This is a piece (essay? speech? homily?) I wrote for, and presented to, a retreat I was recently a part of in Waterloo, Nebraska. A male cardinal attacked the glass windows as I read aloud this piece, presumably because the bird saw its own reflection, not because of anything I had said or done. –EP
The Undertaking of Hope
Birds live their entire lives in complete vulnerability and full expectancy. Singing their songs from dawn to dusk—or from dusk to dawn, as is the case with the diva mockingbird outside my bedroom window—they never seem to sing their songs the exact same way twice. Similarly, no two persons’ faiths are identical. If indeed we were formed as unique and individual creatures, then it should follow that no two faiths could possibly be exactly the same, that the faith fully alive (or nearly dead) inside our heart is as distinct and peculiar as the midnight song of the mockingbird, the very same melody that wakes or shocks us out of a deep sleep. The frameworks of our beliefs and hopes are intricate treasures, infinitely profound and profoundly different, but the God in whom we vest those treasures, the one who revels in the songs of our hearts, the hymns and laments alike, receives our melodies, whether broken or soaring, with no small pleasure. We are songs of grace in his ears. As the Chinese proverb goes: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has answers; it sings because it has a song.”
“I started listening to the wolves in the timber at night. I don’t know how they found me, I’ll never know quite how.”
– musician, Josh Ritter
“The shadow proves the sunshine.”– musician, Jon Foreman
Whether one believes in origins as a matter of seven simultaneous 24-hour days carved out of emptiness, as the result of billions of years of settling and seething, as a lone voice speaking the entirety of everything simultaneously into existence, or as mere ornamental accident, the artist’s act of creating—the effort to birth something new, previously unknown or unseen into the world—is inherently the creation story retold in its most primitive, though fallible, form. Any artist worth any grain of salt must, even on their worst, most godless day, admit that the act in which they engage themselves is an effort to replicate origins. The artist fully engaged in his or work knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing he creates did not already previously exist. Worse still, neither the shadow nor the doubt will ever leave him in peace.
Though not present at the original unveiling of time, the artist yearns jealously to participate, to have a hand in emulating beginnings. Though plagued by cavernous insecurity and grave doubt, the artist is, ironically, a hopeful soul by nature. He seeks to eradicate the dark by introducing light, struggling to fight off the bloodthirsty wolves, and contending however feebly to muzzle the odious butcher voices. The artist is a figure in storm, rapt and straining to hear melody amid chaos, not at all aloof or immune to projectile shrapnel, very much aware of and susceptible to the pain. If lucky, in the end the artist is able to walk away, but never without a limp. Even luckier is the soul with friends and an audience who listens, affirms and joins in harmony.
Some twelve feet above the ground, in a gutter attached to my neighbor’s roof, a maple tree struggles to grow. In early spring, I first notice the green of the sapling peeking above the gutter’s metal confines. Its single verdant leaf is in stark contrast to the shallow metal container from which it springs so high above earth, its roots never contacting a single gram of the soil below.
The gutter, having not been cleaned for many years, moonlights as a lofted planter, a trough, a wholly unintentional vessel holding rich, alluvial soil in which life manages to flourish. Mere inches from the sapling, the downspout, clogged long ago, acts as a dam, collecting every leaf, nut, or branch the sloping roof above can tender, until the decomposed material creates a phony and shallow habitat.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to think about this song when I first introduced it to Ben in our earliest pre-production days. I felt it had a strong skeleton, but it lacked a face, a personality, or at least one recognizable. It really wasn’t until Andy Gullahorn, with whom I recorded the main vocals, helped me write — or at least dredge from the well — the bridge and the outro that I realized this was no longer a middle-of-the-album sort of song, but was instead THE ending to the album. It’s the epilogue, a benediction to those who listen: “Go into the world, be brave, and don’t give up.” We fight for life because hope is worth fighting for. And without hope, my God!, my God!, what on earth have we to live for?
This is the surprise song of the bunch for me. Going into our pre-production meetings at producer Ben Shive’s studio, I knew I really liked this one. But I was absolutely floored by the treatment he gave it. That guy knows me so well. It’s good to have friends who happen to be incredibly gifted producers, and it’s very good to, every now and then, have an opportunity to write a song like this, an anthem, a song that looks at the horizon and smiles.
This song is a case of marrying old lyrics to new music. I wrote these words in the summer of 2000 and originally proposed that it be on Scarce (2006), but that album’s producer didn’t seem interested in it, so I shelved it. Having always liked these lyrics, I brushed them off while writing Birds of Relocation, set them at eye level, and lovingly affirmed them–I still believe in you. After trashing an earlier, older, and, honestly, outgrown chorus, I rewrote the music entirely, and with the guidance of Andy Gullahorn, gave these lyrics a chance to finally be heard. This song, though written over ten years ago, thematically seemed to fit so well on this album. Funny how time works. And flies.
I started writing this song several years ago while I was recording Scarce (2006). I had the melody and the first lines “We don’t got money, we don’t need fame, but we all want something like it anyway,” but that was all I could muster at the time. I was never able to figure out what to do with it or where to go from there. Clinging to that melody over the following years, I worked it into shape for Birds of Relocation, determined to make something of this little poppery song. This, in my estimation, is a song about community. As Kathleen Norris says in her most excellent book, Dakota, “Community is being together while leaving each other alone.”
I wrote this song for my wife (of nearly fifteen years now). On every album I record, I’ve tried to include at least one song specifically about and for her. I remember writing this on a late-night drive home through the dark Appalachian foothills after a show in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Every now and then Danielle will comment on my eyes’ “crow’s feet,” both of us wondering and remarking on what they’ll look like when we’re eighty and have grandkids. It’s good that she knows the crap in my life and all the bitterness I hold in my heart at times. She also knows how hopeless I can be, how I shrink into darkness, how I hide from my friends. It is good to be known. It’s even better to be nurtured back to life. Behind every halfway decent man is a far superior woman.
I’m really very talented at daydreaming, at wishing away the days, at allowing my mind to wander, at avoiding or ignoring reality. Just ask my wife. In a dangerous and perhaps ill-advised move, I sought to put myself in her shoes, reminding me — hubby and friend — to snap out of false worlds, to return to and bask in reality (as plain, stale, or frustrating as it may be) and to appreciate what is here and now: the gifts in front of me awaiting the polish of recognition and attention.
I started seeing a counselor (Al Andrews of Porter’s Call, a blessing and a gift to many full-time artists here in Nashville) in late 2010. It was crucial for me to seek help. He and I talked through my many issues, the biggest being my terribly low self-esteem, a result of my haste to listen to the foul, belligerent voices in my head that speak to and yell at me. I was at a point where I could no longer tell the difference between God’s voice and those that lie to me. I had been suffering anxiety and an inability to think clearly, to physically move, or to make any actual decisions. I was a frozen, confused monster. At one point during these counseling sessions, Al noticed and remarked that I was choosing to love the things that hate me the most. For homework, he asked me to write down all the things the plaguing voices regularly tell me and write a song about them. This is that song. I suspect that if the vile voices haunt me, there’s a good chance they haunt you too.
I hope you hear this song as a smile and a hug. This song is an IOU to a group whose music I adore, The Weepies. I wish I were a Weepie. This is the first of the album’s three love songs for my wife of nearly fifteen years.
I wrote this a couple of years ago in a Sarasota hotel room during a spring run of Florida concerts I was playing. A week or two before this particular tour, a Florida State University student, Patrick Gines, wrote me asking if I would consider writing a commissioned song for his final thesis undergraduate project, a short film he was directing. Patrick had heard me play years before, and, somehow, had remembered me and my music. Randomly, and unbeknownst to either of us at the time, I was scheduled to play at his home church in Tallahassee later that very same week. “Random” seems never an accurate enough word for these sorts of occurrences. We eventually put two and two together and realized that we would be able to actually talk face-to-face about the possibility.
The night of that show, he handed me a copy of his script. I took it with me to my next event in Sarasota, read through it a few times, and quickly honed in on an intentionally sarcastic line, “Don’t hold your breath.” Though sarcastic the character’s comment, I took it in a different direction, and later that evening in a Sarasota hotel room, I wrote the vast majority of “Don’t Hold Your Breath,” though it lacked a solid, well-defined chorus. The following morning in Sarasota, I was scheduled to play a couple of songs for the host church’s services. The pastor spoke of waters rising and falling, and, there in my seat, I scribbled out the final bit of the chorus.
(Apologies to that pastor if I seemed distracted. It was for a worthy cause.)
For a number of years, I have been involved with a high school outreach ministry called Young Life. For many summers I’ve had the great opportunity to spend a month sharing my music with the students who attend. Each night, the speaker and I share the story of God’s severe mercy for us, the speaker often using humor and stories to communicate, and I through the songs I’ve written over the years. But I’ve always felt that I lacked a certain topical song to play on the night that the cross is explained to campers, many of whom are hearing the very Good Story for the very first time in their lives. In talking with a dear friend of mine on the Young Life staff, I agreed that I needed, and wanted, to write a song to fill that particular gap in my repertoire. This song, I hope, is my way of telling that story.
This song began the writing process for Birds of Relocation. I wrote it, largely, in retaliation against the year 2009, a psychologically brutal season for me. I see this song as an “I’m staking my claim” pivotal core from which the rest of the album branches. Fear reduces us. To hell with fear; we should refuse to live there any longer, living instead like living souls.
“A story, some reminiscences… they are the yellow leaves that hang upon these boughs that are not so bare and ruined but that they still dream from time to time of the sweet birds’ return.” –from The Yellow Leaves by Frederick Buechner
I often provide food to wild birds in the form of sunflower seeds, suet, nyjer on occasion, peanut butter spread onto pine-cones, crumbled crackers and popped corn strewn about the yard. Birds seem to especially appreciate this in the winter months by congregating when naturally appearing food sources are more difficult to find. There are days I covet their freedom: flitting between branches, dangling here and there, pecking at the belly of leaves, frequenting feeders whose owners consistently keep them filled, a creature as free to fly across the open sky as it is to loiter its entire life within feet of its nest of birth. Then there are days — those gray, paperweight hours — bitterly cold, miserable by most standards, when I am especially thankful I am not a bird, much less any other wild creature: powerless to warm itself, forced to find shelter beneath just about anything, struggling to keep the heart beating amid numbing cold, breath-stealing wind, no moment free from the search for food. It’s no walk in the park for feathered creatures.