Hard Times in Bad Lands

A few years ago I borrowed a friend’s car for a road trip. As I wound my way up the Kootenay Pass, the only music available was a stack of unmarked, burned CDs jammed between the seats. As I cycled through those discs each new track was an adventure. Cresting the summit a new-to-me song bubbled out of the speakers, and the opening lyrics cut me to the quick: “These chords are old but we shake hands, ‘cause I believe that they’re the good guys…”

In seconds I was too overwhelmed to concentrate on driving—I had to pull over. There were tears welling up in my eyes and my heart had that ache-joy thing you get when you hear something so beautiful it hurts and fills you with life at the same time; ...we can use all the help we can, so many minor chords outside. I fell in love with the sound, oh, I love to sing along with you…”

I listened to the song three times until the magic faded and my heart returned to normal size, but the wonderful damage was done. A brick had been pushed out of the wall around my heart and I knew it would never fit back in again. I knew that for a moment the vast, loving universe had slid open a window and showed me some overwhelming truth that left me altered; “...we’ve got tunes we kicked around, some. We’ve got a bucket that the tunes go through.”

Humans have long wrestled with the concept of love. We all instinctively know what love is and can recognize it in many forms when it arrives in our lives, and yet we cannot come up with an agreement on what it is, exactly. 

Like trying to describe a star in the night sky; sometimes you can see clearer if you don’t look directly at it. Our blunt daytime seeing tools are not practical for describing the subtleties of night. We have to come at love obliquely in forms that speak with emotional nuance: poems, paintings, songs—it is only then that we can comprehend the beauty and tragedy involved, and even so, we can only ingest tiny morsels. Like the night sky, it is only over a lifetime of gazing up that we can begin piece together its vast mosaic of complex beauty. Love is a universe of emotion and we sit with headsets on, listening for signals from the distant constellations.

It seems to me that artists are born with, or acquire through experience, a particular kind of vulnerability. Our work requires us to face our own truths daily, which leaves us open and tender but undaunted on our journey. Along the way, our role is to reach into the cosmic bucket of emotions, scoop out a healthy dose and roll it into a single-serving size for the consumption of those around us. It is in art that we express the echoes of those moments when we are stopped in our tracks, overwhelmed, and rearranged. If we are open to it, that echo is passed down to the viewer in a domino effect that scatters art-truths in the wake of our tumbling and heart-bricks. 

Great art has the ability to serve as a Polaroid photo of a moment when the universe itself was vulnerable—briefly tipping its hand towards one human. Being open to great art means being available to respond to the small and large truths being presented to us through the medium. There simply are too many things in our world we don’t yet understand, so it is often left to the artists to cobble together an impression of the glimpses we get in hopes that what we pass on will be felt or seen by others.

As we are confronted daily with hatred, divisive politics, and trolled on social media, we need to care for our ability to let these waves of truth in, if only to preserve our hope amidst the noise. Art in this age is a necessity that keeps us believing in ourselves and loving each other by reminding us of our connections and similarities. You may disagree, but I knew it to be true as I sat there on the side of the road staring out into the universe: Babe we both have dry spells, hard times, in bad lands—I’m a good man, for you.” 


Song lyrics from “Good Man" by Josh Ritter.