"Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." Colossians 3:2-3
"I've come back around
to uncharted ground,
or so it seems"
I've never been here before. Have you? Maybe you have, but the sense of returning to uncharted territory, of coming home to a place you've never been, is new to me. It's like coming full-circle to the edge of a cliff, staring across a bottomless chasm you couldn't possibly have traversed the first time, to a foreign place you're well-acquainted with. "How did I survive it?," you might ask. And the answer, of course, is that you didn't. You danced on the edge of the cliff with a flower in your hand, completely oblivious to the fact that you were dancing on the edge of a cliff. You might have even thought the dance was "life," and that by living in a state of denial about the fact that you were basically an animated corpse flouncing along the edge of a knife like a drunken blow-up doll, that you were alive. But you weren't alive. You were a fool, and so was I. Even the Tarot people could see it.
Going back to the U.S. was better than I was afraid it would be. I thought I would be wading through an unadulterated zombie supply of Covid Karens and people who think their sex lives are not only interesting to anyone but themselves, but are in fact other people's business. But I wasn't. Like I tried to express in the probble-be poem "John the Baptist in the Rain," at some level, being back in the U.S. was great. It was like being able to revisit the funeral of someone you really loved, but couldn't make it to the ceremony when it actually happened. Instead of going to the funeral in real-time, you had the chance to visit it after it was already too late, before it even occurs. Rather than tacking a glib, cutesy sentiment to a social media profile, or pinning it to my lapel, I was able to battle the onslaught of existential wrongness flooding down on me from the comfortable, sad position of a ghost. Like a phantom fistfighting a tsunami, I railed uselessly against the waves in an act of reverse shadow-boxing; I was fighting for stability and purpose, punching into the air, but it wasn't the air that was insubstantial.
It was me.
I tried to stay, and was open to the possibility. I didn't cross into the U.S. with a closed heart or mind. I was hesitant to do it, but I had no choice. And I was surprised at how right it actually was. It was weird, but alright. I missed driving through the Western states, the endless desert roads in Arizona and New Mexico. The Mojave Desert in California. The endless, dry ocean floor of the San Luis Valley in Colorado (the 4th or 5th-largest valley of its kind on earth). The winding mountain roads. Spending a frozen night in the van on top of the world, next to a snowdrift 10 feet high. Impossible walls of rock. Bathing in rivers so cold chunks of snow float past you as you ladle icewater on your head. Putting pomade in your hair in the grungy bathroom of the gig, not having a chance to wash it out for days. Bathing with your duet partner in a warmer river, perhaps in summer, or on an untamed beach north of San Diego. The dirty, rotten joys of kicking ass. The psychedelic mindset of the past. I missed them.
Or so I thought.
Kelbaker Road, California
My first stop was in central Arizona, which is the last place in the U.S. that felt like home to me. After getting through the open-air methadone clinic that Phoenix has become, I headed up I-17 toward my buddy's place in Jerome. I've been on that road a million times, and even lived in an Airstream off Badger Springs Road (among other places) for awhile in 2008, but this time, it was wrong. Not wrong, exactly. Distant. Faraway. Gone. Driving up I-17 was like looking the wrong way through a telescope. I knew where I was, but it looked far away. It was right there, but I might as well have been observing it from the moon, as driving through it.
Badger Springs Road, Arizona
I was only in Jerome for 3 days. It was great to be back, kinda. Not unlike how it can be nice to flip through an old photo album. It's good to remember. It might even be important. But you don't want to live there. Hopefully, you can't.
Fast-forward to Fort Worth. I have friends there, but nobody had a space to put me up for even one night. It wasn't rejection; circumstances and timing genuinely prevented it. I was able to spend one night in an RV in the parking lot of a Back To The Future-themed bar, which was cool, but also terrible. I've lived without amenities in too many things with wheels to be able to stand it anymore. I'm tired of brushing my teeth in the bar in the morning. Dumping my piss out behind the tires. Reading books by flashlight. Never being able to wash your face or hands.
The guys at the bar were cool, but actually charged me for a non-alcoholic Heineken, which I wasn't aware of until the next day, and which cost $2,000. I say that in jest about myself, because as a musician who doesn't drink, I NEVER pay for drinks. I always get free drinks (sometimes only 1 or 2), which I always give to my fans or other band members. The Double Down in Vegas has a good selection of NA beer, and they never charge me for any of it. I was once given carte blanche at a bar in Tucson, a rule which I think they changed after my show there. I went back to the place ALL NIGHT, and took my free drinks to the railroad tracks, back when you could still walk directly onto the tracks in downtown Tucson, and got loaded with the trains going by. In fact I knew a guy there, an older punk-rocker on the circuit who had one arm or something, a leg missing, something, who called himself "Trainwreck" I think, because he'd passed out on the railroad tracks in a drunken stupor and had his limbs amputated by a passing train. He was crazy, jacked up, and hardcore. We had a good vibe, but were never friends.
Fortunately, I didn't pass out on the tracks. But I did run out, of beer if not grace, and would go back to the bar and get some more free drinks. That place kinda hated me after that, with obvious justification. So, since privilege is when people genuinely don't believe the normal rules apply to them (which may or may not be your problem, but isn't a white problem), I defer to MUSICIAN'S PRIVILEGE on the matter. I didn't think to pay them, went into the RV, and the next day the bartender shows up and was like, "you skipped out on your tab last night." My only thought was, "What tab? All I had was an NA beer. What kind of rock and roll singer pays for that?" But I didn't say that, of course. I said something about being preoccupied (which was true), and went inside and paid them. They were cool. The one bartender and owner are cool guys. It's a cool place. If you're in Ft. Worth, check it out:
I actually flipped out in the RV, unable to play any more Woodoku without at least 2 cartons of cigarettes, a shot of dope, or a lobotomy. In total fool desperation, I tried to make a cigarette with the last of my tobacco, using a paper towel instead of rolling papers, of which I had none. I could have used newspaper, or a .38, but all I had was paper towels. To my amazement, the "paper" towels didn't burn, at all. It was like trying to make a cigarette out of a wet treehouse. What, do you think you're going to light this clunky thing with.... a match? Fool! Paper towels don't burn. They smolder and smoke until your dry, stale tobacco falls all over the parking lot, or floor. In an absurdly-overwrought rage, I stormed down the street at 3am in search of a liquor store or a street gang, but there were only dark buildings and an overwhelming desire to descend into hardcore delusion, assume my ultimate form, and obliterate the nearest drive-thru.
So the next day I took a loan from one of my friends, and moved into a Motel 6 in Weatherford. It was unbelievably expensive, and worth every dime. If you're ever in the Ft. Worth area, don't stay in the cigarette hotels in town, with shady people roaming the sticky parking lots paved with spilled beer. Drive the 20 or 30 miles out to Weatherford. The Motel 6 there is not only cheaper than the hotels that offer the "privilege" of staying in town, it's also the nicest hotel in the entire chain.
So I laid in my kingsize shower oasis in Weatherford and listened to Townes Van Zandt (who's from Fort Worth), Gillian Welch, and other musicians who make me want to play again. I would recover in exactly one night from the circumstantial instability, and wake up and immediately start looking for places to live. I wasn't picky. In the U.S., you can't be. My one friend said an apartment she lived in 10 years ago, which cost $500/month at the time, is now going for $1,600. It's true, but not believable. I couldn't find anything less than $700-800, and you'd read the reviews of those places and they were all TERRIBLE. When people complain about the breakfast, it's probably alright. But when every review is some variation of, "Don't stay here, the water doesn't work, the place is full of roaches, and the management has an attitude," etc, you should probably keep looking. There are places available for a grand, if you want to spend it. I could have started playing again, and seriously considered it.
And then I saw Belfast.
I find it extremely luxurious to put on a calm, artful film, turn the volume low, and let the din of it saturate your headspace. It's relaxing. I saw Alfonso Cuarón's Roma like that, absorbing the film through an abstract act of osmotic expressionism, rather than actually watching it. Instead of following the characters or plot, I let the film play in the background while I wrote something in a state of pleasant lethargy, probably. Occasionally I'd turn my attention to the screen, and pick up pieces of dialogue or drama, but mostly I let the movie burn slowly in the background, like a stick of incense, infusing my subconscious with pleasant images and sounds. It seemed like a pretty good film. Someday I hope to watch it in the normal manner.
In similar fashion, I had Belfast playing in the background on the TV in Weatherford. I'd tried the movie before, but was deeply and immediately bored. This time, though, it was right. It was exactly what I needed to see at the time, because I wasn't really in the mood to give my attention to a film, but needed something low-key, smart, and artful playing in the background. My attention moved through the brick wall of the film's linear narrative like a ghost, and scenes and lines of dialogue were draped over my subconscious like sheets over a sofa that is waiting to be moved. Impressions passed through me like neutrinos in black and white. Some scenes stuck out, others were buried. And then came the final scene, which I didn't know was final, never having seen the film before.
Judi Dench plays the mother/grandmother, and has the very last lines in the film, which are, "Go. Go now. Don't look back. I love you, son." I wasn't even paying attention, but my subconscious was shocked to full attention by the lines, without any effort on my part. My reverie had been broken. The lines demanded my attention, and wouldn't you know it. My mother was reciting them.
It was a green light. Clear direction. God, speaking through a movie. "Go. Go now." You can laugh if you want to, and many of you will. That's both your prerogative, and your problem. Just know that your laughter or dismissive attitude does not diminish the power or veracity of a message that wasn't intended for you. You would do well to become aware of the fact that your laughter in fact reduces your capacity to hear such messages yourself. Do you mock dogs for reacting to a dog whistle?
Don't answer that. I don't want to know.
So, after testing the message in the spirit lab, for inconsistencies, cowardice, glibness, self-fulfilling prophetic sabotage, familiar spirits, and the like, and not only finding the message sound, but in fact receiving multiple confirmations of it over the next couple days, I decided to move on it.
There was some more circumstantial wrangling, in which I had to grit my teeth against yet another poorly-timed bank holiday and take out yet another loan from yet more people who don't have any money. But when the obstacles cleared, I turned my magnets back to Mexico. I paid my Texas friend back, and headed south. Here we are in a parking lot somewhere in Ft. Worth:
He also appears on tracks 10 and 11 of the Sound Heart Sampler:
And so I started driving. I realized, before I even started to leave, and this is the point of this article, is that I didn't care one way or another about the outcome of the trip. Two years ago, I really wanted to get into Mexico. This time, I didn't care. I could just as easily have walked to Guatemala as start a band while standing on Townes Van Zandt's shoulders in some movie-themed bar in North Texas, for all the difference it made to me. I felt dead.
The Mexican border guards noticed that I was dead, and barely glanced at me on my way across. I've had more trouble getting onto a rollercoaster at Six Flags, than getting into Mexico this last time. The Mexican border guards didn't even look at me. I blew through Nuevo Progreso like an English breeze.
It should be noted that the guys selling EVERYTHING THAT THE WORLD HAS EVER MANUFACTURED on the street did see me, including the guys selling firecrackers, windshield wipers, and weed at the gas station, but I like the ghost narrative, so indulge me in a little artistic license. Thanks.
The dirty cops saw me as well. Like vultures, they swooped down on the carrion gringo and took their "mordidas" from the decaying flesh of the recently deceased. The first cop asked me what avoiding a gross inconvenience was worth to me; I suggested a number, which he found satisfactory. The second cop approached my window smoking a cigarette, obviously drunk. He asked me some questions, the answers to which he was clearly not interested in, before leaning in the van and asking me point-blank, "Tienes dinero?" You have any money? It was literal highway robbery. Of course, I wasn't shocked. I had gone to the ATM machine before hitting the road, in preparation for such a contingency. I asked him what he wanted, and for a cigarette. He didn't give me the cigarette, and asked me what I had. I suggested a number to him, which was fortunately sufficient to quench his greedy desires. At least until the next gringo corpse floats through his checkpoint wrapped in the transparent sheet of the quickly-dissipating past. Godspeed to you, hermano. Whoever you are.
So, I made it back to Central Mexico, and am currently looking for a place to live. Being back in the U.S. was great, but it was also a dead-end. There were no open doors. It was like going to a funeral before it happens. I could have stayed. I wasn't against it. But it wasn't familiar spirits speaking through Judi Dench playing my mother, telling me to get out while I still could. It was God, using that imagery to drive the point home. He also said to not look back. Which is frightening. There was a sense of urgency to my leaving. Not a desperate rush, but definitely no time to waste. Get out now. Don't look back.
One of the people who loaned me some money in the U.S. said maybe it would be best if I went back "home" to Mexico. Not just back to Mexico, but back "home" to Mexico. The suggestion was unsolicited, out of nowhere, not unlike the ending scene in Belfast. It struck me because I wasn't looking for it.
So what's the point?
I made this video in a cheap hotel a few days ago, not particularly sad about being alone and far away for Thanksgiving, but in fact mourning the passing of Thanksgiving itself. Not literally. Anyone who had a great dinner with or without friends and family and was grateful for the day, great. My Thanksgiving wasn't traditional, but it was actually pretty good. Even by worldly standards. But it wasn't my great sense of belonging to a family or group of friends that made it good. It was the grace of God that allowed it to be good. I didn't have much, if anything, to do with it. I drove the car down the road. I made directions in advance, so I wouldn't get lost (which is easy in Mexico). I was grateful for things. There were obstacles, but nothing bad happened to us. We made it to our destination in one piece. But I passed through it like a cloud of steam.
It isn't nihilistic, or numb. Hopefully, it's what's described in Colossians 3:2-3. For the most part, my affections have been drained from my heart and mind, and I am in shock from loss of blood. For the first time, I am experiencing the paradox of Christianity, the "life after death" before life is even over, that Jesus Himself said would lead to actual life. Whatever that is. I'm finding out now. I hope.
"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:" John 11:25
"He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." John 12:25
He that "hateth his life in this world?" Even with the understanding that the use of the word "hate" in this context means some kind of disregard or indifference, and not necessarily the modern definition of "hate," still.... both definitions resonate with me. Do they resonate with you?
In a weird sense that is definitely a paradox, I have to admit, I hope so. I "hated" being stuck in Illinois, and now consider it to be the 2nd-best thing that ever happened to me (second only to being forgiven myself). Because of this unwitting assignment I didn't even know I was on, my mother is in Heaven. And I might have needed to be on that assignment, to rid myself of my own sense of "life," of self-importance, of being distracted by the pursuit of happiness that is perhaps inclined to steer us off the path toward the pursuit of holiness, which is more important. What if I was happy? Would I consider myself alive? Or would I be a fool, traipsing along the edge of a cliff with a lot of false positives in my heart and mind? Like a false positive on a drug test, or a disease, a false positive might also make you think you're well when you're not. Has our society gone soft with positivity? Do we use it as an ersatz form of happiness, since the idea of actual happiness becomes less substantial by the hour, in a world plagued with fools? And so we paint the obviously-doomed situation with colorful clown paint, because facing the horror of it is too difficult to bear? Is "positivity" the fool's gold of the spirit world? Is it cowardice? A cop-out? Is positivity keeping us off the path of righteousness, and keeping us tethered to this "life," as it's so-called by people cursed with the would-be blessing of happiness?
I think it's possible. And at the deepest levels, it's why I left the U.S. Not consciously, but underneath the surface, the kind of glib dismissiveness that has come to define the culture north of the Rio Grande, the unwillingness to hear the dog whistle (or even consider the possibility of its existence), the wholesale denial of reality, the smug, self-righteous sanctimony that makes the dismissive attitude possible in the first place, the genuine desire of 50% of the population to be permanently separated from the other 50%, all of it is what makes Mexico more attractive to me, personally. On the surface, I find the aesthetic of Latin America interesting and exotic. I like the music and the language. The buildings are weird, the customs are different. But deeper than that, there's something missing in the U.S. Something fundamental and good, it threw away a long time ago. Humility, perhaps.
A reckoning, I fear, is coming. Is it a hard rain, really, that's a-gonna fall? Or is that just a bunch of wannabe profundity masquerading as dissent in a world full of younger Boomers? Hasn't America reveled in the "strength" of copping to its own impending demise long enough? How long shall we continue to mistake disconsolate, spoiled whining for dissent? Has the time come to sing a different song than the "protest anthem" that is really made of termites? Or do we eat the meal of ingratitude set before us, which all of us have always ordered? Do we have to spend 10 years stuck in Illinois (in my case) to have it beaten out of us? Is that our only chance?
We didn't want to celebrate Thanksgiving, in fact we weren't grateful for it at all. We spent decades pointing out the speck in our brother's eye, while ignoring the beam in our own. We thought this "hard rain" thing was "deep," while ignoring those who were truly grateful, and maybe even happy. Perhaps even by living for God, and dying to the self. Perhaps not.
Whatever the case, we have had to resort to painting lipstick of positivity on the pig of denial. Courage, indeed. What a sad, unfortunate joke. Is Bob Dylan a prophet, or the world's first one-man boy band?
I think he's a boy band, but that's another topic for another time. At any rate, I believe God called me to hit the road. Maybe I'm running away like a coward. Or, perhaps, it's to get out of the rain.
"A Foreign Country Called Home" is the title of a poem I wrote in 1998 or '99. The poem isn't amazing. The title is the best part. But if the title is more than simply meaninglessly clever, is America the "foreign country called home," my true homeland which has become at least partially foreign to me? Or is Mexico the "foreign country" that is now "home?"
Both, and neither. My true home is in Heaven. My affections have finally been set on things above. This world is not my home. If Jesus is right when He says that, "though he were dead, yet he shall live," then for those of us to whom that statement applies, the best is yet to come.
It's either true, or it isn't. Whatever you decide indicates what you have chosen to have faith in. If it's yourself, or anything that offers dividends of fool's gold, I suggest you keep searching for an alternative. "Seek, and ye shall find" (Matthew 7:7).
Just make sure, when you find it, that you don't throw it away.
Thanks for listening.