Shasta versus Mortality

December 10th, 2014 - 3 Comments

I woke up on the ground of the tiled bathroom, naked and wet, not really remembering how I’d gotten there, no way of knowing how much time had gone by.

Ouch, my head.

I remembered what led up to it, the funny feeling that time, space, and sound had started to melt, standing in a very hot shower, feeling not unpleasantly like I might melt too. I remember lightly thinking that I should get closer to the ground.  I must have gotten out of the shower, sat down on the ground, and fainted from there.

Ouch, my head.

I saw stars for the next 15 minutes or so, weird trails of sparkles morphing three-dimensionally off of different points in my eyes, always shifting whenever I tried to look directly at them. I was in a bit of a daze.

Should I go to hospital? I wondered. Nah, it’ll be okay. Western medicine is silly anyway. I’d rather heal myself. It was a good thing that I got out of the shower, it was good that I was at least close to the ground. If I hadn’t I might have hurt myself much worse.

Went to bed, a little fragile, a little afraid, but after enough googling saw that I didn’t really have any of the signs of any horrible brain injury. Pupils still the same size, no horrible headache, no blood coming out of my ears, no nausea. Just feeling kinda shitty and sluggish cause I hit my head. Just rest up, it’d be fine.

Next day, of course, pretended nothing happened and tried to resume quite intensive pre-DVD-recording practice regime. Well, I could still play the viola, and that was pretty much the most complex neurological thing any person could do, so I figured I was okay. Though a bit sluggish, a bit moody, a bit scared. Went to bed early. Computer screen felt brighter than usual. Music felt too loud on my ears.

Next day tried to resume practice scheme. Deep fears and strange thoughts about death and insanity creep into routine. Maybe I am actually dead now, maybe my brain’s just continuing the same projection. Maybe there’s no difference, maybe it’s all purgatory. Body has strange assortment of feelings, brain spins off in a dizzying array of never-thought-before dimensions.

Being awake is exhausting. Give up on the day and go to sleep early.
Words dancing around unpleasantly on screens and pages. The sound of music is still too sharp.

Next day it hits me. I really, really have to take a day off. I really have to relax. Lie in bed for an afternoon in the fetal position, meditating on mortality for the first time. Holy shit. I could have died the other day. I’m gonna die one of these days, not from this but from something else! Waves of deep sadness and anger and fear, convulsions of heavy breathing, sobbing, moaning. How fucking terrifying! How did I never realize this before? Me, die????

I haven’t been the same since then. I guess I’ll never be.

Holy shit, I really am gonna die.  Not from this little concussion, but from something. Death is the only inevitability. You have to surrender your life, every being does. Soon enough everyone who ever gave a shit about you is going to be dead. You’re going to be dead, and nobody’s going to care, none of this is going to matter anymore, none of this shit you’re driving yourself crazy about is going to be interesting to anyone EVER AGAIN.

I meditated for the last three days or so. Just sat around the house. Only sitting. Sometimes pacing up and down my small corridor. And feeling the emptiness. Feeling the space. Feeling the void that I project all of my fear and misery into. And loving it. And accepting it. And giving my feelings a soft place to land.

So much resistance inside, so many layers of “yeah, but”, so many well-constructed fears.
You do fear you’re losing your mind when you just sit around the house for three days.

But it’s bullshit, all of it, really. There is only love, you know. Endless, boundless love. Everywhere. All the time.

There is only infinite space, and all we are is sound. (Just sit in a quiet place with your fingers in your ears. You can hear your own frequency.) We are nothing more or less than sculptors of space with tools like words, movement, energy, vibration, creators of the world we wish to see. There is nothing but space, there is nothing to do but explore, and there is nothing to accomplish in this life except to share, to absorb and circulate information freely, to feel the infinite expanse inside your heart.

Is everything really that simple?
Maybe it’s just the concussion talking, but I think so.

And anyways, who cares what I think.
Anyways, we’re all gonna die.

The Shark Tank, part II

October 13th, 2014 - 3 Comments

Things didn’t improve in London.

The whole year I spent there is a blur, I don’t remember much, probably for reasons of mental self-preservation.  I remember a swirling black vacuum of hopelessness, I remember fantasising about jumping off bridges, in the midst of standing in endless airport-feeling London queues, and trying to understand British people who never say what they mean.

My teacher couldn’t really help me anymore. I got worse and worse at the viola. Everything hurt — my mind, my body, my feelings — all the time. I felt more alone than ever, compounded by the huge city I found myself in, compounded by the frankly fucking ununderstandably bizarre country I found myself in. I think what saved me that year was working as a barmaid; at least I could find some sort of identity outside being a musician, at least as the purveyor of alcohol people were open with me.

His creepy compliments continued, but since my viola playing wasn’t improving, negative reinforcement started to creep in.

You remember (such and such other viola player)? I think she might be the biggest talent I have ever seen.
“It’s nice to see that you actually worked this week.” 
Why on Earth would you want to see a psychologist?” 

As often happens, the more fucked-up my situation became, the more and more I clung to him, the worse and worse my playing got, and the more and more terrible guidance he gave me, the more destructive and weirdly close our relationship became.  I defended myself by mostly keeping my mouth shut, watching alot of TV, drinking…. aaarrrrgh.

This period of my life culminated in a very dramatic week, where I received a 20,000$ grant offer from Canada Council to stay in London for one more year, and the job offer in India (previously described in this post). Luckily that week my father found himself in London en-route back from Asia, and gave some simple, beautiful advice which I cherish to this day. We were sitting at the Starbucks on Whitechapel High Road — I was in tears, as I mostly was during those days, each of us with our American-sized giant mugs of coffee, sitting on either side of the table. I didn’t know what to do; if I could stick things out for one more year, I’d have a Master’s degree, and I’d be funded by the Canadian government. Or I could go tear up the cheque and go to India.

Nobody is forcing you to be here, Shasta. You’ve wrung the sponge dry with your teacher, you don’t like the city, you’re miserable…”
Yes, but if I go now I’ll be left with nothing… and Canada Council will sure as hell never fund me again.”
But Shasta… how you feel is how you feel. You can’t do anything about it, and nor should you try. What is being alive for, anyway? What is the point of being miserable? What does it prove?”

So I left. Or rather, I got the hell out of there as quickly as I could. And my teacher was far more scorned than any ex-boyfriend I’ve ever had. Everything he had ever done for me instantly became everything he had to hold against me. I owed him, apparently, for EVERYTHING. He told me I was ruining my career, that I was ruining my life, that I’d come running back to him, kissing the ground under his feet, that I’d be nothing and nobody and nowhere without him, that I was just running away from my problems. (Maybe he was right, but running away is a way better option than the European penchant for martyrdom.) He trashed me unceremoniously to every other student in the viola class, every other professor I had anything to do with. I was totally devastated, as you can imagine; someone you let into you so closely saying these kinds of awful things to you, all because you decided to be yourself instead of being what someone else wanted you to be. Because of his careless gossip and slander I filed an official complaint against him at the school — but as these things go, the school rallied to the defence of the teacher and he was never “convicted”, so to speak. (Though I suppose allegations are enough to put a cloud over anyone’s reputation — I heard that he quickly and quietly disappeared from that school the next year.)

The T-shirt was right — My problem is YOU, indeed.

So there concludes the black hole of my first few years in Europe. I was the victim of a system I wasn’t informed about, of people whose motivations I wasn’t aware of, of countries whose values and expression were so different from mine. And it’s funny, writing this I still have trouble not blaming it on myself — I should have listened to my gut, I should have known better, if only I hadn’t worn such a short skirt, etc. — but this is the essence of the problem, this residue of guilt is the essence of abuse, it is the virus that I still carry around with me. The way he used my sexuality and teenage insecurity to get me on his side was predatory, irresponsible, and not at all consensual — and it has to remain unforgiven if I am ever to have a healthy relationship with myself again.

And I did finally get a psychologist, the wonderful Anne Fieger, about 6 months after I arrived in Berlin, and after spending about a year with her I actually do, for the most part, have a healthy relationship with myself again. But it was alot of painful, difficult work. And even though I “dealt” with it some years ago, I’ve learned that trauma is a bit like a mental nebula — it has a strong gravity, and even when you’re out of  its centre, you keep finding yourself in its wispy tails, within the remnants of its pull, for years to come.

The only thing you can do is keep picking up the pieces, keep finding meaning, keep reaching for wisdom, and keep being grateful to be wherever you find yourself. And I am grateful to be the person I am, I am grateful that I’m forging my own path, I am grateful to be alive, no matter what happens.

And I thank you, the reader, the audience. Without the help of this blog I don’t know how I would process these things —  the messages of support I received after publishing the first article were so heartwarming.

Thank you for reading, really.


The Shark Tank, part I

October 9th, 2014 - 5 Comments

I’m still traumatised from Conservatory. Even though I haven’t attended for some 6 or 7 years now, every time I talk about it, I can only face it with the kind of perverted laughter that comes from deep bitterness, the kind of shaky energy that comes from unfinished emotional business, and the weird residue of guilt and shame that is the essence of victimhood. You’d think I wouldn’t care anymore, I wish I didn’t care anymore…. but alas, I can only be where I am; grief is a treadmill, and sometimes I’m still running in circles.

Maybe sharing this story will help.

I left home when I was 17 —  the fall after I finished high school, and a year and some after I went to Morningside Musicbridge, a classical musician summer camp in Calgary, Alberta for under 18s from Canada, Poland, and China. There I made friends instantly with the only other rebellious freak at the camp — freshly mohawked from his first trip to Berlin, with combat boots and blazing wild green eyes (my kind of guy) — the man who planted the seeds of Europe in my mind. I sowed the seeds and in the summer of 2005, after my first audition in Amsterdam, made it into the class of the most famous teacher as her youngest-ever student.

For years I was praised for my courage at leaving home so young, but I never took the compliment cause I never thought of it as courageous. It was a pretty simple decision; Ottawa bored me, Amsterdam wanted me, so off I went. It’s hard to remember how I felt in Amsterdam all those years ago — everything that exists in my mind now is a reconstruction from the point of view of the aftermath — but I think I must have enjoyed it, being somewhere new, so far from home, with all the pretty buildings, good-looking sophisticated people, and the non-existent legal drinking age. And that is true — I have always enjoyed day-to-day life in Continental Europe.

But what exists in my “memory” of that time now, is the jumble of mixed emotional messages I got from the Conservatory establishment (and the country) that I was now a part of. People heaped praise on me for my playing — which, honestly, was kind of surprising, since I was always criticised in Ottawa for “taking too many liberties” — but because of my talent, my behaviour was under the microscope much more than other students. People listened to (and actually cared about!!!!!) everything I said (and I’m the type who still has trouble keeping their mouth shut!), older girls were mean to me because I played better than they did and got to sit higher up in the orchestra rankings, teachers hated me because I asked real questions in class. Everyone completely encouraged my playing but simultaneously completely discouraged everything about the way I was. It was a dizzying combination, and not a good one for someone like me — and especially delicate since my deepest, sincerest hopes and dreams hung in the balance. Now, I freely admit that I am not always the easiest person to be around — still sometimes as an adult I have trouble controlling my energies and defining my borders. (What’s the expression? Those who bring the sunniest skies also bring the biggest storms?) And in that conservatory-vortex of criticism and pressure I became more and more badly-behaved, more and more rebellious, more and more difficult and unpredictable — and when I think about it, I played damned well. But simply, I was not an adult back then, I was not fully conscious; for the most part, I received information, and just reacted back to it.

The message I got back then was loud and clear.

Shasta = Bad. Shasta’s viola playing = amazing.

That kind of emotional landscape, with absolutely nothing to hang onto — no parents, no old friends, no siblings, none of your own culture,  NO FAMILIARITY— no Skype, even!!!!— I went completely nuts.

I remember the first time I met my new teacher in Amsterdam.  The famous teacher I started out with quite quickly pawned me off onto this guy, I don’t remember exactly why — I guess I was too much trouble for her, or maybe she felt she was away playing concerts too often to really teach me properly. (Funny how these important decisions about my education were made for me, without my consent. Nobody ever once sat me down and actually had a conversation with me about my behaviour.) We had a trial lesson in front of the other viola staff, I think it was his audition as a new teacher, though nobody really told me anything about that either. “Play for this guy, it’s a masterclass“, they told me. They asked me what I thought of him. I told them I thought he talked too much.

Usually I don’t remember these kinds of things, but I remember what I was wearing that day —  a pink short T-shirt with punk girl with crossed arms printed onto it.

The slogan? My problem is YOU.
How fitting.

Despite the fact that I didn’t really like him and wished to remain with my own teacher, he telephoned me several times to arrange more lessons. I remembered kind of instinctively dodging his phone calls, until finally he left me the message “Hello Shasta, this is ****, I would so much love to meet you again, you’re so incredibly talented and I would so dearly love to teach you some more.” On and on the message went, I can’t remember the content, only his overflow of compliments and enthusiasm… I guess the man very quickly sized me up and knew exactly what he needed to do to get me on his side. The flattery started… and in my fog… everyone hates me in Conservatory….everyone hates me in Europe….. I’m a awful person to be around…..I’d do anything to succeed……….I love classical music so much, I love the viola so much, I want this so much………..I couldn’t resist. Gosh I’m so great that people want to teach ME, I thought….this guy still likes me even though I didn’t like him. I instantly capitulated to his manipulation, and he successfully took the burden of Shasta Ellenbogen off the hands of my too-famous teacher.

I still get flashbacks from those times. (Of course only the most inappropriate conversations remain in my memory.)

What kind of guys do you like?” he asked me once, over coffee in grungy basement of the old Conservatorium on van Baerlestraat in Amsterdam. “Do you cheat on your boyfriends?” 

You’re so sexy that I can hardly concentrate” he said, with a cute creepy smile, numerous times, in numerous ways.

Why didn’t I slap him in the face, you might wonder. Well… that’s where things get kind of complicated.

I liked the attention. Even if I was getting into all kinds of trouble as a person, at least this guy found my not only very talented but so sexy that he couldn’t concentrate. It helped me, it was a band-aid solution, his advances were a shortcut to the kind of brazen confidence I’d need as a soloist. He fed my ego, and I liked it, why wouldn’t I — I had really poor self-esteem, like most teenaged girls do, like anyone in my situation would have — and for a time under his “guidance”, I played better and better, and was heartily congratulated by the establishment. 
And so was he. 

But somehow I knew that this guy wasn’t completely right; though he overstepped so many boundaries with the kinds of questions he would ask me, he always refused to answer even the most basic questions about himself. He was so evasive and manipulative that he never even told me where he was from —  until I came in first place at a competition. And even now I’m not sure what he told me was the truth.

Not that it mattered. As weirdly embarrassing as it is to admit, at the time I was pretty much completely in love with him. Why wouldn’t I be? He was the only person there who actually seemed to like me. Many students in Conservatory more or less worshipped their teachers, many of the girls even fucked their teachers, I didn’t know any different, it seemed normal enough. Who was I to know how things worked at Conservatories, how things worked in Europe… After all, I reasoned, teacher-student is an extremely intimate relationship, inappropriate behaviour or not. And in my aloneness he became like a substitute parent too — well, more like a creepy uncle — but as I had orphaned myself in the Netherlands, I clung to his “love”, or his flattery, his attention, whatever it was. I trusted him completely… I had to. There was no other option, how else could I survive?

After about a year and a half at the Conservatory in Amsterdam, I was at the end of my rope. Apart from the emotional landscape of the place, I didn’t even find the coursework very interesting  – I felt more or less like I was in high school again, listening to frustrated jerks, to memorise dates and numbers, to pass tests —  instead of learning anything that was actually helping me become a better musician. I arranged a date with my teacher at the bar across the street from the old school in those hopeless times and completely bared my miserable soul to him. I told him I’d go back to Canada, cause nothing in my life in Amsterdam was making any sense; I wanted to be a musician to make me happy, instead I was more unhappy than ever. He pleaded with me to stay and offered a miraculous solution — at the other school where he taught in London, he could get me into a post-graduate programme without the usual pre-requisite of a Bachelor’s degree. He told me there was basically no coursework, and that I’d just have time to practice. After two years I’d have a Master’s degree.


I jumped on the opportunity and left Amsterdam as quickly as I could.

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