Phoenix Rising

Sometimes art gives you pause – a silent reflection on the emotional experience that yields no words. Other times it is a simple feeling of disgust or brilliance or social dialogue or something “just right.”

Today, I painted a picture, or whatever you might call a purely digital fantastical creation. I call it Phoenix Rising. And instead of being simply pleasing to the eye, I feel like it is also a story to be told. Critics and purists of art will shun me for explaining my painting. But that’s okay with me. Today, I felt like painting and then telling a story. You see I was on the phone with a friend who had gone through a very intense trial of mind, life and depression. And I know that his episode was not too long in the past. So I felt like drawing a phoenix, that mystical bird that rose from the ashes only to burn into ashes and rise again. Having been through depression in periods of my own life, I can definitely relate to the dimness that can creep into the everyday beautiful things. And so I wanted to create a phoenix, so as to say that even when we have hit rock bottom that we are in the right spot to launch back up to the surface. Or something like that.

I haven’t included too much detail in the painting, and maybe I”ll add some stars in the future around the periphery. But the main object of focus is the phoenix. In the distance of a cold blue desert, but well visible she is indiscernible in size, and that is part of the point: sometimes the things that pull us through in life are not quantifiable. Sometimes they just are. They just happen. And the great hope of the myth of the phoenix is that birth happens, even in death. That we are creatures of cycle and that no matter what stage we are at, we are part of a bigger process. And that to die as ashes is to be born as flames.

The phoenix is flying in an ambiguous direction, as most of us are in life. “Not all who wander are lost,” said J.R.R. Tolkien. I like to think that’s what life is; an open book with many chapters unwritten. If I drew her right, she’s dazzling and beautiful and radiant. I’ve set the perspective of this painting to be broad and wide on purpose: Even in the large, open land, there is a spark to life that happens.

Anyway, click on the picture and you’ll see the real thing. I’d like to hear what experience this painting means to you.

the closer i get (no end and no beginning)

i look at you from
      across     the room
because it is
	     easy

everything is perfect from
far away
but the closer i get
the less

i can pick out those ugly things
i imagine
        for

when you walk out of this room
		(my mind)

can find a peace

which will substitute for the fear
of your freedom to leave
and i'll hold a love with no end
                 and
no beginning.

What it is

I caught a Martin Luther King Jr. Day episode on Oprah today. (Yeah, I watch Oprah.) It was pretty moving to see so many different perspectives, experiments, and events that intersected around race the past 20 years, particularly in America. Racism is still alive and wears many masks. You see, race in the minds of the television viewer likes to play itself off as fiction – good programming, but not quite what happens in the “real world.” Believable, but not reality. But I’m old enough to recognize a fairy tale when I see one.

Looking at Oprah’s final season, she replayed a bunch of clips from past shows that dealt with racism which, through the magic of television, took me to events I never lived through: a sit-down broadcast in LA after the riots from the notorious Rodney King trial verdict; a once racist white man who went on to adopt two black children after his biracial grandson was born; a young white man who took life-threatening pills to change his skin pigment so he appeared Black; a social psychology experiment discriminating against blue-eyed people; the uproar after the OJ Simpson trial. I’m amazed at how far we’ve got, and how far we’ve got to go.

Racism and race are not only outside things, they are also inside things. Living with racism isn’t merely being called names based on our appearance. Racism isn’t merely defending your right to use the N word in a rap song. Racism – as a young white man who took skin pigment darkening pills said – is being white and automatically getting a certain kind of respect while being black means you fight your whole life to earn it. Racism is being beaten for being taken as a “jap” even if you are Chinese. Racism is hatred and indifference and ugliness and racism is seething, and yet racism is as cool as a coal. Racism is a joke and an antique. Racism is a Maclean’s article; it’s reading the class list of students and wondering why all the last names are Brown – where are the white names?

Racism isn’t just for white people; coloured people are racist, too. Black people are just as suspicious of Black people as White people. Native people are invisible in Vancouver. Fact is, things still need to change.

And yet, I haven’t lived through a generation before me. I haven’t worked on a railroad. I don’t know someone who had a family member lynched. But it wasn’t long ago.

Looking back: boy & girl louies

Looking back on pictures of summers past, it’s easy to romanticize a one-time trip as an every year occurrence during a period of our time: childhood, adolescence…

boy & girl louies

But then again, don’t we go back into our pasts every-time we reflect on our memories? I read in a Psychology Today article that there are two kinds of selves: the ‘experiencing’ self and the ‘remembering’ self. The experiencing self is the part of our conscious awareness that is here in the moment while the remembering self is the part of our consciousness that creates a record of what we did. The main difference between the two is that when we remember an event in our lives, we then experience it as it happened when we lived through it, as it was recorded by our remembering self. As a Psych major, it’s nothing new to view memory as something immediate; we’re all an aggregate of our pasts, presents and futures – a part of us always as who we were, as we are, and as we are to become. I like to look at history that way, as a path or passage and not merely a passenger upon it.

As I look at these photos again of great times with cousins on Mayne Island I can’t help but feel like this always happened. I’m sure this feeling will only get reinforced in the years to come, but that’s what makes the philosophy of life – that it is ultimately about our memories made – so attractive.

Maybe it’s that dichotomous relationship with our realities that can so torment us; we always have a half in the past and a half in the present. One that is here and one that has stepped behind, hoping to disappear into our memories of summers past. But the same torment that can come from days gone by can also breed within us the great fire of hope that tomorrow will bring reprieve. That tomorrow will be different. That tomorrow will be the same.

Where the heart is: Trauma Farm, BC

Trauma Farm

The mind is such a fickle thing. It is completely certain that, only when it has already made itself up, it knows everything. Then nothing at all.

I’ve come on here more often in the past week than probably an entire month of last year. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – but I’m too forgetful and too bothered to go back and verify that statistic. You see, I’m starting to distrust numbers, or at least how they’ve been used in today’s terms, and the illusion of confidence they instill in us. Instead of accepting facts as absolutes I’m reclaiming my natural inclination towards the absurdity of life and my mistrust of authority. Never let the rebel in you die.

Numbers are only a story. As I’ve read in Trauma Farm, probably the best novel I’ve ever read – and I don’t think “novel” is the accurate word – in a long time. It’s an 18-year personal history of small farming and rural life on the Canadian West Coast told in the format of one day, reaching equally into the past and future. It starts in darkness and ends in darkness. As much as I could gush about it to you on here, I’m so enamoured with the words, stories, and absurd personal history of author Brian Brett that I’m reading it again, which will probably benefit us all the greater. I just finished it in December, but I am so drawn to the dense web of fact and fiction that make for a beautiful stone in this West Coast (Brett grew up here in Vancouver and lives on Saltspring Island) that I’ve got to finger through this jewel again.

I don’t know if I’ll walk out of here a poet or a farmer, but I can assure you I’ll walk out of here a better writer and proselytizer of this beautiful homeland.

My taste in music: Medium Raw

I’ve just finished Anthony Bourdain’s latest book, Medium Raw. Strangely, instead of hitting a Food Network marathon or going to the kitchen to experiment with something tasty, I’m thinking about music.

You see, the literary arts are very similar to music; they require balance of contradictions and a disciplined mind to focus otherwise ephemeral, nonsensical notes into melodies. Within the fretboard of a guitar alone there are about 132 or 138 possible notes, but it is the creative genius of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Albert King (or for pure pleasure, both) that pulls, from the fathomless combinations, beautiful blues riffs and cascading cadences which slip into the back of the mind, eyes closed. I don’t compare Bourdain’s content to that of a guitar demigods, but I generally share the tastes of his age and rebellion – and his passionate love for sentimental things.

Unlike many of my peers, my taste in music is not something off the “Top 40” list. Any “pop” streamed songs found on the airwaves or in suburban hard drives does not usually make it’s way to my ears on conscious command. Usually I come along “mainstream” music by way of reverse engineering: a friend plays the song that presumably everyone knows and of which is a new discovery to me.

Instead, I can be found with an iPod full (it’s only 1 gigabyte) of songs I listen to for five years at a time. I like to explore albums already made and written about. Like a miner I search for gold – but through the dust. Sure, there is a pleasure that comes with wearing the most fashionable clothes, but I am a stubborn believer in the satisfaction behind dirty pants and a hard day’s work. I think that’s what I share in common with Bourdain: an appreciation for the real. My peers would accuse me of being boring.

So while I’m looking for a new book to put before my eyes, you can find me jamming to the tunes of Ray LaMontagne, Norah Jones, Rachael Yamagata, John Mayer, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Hendrix, Albert King, Neil Young, Weezer, Lauryn Hill, Dylan, Jann Arden, MacLauchlan, Priscilla Ahn, Clara C, Lucinda Williams, Michael Jackson, and the Mountain Goats. To name a few.

Happy New Year, 2011

On this New Year’s day, I’m thinking about the past. Not living in it – but looking back on a year that was decent to me and pretty good. And pretty bland and pretty mentally psychotic…but that’s another story. I’m thinking about how we need to be in touch with our roots, but there is a need to move forward in life. How letting go of the past can be painful, but necessary and important. How we need to be open, which sometimes means we need to be empty – so that we may be full. I’m thinking of how The Simpsons are the perfect education for bright, young minds; healthily instilling subversive thinking and informing the naive with a careful mistrust of authority, inoculating them for today’s pop culture.

I’m thinking about “cool” and how cool never really controls its fate. Not really. Everybody danced the disco, but nobody willingly let it fall to the ground off its seven storey platform heels. I’m disagreeing with my friend that “hipster” is dead. I think it’s just another part of cool on the way out the door, but I don’t think it’s dead.

I’m thinking about how one day I want to be a dad and how soon that really is. But not soon enough. And all the same, way too soon. Twenty-two is so young and yet so old…relatively speaking. I’m smart enough to know that I’ll never know everything, and careful enough to be skeptical that I know anything.

And I’m going to continue thinking for a little while at this beginning of another year. Birthdays, funerals. Discos and dinners. Losers and winners. Life will be the same, yet never again.


May this year bring the same great joys you have felt in the past, and enough encounters with reality to want to change it somehow. Happy New Year!