Though dark clouds have certainly passed and lingered before my eyes during this particularly slow period of work, I have not yet resorted to loitering on the couch, consuming Twinkies, and watching Ricki Lake re-runs. On the contrary, I have striven to keep myself occupied with various odds-and-ends work while delving into new, creative ventures I never would have imagined myself participating in even just one year ago. In truth, this has been, perhaps, the most creatively fruitful season I have experienced in my entire life, unquestionably so since first becoming a parent five years ago.
For this reawakening and exploratory migration, I have, in part, John James Audubon to thank. For the courage and willingness to utterly fail, I have Christ the Lord.
In reading Richard Rhodes’ tremendous 2004 biography of Audubon, I learned how much (and little) I have in common with the man, the husband, naturalist, and artist: a deep admiration for birds, a staunch need for light, professional failure as a businessman, an incredibly supportive wife, and an indescribable need to create, to see color, to offer beauty, to make art, ideally, of lasting and permanent value.
In 1819, after his Henderson, KY business failed miserably amid a national economic disaster, Audubon and his family were reduced to few material possessions, significant financial debt, and a dark psychological depression, a melancholia I can all too easily surmise. However, rather than succumb to the despondency of the circumstance – the “saddest of all my journeys,” he wrote - it was at that crucial and pivotal moment that Audubon, broken but not hopeless, wholeheartedly devoted himself to his heretofore hobbies of collecting, drawing and painting bird species. With a stout heart, he dreamed of self-publishing an immense work, an opus of his own heart, mind and hands which, if successful, would allow him to solely – perhaps comfortably - support his wife and two sons. It was the unbridled American spirit, newfound in Audubon, at its very best. This monumental and risky undertaking, The Birds of America, would consume, nearly to his own detriment, the next fourteen years of Audubon’s adult life. To support and fund the endeavor, Audubon traveled throughout America, France and the UK to solicit subscribers and patrons (ahem, Kickstarter, circa 1825), collecting specimens, painting, exhibiting and selling subscriptions to the voluminous work with inexhaustible vigor and determination. All along the way, at nearly every stop, in order to provide for his family left behind along the edge of America’s frontier, he painted commissioned portraits, mailing this much-needed income to his ever-faithful, equally stout-hearted wife, Lucy. In short, Audubon leaned into his talents, trusting himself to them, giving himself fully to his innate need to create.
“The world was with me as a blank, and my heart was sorely heavy; and yet through these dark days I was being led to the development of the talents I loved.”
During my own particular downturn, in addition to the time spent working on and recording an album, I have invested a harvest of my energies in creative pursuit: painting, reinvesting in an old passion for B&W 35mm and Holga medium format photography, woodworking, in addition to my peculiarly obsessive home landscaping, a venture that is without end.
Temporarily set up in a corner of our master bedroom with a library of books and two children clambering for my attention, I paint. Here in this domestic non-quiet I quietly dream of securing a separate, private studio space, a dedicated work area where I can paint, write, and, if running water is available, establish a twentieth-century-era darkroom, a venue where my archaic Leitz enlarger, developing equipment, and my mind can together sow veritable seed, a place where scenes can appear from out of nowhere on the stark white space of imagination. I like to think this hope of mine is not wishful thinking.
With piles of wood siding and tongue-and-groove bead-board spared from our recent house addition, I, being too cheap (or wise) to relegate 100-year-old oak and pine planks to the wastes of a garbage dumpster, have begun repurposing much of it, building and constructing objects I never knew I could make: picture frames, a bunk bed, work table, key rack, coat hanger, various house décor. All things considered, I have, in short, delved into the realm of folk art. More pragmatically, in addition to these more or less creative outlets, I work sundry odd jobs to make ends meet, including, but never limited to: mowing lawns, pruning trees and shrubs, cleaning gutters, painting houses, degreasing kitchen appliances, cleaning up construction sites, substitute teaching, hanging ceiling fans. The list is ad nauseum, and rarely do the so-called ends actually meet.
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, more direct question is, Why? Why cull, more likely cobble, together a mish-mash 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 bristle at it. The Greeks were no fools in their assessment: Mathe pathein. Learn to struggle. I ask again, Why bother? Why prolong a waffling, often floundering, capitalistically failed career? Why persevere? Why hope in distant dreams? Here, reader, you must believe me for I ask myself these very questions on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Too often the voices I lean into are ragged, mercilessly cruel, and tyrannical in their damning condemnation. And if they damn me, they surely damn God, in whose image I am made. And if it is true we are never fully alone, then the voices, reader, surely curse you as well. Take heart in Audubon’s response during his tremulous days of depression immediately following bankruptcy:
“Hopes are shy birds flying at a great distance, seldom reached by the best of guns.”
Hopes are slight angles. Without them – the birds and the hope - we have no need for light, no need for a soul. Without them the world goes pale and silent. St. Matthew’s birds of the air flutters across the sky, and the flurry of their incessant aloft song trills new beginnings. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has answers;” quoting author Sally Lloyd Jones, “it sings because it has a song.” Carry forth, carry on, carry, and be carried.
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”