Over the past few months, my wife and daughters have been enjoying the time of their lives…without me. They have all been over in Northern Pakistan ~ the little ones spending quality time with their great grandparents (now well into their 90’s!), while their mother tends to tasks at the Al-Imtiaz school, started by her grandmother 30 years ago. Meanwhile, back in Canada, here sits dear ol’ dad ~ cozy in the quiet, plucking his mandolin and smoking his cherry tobacco filled pipe. Well…not really.
In fact, recently ~ on the morning of our first light Southern Ontario snowfall…as temperatures hit freezing and the sky threatened sleet ~ I was outdoors in my woollen Nepalese hat, flannel coat, work boots and a scarf doing anything but sitting at the door of my Hobbit hole puffing smoke rings. For the first time since forever I was inspired to update this site. Could it be that this lover of solitude is at last “lonely” without his family? Craving connection to the world, even if through the virtual/internet illusion of it? (thinking….) Naaah! Never! Rather it is that, after many months away from writing, I feel as if I am finally catching up a little with my thoughts, my work around the house and my production in studio. That peace of mind has me relaxed enough to capture a few thoughts and share them with those of you who may have wondered why I have seemed so AWOL for so very long.
A year and a half ago, our family was faced with some choices about where would live and really begin to lay down our roots. As some of you may know from previous postings on this site, my experiments in Simple Living and the ongoing quest for balance in my life have been passions of mine since youth. Dreams of keeping goats, chickens, bees, a garden and home studio have filled my head as long as I can remember ~ and almost thirty years of struggle for those dreams (taking me around the world in circles) have greyed my beard prematurely. When suddenly tested with the choice between living on 3 acres of land 45 minutes outside of town ~ or moving to a small inner-city house ~ you can only imagine the kitchen table discussions with my wife and children. Oh the lamenting of city life and “lost dreams” measured against the possibility of rural life with fresh, warm goat’s milk each morning!
My father ~ 80 but still strong and naturally still wanting his independence ~ was not ready to move in with us. Residing out in the countryside ~ an hour’s drive down snowy roads for a good six months of each year ~ I knew if we moved amid the meadows, we’d be “close enough to make the effort, but far enough to make excuses”. Thus, the choice became clear. Moving to the styx would have given us the land and life I may have always fantasized about, but it would have also crushed another very important dream of mine: that of being close to my father in his old age.
Our family took up residence in a cute, old war-time house, a few streets away from where I grew up, in the city of Kitchener ~ about one hour from Toronto and only 120 seconds away from my dad’s front door. It was one of the best decisions in our life.
The home we found features a rare double lot, with huge back garden ~ big enough for a few bee-hives, a chicken coop and tons of planting space for vegetables, fruit trees and raspberries. Simple Living in a city centre environment.
What does a day in the life of a Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) artist and nature lover look like? Well, it is not all banjos, berries and brier pipes I can assure you.
Homeschooling continues into its second year with my daughter’s daily lessons each morning, under the creative tutelage of their incredible mother. Studies are supplemented by involvement with a local Christian homeschooler’s co-op once a week, the occasional connection with an out-of-town Muslim homeschooler’s network, playdates with friends and weekly classes at local libraries, swimming pools, drama clubs and language schools. Yours truly ~ the singing homeschool janitor/principal ~ provides comic relief, musical accompaniment and discipline to cheeky students when needed.
The House and Garden
As with any house, there is always work to be done. When seeking to keep a household as environmentally friendly and earth-centric as possible, it is safe to say that, the work-load doubles. Our 65 year old dwelling had been well cared for over the decades ~ renovated by previous owners with bright additions ~ but it has taken a lot of work to suit our family’s style. Painting (with eco-friendly, low fume paint), a new roof, repairs to cupboards, doors, showers and windows have all kept me busy this past year. One fun project was the construction of a tree-fort, built up in the crotch of a dead pear tree using two old doors, a re-purposed car tire, recycled 2x4s and numerous 3ft branches collected on various hikes. Keeping all limbs, twigs and foliage from pruned trees for cozy, year-round, back-yard bonfires, means always keeping up with chopping wood down to fire-pit size. Digging, tilling and planting vegetables meant a summer of sweat, composting and repurposing sod to other barren parts of the yard. With the arrival of autumn, there was a lot of picking, plucking, cleaning, cooking, licking, chomping and freezing hundreds of carrots and cherry tomatoes, as well as the drying and processing of many different herbs. Consistently, through it all, has been the ongoing task of decluttering ~ simultaneously struggling to avoid accumulating more and more “stuff”. My goal is to decrease my personal household and studio possessions by 25% each year for the next few years, leaving me at the age of 50 with only 25% in hand of what I currently have to dust and maintain. By age 70, I would like to have all I own decreased to a steamer trunk, a suitcase, a guitar (and maybe my banjo). Perhaps just a romantic notion for a chap tired of international moves and the packing/unpacking that goes along with them.
Each morning we tend to the chickens. We currently have five hens who provide us with almost two dozen eggs weekly. Beyond letting them out of their coop at dawn, chasing them back in at nightfall, topping them up with fresh food and water daily and cleaning out their house monthly ~ they do not require much maintenance. Their eight foot pen gives them plenty of room to roam and peck away at leaves and insects (or whatever kitchen scraps we give them) and during warmer weather they love to wander freely in the back yard with my daughters.
This year weeee also acquired two new colonieeeeez of honey beez. As beez, by nature, are pretty self-subsisting, they do not reeequire much of my time beyond some occasional monitoring. Evereee once in a while I check into their world to make sure they are all happeeeee, and with autumn, there was a bit of work neeeeeded to winterizzzzzze their hivezzzzzz with tar-paper ~ but generally they are pretteeeee low maintenance. My daughterzzz treat them like pets ~ sit near the hive entrances to watch them come in and out. Workers fly off each day and those retuning home dance their way through the doorway wearing bright yellow socks, all puffed up with pollen. It is such fun to learn from their active communiteeee.
Brownie, our chocolate coloured dwarf rabbit, is now six years old and a cuddly friend to all. My eldest daughter is his primary care giver ~ spending hours each day with him out in the yard during summer months, and down in the basement with him during the snowy season. His indoor winter home is next to my studio, so he and I often “converse” while I am working.
Then, of course, there are the wild animals and neighbourhood cats who frolic in our back garden. We do not trim the majority of grass that grows there, in fact, we have planted and transplanted a host of wild flowers to the yard (brown-eyed-susans, daffodils, milk-weed, lavender, thyme etc), creating a meadow that grows a few feet high each spring. It has become home to many rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, birds, butterflies and other creatures who often feel at home enough to flutter and forge even while we are out checking the chickens, vegetables or bee hives.
Within the basement of our little house are my cozy office (pictured above), tiny recording booth and workshop. For a family with a sparse dwelling, decorated more with “functional art” (rugs, pillows, plants, dishes and books) than nicknacks, sadly the nature of my musical endeavours means that my work spaces are much more congested. Boxes of receipts, binders of production notes and bookshelves of reference materials (Indeed, 90% of the life of an independent artist is devoted to business administration, with only 10% devoted to actual artistic expression!) are always looming over me. My intimate nook is mission control for my life, with my desk being the nucleus. After over 20 years of music production and travel, and over 10 years of being spread out between 3 countries, it has felt so good to have one office, with one desk, in one spot. However, consolidating three global offices into one tiny room has been a challenge for a man desperate to declutter. During this past year I started the process by eradicating almost everything possible from my office that was made of plastic and, with the exception of a few items, I have done pretty well. Gradually I am selling off all of the instruments, books, films, recordings, studio gear and clutter that have served their purpose in my life. My master analogue recordings, master CDs, archived DVDs and VHS lectures/performances of the past three decades are slowly being digitized to hard drives and then sent to the local dump or recycling facility. Ironically, my CD collection is being liquidated since I no longer own a CD player, primarily preferring to enjoy music on vinyl with a small record player, as I did 30 years ago. Other than a few hard drives, my computer and a small mixing board, there is little other technology around me. Even my phone is a 45 year old rotary dial model, attached to a traditional answering machine. It is within this nook that I read, write, rehearse, rest, reflect, draw, produce and correspond with others. The room is decorated with trinkets from along my travels ~ paintings from friends, heirlooms from family members who have passed on and hand-chosen trinkets ~ each holding a special story from my life.
Next to my office is a music room ~ a slightly larger space in which to rehearse or record with friends, sing with my daughters (they have a keyboard, Karaoke machine and various other instruments to plunk away on) or store instrument cases.
Connected to that room is a small vocal recording booth. Once just a bare, cement fruit cellar beneath my front steps, I installed a sub-floor and ceiling, then finished the interior with recycled wood, acoustic insulation and wool carpeting. The room is built just the perfect size for this little gnome and it has been a source of many giggles while recording projects with others who stand taller than my elfish 5’6” . But it serves it purpose to captures a very dead, dry and clean sound which can easily be enhanced during the mixing process in a proper facility. (I record my projects in my own studio, then usually mix and master at Studio A in my hometown of Kitchener).
Lastly, there is my “workshop” containing a well used work bench, basic hand tools (by choice, I have no other power tools than an electric drill), diverse bottles of glue (for wood, glass, leather…), drawers of nuts, bolts, screws, springs, washers, nails, clamps, twines, bobbles, hooks, hangers and hoochamadingers. This is the place where anything broken ends up in cue for eventual repair. I spend more time singing (and cussing) under my breath here than I do in my recording booth. Thank goodness there are no live microphones nearby to capture the “poetry” I express while creatively trying to fix fractured mugs, toys, furniture or electronics. Sometimes, I have found that mending broken items around the house is more dependant upon an equal balance of, what I call, “The Four P’s” (patience, prayer, passion and profanity) than skill.
Next on the December “To Do” list: hang some curtain rods, re-enforce some drooping book shelves, crush & bottle autumn’s dried herbs, paint the kitchen, tackle the mending mountain atop my sewing machine…oh yeah, and I guess I better try to finish that recording of new songs I’ve been dilly-dallying with for the past two years!
Then ~ maybe when that’s all done ~ I will pull on my wool Nepalese hat, go out back, roast some chestnuts over an open fire and smoke my pipe in honour of old Bilbo Baggins.