All in Vocation

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 1

I think this is the way it must be. Every musical child born into the music of a people and place must also hear and see music done by others outside your immediate circle. There must be some heroic figure (and hopefully several) that inspire the young musical person to imagine himself or herself doing that thing, or something similar — essentially, making something. Saying in your energized imagination and will, “I want to make that. I will make that.”

Artists and gardeners aren't the only ones who should be creating or coaxing life. I've started six urban gardens in three different cities and I can't stress how essential it is to co-create with those whom you want to build bonds. It is incarnational and it is transformational. It works across languages and ages. Three sunflower seeds can be enough. A tomato plant is even better. A public art project is outstanding.

Music and writing seem to be flip sides of the same coin. I view my musical life and my writing life through very different lenses, but both have taken on the patina of parenthood. At least it’s a familiar feeling, like coming home. Home to a small oasis in a sea of dishevelment teeming with maple-syrup-encrusted children, a supportive spouse, and really excellent coffee.
The best chefs take risks and strive to surprise. A music mixer aiming to succeed needs to do the same. Whether by addition or omission, we need to catch the ear of our clients and listeners by creating an element of surprise. The dish needs to appeal, but it needs to stand apart from what others offer.

Of course all of this is open to interpretation. You may not like cashew chicken or banjos. Sometimes in your eyes or mine, I fail.

Interview Series: MAKING — A Conversation with Carey Wallace

Art in all its forms is intimately connected with every aspect of all lives. We sing when people die. We dance when they get married. Even sports events and video games incorporate music, dance images, theater. The things I make are only my participation in that constant, unstoppable swirl of creation. This world is already beautiful and good. It’s just a question of where we choose to look.

Despite my deep longing to be among the ranks of what I call the “true” artists, the kind who can effortlessly dress themselves in wonderfully whimsical, sophisticated clothing and decorate their homes with lovely abstract art that has deep roots in poetic allusion, I am really too poorly dressed and my home too pathetically decorated to ever count myself among their ranks.

Preamble to an Odyssey

Too often when you reach the top of anything, a mountain or a career, you find yourself standing alone or with very few others. Attrition travels the length of the ascent. It may be that only the highly skilled and the very wounded make it to the top. The highly skilled arrive because they’re more prepared for success than anyone else in the world. The skilled-but-deeply-wounded arrive not because they’re so majestically prepared for success but because they cannot stop moving. Even the peak does not stop them. Space is their next frontier. Final frontier? Hardly.

The Work of Love

As my journals filled with the details of my life — raising children to adulthood, becoming a writer, years of hosting people and events, the development of Art House America, pursuing a seminary degree, and becoming a grandmother — the words on the page gave me eyes to see the significance of the smaller things that are always present.

Sure, there are high points, nameable moments of climax — but most of my daily life still takes place in the in-between.

Interview Series: MAKING — A Conversation with Bruce Herman

I dream of the world as sacred space — as a living cathedral. Man-made cathedrals merely echo the natural world with its soaring sequoias, canyons, oceans, mountain peaks. This world was made by a Maker who loves and enters the creation to know it from the inside. This Maker is not aggressive or possessive as we humans understand Him, but is rather hidden, loving, generous to a fault.

I train my eyes to rest on these beautiful things during work days, reminiscent of the time I discovered an open E chord on my guitar and played it for a solid half hour in as many ways I could, with my ear resting on the body of the instrument to soak up the resonance. There’s a stability I’m finding here that is good and right, that reminds me of the growing stability of my hands mastering those first basic chord shapes and transitions.

Interview Series: MAKING — A Conversation with Kim Thomas

I absolutely think that the history of frequent moves, adjusting, new people — all that affects my making today. It takes a lot of courage to be a maker of any kind. It requires many decisions, commitments, and lonely times in your head. The nomadic life built up my courage for new things and change, sort of immunized me to sameness, and made me invite the adventure of mystery and unknown.

My work with words is anchored in a belief that an essential charity pervades a marred creation capable of lighting some small path of grace across the page. The world is beautiful and broken, and both need telling as we search for a wholeness in this life. There is a Hebrew phrase for what I’m describing: tikkun olam, which means to repair or fix the world — a call to humanity to collaborate with God in setting things right. Tikkun olam sums up the trajectory of the writer of faith’s vocation.
The mountain doesn’t look like the mountain when you’re on it. Often enough, it doesn’t look like much at all. Like standing only a few inches away from one of Georges Seurat’s pieces, all I see are points of color. It’s just dots, at least that’s true to some degree. Yet I’d venture a guess that Seurat was not primarily or initially moved by a vision of tiny marks on a canvas but that he took up the brush and diligently, meticulously made those millions of tiny marks because he was moved by a vision of sand and water or skin and eyes.
Van Gogh said something like this: “The highest form of art is fashioning human lives.” I’m not sure if that’s the exact quote, but it’s certainly true. You’re creating all the time — creating a mood, creating a meal, making a sick person comfortable, creating a celebration, nurturing compassion, creating a welcome — you’re always making. When our imaginations are captured by the idea of creating good stories in the lives of the people we’ve been given to love, a world of possibility opens up.
Something within us — though we seek to give an impression of total control — wants an adventure. I’m beginning to understand that this adventure we end up experiencing is different from the one we seek in childhood or in our youth as twenty-somethings. It is not solely world travel, fame, or even the chase of seemingly impossible dreams. The adventure is in community, in sharing life together, and in the natural chaos it brings.
If I am compelled to teach because I long to see my students transfigured, then the act of teaching itself will also, in some way, transfigure me. This vocation, if I follow it, will burn out the impurities of heart and soul so that I may, however faintly, carry glory.
There is never a simple answer to the question I am frequently asked: “What do you do with your time when not touring or playing music?” Perhaps the better question is, Why do you do what you do? Why cull together (more like cobble) a mishmash income year-in and year-out — each year the same, each one different, each one in hindsight a miracle? The years carry with them the same struggle, the same burden, only clothed in different hides. Some years are grimier, more pungent than others.

That word: struggle.
We, as creators, need to acknowledge that we are ourselves created, that we are characters in a bigger story. And when we empty ourselves of the responsibility for striking the creative spark, when we understand our “gift” as something given to us, something we don’t deserve and can’t earn, when we open ourselves up and confess our weakness in our own sub-creation, we are open to the perfection of a strength far greater than our own.