I always try and have a new song when Nick comes over. He usually has 3 or 4 new things to show me, and sometimes I barely have one.
I had a chord progression that I loved and had been playing over and over for the past few days. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2009 and the smell of turkey was creeping through every room in the house.
I was under pressure here - Nick was coming over in an hour. Sometimes, under a deadline, it doesn’t even feel like I’m writing. Instead, it’s like songs present themselves to me. So I started singing…
"Once in a while,
you make a house a home"
I was living in my parents’ house at the time. I had graduated college in 2007 and I had no game plan. I moved back in with them immediately and I didn’t have any real plans to leave. It was a bit of laziness mixed with indecisiveness.
"you sleep on a bed of nails
within walls of stone."
It was the weekend of the release party for my first real solo record, Grow Slow. Over the course of the next few months, I would release my album, turn 25, put on a stage show called Collision, and move out of my parents into a cabin in the woods of North Bethesda.
And then there was my bunkbed. This stupid, stupid bed that I’d had since childhood. I remember when my dad built it. I remember going up to the top bunk and thinking how small the room looked from up there. That bed had been my haven on every night that I felt like a loser in high school; it was my battleship before I went off to college. It was my silent support the night before I started my first real job. It understood me.
“The wood’s breaking,” my mom said. ”We’re tossing it.”
That was the day I started browsing Craig’s List to find a new place.
"Take down the old bed,
or move to an island"
I carried, and still carry, a notebook at all times to write down any fleeting thought I have, or anything that someone says to me that makes me think.
“Are you reserved with your co-workers?” Scott asked me, one night.
“Not reserved, I guess. I mean, I don’t try to frighten them if that’s what you mean.”
“Ah. Not me. I come in like a wrecking ball,” he said, smiling.
So I wrote it down. ”I come in like a wrecking ball.” It was a pretty great metaphor but I had no idea what to do with it.
So back to Thanksgiving to 2009 - I’m sitting at my desk writing. I’ve got about 45 minutes at this point. And this wrecking ball metaphor comes into my head again. I tried to write it in a way that fit the melody
I was singing, and it ended up getting modified.
"It takes a wrecking ball
to learn who I am"
Why? What the hell does that mean?
It took me a while to figure it out. While songs may present themselves, they don’t always explain who they are or what they’re doing in my house. Sometimes I get scared and chase them out of there with a baseball bat or I just call the cops. Sometimes I invite them in for tea.
"Move a bit faster
Take off to Montana
and sing this song to remember why"
My sister had spent her post-college summer working as a ranch hand in Montana. It was a crazy move and I never saw it coming. But this wasn’t a line written to comfort her, she’d already been there and back. It was for me to sing, like some kind of mantra or fight song.
"Dig a hole in the backyard
bury the bones and the video games
all of the letters, the playbills, the achievement awards
throw ‘em away"
Over the course of the next few months, I packed up and left my parents’ house to move to Bethesda. One of the things my mom made me do before I left was throw away most of the sentimental things I’d collected over the years.
But at this point, I didn’t fight it. This was process. This was growing up. Even though I was probably 6-7 years late.
Then things got weird.
I got laid off from work. I had a misdiagnosis for a relatively dangerous condition. I got engaged, something I never saw myself doing. I moved into a condo in downtown Silver Spring, with a view of the city. I switched careers. I lost contact with my oldest friends. I’d get in touch with them again. Then we’d lose touch again.
And all of these rapid shifts, whether they were planned or unplanned, were like wrecking balls, destroying whatever I’d thought life was supposed to be and leaving me to rebuild it, with shards of glass and broken planks of wood.
“My life is crazy,” I told a friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in a while. ”My metabolism is slowing down, and life is quickening at a terrifying pace.”
“Yeah, welcome to your mid-twenties,” he chuckled.
So it wasn’t just me.
I started asking around. As it turns out, almost everyone I know has gone through this, in different ways. In a way, I wish I’d realized it earlier so we could’ve gone through it together. In another way, these are the types of things you have to face alone and then talk about later at a dinner party.
“That’s the thing about adult life,” another friend of mine told me. ”But we’re new at this. We’ll get better at it.”
We’ll get better at tearing the building down when it’s rotten. We’ll get better at rebuilding. We’ll get better at avoiding the people in our lives that weigh us down. We’ll focus on making our best relationships better. We’ll get better at surfing the choppier waves out here, where there is no rescue boat but there are other friendly ships in the night.
I wrote this song before my life went completely haywire. It was almost like drawing a roadmap, or as David Wilcox puts it, “like receiving a picture in the mail of the top of Mount Everest before anyone ever climbed it.”
That said, this song might be as important for you as it is for me. Just remember this, the next time you feel helpless. Remember this, and say it to yourself, the next time you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin. You will come out the other side. You will get better at this. I promise.
"empty the dead ends
and fill ‘em with new friends
you’ve always been alive
It takes a wrecking ball
to learn how to survive"
Thanksgiving, 2009. I finished playing the song for Nick. I waited for his response.
“Are you gonna play that at your release party tomorrow?” he asked me.
“Maybe. I dunno. Maybe at the end or something. What do you think?”
He smiled at me. ”You should open with it.”
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