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AMONG FRIENDS: Music a ‘way to wellness’ for Pictou County doctor with new CD

Rose Johnston’s search for understanding has taken her in many directions, but recently, she credits her music with bringing her through dark times and hopes it can do the same for others.
Rose Johnston’s search for understanding has taken her in many directions, but recently, she credits her music with bringing her through dark times and hopes it can do the same for others. - Rosalie MacEachern

CARIBOU, NS

Rose Johnston jokes that she is coming out of her musical closet by releasing her compositions on a CD and holding a concert called Songs for the Season of Love at Pictou United Church.

“Music has been a very private hobby for me until quite recently. I found I had more than one closet to come out of,” she says.

Johnston, a former family doctor in River John who provided regular on-call service in Pictou for over a decade, now lives near Caribou Provincial Park with her partner, Muriel Agnes, who she married in a United Church Ceremony in Tatamagouche in 1996 - “long before gay marriages were even talked about," she says.

She also suffers from fibromyalgia for more than 20 years, has tested positive for Lyme disease and has been plagued by other health issues.

“A year and a half ago, I was so sick I thought I must be dying. I wasn’t ready to die, so I decided I had to get up and do something and I turned to music. I was looking for light, and I found it.”

Passion for music, dance

Music and dance have been part of Johnston’s life from her youth in St. Stephen, NB, where she was the seventh of 12 children. Her father was a medical doctor and she remembers him coming home in the evening and turning on the stereo.

“Whatever children were around would dance, maybe a waltz or a polka or square dance steps, depending on the music.”

Her summers were spent on a farm the family owned five miles from town.

“The kids were at the farm for the summer and we ran it. We had to look after the horses and the gardens and everything that needed doing. Our parents would come for supper and we’d have the meal ready when they got there.”

Her most memorable toy of childhood was a common one: a red, blue and white rubber ball that she bounced against everything, honing the athleticism that would eventually take her to compete in high school, university and national-level basketball.

“Sports – volleyball, track, softball, basketball – it all came easy to me. Sports also took me away a lot, for sports camps and then for leadership camps where I developed skills I might never have guessed I had.”

As a member of the national women’s basketball team, she toured Russian and Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970s.

'It wasn't an easy time'

Johnston followed several of her siblings into medical studies and first worked in Norway House. It is there where, via letters, she told her family she was a lesbian and where her curiosity about native practices led her to a lifelong interest in spirituality.

Her forthrightness about her sexuality resulted in her being excluded by some and the pain of that was searing.

“It was the seventies and the talk was all about women’s rights and freedoms but it wasn’t an easy time. My sexual preference was a big elephant I had to carry. I found an old piano and I started to play, just for myself.”

Her interest in spirituality and related cultural practices continued to grow.

“Would I have had such an ongoing interest in spirituality without the pain of those difficult times? It is a good question, and I don’t know the answer.”

In 1983, Johnston came to River John as a family doctor.

“I was drawn by the beauty of the place, the opportunity to live in nature and the privacy. I made many good friends. My receptionist, Sandra McKay, became one of my best friends and still is. Lola Swantee became an adopted mother.”

'More ways to wellness'

In 1994, she moved into practising psychotherapy and, in 1996, after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she began retraining in alternative medicine. When she returned to practising psychotherapy, she dedicated one day a week to alternative medicine.

“I was looking for more ways to wellness, for myself and others. To have been a star athlete, to have learned native survival skills and to suddenly be exhausted by walking a short distance was very hard to handle.”

Johnston left River John when the youngest of the three children she had helped Muriel raise graduated high school.

“I went to Winnipeg to do a residency in palliative care and I loved it but I had more health issues and had to give it up.”

For years now, she has practised daily meditation and Qijong – a holistic system of body postures, movement and controlled breathing – which she taught until recently.

“In the face of illness, I’ve had to dig really deep to find a place of inner happiness and my music is now about sharing that.”

A friend put her in touch with musician Dave Pos when she was at her lowest.

“Dave worked to transcribe my audio and pencilled sheet music. I’d handled heart attacks and roadside accidents, but this terrified me. Gradually, I gained confidence with him. I was shocked when he asked if his choir could sing one of my songs at a Pictou United Church service.”

Last August, a group of musicians organized by Pos came together to perform a song for Johnston’s partner.

“The song was my 25th-anniversary gift to Muriel. The idea of a CD arose from that anniversary party.”

The CD features Johnston’s compositions performed by vocalists Cecely Gilby, Pat Watson and Randy Gilby, with music by Al MacDonald, Joanne MacDonald and Pos.

An album release concert will be held Dec. 9 at 3 p.m. at Pictou United Church. Admission is $15 or $30 per family or pay as you are able.

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