06 July 2014

I don't know what to make of you, I don't know how you came to be, I don't know what stars you see in your sky...

I don’t usually quote one of my own songs but in this moment with what’s on my mind my lyrics fit better than anyone else’s. A close second? Dan Wilson’s song “Too Much” from his recent release Love Without Fear (I LOVE this CD, BTW!):

“What you’re really like, I can hardly imagine, but I’ve imagined you so well, way too many times. What sets you alight? What gets your heart racing?....”

You see, I’ve found myself in a most interesting situation this past year. Or rather two situations, actually. Somehow, some way, I find myself caring about two people I’ve never met. Not just caring a little, but a lot; each for different reasons, each of whom I can’t imagine my life without at this point. I don’t understand any of it (although not for lack of trying) and I have no clue as to whether either of them feels the same way. How did this happen? That part I can explain…so here it goes, in order of occurrence….

It was June 2013 and I was working on what would end up being my favourite episode I wrote for “Buying Alaska”. It all started with some innocent, inquiring emails. I was trying to get to know a character in my show so I could write her better. I never intended for us to be friends. I thought there would be a few back and forth emails and life would move on. It didn’t happen that way. Soon the picture that emerged was one of an intelligent, beautiful, funny, and strong, wife, mother, and friend. I felt a kinship to her as we got to know each other. I loved that she loves kale as much as I do, knits (even though I don’t), understands my sense of humour, and loves music and poetry with the same passion that I possess (though, more accurately, she reintroduced me to poetry - something I’d put aside for a couple of years). She is someone with whom I share a belief system of right and wrong and where any situation might fall on that spectrum. She’s opinionated, honest and straightforward. She cares about the people in her world and has a love and respect for life that few I’ve ever ‘met’ seem to have. Then there’s this other thing about her – she reminds me of all the best parts of my mother. In fact, there have been moments where I felt that the words coming out of her mouth could very well have come from Mom. So much so that it’s been eerie at times, yet all the while comforting. My friend has been a presence that is calming, reassuring and downright sweet in nature.

All this, and, as I mentioned above, we have yet to meet. Our relationship, as such, has been mostly pen pal in nature – just like the old covered wagon days of yore when people only communicated in person or via the US Mail. In those days many a life-long friendship stayed alive because of letter writing. Though, yes, there have been countless texts and phone calls, but we’ve never skyped, or face-timed. So, we haven’t even met in the virtual, two-dimensional world. I know her voice, I know her laugh and I can tell you the colour of her eyes. But I don’t know what she looks like when you say something she doesn’t agree with, or finds herself in a moment of being polite when she’d maybe rather rip you a new one for vexing her very soul. I don’t know what she looks like when she’s looking at the moon, or into her children’s eyes. Because of all the footage I had to watch to write her episode I do know what she looks like when she smiles or walks down the road. But I don’t know what it’s like to hug her or touch her arm at a party during a conversation. These are things that friends know about each other, things that endear us to one another. Those little moments of intimacy that come about when you share a drink or a laugh. Sometimes when I don’t know someone well, if they give me a good hug, I’ll want to know them more and as such, they slowly find their way into my heart; we take those natural steps that friends take in order to become friends and we move ever slowly down the road.

All of this and none of it and there she is. I care about her, her family and I want to be there if ever she needs me. I see her as a lifelong presence and a friend I hope to know forever. I can’t seem to help it. I certainly don’t understand how I could care so very much about someone I’ve never met. Although we haven’t been in touch recently I hope she knows that I’ll always care for her and want to be her friend. I also hope she knows, to quote from the very first poem she shared with me, that “I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)…” (e.e. cummings) and I always will.

4 Aug 2013. A call from Worcester, Massachusetts. A voicemail left and the words ‘you’re a match – please call us back…’ It was in that very moment that I began to care. The call came from what was then the Caitlin Raymond Foundation (now part of BeTheMatch.org) telling me they needed me, or rather my bone marrow or stem cells, to help a patient for whom I was a near perfect match (for more on my experience as a donor please see earlier posts). As the calls, and emails, went back and forth I came to find out that the would-be recipient was a fifty-seven year old woman with leukemia who lived somewhere in the world. The rules being what they are all other information remains private and we are both anonymous to one another until such time after the one year donation mark (22 Oct 2014) that we both agree to find out who the other person is. These rules were explained to me very early on in the process but, yet, I started to care about her. A total stranger. One that I knew even less about than my aforementioned friend.

How could this be? How can I know so little yet feel attached? To put it quite simply, as of 22 Oct 2013, as far as I know all we share are stem cells (she has mine, that by now have become hers). I have no idea what she looks like, how she laughs, or the colour of her eyes. I don’t know if we have any shared value system or even if she has kids. I can hope that she has people in her life who love her and care for her and for whom my donation came as a welcome gift of time, life and the chance to say more.

So there I was – out for a run about one week after our 6 month donation mark (which was on 22 April) thinking all was ok in the world. It turns out the doctors, at this stage, perform several tests on the recipient. They want to see how she’s faring with her new ‘stuff’ and how she’s feeling. It makes sense, them following up with her since, technically, she isn’t cancer-free. What didn’t make sense to me was how crushed I felt when the phone rang and my advocate told me that the recipient wasn’t doing well. The tests showed a worrisome t-cell deficiency that, left unattended, would ultimately do her in. They needed me to donate again and was I willing to go through all the tests and the donation process? Hell yeah! No thought needed, no looking back. Just ‘what do we need to do to make this happen and how soon can we do it?’ All the while as I was asking these questions, my heart slowly sank and in those moments I realized just how much I cared about her. This total stranger with whom, as far I know, I only have one thing in common.

I guess until that day I’d been a little cavalier about the whole deal. What’s it to me? I show up, do some tests, take some drugs, and get strapped into a chair for six hours as my blood is pulled from my body and then put back in (minus the stuff they need). In many ways it was no big deal. I was doing my part to buy someone some time – maybe weeks, maybe months, maybe another lifetime (or at least a second act). It was a stranger, no one I’d met, interacted with (knowingly) or even knew about before that day in August. I did my part and everything else was on her. No reason to take any of it personally. But there I was, standing in my driveway in the warm spring sun, processing the information and realizing that I truly gave a damn about her! More than I ever realized or maybe had admitted until that moment. Yes, I knew I cared, but I didn't understand the depth within me that she had reached.

So it was on 19 May 2014 I donated to her my t-cells. No drugs this time but I had to go through the physical and all the necessary blood tests (yes, even a pregnancy test, that despite my protestations they still did; ‘hospital policy’ they said, ‘you’re of child-bearing age and if you don’t agree to it we can’t proceed with the donation’). The difference is, this time I felt more emotionally invested. It matters more to me if she lives. It matters to me that she wasn’t feeling well and needed more from me. Like a friend with the flu that needs the soup you bring over. You want them to feel better and you hate seeing them in pain. I hate knowing that my recipient wasn’t feeling 100% well. I want her to be ok – I want her to live long enough to feel the creaks and rattles in her aging body. To look back on her life and think ‘I done good and I done the best I could. I loved, I lived and I gave a shit about those in my life with all I had.’ I can hope these things for her – because I hope we have more in common than the blood running through our veins. If we don’t – it’s ok. Because I will look back on my life and know that ‘I done good and I done the best I could. I loved, I lived and I gave a shit about those in my life with all I had’ and she was among those I cared for. A stranger who I’d like to think knows that I’ll be there for her if she needs ‘more’ from me and is someone who will always be in my heart.

Yes, I hope I meet these two women I care so deeply for - even though I have no clue as to why. Maybe it’s time I should just stop trying to understand and just accept it for what it is (though clearly it makes more sense with one than the other). I do hope I am lucky enough to look in their eyes and feel the warmth that comes from friends sharing a hug, or a drink, or a laugh. Because, to close out with the last lines of my song from above:

”When we have our face to face, will the miles they be erased? Will we be like two old friends? Will this mystery ever end?...”

Thanks for tuning in…until next time…CHEERS!

Ps. If you’d like to know more about my music please go to www.facebook.com/laraschulermusic

17 March 2014


4 deaths. 6 days. 4 people I love feeling direct pain from their losses. My Dad (and my Aunt) took the brunt of it. Two of the losses were their Aunt and Uncle – the last siblings of my grandfather and the last of that generation to go. The 1st loss, though, belonged to my Dad’s best friend. His daughter passed away unexpectedly from complications of pneumonia – she was only sixty-two. The next day, New Years Day, a dear friend lost her sister. While this was a little more expected – she had been ill for years with Multiple System Atrophy – nonetheless it was a hard loss for my friend and her large family. My great Aunt and Uncle each passed away in the 4 days that followed. All four of these people had children, siblings, and two of them had parents who survived them. What a shitty way for my people to start the New Year.

In the weeks, now two months, since those six days an acquaintance of mine died and another dear friend, the “Thelma” to my “Louise” (check some blog I wrote in early 2009 for that story) lost her Dad as did a friend from elementary school. I have to say, it’s been a rather odd way to start the year. I can’t say I’m directly affected by these losses, though. I barely remember my Great Aunt and Uncle only having met them at some far-away family reunion in Illinois. But my Dad is feeling the burden of now being the oldest generation all the while watching his best friend navigate the waters of loosing another child. My pain rests with the people I love going through all of this – wanting to do more, and be more, to be the shoulder they cry on and to be able to share what wisdom I’ve gained from having experienced numerous losses. All I can do is say “I love you, I’m here if you need me…” as I’ve said to my three friends, and my father (his best friend I’m not in touch with but he has passed on my condolences and love.)

To really cap it all off we almost lost my Dad last month. My family came within hours of dealing with loosing our last parent, brother, uncle, grandfather. Now my Aunt, his sister, is staring down the barrel of cancer yet again. Her prognosis is unknown but the treatment is simple. She will take bone strengthening pills and tamoxifen for six months. We hope this means she can avoid radiation as the tamoxifen will hopefully kill the cancer. This is good news mixed in with the unexpected bad news. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been scared to loose her. She’s been like a mother to me since my Mom died. She didn’t like my mother – that’s ok – the point is she’s been the supportive and loving voice I’ve needed in the years since my mother passed away. She always knows what to say and never judges. She cries when I cry and rejoices in the good news. She’s also really been present for my Dad. They live less than a mile apart and are there for each other. Loosing her would devastate us all on too many levels to count. To say nothing of my cousins loosing their last remaining parent.

Which all leads me to “Hallelujah”. A strange song to pick, no doubt, considering all that I’ve just mentioned. But yet, not really. A song, that at its core, is about broken faith and broken relationships; the ups and downs we all face as we navigate God, Love and Faith. Whilst I don’t believe in either God or Love at the moment - I’m wholly agnostic as I was raised to be so in a family of Catholics (my Great Uncle was even a Monsignor in Chicago) and Russian Orthodox people; and as for the Love part, just like the character in the song, I’ve never been very good at it. I do, however, believe we all need to be good to one another in the most whole and most pure sense and having faith in the unknown – which really means our inner selves - is a good thing to carry with you.

Unlike the character in the song – I’m not tortured, I’m not beleaguered and despite the many existential crisis I’ve experienced in my life, I do maintain a level of optimism and Anne Frankian belief that at the very core of it all we humans are good and well intentioned. If you listen to the song it’s very clearly about sadomasochism – both physical and spiritual and it’s a cry for help. Our main character is torn between love of self, love of God, and love of the other person in the relationship. ‘Hallelujah, Hellelujah’ is sung in relief, distress and in a spare, moment, joy. Depending on where the character is in the song in the midst of their process it can be heaven, or it can be hell. In many ways it’s a common theme. But in no way is this a love song.

For some reason, just like that James Blunt song “You’re Beautiful” about a coked up encounter on a subway with an ex-girlfriend (that clearly didn’t end well), that got played at nearly every wedding known to man for several years, “Hallelujah” has been grossly misinterpreted. It has also, in recent years, become grossly over-used in public forums such as telethons, for relief of all kinds, and as the closing number at many, too many, a star-studded concert.

I guess it’s just more fun NOT to listen to lyrics and just go along with a groove and a peppy chorus irrespective of what the song is REALLY about. Which, as a songwriter, I can tell you morphs throughout the years for me. Meaning I might write a song about one thing – then a couple of years later as I’ve experienced more life the meaning changes or life has imitated art and somehow I find new meaning. But no matter what, the basis for the inspiration for the song never wavers. Whatever it was that fueled my desire to put an experience into words and a melody, will always and forever stay the same. It’s just basic gardening – here is the seed, here is the water, the rest is up to the forces of nature. However, words are up for interpretation and thus the overall meaning of a song can be many things and is ever-evolving. So yes, I get it, these are MY interpretations of these songs. This is not lost on me.

All that being said, “Hallelujah” is one of the most beautiful and haunting tunes ever written. All the more reason to put this out to the universe: PLEASE, for the love of whomever you believe in, STOP COVERING “HALLELUJAH”! Enough is enough, Kate Voegel, Blake, or Gavin DeGraw, Marcy Playground, or even Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, or Willie Nelson…. oh god, I’m getting ill just thinking about how many people have covered this song – over 300 to date. So please, please, STOP!

Why? Because no one will ever do it better than Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley or kd lang. No one should ever bother to try……

Take the original (above) – sung by the songwriter with all the intention with which it was written. All the nuance of every word Leonard Cohen put to paper is in each breath and each lilting note. He was nearly 50 when he wrote this song. A man who, at that age, had certainly seen his share of relationship ups and downs as well as fatherhood (in fact, his son Adam fronts the awesome band Low Millions). Since he’s the only one who knows what the song is really about he’s the only one who can sing it with the most honesty. This waltz-like gospel tune evokes a southern 80’s bible-belt hot afternoon. You can almost feel the heat and smell the sin. Cohen’s voice is like 50 grit sandpaper on a shiny piece of glass – but yet you can’t stop listening. His emotional tennis game is long into its fifth match and the struggle to finish is even greater than he expected. This is a man who is facing the down side of life whilst still being young enough to cry about it and experience its affects without being cynical. You definitely feel what he’s going through.

Then you have Jeff Buckley, whose version I admit, is the first I’d heard of the song. This was back in 1994 when he recorded it for his first album. He was such a tortured soul facing an unbearable paternal legacy that you can feel the pain in every syllable and note. It’s almost as if it was written for him and him alone to sing. The angst in his 20-something year old delivery is hard to ignore – here is a young man who has lived a difficult and haunted life gifted with the talents of his late father (whom he only met a handful of times about 3 months before he died) but also gifted with the demons that led his father down the road of abandonment and addiction. Yet, at such a young age, he had not experienced relationships the way Cohen had. What Jeff Buckley was battling were internally raging waters (forgive the pun), that were all consuming, weighted and too much for a young man to bear. He was a bright star on the rise blessed with talent and a name and all the expectations that came with it. How do you live up to the worlds idea of a man you barely knew? This can’t have been easy and no doubt added to his heartbreak of never really knowing his father. All of this pain is very clearly heard in his version.

Forgive me – but I happened upon these next words from a blog I wrote in November 2006 where I talk about kd lang’s 49th Parallel CD (which is TOTALLY awesome on so many levels):
“As we meander our way through our trip you can't help but be struck by the oft - covered Leonard Cohen tune "Hallelujah". What makes this version different than the rest is not only the piano work that resonates throughout the whole CD - reminding me of a George Winston work of art - but there's a happiness to this version that's not apparent on either the Jeff Buckley or J.J. Cale versions. What Ms. lang shows us is a less pained side of the tune that gets illuminated by her heavenly voice and a string accompaniment that elevate her ever higher into the Canadian night sky.”

I still feel that way about the song. Her version is angelic, deeply resonating, and by-golly a more positive take on the tune than her predecessors. She comes from a small corner of happiness – without making it into the sappy sick love song others have butchered this tune into being. It’s not a happy song – but I’m not troubled by her approach. I’m moved. Why? Because, lets be honest, this woman may not write songs I particularly like – but she can make a phone book sound sexy, hot and as deep as an Alaskan mountain well. So yeah – I can listen to this version over and over, all the while soaring into the cold Canadian sky…..

So maybe that’s the trick? Two out of these three versions were sung by Canadians. I’m not saying I want to hear Corey Hart, or Bryan Adams take a stab at it, or even Neil Young (though come to think of it…) but maybe there’s something to be said for growing up in the midst of a harsh Canadian winter, surrounded by cold, unfriendly people, who have to struggle to survive. Or maybe, as I suggest, these will forever be the best versions of this song and shame on anyone who thinks they can do better!

If you really need a “Hallelujah” fix other than the aforementioned check out these two songs: “Hallelujah In The City” by the incomparable Joan Osborne and “Hallelujah’’ by one of the best songwriters of our generation, Patty Larkin.

So, “Hallelujah, hallelujah…” to the indomitable spirits of those I love who are handling loss, fighting for life and just doing their best to keep their shit together during these trying times. You all know how I feel about you and I’m here…

Thanks for tuning in….until next time…Cheers!