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.