Yours in healing
“Stay home tonight, don’t do what you’re supposed to do. Give your heart a shelter, wait until the words are true “
“What do we have, that we have not been given? / What do we have, that we can hold on to? / All of this life, is gift that we’re living / All of this love, was given to you”
When I wrote these words 3 years ago I had no idea I was about to lose so much. My home, my studio, my work place, the ability to be present to my family and friends, the ability to have thoughts (quite literally). The neurological and immune implications of a 3 year battle with what turned out to be (most significantly) Lyme disease, compiled to the point where I felt completely exiled from normal life. I couldn’t even touch my phone or my laptop (where all my work and music is) without my hands and arms getting painfully sore. I couldn’t instagram, facebook, or respond to emails from family and friends. My neuro-immune system was so sensitized I couldn’t walk into any building that didn’t have pristine air quality without my head going completely blank. My body ached from the inside out. I had no energy. My thoughts would stop and then jump around as though my brain were in short-circuit. I lost the ability to calculate numbers, to imagine, to create, and many times even the ability to think at all. I couldn’t be present in any situation or conversation. There was a permanent static in my brain, pressing in and dragging down on my biology and attention. Many times I felt like I was on the edge of insanity, and in the darkest hours I would lay in bed trying to remember how many children I had and what their names were. It was the deepest darkest valley I have ever walked.
In the face of such agony it’s hard to know the why and the what for? And how and why do we keep going? How do we press through? There are no simple answers. Only in living do we become. Only in experience do we know. My dear father-in-law sent me these words of Rilke in the midst of my journey.
What we triumph over is so small, and the victory makes us small too.
The eternal and uncommon refuse to be bent by us.
Like the angel who appeared to the wrestler in the Old Testament:
When his opponent’s sinews grow hard as metal in the struggle,
They feel to his fingers like strings on which to play a depthless melody.
Whoever is conquered by this angel walks away erect and enobled,
Strengthened by that fierce hand that, like a sculptor’s, shaped him.
His growth is this: to be defeated by ever greater forces.
I don’t know the why and the what for of all of this, but I do know I have been defeated by ever greater forces and I do know I will be played upon like a depthless melody. I do know I have been shaped by the eternal and uncommon and I am being strengthened still - by that fierce hand.
I don’t know why I have lost nearly everything, but I do know that in the very same transaction, I have received so much.
Home. In losing our home of 7 years we find ourselves bereft of that closeness to community and family, but in the transitional space we find ourselves in, we look out on snowy woods and a frozen lake and Ivan, our 7 year old lover of animals, exulted yesterday, “It’s like we have our own wildlife reserve!” as we watched a family of deer face off with a red fox from our living room window.
Provision. In losing my studio, my writing ability and performing energy, my output has been significantly less, and yet somehow, in my weakness, I have traveled more and my music has been more fruitful in the last year than it has ever been. Figure that out. Have we ever really believed that less is more?
Attunement. I don’t know why I saw 15 doctors without much, if any, symptomatic improvement, but now I do know and understand what my body, mind and spirit need in each moment in a much deeper and clearer way than I ever thought was possible.
Presence, Peace, Trust. Perhaps the most beautiful gift I’ve received is an existential knowing of a true and tender presence of a sublime source and shepherd of life. With me, with me, with me. “Do not be afraid. Press on, press on, press on. I will be with you, wherever you go.” These are the words that I heard from the clouds, in a fishing boat with my 10 year old son, in the boundary waters canoe area wilderness of Minnesota in August 2016, and I have held onto them ever since, many times for dear life.
I don’t write to you from a place of wholeness. In fact, I struggle to write to you, even now, through an undermined and impaired cognition. There is a beautiful way to go. But O my God, have I found deep healing and the healing surely continues. And coming out on the other side of the worst of this most difficult journey I must tell you that I am so grateful for every thought and smile and song and child and peace and presence that has been given back to me. As I told Andrea Swenson at The Current: “It got to the point with the illness where I realized that I may not be able to play again. I may have to let everything go. It’s a really really hard place to be where you feel that life is just slipping away from you. But I think I got to the place where I was able to let go and say that’s ok. I let go. I surrender. And I receive everything that I’ve ever been given and everything that I will be given as a gift. And so now I feel like everything I have is something that’s really given back to me. It does feel like a resurrection.”
Another of these incredible gifts is my children. I have 5, and their names are Ana, Roy, Ivan, Isla and Asher. I can now be present with them - most of the time - and how beautiful that is - just to be present.
As I reflect on this deep dark valley and the sense of exile that I felt and sometimes continue to feel, I’ve found there is a gift in the path of the exile or the outlaw if that way can become a doorway to a deeper experience of reality. If we can somehow learn to see or feel more deeply or clearly from that ‘helpless’ point of view. Perhaps this is the gift in getting sick, really sick, before we get better. Almost dead, before we truly touch life. To lose nearly everything before it is all given back to you. Because when you’ve been this close to death, the smallest glimpse of life returning quickly becomes mind-blowingly magnificent. The simplest moment of real presence becomes the most wonderfully beautiful miracle. I hope you enjoy these songs in celebration of transformation.
Yours in healing,
April 22, 2018
Sing and get healed
The sea is wide but we can swim over. The valley is deep but we will prevail. The storms they will rage like a tempest before us. But we will arise and we shall overcome.
In one of my darkest hours, my friend Sara Groves sent me a song from her new album for me to learn and sing back-up vocals on. In my right mind I would have said no because I could barely hold my own sanity together, let-alone contribute creatively to someone else's work, but I knew the act of saying yes was what I must do, to continue contributing, to continue affirming the creation of something beautiful, and to continue saying a fighting yes to life - in the face of what seemed an over-whelming affliction.
So in those darkest of hours, when I felt the most alone, the closest to death, and the furthest from my sanity, my family and any semblance of a loving numinous presence, it became my job to listen and inhabit the words of this song. And so inhabit I did, crying myself to sleep as I listened on repeat.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, abide with me.
I had to lie there, and harmonize with Sara singing the words. And as I let the music seep through me, the delicate surprise, in saying yes, even when it felt almost impossible, was receiving the most immense comfort and presence. A holy presence, the everlasting arms that hold, sustain and continue to create the foundations of the universe sang to me through the song. "Even in your darkest, most helpless, most abandoned hour, when you can barely, barely feel it, you are not alone. Abide with me. I am with you."
As I reflect upon it, I remember there were many many times in my journey through illness when I was asked to do something, where I was invited to sing or play for some engagement. And I thought, no, it’s impossible, I’ve got so little to give, I am so depleted, I’m so messed up. I have to say no. But deeper in me I was saying, you’ve got to say yes. You’ve got to keep giving the little you have to give.
I barely went out in public. I stopped going to church. And then there was one morning when I knew I had to go, and as I was sitting there in the pew with next to nothing left, the minister began telling the story of the boy with a few loaves and fishes that fed five thousand people and the widow who had just a few coins, but whose offering was considered greater than the richest of the rich. Both of these had barely anything to offer, but they gave the little that they had, and those gifts turned out to be magnificent.
That resonated deeply in me when not much else was resonating. Keep on giving the little you have to give. And so I resolved to. And every time I would go and sing.... I would get healed.
And so I’m still singing. And still, I am being healed. And that's one of the reasons we're going to Spain and Belfast - As well as to swim in the Mediteranean Sea!
For this much is true my friends, giving is receiving.
Be well. Truly,
April 28, 2019
Home at last
What joy. We have been settled in our new home for 3 months now and are truly delighted by this little treasure. We must have looked at 42 houses in the flesh and bone before this little gem popped on the market… and unbelievably, it's just 2 blocks from where our 4 eldest kids walk to school!
I sent the listing to Kim before realizing... “Wait a minute, I’ve been in this house!” It looked nothing like it does now... It was yellow then and completely gutted to the studs - just like my body felt at the time, completely gutted down to the studs - but I found myself there because our good friends Andrew and Janet Prest had been generously helping remediate our old home and I was bringing back a tool for Andrew as he was restoring this little gem. It was completely stripped, vacuous and void at the time... a heart wrenching echo of my own insides as I felt my way through that hollow space...to find my friend.
Andrew told me recently, “I kept telling Janet, I can’t stop thinking about Ben and Kim. I keep seeing them in this house. We’ve gotta reach out to them.” And of course they did, but we were in the throws of a murderous squall and in no place to consider anything of any permanence at the time.
Live forward nearly 3 years and the house that our friends restored appears back on the market (literally days before we’re going to give up our search), and funny enough (if I can speak with such lightness now), my body has also been massively restored in this time, and somehow we are able to say yes to this beautiful home in this perfect place for this family at this time. How profound is the agreement of the story? How beautiful, concrete and existential the metaphor!
My friends, many miracles moved in mystery to make this happen.
Just a week before we moved in, Ringo Starr came to Minnesota for an All-Starr Band show and invited me to sing with him on stage that night. There’s a video clip of us singing the Beatle’s "With a Little Help From My Friends" and my favorite part is when he turns around and yells “Ben!” and gives me a big hug. It feels good to be hugged by a Beatle.
That very same day I was singing "I get by with a little help from my friends" with Ringo, a very dear friend sent us a check (for $5000) to help us “get by” with the move. I couldn't help but sing to myself...“Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is…or do we, Mr Jones?"
From the overflow of our hearts, we send much love to you and yours and deep peace and joy through this holiday season.
Be very well.
December 7, 2019
I hope this finds you well and at peace in a world that seems to be teetering on the absurd by the minute. I gave my last (legal) live performance in the pre-covid era on the evening of March 17th 2020, in Owatonna, Minnesota in honor of the great Irish Saint (Patrick) who banished all the snakes from Ireland.
By that date, most of the public gatherings in Minnesota had already been suspended, and so the Board of Directors at the Steele County Historical Society gave me a call to see if we preferred to cancel the event or go ahead with the celebration?
I told them, if it were up to us, the show would go on, as we still had to pay our mortgages that month and having been at death's door a few times already over a number of years I was eager to live all the life I had left quite fully and wasn't inclined to shut down a likely joyous gathering of live music (and green beer nonetheless) for fear of what looked at the time, like a fairly routine, albeit severe flu that was sweeping the globe.
Well, what it was precisely (that looked like a fairly routine, but severe flu), after 7 months of global upheaval and reactivity, we probably all have quite different understandings and suspicions, but suffice it to say, life is quite different for most, if not all. For me, I miss the healing presence of live music, energizing social gatherings, communal public singing, and chances to smile at and make simple human connections with strangers.
But in times of cloud and trouble, silver linings may abound. And on March 17th, I was working in Minnesota, but my wife Kim and our 5 kids were on the Gulf Coast in Florida, spending spring break with Grandma and Grandpa. And as the world was shutting down, I had the enlightened idea that if we were going to be working and schooling from home for the foreseeable future, then “home” might as well be in sunny Florida, where life was at least 70° warmer than current temps in Minnesnowta.
I mean, if we’re gonna be locked down, I thought, we might as well be locked down in paradise… near a beach, with a little sunshine and fresh air and maybe some Jimmy Buffet on the radio (ok, that last part was a joke).
So I hopped on an empty plane for a $20 ticket with about 20 other “courageous” flyers and flew down to join my family on the Gulf of Mexico for the “foreseeable future.”
Well, one of the greatest joys and shiniest silver linings of this beautiful interruption in my life was the re-awakening of a ritual I hadn't nurtured since my electrifying days in Art School. My formal training was in the fine arts, specifically painting, and the Gulf Coast light shining through my quarantine gifted re-creation time coalesced a perfect alchemy to provoke a new color and canvas exploration.
I was always a landscape painter and wanted to paint the landscapes of being. Internal landscapes; where color and space become metaphor for emotional and spiritual states of being.
I've posted a few here and made some available as prints as well.
Please enjoy and if you see something that resonates with your heart or home, take it home or give as a gift. Many of these little color meditations resonate with the feeling or presence of a particular song for me and I've titled them so. Here is "I Need You Tonight" (Above) - See the collection in more detail here.
We ended up spending 3 beautiful months in Fort Myers, living in extended community with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We played soccer, football, tennis and pickle ball. We swam as often as we could (when the beaches and pools were open), we went tubing on the water, kayaking, biking, hiking and trail blazing (literally) with grandpa (official trail cutter for the county).
Ivan, Isla and Asher (our 3 youngest) made “friends" with a wild baby alligator they christened “Tiny Tim” until we suggested that it probably wasn’t the best idea to be catching fish and feeding them to little Timmy. We saw many wild alligators, iguanas, tropical birds and fish, manatees and dolphins. We had picnics and campfires with smores. We even celebrated Kim’s birthday in a fruit forest surrounded by mango, banana, avocado and coconut trees among other unsayable varieties of tropical fruit.
It was a glorious, serendipitous, most special and altogether unexpected gift of a time that we will likely never forget!
But the "foreseeable future" did end eventually (at the beginning of June). And so we headed back to the North Pole, just as it was warming up enough to be tolerable, and I set to work on my next "awakening" project. More on that to come.
Take care, be very well.
November 23, 2020
When we returned to the North Pole in June, I had been dreaming for 9 months already about building a new “recording studio” in the garage of our new home.
For nearly 10 years I worked out of a studio I built previously, next to our first family home, but after becoming acutely ill in 2016, we were forced to leave that home, and studio with it.
For the last 4 years it felt like we were wandering through the wilderness, moving our family of seven, 4 times in those 4 years.
But finally and miraculously, the universe coalesced healing, resources, opportunity and timing to land us in our new family home, restored and rebuilt by our dear friends, and less than a stones throw from where 4 of our children walk to school. (How do we say thank you)
And since regaining cognition and my old friend imagination, I’ve been itching to find a (quiet) space to dive deep into some new song creation.
And I was thinking too, that it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a "home office” I could retreat to in the Covid-era, when the daily indoor soccer match erupts into a full-blown bantamweight title fight. I suppose I should be intervening, not retreating, in such cases, but I think you catch the drift. (It can be a loud house with 7 concurrent but diversified personal mission statements).
So with a hammer and a sickle, and a truckload of tools, borrowed from my carpenter brother Luke, I broke ground, or rather raised the ground (for moisture prevention and acoustic isolation) and got to work building this little beauty.
It takes up just one quarter of the garage floor plan so we "technically" still have room for 1 car and a little storage. The gorgeous wood (that looks like walnut) is a thermally treated red oak, left over from our Cafe and Roastery buildout at Dogwood Coffee Co. (My other mission).
The white wood with the pronounced grain texture is rough sawn western cedar painted white. It’s actually cedar fence pickets with all the dog ears sawn off because that’s the most affordable way to find it. You can imagine how it must have smelled - like a fresh Finnish sauna - and for a moment, I almost considered sacrificing the whole studio idea for a nice big family sweat lodge. It was only a moment though until I mentioned it to the kids. “So gross dad. Ugh!”
Well, it might still be in the stars for one of next summers starry-eyed projects... but I've got some convincing to do.
The furniture (sans desk) is from Minneapolis own blu dot design, of whom I’m a huge fan, and with whom I’ve become good friends (Thank you Nate).
The skylights were a project that started around 2 o’clock on an unpredictable Saturday afternoon with a few blotchy grey clouds scattered across the sky. I saw the windows at the Home Repo hardware circus that morning when I was, you guessed it, there for something else, and I thought to myself, heck, why not!?
I’d never done anything quite like installing skylights before but I figured, (famous last words) “it can’t be that hard.”
So I stopped in with my brother Luke on the way home to get a few pointers and once I figured I had a clear enough picture of the (roof puncturing) process, I headed home, only to look up at the tentative sky and ask my neighbor Bob, “Well Bob… do you think I should do it?”
Bob looked up and checked the workingman’s weather forecast in his gut. And then with a big grin and those sparkling blue eyes that seemed to say "I’ve been right here so many times before," he chuckled, “Go for it!”
Sufficiently galvanized, 30 minutes later I was up on the shingles with a skill saw in my hands and two gaping holes in my roof. Looking up at the spotted sky and thinking oh (@#$%!) crap! "I better figure this out before the sun goes down."
Well the sun had gone down and I was still up there with a storm in my back and a crushing will to achieve at 11:30pm.
It rained the next morning, and although everything was airtight and dry, the replacement shingles I had used were not a perfect match. It was just bad enough that I knew I couldn’t live with it. So I scoured the “save big money” store until I found the exact match and proceeded to rip off and re-shingle nearly half of the entire roof. (Disclaimer: I’ve never touched a roof in my life before - but I’ve seen it done!)
3 days, 30 hours, a beaten body, battered back, sun-fried derrière and a few perplexed neighbors later, I understood why people pay other people (who do this a lot) a lot of money to do these sorts of things for them.
But it was worth it.
The way the light of the sun, moves across the walls of the room, through the journey of the day, is something magical to see and feel.
The kids all got involved at one point or another. Asher (3) the foreman was giving me advice while Isla (7) removed the staples and barcodes from the lumber. Roy (14) and Ivan (10) were officially hired for the project but mysteriously disappeared from duty after their FIFA 2021 “payment” arrived in the mail. To Roy’s credit though he did install the entirety of Rockwool (basalt based) insulation much to Dad’s pleasure and relief. Ana (16) offered her moral support and aesthetic critique.
By the end of July, the space and scene were set and ready to be sung upon. But thanks to the covid inspired supply chain interruptions a few of the essential elements that would complete the recording studio's recording functionality would not arrive for an “unknown" period of time. So I decided to pivot again, for the immediate "foreseeable future.” More on that to come.
Thank you + be very well,
November 25, 2020