Saguaros, Oprah, and the meaning of life.

Well, the Southwestern tour is over, and Doris, JJ, and I are driving on I-40 East through Texas at the moment, passing enormous feed lots, endless hotels and truck stops, and ever-changing landscapes. Yesterday we drove through the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Saguaros are those gigantic cacti with arms that are always featured in cartoons, and driving through thousands of acres of hilly desert with literally no life except for these tall, waving characters does make you feel like you’re on another planet. I’m grateful I get to see so many quirky little corners of the world, traveling around like this.

If you’ve been reading our blog, you’ve heard some words from Doris and Nate recently on their tour struggles. I guess I’ve hesitated to add my voice to the mix because I feel a little guilty. The truth is, for many years I had a lot of trouble getting up onstage every night and trying to be something special – and now, for whatever reason, I’m having the best time I’ve ever had on the road, just reveling in the music, the people, and the aliveness of it all. There’s something cool that happens when you stop trying so hard, as it turns out. I used to drive myself crazy, because I really thought my songs weren’t good enough, I wasn’t a good enough guitar player, and that basically we had all these people duped into thinking they should pay money to hear us perform. As the venues got bigger, and the shows kept on selling out, I felt sure I couldn’t keep up – we had started as this little folk band playing for tips and suddenly we were selling out four to five hundred seat venues. I used to say to Doris and Nate, “I just don’t know how to be this.” I’m not sure why I thought I had to be anything in particular.

I once heard Oprah tell this story (Yes, I love Oprah.) about her early days as an anchor on a local TV news station. She said she would get sickeningly nervous trying to live up to her idea of what a news anchor was supposed to be, how a public figure is supposed to speak, etc. Then one day as she was reading the teleprompter, up came a list of countries. She read them off in her most “professional” voice, but when she got to “Canada,” for some reason she pronounced it “Cah-NAAH-dah” with a short a sound like in “father” and the accent on the second syllable. She was trying so hard to be “real” that she hadn’t even recognized the word “Canada,” and thereby said it in this really pretentious, weird voice. When it hit her what she had done, she laughed out loud, right there on camera. She said that that was a huge turning point for her because suddenly she understood that all she had to be was herself. The rest, of course, is history – no one is more utterly herself than Oprah, and literally no one is more successful.

Anyway, I’m not sure what my own turning point was, but I’m pretty sure the past year of my life changed a lot for me. I would call it the hardest year of my adult life – one of those times when crisis after crisis hits and you have no time to recover or even fully digest what’s happening before another major challenge arises. The year culminated, of course, in Doris’s leukemia diagnosis last November, and suddenly, everything I had counted on was called into question and I felt like the sky was falling. During the first month or so, when Doris was hospitalized and had to have chemo, I was terrified not just that I would lose my best friend of thirty years, the life that we had all built together, and my career, but that everything I had believed in and had infused my music with – trust in a meaningful universe where we create our own reality, belief in some sort of causal narrative rich with metaphor and depth, etc. – was just bullshit that I had made up so as not to have to experience the despair of the world.

But what ended up happening was that the narrative of meaning didn’t stop short, or fall off a cliff. It continued along another line that has just been different, and more challenging, and deeper, actually. For whatever reason, Doris ended up with a very treatable form of cancer. She’s responding astoundingly well to the medication – but it’s more than that. Thousands of people came out of the woodwork to love Doris, to visualize and pray for her, to send their stories, to offer donations – but mostly just to love her. The love is healing her too, I know it is. I don’t know who to thank, except everyone, and everything, for making this possible. I just didn’t take it for granted that I would ever get to sing three-part-harmonies with Doris and Nate again, that we would ever be onstage together again. And the fact that this journey is continuing, that here I am in the passenger’s seat while Doris listens to her iPod and sleepily drives the van, makes me more grateful than I have ever been in my life for anything.

It’s not that I think about this every time we get onstage, but it’s there inside of me. This gratitude has expanded into a gratitude for everything – for this great big adventurous life I enjoy, for my chosen family of musicians and friends and our many road angels. For my ability to pick up a guitar and a notebook and create something new. For a voice that can instinctively pick out the 3rd part in anything. For the fans that drive to come see us play. For a life of continuous travel, and a warm, loving home I can sink into upon my return. So maybe what it comes down to is that I just don’t care anymore about being anything except what I already am damn lucky enough to be – one small person deeply invested in finding meaning in this life, loving the people I’m close to as best I can, and making art that feels true.

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19 Responses to Saguaros, Oprah, and the meaning of life.

  1. Lisa Jenn says:

    Damn, you’ve got me crying into my granola.

  2. Killian says:

    Thank you. In a time in my own life filled with fear, frustration, and chaos, you provided a much needed reminder to find the little things, and to allow them to become profound. Gratitude is something that gets quickly left by the wayside, a casualty of busy lives and preoccupation.

    To be at peace, filled with that gratitude for the gifts and the joys in our life, is truly an amazing thing.

  3. Cadry says:

    This is such a beautiful memoir to your friend and to life itself. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  4. Sue Dressel says:

    Ty, that’s such a moving description of what life has been like for you. Thanks for sharing. From my perspective I loved your music and thought you all ‘special’ for a very long time. In the last 6 months I’ve gotten a glimpse how much more there is to Girlyman. It feels like such a gift.

  5. Susan Dressel says:

    Ty, thanks for posting such moving comments. From my point of view, ever since first seeing you all perform 7 yrs ago, I’ve thought Girlyman music was quite special. I’ve never been so ‘taken’ so quickly by any performer. In the last 6 months the glimpse into Girlyman has been a gift to many of us, I would venture to say. We only appreciate you more.

  6. Jack Zager says:

    Ty, there’s nothing more to say, you said it all. From one of the sources of love…Jack

  7. Elliot Holloway says:

    Wow. Just.. wow. Those are very powerful words. I know a lot of people who could benefit from reading this. I’m so glad Doris is doing better – my fiance and I have been praying for her every morning since we heard she was sick. Be well, you fabulous band, you!

  8. Bruce Smith says:

    Beyond harmonies and lyrics that insinuate their way through the ears and crack open our habitual resistance to seeing clearly and feeling fully, here we see yet more evidence of a depth, and a sensitivity and, even more impressive, a willingness to share it all so honestly and generously.

    This, my friends, is the magic of Girlyman. Thank you all for pointing us toward an authenticity of experience that we, and the world at large, so greatly need.

  9. Carole Devey Schachter says:

    What an amazing, moving post. There is nothing more for me to say but, thank you for sharing your heart with us all.

  10. Nano says:

    Great post! So so bummed that you were in Tucson and I couldn’t go! I don’t know that venue you were playing in… Hope it went well. All the best to my favorite band!! Nano. p.s. I have to wince when I hear the desert referred to as “lifeless”. The creatures of the desert are different, but quite plentiful! And the birds! People come from all over the world to see the birds of the Sonoran Desert! Ok… got THAT off my chest :-))

  11. GottaBAnon says:

    I am a therapist in a community mental health office and I spent my supervision today trying to convey to my boss that exact sense of “I should fit a certain profile, and I don’t!” — because “how can simply, lovingly BEing with all this pain and struggle really help somebody heal?” It’s lovely to hear about your former doubts and Oprah’s “Canada moment” and be reminded that such fears are so universal…and silly. My newest client shared that his babysitter raped him and then sold him to friends for sexual favors for years….and that was just the start of our talk. I’m not trying to be morbid…just really relating to that same feeling of being overwhelmed by the audience! What it might want/need and wondering/hoping my voice is enough.

  12. Rachel says:

    Beautiful thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

  13. Joanie Bourg says:

    Ty
    thanks for your thoughts and feelings here… beautifully written and expressed. As are all of the thoughts when you apply pen to paper…at least all the ones you choose to share
    ( tee hee ) ! Girlyman is amazing. amazing because each and every member is amazing in their own right.
    Keep on voicing the waves of conciousness .
    love
    joanie, another Girlyhead

  14. Verena M. says:

    So true, so true. You made my day in a silent, touching way. Struggling with attempts of perfection, oh for long. It’s a rare gift to reach that peaceful state of mind where everything is just wonderful. Thanks for your thougts and honest sharing. A friend and music lover from Germany

  15. David Tanner says:

    That’s brilliant. You put that very well. It’s one of the things that have always seemed to be infused in your “little folk music band” – in the songs and your relationship with all of us out here in the audience. I remember seeing you open for Katie Curtiss at the Cedar several years ago. I went to see you, ended up staying for KC (and was glad I did), but your lack of polish wasn’t the point and never detracted from what you were even back then. The strength of your little band, the songs and the obvious determination you all showed to express yourselves in some meaningful way, had us all at the word go. Here’s to many more years of wonderful Girlyman. Cheers! – DT
    P.S. Please come back to Minnesota!

  16. Heather Stewart says:

    Excellent.
    Life, its challenges, and finding the happiness in oneself and living it.
    Poignant and touching when the discovery and joy is shared so well by someone we admire.

    I, too, remember when I first met and heard of y’all when you were touring with my friend Catie Curtis. First met you in Ben Lomand, California at a little biker bar venue called Henfling’s. I do merch for Catie whenever she’s in the Bay, and I had no idea what your sound was to help sell stuff…until I heard you sing. But then, the audience already had figured that out. ;) Although I’ve had to miss some shows of yours as you’ve come through town the years since, it’s been a pleasure to watch you growing from opening as a “little folk band” to filling venues like the new Freight & Salvage as the headliners and touring with and playing with the Indigo Girls.

    We the audience have had the pleasure of listening to you all for years, and I am happy you have now found the pleasure and peace in and for yourself.

  17. Dawn Raymond says:

    Thank you for taking the time and energy to bare your heart to the world, or at least this little corner of it. It is always amazing to me how crazy we can make ourselves worrying about things that just make us get in our own way. I’m glad that you revealed some of your fears and worries – they a such a lesson for us all: we can’t waste precious time on those things that don’t support us, don’t propel us forward (or upward even.). Life is funny how it slaps us in the face from time to time and forces us to think about what we really need to spend energy on.

    You have such an amazing gift. I hope you realize that every moment. We see you come on stage – or hear you in the CD player in our cars or through our iPod earphones – and even though we get a glimpse of your challenges and fears through your music and lyrics sometimes, what we walk away with is joy in our hearts from the humor and from the incredible music you make.

  18. barbara says:

    thanks for reminding me to think more about gratitude, how lucky we are to have wonderful friends and partners. Also so glad to hear Doris is doing better. will probably come out to hear you at the Eno Festival in Durham (wear cool clothes, it can be hot!)

  19. lauren says:

    that was beautiful & inspiring. you never cease to amaze me with your words. thank you so much for letting us in. can’t wait to see you in Louisville on the 30th! cheers.

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