The One Where I Lived in Leeds for Five Months

I’ve wanted to live in England since I was nine. A fourth-grade unit on Medieval Times had my brain filled with images of sprawling hills and stately castles, my imagination spurred on by myths of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the Sword in the Stone. Years later, my fascination with the country shifted focus, my world orbiting around the bands that called England home, my chunky, 120GB iPod classic (AKA my pride and joy) filled with tracks by Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines and Spector and Palma Violets. England has occupied a fair chunk of my mind for much of my life, and I’ve always been content to let it take up that space.

In order to satisfy what felt like an empty space in my chest, I chased England with all I had. I read a lot of books, daydreaming about settling in the capital. I bought countless Union Jack branded items, covering my bed in cushions and carrying around a London-themed tote bag that I bought at a Topshop in Chicago – a pilgrimage I only made because it seemed to me like the coolest store I could ever shop at. I painted watercolour pictures of the skyline. I wrote quotes in the margins of my notebook, my favourite one being Samuel Johnson’s confident declaration that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Eventually, at eighteen, I got to visit London for the first time. Part of me worried that I had romanticized it all, that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, that I had built up false visions of its glory. The week I spent there, though, was life-affirming and glorious. Days were spent in museums – a morning at the Tate Modern on my own, moments passed in front of pieces by Guerilla Girls and Joseph Beuys, an afternoon at the V&A, a few hours wandering through the Natural History Museum. I drank a lot of coffee from Monmouth, wandered the South Bank and checked off all the tourist destinations. I dragged Abby to Brick Lane because I was desperate to go to Rough Trade East, and both of us were terrified when a street poet stopped us on the sidewalk and asked us to buy one of his poems, insisting that “it’s only poetry, love.”

I didn’t think I’d get to come back so soon. After that trip, I knew that London was where I wanted to set my life up, but in my head that was still five or ten years away. When the opportunity to apply to study at the University of Leeds – which wasn’t London, but was definitely close enough – came up, I hesitantly took my chance. Applying was daunting and I was never confident that I’d be accepted, and then my acceptance was a bit of an ordeal and it took me a while to believe that I was well and truly going to spend five months living in the country I’d always dreamed of.

Reality didn’t set in until I was days away from leaving Canada. Although I knew, deeply, that I was meant for this and that I desperately needed the fresh start that was being offered to me on a silver platter, fear began to dominate my thoughts. I never considered calling it all off, but I did mull over what would happen if I chose the safe option, if I stayed safely in Ontario, where I spent mornings on the couch with my mum watching interior design shows and drinking copious amounts of tea, where I could easily cuddle my baby sister and go for a drive with Abby just so we could sing along to Dua Lipa and MUNA and Taylor Swift, where I could meet up with my friends and go record shopping or out for dinner or spend an hour browsing the racks of BMV. Fear is consuming and untruthful, though, and I managed to quell it long enough to board the plane.

And I am so unbelievably happy that I boarded that plane. Hours later, I arrived in Leeds feeling sleepy but nonetheless electric. Our taxi wove through the streets and I tried to accustom myself to driving on the wrong side of the road. It was almost dusk, the sky turning powdery and thick, and the buildings that surrounded us were unfamiliar and caught me in a perpetual state of awe. I spent my first night in my tiny dorm room with dining hall pizza and Netflix, overcome with happiness at the fact that I was doing all the things I normally do, but I was doing them in England.

 It took me a few days to settle into life in Leeds, to get used to the thrum of a new city and the heartbeats of new people. It took me longer to figure out the winding streets and the arcades and the paths around campus, and for a while it felt as if the outside world was mirroring my inside one: jumbled and confusing, but still, somehow, completely connected and perfectly laid out.

All I wanted from Leeds was the fresh start I had been longing for for nearly two years. I wanted to figure out how to let go of the excess weight of broken friendships and people leaving without explanation, the layers of missed connections and fumbling feet and a voice that couldn’t always figure out what it was meant to be saying. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be far away from all the things I’ve always known. I wanted to see the world up close, to let unfamiliarity settle inside my bones, to become comfortable with an unclear future. I got all of that. And I also got a whole lot more.

When I look back at the past five months, it’s a blur. Day trips and plane rides and coffee dates. Long conversations and afternoons in the park alternating sips of a gin and tonic and licks of an ice lolly. Staying up late to write, pinning new quotes to my bulletin board, seeing movies and going to gigs and walking streets that I’d only ever seen in the visions I weave behind my eyes. Museums and art and laughter and meditation. Brunch and books and ticket stubs. An endless list of things that made this all feel like the best decision I’ve ever made, a truth that seemed to reveal itself over and over again.

There were big moments and little moments and in between moments. A four-hour bus ride back from Oxford, Laura and Emma and I getting to properly know one another for the first time, the three of us the loudest ones on the coach but without a care in the world. A failed hike three-quarters of the way up Arthur’s Seat, a narrowly missed panic attack and Laura’s hand around mine as she led me back down, the most reassuring thing I could have asked for. Brianna and Laura and I blasting One Direction, singing and dancing and laughing as we packed Brianna’s suitcases on her last day in Leeds, dragging out the entire act so that we wouldn’t have to part before we were ready.

There were moments that left too soon and moments that will stick around in my memory forever. Groups of us sipping coffee and conversing for hours on end and then a few of us heading directly to meditation society, always the kind of afternoon that I wanted to stretch on into eternity. Emma and I in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, reunited after barely a week and a half apart, tripping over our words as we spoke over our audioguides in an attempt to catch each other up on the events of the days that had passed while we were in separate countries. A night when my heart felt like it was about to fall out of my chest, Emma and Laura barging into my dorm room armed with Pimm’s and biscuits and chocolate, a couple hours passing as we yelled cathartically into the ether, none of us knowing that I’d wake up the next morning with life feeling like it had righted itself.

There were moments that felt unreal and moments that felt like life was very, very close to my body. Abby and I sitting on the side of the Seine at golden hour, armed with a bag of croissants and pain au chocolat, a string quartet slinging melodies through the air as a haphazardly gathered choir sang along. Laura and I in the Tate Liverpool, the pair of us standing in front of the first Jenny Holzer piece we’d ever seen, staring at Truisms in awe as we read all the truths scanning themselves across the marquee. A trip to Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle, my heart overflowing as my eyes flitted over the familiar outlines of Harry Potter filming locations, my mind weaving visions of Snape’s black cloak billowing through the halls and of Hermione glaring pointedly at her defiant broomstick, urging it to float up and into her grasp.

There was music, and lots of it. My body packed in with dozens of others, watching Harry Styles from the pit as he sang and spoke and danced, my arms raised and my voice loud and my heart on fire at the fact that I got to experience such a thing. Harry again, less than two weeks later, Abby and I standing in awe as he played ‘Sweet Creature’ under a whirling disco ball, our arms outstretched as we held out a flag we had painted, the fabric emblazoned with Harry’s irrefutable mantra: Treat People With Kindness.  Four days passing, and then I’m at the front of Alexandra Palace, and The Vaccines are in front of me, and there’s confetti in my hair and the biggest smile known to mankind on my face and I don’t have any voice left but I’m soaring and the night is glorious because I’m finally seeing my favourite band play a show. And then, the beginning of June, London glowing as Patti Smith graces the stage, tears in my eyes and rivers of adoration and devotion dripping from my skin.

The thread that connects it all, though, is the people, many of whom I now refuse to live without. Friends who know how to mend broken hearts, who give spectacular pep talks, who won’t turn down a brunch date or a walk into town for a slice of cake. Friends who are as ridiculously romantic as I am, who know how to find the light, who say what needs to be said no matter what the sentences look like. Friends who are thoughtful and loyal and protective and empathetic. Friends who are on my side and who show up and who are exactly what I needed – and still need. The moments here, the joys and the aches and the confusion and the blind searching, they wouldn’t have been the same without the people I got to share the hours with, and I won’t ever let that go.

Later, after exams were done and life in Leeds had lulled, I ventured out on my own. Two weeks spent gallivanting around Europe, moving from Milan to Budapest to Prague to Amsterdam. I went to a lot of museums, slipping the tickets between the pages of my journal to keep forever, physical representations of the memories pressed close to my wordy explanations of them. I saw pieces by Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh and Warhol. I stood for ages in front of a photo by Patti Smith. I saw my first Koons and I fell more in love with contemporary art than I could have ever imagined and I laid on the floor of a gallery in Amsterdam along with a dozen other museum-goers, all of us gazing up at the silken flowers that fell close to our faces before retreating back into their metal shells.

I took a daytrip to Crema, watching the Italian countryside roll past me through the train windows. I wandered the streets in search of the doorway and the newsstand from Call Me By Your Name, my mind an endless loop of Oliver’s voice repeating Elio’s name over and over again as if it was a prayer. I sat in a café on a canal in Amsterdam, sipping a cappuccino and eating a fresh stroopwafel and writing, stopping periodically to gaze out of the open window, to take a moment to feel the breeze dance across my face. I got stopped in the streets of Budapest by a stranger who asked me if I was an artist, and I managed to get out a “yeah, kind of” before walking away and wishing I had said that I was an artist through and through, no “kind of” required.

I laid in a lot of parks, often armed with gelato and a book or my tattered leather journal, taking refuge from the busy cities in favour of finding the sun. I made myself put my phone away, not even stopping to take photos, choosing instead to commit the rooflines and the rivers and the crowds of people to memory, locking them inside my mind forever. I walked through castles and cathedrals and ossuaries, I stopped by fountains and statues in city squares, I wandered through markets and bought fresh fruit and pastries, I lingered in the light when golden hour hit and I admired every sunset. I focused on all the little things that we use to build up our lives, and I reminded myself how important those little things are.

My flight home from Amsterdam was delayed by three hours and I didn’t get back into Leeds until five in the morning, but returning to England felt like magic. I had been awake long enough to watch the sun set and then rise again, and I looked out the window of the coach as we moved through Manchester and Bradford and then Leeds, feeling completely at peace. I was exhausted and my limbs felt like they were moving through honey and I silently begged my Uber driver to stop speaking to me as he drove me back to my dorm from the station, but I felt happy nonetheless. This experience hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve always been able to find that happiness, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose it.

Leeds became a lot of things for me all at once – a resting place, a place to reinvent myself, a place where I felt like I could draw out all the parts of me that I’d been waiting to show to the world. I feel like a completely different person than the girl who first set foot here five months ago. I’m more confident. I’m braver, more willing to take risks and to speak up. I spend more time with the people I love and I pay attention to how it feels to be alive in any given moment and I write as if my heart is constantly on fire. The life I want and the life I’m living don’t feel so different anymore, and I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t had this experience.

It’s an odd thing, building a life that only lasts five months. One with little to no foundation, one sewn out of scraps of things that feel familiar and things that are completely new and things that fall somewhere in the middle. I often felt like I was fumbling through the dark with nothing to hang onto, but I always managed to find the light at the end of the tunnel. My time here feels soft and slow, as if it has bloomed across my skin like a purpling bruise, but it also feels pummeling and quick, like a freight train barrelling through barren countryside. It’ll swirl through my veins for a while, this city, and I don’t really think I mind that.

Living here has been a dream, one I’ve chased for a decade and finally managed to catch between the tips of my ink-stained fingers. And the thing about realizing one dream is that all the rest of your dreams suddenly feel closer. All the times I’ve told myself “I want to” or “maybe someday” or “I wish I could” have been left in the past and replaced with “I’m going to” or “I will” or “I’m working on it.” I’m making a conscious effort to have a hand in my own life, to fill my days with things that mean something, to own up to my choices and my words and my actions. I don’t want to leave it all up to the world anymore. I want to leave it up to me.

I’m going to come back. Probably not to Leeds, but definitely to London. That doesn’t even feel like an option anymore. It feels like a must, something I have to do for myself if I want my future to play out the way I see it in my mind and feel it in my heart. This country will always mean something to me, always be the place where my soul settles instantly, always carry a certain magic that I haven’t managed to find anywhere else. There’s no way I can leave forever. Not when England brought me lifelong friends, not when it wrote my dreams on my skin in permanent marker, not when it cleared my vision and showed me the way forward, even if the way forward is only a couple steps for now.

This is the ending of a chapter. One that feels like it was written too quickly, crammed so full that it’s started to overflow, words and sentences and paragraphs trying to crawl out of the pages and reveal themselves again, bringing lessons and knowledge and emotion with them. But I have to shut it anyway. I have to step onto the next blank page and move into something new. And, despite the sadness that comes along with leaving, that somehow feels alright. England will always be here. Always calling my name, always tied to my heart, always showing me more and more of who I am and what I want. And, sooner rather than later, I’ll answer it. And my answer won’t have a time limit. My answer will sound like forever.

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Gig Review: Patti Smith and Her Band at Victoria Park

I never actually expected to see Patti Smith live, let alone see her live twice in the span of nine months. I also didn’t expect that one of those shows would be in New York City and the other in London. Life has a funny way of realizing dreams that you didn’t even know existed, and it’s a wonderful feeling to allow those unexpected visions to wash over your body like slow-rolling waves. To stand in awe, watching someone you adore go through the motions that made you want to follow them. To immerse yourself in a crowd, faces lit up and hearts full of love, and to feel the unity that only comes along with collective experience. All of those boxes got ticked when I saw Patti at Victoria Park on Sunday night, and I’m planning on holding onto every one of those feelings as long as I possibly can.

I bought tickets to this show as soon as it got announced. I was on the credit card information page before I could even fathom what my hands were doing, my heart moving my limbs rather than my head. Back then it felt ages away, and I was in a state of both shock and denial when I boarded the coach to London on Sunday morning. It was only once I stepped onto the festival grounds that reality began to settle in, my body ignited with electricity and anticipation as I weaved my way into the crowd. And then she was in front of us and there were tears in my eyes and my voice left my throat and all I could do was watch while the woman on stage somehow managed to change me all over again.

As if the sheer fact of seeing Patti Smith wasn’t enough to kill me, she started off her set with a reading of “Footnote to Howl” by Allan Ginsberg. The incessant repetition of Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! felt like a recognition of the holiest parts of every member of the audience and of Patti herself as she stood there channeling Ginsberg’s words, reminding us all that The world is holy! The soul is holy! Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! I lost my breath for a little while, my mouth hanging open as I took in the scene before me: Patti’s grey hair hanging over her shoulders like a cloak, her brown boots pressed into the stage, her hands holding open a clipboard, a sticker pressed onto the back that read “Howl if you love City Lights Books.” She is as devoted to those who guide her soul as I am devoted to her, and all of that seemed to be boiled down into this singular moment at the beginning of the concert.

After the poem, the band plowed into ‘People Have the Power,’ a track that is decades old but doesn’t show any signs of losing its relevance. I made desperate attempts to sing along, but all I could really do was cry, and I eventually resorted to watching Patti do what she does best, my eyes swimming with tears and my face certainly displaying a rather insane array of emotions.  I managed to scramble out a few lines of the chorus, every member of the crowd standing with their hands in the air and their voices screaming words of revolution, and I have never felt anything more whole or unified.

‘Summer Cannibals’ followed, and it felt heavy and perfect. Patti hangs onto a golden fountain of youth, all her anger and passion and emotion coming out when she performs, and it was incredible to watch. She then played ‘Citizen Ship,’ another song that remains politically-charged and remarkably important, and the shift in energy was palpable as we all listened to her words, facing the truth of the lyrics and spinning the track into a call to action.

The force of her message didn’t stop there. The entire performance was laced with meaning, and she was preaching to the choir as she spoke and sang to the crowd. Her cover of ‘Mind Games’ by John Lennon was followed by simple words urging us to “make love, not war.” All our voices seemed to rise a little while we chanted Love is the answer and you know that for sure, every member of the crowd riding the high of kindred spirits and messages of love and peace and community. She played ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight Oil, too, and the takeaway was always the same – that we can’t remain stagnant anymore, can’t continue to stand by while the Earth goes up in flames, can’t keep our voices quiet when we all have things that need to be heard.

The set was rounded out with a trifecta of tracks that will likely never come close to being topped. My jaw dropped when the first chords of ‘Pissing in a River’ wafted over the speakers, and I lost myself in the song as I added my voice to the air above Victoria Park, screaming an endless mantra of Come back, come take me back along with the rest of the crowd. She then moved into ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria,’ and my world shrank to that single moment as London was bathed in golden hour light and Patti played my favourite song and I got to sing along. The band left the stage after a final admission of Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, and I stood in place for a moment before turning and making my way out of the festival, another shred of my heart left suspended above Patti’s body.

I am left in constant awe of the effect that Patti Smith has on me. The way she speaks up, pulling words out of her mouth that allow the followers at her feet to find freedom and creativity and light. Her movement on stage, how she dances just to feel something, her infectious gestures thrumming through the crowd as we all begin to mirror her. Her mistakes and fumbles and the unapologetic nature with which she backs up and does it all over again just because she can. She holds nothing back. When she’s there, she’s all there – her body and her soul and her emotions and light and love. And it’s all endless, stretching on into the future and never seeming to disappear.

Patti shows up, for herself and for the world. And people come out in droves for her, following the trail of light she leaves across the globe. She is purposeful and she creates meaning and she calls, loudly, for the members of every crowd to be and do the same. She wants to lift people up, and she does, she always does. Days later, I still feel the glow of her energy around me, but I feel my glow, too, and I’m sure I’ll feel that for weeks to come. She exists in me just as I exist in her, and I will always be grateful that I get to experience that in real life, throwing my entire being into a physical connection with a woman whose footsteps I will follow until they disappear.

Change is Good and Expectations Are Ridiculous (AKA Things I’ve Learned from the New Arctic Monkeys Record)

Arctic Monkeys were the first band I listened to with fervour. I was thirteen or fourteen, desperate for something other than what was being played on Top 40 radio, and they were the answer. I scrawled their lyrics in the margins of my school notebooks, I bought their records as soon as I got a turntable, and I made the pilgrimage from Stouffville to Toronto every time they graced the cover of Q or NME, knowing I’d only be able to find the magazines at the international newsstands downtown. Speaking about The Strokes, Alex Turner once said “there is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things,” and Arctic Monkeys were that band for me. They’re no longer my favourite group, but they still have a grasp on my heart that I can’t seem to squirm my way out of.

We haven’t had a new Arctic Monkeys record in five years. There was a lot riding on Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino from the very second it was announced. It felt like the whole world had high hopes, all of us waiting for them to be met. When it was finally released on Friday, a lot of people were let down by the brooding, sometimes confusing, piano-driven tracks. I could have easily fallen into that camp, but I was obsessed with it from the first listen. It’s not my favourite Arctic Monkeys album, but I still think it’s genius.

I went into Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino with no expectations. Five years of waiting for new music helps dissolve the remnants of the previous album, and more than anything I was just excited by the prospect of having a new record to fill my days and add to my playlists. The record is unexpected, and my lack of personal expectations worked wonders in helping me embrace that. I was hooked straight away, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since.

Expectations are often the enemy of enjoyment. It’s difficult to adore something good when the picture you had painted of it in your head is the antithesis of the real thing. Going in with a blank slate means you can sink yourself into what’s right in front of you, instantly moving in close and reveling in all its intricacies and fluctuations. I like that I was able to do that with this record, because it resulted in an instant appreciation of the band’s progression. It’s obvious that they’ve changed, and I wanted to give them space to prove that they’re still as fantastic as they’ve always been – and they did exactly that.

It seems odd to me to expect a band to remain the same. Already, fans are bemoaning the fact that Tranquility Base doesn’t sound like AM and insisting that it’s nowhere near as good as Humbug. While I would have loved an album with roaring guitar riffs and heavy drum fills and sultry lyrics, we got something different. I’m happy with the intricate melodies, sprawling storylines, and romantic confessions woven throughout the new release. It’s different – really different – but I think that’s a good thing. The band are more than a decade into their career, and this is just another indication of how far they’ve come in terms of their artistry and craft.

Change isn’t something we can resist. It’s inevitable, as sure as taking a new breath in after exhaling the old one, and as certain as the tide ebbing and flowing in relation to the moon. I’ve learned this the hard way, having spent much of my life attempting to remain firmly within my comfort zone, my feet planted somewhere safe and familiar. Here’s the thing, though: nothing good comes from staying within the safe and familiar. Change is good. It brings us closer to who we want to be at any given moment. It helps us zero in on our dreams, rather than allowing them to stay fuzzy and unfocused in our peripheral vision. And, quite often, change brings us damn good art, whether it comes from ourselves or from others.

Change brought me Gabriel Bruce and his song ‘Come All Sufferers,’ an ode to pain and hurt and a reminder that there’s always time for healing, a track and an artist that I still listen to frequently. Change brought me stacks and stacks of notebooks, each one filled more rapidly than its predecessor as I scrambled to turn my thoughts into poetry, or at least into coherent sentences. Change taught me how to find art in my breath and my body, using my limbs to paint invisible smudges across walls as I move into the next pose of my yoga practice or remaining as steady and beautiful as a sculpture while I sit quietly in meditation. And now, change has brought me another fantastic Arctic Monkeys record. Change catapults us into the space we need to be in, and in that space, it’s much easier to find the lectures and the lyrics and the brushstrokes we need. It’s better to be somewhere new and different, surrounded by new and different things, than to live our lives in a constant state of futile resistance.

Arctic Monkeys seem to have embraced change with all they’ve got. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino isn’t something that could have been made in 2006, when they released Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. It’s not full of songs that belong on Suck It and See or lyrics that would have been better suited to Favourite Worst Nightmare. It’s its own entity, an album that tells a story and transports the listener to a certain time and place. ‘Four Out of Five’ is the jam we all needed, ‘She Looks Like Fun’ is intense and slinky, ‘The Ultracheese’ is romantic and heart wrenching, and the title track sounds like it came from another world. The whole thing feels forward-thinking and futuristic, as if the band is ten steps ahead of the rest of us.

I like that Arctic Monkeys broke free of all preconceived notions, because it shows how committed they are to their own agenda. I like that the record is unexpected, because it breathes fresh air into a group that has been lauded over and over again for being the saviours of British rock n’ roll. I like that it doesn’t often make sense, because it means I find something new every single time I listen to it. This doesn’t feel like an album built to please, but an album meant to propel them forward. By the next record, I’m sure they’ll have changed all over again, and I like the idea that they’re evolving as often and as radically as they want to. It’s nice to watch bands experiment and grow, and I think Arctic Monkeys do that really well.

Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is a lesson in experimentation, an ode to fantasy, and a vivid, psychedelic dream, all wrapped up in a bow and called an album. It’s about the music, but it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about a band proving that change is necessary, about learning to loosen one’s grip on a particular outcome, and about accepting – and maybe, just maybe finding a way to love – what’s right in front of you. Sometimes the things we can learn from an album transcend the vessel they’re presented in, and Arctic Monkeys seem to have gotten really good at that.

All the Bricks of My Existence

Get down where your obsessions are. For Christ’s sake, shake it loose. –Roethke

I have spent the better part of the past week listening to Boxer by The National on repeat. The music fits seamlessly into the rhythms of the everyday, and the lyrics don’t seem to be idealized or reimagined, but plucked out of a racing stream of thought and set to a melody. Along with the fact that they are a fantastic band, the ease with which their songs insert themselves into my existence makes them easy to be addicted to. They don’t disrupt the flow of life or cause a massive paradigm shift, but their quiet power somehow makes them even more powerful.

This unwavering interest is not new to me. Obsessions are something I’ve learned to measure my life in, and I relish in them every time a new one comes along. I adore how it feels to live through strings of weeks or months or years when my days are occupied by the same thing over and over and over again. I have thankfully grown out of my more intense fixations, but I haven’t let go of the enthusiasm I feel for certain things, because I think some of that enthusiasm can be healthy. A path to something greater than ourselves, to community and creativity, to things I’ll always want to explore and understand in a deep way.

It’s a strong word, obsession, and I think it’s come to imply something negative. Things we spend too much time on, things we can’t let go of, things we shouldn’t be so wrapped up in. When the word is brought up, it leads to thoughts of lunacy and passing crazes, rather than ideas of inspiration and admiration and curiosity. And for me, obsessions have always been about the latter.

I think if we choose the right things to be fascinated by, we end up enriching our lives in unimaginable ways. The National captures real life in a way that feels honest and real but still wonderfully artistic, and that makes me want to do that in my own writing. They get to the truth of a situation, they focus on the details, they memorize the feeling of being alive at a certain point in time or with a certain person, and they express that without a filter.  Their willingness to be genuine translates into my own experience, and I find myself moving through each day with my attention fixed on all the small things that build up the richness of the big, wide picture of life.

I’ve seen Call Me By Your Name five times because it’s beautiful and raw and real, but also because it makes me want to live in a more meaningful way. It’s a film that reminds me that it’s worth it to love with all my heart, to be vulnerable, to hold nothing back. It’s a film that tells me not to ignore the pain, not to cut out the parts of my being that feel deeply, not to look away from the things that matter just because they’re uncomfortable or hard. Every piece of art has a voice that whispers lessons and ideas into the heart of the viewer, and it’s up to us to pick up on them. This film makes it hard to ignore those words.

I inhale everything Patti Smith has ever done because I admire the way she lives. She believes in herself, but she also believes in others and in the power of unity. She makes art because it’s how she gives to the world and how she gives back to all the artists who came before her, her gift to all the people who taught her something. She uses her voice because it’s her most important tool. She’s unapologetic about who she is and what she does and says. She cares deeply about her people. She pays attention to the little things, from the act of sipping black coffee or turning the pages of a book. She’s been doing all of this for decades, and she never seems to stop. It’s because of her that I see myself spending my life doing all the same things.

My list of obsessions goes on. The Vaccines make me embrace the full scope of my emotions, proving that sometimes it’s worth it to feel angry or confused or fed up. Jean-Michel Basquiat let himself experiment, and every time I watch a documentary or see his work, I’m reminded that I don’t have to stick myself into a single box. Frida Kahlo defined and redefined herself over and over again without any input from others, and the legacy she left allows me to be myself for myself. Obsession breeds inspiration and action, and I like how it feels to wrap myself up in those things.

With obsession, life becomes an endless cycle of reinvention. I always retain the core of who I am, but I learn something new from every person or city or artwork that I let into my life, and those things end up informing who I want to be and how I want to live. I am changed and marked up by lives, ideas, and explorations that are not my own. I am a product of the songs I listen to on repeat, the photos I set as my laptop background, the interviews I read and reread. I am a puzzle that is constantly rearranging itself to make room for another piece. And I like how that feels.

I owe so much to the people who came before me, to the experiences they had and the ways in which they shared them. The work they produced shows off their lives without idealizing any of it, and that authenticity is what I’m trying to get at when it comes to my own existence. I’m obsessed with the things that bring me closer to that goal, that remind me how to reveal my true self, how to feel deeply, how to express who I was and who I am and who I want to be all at once. If you come at it from the right angle, obsession is not a bad thing.

I like to think that I’m spending every day blazing my own trail through the world, but I know that every footstep is influenced by the people and places and things that I have allowed myself to hold onto. I don’t exist in a vacuum. My decisions are not always my own. Obsession has allowed me to intertwine my one life with the innumerable lives of all the people I admire, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They have made me who I am, and they have taught me how to be faithful to that person. So I’m not going to give up the obsessions. I’m going to keep them around, relish in them, allow them to fill me up, and then I’m going to act from all the things they’ve allowed me to learn. It’s a way of life that feels easy to me, and I might as well honour that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4/12: An April Playlist

April was a month that felt more like a dream than like real life. The first couple weeks were spent in Barcelona and Paris and London, drinking copious amounts of coffee and waltzing through an endless string of museums and carrying my film camera and a notebook and a novel with me everywhere I went. I spent three hours on the beach in Barcelona, writing poetry and chasing the tide with my feet. Abby and I ate croissants and crepes and raspberry tarts on the side of the Seine at golden hour. I saw Monet’s Nymphéas at the Musée de l’Orangerie. I crossed Abbey Road and I finally saw The Vaccines in concert and I went back to the Tate Modern just because I could feel it calling me.

The second half of the month saw me return to Leeds after nearly a month away, and although I loved the time I spent travelling, I could not have been happier. We were graced with a few moments of summer, and that meant I spent days sitting in Hyde Park with my friends, meditating in the sun and eating full boxes of Fab lollies and drinking gin and tonics. I experienced a lot of intense growth and change, spurred on by the realization that being vulnerable and taking risks and saying what I mean is important and worthwhile. I found new writing inspiration and I got back to a frequent yoga practice and I continued covering my dorm room walls with quotes and notes to myself. And, of course, I listened to a lot of music, which is all collected here.

This month’s playlist is occupied mostly by The Vaccines, partly because I can’t stop thinking about how wonderful their concert at Alexandra Palace was, and partly because Combat Sports was released at the end of March and I refuse to stop listening to it. ‘Out on the Street’ is my favourite track on the album, its unrelenting melody and spiteful lyrics – Who put bars across your window of opportunity? – making it catchy and endlessly addictive. ‘I Can’t Quit’ is on here too, every listen bringing me back to the gig and the never-ending cascade of gold confetti that landed across the crowd while the band played it. I also added ‘Tiger Blood,’ because it’s an old favourite, and I always get a rush when I hear it. I like its anger and distaste and it reminds me to embrace the sides of me that feel deeply and loudly.

A lot of the other tracks on the playlist are influenced by The Vaccines, even if they’re not the ones who made the song. They walked onstage to ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA, and I’ve been starting each morning since then by playing it loudly while I attempt to get myself together. One of their opening acts, whenyoung, covered ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries, and it reminded me how much I like that track. Justin and Freddie played Kendrick Lamar on a BBC Radio takeover, and it took me back to last summer and the days I spent listening to ‘LOVE.’ on repeat, so that got added, too.

Aside from The Vaccines, April also brought incredible new songs by I lot of bands I really love. Florence + the Machine returned with ‘Sky Full of Song,’ a track as magical and heartfelt as everything else she’s released. Her songs always seem to come at the perfect time, and I connected deeply to the lyrics as soon as I heard it. I managed to grab a copy of the limited edition 45 on Record Store Day, and although I have to wait another six weeks to be reunited with my turntable, I cannot wait to hear it on wax. As if that wasn’t enough, she also covered ‘Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John, and it may just be the most beautiful cover I’ve ever heard, so that has been a staple as well.

This month’s playlist is made complete with ‘Wake Me’ by Bleachers, ‘Take it all’ by Iceage, and ‘You Don’t Walk Away From Love’ by Peace. Bleachers has always been on my radar, but it took this track to really pull me in. It sounds and feels like love, and I like how enveloping it is. Iceage always seem to push boundaries in their music, and ‘Take it all’ is no exception. The song is dark and foreboding, an ode to destruction and surrender. Finally, Peace’s most recent single brings a shot of joy and light with a track that I can’t help but dance to.

The past month is not something that I’m going to forget anytime soon. I am hyperaware of the fact that my time in Leeds is slowly but surely coming to an end, and that means I’m spending every single day trying to create meaning and memories that I can hold onto for as long as possible. These songs are the soundtrack to all of that, and their melodies will forever be intertwined with coffee dates and plane rides and long conversations. I’ll be listening to them for years and years, every note and lyric bringing be back to days that felt like dreams.

Paint Sounds: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

The first encounter I had with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe was nearly five years ago. I was going through an intense stage of reading every music-related memoir I could get my hands on, and that meant spending a lot of time wandering the aisles of the entertainment section in any given bookstore. I’d gone through How Music Works by David Byrne and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes and 1963: The Year of the Revolution by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, but it was Patti and Robert’s shining faces on the cover of Just Kids that changed it all. I felt their eyes pierce my soul from their place on a shelf above my head, and I grasped the book and bought it without giving it a second thought. Something about them spoke to me, and it only took a few pages for my life to become intertwined with theirs. I’ve spent the subsequent years allowing their legacies and words and works to guide me, and they’ve never led me astray.

When I think of Patti and Robert, I see the two of them in their Brooklyn apartment, spending their nights listening to record after record, sharing their art supplies and their hearts and their work. I see them worming their way into the back room of Max’s Kansas City, fueled only by Robert’s intense desire to be accepted into Andy Warhol’s circle. I see them taking photographs with Sandy Daley in the Chelsea Hotel. I see them threading skull-shaped beads onto leather cord and exchanging the jewelry as if the necklaces were a physical representation of their connection – ‘til death do us part. I see their bodies connected by millions of thin red threads that could never be cut in two, the pair of them destined to stay with one another in life and in whatever they believed would come after. I see their desire to bare their souls to each other and to the world. I see the safe haven they created out of creativity and passion and emotion. I see their dreams as vividly as I see my own.

In many ways, it’s through Patti and Robert that I see my past and present and future. Their need to create eclipsed everything that hurt or threatened to tear them away from what mattered. They were persistent and determined. They followed their deepest urges and they spoke their own truths. They pushed through what held them back, and they released the chains on their ankles so they could dance with the visions they saw behind their eyes. They were messy and angry but they were also full of love and adoration for one another and for themselves and for the world. It is because of them that I feel like I can do the same, no matter how small my steps are or how quiet my voice is or how many steps there are left to take.

These are two people that I carry with me wherever I go. They are the background on my phone and the voices in my head and they often feel like my breath and my blood and my bones. I am always searching for ways to bring them closer to me, and the easiest way to do that is through their art. They documented their relationship and their lives in a way that allows me to sink closer to the core of their existence and to pull out the things I need to fill my soul. I’m in the midst of an intense period of revisiting their works and incorporating their whispers into my life, and I can’t help but want to share them with everyone around me. This time I’m doing it with music, too.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985 and ‘Seven Devils’ by Florence + the Machine  

robert devil self portrait

I think Robert’s self-portraits are the most direct route to his mind. They evolved immensely over his artistic career, moving from shy and bashful to full-on and unrelenting. This one references his Catholic upbringing and obsession with religious imagery, and the black and white only heightens the sense of darkness that brims beneath the surface. His stare is defiant and challenging, but you can’t help but want to know what his world is like. Florence + the Machine’s ‘Seven Devils’ is a direct line to Mapplethorpe’s own offering. Rather than rejecting hidden desires and heavy thoughts, the lyrics embraces their power and turns them to something beautiful. I often think that Robert did the same.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1986 and ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys

robert-mapplethorpe-tulips-photographs-silver-print

The floral portraits stand in stark contrast to Robert’s more brutal work, but they exhibit a mastery that could only come from his hands. They are delicate and balanced, but they speak volumes. The tulips seem to be holding themselves back, waiting for the perfect moment to fall apart, and yet they remain poised and beautiful. I chose ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys for the very first lyric – We were in bloom – as well as the fact that it exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Robert’s photo. It’s subtle yet weighty, it’s quietly powerful, and it moves perfectly within the realm of Robert’s artistic vision.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid of Patti Smith, 1973 and ‘Lightning Bolt’ by Jake Bugg  

patti lightning bolt

Two years ago I took this photo into a tattoo parlour and got the same lightning bolt tattooed on my own knee. It was a way to make physical my connection to Patti, and to intensify my connection to Robert through her. The picture is beautiful, a split-second representation of their love and their art and the life they created together. Patti holds herself still, but her eyes give away the need she has to act and to set herself free. Jake Bugg’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ is an obvious choice, but I also like that the lyrics explore the idea of allowing things to fall together, of taking chances, of trying your luck. Both Patti and Robert played with fate, and and this track embodies that.

Patti Smith, Frida Kahlo’s Bed, 2012 and ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths

patti smith frida

Patti’s affinity for Frida Kahlo is just another reason why I feel so drawn to her. I’ve been dying to visit Kahlo’s house in Mexico City for ages, and I like that I’ll be following in Patti’s footsteps when I finally end up there. Her photographs celebrate the mundane and the everyday, highlighting the magic of a place where an artist spends most of her time or the monumentality of being in a space that was once occupied by someone you admire. ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths is haunting and sad, but I think that embodies Frida’s ethos as well as Patti’s life. There is beauty even in the darkest feelings, and I like the artists that attempt to chase that.

Patti Smith, Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter, 2003 and ‘Oxford Comma’ by Vampire Weekend

patti smith typewriter

Not long ago I was deeply moved after reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, and finding this image felt like another tiny way to intertwine myself with Patti. I like knowing that we read and see and chase the same things, and this only added another thing to the list. I am also desperately missing my own typewriter, which is sitting in Canada while I attempt to get the same magic out of a laptop in Leeds. Stumbling upon this photo instantly made my hands ache for the clack of the keys and the act of throwing all my digital technology to the side just to focus on the act of writing, and I am relishing in the feeling of being filled with desire, even if it’s a simple craving. ‘Oxford Comma’ is not necessarily an ode to the act of writing, but instead an unpacking of the English language, and I like that it holds the same curiosity as Patti does.

Patti Smith, Robert’s Slippers, 2002, and ‘Terrible Love’ by The National  

patti smith robert's slippers

This photo moves me in ways that I can’t always wrap my head around. Taken thirteen years after Robert’s death, the image fossilizes a love that endures even past the physical realm of existence. The slippers make me thing of the journeys they took together, of the discussions they had about the future, of the tensions between the two of them that still left room for love. In ‘Terrible Love,’ The National encapsulates the difficulties of love and devotion, while also reinforcing the need for partnership. Much of the song is punctuated by the lyric It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders, and that single line perfectly describes how difficult it must be for Patti to continue living on without her partner in crime and the man who helped her believe she could be an artist.

Patti and Robert gave the world to themselves instead of asking politely for it. They created their own reality instead of allowing their narratives to be inserted into a story they didn’t like. They found the best in each other, and they acknowledged that their best also included their struggles and fears and doubts. I like that I wear them across my heart. I like that I hold them up like a torch in the darkness. I like that I can’t shake their presence. They’re in my orbit and I’m in theirs, and the least I can do is honour them in every way possible.

Thirteen Steps to Finding the Right Words

There are certain things that define me as a writer. The inspiration, which I find in the colour of the sunset or a sentence picked out of a conversation or the face of a stranger I’ve passed on the street, but also comes from art and artists and the people who have done all of this before I was even brave enough to try. The motive, because writing is how I heal and how I make sense of the things in my head and how I slow my heart after something sets it racing. The writing itself, finding my voice and the right words and making something physical and inky and present out of feelings and observations that are ephemeral and often just out of reach.

The act of writing is what I wake up for and what I stand for and what I will choose over and over again, but it takes a certain form of synergy to make all the elements of my creative practice come together and form something useful. There are certain days when my body is set alight and I could scrawl something on every surface available, and there are others when it feels like death will come before I can manage to write a single string of words that makes any sort of sense.

When writing’s hard, I go back to all the things that remind me why I love it so much. I stop and think about why I spend so much time with a pen in my hand and my heart caught in my throat. I open Just Kids and I find my favourite passages, or I watch the monologue from Call Me By Your Name, or I read Bukowski or Rimbaud and I work on getting to the core of my feelings, on bringing them out in their rawest form.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that music is one of the things that makes me want to keep writing. I pick up on melodies that help me focus and chord progressions that draw the best words out of my skin. I listen to tracks on repeat because they carry some inexplicable trait that I want to find in my own art. Most importantly, though, I absorb every single word, and it’s the words that make me want to plow forward.

The most recent example of this happened a few days ago, when I put on Antisocialites by Alvvays as I was going through my nightly ritual of journaling and writing poetry and filling up my gratitude notebook. As I neared the end of the album, ‘Forget About Life’ turned into a magnetic force that drew me into its orbit, and I proceeded to listen to it on repeat for the next hour. It’s not a song that I always pay the most attention to, but it stood out at that particular moment because of its lyrics. The lines are simple, but their honesty shines through in a flash of blinding light. From When the failures of the past, they multiply to Do you want to forget about life with me tonight, inhaling this undrinkable wine, the words feel like real life and play out in a spectacular narrative, and that’s often what I’m trying to get at when it comes to my own writing.

There are lots of songs that make me feel like this. Songs with words that refuse to be shrouded by metaphors, finding beauty in being direct and truthful. Songs with lyrics that tell the most mundane of stories and yet still manage to make them sound like a fairy tale. Songs that capture emotion in physical form, turning love or sadness or defiance into neat sentences that fit inside a maze of notes and chords. These are the tracks that stick inside my heart, and the ones that I play over and over again when I need to get back to my own voice.

The songs I’ve gathered here are ones that make me believe in my writing all over again. The ones that make me strive to tell stories exactly as they happened. The ones that push me to take a feeling and lift it off my shoulders and quantify it so I can see it and unpack it and work through it. These are songs that make me feel deeply, that use words as weapons that scathe or as doves that soothe the wounds, that make me want to drown myself in poetry until I am unable to let in anything else. They weave words into electricity and passion, and they instil the same things in me.

I adore all of these tracks, and there is a long, extensive catalogue that I haven’t managed to list, but there are always certain ones that stick out. Florence Welch’s pleading, insistent voice on ‘Third Eye’ as she repeats over and over again: I’m the same I’m the same, I’m trying to change. Patti Smith interrupting a live set to spew real, raw poetry, yelling fiercely: I am an American artist and I have no guilt. The National singing about the safety and protection of love, and the comfort that comes with the words We’ll stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days.

There’s ‘Thirteen’ by Big Star, its simplicity making it feel like a real life conversation. There’s ‘Happy When It Rains’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain, the heart-wrenching admission of I would shed my skin for you. There’s ‘Lonely World’ by The Vaccines with its quiet, hesitant words of love. Every track is wildly different from the next, but they all put the words at the forefront, and they all remind me to do the same. That’s what I feel like I’m here for.

I don’t set out to write just like Patti Smith does, or to be as angst-ridden as The Vaccines or as wounded as MUNA. I want to write like me, even if that means gushing or spelling the same emotion out over and over until I get it write or stumbling over a single sentence until it’s perfect. These artists are models for me, a well of inspiration that I sometimes need to dive straight into. They’re not there so I can set my own feet inside their every footstep. They’re there to remind me why I do this, to heighten my feelings and mark certain moments with their sounds and highlight things that I might not be noticing. These artists are lighthouses, not guardrails. They illuminate what surrounds me, but they don’t force me to stay in a prescribed lane. I am forever grateful for their presence, and I will continue holding my body under their light whenever I feel the need to.