There's a song recorded by Eva Cassidy called Tall Trees in Georgia, and it's relatively simple musically. The lyrics are in the old Euro-American folk style. But when I listen to the song, I don't really pay attention to the lyrics all that much. There is something about the song that transcends any lyrics that may have been written for it. You seem to already know what it's about before the first few lines are sung, anyway. Although it's only a soft, shaking strum of a guitar and the simplicity of her beautiful voice, it calls something deep inside you. You don't know what it is, but you know you have it. Nostalgia, grief of times lost, regret, the magic of youth, the heartbreaking beauty of nature...The familiar staying the same and yet now seeming different because you're the one that's changed, and you can never see things again the way they once were.
Several years ago, I read a book by Brene Brown called Braving the Wilderness, and there is one part in the book that has always stayed with me. In it she tells how, when he was a little boy, Bill Monroe would hide in the edge of the woods next to the train tracks near his rural Kentucky home, and watch World War 1 veterans returning home from the war as they traced the train tracks back to their respective homes. "The weary soldiers would sometimes let out long hollers - long, high-pitched, bone-chilling hollers of pain and freedom that cut through the air like the blare of a siren...
"Whenever John Hartford, an acclaimed musician and composer tells this story, he lets out a holler of his own. The minute you hear it, you know it. Oh, that holler."
She goes on to explain that it's something between a yipee and a painful wail, that it's thick with something between misery and redemption. And in some old bluegrass or folk songs, you can still hear the "high lonesome." I hear it in Tall Trees in Georgia.
I think all of us have to come face to face with ourselves in this way if we are ever to grow. We're all walking the train tracks home from something. We have to acknowledge things about ourselves that we need to leave behind, even if they're the only way we knew our way home to ourselves for some time.
I've realized that I've spent a lot of my life fighting the war of trying to make up for one thing or another. When I was a teen, I tried to make up for my lack of beauty by being interesting or accomplished in art, music, history, and literature. When I was in college, I tried to make up for a tumultuous family member by being as steady as possible, trying my best to not rock the boat, and trying to get good grades. And even now, I find myself tempted to make up for the fact that I'm unable to have children and I'm not using my degree. These days, motherhood is an exalted post no matter how you even arrived there, and so is being professionally successful. And since I don't fit into either of those molds, I have sensed an urge to work like the devil to try to make my life count for something somehow.
But this afternoon, I came home and was about to work on a pheasant I've sketched out, and I heard a little whisper: "write in your journal for a while." So I sat down and began to write. And somehow, I was able to exit the hamster wheel of my mind that has seemed to be spinning for the most part since I was 14. When I actually stopped to look, I didn't realize how much pressure I'd been putting on myself. I realized I don't know how to rest without chastising myself with thoughts of "you could be doing something more productive right now," and "why aren't you doing some art work?" and "you've got to prove some more. You haven't gotten there yet," and "you've gotta do just a little more to prove," and "what you've done isn't convincing enough yet." And I've strived to obey it until the things I love to do seem to be obstacles to the peace of "home" more than doorways. The high-pressure thoughts about art, the music, the writing, the sewing, the gardening, the cooking; it has all made me wish I wasn't passionate about anything (or, frankly, good at anything), or that there was only one focus. Deep inside the privacy of the tall trees, I have wished away these passions because for all the joy these things do bring, the voice of "not enough yet" has added more and more weight to them, until I'm just too tired to carry it anymore.
So my hope, my determination, is that the voice can be left behind and I can holler the "high lonesome" on my way home and begin to carry those things as they are: gifts. Not balls and chains. Not something I have to prove.
I wrote a children's novel over a year ago, and had started illustrating it. I stopped illustrating it because it was really hard. And doing hard things with high-intensity pressure already mixed in that medium made me want to stop thinking about it. "If these illustrations aren't perfect, I don't know what I'll do," thoughts weighed them down to a halt.
But now, I want to walk through the thicket of them without that voice, and let them be what they are. Let them exist. I don't want to hold them to the same standard I've attempted to live by. I wouldn't want to do that to anything, living or imaginary.
This will be hard because it'll be a long season of art that is not shared but kept under wraps. To some people, it will look like I'm not doing anything. And yet, I'm ready now, I think. When you drop off perfection, you make the way for joy.
Through the thicket I go...
To hear Eva Cassidy's Tall Trees in Georgia: