This Tree (featuring Julie Sproule & Emma Jones)

 

When my Grampa died, he died sad.  He missed my Nanny.

His Joan.

She had died before him, and he was never the same after. He died of old age, he was 92; he died of a broken heart.  He spent a number of years willing his body to give–as it did, his mind stayed in tact.   It was a terrible thing to watch: a man, one of the wisest I have ever known, cerebral as ever, physically wasting away.

***

I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents in my first 30 years.  I really enjoyed their company.

I still have rolling film of us driving beside the ocean in West-Vancouver, along the sea-wall, into a glorious sun that made it impossible to see, and so we traveled at an idling-speed as my Grampa just tried to say on the road.  I still remember thinking that this was the first time my grandparents became old. It’s not a good a memory: it was a time I discovered what old meant; how humans, like everything else, slowly breakdown; how people you love really do disappear right in front of your eyes.

I really enjoyed their company.

***

When my Nanny died I wrote a song called ‘Joan’s Call.’  I was sad when she died. We shared a closeness.  She lived long enough for us to become friends.  She died at a difficult time in my life and I didn’t get to see her that one last time–she died, and I felt that loss, and I wrote a song.

 

 

My Grampa and I didn’t have the same relationship my Nanny and I had.  I’m not sure he was capable of that kind of relationship, really. But he loved me, and he liked spending time with me, and now he was dead too, and I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.  Truth be told, I didn’t really know if I’d have anything to say. And that seemed wrong, and entirely the case anyway.

***

Months after my Grampa died my Mom asked if I’d help coordinate a slideshow for a celebration of life that would take place in June.  My initial hesitance was a product of pressure: if you’re doing something to celebrate a life it has to be thorough, narrative, reflective, and I couldn’t write a note on my guitar, let alone a song.

The initial step in coordination was getting photos from family spread across Canada.  The irony of the ease of sharing that exists now is that it’s remarkably hard to get people to sit down and share photos despite that ease. As photos trickled in I began to catalogue them. I was planning on bringing in at least two other members of the family to put the slideshow together. The first indication that this was becoming my own project, an exercise in art, was when I began scrawling on paper and editing the narrative I would tell with the collection of photos spanning 90 years.

When I began choosing songs, songs that created rhythms for the photo transitions, lyrics that created layers to the photos, emotions built into moments transcribed within the collection, this slideshow became something else.

It was here that I found my voice.

***

90 years of photos, of life, of family, creates story. Looking at hundreds of photos with a constant subject teaches you something about that subject.  Awareness is drawn to characteristics you hadn’t noticed: blue as the dominant colour in outfits spanning 50 years; a sardonic smile that appears only in a review of a series of pictures over and over again; the way two people look at each other, over the ebbs and flows of life.  A person’s life can literally be captured in a series of photos in a way that is lost to film, lost to moving pictures, lost to the naked eye viewing the moment in real-time.

As I quilted moments of the slide-show together and saw my own life emerge as part of the story, and my childrens’ lives following me, I began to understand something, I began to see my place in the world, their place in the world, and rather than lost I felt discovered.  For the first time in my life, I simultaneously understood where I came from, how I got here, and where I’m headed.  As Alan Watts  says, “I [] realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”

***

This is the story of a song.  It came to me as I picked my guitar in my classroom.  Within 24 hours of the words “See me in this tree” slipping off my tongue, the song, verse, chorus, bridge, and melody, were all written. 24 hours later I had a sketch for the recording. By the end of that evening I had an idea: I would invite my cousin, 20 years my junior, and my 7-year-old daughter, to record vocals on the track.  The track would be the centrepiece, the missing piece, to the puzzle of the ever-growing slideshow, now film, that I’d been producing.

The final track represents the voices of 3 generations, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of my Nanny and Grampa. There is a symmetry there that was unintentional and serendipitously perfect. We are, the three of us, their “leaves.”

***

The story of my Grampa can’t be told without my Nanny and nor should it be. They were significant people in the lives of their ‘leaves’ and their passing was felt.  There is a chaos that ensues following a death: how does the world work with such an important piece missing.

I found comfort, as I wrote, in the thinking that instead of them missing, they were in fact present, embodied by the family that came from them.  In preparing a short introduction to my film, I thought I would mention this.  The room was full of them, because we filled the room.   We lived on, and, because of us, so did they: “Now you stand: cast new shadow, cast new light.”

As if the universe needed such a point to be remembered, my cousin stood before my family and talked somberly about how death was like burning down a library, destroying all the stories in it forever.

Even now I cringe at the suggestion, but then it seemed to create an opportunity: this was the exact thinking I juxtaposed in my song: far from burning the library down and destroying the stories, as so many in history had tried to, the memories of people and, so, their stories and, so, those people, can never be destroyed.  They live on. They are immortal.  The story, and the person it holds.  Yes, my Grampa  had left this earth.  Yes, so too had my Nanny.  But we filled this room with the product of their lives, and the product of those lives, and the product of those lives, and so on.  “You are my leaves,/ always here with me./ In you I’m living./ See me in this tree.”

***

I’ve sat on this recording since June. In my mind, the track was not perfect and therefore not worthy of representing my work. Recently Emma, my 7-year-old asked to hear it again. Since recording the track, she sings ‘This Tree’ at the top of her lungs around the house, and last week she remembered that day in June when we stayed up late recording her vocals.  I found it on my iPod and played it for her. It still moves me every time I hear it.

This week my colleague at work stopped me to tell me that she’d been listening to ‘Joan’s Call’ on repeat again, and I asked if she wanted to hear something else.  I told her the story, and she plugged in her headphones.  She went to do a task while listening, and I went back to work.  A minute later she tapped my shoulder and pointed to the tears on her cheeks and in her eyes. Later, we discussed the story again, and Emma’s singing on the track.  I told her I’d been sitting on the recording and why.  Ruth shook her head.

Last night I opened the recording in my studio.  I thought I might make some changes, readying it for publication.  I listened. I cried. It’s ready.

 Lyrics: 

See me in this tree.
See me in this tree.
That’s where I’ll be.
See me in this tree.

You are my leaves,
always here with me.
In you I’m living.
See me in this tree.

See. Me. In. This. Tree.

At once we are seeds.
With time weathered trees.
The wisdom of rings,
weakened by what time brings.

See. Me. See. Me. In. This. Tree.

I have stood
here all my life.
Now you stand:
cast new shadow,
cast new light.
Cast new shadow,
cast new light.

See me in this tree.           You are my leaves.
See me in this tree.           Always here with me.
That’s where I’ll be,          in you I’m living.
See me in this tree.           See me in this tree.
See me in this tree.           See me in this tree.
See me in this tree.           See me in this tree.

1 Response to This Tree (featuring Julie Sproule & Emma Jones)

  1. It is a wonderful truth and a great comfort to know that our departed loved ones are present in our lives. Your daughter has a soulful voice. Lucky you to hear it regularly as she belts out this tune around the house!

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