Each year on New Year’s Eve, folks gather arm in arm and sway and swill and sing an incomprehensible old Scottish song that Robert Burns is often credited with writing. It asks the rhetorical question of whether we should let our old friendships and memories go in favor of the new. The assumed answer is ‘No, there is value in what has gone before.’ In short, it looks backward before looking forward. That’s our tradition, and there’s certainly some value in it.
Today, as a new year and decade begin, I’m thinking about the year that has passed, and the one ahead, and there is quite a lot to think about! I had the chance to share songs and rich conversations with a bunch of folks around the continent this year, and I am grateful for each of those visits. I had some wonderful time with my family, did some work that I think mattered, and wrestled with the possibility of a big change in the course of my life. I won’t drag you through all of it, but it did me good to write a few things down, by way of gratitude and celebration. Turns out that when you put it all in a pile, it was quite a year! Here’s the quick recap:
Last January, as this one, I headed up the Critical Conversations Team for the Montreat College Conference. College students are among my favorite conversation partners, and the 1400 or so who come to this event are smart, engaged, passionate, and insightful. Can’t wait to be there again.
I marched with my family at the Women’s March in Black Mountain and the MLK march in Asheville, and shortly thereafter, I co-led a community anti-racism workshop with my friend and colleague Tyrone Greenlee. It was packed and productive, and one step on the long road.
Angela Durden’s Music Business Survival Guide was published that month, too. I wrote the foreword.
I also moved into my new office in Swannanoa, which has been a tremendous gift to my productivity, creativity, and sanity. I love our 875-square-foot house, and it’s also really great to have an Introvert Zone to which I can escape and work.
In February, I headed up to Warren, Pennsylvania, where I got to put on a concert as part of a music series there. I also met Tau Battice on that trip, by chance, in a café. He’s an extraordinary portrait photographer. Check out his art.
Then I went to Guatemala for the first of four trips last year. This is a really exciting time for PEG Partners, the non-profit I founded with my wife, Deanna, in 2004. Lots of work to do, and lots of fun seeing it pay off.
I kicked off the month leading a retreat for Wake Forest Pres. Church, and now they are coming with us to Guatemala this summer! Then I spent a few days on the road playing music for my buddy Shane Claiborne’s ‘Beating Guns‘ tour, melting down donated guns and making literal garden tools out of them. It is powerful and transformative work, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
Abraham Jam also was in the studio in the spring, finishing up our studio album, White Moon,
It was a big month, performing at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC, and keynoting a Presbyterian Compassion, Peace and Justice advocacy training event. It was an honor to share a few thoughts and songs with committed people who are doing the work so well and so steadfastly.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself on stage at Merlefest, with Chris Rosser and James Kylen backing me up, and David Holt sitting on stage behind us eating a sandwich, because… he’s David Holt and he can do that. 🙂
Two big parts of my life converged when Abraham Jam teamed up with friends of mine from the El Tejar Music Program in Guatemala to offer a LEAF Schools and Streets residency in Barnardsville, NC, working with kids there to write their own songs. Then Abraham Jam played at the LEAF festival, and I flew out to Boise to speak at a Rotary District Conference.
Along with some lovely shows and trips, June brought the fifteenth anniversary of my marriage to Deanna. That would have been plenty to celebrate for one month, but there was more…
It’s always a joy to perform at Diana Wortham Theatre, and in June I had the opportunity to put on a big benefit show with an amazing lineup, to benefit the excellent work done by Asheville Rotary. I was joined on stage by Kat Williams, David Holt, BJ Leiderman, Kevin Spears, and Drayton Aldridge, and we raised tens of thousands of dollars for worthy charities.
And speaking of worthy charities, I made two more trips to Guatemala in June, taking groups to get to know the country and learn about the work that PEG does there. On one of those trips, the teaching staff at the Escuela David LaMotte in Tzanchaj (I didn’t pick the name, but I’m sure touched by it!) presented me with handmade traditional Mayan clothing, in the style of the village, which speaks the Tz’utujil language.
…and then I went to Guatemala once more, but this time, I had Billy and Dawud with me. We did four shows while we were there, including a big benefit show in El Tejar, and playing for the kids at the David LaMotte School in Tzanchaj. Again, it was beautiful to see different parts of my life intersect.
And that trip followed the release of Abraham Jam’s studio album, White Moon, to a packed house back at Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre.
Back to Canada, where Abraham Jam played at Muslimfest, a huge festival of Islamic Arts and Culture. Billy and I were treated so well by Dawud’s community, and it was an honor to play on the main stage there. Abraham Jam was also presented with a Creative Interfaith Collaboration Award by the festival organizers. Sadly, I had to cancel a scheduled tour in Texas with my friend Wes Collins, due to a kidney stone. Bummer. ‘Nuff said.
Abraham Jam headed to Westminster College in Pennsylvania, and I did some solo events in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas. I got to spend time in Ann Arbor with youth, college students, and adults, and I love it when I can do each of those things on the same trip. And the folks at Northway in Dallas brought me back again, even though they knew what they were getting into! I did a concert, and we packed a whole lot of meals together to feed folks who are hungry, and I felt like I formed some really beautiful friendships.
October began with an unexpected piece of mail in the mailbox. A ‘do not bend’ manila envelope showed up at my house with a certificate inside saying that I had received an ‘e-Chievement Award’ from E-Town for my work in Guatemala. E-Town is a great syndicated live radio show that I have enjoyed listening to for years. Texan poet Alan Gann nominated me, and I had no idea until it arrived in the mail. Beautiful and affirming.
I led a three-part series on Worldchanging 101 at St. James Episcopal Church in my home town, and loved the rich conversations that grew out of that.
Toronto once more for Sing Fires of Justice, where Abraham Jam got to work with a backing choir of about eighty folks, as well as having a packed out panel discussion. Such a great event! Then we got to go play in Clarks Summit, PA and my amazing jazz pianist friend Bill Carter sat in on piano!
Then I spent some time and played some music at a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship accompaniment training for folks who are getting ready to head to Colombia or the U.S. Southern Border to spend time with people who are in danger in both of those places, and mitigate that danger by their physical presence. I was inspired by these folks.
I also made a one-day trip over to Raleigh to meet with some of the staff at the North Carolina Council of Churches. They have commissioned me to write a hymn to commemorate their 85th anniversary this year, so I went to hold a little bit of a songwriting workshop with them to gather what I needed to write it.
Abraham Jam had two more shows in November, one of which featured Chris Rosser subbing for Dawud, which was a lot of fun, though we missed our token Canadian. The other was right in Black Mountain, at St. James Episcopal Church, two blocks from my home, and it was a blast to bring the guys to town to play for my very own community.
Then — in what may prove to be the most significant thing that happened all year when I look back on it — in late November, I launched my new Patreon site. As of tonight, sixty-six people have joined that online community, with whom I share works in progress, a chapter each month of my audio book version of Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness, and a monthly live video chat where I play some music and share some of what I’m working on and thinking about and then we have some interactive conversation. Folks chip in a dollar a month, or whatever they would like to, in order to have those digital backstage passes, and support what I do so that I can keep doing it. The first few weeks of this have been a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about what it will become in 2020. If you want to know more about it, watch the video here. When we get to 100 folks, I am going to start doing live quarterly video concerts there, as well. Part of what I love about Patreon is that it gives me deadlines for music — so I’m working on three different new songs! Can’t wait to share them with you.
If you are curious to learn more about Patreon, here’s where you go:
In December, I mostly stayed home and caught my breath. We took two little trips — one to see some of Deanna’s family before Christmas, and one that was a Christmas gift we gave each other, through the kind courtesy of our good friend Boyd, who works at Dollywood and comped us tickets for a day. Good fun.
As I look back on the year, that seems fairly legit. While I’ve been home, I’ve been doing some writing and making some plans for 2020, and I have to say, I’m excited! Earlier today I read a beautiful piece of writing from a wise friend who has terminal cancer. He was reflecting on the beauty of his life, even now, as he faces its end. He wrote, “I am literally one of the luckiest people who has ever lived.” And I have to say, I am right there with him.
Not only do I have the love of my family and health and relative safety, and the random chance to have been born in a location and point in history that has made my life remarkably comfortable, as compared to people around the world and across history, I have even had the opportunity to do creative and hopefully nourishing work for a living, to travel extensively, to make music, and to love and be loved. I’ve written books that thousands of people have actually taken the time to read, and songs that hundreds of thousands of people have heard. The list goes on and on… but maybe that’s enough list making for one day. What I’m trying to get at is that I am deeply grateful. If you’ve actually read this whole thing, then you’re one of the people who cares enough about what I do to give me the holy gift of your attention. That’s no small gift. Thank you.
And from those to whom much has been given, much is required. December also brought a ramping up of a group I convened a couple of months ago to welcome an asylum seeker to our community, so that they don’t have to be imprisoned for the crime of asking for help. We look forward to welcoming a new community member soon.
Here’s to your 2020. I hope our paths will cross somewhere along the way!
Happy new year!