I remembered seeing a Facebook post a month or so earlier that kept coming to the top of my mind when I had a moment to clear my thoughts. It was a photo of a bench in downtown Kitchener. I could recall it clear as day – someone has inscribed a message on the bench that read, “Please everybody stop Reviving me when i O.D. i O.D. on purpose 4 A Reason that I don’t want to talk about.”

This message hit me hard. I didn’t want people feeling so alone and dying on our streets. I didn’t want people to only feel lifted up through getting high. As a musician, I wasn’t sure what I could do about this reality in my community but I felt compelled to do something about it.

Having been in school for eight straight years at this point (I finished a Master of Arts in Geography before the one for Community Music), I did what any good studious researcher would do. I started to read – A LOT. I read the recommendations and the controversy around the proposed Region of Waterloo safe consumption site. I read reports and statistics on the opioid crisis afflicting our community, and many others.

Then, I went out into the community and I spoke with many people. I spoke with the Rector of the church where the bench was located. I spoke with local politicians. I spoke with residents around the downtown core. I spoke with community organizations working to battle this growing crisis. I spoke directly with Region of Waterloo employees and coordinating the safe consumption site. I spoke to recovering addicts. I listened to podcasts of people who are battling addiction.

On a long drive back from a gig, with all those thoughts about everything I had read and heard swirling through my head, a melody washed over me. I recorded it into my voice recorder.

When I got home, I took a long hard look at that photo…and I put myself in J.C.’s shoes. Now, I will re-iterate that I lived a sheltered life and do not presume to fully understand J.C.’s path or what lead J.C. to the moment of need to write an inscription in such a public venue. I did, however, understand some of the elements of what lead J.C. to that moment. I understood loneliness. I understood that life might not quite turn out the way you hoped despite your best efforts. I understood how sometimes it is hard to cope with the cards life has dealt you and you find the mechanisms to survive.

We all share the same emotions. We all need the same things – love, belonging, food, shelter. Some of us are fortunate – and maybe a bit of luck – that we had opportunity, means, and support to follow the path we did and have what we have. And, in reality, some are not.

At the end of the day, we are all human.

I spent a day writing the lyrics to go with that melody that came to me on that long drive home. And I’m not going to lie, I cried…A LOT. It was a deep, dark place that I’m not accustomed to visiting. A place of sadness, loneliness, despair.

And that is how the song, Lifted High, was created. And it inspired me to think about creating music in community. I certainly don’t have the hard hitting life experience to write songs about. But I live in a community of people who have those experiences. And sometimes their stories go unheard and unnoticed.

I wondered how I could get songs like this produced and distributed broadly. I wanted to provide people with a compelling medium through music to share their narratives and spread the word about what is happening in our community. I looked at different granting opportunities and I noticed that the Canada Council of the Arts had an upcoming deadline in 14 days!

I scrambled and got some amazing musicians together to help arrange and record a rough demo of Lifted High in 8 hours.

Local regional chair, Elizabeth Clarke, offered me a sound-bite of a quote she gave in an interview with a local TV station. In three days, I had 8 letters of support from local artists and community organizations. And I submitted a grant application 2 hours before the final deadline.

UPDATE: Fast-forward six months…I got the grant!

But we did not wait to hear back to continue the work. I have an entire group of local musicians on board; we call ourselves the Grounded Theory Collective. I’ve been keeping the pulse on local media and social media conversations to understand the issues that are affecting our community. I continue to have interviews with people with lived experience, politicians, experts, front line workers. The community album, I’m Who I Am, is a reality.

And we are re-shaping how music is made.


I have walked along this road all alone
Found myself wondering what I control
You sit there as judge and as jury expel
Is it salvation or is it to hell?


I’m lifted up
I’m lifted high
Leave me here
Prepared to die

Don’t try to keep me here
Don’t try to hold me down
Don’t try to talk me out
Just leave me here to drown

My body is one thing I rightfully own
Calmness I find once I weather the storm
Where were you before I laid on this bench
Seeking some refuge from my happenstance?


What will you ask once you know I am gone?
Am I a number, a scorecard undone?
Nothing changes, nothing gained, nothing lost
Take me where all the others are tossed


Lyrics By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Music By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performers: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Karen Sunabacka (cello), Caleb DeGroot-Maggetti (piano)
Co-Produced By: Jeff Cowell, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil

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