On Gord Downie and Being Present

A week ago, Tuesday morning. I’m sitting in the rocking chair, watching the kids destroy the sun room and wishing I was somewhere else when my cell pings, calling me back to the present. I pick it up and read the text my mom has just sent me: it’s a link to an article about the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie. He has terminal brain cancer. Around me, a pair of pants sail through the air as Aedan runs past, naked. I feel like I’ve been gut-punched.

The Tragically Hip are “that band” for me. The first band of which I became an ardent fan. My older cousins, in Ingersoll, loved them. They’d play their music at the parties we all went to together, and it didn’t take long for my interest in the band to grow beyond my adoration for my cousins. I think Fully Completely was the first album of theirs I owned. But it’s Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse that were the soundtracks to my early teens. A little bit bluesy, a little bit raw, a little bit moody, with a couple of ballad-type songs thrown in for good measure, those two albums were everything to me. And when Gord Downie released his first solo album and collection of poetry, I devoured it. Gord Downie’s writing was my introduction to contemporary poetry. His writing sparked my love of poetry, and led me to one of my favourite Canadian poets, Al Purdy. I’m sure I’m not the only poet in this country who owes their beginnings to Gord.

After my first Hip concert, I vowed to see them whenever they were playing in the area. I’ve seen them seven times in concert, now. Gord Downie is the consummate artist. He is electric to watch on stage; he seems to have a direct line to the Muse, to his creative source, fully open at all times.

When I read that he’d been handed a death sentence, I was crushed. I don’t mean to eulogize him here, though, because life rolls on. His life, his art, rolls on. They’re releasing a new album, they’re about to embark on an eleven date tour. In their statement about Gord’s cancer, they had this to say:

“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and it’s magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.”

It’s this connection, the magic that they speak of, that draws me to them, that draws so many of us to them. And it’s what draws me to writing, too. To take part in that magic, either directly by creating your own art, or indirectly, by experiencing it through another’s art, is something special. And it’s Gord Downie’s dedication to this, not just now but all through his artistic career, that inspires me. He seems to be ever present for his art, for whatever comes through, be it on the page or the stage.

I hope I can learn to be so present for my own art, for whatever comes through. Not questioning it, but just being there, being a witness to it. Letting it rest on the page, and then, later, coaxing it out and pushing it just a little bit further.

I hope I can learn to be present like this for my life, too. For my self, for my family, for each moment of the day. In the tumult of the last few weeks, the roller coaster of emotions that accompany this impending cross-country move, what has helped me through has been to focus on the present moment, to really be IN it. To bear witness to whatever is happening, to whatever feelings are there. To be there for my sadness, my fear, my anger, and my excitement, too. To be there with my kids, with my parents, my grandmothers. To hold still in those moments, instead of letting my mind wander to thoughts of what we’re about to lose. Because once I let those thoughts in, I’m no longer there.

In that same vein, I think seeing the Hip on this upcoming tour will be an exercise in staying present. In feeling that deep connection to the band and the music without thinking things like “this will be the last time…” I wish that peace of mind to Gord and the rest of the band; that they can just drink in each of those eleven concerts, connect with each of the thousands of Hip fans who will no doubt raise their lighters (or their cell phone flashlights, I guess) in those darkened arenas and stadiums across the country this summer, singing themselves hoarse in a shared celebration of life and art and magic.

Image via Flickr user Ryan Merkley


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