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.

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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’m writing. Not songs, for the time being, but pages and pages of stories. True stories: some of the ones I’ve been telling in songs for years are now finding a new place as I continue to try and understand and share the experiences, and some I haven’t told before.

As it stands, I’m writing a book about loss. And as I write and research, I’ve been reading many other books about grief and also memoir in general.

This week, a column I recorded with Shelagh Rogers for The Next Chapter aired on CBC about the books I’ve turned to.

You can listen to that interview here.

But let me explain.

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The first three — H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Certainty by Madeleine Thien, and Hot, Wet, & Shaking by Kaleigh Trace are explained in the interview.

But in case you skip the audio, the inclusion of the third needs elaboration because at a glance you are saying, “that’s not a book about loss, that’s a book about sex,” and well YES you are right.

I read Hot, Wet, & Shaking because I was looking at forms of memoir; I read it because it’s written by a disabled woman and as a disabled woman myself HOLY SMOKES is it hard to find our voices represented, much less on the subject of disability AND sex (gasp).

And there are ways that I have equated disability to grief — the space it can take in my days and the planning around it. So this book made it’s way on to the list for that reason as well.

AND Trace’s book empowers difference and different bodies. Which is pretty much everybody/every body. I felt really good about being in my skin after I read the book. You probably will, too.

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The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown is a book I read at my son Ford’s bedside during the months he was in hospital. Brown and his family spend time navigating the medical system for their disabled son, and I felt comfort is seeing that part of my life reflected. It may not be a book about loss, exactly, but it is, to me, a book about adjustment, acceptance, and parenting.

When speaking about Hawk during the interview, I mention the inspiration I’ve found in books about the natural world. Trauma Farm by Brian Brett is included in this list as one of my favourite examples of that. I find the descriptions of life and death in the animal world refreshingly frank; I relate to the visceral presence of breath, blood, and bodies.

Brett is also very funny.

(I stayed at Trauma Farm, the actual place on Salt Spring Island, while on tour with C.R. Avery in 2012, before I read the book, so I had the delightful insight of knowing the sound of Brett’s voice as I read his words — not required to enjoy the book, I’m sure, but look up some interviews with the guy, he has warmth and character.)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is like the grief classic. I read it just a couple month’s after my son Emmett died and it was the first truly understanding voice I heard in those months. Her experience of loss, in this book, is that of her husband. It didn’t matter the type of loss: the blurriness of time, the in/visibility of the bereaved, all of it was “yes, yes, yes, exactly that, thank you for saying so” for me.

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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Well, goodness. This book ties for first with Magical Thinking as far as Books That Best Articulate Grief and Chronic Trauma for me. It is full of dark humour, as a life filled with loss often is; it’s beautiful and it aches.

Sorrows, like Certainty on this list, is fiction. But I feel little difference between non- and fiction on the subject, and these two are books that grew out of lived experience; both are full of the author’s own heart break. What feels real is real in these stories.

Pema Chodrin’s When Things Fall Apart is a good, heart-opening approach to suffereing, though I must admit when I first read it, the hardships she was talking about didn’t seem hard enough. This book is perfect for ordinary heartache — not easy heartache mind you, but the kind we’re surrounded by. The book vibrates with compassion.

theheartandthebottle-220If you have, in your thoughts or on paper, written letters to a loved one, perhaps with the things you wish you could have said in person, Paula by Isabel Allende will reach you.

Lastly, the kid’s book The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is on the list as sometimes pictures and just a few words is all you need. There are many kid’s books about loss, and a lot of them bad. This is one of my favourites, as far as how we carry heartache forward.

And that’s the 10 that came to mind when I was asked to put together a list. I am always looking for more friends in books, and I hope you may find a friend in at least one of these, and if not, at least, a little joy or comfort. We can all always use a little more of that.

xoc