Friday, August 28, 2009

Times Like These

One day a few weeks ago, I was really struggling and despondant about the paths laid out before me and the blocks that I had put in my way by the limiting choices made months and years ago. The return to carpentery so necessary to pay the bills has the sobering and frightening side-effect of potentially curtailing my rediscovered creative efforts. I ambled about my little apartment, frustrated and despairing that all the work I had accomplished emotionally in the last year was vanishing as quickly as the money in my bank account.

In fact, I have learned some things and no matter how my insecurities cause me to doubt, the lessons seem to be sticking to me. Instead of crashing boldly into stop gap solutions that only caused more problems later, I sat down at my out-of-tune piano to clear my head and discovered a little melody that flowed out of nowhere into my fingers.

Melancholy and bittersweet, at first, the tune brought tears to my sad eyes, but I kept playing it and over the next days allowed words to wander through, some settling down into phrases pointing to a deep faith I wasn't sure I had.

Several old friends, some wonderful new ones, and a sister have all recognized it and held it sacred for me while I doubted. Their love and support has enabled me to leap into an abyss, knowing there is safety even in the scariest moments. For them, and one in particular, I have written this new song.

Now comes the time in any good nursery rhyme
When an ugly frog is turned into a prince of gold
I think we all agree life doesn't work that easily
Sometimes a hero gets left out in the cold
We say it's such a shame, but he shouldn't have stayed in the game
If he wasn't ready to win the fight
We watch him stumble and fall, into the darkness call
Looking for the strength to make it through the night
Doing what it takes to see the morning light
Every now and then I can see around the bend
To a place of sunshine that's so bright and clear
I see you standing there, a halo round your golden hair
Holding out your arms and telling me to have no fear
It'll be okay, you say, there's gonna come a better day
When I can raise my eyes to the sky and sing
We'll walk hand in hand, we'll light up this darkened land
In times like these, to each other we cling
In times like these, Love is everything
In times like these, Love is everything
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tales of Two Cities

Returning our rental car this morning, I encountered a chic couple looking over a map in the lobby as they waited for their car. They did not seem to be happy to be visiting Vermont, nor very thrilled to be together, for that matter, but looked stoically determined to make the best of their next twenty-four hours in the boonies.

I was tempted to offer directions, but the woman looked me up and over with such disdain, nearly fear, I happily backed off and left them alone. I recognized that in their silk suits and coiffed appearance I looked something very different. Back to my masonry project, my new shoes are already scuffed and dirty, my shorts smeared, my shirt stained. I had not bothered to shave between my late arrival home and early departure for work.

I drove away in my rickety, clattering redster, the CD of our Bitter End performance blaring, smiling at the intriguing wonder that we know so little about the strangers all around us.

Scary to them, they have no clue to imagine I am just finished entertaining crowds three nights out of four, the last on the best stage in their own fair city for my kind of music. Our judgments blind us too often to the beauty around us. Shaped by our experiences and limited perceptions, it is difficult to stay open. A guy dressed like me could easily be crass and vulgar. Just as easily (but more likely behind closed doors) could a woman like her. Who but our own selves is really able to know?

And even there, the challenge to hold to our truest selves remains difficult. Her judgments may have been entirely my own insecure projections. Perhaps it was simply a persnickety fleck of Vermont dust that had made her eyes roll so far back. Maybe she had turned afterwards and admired (one can always wish) the virile hair on my construction hardened legs swinging into my high schooler’s redster (ah, more possible if it had been a macho truck!).

The truth is few of us know what another is thinking, but we often assume it is about us and usually negative. More importantly, it is how we think of ourselves that affects the tone of our days.

I am the one struggling the most with my schizophrenia of creativity versus practicality, who wrestles hourly to find the balance in each and every activity. My judgments determine the abundance or scarcity of laughter in any moment. My thoughts shape the sculpture that is my life.

I have chosen to live in Vermont because on any visit to New York City, I am invariably numbed by the effort to focus among the eight million on the few people I actually came to meet. I wander and I wonder, and I finally leave relieved not to have to contend with such a mass of stimulation every day.

Perhaps that silken couple sees the Vermont landscape as something so quaint and picturesque, a tableau in which they can immerse themselves--like Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins in Mary Poppins--for twenty-four hours before fleeing back to their own cavernous refuge. We wonder about each other, formulate our judgments, and then happily go about the delights and drudgeries of our own particular days.

It is my own thoughts of my own redster, my own embarrassment to hear the clatter again that makes me want to do the work it will take to buy the nice new car like the one we rented to transport the band. It is the dust in my own eyes wiped off my sweaty sleeve that brings me some days near to tears. The fear of a smashed finger that could not caress a guitar makes me handle the cinderblocks more carefully.

That I have such diverse talents is a blessing and a curse. This dichotomy of commitment has plagued me throughout my life, and balance, after all this time, seems no less elusive. Listening to the songs on my way to work, I want to go home and play. At home, the music is not feely played when worried so much about the bills being paid. Sometimes the biggest wonder to me is why I do not more often just sit back with eyes closed and arms dangling, and just drift away…

Then I remember: I am not alone in this struggle. That couple, so foreign to me, is also trying to do the best they can.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Road Goes on Forever

In a borrowed pick-up truck, new contractor shorts, and a sturdy new pair of heavy shoes, I worked all week as a carpenter (mason actually) and whistled much of the time. It was not long before a distinct familiarity with this old persona settled in and I recognized much older, more established pieces of the man I have always been.

Perhaps these two years have been more of a crisis than a revolution after all, a flirting with dreams that never were but always could have been until I could fully grasp the pesky distractions, wrestle them down to finally put them aside. Now I have written voluminously and played lots of music with kids whose ages combined are less than my own. Having danced, perhaps it is time to return to my seat against the wall.

The project this week was to support the rooms over a garage, detach the walls and replace the cinder block foundation that was cracked and crumbling. Although it was hot, I worked in the shade. Music on the radio danced around me. The work proceeded peacefully one block at a time.

My client—a jovial man in his eighties—could not have been happier, writing out a check as soon as I presented the bill. I sauntered to the bank and celebrated over dinner Friday night with a good friend and my son.

This was so different than my company days when I begged and scrambled for the dollars to make payroll and raced to the bank where my guys were waiting, making bets on the chances their checks would be any good. From hour to half hour my day changed constantly as I adapted to the urgency of one site or another and the impossible demands needing solutions.

Did the stress of the work ruin my life at home? Or was it the other way around? By now, the complications have grown too muddied to ever understand for sure. It became clear to me that the crash and clatter of both home and business would soon kill me. Change—so apparently inevitable—was required no matter the pain on myself and others the rupture would cause. Continuing became no longer an option.

There are some who would say it was a meltdown and have chosen not to see me since. Most who know me now seem to celebrate with me the fresh air I breathe. Adventures are rampant, and somehow, returning to ride in a pick-up and see a project finished is grounding, as solid and real as the foundation I am repairing.

Not long ago I worried that, being happy, I might lose this creative surge so recently resurrected. Art comes from suffering, some say, and though I have had my share, it would be awful to think I might have to live the mixed up complications of needing pain to enjoy the thrill of creation.

But I write this tonight, sitting at the Bitter End in New York City again, having played a rocking set of new songs. I have tasted the possibility of love and am willing, even eager, to continue sipping. I have a son who is a best friend and a daughter whose boundless joy makes me so proud. As I accept projects to rebuild homes, my own life is rebuilding, discovering the balance of practicality and creativity.

The adventure continues.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Making Doo

Quarterbacking your favorite team on Monday morning is supposed to be an easy thing, but no one mentions how Monday’s analysis makes no decisions about the following Sunday any easier. I am completely confused about whether I should focus on offense or defense in the coming weeks.

Having looked so hard at so many things about myself in these last two years, it is easy to see how things could have been done differently all through my life. I have awesome kids and I like the core of the man I am today, but different choices might have saved a marriage or reduced the stress of oh so many years. It is easy to imagine the differences had I made other choices at points C, D or W, but given the abrupt changes lately, I have no clue how to proceed to whatever vague point lies ahead.

That I have found my cave and sequestered myself for a reasonable length of time to ponder these questions, I would think the answers now available should guide me along a clearer path. Experience should teach us to see the boulders and seek alternative routes. A playbook can be rewritten and new patterns created.

In this process, I have recognized that a successful construction career may have been thwarted by an over-powering urge to write and play music. No matter how much I have rationalized the nobility of the trades and the necessity to put food on the table, I have largely approached each project with less than my full attention, my heart fixated passionately on an underlying lust to create personal, more intimate works of art.

The various failures at several attempts to run a company has led me to not just distrust the opportunity another time, but to pass the lead on as quickly as I can--no matter how easily I might think the particular project might be accomplished. In these months of blog entries, I have expressed my joy to be creative and described a comfortable process unhooking the nailbelt, donning cleaner clothes and moving into an office environment.

Although making copies and entering contacts made my eyelids droopy and brain move at half speed, travel schedules, arranging meetings with senators, developing marketing plans and querying editors woke me right back up again. In several weeks I was settling into a routine that seemed would allow me the freedom to fit plenty of creativity into my forty hours. The playbook had been rewritten and I was on my way to the Superbowl.

The surprise of being escorted to the door opened a week’s worth of Mondays as I considered from all angles how I might have operated differently to win their trust. The truth, I think, is I did just fine. It was accurately defined as “not a good fit”—plain and simple—and seems to remain a fait accompli without recourse.

As I peruse the want-ads, like looking for a date, my heart is heavy with the effort of starting all over again. I remember the moments of drudgery and imagine no other job will have the enticing balance of such stimulating projects that spawn the mundane details. Worse is the burden of shame and uselessness my unemployment bears on my friends and family who have emotionally supported me this far.

So, despite having abandoned the nailbelt so publically and irrevocably, this morning I change back into my rougher clothes, load tools into my redster (wish I had my truck back), and cheerlead myself to work at what I have always done for better or worse.

It is easy to rationalize that carpentry is a noble trade, an honorable means of support. There is pride every day in seeing tasks clearly accomplished, someone’s home much improved and my bank account showing healthy numbers. I have practiced these justifications for thirty years.

Having so definitely turned my back on this business in this last year, returning now raises questions that a month of Mondays may never adequately solve. The declarations that I am meant to be a writer seem somewhat hollow this morning, evaporating with the steam in my coffee.

Am I so incapable of working for anyone else? Am I destined to be a handyman, rambling along until my knees give out? Are writing and music dreams better left to youngsters who have the strength and shiny armor to withstand the rejections and disappointments? Is this day just another test where I should show my tenacity once again and swim upstream just a little farther? Is there anywhere a healthy balance that does right for myself, my children and the faithful friends who have supported me?

So many questions and so few solid answers. I just have to do the best I can today and see what tomorrow, Wednesday and Friday will bring. I know there will be moments in and all around it that will be filled with love, music and happy smiles. Some days, knowing just that much is fortune enough.

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