also, I heard that they blowdried cows in 4-H. That raised my eyebrows enough to quell any budding interest.
However, on Monday nights I attended Brownie meetings.
Brownies didn’t impose a lot of expectations. There was a weekly promise to “help other people everyday, especially those at home,”1 but who was actually enforcing that? We learned about nature and handcrafts. We slept in the woods in the summer and built fires outside in the winter. At every meeting we’d encircle a huge foam toadstool upon which a plush owl was perched. We’d squat down with two fingers from each hand on the floor and bounce up and down chanting “tu-whit, tu-whit, tu-whoo” over and over until we all leapt into the air with a final “WHOOOOO”.
We were a coven of tiny witches who peddled cookies in the spring.
I’d leaf through The Brownie Programme and fantasize about the badges I could earn to deck out my sash. The badges stirred my motivation. They were tiny fabric trophies of my early achievements. As each one was added to my sash I felt a swell of pride.
On a trip to Regina to see my aunt, my mom brought me along to run an errand for my Brownie leaders. We parked the car and walked into a building with a huge sign that displayed the Girl Guides of Canada logo. What was this?! Were we even allowed inside? Would we have to produce credentials? I was keenly alert.
My mom and I walked in and there they were. Badges. Everywhere there were badges. An array of treasures to measure the merit of Brownies, Girl Guides, and Pathfinders. It was incredible. The black and white pages of The Brownie Programme only hinted at their appearance, but here they were in their full glory of gold embroidery on brown canvas. I’d never imagined anything like this existed.
Mom picked a few up and walked to the counter. She chatted with the woman standing there and then with no fanfare whatsoever, she bought them.
My heart hit the floor.
You mean… you can just buy them? With money???
No forest leaves collected and pressed and labelled by specimen. No awkward knitting needles and twisted yarn and dropped stitches. No snapping of wooden matches and smoldering wet sticks in a puddle of melted snow. Just money. Like a friggin’ pack of Nerds. All you had to do was cough up the dough.
My mother had no idea what she had just done. How she had pulled back the curtain and shown me how the world works. What a rot.
Eventually I was too old Brownies, and then for Girl Guides. I began reading the early work of Stephen King. I listened to a cassette copy of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People on a continuous loop. By the time I was 14 I had sought out a cast of friends with similar interests. We smoked. We read. We quoted lines from Kids In The Hall and Pulp Fiction. We subscribed to SPIN and Rolling Stone.
I grew up. I moved away. I went to art galleries and concerts and theatre productions. I travelled and read books. I started writing songs.
The memory of my mother purchasing the badges was long forgotten until I caught a whiff of in it my brother’s disbelief when I mentioned that I was submitting my payment and application to the JUNO Awards.
“What? You apply? You mean they don’t just know? And you have to pay?” he asked me on a phone call.
“Yeah. I apply. If I had a label or a manager they might do it on my behalf, but same same. And then it goes to a jury to be adjudicated and narrowed down to the final nominees. It’s quite a bit more expensive this year because I’m providing 15 copies of my vinyl. But a nomination would be seen as a career achievement.”
“Oh,” he said in a quieter voice, letting it sink in. “I didn’t know that.”
What we all learn at some point is that the merit is in the effort, not the award. And you know as well as I do that effort largely goes unrecognized and unrewarded.
But if there isn’t some system in place that enables us to pat ourselves on the back with someone else’s hand… well, it gets to be a bit of a grind, doesn’t it?
One day I dream of winning a JUNO for my songwriting and because of that I am committed to my own standard of artistic integrity. One day I will teach my son the names of my favourite trees and so I remember Sequoia and arbutus; Angophora costata and Moreton Bay fig. One day I will leave this earth and so I am mindful of my habits as a consumer, especially when juxataposed with my career as a creator of things and traveler of the world.
Thanks for being here with me and reading these stories. I do not take you for granted. You are a gift.
one more thing:
If you live in the Winnipeg area I’m playing a songwriter’s round with Scott Nolan and Orit Shimoni at The Park Theatre on May 25th. I never know what specific alchemy three songwriters will brew until I’m in the midst of it and for that reason alone I’m feeling the anticipation. If you’re able, I hope you’ll join. And if you’re not able to, I hope you have a friend in Winnipeg who you’ll send in your stead.
It has been decades since I’ve voiced the Brownie Promise, but just now I produced it effortlessly and with all the mechanical enthusiasm of a Sears Talking Computron.