Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)

Anyone else hear some freakin’ gorgeous overtones in this?

Sufjan Stevens. Such a unique voice.

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So I saw (pardon my language) a FUCKING INCREDIBLE concert last night. It was the Bob Dylan Songbook at the Global Cabaret Festival at Soulpepper Theatre. I am a huge Bob Dylan fan – he is one of my musical idols – and find that the music lends itself for so many fantastic re-interpretation because of the simplicity of the music and the perfection in the poetry of the lyrics. Mike Ross, music director at Soulpepper, along with Amanda Leblanc, Andrew Penner, Justin Rutledge, Miranda Mulholland, and Jamie Drake (forgive me that I didn’t catch the bass and guitarist’s name who were also fantastic), re-interpreted songs like Subterranean Homesick Blues, Like A Rolling Stone, Shelter from the Storm, Make You Feel My Love, Mozambique, and Gotta Serve Somebody. They brought such energy, life, love, passion, and rawness to the stage. I wish the night didn’t end and I came out just thinking “MUSIC IS JUST THE BEST”. And this morning I have just been listening to my Bob Dylan collection all morning with my morning coffee. Watching them I felt really lucky that I can dedicate my life to music and that I’m part of this community. If you make your audience come out feeling like that, you are doing something right.

They have a second performance and I highly recommend going. Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2pm. Just. Go.

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Ravel Piano Concerto in G

I woke up to this today. It always makes my heart skip a beat. Particularly when Martha Argerich plays it.

(For those of you who knew me in university, remember when I had this as my ringtone?)

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Been listening to a lot of Joni lately.

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I’m currently very obsessed with this song/the electronica genre lately.

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Some Days

I got to see the incomparable Audra McDonald on Saturday night. The colours in her voice and how they so smoothly connect. It’s unlike any other soprano.

Here is one of my favourites from the concert. Music by Steve Marzullo and lyrics by African-American poet, James Baldwin

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The Fool On The Hill

Saw a documentary of Freda Kelly, The Beatles’ secretary. At 17, she was plucked out of a concert crowd at The Cavern before they were famous and spent a decade with them, almost as family.

Made me wish so much that I could have lived during that time.

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A double post today – but I can’t help it. I have played this song twenty times today and I’m loving it more each time. I spent a good chunk of tonight just sitting in my pyjamas crying to this. Because I’m a classy lady.

It’s like a song you hear
On the radio at night
Like sleeping with
The Light out
Like the wooden sound
Of your mama’s
Sad bassoon

Someday we’ll talk again.
But there’s things
We’ll never say.
That sorrow deep inside you
It Inside me too
And it never
Go Away

You’ll be ok.
You’ll learn
how to lose things.

My sorrow go
Where my heart grow calm
When you stop
Breathing Air

You get oh so calm
No fire down there
So it’s calm, calm

And there’s never any money
So it’s very, very

But you miss.
Oh! You miss!
The sun
And the moon
the wooden bassoon

And sharing cigarettes?
Do you miss sharing a cigarette?

You bet I do, Noah.

You bet.

-Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori

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Make Our Garden Grow

Happy Birthday, Leonard Bernstein. Thanks for being born so this piece exists.

Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!

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12 Years Ago.

12 years ago today I was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer in my left arm. Next year, I will have lived half of my life identifying as a person who has been directly affected by cancer. And the year after that, I will have lived more of my life as a person who has had cancer than I lived without it. So, this is the last year where most of my life has been lived without identifying as a cancer “survivor” even if only by a year. There is something surreal about that to me.

Why surreal? Because, even though it feels like a lifetime ago, I remember August 7, 2001 in such detail as if it were yesterday. What I wore (black leggings and a pink hoodie), how my hair was done up (high ponytail), what I ate (soggy turkey sandwich from the hospital cafeteria), what time it was when I was diagnosed (3:25), what was on the radio on the way to the hospital (Faded by SoulDecision), and the last piano piece I played before I left (Chopin Nocturne in Eb). That would be the last time I would play the piano with a “normal” left arm again. Maybe that’s why I cannot play that piece anymore because of the emotional scar it has on me. I can’t even listen to it. I didn’t realize how long it would be before I got to play anything on the piano again.

Because for some reason, even though I wouldn’t go into surgery for another four months, I refused to play after I was diagnosed. Rather – I couldn’t play. August 7 divided my life now into before cancer and after cancer. And by August 8, the very next day, my life was thoroughly defined as after cancer. And somehow I could not fit music into that life because it seemed impossible. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my arm – whether it was going to be amputated or not, whether it would be metal or not, whether it would be functional at all. I guess I subconsciously decided to reject something I love before it could hurt me back. Or maybe it was because of a weird, irrational feeling that somehow playing too much piano had somehow given me cancer. It seemed too ironic that a young girl who had always dreamed of going to Juilliard to become a classical pianist since the moment she started playing piano gets bone cancer at the age of 13 just when she was preparing for her RCM 10 exam. The mind can do crazy things when it needs an answer to something that doesn’t really have an answer.

I could go into my full treatment and recovery in full detail, but I really don’t want to. To summarize: I had a lot of chemo, a lot of radiation, 5 surgeries, transfusions, 3rd and 2nd degree burns (due to complications), skin grafts (also due to complications), I was in a wheelchair for a while before I re-learned how to walk, spinal taps, and countless amount of needles (the weirdest places being in my jugular vein and in my big toe….they literally ran out of room…). And this was all in the span of less than a year. It’s not that I want to forget it. I have accepted I can’t forget it and realized I don’t want to. But what I want to focus on is the present moment and exactly how far I have come in 12 years.

I graduated with honours from music school. I passed all my juries without once handing in a handicap note. I’m now a full-time musician. I don’t have a “joe-job”. I play piano for a living. I music direct, accompany, vocal coach, conduct, arrange, and compose. There isn’t a day where I don’t play the piano. And as much as I don’t believe people when they say this, many people have said that they wouldn’t have even noticed a difference in my playing if I hadn’t told them about my arm.

No, it was not an easy road. So far from it. Saying it was difficult, challenging, painful, demoralizing, and exhausting would be an understatement. I would also be lying if I said I feel grateful every day. I don’t. I often feel very cheated out of life – my childhood, health, and my arm. I always wonder “what if?” But that question really serves no purpose to me and only fuels anger and frustration. Still…hard not to ask. And that’s also not to say I’m ungrateful all the time. I am grateful for still having my arm. I know in another circumstance, I wouldn’t. And I definitely acknowledge the tremendous strides that no doctor could have predicted. I am very grateful that I can still make music. I don’t think I could survive otherwise – really. I owe everything to the doctors and nurses and social workers that worked and cared 24/7 to get me through chemo, radiation, and surgery. I still think of them a lot.

But being a childhood cancer survivor…well, we are a rare breed. It hasn’t been very long since the survival rates became significant. I sometimes feel like we are a new species that the world doesn’t really know how to handle yet. Because being a childhood cancer survivor is different than being an adult cancer survivor. It has its own unique difficulties, mainly emotional and psychological, that can really last for the rest of your life. For example, I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable standing near a microwave or not freak out when I find an unexplained bruise on me. I’m really protective of my hair and play with it a lot to remember it’s there and feel healthy again. I have a really hard time going to parties and socializing in large groups. Learning how to socialize like a person my own age became something I had to re-acquire. Most small chit-chat seems pointless to me and frustrating. But even though I learned a lot about socializing, I still seem a lot older than I actually am. I struggle deeply with depression on a daily basis – I had no idea how high the rate was for childhood cancer survivors to develop depression in the long term. I worry a lot whether it is ok to talk about cancer around my friends, for fear of them up and leaving me, which has happened too many times. I have recognized it is a topic that generally most people can’t handle without looking at you differently, so then I just end up keeping my mouth shut about an incredibly important part of my life…which, just isn’t fair. I still occasionally worry that people are staring at my arm, or re-think my outfit to cover up scars. It does dissipate with time. When you first are in treatment and a long time after, you think about cancer nearly every second of the day. I would say it’s really the odd day now where I think about cancer. I’ve actually had a few days this year where I truly forgot that I’m labeled as a “cancer survivor” and then I think “Oh….right…THAT happened..”. But then you’re hit with an odd PTSD symptom where you can’t breathe from crying while you recall when a boy on the cancer ward, who was diagnosed 2 weeks before, died while you were in the room two doors down, and the fact that he didn’t see it coming is horrifying to you… I guess what I’m trying to say is that childhood cancer survivors are unique, but it is a challenge to see the “specialness” of it in a positive light 95% of the time – at least for me.

Sometimes, I don’t really know how I got here. Sometimes it feels like another person’s life. Because knowing where I was at 12 years ago and seeing how I am now, I can’t believe that that was me. It must have been someone else’s strength or someone else’s determination. How else could I have persisted on through everything? And then I realize it was my love that got me through it. My love of music and piano. And that turning away from it was not an option. I did occupational therapy multiple times a week for many years. I went from not being able to grip someone’s finger, to slowly unlocking my elbow, to slowly learning how to pinch and do buttons and tie my shoe – tasks that would take a full hour sometimes – to now. The first time I tried playing the piano again, when I finally had the physical and emotional strength was horribly painful both on my arm and on my heart. If you know me personally, you’ll know it’s a very core part of me to not settle for mediocre. It goes against everything in me. Knowing that before cancer I really did have the skill set that would have led me to top conservatories and seeing the physical deterioration to not being able to push down a key – it was downright devastating. There was no other choice but to strive for the skill set I had before whether that was achievable or not. I know now how unrealistic that was, but the notion of my personal best is still engrained in me and drives me in everything I do. I don’t pursue music to be mediocre. I pursue it to be excellent. To give the music its full worth and nothing short of that.

A little bit about my “lucky fin” (as I call it on days where we are getting along) – I’m missing half my muscles in my arm, the tendon that bends the tips of my fingers has been severed, my elbow is made of my right ankle and a lot of metal, and my ulna was removed and replaced with my right fibula and a whole lot of metal plates and screws. I cannot straighten it fully, I cannot turn my wrist or straighten my fingers when my hand is flexed, and one of the biggest challenges, I cannot feel my arm except for a small section on the forearm and my thumb. It sometimes randomly loses strength and drops out without me expecting it (something I discovered many times while carrying a hot bowl of soup.) If you see me play now, you will notice I play physically differently. Because I can’t turn my wrist and am missing half my muscles in my arm, I compensate by turning my shoulder upwards with my elbow sticking out. Because I can’t feel most of my arm, I rely on deep pressure to know where I am on the keys as well as a visual-spatial-aural map that I trained myself aggressively to have. It’s often hard for my left arm to “know” where it is on the keyboard sometimes.

Despite all this though, I still play. The most comments I get about my playing is “It really looks like you love playing” or “There is a lot of passion behind those fingers”. Both of which, I have to admit, are true. When you have a very low-functioning arm that can’t even turn a door knob, but somehow is able to play piano, the only thing driving it has to be passion. And I have a lot of it. And yes, I really do love playing. So much. Among all the reasons why I love playing – one reason is that music will never reject me. When I play the piano, I give it all my heart and it doesn’t matter if I have an up-turned elbow, or a collapsed bridge, or scars, or metal, the piano will never reject the love I give it no matter what physical form that that comes in. It will just play the music. So, I guess I can turn off my perfectionist brain to ignore the minor technical drawbacks, because when I play, I play everything I have inside me. Everything. And I know if I were watching someone play, I would prefer hearing the music from someone who gives everything with technical mistakes over soul-less robotic playing.

The people that got me here? My occupational therapist. One of the most patient and encouraging women I have ever met. I wish I could go back and thank her in person for having faith in me and to tell her that yes, I’m a professional musician now. All those talks about playing piano again in her office while learning to grip her finger – it actually happened. My piano teacher, who was in the waiting room while I was in surgery for 12 hours, and welcomed me back to lessons with open arms when the time came. Camp Oochigeas, who made me re-connect with who I was before cancer. My Kawaii piano at home in Montreal with the broken G key and the broken damper pedal. I will still love you too despite your shortcomings. And my family. I love them so much. My mom cried and hugged me when she heard the sound of the piano coming from the basement after more than a year of silence. I will never forget that.

I don’t want to write this to glorify myself. Because if you know me personally, you’ll know I actually rarely talk about this and don’t regard getting through cancer as an achievement, brave, or heroic. I’m usually scared to open up about this to anyone. I’m a “no excuses” kind of gal when it comes to piano. I don’t like being identified by the term “survivor” (more on that another time). And I rarely praise myself – in fact I’m really hard on myself, too hard sometimes. Every year on my diagnosis day, I think of my three cabinmates from camp who died – Lida, Cassie, and Caroline. I miss them so much and every year I wonder if they can see me and if they are proud of me. Usually every year I hole myself up and get very depressed. But after 12 years, I think they would want me to be proud of myself. So I guess I wanted to step outside of myself for a moment to celebrate the before and after of my life. That 12 years ago, standing next to a hideous and bizarre x-ray of my left ulna, I was told I had a tumour in my arm, most probably a malignant tumour. And now, well, I look around my apartment, I look at my cats, my degree, my show posters, everything I own – has been paid for and fuelled by my ability to play piano. And that is just….. Surreal.


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