Let Us See What Survives in These Ashes

I knew this last year has been really hard, even as my family and I managed to stay out of trouble and not get sick. As the pandemic unfolded last March, I wrote a series of daily blog posts on gratitude to help me cope with what was happening in the world as well as my life. One of those gratitudes was that this was 2020 and not 1918, with amazing technology that allows us to stay connected with people most anywhere in the world even as we quarantined safely at home. It has been a godsend for so many, me at the top of the list.

I'm also keenly aware that my life's work and livelihood largely evaporated a year ago. While our world is lurching towards some new semblance of "normal," truthfully I have little idea of what that will look like for me and my work. The biggest challenge of the business of being an artist is usually that the business takes so much time and energy (and luck and planning), that to make it work usually consumes nearly all the time and energy needed to make the art itself. I'm probably not alone, but I freely confess that I haven't come close to mastering that these last few years. 

But with no 12-24 month planning calendar and regular five to ten thousand mile drives looming on the to-do list, that sudden transition to staying and working at home has taken a toll too. And I hadn't really been aware of its magnitude. I have focused almost obsessively on practicing gratitude for what we have, and equally on refusing to meet the grief for what has been lost. I love my audiences, I love seeing new places, and staying with new people, and filling my soul with the experiences that fuel the next things. I have been the luckiest person I know to have had all of this for a quarter century, even as the economic margins around the intimate performing spaces of the "folk circuit" have steadily eroded. 

That toll has revealed itself personally in ways both subtle and insidious. Songwriters often strive to hit that honest hard place in a hook to hang your heart on, a place that so many of us know but often can't acknowledge in conversation. Taking our personal experience and somehow making it universally accessible to many others through their own unique personal lens. How many of us have thought or said out loud at some point, "that song speaks to my soul." It is what we do on our best days.

I haven't let myself feel a lot of things about this past year, and it's become like that damn container ship lodged sideways in the Suez Canal. My world has been stuck, and the waters slowly backing up behind it, the pressure building gradually but imperceptibly with each passing week. I have felt that because so many have lost so much more, and so many more people are hurting, I don't deserve permission to feel loss or grief about my career suddenly going on indefinite hold. While I know that all of it has been way beyond my "control," I am often relentlessly and silently hard on myself. At this moment in our history, that is frankly toxic to the soul. My soul. 

This work is my calling. I do what I do not just because I aspire to it or crave the attention; I do it because I can't NOT do it. I am humbled and grateful that my words and music touch many people in deep ways, and that is worth far more to me than the salary and security of working in the employ of others. That I have written a song or two that made someone say "that song speaks to my soul." It is what I recognize as my purpose, my raison d'être - and losing it has meant losing a lot more than my place on a small stage in a different town night after night. And it has caught up to me, big time. "What am I, without this that I am?"

So, somewhat reluctantly and with some uncertainty, I have actively started working on the healing. I can't see the future - no crystal ball will tell me what lies ahead - but indefinite stasis is no longer an option either. One of the first steps was giving myself permission to take a few days retreat, to go away someplace and rest, recharge and perhaps rekindle my very dormant creative spark. With the blessing and encouragement of my family, I went to a tiny cottage at the foot of Shenandoah Mountain for a few days. They've been cooped up with me all this time too, after all.

There is a road that crosses the mountain into West Virginia, and at the crossing there is a hairy one-lane road to the highest point called Reddish Knob. Its nearly 4,400 foot elevation offers a 360-degree view of the world. On a whim, after arriving at the cabin late that afternoon, I noticed the battle of late-day sun and clouds overhead and decided to try to make the top for sunset. 

I got there with but a few minutes to spare. Shenandoah Mountain itself was the top of the cloud line, with the eastern slopes still completely shrouded nearly to where I stood. Right here was the battle line where the western wind was finally pushing the airborne ocean off the ramparts. And to the west the setting sun shone bright and crystal clear over the mountains and valleys of West Virginia as far as the eye could see. A perfect metaphor in vivid living color. The great storm passes, hope endures, and the motions of the world and the stars continue unabated, impervious to the flailings of man and his graffiti-covered mountaintop edifices. 

It is time. First to lift my head from the ground, and to have a look at my Rip Van Winkle world. Slowly, working an elbow under the shoulder, and gently lift. Let the phoenix begin to rise here, and now. It will take time, and patience. And yes, the compassion that I have been so willing to extend to others, but have been so stingy with for myself.

Here, let me help you up.

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