08 Oct the #annegorithm
This is a story about the power of the “interweb” – and how tumbling through Twitter recommendations brought me full circle.
A year ago I started writing a short story. A first for me as I cautiously step into my confidence as a writer, but an important one because it was a fictionalized story that touched on the very real, untimely death of a best friend’s brother. It is a story about friendship, the smell of two-stroke chainsaw fumes, how big the small things in life are and the way in which grief shows up – offering pain and comfort in equal turns – at the most unforeseen moments. As I grappled to find the right words I was listening to the music of the Rheostatics, not only because I love their music, but I was pre-gaming ahead of seeing them in concert (supporting their first album in 15 years). A diehard quartet of us were flying 3,300km across the country to see them perform in early November 2019 (a trip that turned out to be a truly bucket-list moment in my life) and I had vowed to only listen to their music in the months leading up to the concert. As the Rheos’ music swirled in and through me, I wrote the story. And rewrote the story. And cried a bit. And rewrote some more. And one night even dreamed of a conversation with the friend’s brother who had died. So it seemed appropriate that at the end of the story, I would add a quote from one of my favourite Rheostatics songs: Try to Praise this Mutilated World.
“Blaze the star. Shake the bar, for you. A sunlit room, I’ll go there soon. I know.”
A quote that for me represented hope, the power of love everlasting, and a personal nod to close-in friends who also love the Rheos.
Fast forward a few months to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and I, like so many of us, was flailing. It was a challenging time for me personally and I felt all kinds of sad. Confused. Cut off from those I wanted to be with. Anxious about the world seemingly crumbling around me, struggling to stay positive and count the many, many blessings in my life.
Into this inner maelstrom came a beautiful pool of calm and reflection – the aurally gorgeous podcast The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison, a novelist and nature writer from rural Suffolk in England. Melissa’s podcast was a lifeline for me – a beautiful exploration of the natural world outside her door, and a weekly opportunity to close my eyes and literally escape with her as she mucked along creeks and explored the hedgerows, fields, owl barns and rabbit warrens of her village. But it’s not just the podcast that has me writing this story today, but the way in which I came upon it, and for that we need to go back even further.
Sometime last year I read the amazing, 2019 winner of the Pulitzer prize in Fiction, The Overstory by Richard Powers and it rocked me to my core. I was so moved by the intricate lament he wrote. It is a love story about trees, really, and the reverence he showed for their immense wisdom and their ability to survive and communicate was extraordinary. It is not an exaggeration to say the book has fundamentally changed my appreciation for trees and has (re)awakened my deep, innate connection to nature.
So The Overstory was in my consciousness last year when I noticed a tweet from someone I have a lot of respect for, Sarah Smarsh. Sarah is a journalist and writer who is a sage and rational voice from the “fly-over” state of Kansas. Her hard-working rural upbringing provides her a real-life perspective that when paired with her progressive opinions and exceptional writing abilities makes her a pleasure to listen to in a sea of politicized commentary. Her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a worthy read, as (I’m sure) will be her newly released biography on Dolly Parton, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs.
In Sarah’s tweet she described swapping newly-finished books with her partner – one being The Overstory, and the other being Underland by Robert Macfarlane. She commented on the seemingly kismet pairing – one book exalting from top of the tree canopy and the other exploring the mystery of what lies beneath our feet.
Feeling impulsive and trusting her good taste I immediately ordered the book Underland: A Deep Time Journey and was deeply rewarded to be introduced to Robert Macfarlane and his incredible, thoughtful prose (captured in a tasty back catalogue I am currently ordering and reading). Underland is a superb read that was surprisingly compelling and beautifully written for an adventure into seemingly dark and terrifying subterranean places.
Back above ground, and through Twitter once again, now following Robert Macfarlane, I was introduced to Melissa’s podcast. And by then following Melissa’s tweets I also learned of (among others): Amy Liptrot and her excellent book, The Outrun, a nature memoir about recovering from alcoholism on the Orkney Islands (where my maternal grandfather is from); Jed Hallam, a London-based advertising agency strategist who creates a fabulous bi-weekly music playlist/letter/blog called Love will Save the Day; and Dara McAnulty, the teenage author of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, Diary of a Young Naturalist (ordered and have just begun reading!).
You can see how this has blossomed. By trusting one source, I have been introduced to a host of new voices, artwork, birds, songs and ideas that I never would have encountered otherwise. And for that, I am so deeply grateful. Because some days (especially these days) the world can feel stiflingly small. And I for one, have felt really stuck in my life – unsure about the future, like I am treading water – waiting for lightning to strike. The Stubborn Light of Things podcast and these other new inputs have been such a welcome balm and distraction for me during this time of statis that I was terribly sad to learn that Melissa was ending the podcast to focus on other projects.
This past Monday the last episode aired, and so I purposefully cleared some time in my calendar, donned my best noise-cancelling headphones, closed my eyes and from my desk in North Vancouver… went for a walk with Melissa in rural Suffolk. As usual the episode was full of poignant introspection, bird call, human-sized pauses for breath, the cry of delight as a barn owl flew past, the beauty of voices shaped upon poetry and Peter Roger’s soothing music.
Imagine my surprise then as I quietly listened to and mourned the ending of this wonderful, intimate podcast when Melissa’s last featured poetry was a reading of Try to Praise the Mutilated World the gorgeous poem by Adam Zagajewski which I know because it was the inspiration behind one of my favourite songs written by Dave Bidini of my favourite band, the Rheostatics (see above). My jaw literally hit the ground, quickly followed by many tears. Tears of surprise. Tears of wonder at the profound interconnectedness of life. Tears of disbelief. Tears of belief. Because being “seen” is the greatest gift in life and in that moment, I felt seen, and felt all the pieces fall into place. I could see the gossamer thread weaving through people, moments, choices and actions to create the singular web that is holding my life together. You see, I was, that morning, aside from knowing and recognizing the poem, also wearing my beloved Rheostatics tour t-shirt. The tears literally fell full circle.
Today I see the pattern and am so thankful for the comfort of that connectedness – these tiny seeds that when gathered have created a story uniquely imprinted to me. Some might read this and see the mathematics of a predictable algorithm, but I see something more divine. Instead of the internet feeding me cynicism, doubt, vitriol and narcissism it fed me beauty, inspiration, enlightenment and trust. It makes me sublimely happy. It makes me wonder how I may be a thread in someone else’s story, and it makes me hope that the seeds I am unwittingly sowing are intelligent, uplifting, funny and full of love. Most times we will never truly know where those seeds took root and grew. And sometimes they will grow somewhere only a few people can see. I suppose when it’s time, we will all be shown the web. What a lovely thought.
Life is beautiful. Can’t you see? Just follow the path. Lean toward the good. Listen to the voices you trust. And make your own voice trustworthy. Make space for the wild. Make space for music to flow in and around you. And know that – tumbled together – on we spin.
Anne reads (and loves) a book (The Overstory) by Richard Powers
Anne reads (and loves) multiple articles and a book (Heartland) by Sarah Smarsh
Through the grace of the Rheostatics’ music and a few tears, Anne writes a short story
Anne ends her story with a quote from the Rheos’ song Try to Praise This Mutilated World
Anne sees a tweet from trusted author (Sarah Smarsh) connecting The Overstory to Underland
Anne reads (and loves) a book (Underland) and starts following the author, Robert Macfarlane, on Twitter, while ordering said author’s back catalogue
Robert Macfarlane tweets about a new podcast, (The Stubborn Light of Things) by Melissa Harrison
Anne listens to (and loves) a podcast, starts following Melissa Harrison on Twitter
Melissa Harrison tweets about a music blog (Love will Save the Day), which Anne subscribes to (and loves)
Melissa Harrison tweets about a book (The Outrun), which Anne orders, reads (and loves), starts following that author on Twitter
Melissa Harrison tweets about a book (Diary of a Young Naturalist) winning a UK prize, which Anne orders (and will surely love)
Melissa Harrison’s podcast series ends, and in the final segment includes a reading of Adam Zagajewski’s poem (Try to Praise The Mutilated World), the poem that inspired the Rheostatics’ song
Anne has an epiphany (similar to Neo seeing the zeros and ones in The Matrix)
Anne splinks out several tears onto her Rheostatics tour t-shirt
Anne writes blog post in the sincere hope that it lays seeds in the lives of others