Mason at and approaching eight months

Posted July 11, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Australia, Baby!

By popular demand, here are thirty recent Mason pictures. Click here for a slideshow, or on the photo below to peruse the album at your own pace.

Mason @ 8 months

Deanna and I celebrated our fifth anniversary yesterday— best move I ever made. It’s such a joy to see this little guy who is a result of it.


Police Covers

Posted June 25, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Music News

Tags: , , , , ,

On my most recent record, Change, I covered a song by the Police, Walking In Your Footsteps. I was just alerted to a cover song blog that featured that track in a collection of Police covers, and another that features Police and Sting covers by folk artists specifically (that site didn’t feature my track, but did recommend it). I thought I’d point you to these blogs in case you happen to be a Police/Sting fan like me, and might find these takes on their songs interesting.

The Real World

Posted June 24, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Observations, Peace Work

Tags: , , , , , , ,

the Dubai airport, complete with indoor palm trees

It’s five in the afternoon in Brisbane, and about 10 AM here on this airplane. According to the flight information on the little screen embedded in the seat in front of me, I’m flying over Damascus right now, on my way to England. I spent a few hours in the United Arab Emirates at the Dubai airport this morning, meeting some Peace Fellows from previous classes that I hadn’t known before— from Argentina, Japan and Uganda. They’re all traveling to the same conference, and it’s good to converge, even in airports. I’ve been traveling for twenty-four hours now, with four and a half to go before I get in.

I’ve been lax in keeping the blog up lately as the end of the semester crunch took over my life. The last few weeks have been a blur, and it’s good to be re-emerging and find that the ‘real world’ is still waiting for me. Mason is on the edge of both crawling and cutting teeth, and I’m overdue for putting some new pictures of him up. Soon, I promise.

For now, though, I’m thinking about the end of the semester and looking back at this first stretch. It’s hard to believe that one of my three semesters in Australia is already over, but I turned in my last paper online a half-hour after midnight on Sunday night, and that makes it official. It looks like my ‘marks’ (grades) will be good for the semester, but more importantly, I’ve learned a great deal and made some extraordinary new friends. Rotary is treating us very well, as is the University of Queensland. So much to be grateful for.

Since the Fellowship in Brisbane is eighteen months long, there is a strange contour to the program: When we arrive for the first semester, we are welcomed by the class of Fellows before us. We’re matched up with a ‘buddy’ from the previous class to show us the ropes and ease the transition. At the end of that first semester, though, they graduate and for the second semester it is only our cohort, Class VII in my case. It’s sad to see the Class VI Fellows graduating, but I’m grateful for the time we had, and I look forward to keeping in touch with them and watching their lives and careers continue to unfold.

After the second semester we will head out for three months to our AFE’s (Applied Field Experience), where we will get our heads out of the books and our hands dirty with the work to be done— more on that soon. Then in the last semester we will welcome Class VIII. All of that seems pretty far away at the moment, but the Class VI Fellows tell me that the last two semesters will go progressively faster.

It’s hard to see Class VI leaving, but before the circle of Fellows shrinks it will swell mightily. Over 150 of the four hundred are currently on their way to England to attend the Rotary World Peace Symposium. The keynote speaker is Desmond Tutu, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing him again. In 1999 I had the opportunity to perform at a conference where Tutu was speaking, and though we didn’t cross paths (he didn’t hear my play and I didn’t get to meet him), I did have the treasured opportunity to hear him speak. He addressed the audience for about two hours without a pause, a visual aid or a song to break things up, and when he finished it felt like he had been speaking for about fifteen minutes.

Desmond Tutu indicating how long he’s been speaking (no, not really)

My son Mason’s middle name is Bishop, and there are two reasons for that. The first is that it is my mother’s maiden name and the family name that marks much beloved extended family. The second, though, is that it was a way to name him after Archbishop Desmond Tutu without naming him Desmond or Tutu, neither of which seem to fit the little guy. Tutu really is one of my heroes, and not just for the obvious reasons of his political stands and powerful faith.

In Paul Loeb’s excellent book Soul of a Citizen he tells a wonderful story of being backstage with Tutu at an anti-apartheid rally during the dark days when it still reigned in South Africa. It was an outdoor event with bands and speakers, and when Tutu finished his portion of the program he was followed by a groove-driven reggae band. As Tutu, in his late sixties, came down the back stairs out of sight of the audience, he was boogying down, dancing with joy, and with the same passion he summoned to motivate people to work against apartheid.

I think about that image frequently, though it’s not my own experience, only a vivid picture drawn for me by a good writer. It’s a useful reminder that joy and laughter and bliss are not points on a continuum on the other end of which lies anger, resolve and righteous indignation. The fact is that all of those things can coexist. And when I allow my joy to be defeated by fear, viciousness and oppression, I’m allowing those things, in some sense, to win. Joy doesn’t deny the existence of cruelty and sadness any more than light denies the existence of darkness.

Of the Fellows I’ve met so far, maybe thirty or so, they seem to have a real gift for joy. People who get things done often do, I think, because to allow oneself to be consumed by the heaviness of things can so quickly become immobilizing.

Don’t misunderstand me, though, and think that I mean that in order to keep moving we have to look away from the darkness. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. We just have to also look toward the light. The truth isn’t as it is often portrayed: that the ‘real world’ is so dark that it is only the naive who believe it can be made better. Cynics will pat you on the head and say that it’s sweet and cute for you to pursue such notions while you’re young, but that you will inevitably grow up and get a taste of the real world, and it will wear off.

Tutu, and his good friend Nelson Mandela, are fine antidotes to that falsehood. Who could tell these great men that their hope and belief are rooted in naive inexperience? Who could tell Tutu that his strong commitment to non-violence is rooted in a lack of understanding of the reality of violence? Who could tell Mandela that his ideas of forgiveness are unrealistic— that his 27-year imprisonment and torture were not enough to make him understand the nature of evil? Who can tell these men that they don’t really know how hard the world is?

They do. And they remain authentic voices for hope, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Their wisdom is a good gift, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing Tutu again. Clearly I am, because I have left Deanna for a few days for the first time in five months, and left Mason for more than one night the first time in his life. It will be a quick trip, though, so I’ll make it— six days total: three traveling and three there.

And I left him in very good hands. My parents have made the trip to Australia for a month-long visit, and they planned it so they could be there to help Deanna out while I’m gone. It’s tough to miss part of their time there, but I’m so grateful that they are there. Being so far away is hard for all of us, and to get a good visit in is a treasure. I’ll be home Monday morning and we’ll have three more weeks together.

Speaking of missing home, I got to make a guest appearance at the Grey Eagle, my hometown music hall, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. My long-time friend Cecil Bothwell is running for Asheville City Council and I popped in via video link to endorse him in front of capacity crowd of over 400 people.

I also did a radio interview in New York via telephone about my newest recorded song, A Place to Go. It’s now out as a CD-single at, and as an MP3 download at iTunes, CD Baby and any number of other online retailers. All the proceeds from this one go to museums that commemorate tragic events, so I don’t have to feel awkward about plugging it. 😉 I called in at 2AM Brisbane time to be on a Saturday noon radio show. The hosts were concerned about that, but I explained that I was a professional musician for 18 years, so 2AM isn’t such an unusual time to be up and doing.

And that’s the update. Classes start again three weeks into July, so I’ve got time to catch my breath, play my guitar a bit, spend some family time and get refreshed for the next semester, which will involve four classes instead of three. Thanks for staying in touch, and for your kindness. Your supportive comments go a long way toward keeping me inspired and hopeful about the real world and my place in it.


Remembering Columbine

Posted April 25, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Observations, Peace Work

Tags: , , , , , , ,
From random blog photos

News stories about the ten year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings seemed to jump out from every corner of the internet in the last week. The academic journal Psychological Review gave a whole issue to “Lessons of Columbine.” That experience is etched in our national memory, and though it’s a painful picture, I don’t want to forget it.

Though Columbine has become synonymous with school shootings, it wasn’t the first that the nation faced. About thirteen months before, two boys, an eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old, donned camouflaged clothes, pulled a fire alarm and started shooting at students and teachers at their own middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four students and a teacher died, and ten others were injured.

The students that lived through watching their fellow students and teachers shot, and being shot at themselves, had a whole lot of healing to do, needless to say. They weren’t alone in that effort, though. Many people offered their gifts to help the students get through it.

Among those was my friend David Gill who runs a Presbyterian retreat center just outside of Little Rock, Camp Ferncliff. The Jonesboro shooting happened in March of 1998, and Camp Ferncliff invited any of the kids from there who would like to attend to come to a Spring Break camp in March of 1999. The week went well, but no one was prepared for the fact that a month later there would be another shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

As David wrote to me recently, the kids from Jonesboro “wanted to go immediately.” They realized that though there would be lots of people trying to help, they were among the few in the world who really knew how the Columbine kids felt, and they wanted to be there for them to talk to.

Of course, packing up a bunch of middle and high school students and taking them on a road trip to Colorado is not simple, but David and the rest of the crew took the kids seriously, organized things, and in February of 2000 twenty-two of the Jonesboro kids went to Littleton to spend a weekend with kids from Columbine and from Conyers, Georgia, where another six students had been injured in a school shooting a month after Columbine.

It was at that weekend that, according to David, the Jonesboro students said to the rest of the students, “You guys have to come back to our camp!” And they did. The camp ran for five consecutive years, seeing all of those students through high school. In those five years they also incorporated students from Bosnia who had been living through the war there. In 2002, kids from New York City who had felt the impact of 9/11 joined them as well.

Somewhere in there I was also invited to come along and perform for the kids, as well as lead a writing workshop. I was honored by the invitation and touched to be trusted in such a potentially fragile situation. Writing is inherently vulnerable, and I thought a lot about how to approach the workshops before I got there.

Some of these kids had had bullets removed from their bodies. They had hidden behind trees and trashcans to avoid being shot. That’s an experience I haven’t had, thankfully, and I literally can’t imagine what it must be like emotionally, and how one’s perception of the world in general, one’s theology and one’s psyche might be affected. The emotional scar tissue and the physical scar tissue were both very real. David Gill and I talked a bit about the workshops before they started, though, and he encouraged me to let the kids take things where they want them to go — wherever that is.

He also prepared me, though, for the fact that they might not go to as heavy a place as I imagined, and gently, wisely counseled me not to steer. There is a real danger in this kind of interaction, when the facilitator or leader knows they’re dealing with people who have been through serious trauma, to allow his/her own need to help to outweigh the participants’ need to be helped. It’s a natural way to cope with our own sorrow to want to feel like we’ve done something to help alleviate others’ pain. It’s not necessarily useful, though. People process things in their own times and their own ways, and while it’s good to make oneself available for the tearful, heavy conversations, it’s important not to drag people into feelings that might not be where they are right now, or what they need.

The kids I encountered, as it turned out, were not the war-torn, hollow eyed, fragile children I had imagined. They were teenagers, with all that the term implies. The girls wanted to talk about makeup, giggling in the hallway. The boys were trying to look tough and catching as many casual glimpses of the girls as they could. They had been through a great deal, but they were healing, and if you didn’t know their story you wouldn’t have guessed it. I don’t mean to say that there wasn’t deep damage there, of course, but they were healing.

At the beginning of the workshop I did an exercise to generate some ideas of song topics, and in the end the one the kids came up with and chose to write about was memories of getting up early and sneaking to the TV room on Saturday mornings in sock-footed pajamas, too little to know what time it is, turning on the TV and watching the test pattern until the cartoons started. It was fun, quirky and evocative imagery, and though the actual verses they wrote have long ago faded away, I still remember the word pictures they drew.

The camp had solid, well-trained counselors on hand if they were needed, but they didn’t force the kids to go anywhere they didn’t choose to go. David Gill said to me then, “we’re trying to give the kids a normal camp experience.”

At my concerts there I played the songs I often play, about time and hope, etc., and I played silly songs and yes, some poignant ones that brought some tears up.

In an answer to a note I sent to him this week David wrote:

…the kids didn’t want to come to ‘therapy camp.’ They wanted/needed fun, but we came in the back door with folks like yourself who could use fun and creativity and love to open the door to healing. We didn’t provoke the tears, but they came and we provided a safe haven for them. Stories, worship, nature, ‘getting away,’ community and unconditional love…those were the healers.

I was invited back to the camp for those kids a couple of times, and it was a lot of fun as well as deeply moving for me. I’ve sung my song Hard Earned Smile to holocaust survivors and school shooting survivors, juvenile prisoners and terminally ill patients, and the only way to summon the courage to do that is by also digging for a whole lot of humility.

It was hard to look at those delightful kids and think about what had happened to them. The choice for me, though, isn’t between remembering and staying mired in my fear, anger, betrayal, etc. or forgetting and moving on. I think we can remember, feel the tragedy of it, tell the story honestly, while still acknowledging the beauty that is woven through all of it. The kindness and compassion of people like David Gill and the large crowd of people who made that camp available don’t negate the horror of malicious violence— but neither does the violence negate the kindness and compassion.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations, from historian Howard Zinn:

To be hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

As I write these words the clock has moved back from four digits to three, so it is no longer my birthday in Australia (though I have another few hours of birthday left back in the U.S.). Time passes, we tell our old stories and move through new ones. What a privilege it is to be invited into others’ stories as we go. Tonight I remember the stories I heard and from those students in Arkansas— about sock-footed pajamas— and the small story I lived with them. Here’s to healing, the greatest miracle I know.

From random blog photos

New Header Picture

Posted April 8, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Pictures

Tags: ,

I took the picture above last weekend in a park in Brisbane. Kind of works here, I think.

My First Paper

Posted April 8, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Australia, Peace Work, politics

Tags: , , ,
From random blog photos

I turned in my first paper of my post-grad career today. I’ve been deeply immersed in it for the last couple of weeks, and have learned a great deal. The education has come not only from wrestling with the content, though, but also from wrestling with writing an academic paper, which is a very different kind of writing for me. It’s funny, though, that whatever I know about writing I really have learned from writing songs. My undergrad studies were fine in an undergrad sort of way, but I wouldn’t call it serious academics, looking back now.

The assignment was challenging in two unexpected ways. The first is that it was quite general, and the professor explicitly left it to us to narrow down. The second reason, ironically, was that it was short. We were asked to keep the word count to 2000, with a 10% margin of error. That’s actually not a lot of space to take on a meaningful subject, and it was challenging to trim away enough of what I wanted to say to fit that parameter, while still getting a coherent point across.

The delightful thing about Dr. Bleiker is that he is a fine writer and is passionate about writing. If you’ve had much to do with academia, you may agree with me (and Dr. Bleiker) that it is populated by very bright people who write terribly. It’s a real treat to have a professor who encourages us not only to write clearly and with well-organized structure, but also to consider the question of voice, and to write humanly.

I considered posting it here, but in the end decided that it might be best not to before it has even received a grade. Besides that, it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who are so hard up for procrastination aids that they need to read an academic paper. I titled it “Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Ethical Quandaries in the Application of Cultural Boycotts,” referring to the 1985 Aretha Franklin song.

The assignment was:

It can be argued that the moral significance of boundaries is the key problem in articulating an ethics of international politics. Examine the role of these boundaries, and the respective political consequences, by comparing and contrasting at least two different ethical traditions we have discussed in class.

Anyway, glad to be done with it. Now for the next four papers that I need to be working on simultaneously… (!)

A Taste of My Old Life

Posted March 26, 2009 by lowerdryad
Categories: Australia, Music News

Tags: , ,
From random blog photos

Let your voice ring back my memories

Sing my songs to me

– Jackson Browne

It’s a strange thing to suddenly be a student. My life is filled with writing papers and reading articles and books, other people’s schedules and agendas.

That’s very, very different from the last eighteen years of living very much on my own schedule. And though there were no shortage of deadlines in the old days, they were of a different nature.

The funny thing is that it all seems quite natural, and that I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The classes are tough and head-stretching, but that’s good news, not bad. I’m enjoying the reading and the writing and even enjoying the public transportation most of the time, though it takes much more time to get from place to place.

Still, I miss singing songs for people. I miss long road trips, believe it or not. I’ve never minded long drives. It’s a good opportunity for solitude, to muse and ponder and be still in motion; it’s a good balance to the intensely interactive and open time around and during concerts. Of course I’m happy to have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than I used to, but I can’t pretend I don’t miss long hours on the highway.

On a deeper level, I miss connecting with others’ hearts in that particular way and sometimes seeing a tear in someone’s eye; I miss the conversations after the show when I hear the stories that people need to tell that were stirred up by certain songs. And I especially miss staying up to ridiculous hours of the night (or morning) after shows are done, passing guitars around with other musicians (since musicians tend to hang out at places where music is played) and letting others’ songs flow through my own heart, as so often happens after a show. Sharing music isn’t just entertainment to me; it’s catharsis and healing, whether I’m on stage or in the audience. It’s how I sweep out my heart.

So when I got an invitation last weekend to come downtown to hear a folk show that a woman I know, Maree, had helped organize, I was excited to accept. It was being held at a Catholic church here in Brisbane that’s been in the news given their troubles with the Church over their ecumenicism and progressive politics, and I was interested to check it out.

Maree and her beau David picked us up, and we all got there quite early. As it turned out, the church service was still going on, so I got to join them, and it was nourishing to be there. Deanna, meanwhile, took Mason for a stroll, as he was tired and a little too fussy for church.
Then the service broke up and the concert began. Mason was having a hard time, and we reluctantly decided that Deanna would take him on home, but I stayed to hear the rest of the show, and one song in particular.

From random blog photos

Tommy Leonard singing at the concert

The concert was a fundraiser for mental health projects, and Maree had explained that she had been putting on similar shows for about five years, some in Melbourne and some in Brisbane, and that at each one she had performed my song Hold On. As she explained it, she had encountered the song years before at a time when she really needed it, and she claims that it literally saved her life.

So at the end of the night, as the first encore, four other musicians joined her on stage and they played a lovely version of my song while I sat in the audience and listened with a homeless African man named Immanuel who had wandered in and joined me. The song had just the right feel as well as the right notes, and all the more depth for his company. What an extraordinary thing to hear it in this foreign country, and to know that it had been sung here for years, on nights like this one, while I was far away and unaware.

And then the concert was over, Immanuel left and pockets of conversation formed briefly before people went their separate ways. One of the guys who had performed that night, Tommy Leonard, mentioned that a few of the musicians and their friends were going down the street to an art gallery a few blocks away. There was another musician who is also a painter and had an opening at the gallery, and they were going to go see if he was still there and up for a song.

So suddenly I found myself in a circle of songslingers with a couple of guitars being passed around, and bottle of wine on the table, a keyboard over to one side and laughter and music flowing freely. The lights on the paintings made things too bright, so they were exchanged for the ambient light of streetlights and stoplights through the requisite large gallery windows, open to the night air.

I played four or five songs over the course of the night, and listened to many more than that. Two Irishmen, two Brits several Aussies and me, the token Yank (I know, it sounds like I’m setting up a joke…), spoke poems and sang to each other and with each other until we made our way into the hours with just one digit instead of two.

It was good to be home among my tribe.

I’ve been writing a little, and playing some around the house, and I’m trading guitar lessons for babysitting with a doctoral student at the university, and I’m sure I’m not done playing music for people. Still, I think it’s good for me to take a break and give my full attention to the study. It certainly demands my full attention.

But it sure was good to have a long night of real music and all the nourishing time that surrounds it.

Now back to that paper on the moral significance of boundaries in the Realist and Cosmopolitan traditions of Political Science…

From random blog photos