Friday, August 31, 2012

Songwriting: Wisdom from Willie Nelson

I've had a rough few weeks since getting home from the last roadtrip out West. First of all, I was sick for the entire second half of the trip, which is never any fun, and it really wore me down. Secondly, after over a year and a half of writing music and words and music for Heartlands, including the time in the middle of all that for surgery and recovery, I've been experiencing some post-partum depression: the "what next?" depression that follows the completion of any great project. That's something I'm prone to, and I know that I always have been. Sometimes the bigger the gig, too, the harder the fall afterwards. I know that Heartlands was a big success for me as a composer/lyricist in part because of how depressed since I got home from Denver and the Southwest. And since I got home I've been laying mostly fallow. I haven't made much art, I haven't really written anything, or worked on many lyrics or poems or sketched much music. I don't mind lying fallow, because I know that crop rotation is essential in both healthy farming and in my creative work. I just worry if it goes on too long, or gets tangled up with that post-partum depression. I finally hit bottom a few days ago, and lost an entire day to despair, depression, and weeping. Again, that's just something that seems to happen, part of my pattern.

And this past month, with the long drought here in southern Wisconsin farm country, punctuated by occasional torrential rains although we're still in a rain deficit, has been awful for anyone like me who's allergic to ragweed, hay, grass pollens, dust and molds. It's been a memorable allergy season for many here, along with the memorably dry and hot summer. Of course according to the political idiots who like to ignore scientific data when it doesn't serve their ideology, climate change isn't really happening. But I digress.

I'm writing in a conversational stream-of-consciousness mode because I've just been reading a book written that way.

I spent a couple of hours this morning reading Willie Nelson's 2002 book The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes. It's a breezy oral history, full of conversational asides, comments about touring on the road, growing up, and full of anecdotes about the music business, friends, and songwriting. It's much more than a book of collected lyrics, which are woven into the book in between rambles. I read the book in about two hours (I'm a very fast reader) in part because reading song lyrics on the page is faster than listening to the recorded songs.

The first album of Willie Nelson's that I can remember really getting into was Stardust, which is still a classic (and has been reissued as such on CD, in an expanded version). That was my discovery and entry point. I was still mostly listening to classical and jazz at that point in my life, but I was impressed by Willie's way of performing old standards and jazz songs. In fact, and I'm probably letting out a secret here, the way Willie sings is from jazz singing: always behind the beat, giving it that trademark laid-back feel, but arriving on time at the critical moments and the end of a phrase. That laid-back feel in the music is similar to way he writes this book, and lives his life. The important things in life are worth getting passionate about; almost everything else isn't. He does mention his Farm Aid activism in the book, quite passionately, and is passionate about the things and people he loves, and what has influenced him in life. And then there are all the dirty jokes laced throughout. A contradiction? Not really, just pieces of the whole cloth.

As many who know me know, I have strong opinions about lyrics printed on the page: they rarely stand up as purely poetry. Many poets, and fans of various songwriters, make the claim for their favorite songwriters as being pure poets, and often cite lyrics as poetry when discussing them. The problem is, if you really know the song, you're not really paying attention to just the words, as if you know the song the music will be playing in your head as you read. My point is that songwriting is words-and-music, not just words. Lots of poets, and fans, get hung up on the lyrics and forget that songwriting is synergy: words-and-music in perfect symbiosis, each synergizing the other to a higher level.

Several of Willie Nelson's song lyrics printed in this book are to songs that I didn't know (several early songs) or knew on;y slightly. So I was able to read several lyrics on the page as poems. I learned a little bit more about the craft of songwriting from this: both in terms of metric form and when you can really make a phrase stand out by not rhyming. Most songwriting uses older poetic forms, notably ballads and blues, most of which are metric forms with end-rhymes. These patterns are inherited and evolved from folk music—country is the descendent of old-timey mountain folk music, as is bluegrass, and is in turn descended from the music brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from the British Isles for the most part. (Blues and its many related and branched descendent forms were brought to Turtle Island by African-Americans.)

What Willie often does in these songs is stick to a simple rhymed metric form, then break it for effect. Outlaw that he is, he also invents forms, often in songs with very short and simple lines, using fewer words for song than many other songwriters. They're striking to read as lyrics on the page. You constantly trip over your own running feet. There's real gold in breaking away from couplets and quatrains, and other classic song-forms that on the page often look like rectangles of text; these songs rarely look like rectangles on the page.

What makes Willie a great songwriter shines out in this written ramble of a book of collected lyrics and anecdotes and memories: he's an excellent storyteller, period. Of course, I also love his attitude. Actually, I've always loved his attitude. He knows how to laugh at himself, and make you laugh along. There's also a very serious man under all this, and always has been: it's the serious artist, always observing, recording, and telling us stories. That's pretty much the old Viking definition of a skald, or bard. Willie is certainly one of our own bards. Plus the man can really sing.

What leads me to book reviewing The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes more formally is a long passage Willie writes about the power of song itself, for the writer and the performer as well as the audience. I found this passage very wise and telling. Willie includes the lyrics to two early songs that I didn't know about, "No Tomorrow in Sight" and "Sad Songs and Waltzes." He comments in an aside between giving the lyrics of these two songs: I wrote that way back in the early '60s. Very few people have even heard it because sad songs and waltzes weren't really selling that year.

Then Willie follows this up with a very telling commentary:

Both of these songs put together probably sold about four copies. That's not the important thing. To me, just getting the words out of my head and onto paper was an exercise worth performing. Those kinds of thoughts left bottled up inside can do more damage than good, and can probably cause everything from cancer to heart break. Sometimes just saying the words can cause some kind of healing to begin. But if you sing those songs every night year after year, I believe you can also prevent a total healing because you're always opening old wounds.

So what's the answer? Who knows. If you have a hit with a sad song, just remember when you wrote it, it was for you. When you sing it over and over, it's for the benefit of the listener. Don't let it spoil an otherwise good night. Attempt to sing the song for the audience, and try not to get involved in it yourself. It's a very thin line, and a lot easier said than done.

Sometimes I believe the reason a lot of country singers and writers have gone off the deep end was because they could not find that thin line, and could never fully recover from the evening that caused them to write the song in the beginning. Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, George jones, Lefty Frizzell, and myself included, could in some ways be victims of our own words.

The Facts of Life, and Other Dirty Jokes, p. 186

I find this to be incredibly timely and useful advice. Coming out of a post-concert/concert/roadtrip/concert depression, more aware than ever that you just have to keep going, even if you don't want to, this kicks me to keep on going.

Willie also gets at something that's perhaps at the heart of his endurance as an artist, and at why some artists crash and burn. This gets into the toxic myths and stereotypes (usually promoted by non-artists, although some artists buy into them as well) of the Starving Artist, the Drunken Writer, the Suffering Artist, the Lonely Poet, the Underapppreciated Songwriter.

That entire awful cluster of stereotypes that circle around the idea that "I'll be rich when I'm dead," plus the core devaluing of all the arts that goes on in our culture. People want to be able to download all the music they love for free, even though it means the singer they love goes broke. People will pay hundreds of dollars to go see their favorite athletes throw little balls around various kinds of grassy fields, but they balk at paying 99 cents to download a song? Get real. I lost all remaining shreds of sympathy for professional sports players the year the baseball players went on strike: essentially that was millionaires going on strike against not being able to be double-millionaires. Any one of those undereducated professional athletes could have taken their already-inflated salaries and funded the entire educations of ten artists or dancers, or more. (Although dancers are in fact better athletes overall than any sports stars. They have to be: it's a whole-body art.) But I digress.

The truth is, life is full of so much suffering as it is. You don't need to go looking for it.

What a lot of people who recycle those toxic stereotypes miss is that the art isn't the result of the suffering, isn't caused by the suffering, and you don't necessarily make better art because you have suffered. The artist's first response to all of life's experiences, both positive and negative, is to make art about it. That's what artists do. Just that. Full stop. An artist makes art. All of life is fuel for the artist, good and bad alike. In fact, making art is often the best way to cope with whatever life is throwing at you, good and bad. Artists do make art as a form of self-therapy: just getting the words out of your head and onto the paper is worth doing.

But it doesn't stop there. Afterwards, you go on with life. You're not supposed to dwell on it, you're supposed to let it go, and continue on. Don't stop, don't wallow, just get back on the road and keep moving on. One of the best quotes I ever heard coming from an artist was that the secret of life is to do the next thing.

"On the road again. . . ." I don't know where Willie Nelson learned his enlightened Zen detachment, but it's the real thing. And it's a good role model for all other bards to heed.

Here are some other brief quotes from the book that caught my eye as I was reading, and made me stop and think.

Success and failure—same number of letters.

Puts worry and despair in perspective.

I believe that you can't lose if you don't give up. Even if you die, you'll die fighting.

Another good reminder to never give up. I needed to hear that today.

Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice. That's what makes the jukebox play.

Which means you will never ever run out of material.

We authors deal in words. You can't tell a songwriter he ain't any good because he knows better.

A comment on artistic stubbornness that I can agree with. It's certainly true that almost every poet knows that he's right and you're wrong.

If you ain't crazy, there's something wrong with you.

Words to live by. If you're a sane person living in an insane world, others might judge you as insane, but really, you're not, they are.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

GALA in Denver: A Personal Overview

(Images from the Denver Performing Arts Center, Denver, CO, July 2012)

In early July I was in Denver for five days at the GALA Festival of choral music, which happens every four years.

This was my second GALA Festival, my first one being in Miami in 2008. The Festival featured over 100 choruses of every conceivable configuration performing for each other and the public. There were special concerts, morning seminars both artistic and business-oriented, huge mass choral singalongs, and more. Over 6000 delegates attended, including singers, artistic directors, members of boards of directors, and more.

I attended and performed at GALA as a member of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus of Madison. We performed our set in combination with City of Festivals Men's Chorus of Milwaukee.

I also attended as a GALA composer: someone who had written music that was being premiered at the GALA Festival. In 2011 I was commissioned to write a major new work for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, based on the lives and stories of the men in the Chorus. I interviewed many men, and gathered many emails and poems and other materials given to me by the members of the Chorus, then made them into poetry and music, completing a new work entitled Heartlands, in 19 movements in various moods and styles. This was a major commission for me, and work I was pleased to do. We premiered the work in June 2012 in concerts in Madison and Milwaukee, then re-premiered 7 songs from the work at GALA in Denver.

It was a privilege and an honor to have my music performed at GALA in Denver. "Heartlands" puts me among the ranks of composers who have been commissioned by choruses and had their works performed at GALA Festivals, which honors me. An important aspect of the entire GALA movement has been to commission new music: when the movement began in the early 1980s, hardly any music specific to LGBT choruses existed, those stories had not yet been told in music. Now many classics have been written, and performed by many choruses worldwide again and again.

The LGBT chorus movement has been about both affirmation and ambassadorship. Many choruses share similar mission statements, alike in intent if not in exact wording. That mission often reduces to: reaching out to make the world a better place through song. It involves education about LGBT social issues and lifestyles. It presents the movements for equality—and against bullying and other forms of oppression—in their best light, in an almost-unified message of validation and resistance.

(Downtown Denver at night)

The social-justice aspect of GALA Choruses is at times more dominant than the musical aspect. Personally, I like it best when both aspects are in balance. I think the social-justice aspect is best served by being cast as memorable and enduring art. For the same reasons that political poetry often has a short shelf-life, music about a social issue can be topical but not long-lived unless it finds something universal within the personal, and touches an enduring chord within both performers and listeners. Not all GALA Chorus music succeeds in the long haul; but there is a lot of new music still being written, and some of it will most definitely endure.

Meanwhile, many of the social-justice issues surrounding LGBT life remain unresolved, so much of the music will remain relevant until AIDS has been cured, until kids stop committing suicide (at triple the usual rate among teenagers) for having been bullied for being gay, until marriage equality has been achieved, until all states in the union no longer allow businesses to fire you or landlords to deny you a lease, just because you are who you are. In other words, till being different is no longer stigmatized, and all aspects of personal diversity become No Big Deal to the mainstream general culture—which is what the US Constitution promises all of us, at its core.

Heartlands was written to tell the stories of men growing up and living as gay people in the Midwestern heartlands, between the Great Lakes and the Great Prairie. The words and music evolved from many interviews done with the members of Perfect Harmony, and from writings and stories submitted during a process of gathering material. It was my job to then take those stories and interviews and turn them into poetry, then set those words to music. Often the stories themselves gave me a clue as to what style of words and music should be used to tell them: many stories had threads in common with other stories, leading to choral pieces that were many voices singing in unison or in parallel; other stories were distinct and unique, and led to writing either solo songs, or were set as movements for soloists with chorus. The range and style of music and mood across all 19 movements was diverse, and intended to be.

What that led to, at GALA in Denver, was a response that I had hoped for: we were one of the few performances at Festival that included light and dark, anger and sorrow as well as joy and affirmation. In fact, comments made their way back to us after our performance that our presentation stood out in its authenticity, for being "real" about how life really is, in all its complexity. Heartlands also stood out for being genuinely emotional because so many other choruses chose, this Festival, to do sets that revolved presentations of LGBT life as seen in current popular media, many performances notably modeled on or in imitation of the current television program Glee.

To be clear where I stand, and with no intent to provoke anything but thoughtful discussion: Glee has many charming aspects, not least of which is that it presents a lot of music performances on any given episode. However, Glee also presents a fantasy of schoolyard acceptance, represents culture as superficially as most contemporary pop music entertainment has often done, and in the end doesn't really stick to the ribs. At GALA Festival 2012 in Denver, the influence of Glee was perhaps too prevalent, as many GALA choruses performed sets direct from the TV show. This produced mixed results. Some choruses performed their Glee-inspired sets with such gusto, such enthusiasm, such vigor and joyfulness, that the audience was totally won over. Other Glee-influenced sets were less impressive, and less enjoyable. A lot of what made a difference was level of performance, and style of presentation: giving to whatever you're singing all of your heart and soul will always help you connect with your audience, and simultaneously giving a technically-excellent performance will only enhance that.

In my personal opinion, the influence of Glee on this GALA Festival was strong, perhaps too prevalent, and not always a good idea. On the other hand, some of the feedback we received about our performance of part of Heartlands was that it stood out all the more because of the context in which it was presented. I think some GALA delegates thought of our set as even more authentic and stand-out because we did a set so very different from many of the Glee-dominated sets. LGBT life out there in the real world is not all unicorns and puppies, folks, and the movements of Heartlands that we presented at GALA Festival made that clear.

There have been numerous similar commissions written for GALA choruses before—but not from a uniquely Midwestern, cornfield-and-small-town perspective. Most similar GALA works, made up from the stories of members of the choruses who commissioned the work, have been made from choruses that come from dominantly urban, coastal areas. I have essayed before that one of the most significant divides within LGBT culture is the urban-rural divide, which I believe is actually a greater divide than many others that create sub-cultures within overall LGBT culture. Heartlands reflects this, with many segments of the work focusing on what it's like to grow up and live as LGBT within small rural towns, on the farm, in those smaller places between the coastal regions of the USA that many people on those coasts dismiss as important, as the "flyover zone." Even within mainstream LGBT culture, which is mainly an urban (or urban ghetto) or suburban culture by its own estimation, the stories of rural gays and lesbians are often marginalized as outsider subcultures. So far as we knew when we began the writing of Heartlands, many of these kinds of stories of LGBT life the rural Midwest had never before been told in song, nor told at GALA Festival, except perhaps in small bits, in passing. Heartlands represents the first major choral work intended to fill in that gap.

As I said, for myself performing my own music at GALA Festival 2012 was a dream come true. I am now a "GALA composer." Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus gained status at this GALA Festival by being one of the small number choruses to present a full set of all-new, all-commissioned music—which put them among the ranks of much larger, more famous choruses such as San Francisco, Portland, Twin Cities and others with much larger memberships and budgets, who regularly commission new music. That our performance set was so very well-received put me on cloud nine for weeks afterwards. (Since I got home from GALA I admit to personally experiencing a difficult level of post-GALA, post-partum depression. I can hardly wait till next Festival, or the next new music commission I am asked to do.) My ambition is to do it all over again: write new music for other GALA choruses, to receive other performances in whole or in part of Heartlands, perhaps by other choruses, and to make this my future career. Nothing would please me more than to be once again a GALA composer.

There are other aspects of my experience at GALA Festival in Denver that I am still integrating, still thinking about, still exploring in my mind. I expect that process to percolate on for awhile. And I'm in no hurry to analyze or conclude. Meanwhile, life goes on, I continue to write new music, new songs, new words, and expect that to continue. Perfect Harmony will performing a short piece of mine this upcoming winter concert, a setting of the "Lux Aeterna." And being at GALA Festival inspired me to write a piece in commemoration of the life and work of Harvey Milk, using his own words as text, "You Gotta Give 'Em Hope." In my life, creative forward momentum continues on, and I hope it continues to do so for a long, long time. So Mote It Be!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Improvisation in Art & Life

I was referred to an article on All About Jazz: Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind. Sclavis is an improvising multi-instrumentalist and composer, a prolific jazz musician who rarely repeats himself, and is always exploring new directions, ranging from tightly-composed pieces to free jazz. I first discovered his work via ECM Records, a favorite recording label that I have discussed before. ECM hosts a large stable of brilliant improvising musicians, of which Louis Sclavis is a prime example, with his nine albums recorded with the label.

Here's the paragraph that caught my attention:

In an interview with All About Jazz in 2009, [free jazz pianist Craig] Taborn—one of the most fearless of contemporary improvisers [and one of Sclavis' creative collaborators]—described improvisation as the willingness to face the possibility of failure. Sclavis has his own take. "Everybody has their own thinking about improvisation," he says. "For me, it's simpler; since I started learning clarinet, improvisation has been something completely natural, like eating, drinking or walking. I don't always improvise in the same way, though, it depends on the musicians. It's like breathing. I cannot think more about this because it's what I am."

I've often thought of improvisation from Taborn's perspective: In various groups that mostly played free, in various styles of music, we often talked about playing without a safety net. Spontaneous music with no guidelines or rules, and the risk of crashing. We did sometimes crash, but it was always something to be learned from. Facing the possibility of failure is really the risk all artists take, all the time. Everyone does, really: risk is part of life.

I find Sclavis' definition of improvisation to be resonant with my own experience as an improvising musician, too: that naturalness, that effortless simplicity. You just do it. It's not something that you think about; it happens before rational mind, before analysis. It arises from a part of the self that is often pre-verbal, even non-verbal: that deeper place from where most art arises. Granted, that place arises from long practice, from self-confidence, from knowing through experience that you have something to say, and the skill to say it on your instrument. But once you have that experience, and the self-confidence that goes with it, it becomes as easy and natural as Sclavis describes.

improvisation in art and life.

That's something I find I do all the time. We all do, although we don't all think about it this way. It's not that one only improvises within the frame-of-reference of "this is improvised music." It's that we all are making it all up as we go. Life is neither a rehearsal nor is it scripted. We might develop plans and strategies, but in life as in music, these are neither universal nor, ultimately, completely possible. Living in the present moment is what we have, as much as we like to believe otherwise. We make plans, and we improvise, and which after all is more real, more true to the nature of life?

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Songwriting: Scraps

This morning, a few days back from camping, peacefulness, and silence Up North, and I find myself still un-eager to leap back into the fray of everyday mundane life. Fortunately, it's the weekend, and things slow down anyway.

This morning, almost the first thing in my mind, is a scrap of a song lyric, emerging more or less fully-formed, as I strive to get out of bed and begin the day. Slowly, no rush.

Can you sleep away your life?
Of course. Most people do.
Most people think this busy-busy fair
is real, when nothing is less true.

Do you wake up in the morning?
Or has the sunrise passed you by?
When birds are calling
and ships are falling on the lake,

That's when the sunrise
calls you home.

When I'm out camping, the sun hitting the tent is what usually wakes me up. It depends where I'm camping, then, whether I wake at dawn, or an hour or two later. Without the artificial support of powered illumination—you know, lightbulbs, television, computer screens—I tend not to stay up as late, either. Even with a good bonfire to drum and play flute at, it's rare for me to want to stay up as late as one does back in Snivellization.

I'm a musician. I've mostly kept musicians hours throughout my life. Nightlife hours. I've never been a morning person.

But now I seem to have become one, mostly against my will. Over the past few years, my required nightly sleep has changed from nine hours to seven. I'm usually done after seven hours of sleep, anymore. Since the surgery, I tend to wake up earlier in the morning than I ever used to. Partly because since the surgery I can't sleep the way I used to, and I often wake several times in the night, do the needful, then go back to sleep.

I've also learned that, despite the usual unpredictability of the creative urge, to which I am long accustomed, lately I seem to write in the morning, in the first half of the day. Not exactly as part of the morning routine, but nothing is certain anymore. Lots of things have changed since the surgery.

The last vivid dreams before waking are often the first things I write down. I've kept a regular, albeit not daily, dream journal, for a few decades. I tend to have vivid, lucid dreams regardless, always in color, and it has always been that way. I have memories of dreams going back to childhood, and my journal is full of other dreams written down as notes and narratives and images and symbols. Once or twice in my life, I've woken up with the memory of dream-music, which I then wrote down; once or twice, these have become musical compositions. The same thing has happened with poems.

Scraps of lyrics appear these days with some regularity. I've taken to always carrying my little lyric-writing notebook in my pocket, the same way I always have a camera with me. (People ask me how I get such unusual and beautiful photographs; the secret is simple: Always have a camera with you, and always be willing and ready to stop and make a photograph. The same is true of poems: the readiness is all.) I like little unlined Moleskin notebooks for writing lyrics; a perfect size for carrying your pocket, along with a pen and your penknife.

And your pocket rocks. There's this beach in northern California, at the southern tip of Redwoods National & State Parks. I first camped there in 1993. In the morning, I found a round smooth black sea-polished basalt stone that sparkled in the sun and fit perfectly into my hand. I've carried a rock from that beach in my pants pocket every day since then.

Over the past few months, and on the recent roadtrip out West, and while camping Up North, I wrote almost no poems. Instead I've written a lot of sketches for song lyrics. Bits and pieces, as this morning, which will eventually shape themselves into songs. While I was camping, I did a couple of paintings on the iPad, using the ArtRage app, which I highly recommend. Best virtual paint tool I've used in years. While camping, I also wrote the music notation for the melody and chords of a couple of songs I'd finished the lyrics for over the past month. Now I will sit down and do a formal lead sheet, get that all spruced up and see about recording demos.

Singer-songwriter Beck is doing something old and new: he's releasing his next album as a book of songs, for the listener to perform. As with a century ago, during the height of Tin Pan Alley songwriting, during the time when every home had a parlor piano, Beck, a contemporary singer-songwriter, releases his music as written notation for you to take home and play for yourself. Sign me up for purchasing this when it comes out in December 2012; I think it's brilliant. It inspires me to think about doing an eventual album of my own new songs, and include notation. In this day of digital downloads and perfected studio recordings, to engage one's audience by making them play the songs themselves: an old idea made brand new. Context matters.

I wrote in "Dulcimer Song," one of the songs from my commissioned piece Heartlands, something about this. I find it interesting how all of this converges, and what was old becomes new again. Here's the relevant excerpt from the lyrics for "Dulcimer Song":

The parlor piano
around which we sang
the wheezing old organ
that led us in hymns

Daddy played the dulcimer
while Mama sang loud

And these were our Sundays
in our little farm town. . . .

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

North Shore Infrared

Highway 166, MN

Canoes and dock, Kawashaway, MN

Temperance River, MN; my favorite swimming hole

Falls of the Cross River, MN; time lapse exposure in infrared

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Notes from Up North

In the past five days and nights Up North—in northernmost Minnesota, in Superior National Forest and Finland State Forest, next to the Boundary Waters, not far from Ontario—having experienced multiple encounters with loons singing day and night, ravens by the roadside, hearing wolves howling not too far away in the deep night, and wandering the land, I awake this morning knowing that the Northwoods has gotten lodged in my heart as one of my home places. It's in me for good. I will always need to spend some time up there.

I'm glad I was able to get away, however briefly, for a short camping vacation Up North, after a summer full of concerts, travel, stress (not all for bad reasons either), and mounting exhaustion. I had a few days on the land where I did nothing but read, play my flutes, chat with friends, and prepare satisfying meals. After five days and nights, I was ready to return home. But the return is also the re-entry to so-called civilization, crowded as it is with people and Things To Do, the re-entry itself can prove impossibly hard. So I find myself with my body back home, and my heart still Up North in the wildwood.

On the drive home, a bald eagle resplendent on the median of the highway, just pausing a moment before flying back over the water. Life is all around us, if only we would be open to seeing it. Passing by within feet of the Great Spirit, unafraid and still wild at heart.

Blessing the remains of coyotes and deer killed by traffic, their carcasses on the road shoulders, a common sight Up North, where the wildwoods are not separated from the villages and roads. Always a reminder of mortality, and of spirits moving on. Blessing as we pass seems the least we can do.

Since I'm a global nomad, without a real sense of hometown anywhere in the world, having grown up all over the world, having moved so many times when I was still a boy, I am often comfortable wherever I go. But I also have a small collection of places that have become special to me, home places, places where I feel connected to the Earth, where I feel at home, where I go to be reminded of those connections. Up there on Minnesota's North Shore, and inland, in the great Superior National Forest, and Kawashaway, has become one of those home places. This morning, back home in southern Wisconsin, I look at paintings and photos of Up North, images of ravens and the northern lights, and feel like my heart is still back up there. At least part of it always will be. Just as other parts of my heart reside in the Southwest, and elsewhere.

When you're a global nomad, a wanderer, certainly you take you sense of "home" with you wherever you go, as it resides inwardly. Yet it's also good to have actual physical places on this spinning ball of life-covered rock that you can also feel at home in. Good to travel. Good to be home again.

It grew into an evening ritual: As the sun was setting over our small beaver-pond lake, which curves around the north of the land and to the west, I stand on an exposed boulder to the west of the cookhouse, and play my shakuhachi for awhile. I play for the pine and cedar trees; for the light on the water; for the day's ending; for the sunlight that haloes all the finest pine needles with white fire.

One afternoon I played for a long time, and felt the silence move in around me. The silence that is deepened by the rustle of wind in the trees, by the pauses between the last note played on the flute and its echo from the low hills across the lake. The silence that deepens because it surrounds the few sounds remaining. The afternoon becomes completely still, and the pauses in between breeze sounds deepens until you can hear the Void behind the least sound.

But the Void no longer induces terror or fear, no longer threatens. It just is. It's just what you sense, that grounded emptiness beneath The Ten Thousand Things, when the illusions of consensus reality have all dropped away. This is the familiar Void, the comforting stillness of Nothing. I set out on this vacation to Do Nothing, and there it was.

After listening to the silence—which is worth at least a month of any other form of therapy—after hearing the Void behind the Silence, linger for awhile, the afternoon late afternoon sunlight bright and hot on bare skin, warming my fingers as they still hold the bamboo of my flute, linger and absorb this peace, this serenity, to bear with you as you re-enter the fray of what most call consensus life. Itself the culture that believes in its own necessity, neglecting to know its own lack of substance. In the silence, the world is vapor, and the walls between worlds so thin that all you have to do is step forward in your heart to meet the Great God Pan, god of panic, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

I awake in the late deep night, chilly and clear, the waning gibbous moon and the circumpolar stars all bright. I go out to the wall to drink some cold, cold water, and to the outhouse.

In the far distance, six or seven wolves howl. They are answered by a single wolf voice much nearer to me. The pack sounds about two miles away, on the land between two of the smaller lakes to the south and west. The wolves have been heard howling in our camping region for the past two or three summers, and tonight I get to hear them. Long low voices, singing in complex harmony.

These are not coyote howls. I know coyotes well, I've had many encounters with them, some very up close and personal. I know what coyote packs sounds like. These are true northern wolves.

After awhile, the loon resident on our little lake begins singing, motivations unknown.

The sounds blend together under the bright silver moon. Eerie, atavistic, beautiful, transcendent. Cold silver blue moonlight and wolves howling: the perfect night Up North.

I go back to my sleeping place and have intense vivid dreams all night long.

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