Oh Connection!

I’ve written about human connection on this blog before and clearly I’m not finished writing about it. Perhaps it’s my middle age but as I get older, I am beginning to understand the vital importance of human connection in all its messiness and glory. For this blog post, I have several stories to share – stories of a summer that I spent learning more about being connected with humanity.

Sometime in July, I attended a concert by a wonderful choir in Vancouver called Cor Flammae – a choir of LGTBQ singers who sing and celebrate the works of LGTBQ composers. The concert was a well chosen program of pieces, each of which explored the theme of refuge. As I listened to the achingly beautiful “Trois Beau L’Oiseau” by Maurice Ravel and excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, I found myself weeping and I didn’t know why. I was moderately embarrassed as I was sitting in the front row and I had no way to hide. It occurred to me that the whole program was also about reaching out to one another, exploring what it is to be human with other singers, other audience members, with each other. How fine it is that composers who sit alone at a piano and write music, can make you feel very deep and, at times, uncomfortable emotions decades or even centuries later. It should be pointed out that only a few weeks before, the horrific shooting at a gay nightclub had happened, making the title of the concert, “Refuge” that much more poignant. Over a hundred people came together that night to connect through masterfully performed choral music by great composers.

A couple of weeks later, we packed up the van and set off for a few days of camping on the east coast of Vancouver Island at Miracle Beach with the family. My eldest son has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects approximately 1 in 30 000 live births. He is healthy, happy and a handful. His chronological age is nine but he’s at the mental level of a toddler and so he loves to explore. It is possible to go camping with him but he requires constant supervision.

One evening, while we were getting dinner ready, D. decided to escape to the adjacent campsite where a family of three had just checked in. I ran after him but he was already communing with the family by the time I got there. I introduced myself to the mom, we started talking and she introduced me to her wife. The wife looked up from the fire pit and I immediately recognized her from music school. We hadn’t seen each other for twenty years! They introduced their daughter to us who immediately doted on both of my sons and we wound up spending part of our remaining trip with them.

On that same trip, I had both of the boys by myself at the beach. I had to meet family members back at the campsite but when I started to pack up our things, D. made one of his many escape attempts. Just then, a family came down to the beach. The wife asked me if I wanted her husband to fetch D. and keep an eye on him while I finished gathering my things. I gratefully accepted and only parents of children with special needs will know why I would trust my non verbal child with a complete stranger. People who have personal or professional experience with the disabled are very comfortable with stepping in like that. Before talking with the husband, I knew that he was experienced in some way. As it turned out, he is a behaviour consultant and his stepson has autism. A few days later, my husband and I ran into him (the Miracle Beach campground isn’t very big) and, as it turns out, the stepson attends the same school where my husband works.

When you have a child like D., you have to interact with complete strangers because the kid doesn’t give you any other options. You may not always want to have conversations with people or explain his behaviour for the umpteenth time but unless you are prepared to shut the kid away at home, which is cruel, you must come out of your protective shell and interact with the world, often in ways you don’t expect but are ultimately rewarding. I would never have known that Nat was in the next campsite and I would never have connected with her, her wife and their fabulous daughter if D. hadn’t invaded. I would never have spoken to the behaviour consultant on the beach or in the campground if D. hadn’t made one of his innumerable escape attempts. I’m an introvert who can turn on the extraverted side for performing and for teaching. Having D. helps me to engage and to connect with others even when I don’t want to.

My husband, my brother, a friend and I were fortunate enough to the go The Tragically Hip’s final show in Vancouver this summer, As most of us know, the lead singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. The Hip’s music has been unapologetically Canadian with references to the prairies, indigenous issues, hockey and other issues that were not well known until The Hip recorded songs about them. One of those issues was about David Milgaard, a wrongly convicted man who spent 20 years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The song is “Wheat Kings”. We got to the show early, parked in a nearby lot and had our own tailgate party, complete with growlers of beer and pakoras (only in Vancouver). As my husband was playing guitar and singing Hip songs, a couple walked over and asked him to play “Wheat Kings”. We sang it at the top of our lungs, the woman hugged my husband and we went to the show. It was such a bittersweet moment of connection.

On August 20th, Canada stopped for a few hours while The Hip played their final show. The CBC stopped all Olympic coverage and ran the Hip’s final show in Kingston, ON with no commercials. Think of the lack of ad revenue and the Olympic broadcast rights that the CBC paid dearly to get. One third of the ENTIRE population of the nation tuned into the live CBC broadcast on all platforms – TV, radio, internet streaming. My household was one of them. We invited friends over and watched the show. Downie addressed Prime Minister Trudeau who was in the audience and very bluntly told him to fix the enormous problems that the indigenous peoples are facing in the north. For three hours, The Tragically Hip had the ear of the nation. It was a moment that, to my knowledge, has never happened in Canada and I’m not sure when or if it will happen again. Thank you to Gord, thank you to The Tragically Hip, thank you to the CBC and thank you to Canada. Connecting through music is more meaningful to me because there was nothing jingoistic about it; no other nation had to be beat through an athletic contest. We connected by celebrating thirty years of music for three hours.

Human connection is so vital, so essential to living, be it in choral music, in human interactions or in a band whose members you will probably never meet. What does this have to do with singing? Everything. We are all connected, everything is interconnected. If, as a musician or an artist in any medium, you can tap into some understanding of human connection, you can be better at your craft, whatever it happens to be. I think that as this understanding deepens, we become better, more empathetic people. With connection, come emotions which can be messy and, at times, ugly. Sometimes I would prefer not to have them but without them, we miss the small moments that matter when you can appreciate the beauty and the wonder of life. Oh connection!