(Trinity): “Neo, no one has ever done anything like this.”
(Neo): “That's why it's going to work."
- from The Matrix
7 weeks and almost 10,000 miles later I find myself back in the middle of the country, having driven all the way from Bellingham, WA to Yarmouth, ME before slingshotting back to the midwest. Sometimes, for amusement, I recite my stops while I drive just to see if I can remember where I’ve been - Bellingham, Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs, Salina, Omaha, Decorah, Chicago, Oil City, Philadelphia, DC, Shippensburg, Bethlehem, Milford, Albany, New London, Sharon, Syracuse, Becket, Boston, Yarmouth, Providence, Buffalo, Chicago and now back to Decorah. It’s possible that I forgot a few. Sometimes I also try to count how many months I’ve been living without an address - I think April will make it about 20 months, a little over a year and a half. And I wonder sometimes why it is that I’m living this particular way, if it’s necessary and if there’s any purpose to it. I can actually think of a few reasons why it’s a valuable and interesting experience - some relating to the practice of buddhism and groundlessness, and some related to the fact that for each and every one of us this life culminates in giving up every material thing we know, so why not get in a little practice while there’s still some free will involved. As interesting and spiritual as those are, I think the main reason I’m doing this is actually pretty simple: because I’ve never done it before.
The idea that I’ve stumbled into this way of being that I didn’t plan on, let alone believe I was capable of carrying out, kind of makes me scratch my head with bemusement. I mean, for most of my 20s and 30s I could easily check off at least 10 or the 12 symptoms in the DSM IV under “generalized anxiety disorder.” I’ve gone through phases where things got inexplicably worse, and also inexplicably better, which seems to just be the nature of anxiety. You want to be able to nail it to something you did, ate, drank, thought - mostly with the idea that if you can consistently avoid that thing, you will never have to feel this awful feeling again. But trying to grasp the cause of anxiety is like trying to hold onto to a slippery fish - for all I know it might be linked to astrology, the tides of the moon, my saturn return, some formless nebulous idea, some cycle I’m not even tuned into, or - nothing. Random. That’s a hard one to come to terms with, but I swear the longer I live with this the more it fits. It just happens, and when it does you just have to have some ways to deal with it - meditating, chamomile tea, reading, xanax, yoga, whatever. I’ve found that it helps if you can find ways to lighten up, take yourself less seriously, learn that you don’t have to perform perfectly in every situation, soften, and try to be forgiving and compassionate with yourself.
In many ways, because of this nervousness, I’m an incredibly unlikely candidate for the job of touring songwriter. Not so much the performing part, I don’t get quite as derailed by that as I used to - but the day to day stresses of negotiating different places, people, houses, kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, highways, hotels, the stress of just wanting to collapse into a familiar place and realizing that may not exist in your world right now. It’s this beautiful paradox, that the incredible and heightened sensitivity that makes it possible to see and experience the world in a way that translates into song and verse is the same sensitivity that makes lights too bright, voices too loud, normal situations overwhelming, that makes you exhausted and sets your mind to racing and churning out worst case scenarios while dumping copious amounts of adrenaline and who knows what else into your bloodstream.
The weird thing is - after living without an address for this long, I actually feel better and less anxious than I have in years. Which is a total paradox, but in a way it makes sense in that there’s this weird thing about anxiety and worry - it tells you that if only you can just feel safe, if you can avoid the things that make you uncomfortable, that you will feel better. But in my experience, the opposite is true - the more you avoid these things, the larger they loom in your mind; and the more you avoid them, the less you believe that you have any ability to handle them. And while it’s true that my world is a little out of control these days, there are also things that feel more within my control than they used to. What I mean by that is that I’m not bound or tied to anyone or anyplace - I’m existing in the realm of the potential for a little while as I try to let my life unfold like the best of songs that have come to me, which is to say, with a minimum of self-effort, a connection to something greater, and a willingness to show up, listen and forgo my own plan in the service of the muse.
So far so good.
“All these places have their moments.” - The Beatles
I grew up without grandfathers. My Mother’s father left them when they were young, unimaginable to me. He passed away a few years back, to the best of my knowledge unknown to any of his grandchildren. And probably barely known to his own children - I have never seen a picture of him and have no idea what he looks like. My father’s father died when he was younger, long before I was born, also leaving no evidence, at least none I have ever seen. I seem to come from a lineage of people who don’t stick around, one way or the other.
My Irish grandmother, however, was a strong presence in my life. She and my Mother did not get along particularly well, but she still flew over from Ireland frequently and often lived with us for months on end. I remember her suitcases with the Aer Lingus tags on them, and her name stuck on in large, adhesive letters: MAC, short for MacMillan. Annie MacMillan, but we called her Nana. Her wind-up travel clock by the bedside, her strong, black tea with milk and sugar. I spent untold hours with her on the couch while she taught me to crochet - chain, single crochet, double, treble, granny square. I made pot holders, bookmarks, a pair of slippers. My mother later confessed to me that my grandmother once took her aside and said to her in private, “Ach*, he should have been born a girl.” I was seven years old.
I am so like her, in every way. She was generous, witty, moody, funny, creative, argumentative, clever, adventurous, restless. I sometimes wonder if that’s why I’m not closer to my mother, because I am so much like this woman that she had such a difficult relationship with. A weird thing is that years after my transition, I saw a picture of my grandmother when she was in her late 20s - and the resemblance between us was uncanny. The way she wore her hair, her impish charm, her strength, her independence. We spend our whole lives thinking that we have choice and free will, and it’s astonishing that parts of us are just biologically and genetically programmed to be.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. She passed away when I was 14 or 15, I can’t remember exactly because there was too much chaos spinning around me at the time - another story. When she died we were living in Shelton, CT and I think she was in a nursing home in Toronto. It occurs to me now that’s the only home I knew her to have in all the time she was with us.
For me, this September marks 13 months without any permanent address. Everything that is important to me is either in my suitcase or in the trunk of my car. Or in my heart, or my brain, one of which may or may not live on after I’m gone. Like my grandmother, I own little and I travel much, and I alternately crave and loathe security. There is a magic and a curse to living like this - when you lift the needle from the record of your life, you experience things differently. You experience a nowness that is beautiful and raw and poignant and lovely and lonely, that is deeply connected while rooted to nothing.
In the end, we can not deny our nature. I am packing up my clothes, I am letting my curling iron cool before putting it in my suitcase, I am rolling up the cord on my blow dryer like I have done hundreds of times before. I am snapping shut a small, wind-up travel clock I keep by the side of my bed. I am closing and clicking the lock on another room, another apartment, another bed, another city - each has been beautiful in it’s way, and for a time each has been a home to me.
In my life, I’ve loved them all.
*An Irish expression that sounds kind of like “Ock”.
I've been thinking a lot lately about value, and self-worth, and how we measure that for ourselves. Mostly because I have (by choice) been living without a permanent address since August last year, something that has been both liberating and subtly exhausting. It used to be a major transition to go on tour, a letting go of all the comforts of home and a return to digging through my suitcase like an archeologist in search of some artifact, in my case a matching sock. A bizarre game for me on tour used to be to unintentionally wake up in the middle of the night and try to figure out where I was. The first question was usually, "house or hotel", and then I would kind of narrow it down from there. That hasn't happened for a while, and I think my body and psyche have just gotten used to a state of groundlessness, where they just accept that where I am is where I am. It's funny how much your world changes when you don't have a point that it revolves around.
The reason that I have been thinking about value is that I feel like the choice to live this way is taking a toll on me, in that when I look in the mirror I think I look a lot more tired than I used to. I see more lines on my face and a weariness that doesn't go away just from sleeping. As a practicing hypochondriac, I also can't fully rule out the idea that I have some undiagnosed terminal illness that is eating me from the inside out. These are the places I go, I can't help it. I think I have always placed a lot of value on looking younger than I am and being relatively attractive, and I feel like I can't count on either of those things the way I used to. What's terrible is the way it can steal joy from any situation - I find myself avoiding daylight and brightly lit spaces, and when I'm in them I can't help the feeling of pervasive self-consciousness that rises up in me like a destructive blush.
So what is it that makes us valuable? I know a lot of people would say that we just inherently have value, or that our value comes from how we contribute or what we do for others. In my mind those are great concepts, but it's really hard to connect in meaningful way with the idea that we are loved simply for being. And what is love, anyway? I wonder. Is it just affection, is it the actions we take, or is it simply a feeling that if a person wasn’t alive that our world would be somehow diminished? Sometimes as a performer it’s hard to see the quantifiable worth in what I do - I know that it very likely does some good, helps people and adds meaning to the world. But the career trajectory of an independent singer/songwriter is fraught with ups and downs, and to base your worth on the quality of your last performance or your proximity to the elusive specter of success is to resign yourself to an existence where you have no center.
As a performer I have developed an almost pathological instinct to try to win over people. Doing a show is like flying a plane, where you’re constantly making small adjustments to stay on course; you develop a kind of 6th sense about stages and rooms and people, where the show is going, where it needs to go, and where you would like it to go. Many times I don’t feel like I have a lot of say in all that - all I can really do is show up with what I have to offer, and hope that people are receptive. Mostly they are, but when they’re not it can hurt deeply in the way that having the best of you rejected hurts.
In spite of all of this, I still feel this impossibly strong sense that this is what I was meant to do, and I have always felt that since I was old enough to wrap my fingers around the neck of a guitar. For better or worse, I do not have and have never had a plan B - the only plan I have ever had is to keep trying, and trying, and trying, and hope that when I look back that I came close to doing the right things. That I stayed true to a dream, that I steered my heart in the right direction when I could, and that I never gave up on that small but discernible voice inside stubbornly repeating it’s simple, persistent mantra: Don’t. Give. Up. Yet.
"Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one's bath like a lump of sugar." - Pablo Picasso
Yesterday I was driving on this seemingly interminable stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and LA while listening to a song called “One Of The Billions” by my friend John Elliot. John has this uncharacteristic knack for mixing obscure dialogue with music, and this song starts and ends with this anonymous guy waxing poetic about the nature of life and learning. Let me share a quote that stood out: “When you come to the end of the education rainbow....it’s just...caca. You can kick it out the door, because it’s just...it’s just...dried caca.” At the end of the song there’s this poignant mix of waning music underpinned by this same (incredibly stoned) guy talking about how we all started as cockroaches. It sounds crazy, but it’s actually very beautiful and it started to make me feel like I was in the middle of some bizarre, lovely, vast, unfathomable experiment called Life On Earth.
I didn’t always have this sense of wonder and connectedness - I was raised Catholic, and that experience implanted in me a lingering sense of fear, doubt, guilt and trepidation, of walking on eggshells around an angry father with a quick temper. It also imbued me with the not-so-subtle sense that this earth is some sort of moral proving ground, with eternal damnation as our motivation to be kinder, gentler souls. I know that's not a new or original idea and that there are plenty of religions, both Eastern and Western, that characterize our time here as some sort of trial, or way-station, or a place to learn until we graduate to a more enlightened state. Whether it’s reincarnation or heaven, I think there’s this idea that we’re on our way to someplace better, that this Earth is not an end unto itself. What I’ve been thinking lately is - maybe it is, and that focusing our attention on some distant point might be obscuring a kind of heaven that is sitting right here in front us. And that it might also be inadvertently thumbing our nose at some of the creator’s best handiwork.
Today I was at the beach and there were these tide pools, and each one was like it's own tiny world - anemones, fish, tiny plants, barnacles, crabs scurrying around. And I was just amazed by it all, by the color and variety and sheer miracle of the existence of anything and everything. The singing of the birds, the crashing of the waves, the wind, the color of the sky, the running of the tides. At this point you're probably thinking, "Wow, namoli, sounds like you got your hands on some great medical marijuana." Not the case, although I *was* offered a prescription on the boardwalk in Venice by a “doctor” wearing a bikini and a lab coat. But no, this is actually just one of my naturally occurring states, where I get completely absorbed in something - a lizard, a bird, a plant, where I feel like I can inhale the air and cherish it, where I can feel the sand between my toes or the grass under my feet and simply be glad to be alive on this spinning miracle of a planet. In that moment I think, what could heaven possibly be other than this? I see the sticky fingerprints of the creator all over this beautiful earth.
Let me qualify all of this by saying this is a rare but much-appreciated state of mind for me, and that I don’t walk around feeling in awe of things 24/7. I frequently get mad in traffic, I get frustrated, I get angry, I get jealous, I get impatient, I act out of selfishness, I feel sad and I worry more than is healthy. But despite that, my world is punctuated by these moments of lucidity and contentment, and sometimes I think that might be what enlightenment is - just opening your mind and heart further and further and growing your sense of wonder until every atom becomes some small miracle - because really, isn't it?
Or maybe it's just caca.
California, you know I love you
You know that I always will
You taught me to sing, you taught me to love, you taught me to lose
But you kicked me around, California
You told me what I had to hear
And it’s hard to be clear, and it’s hard to connect
Sunglasses and chess, no apologies yet.
- John Elliot, “The American West”
Sometimes I think (Southern) California is a little like an abusive relationship - every time I make up my mind that I’m not going back, it does something nice that makes me think about giving it one more chance. Last night I drove in to LA from Tucson a day early to hear my friend John Elliot perform - John and I met 5 or 6 years ago through a mutual friend and songwriter, Raina Rose, while we were in the Northwest. He is super funny and just an all around great person to hang out with; he is also an incredible, honest and brilliant musician. I once listened to a single song of his on repeat for 3 days straight while driving from Iowa to Portland. (Note to John: File restraining order.) I have been listening to his new album, Backyards, a lot and it has been part of the soundtrack to what has been a Very Interesting Year. He has such an beautiful way with words and music, and often will repeat a seemingly innocuous phrase until it becomes like a mantra - and then you realize that these simple words are incredibly important and he really wants you to hear them in a profound and meaningful way. “It was nothing at all but a casual lie, nothing at all but a casual lie, nothing at all but a casual lie.”
It was a brilliant show, at turns hilariously funny and deeply moving, and the crowd was the most attentive I’ve ever seen in LA - technically, Venice, and I guess that makes a big difference. The crowd was actually so quiet that the bartender stepped into the kitchen to make a drink that required shaking - *incredibly* thoughtful. The room was really well put together, lots of exposed brick and cool seating, great lighting, great PA and a grand piano on stage. The owner, Jeb, came up and introduced himself to me during John’s set and he was this genuinely kind and friendly guy, not pretentious, no artifice. All of these things are not necessarily what I associate with Southern California - my experiences playing music here have not been overtly positive, most of the venues are much more interested in how many people you can bring in than they are in you as a musician and performer. I know that business is business, but sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of the people in this city are just not that interested in being exposed to a meaningful experience.
Last night kind of changed my mind about that though; after the show we were hanging out on the sidewalk and I met another friend of John’s, Laura Meyer, also an incredibly talented touring songwriter. And we all just stood there on the sidewalk and talked and kind of just got lost in conversation, laughing and joking and commiserating about the ups and downs of being a touring musician and also connecting with each other in a Meaningful Way. In that moment I began to have a fuzzy realization at the edges of my consciousness, and I knew that I would give Southern California one more chance. That I will call Jeb at WitZend and try to book a show the next time I come through, and that I will ask 30 people to go, and I will hope that 5 of them actually show up. I don’t know if it’s foolishness, or hope, or just a relentless quest to connect the dots on the map in a way that makes sense - but I am taking you back, California. In all your crazy, congested, beautiful, superficial, paradoxical beauty, I am taking you back.