Friday, January 13, 2017

The Kindness Of Strangers (June 2011)

There are days…I’m sure we all have them in each of our chosen fields of work…or our relationships, with our family, our friends, our community…or our bank accounts…you know those days when you find yourself whining, even softly to yourself so that nobody can hear, even with an outward smile of “Everything’s fine here. Nothing to see. Move along.” But internally you are throwing yourself a ticker tape parade of a pity party. The ‘why me’ the ‘how did I get here’ the ‘when does the monkey get off my back?’ days. Everyone has them. I just read something in a beautiful book by Pema Chodron called “When Things Fall Apart” that we NEED those days. We should lean into those days. Those moments. Of course we should. Duh. That’s where growth happens. But still, in the midst of those days, don’t we all just want to jump off the treadmill we’re on and say “UNCLE” to the skies? I did yesterday. I’ve been off the road for a few weeks, home, counting my spare pennies, worrying about the paucity of my (cough cough) savings account and the future of that in this lovely world of Folk music where, as the joke goes, ‘there are hundreds of dollars to be made’. I got in my car yesterday, admittedly an hour later than I’d have liked, to drive a few hours to Eastern, Tennessee for an outdoor show. Late. I figured I had about an hour to spare, I’d be fine. That is, until I hit I 40E and the parking lot it had become due to an accident or Bonnaroo..who knew. All I knew is that I’d NEVER make the gig. Karma, I thought, karma for being late. Karma for being distracted while packing. Everything was going wrong and I couldn’t even possibly get my ass out the damned door on time. Karma. And the dark clouds started to pile up above my head. I got off the highway, found a winding road that seemed to be leading absolutely nowhere, and my GPS lost the trail and I was just about to scream Uncle when signs to I 40E appeared. I’m not a big pray-er. But in that moment, I put my hands on the top of the steering wheel, palms up, looked up at the blue sky and whispered, “Ok. Help. Please.” And as I veered off the ramp onto 40, the road was clear. Somehow, I’d diverted around the parking lot of stuck cars, and I was free of it all and doing 75 towards Jonesborough, TN and I was going to make it in time to this show.

That was the first sign.

Then a phone call. And angels come in unlikely places. Terri Hendrix was calling me. Do you know Terri Hendrix? She’s one of the most open-hearted songwriters I’ve ever met. She and Lloyd Maines are a great duo and we had the pleasure of working together at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA a few years back. I’ve maybe spoken a few sentences to Terri. I can’t claim to know her well, but I sure do like her and Lloyd and they are always very friendly to me. I can remember the first time I met them, at the hand washing trough at Kerrville. We were both playing the mainstage that night and I had never seen her perform, but I knew her name (she’s a big deal in Texas). I was wearing my embroidered hippie jeans with a tank top. Didn’t realize that was Terri’s signature outfit (how embarrassing for me). She and Lloyd came up to me and introduced themselves to me and told me they had my CD (it was “Songs For Bright Street”) and that they really liked my music. I was floored. I was floored that anyone I’d heard of had heard of me at that point. I knew they were well known here in Kerrville and this would be my first time playing that stage. They made me feel at home and welcomed. So yesterday, out of the blue, it was Terri on the phone. And remember, I’d looked up to the sky and pleaded for a bit of mercy. Just a break in the clouds in my head. I won’t tell you our whole conversation, and I really hope I don’t embarrass Terri by telling you this, but she simply called to connect, to tell me that her lines were open should I ever need anything, it was the simplest gesture of an open hand of friendship and I could have cried right there. I told her I was having a bit of a hard time with ‘all of it’ and she kindly and with humor told me if I ever thought of quitting she’d come and find me. Then she reminded me why I do this in the first place. And its not like there is any way in the world Terri Hendrix would have known I was having my doubts. She’d just called for her own reasons. But there it was. A brief reaching out that meant the world and turned my day completely around. Might have turned more than one day around for me.

As if that isn’t enough, I pull into Jonesborough, TN where my show was last night. A series called “Music on the Square“. I got there 15 minutes before the show was to start. There was Steve Cook, the promoter, with a huge smile on his face, helping get me to the little stage. Everything was already set up. Sarah Jane on sound was right there to help. It took about 3 minutes to do a ‘sound check’. There was a big crowd of people too, from senior citizens to 20 something hipsters, healthy babies and people in wheelchairs and a wonderful young woman named Summer who told me stories of when she met Amy Grant and Vince Gill and she kept hugging me. Something Terri said connected and I looked out and I was able to find that thing in me that wanted to do this so long ago. I don’t know if it was my best show, but it sure felt good to me. And afterward, I met Summer’s mother, and the man who showed me the photo he took of his father in full military dress visiting a visiting display of the Declaration of Independence, and my host for the evening’s brother who had just moved here from Texas after losing his wife a year ago, and people who had lived near the town I grew up in, and people who asked about my father after hearing “Peace by Peace”.

Later that night, back at the Franklin B&B where I was put up, I sat and drank a glass of wine with Dona and Chuck and the two women who were visiting from Murfreesboro and Nashville, and I heard stories of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, and the history of Jonesborough. And I slept better than I have in about a week.

This morning, I took a run along Main Street and saw the Farmer’s Market and gorgeous little cottage houses with gardens that ran along a creek and couples young and old strolling the brick sidewalks. I had breakfast with Dona and Chuck and the two TN women and a pair of sisters, one of whom told me stories of taking her children on around the world trips, staying in host housing all along the way, staying with families two nights at a time, sometimes being on the road for a full year, sheep shearing in New Zealand, staying with older people in Bulgaria, getting homesick in Spain. Over strong coffee and the fluffiest Quiche I’ve ever had (“Heavy cream,” said Dona, somewhat apologetically), Chuck told about being a little boy visiting New York City, staying in a hotel on Times Square and being astounded by the lights. “But back then,” he said, “the lights flashed and strobed but they were just black and white. No kaleidescope colors like today” and I had to excuse myself soon thereafter to run and fetch a pen and my journal so that I could start writing the verses that were spilling from my head about “Times Square in Black and White.” And Chuck’s story elided with some of my own father’s — his childhood memories that he is writing for a course on “Sharing Your Story with Your Grandchildren” at the local community college that I keep begging him to send me. I’m reading them slowly and the stories are living now in my head: I can see him bareback on the horse in the backyard of the farm with his brother as the blue sky overhead turns black the day the planes flew over low, heading out for D Day. Kaleidescope skies, once in black and white. Photographs. Memories. Stories.

And as I took a post-breakfast walk, I happened upon the National Storyteller’s Museum, smack dab in the middle of this little town. Of course I did. And I remembered that storyteller we had in elementary school back in Minnesota when they took the 6th graders for a week to Camp Isabella up near Lake Superior in the heart of winter, to learn to read a compass and wander the snowy woods in snowshoes, and make igloos and rappel off rock climbing walls and at night, we’d gather with hot chocolate by a big fire and this bear of a man in a red and black buffalo plaid with a huge beard would tell stories of Grizzly Bears and Indians and Fur Trappers and Scandinavians and loons and elk and I was enraptured and I think that’s when I caught the bug that I wanted so badly to be THAT whatever THAT was…an actor a storyteller a musician a writer a whatever…

And so, again, I reconnect with where it all began. The reason.

And I think about the tour bus that carries musicians who make much more than I do and that tour bus winds down interstates at night, depositing their crew onto the stages of small and large towns just in time for the soundcheck. Those musicians sleep on that bus or in nice hotels. And those musicians make a lot of money. They might not sit on their front porch like I do, counting the pennies, wondering how to pay their bills. Maybe they do. But its at a different level. And I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to have one month where I’m not working it all out on a daily basis with a calculator. I’d love a bit of a cushion for sure. But in the meantime, I get to stay with people who tell me stories, who share photos of the house they renovated. Who sing me Irish songs because they want me to learn their favorite one. People give me ideas for songs, they offer me lyrics and history. I don’t play Carnegie Hall, but I play Music on the Square. And for now, I like it that way.

Its a funny thing what the universe will offer you when you surrender and whisper a plea.

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