Beyond Trinity Lane

“I heard Bruce Springsteen say something along the lines of ‘the beauty of a song is that the meaning changes from person to person.’ So why take that away from people by spelling out how I wrote this exactly about that? I’ve done that, but I’m starting to lay back on it a little. A song can mean so many different things to different folks. I have some songs that I wrote when I was 24, and now that I’m 30, some of the meanings have changed for me.”

That quote, from a 2015 East Nashvillian interview with Lilly Hiatt, has been hanging out on a text file on my computer, staring me in the face every time I've opened my laptop for the past three months. Beyond it are two paths of thought in the document, each circling around the songwriter and her Trinity Lane LP. The first thought is a broad one concerning my relationship with music and writing; the second is more focused, related to Lilly's message and the person I'm trying to become.

Musically, Trinity Lane is a twangy rock record - think roots music inspired by '90s alt-rock. And as a fan, it's my favorite of Lilly's three albums. (Rolling Stone Country just positioned the album as one of the year's best country and Americana releases.) However enjoyable a listen as it is though, the reason Trinity Lane really stuck with me has a lot to do with the intention behind the process of its creation and release

Talking to The Boot in August, Lilly explained how her label asked her to write a synopsis of the album, which she obliged by coming up with something "really vague." "I read it to my boyfriend, and he said it wasn’t very compelling, so I wrote this huge chunk about it where I addressed all of those personal things. I opened that door on my own because I was at a place where I was ready to talk about this stuff and be honest about it, especially because if someone was facing the same struggle, I wanted them to be able to relate to it... This was something I wanted to share.”

"Every time I wanted a man," reads the final version of that synopsis, "I picked up my guitar. Every time I wanted a drink, I picked up a guitar. Love will take you to the darkest places but also to the most honest places if you let it. Learning how to love myself is something I've always been lousy with, and I spent some time on that. I thought about my sobriety, what that means to me, the struggles I'd had throughout the years, since I was a 27-year-old and hung up my toxic drinking habit. I thought about my mother, who took her own life when I was a baby, not far from my age at 30 years old, and I related to her more than ever. As you can see, there was plenty of time spent on my own. I didn't talk to that many folks, albeit a few close friends, and leaned into my family. I stayed away from men, and danced alone in the evenings looking out my window observing my humble and lively neighborhood. I found power in being by myself." Trinity Lane is poetic vulnerability with a sense of purpose.

PopMatters has an audio interview with Lilly from a few years ago, and in listening to it you can hear how sweet she is. She's humble, particular about what she says, and thoughtful of how she reacts to questions. In person she's the same. I met her briefly after her August in-store performance at Grimey's. She extended courtesy to everyone who lined up to greet her, and she did the same with me, pausing in consideration of what I was saying before greeting the words with a hug. On my record she wrote, "Chris, you stay strong!!!"

"Gonna hang on a little bit longer, sleep well, work a little harder; put my faith in something I can't see," sings Lilly on the album's title track. That song is what first attracted me to her music. I'm in recovery, too - a few months into my third year (this time around) as I write this.

Lilly and I are about the same age and both grew up idolizing Eddie Vedder. I wanted to tell her my whole story, but without rambling like some crazy person I shared just a couple sentences, hoping only to communicate my gratitude for putting herself out there the way she has with this album. Lilly has called herself an empath. I feel like she got me. That afternoon, driving back home, a lot of what had been building up inside of me began working its way out. I've never done anything like this before, and am not sure what compelled me to do it then, but when I got home I walked to my bedroom and positioned myself in child's pose at the foot of my bed. I proceeded to bawl my eyes out. All I really remember is feeling compelled to just to let it go. I don't know what any of it means, but only that it's part of where this album has taken me.

For several years I made a living from writing about music. That's not quite right, actually. For several years I tried to do as little as possible to make enough money as I could blogging about music, so long as doing so would also allow me to continue the destructive habits that were consuming much of my life. At that I was a great success. I did this while making sure to not challenge myself to become as good a writer as I perhaps could have had I pursued the profession with the same sort of dedication as I did my drinking. Priorities being what they were, that seemed like the right approach at the time.

This year I picked up writing again — the first time I've tried in a couple years outside of my journal — though to this day, an awkward tendency stands out to me about my process: I'm typically quick to publish a thought without much consideration for who it might affect or how it might land. I've been writing in some form or another for almost 14 years and to this day I have that problem (there's a good chance I'm doing that here). The most glaring instance of this came in 2012. At the time I'd stopped drinking and put several months of research into the writing of a short book about recovery, which really should have taken me several years to write had I approached it with a more sincere level of thoroughness.

Before long though, I missed what I had. Or, at least, I missed the external validation that previously accompanied the blogging process. Having an audience made me feel valuable. So in 2014 I started this site with two missions, one public and one private. Publicly I had a somewhat delusional concept I shared with some friends about about building a one-stop local music hub. Privately I wanted to feed my ego. It was never black and white though.

This article about Sturgill Simpson might be one of the better things I've written, but it's also one of the best examples of this struggle: I care so much about Sturgill's music, and am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him for it, but I allowed myself to feel some twisted self-importance when he shared it with his fans. Hell, that opportunity only happened because someone on his team got a kick out of an earlier blog post I'd written and showed it to him. For the longest time the value of my work hasn't been in the work itself, but in whose profile I could glean a little shine from or how widely broadcast my work was shared online. Even then I recognized how ugly that was, and frustrated with myself I gave up on the blog after a few months.

Three years removed from that time I decided to try this again, genuinely believing that I could use this website as a platform to tap back into the local music scene, or maybe even get out and meet some interesting people. As I began writing again I sent a pair of emails to Lilly's label asking for an interview. In retrospect, I'm glad those requests went unanswered.

As I dug into the album and began researching online, reading about Lilly's life and what she now hopes to accomplish with her music, I began to recognize something in myself. A few months ago I was having a terribly difficult time speaking from my heart to other people and felt trapped by my own inabilities to do so. 'How in the world can I communicate someone else's truth on their behalf if I can't do that for myself?' I kept thinking to myself. But as no interview came, the urgency to further contemplate my Trinity Lane notes waned. I still knew there was something in there I had to figure out though, which is why they remained on my desktop. Waiting for me.

Months now removed from the first time I heard it, I can't help but think the music on Trinity Lane has come to mean something different to me than it might mean to a lot of other people. Shortly after that day where she played Grimey's I started to recognize what I was getting out of the album. Lilly has talked about how she had a hard time communicating with other people, which is something I feel I also struggle with, but that day she cracked jokes and seemed so vibrant and outgoing. She was so happy there. I remember looking up at the ceiling during the performance, taking a deep breath to hold off the emotions that were coming to me. It was so uplifting to see someone who had struggled so much come out of all that emitting such positivity.

Maybe with a little more literary finesse I might be able to get away with a musical comparison here, reflecting on being trapped in the groove of a record that skips, returning to the same place over and over again before an external force nudges the needle forward to play out the remainder of a song. But all the same, Lilly did nudge me. She was in a dark place, but came out of it only to communicate her story of inspiration with other people through a medium that would allow her to share her heart. And her doing so has helped redirect my efforts away from this space to healthier arenas. Doing so is allowing me to share my voice and time with others who might need to hear whatever my personal version of Trinity Lane is. Active recovery is the sound of moving the needle forward. I so admire Lilly and hope that she knows she's made a difference.

Now it feels safe to delete that text file.

The Conversation

I’m not sure when I wrote this, but when I did, I did so as one side of an imaginary conversation between a frustrated personal trainer (something I was at the time) and a disillusioned client (something else I was at the time). The premise embarrasses me now. I packed all the emotional-boosting know-how I had into the dialog, but in the end I realized what I was actually left with. It was a conversation between a "stronger" future version of myself and a future defeated version of who I could still allow myself to become. That draft’s construct felt so disingenuous, positioning it as though I was talking to anyone but myself. And it felt mean. So it lived only as a draft.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King writes, “It behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.” Exposing these words to daylight today comes with a feeling of empowerment because some of these tools now travel with me, some even being put to work on a practical basis. What’s more encouraging, however, is that this place is becoming less a space to lose myself in self-contemplation, and the world is slowly becoming a space where tools can actually be put to work. What’s here now leaves the formatting strictly in a stream of consciousness form. Ongoing broad struggles notwithstanding, it feels right to set this free…

OK, I mean, it’s been clear right from the moment you got here you’ve not had any interest in listening to what I have to say. You came here because you needed help, but no matter what level of help you think I can or can’t give you now, I feel like you’re not even listening to what I have to say… For one thing, put your phone down… Sure, of course that can be motivation, but it doesn’t seem like that’s really doing you much good. You’re not those people, and I don’t believe for one minute that you think those images are realistic goals to set for yourself in the immediate future. However vital you think all this is to your quote-unquote Weight Loss Journey, a well-groomed Instagram page isn’t the thing standing between you and a healthier lifestyle… Stop acting like I’m not human, too. You’ve got to be a loophole-exploiting legal expert when it comes to self control or you wouldn’t be here in the first place, and I’m no different in that regard. You’re not the only one who knows how to bury themselves alive. I know that headspace. I know what it’s like to be kidnapped by the most boring person on earth, being forced to have the same conversation over and over again in your head about slip-ups you’ve made. Scolding yourself for the same mistake 15 times in a row seems normal to people like you and me. Imagine if that conversation was broadcast on a monitor to others though – it’d seem crazy to anyone with an ounce of self-compassion. You’ve already told me what you want life to look like, so let’s just sit with that for a minute. Let’s talk as if that’s the destination where we’re trying to get you, together, as a team… If this were your job and you were approaching it as a truly collaborative task, you’d strategize super-prescriptive goals. Further, you’d work on it and not paint yourself victim of misunderstood cause and effect. Would you not hold me to a higher level of accountability if you were me in this scenario? Take this example: You argue with me that you don’t have the ability to change how you eat. You don’t need to change your eating behavior. What you need to change is your purchasing behavior because you’ll eat whatever you have around the house. You didn’t reach out to me so I’d provide some esoteric guidance. I’m here to be straightforward and direct habit change by helping you adopt new actions into your daily life. That, right there, is straightforward and direct guidance. “Some” is not a number. “Soon” is not a time. I’m talking firm here… You force yourself into a place of victimhood again and again, and we both know that’s not healthy or supportive of what you’re trying to accomplish. As long as you continue to back yourself into that corner you’ll feel you don’t have the ability to change. But as helpless a place that is, that’s also a safe place. That’s where you’re comfortable, because in that place you don’t have to try. As long as you think you can’t step outside that level of thinking, you’re transferring the responsibility of becoming the person you really want to become onto someone else, which is about the least helpful thing you can do for yourself because no one is ever going to be able to do this for you… Anything other than that is just a story you’re telling yourself. And that anxiety you’re feeling comes from the story you’ve created in your own mind. Have you considered disobeying that voice? The more time you spend thinking about that one thing, the less likely it is you’re going to take action, right? OK, let’s start here: How many days a week can you realistically dedicate to going to the gym? One of the first things we did was place the tasks at hand on a scale from 1-10, remember? And I asked you how confident you were that you could tackle each of these tasks we set up for the next 30 days. We cut each back until you were telling me that you were at a 9 or 10 out of 10, saying you could do each of these things. Now you’re not doing any of them, and instead you’re telling me that you’re going to do so much more. Even if this is you starting over for the thousandth time, you’re at an advanced starting line. You’re becoming conscious of your personal health, your relationship to how you live with yourself, your surroundings, and how you interact with the world around you. I’m frustrated because you’re frustrated, but I’m also hopeful because even in this moment, even given how tired you are of yourself, of trying, I see a spark. You’re not giving up. You’re arguing with me like a mother fucker, but you’re not giving up… Take that to heart then. You just said it, you’ll be 40 soon. How satisfying would it be to be fit and wise when you reach that milestone? Well, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice. That’s about all that’s standing between you and your goals, isn’t it?

The Action is Go

There’s an album by the band Fu Manchu called The Action is Go. I bought it in 1997 at a Best Buy-style store in Calgary called Future Shop. I had never heard of the band but the album cover had this rad skater on it and I figured that probably meant the music was cool. It was. Fast forward one decade later to Minneapolis where I almost (and rightly should have) got thrown out of a Fu Manchu/Valient Thorr show at the Triple Rock Social Club. Day drinking led to night drinking led to a drunken me unsuccessfully inciting a mosh pit at the show. I don’t remember which band it was, but I was in uber-punk mode that night and repeatedly banged on the bassist’s guitar as he leaned out into the crowd until he (rather politely, I might add) told me to cut it out. Shame is a strange thing, and now when I hear a song by the band, I’m reminded of that ugly version of myself. It’s funny, because “the action is go” has lingered as somewhat of a rallying cry in my mind when times require an emotional boost. There’s a strange dichotomy there.

I’ve read this (“The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex”) a couple times over the past year, but something clicked during last night’s refresher. I could quote any number of selections from the article (which would be ironic, given its focus), but really it comes down to figuring out where the value of having a blog is. Or at least figuring out if there’s any value here beyond using it to regurgitate selective thoughts other people have had and things other people have made in a way that represents myself in a positive light… “Maybe I just haven’t found the right type of naval-gazing,” he writes to himself…

That aside: Mind, body, and health are all clicking right now. I ran my first 12k this week, clocking in at 58:39.48 or a 7:52/mile pace. It’s the farthest I’ve ever run in my life, and the time might have been a little better had I not stopped to pee in the second mile. There, too, the action was go.