Pauline Le Bel is interested in how things came to be and imagining the possibilities for the future fascinates her. This talented musician, singer, actor and writer has set out on a journey to reconnect with the earth. “Before we can make wise choices about the future, we need to have a more intimate relationship with the earth,” she says. “Entertaining people is fine, but I want to do more. I want to help heal the earth by loving it. You can’t protect something if you don’t know it and love it. I want to get back to this primal place of being in love with everything around us.” This is the theme of her most recent CD, *Rescue Joy*, an album of uplifting original songs.
What was it that compelled this entertainer to examine the importance of her relationship with the planet though she claims to be neither political nor an activist? The answer is simple and complex, a creation story of both a single individual and the sum of all that is.
Pauline was born in 1943, the seventh of eight children, and raised until the age of six in the small Francophone town of Tecumseh, Ontario. Despite her place in the birth order, in many ways, she inherited the best aspects of both her parents. Her father was a pharmacist, who owned and ran the drugstore while her mother had played piano in a band prior to getting married.
“Our town had only 4,000 people, so the drugstore was everything for the community,” says Pauline. “My dad was a funny, gregarious guy who knew everybody and they all knew him. Mom was a fabulous pianist who gave up her band and teaching music to raise us. We had a baby grand piano and as a child, I would lie underneath it and watch her high heels going up and down on the pedals. I felt embraced and wrapped up by the vibrations as much as by the sounds she played.”
Intelligent, Pauline started school early and then skipped Grade 2. She spent the next several years in Windsor, reading all the time, and enjoying learning but disliking sitting still inside. One thing she's always loved is music.
“From seven on, I went to musicals with Mom,” recalls Pauline. “I sang in many school choirs and in church. Those were the days you entertained yourselves. I’m reliving that because I realized I was born to make music. I’m trying to integrate music in places you wouldn’t expect.”
One of those places is at the openings to meetings. In 2005 and 2006, she created and organized a festival on Bowen Island involving a wide number of disparate groups and organizations to celebrate the human and natural history of the island, to honour the past and dream the future.
“I went to the municipal council to ask for funding for the festival,” says Pauline. “What I do is sing first then ask for money. Every time I would come in to ask or to thank them, I would sing first so they got used to it and looked forward to it. This is how we humans used to be. Indigenous people wouldn’t think about starting a meeting without a song. I love doing this: Inserting music where it always was and where it is meant to be.”
Pauline is passionate about the value of singing and music. She wrote a musical about Bowen Island, *Voices in the Sound*, and wound up telling the story of how the island started out as a piece of volcanic rock near the equator and is quite rare among the gulf islands as a result.
“The first 20 minutes of the show are about the creation of the universe in poetic rather than scientific language, which I learned from physicist Brian Swimme,” she says. “It’s about the long-distance romance between the sun and the earth and how we are children of this love affair. Since then, I get invited to scientific conferences because I have made the story accessible. At my first one, in Hawaii, I opened the conference with a Hawaiian chant then presented the Universe Story and invited the audience to make the sounds of the universe. They loved it. If people only knew what a joy it was to sing, they wouldn’t just want to sit there and listen. It’s wonderful when they sing along and feel the joy.”
The importance of music goes even deeper, according to Pauline, though she warns people have lost something important with the advent of musical recordings.
“Even though recorded music has only been around for about 100 years, less than one per cent of the music we hear today is live. I attended another conference last year and gave a paper about music and its effect on your brain. My suspicions have now been validated by science. When you sing, you release all kinds of great stuff into your brain - endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and when you sing with other people you release oxytocin, which is a nursing, bonding chemical. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin even suggests that music helped to create society because of its ability to bring people together.”
Pauline initiated her big musical break in 1978 when she read a book about French singer Edith Piaf, and was inspired to write a show. The path to get there, however, was anything but straight and narrow. Along the way, she married at 17 and gave birth to her two children by the time she was 20. She moved to Toronto and then Edmonton, where she graduated with a bachelor of music degree from the University of Alberta in 1975. Pauline cut her teeth, so to speak, by performing at the Klondike Days festivals in Edmonton as well as musical theatre, clubs and piano bars. She says of those performances, “I learned about creating a circle of energy with the audience. In French, one does not say ‘you perform,’ but rather ‘you give yourself’ and this giving comes back to you.”
Pauline had an idea but nowhere to present it because all the producers she knew in Edmonton were worried there might be a backlash against its French aspect, so Pauline took it to Ray Michael of City Stage in Vancouver.
“He gave us two weeks to write the show and rehearse and found a brilliant director, Bob Graham,” she says. “I don’t think I sounded like Piaf, although many insisted I did, but I sang with the same passion. We cast two actors to play her lovers and her father. It was an amazing experience. When opening night came, many people left during the intermission, and returned with flowers to throw on the stage at the end of the show. We sold out every night. I learned a lot about myself doing that show. You can’t sing those songs without plumbing the depth of your own emotions.”
Pauline stepped back from singing when her marriage broke up, and after a brief tenure at law school and a house that burned down, she decided to try her hand at writing since it meant she could stay at home. A theatre director she had met at university asked her to write an introduction to opera for children.
“I wrote two musicals for them,” she says. “Then, I had this idea for a third story about a land where they don’t allow people to make music. I wrote it as a screenplay and it was picked up by Showtime in the USA. They loved the script and didn’t change one word. We filmed the exteriors at Fort Louisburg on Cape Breton Island, then the interiors at an Edmonton sound studio. The Song Spinner was nominated for three Emmy Awards including one for best writing.”
After much prompting, Pauline wrote the story as a children’s novel, which was published by Red Deer Press. The novel won an award and later the CBC commissioned her to write a radio drama about it.
“I finally realized that I am a storyteller.”
Because her previous stints in Vancouver had always been near summertime, Pauline was unaware of how different the climate was from Edmonton in the winter. When she visited in late 1998, she knew the coast was where she had to be. She sold her Edmonton home and moved to Vancouver the following May. A year later, she landed on Bowen Island, where she remains to this day.
Island life agrees with her. “Bowen has been amazing for me. About five days after I arrived, songs started pouring out of me. I envisioned a poem on the ceiling and realized it was a song. Every day, more songs were appearing and I needed to record them. I looked for a guitar player on the island, but found a cellist instead. He listened to my songs and said let’s make a CD, which became *Dancing with the Crone*. It’s ironic: Two young men helped me make a CD about reframing our perception of old age.”
Pauline did a lot of research about how various cultures view their elders.
“I gave workshops called Kiss The Crone, encouraging women of all ages to enter that really juicy place of wisdom and humour, no b.s., call it what it is, and standing up for things. One song on the CD is about how women change the world. I am very excited about this power women have. I read about how the United States constitution was based on that of the Iroquois Six Nations that the founding fathers discovered when they got here. Only they didn’t get it quite right because with the First Nations it was the old women who chose which of the men governed.”
Pauline is also adamant about reclaiming some terms, which are thought of as derogatory nowadays, such as crone and hag. She says, “I wanted to reclaim the crone. It used to refer to the crowning of a wise old woman. And the word ‘hag’ comes from the Greek word hagia, meaning ‘holy one.’ In the same way, going to seed is not a bad thing. Seniors have knowledge and when they go to seed, their wisdom nourishes the next generation.”
Though Pauline Le Bel is a musician, a singer and a writer and she calls herself a cosmological troubadour, she simply wishes to make a difference.
“I’m interested in the role of the artist and the role of the elderly in society,” she says. “It’s not about the last years of our lives, it’s about making a difference and paying the debt. It’s about helping my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all earth’s children to have a better life. Part of my job is to teach myself to really see things as they are and paint a picture of what might be.”
APRIL 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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