In April, I tried something new.

I stepped onto a stage (The Capitol, in Port Hope, Ontario) and up to the mic, and I spoke.

I didn’t sing. At all.

I talk a lot during my shows, you know that. Telling stories between songs has always been as important as performing the songs themselves. That telling makes bridges and offers moments of reprieve, a chance to respond to that exact moment, and a chance for us to know each other a little better in another way.

As important, but not the goal. I sing for you; that has always been why I take a deep breath and step up to the mic. It has always been my job, my joy, and the means through which to open my heart and yours. That exchange is a magical thing we do together.

Since my thyroidectomy last year, I have not performed. Instead, I’ve been writing, staying in one place (sleeping in my own bed All The Time!), and working as an associate producer in digital at CBC. It’s been a good year, one where I have missed and gained many things.

I had, not long after the thyroid surgery, performed at ideacity in Toronto last June, and as a solution to the problem of my shaky voice, I spoke for half my time and half-talked through the parts of the songs my voice couldn’t sing:

 

That was an unforgettable day, and I knew from then that my voice needed a break; a chance to recover.

In January, my friends at Greenwood Coalition asked me to be part of their annual Imaginate. I said yes. Then I panicked.

I wasn’t ready to sing. So what could I do?

Trying to answer that question became the conversation. I spoke to Nana Aba Duncan on CBC’s Fresh Air about trying to figure it out:

And then on April 13, I stepped out from the wings with no guitar in hand nor piano to turn to, and I told the ears and hearts there what I’ve been trying to come to terms with with my voice.

It was something new. And it was wonderful.

Here is part of what I shared with the audience that night.

Tonight in Port Hope! I’m really honoured to be part of this.

A post shared by Christa Couture (@christacouture) on

I’m going to tell a few stories about names. When my mom was pregnant with me, I was named Matthew. She was sure she was having a Matthew.

When I was born, and Matthew no longer seemed a fit, it took her a few days to think of an alternative. Eventually: Christa. Christa Faye. She thought it suited me, and she was right! I have always felt like a Christa. 

And I have always loved the stories behind names and the meaning of names. I want to know how your name was chosen for you, or how you chose it for yourself. Middle names are often ripe with backstory: there’s the great aunt the middle name is after or the first sight a parent saw on the day of your birth and so on. And there’s just something about these stories that I have always found so enticing.

So the story of my name Christa started with Matthew. But I also have another name.

My mother is Norwegian and Swedish, my father was Cree. And when I was two-years-old, I was given my traditional name.

In my Cree culture, in many Indigenous cultures, our traditional names are given in ceremony, and they speak to our role in our community. They speak to our gifts, and they speak to our duty to use those gifts.

My traditional name is Sanibe.

Say nee bay.

It’s not actually a Cree word because the elder who gave me my name was Arapaho, we were in that territory, and you work with what you’ve got… and so my traditional name is Sanibe. And it means Singing Woman.

At my naming ceremony, the elder Raymond told my family: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.” And that is a story that I heard over and over when I was growing up. “Oh Raymond told us, she’s going to sing a lot and she’s going to talk a lot…” I loved that story.

As Singing Woman, I have been writing songs for as long as I can remember. And for the past 15 years, I’ve been recording those songs and performing them on stages across Canada and Europe and doing my job — being true to my name.

Singing songs has been not only my job but also how I have survived the hardest parts of my life. I am a person who has experienced a lot of loss. The loss of my leg to cancer, the loss of my father, the loss of my two children who have both died, the loss of my marriage after that.

I write about those losses in all of my songs. And in getting to share those stories through music, I have felt seen and heard. And with grief in particular, which is such a lonely emotion, I have had moments with you where I have felt less alone.

Someone asked me recently, most specifically to the loss of my children: “How are you okay?” And that’s hard to answer simply because like anyone I’m not in a fixed state. Sometimes I’m okay, and sometimes I’m not okay, and that’s human. But I did say that time passing helps, and singing and writing helps.

Which is the reciprocal part of Sanibe — that the name speaks to what I can give, but it has also been a huge part of what I’ve received.

Now a year ago, I had two surgeries on my neck: one to remove thyroid cancer, and a second to address an arterial bleed that erupted. And those surgeries changed my voice. They changed my singing voice. I can still sing, it’s just different, and I haven’t quite figured out how to use this new voice. Earlier this year, I was struggling very much with that reality.

How can I be Singing Woman if I’m not singing songs? That’s the whole point! And I was actually here in Port Hope, on my way to meet David and Beth Sheffield to talk about Imaginate, to talk about this exact moment, and Raymond’s story that I’ve heard so many times came to mind: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.”

For the first time ever, I heard the second half of that teaching. I’d always heard the “she’s going to sing a lot,” that part is obvious. And I had thought “she’s going to talk a lot part” just meant that I was chatty.

But for the first time, it occurred to me, that “she’s going to talk a lot“ was also a part of being Sanibe. That it could also be part of why I’m here and what my role is.

I felt a huge relief to consider it that way.

So instead of writing songs, I’ve been writing my stories down, and I’m going to read one of them to you now. This is a story that I have told in songs, but it comes out a little differently on the page….

…at which point, I opened my notebook and read one of the chapters in progress of my book. Reading to an audience felt raw and new, exciting, too. But also familiar — it turns out stepping up to a mic and opening my heart doesn’t need a guitar or piano or melody to be the invitation to listeners that singing always has been.

I have a new scar (I like scars). It was twice-made three weeks ago today. First, by a thyroidectomy and second, hours later, in an emergency procedure to address an arterial bleed, also known as “that time you were partially decapitated” by my dear (most inadequate adjective) Susan, who was there and who, by being there, may well have saved my life. Doctors had to reopen my neck at the bedside with me still awake, and it was one of the scarier medical moments of my life (a life that’s been riddled with experiencing and witnessing a lot of scary medical moments). Susan and I may have only just, respectively, stopped shaking from the surreal adventure.

We’re okay.

I’m okay. I’ve been incredibly supported by friends through this experience and that support has been a well of feeling love and home.

I can’t yet lift my head too high — so if we hug that’s why I’m resting my cheek on your chest (so cozy!) — and I’m navigating fluctuating calcium levels and new hormones.

Also, my voice. Truth is, I postponed this surgery until after my CD release tour in case it changed my voice. At inspection, my vocal cords are not permanently damaged. They are, temporarily I’m told, by use, changed. My voice is weakened, breathy, and pitchy (pitchy!!). Notes are airy and truncated. Some are out of reach. My voice is slightly unfamiliar and a little wild. I’m getting to know her and she holds surprises. She sounds like me. But different.

It’s only been three weeks.

In the moments that the doctors and nurses were addressing the haematoma, I was staring up at the ceiling thinking “I probably won’t die because there are all these people here to fix this, but I do need space for the pain.” Thank you mindfulness training for planting that thought. I was having difficulty breathing, and blood was pouring down my chest as the surgeon’s fingers pulled open skin, muscle, and pulled clots out of the cavity of my neck. I looked at Susan and saw her fear; I felt fear. I looked at the surgeon and saw his steadiness. I thought about not fighting the pain.

In a week, I’ll be playing a grand piano in Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of my presentation at this year’s ideacity. It’s a remarkable opportunity. And I’ll be showing up with the new voice. All I can do is invite that voice in, and invite others to receive it as I do in every performance. I can’t wish this voice were something it’s not. I can’t fight with it.

Easier said that done, but hey, what’s a practice of trying to be present without reminders of why? Because things can change in an instant.

After ideacity, I’ll be resting this voice and giving it time to return to/find new strength, singing softly to my garden and the trees that frame it, singing to you from here, maybe coming up with new stories of How I Got This Scar (knife fight? Bear attack? Sloppy vampire?), and plotting my next bold move.

xoc