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Unicycles on Telephone Wires

Unicycles on Telephone Wires“What’s it like, being on the road all the time?” she asked, pretty lips and sparkling eyes making a truthful reply all the more difficult.

“You know what it’s like being a counselor at this camp, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Imagine that 100 campers show up like they usually do, and you have to get to know them. Then two days later when you wake up, you don’t recognize your surroundings, and a whole different set of campers shows up for you to meet and learn their names. Plus, you have to pack up all your stuff in the morning, carry it to a van and then unload it at night every day before you sleep.”

The brightness in her eyes dimmed back to human levels. I hadn’t even told her about being strapped in a chair for at least 4 hours every day, relational clashes with your touring partner, and how road boredom sucks the desire to create right out of your chest. Her name stayed in my head for at least a year before submerging beneath the constant waves of people I meet and places I see. They’re all beautiful.

Less than 5% of my life as a full-time writer and performer actually involves writing and performing. About half of it has been spent dealing with other people’s cats in spare bedrooms and sitting long hours staring out a van window. If you don’t have a plan for your time inbetween performances, books, or exhibits, you’ll give up too soon. I’ve never seen musicians, writers, or artists fail for lack of talent. Successful life on the road means staying focused when you don’t feel like it, getting rest because you need it and accepting nearly everything that’s dealt to you with a smile. I say nearly everything—because cats rarely make me smile.

One of my biggest weaknesses is my need for people. Superman may need a fortress of solitude or his own room at the Sheraton, but I need community. I very rarely look forward to time alone with myself. A hotel room with a single bed says “jail cell of loneliness” to my brain. Even before I discovered writing, art, and all the other things that my analytical brain tried to keep quiet, I still craved time with people. When I started traveling, that weakness turned to strength.

People’s homes have formed my fortress of community. I’ve got families all around the world whose kids yell my name and attack me when I walk in the door. Moms have cooked Paul and me scrumptious feasts and sent us away carrying cookies and brownies. College students have traded dorm beds and used their meal passes to fill our bellies. Dads have helped fix Paul’s van and given us insider tips on the best local spots to hang out. We’ve never had to pay for hotel rooms, and we’ve shared more of our writing and music than we ever could have on stage.

“But don’t you get tired and need a break from being “on” in front of people?” Shaun, the headline act that night, asked. The few Calvin College students who had gathered for the “Behind the Music” Q&A session turned expectant eyes to me.

“Of course I get tired, but people understand that. I just ask them if I can go take a nap. Besides, when you’re being real with people, and you’re tired, they help you out. Isn’t that where the real art happens anyway?”

Afterward, students crowded around me and asked if I could go to some outdoor picnic BBQ they were having. If only I didn’t have to hang out with Shaun and the administration right then. Adoring college eyes told me which event would be more fun, but it was important to honor my commitment. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the people we don’t naturally connect with deserve just as much integrity as those who feel like long-lost brothers and sisters.

I know bands who tour for a month, performing 28 shows in 30 nights and driving 16 hours on their “day off.” Their faces tell wrinkled tales of memories unable to access the wonder of places they’ve experienced. I have a hard enough time staying sane and kind with the avalanche of names, stories, and places that overwhelm my thoughts. Rest days give me permission to breathe like a normal member of society.

When Paul and I toured on the West Coast, we took a couple days off to breathe the fresh air and gaze with radiant eyes from the mountaintops of Yosemite National Park. We’ve driven through the giant redwood sentinels, floated on the mists of Smoky Mountains, dived for frisbees in crashing Jacksonville waves, tasted the maple candy sweetness of Ontario farms, and watched shaggy, graybeard clouds drag rain across the red, shapely arches of Moab. I’ll never forget the peace of snow softly kissing my head as white-robed Sequoias gathered ‘round to shelter me in their arms. Dreams have a way of turning into obligations too quickly without the time to remember how they began in the first place.

My writing suffers from the constant demands of keeping the Spoken Groove momentum going. On tour, it’s often the last thing I want to do when I’ve finished inventory, plotted our next course, kept up with emails, booked future gigs, performed shows, and then hung out with people afterward. A wise friend told me that creating is a cycle. You can’t give out unless you’re taking things in. She told me not to worry in the times when I’m not writing as much, but to keep listening, reading, and accumulating treasures to weave into my future work.

I’ve had times where pushing myself past the limit of my emotions was the only way to mine deep-hidden secrets that needed revealing. I’ve made a consistent morning routine of eating breakfast, spending time reading the Bible and praying, and then checking email, figuring out directions for the day’s drive, if we have one, and working on any pressing business needs. But I also take breaks just to go watch a movie, to find a local disc golf course, and to run around outside for a bit, to stay in bed a little longer on days when my brain feels haggard and worn.

It’s a fine, tightrope wire to pursue the unfettered expression of a heart set free, without falling into either the chasm of artistically severed ears or the lonely plateaus of meager, analytical meals. If you venture into the unexplored wildlands of life on the road, you’ll experience pressure in all your weakest spots. Accept your limitations. Turn them into joy. Unicycles may be unstable, but I still dream of riding them across telephone wires with my hands and face tasting the endless sky.

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