As I write this, I’m staring at a small plastic crucifix affixed to a concrete wall at the end of my single bed. To the left of me, the other single bed is occupied by my two guitars and one gym bag. To the right of my bed is a white concrete wall with a water-colour painting of two women sitting on the rocks, overlooking the ocean. Next to the crucifix is a picture of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms. It’s a small picture but placed as the centerpiece of the room as it’s up high above the adjoining closed doors. Across from the small crucifix is a statue of Mother Mary with baby Jesus hanging on the wall. It looks very authentic, as though someone may have hand crafted this small piece of other-worldliness. Over on the far left wall is a large picture of Jesus as a man, surrounded by his flock of sheep. It’s a very tranquil painting. Upon looking above me at the back wall, I see two brass heads looking down over either bed. One of Jesus and one of Mary. I have my window open just a crack….enough to let the air into my tiny room. I just heard the train go by. There is only a small sink in the corner and the bathroom is down the dark hall somewhere in the abyss. I certainly hope I don’t get disoriented, lest I’d have to say “The answer my friend is blowin in the wind…the answer is pissin in the sink!” Then again, how could I let down the Sisters of Saint Therese? I couldn’t. I would ‘stumble and stagger down the snakes and up the ladders to the towers where the blessed bathroom lies’ – all in an effort to redeem myself in the eyes of the Lord.
Yes sir, through a miracle of sorts, the Ursuline Sisters – now St. Therese School (or in this case a young Catholic girl preparing for her big wedding day next weekend) allowed this wandering troubadour a place to rest for the evening. Nice of her for sure. The Sisters have long moved on, and like most convents it has run headfirst into twenty-first century atheism. What’s amazing to me as I sit here is the beautiful silence. In fact there are signs everywhere throughout the convent saying “Silence – how can you hear anything if you’re not listening!” I love that. It feels strangely comfortable for a disenfranchised Catholic like me.
I made it back to Bruno Saskatchewan today in advance of the Canada Day Celebrations. A promise I made to the town a few years ago has come to fruition. I said I would return for our nations birthday and here I am. Bruno can’t be anymore than five-hundred folks (if that) and it was musically put on the map by a guy named Tyler who simply rolled into the ‘middle of nowhere’ with a girlfriend and a dream. He thought ‘If I build it, they will come.” He created a small cafe, a small stage and the people in town started attending the shows. The musicians heard about it and put it on their tour routes. Voila! It happened. Bruno was suddenly talked about from Victoria to Saint John. Musicians immediately discussed the tiny town jail the size of a wood shed right on the main drag. It’s just one of those landmarks you never forget.
In a few hours I’ll be on a flatbed trailer singing to the town as they watch from the their Maple Leaf lawn chairs in that exact park. I’m looking forward to this day for a variety of reasons. For starters, I’ve learned to love this country beyond my expectations so to celebrate it’s birthday is a true joy. I know, I know (according to the bard) “Patriotism is the last refuge…to each a scoundrel clings.” That’s not it. It’s not about lines on the map per se, it’s just about the people I’ve met and our amazing geography. Or as my buddy Andy says “Aymar, 95% of this country is rugged rocks and trees…the rest is just about the people!” Very true buddy….very true.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Bruno this year for Canada Day but fate dealt me a strange hand. I was booked to perform at a private festival from an individual who saw me perform last year in Moose Jaw. Unfortunately the festival organizer became very ill and he was much too sick to continue on. (God bless you my friend and I hope you pull through). I made some quick alternate arrangements and found myself leaving the pick-up band behind and heading north to Nokomis, Humbolt and now Bruno SK. But making new plans has become run of the mill on this tour. Let’s just say, I may be the curse or the cure – I’m not quite sure – but every single stop along the way has been marred by natural disaster. Let me back it up.
The first month out went relatively smoothly but it wasn’t until I hit Stony Plain Alberta to perform at the Early Stage Saloon that I was hit with the bad news. The waitress whom I’ve met over these past four years, lost all of the contents of her apartment to a fire. The fire ravaged the entire building and unfortunately she was without proper insurance. I decided to donate the sale of my CD profits to her for the one night I was there (Bravo Aymar – we love you…awww gee it was nothing). I left Stony Plain and slowly made my way over to Golden, Kelowna, then Pentiction, back to Revelstoke, Calgary, Red Deer, High River, Nanton, Twin Butte then Medicine Hat (or as someone mentioned Canadian songwriter Stephen Fearings explanation of how he toured Alberta calling it “The Star of David Tour!” lol…thanks Stephen…consider that one stolen). It seems that I was the bad boogie-woogie weather-maker. Everywhere I went, a few days later they would be hit by heavy rains. It greatly effected most of my shows. Many were cancelled and many were in the middle of such bad weather that only a handful braved the elements to come out.
It’s obviously such a double edged sword this crazy sociable life of playing and touring like this. You meet so many incredible people that it’s actually dizzying. The downside is often when those same people are affected by tragedies, you run low on the empathy scale as there are so many new friends to grieve for. I like to think that my heart is big enough to appropriately grieve for the victims of these horrific floods but I’m not sure. It’s burning me out a bit. My friends in Calgary have lost so much – the same area I had been walking in days before – now gone. History, wiped out in an instant. High River, and their funky little music venue Gitters, run by a friend Donna – gone. Medicine Hat – spared the ugliness of massive ruin, yet still badly bruised. I saw the pain only briefly in the eyes of the folks at the evacuation shelter. The volunteers sure shoulder a burden during these times. You want to meet amazing people…really salt of the earth people….volunteer. It’s going to be my new mission. If any good came of this, it was that epiphany.
As I too had lost many anchor shows I was kindly offered the amazing charity of some great artists and tenders of the trail in The Hat. Traci and Jay and Piet and Ina and the list goes on. (I predict a great well-spring of art out their combined movement in Medicine Hat – I’m good at calling winners too!) It was with this heavy hearted feeling for the folks of Alberta, I finally made it onto dry prairie land and Big Sky opened up. It became a heat wave (although they’d had the torrential rains during seeding just a few weeks ago. Gonna hurt the crops I’m sure).
After a few solid gigs and a chance to be on my own again, I wound up with a Sunday to myself in a town I love in a small room inside an empty convent in the middle of Saskatchewan only now waking up to Canada Day (which is like Christmas to me – I’ll leave it to your imagination how good it all feels). I look up from my bed and “Mother Mary’s watching me…speaking words of wisdom…let it be!” Or as the Muppet Show band used to sing “Letter B..Letter B”. I’m reminded of the time when in my early thirties, I lived in a chapel. Should I let this story be? Oh hell…
Yup, I lived in a convent in Ottawa for two full years. My kitchen had a floor to ceiling cruxific (it was the alter) and stain glassed windows ran along the perimeter of my living room. My bedroom closet was a confessional. Had two bars installed to hold my clothes. I can’t tell you how many times I’d bring a date home only to have her either completely weirded out or strangely turned on by the proceedings. Do know how creepy it is for life-long Catholic guy like me to be sharing some wine (not sacramental – sorry) with a random girl and suddenly start making out with the big guy perched on a twelve foot high crucifix looking at me in pure judgement. With every stroke of her hair I could hear him whispering “You are in the Lords house and you bring great shame to this sanctimonious space! You will burn in Hell for these impure thoughts…these impure deeds!” Meanwhile the only thing burning was the doobie and our loins. Things would always progress to making fun of these symbols to ease the absurdity of the moment. Quite often, I remember stumbling into to the confessional (er clothes closet) to play “tell me your secrets” as though I was Reverend Aymar. It wasn’t quite fair as the queen sized bed was the first welcoming site outside of the confessional. Strange days indeed! Most peculiar mama.
The convent was up for sale, as most are these days, and the nuns had all amalgamated and were down to one last convent in Orleans, ON. My friend Jim bought the convent and asked if I would stay in the newly renovated bachelor pad (the old chapel) and keep an eye on the students he was renting it to. (An amazing world class Cordon Blue cooking school was beside us – meaning every night I was the recipient of amazing roast duck dinners!) The Cordon Blue students were all cool and one took to calling me Reverend Ferley. A name which derived from my love of the sitcom Three’s Company (Don Knotts appeared as Mr. Ferley after the Ropers left…anyone? lol…don’t ask). Yep so there was swinging bachelor Rev. Ferley selling wine by day – living in a convent by night! Although it was a cool spot, I was kind of happy to move into a sterile apartment after that. Believe me, the ghosts of my past came to life in that space. The constant reminder of how I was once a firm believer – and five year tenure as an altar boy – then only to became a disenfranchised youth (for a few years) – to wind up in a Catholic Youth Encounter as my folks thought I was slipping off the rails for a while. Ok…I’ll have to back it up even further.
In fact, I was just doing what every other kid in high school was doing (beer, a tiny bit of weed et al) but as my parents were so much older when they had me, they were still buying into “Refer Madness” as gospel. Now how mixed up is it for a kid like me when you have your own father railing against this new generation and the acceptance of weed…but simultaneously encouraging me to recite Cheech and Chong skits at the dinner table. Who was more about weed than Cheech and Chong? (or as dad still calls them ‘Cheek and Chong! ha ha). As Archie and Edith sang….”Those were the days!” So yeah, in the summer of my seventeenth year, I was called to the court of the family living room to face Judges Johnny and Mad.
“We think you need to get away from your friends for a while. We’ve found out about this Junior Rangers program and your signed up to go to Tweed ON for the summer.”
“But wait, why? What did I do?”
“We think it will be a good experience for you. Oh….Are you smoking marijuana?”
“Well…I won’t lie I’ve tried it but..Hey I don’t want to go to the bush for two months!”
And with this crazy teenage angst all teens go through, I railed against it until my mother said “Or there’s Option B.”
Come on option B – be a good one. Come on mom please spare me – show me mercy. “What’s option B?” I replied.
“Well in two weeks there’s a Catholic Youth Encounter at the Catholic Youth Centre. It’s three nights and four days and if you choose to do that, then you won’t have to go to the Junior Rangers in Tweed.”
I remember thinking – hmmmm….two months in the bush with a bunch of boring budding geologists and some recovering reprobates or a four day stint in old Catholic Stony Mountain!
“I’ll take option B!” I said semi-enthusiastically.
Two weeks came fast. I remember my friends threw me a substantial party in this gully we used to call The Zone. Bush party extraordinaire. It was behind our old elementary school and had long been the bush party spot for several generations of bored Northern Ontario teens. We went as far as to build benches and put up a sign – Welcome to The Zone. (That’s another story for another day). I can still remember celebratory beers and laughter as I was marching off to ‘do my time’ in a few short days. “Thanks guys. I’ll get this over with and see you right back here the weekend after next!”
I arrived to the Catholic Youth Centre and actually recognized some familiar faces from my past. Guys I’d played hockey with, or just random people from school. One girl I knew from my classroom became the girl they seated me beside. The first thing they wanted us to do was to assemble at the front of this gymnasium floor to give us instructions for the weekend.
“You’ll be sleeping over there – please remove watches as we don’t need to know the time – the windows are covered as well – this is when you’ll be eating etc…” Geesh…where the Maharishi?
The first night began with us having to share the reason why we had come to this encounter. Many were there on their on volition. Wanting to become closer to Christ. Many were there because it likely enhanced their chances to meet some friends as I found many to be socially awkward. A very few, like myself, were there (technically against our own will) for going a little sideways in life for a while.
The priest (Now there were many great priests I’ve met along the way (two uncles in fact) – trust me – most of them were spectacular people) gave an opening speech and somehow managed to weird out everyone in the assembly. Everyone said it as the weekend went on. You can be a teen and still have the senses of an old man. It’s true.
We were asked to come up to the podium and one by one tell the others what brought us to the encounter. We were sworn to secrecy for what was shared by the other kids that day so I can’t really get into it. Needless to say, after hearing that one guy was addicted to chocolate covered coffee beans and staying up late to listen to Wican Radio…I realized I might be okay after-all. “Hi my name is Jay Aymar. I came here because my parents thought I was partying too hard. Smoking weed and stuff. Guess that’s why I’m here. Thank you and GOOD-night!” About sixty other kids came up and recited their reasons for wanting to jump with Jesus.
As this part wound down, I was so surprised to see one of my closest friends older sister and her husband assisting with the weekend. She was a beauty. Always sang “Ava Maria” during Easter and had a spectacular voice. I think I was in love with her as a child. She was there with a guitar and her husband kept encouraging me to play. I had been playing for about a year then and had learned my very first three songs: Rocky Racoon, Moonshadow and American Pie. She asked me to perform them in front of everyone.
Now trust me teenagers – really listen up here – you don’t think your brain is susceptible to being washed? Transformed quickly? It happens. This is how it happens.
The validation I had from the crowd of people clapping for those songs was the very first form of validation I’d had on a large scale for anything (Hockey didn’t seem to count). I’d had some validation prior to that for my writing but never for music – my true passion. (I’ve always believed in the power of simple song over five hundred pages of Crime and Punishment.) Anyway, there I was feeling the rush of idolatry, hubris, pure joy….all without any chemical enhancement. Imagine that? When I was done, I left the stage and walked through the gymnasium floor to my table where I was seated beside two girls. Lisa and Cindy. Lisa was a girl I knew from high-school but was hardly into. Cindy on the other hand was a real beauty. Sandy blonde hair, big blue eyes. I couldn’t stop fixating on her. We really hit it off too and just as we were getting lost in the moment, the priest came along and partnered me up with Lisa.
Lisa ended up being cool in her own right. We both took delight in tearing down the proceedings of the weekend. We were pretending to be tough misfits. She knew my gang all too well and knew we weren’t bad guys – just lifelong friends who were partying like everyone else (only difference was the Catholic connection which made it more strict in our households – or so I’ve come to conclude). We had to sing a spiritual song to each other and do something called sharing “Palanka” which was a gift with the other person. It meant opening up to the other individual. I’ll never forget how over the course of those two days, my opening up to this random girl in these circumstances began to feel very real. I listened to her she listened to me and then suddenly you want to tell her everything. You are telling her everything. She’s telling you everything. Then it’s break time and you’re hungry and overtired and you don’t know what time it is and then you’re back to listening to stories about Christ. Then it’s more sharing – more playing the guitar – and WHAMO – you’re suddenly wanting to be with this girl. How could this happen? Was it divine intervention? I wasn’t into her at all 48 hours ago and now I’m some love struck fool!
Oh to be seventeen again. The weekend went on and as fate would have it, my slow disregard for Cindy made her more open to my friendship. Whatever was happening with Lisa all went away when I looked at Cindy (likely a metaphor for my future bachelorhood existence – ‘My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble” – thanks Wilcox). That taught me something. If you really want a girls attention – ignore her.
The weekend ended with all sixty of us kids on Sunday evening holding hands and running in a big circle facing each other in the gym – singing a religious song. As we were doing this, the curtains at the half of the gym opened up to all of the parents seated in folding chairs watching us. It was surreal.
One by one, we were asked to go to the podium to reveal to audience ‘how we met Jesus’. By this time, my brain was so doused in liquid Sunlight and scrubbed clean with blessed SOS pads that I walked up to the mic and gave Jesus some mighty high praise for saving my bacon. I mean, I was a hair away from turning into Faldwell or Baker (minus the hookers, blow and embezzlement). Yep, I was now a Catholic Youth (isn’t that cadence a little scary? Sound familiar?) It wasn’t until about a year later that my mom said she regretted the entire Option B plan. Even mom, who is to this day a faithful Catholic and perhaps one of the kindest souls on the planet, said she had reservations after she heard my speech that day.
I came out of this confinement to the golden dusk of a Sunday evening coming down. Sporting an extra large wooden crucifix around my neck and feeling pure and pumped up about this new girl I’d met. Cindy too had given me her phone number and asked me to join her at a PCP Party they were having in a few weeks with all of the kids from the retreat.
“A PCP party? Cindy, that doesn’t sound right?”
“It stands for pop, chips and parents silly! You want to come?”
“Sure, I’d love to come along!”
For my lifelong friends to see me walk up to the lunch table on Monday wearing a gigantic wooden crucifix on the outside of my shirt must have been akin to seeing a alien life form walking the hallways of our school. “Alien High” Starring ….Reverend Ferley!
Yup, as they tell me, the gang was sitting around the lunch table using high-school vernacular pretending to be Jr. Sopranos.
“Yeah so that fuckin guy went over and did some of that shit…and holy fuck…shit…mother…who wants to go for a smoke?” etc…
“Excuse me guys”, I righteously exclaimed, ” would you please refrain from swearing?”
To which the entire table laughed hysterically as I turtled into my new uber-Catholic persona. I only found comfort in Lisa – the one girl in highschool who could relate to this new found reality. We went together for a year. It felt real at the time but looking back it was simply ‘another brick in the wall’. Looking back we were both just lucky to be dodging bullets. If anything came of it, two of my very best friends have been married ever since those days and are still going stronger then ever!!!
The holy-roller stuff officially ended with me screwing around with the crucifix chain on the back of my neck until it slipped off. I went to pick it up and accidentally dropped it into the sewer directly in front of my house. YES – THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED – IRONY ALERT!!! It wasn’t before too long I was back to throwing roaches and cig butts back in that same sewer. Oh and by the way, I went to the PCP party right around the time the brainwashing was fading and found that Cindy was simply a nice straight-laced Catholic girl and her friends were very conservative. Likely she would have been the one to pursue – nothing wrong with pure goodness. I was always the chump going for the first one that chose me. lol
So, here I am, writing this entire diatribe on floods, fires, females, hanging crosses, crosses to bare and songs to sing – all while resting in a deathly quiet room once inhabited by two nuns. What did they talk about? Did they share secrets the way I did at the retreat? Who were they? How many came through this room? Can you imagine dedicating your life to a concept? It truly amazes me. Oh wait…that’s what I’m doing. Songwriting – Nice.
I felt a very warm calm come over me when I landed here yesterday. It was like I was meant to be here to reflect on these past few months and the hardships folks have suffered.
The great side of religion and faith is that it does offer some hope to the hopeless. What’s wrong with that? You can keep the dogma and institutionalized lunacy (from my humble perspective). What I think is cool is that these beautiful sentiments passed along from all world religions, our little superstitions give us something to hold on to in dark times – well…just maybe they aren’t all that bad either. I called home today to tell mom and dad that I was sleeping in a convent. My mom said “Well…it’s Sunday Jamie…did you go to church today?”
“Mom, you ever heard of Tom T. Hall? He wrote a song I love called ‘Me and Jesus Got our Own Thing Going”.
“No I’ve never heard of it but I guess that’s an okay way to look at it!”
“Thanks for the free pass ma!”
“Just try to be good son.”
we were brought into this we had no choice
taught to repent we learn to rejoice
and I fear this god might be all in our mind
our way of easing the passing of time
but what if these fables all come to pass
or the answer exists in one blade of grass
maybe we’re all just molecular mass
compounds of solids, liquids and gas
and it’s all I know is I know nothing at all
a picture of Darwin appears in my hall
and outside the leaves start to fall