Then Again

Slate tiles drying by the cookstove

In the evenings we sprawl across a trio of futons unrolled from the corner of the barn, and the seven of us – four humans, two cats, one dog – slumber shoulder-to-paw, hip-to-tail. While we sleep, the fire dies and the barn goes cold, and in the morning the single-pane windows are opaque with the frozen accumulation of our exhalations. I light the fire by headlamp, slip out of the barn, shuffle to the house in the newly-fallen snow – every night now another inch or two – and light a second fire. I make coffee and wait for daylight. Then chores.

On Saturday, we traveled to Burlington to see Davy Knowles. You may not be familiar with Davy – he’s not exactly a household name – but for anyone drawn to contemporary blues, or for anyone who appreciates prodigious musical talent, or for anyone who simply wants to hear SOME OF THE MOST FRIGGIN’ AMAZING MUSIC ON THE FACE OF THE GREAT SPINNING BALL OF SOIL AND STONE WE CALL EARTH, I cannot recommend him highly enough. (Try this, this, and especially this)

We do what we always do at small, general admission shows, which is arrive early enough to stake a claim at the very edge of the stage. As such, I could tell from the moment Davy and his bandmates walked out that this was going to be a good show – I could see the smiles on their faces, the bounce in their steps, the frequent brief exchanges between them. In short, it was clear they were happy to be there. Maybe they were excited by the size of the crowd, which had grown to 300 or perhaps a bit more. Maybe they were still riding the buzz of a fine meal, a beer or two. Maybe they were just in a good mood. But for whatever reason, they were into it, and I could tell. Everyone could tell.

Davy is young (late 20’s), and a guitar prodigy. Story goes he started playing at 11 when he heard Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing on the radio and figured it out by ear; Mark Knopfler is not exactly your standard beginner’s material. A lot of technically proficient musicians seem to sacrifice something to their proficiency; call it “soul,” if you will, or think of less-trite terminology. Or maybe it’s exuberance that’s lost. Yeah. Exuberance. I think that might be it.

There was no exuberance lost on that stage, that’s for sure. About halfway through the show, I realized my face hurt; I’d been smiling so widely and constantly, the muscles in my cheeks actually ached. Yet still I could not stop, for there was such purity of joy in the performance, it simply could not be denied.

At the end of the show, with the crowd erupting, Davy and his band walked off stage. As Davy was departing, he came to where we stood, knelt down, and gave each of my sons a big smile and one of the guitar picks he’d just used to play the music that had made my face hurt. Then he was gone.

I can’t quite stop thinking about Davy’s performance (and his band – because Davy’s a bit of a guitar hero, his bandmates maybe don’t get as much attention as they deserve). But equally, I can’t stop thinking about his gesture of graciousness toward my sons. It was nothing, really – just a couple chips of nylon, just a couple seconds of his time – but it was one of those small acts that transcends its own boundaries, if that makes any sense.

Someone once explained to me that kindness is like throwing sparks. You throw and you throw and you throw, and most of the time, those sparks just sort of sputter and die. Or they land in water. Or they’re simply rebuffed. Because there’s a certain vulnerability to kindness, there’s a certain inherent risk, and as such, it’s easy to get discouraged. It can feel as if it’s easier to stop throwing, stop risking.

But every so often, one of those sparks strikes a bit of tinder. I believe that’s why I’m still thinking about that concert. In part, it’s because I was witness to an artist entirely in his element, and as a so-called “creative,” I felt the impact of that deeply, and with it, the desire to capture some of Davy’s energy in my own work, although I have no idea whether or not that’s possible, though I think it is.

But it was Davy’s small kindness toward my sons that struck me the most, because it forced me to acknowledge the ways in which I have not been similarly gracious. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it makes me uncomfortable when people email me to say that something I’ve written has touched them, and so sometimes I simply do not reply, leaving them exposed in their vulnerability, and worse yet, perhaps less likely to risk such vulnerability again. From time-to-time, something similar happens in person, and I although I am generally a fairly warm and out-going fellow, I suspect I do not always respond with equivalent grace.

Now I wish I had a guitar pick to send to everyone who’s every emailed, or left a comment, or just read something I wrote. But I don’t, and maybe that’s good, because the logistics are frankly a little overwhelming. So I guess I’ll just say thanks and resolve to be better about responding with the sort of graciousness everyone deserves. For those whose notes have gone unanswered, I am sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.

Finally, if I may be so bold, I’d like to ask a small favor of you all. If you are ever in a position to do someone a small kindness like the one Davy did for my boys, please, please don’t pass it up.

To be sure, nothing may come of it.

Then again, something might.

•     •     •

Speaking of kindness and whatnot, we are working to establish a scholarship fund for our Teen Wilderness Program through Lazy Mill Living Arts. If any of you have the ability and inclination to contribute at any level, it would be deeply appreciated. All funds go directly to paying our mentors a livable wage, while enabling us to include children who would not otherwise be able to attend. Please email us info@lazymilllivingarts.com to discuss. Thank you.

32 thoughts on “Then Again”

  1. The most amazing kindness is when victims of violent crime or loved
    ones of victims of crime forgive the perpetrators and sometimes even
    form friendships with them. It seems like it’s usually women that are
    involved in this sort of thing, the forgiving I mean, but I don’t doubt some
    men do the same. Don’t know if I could do such a thing…

    1. Remember the Amish school shooting in PA a few years ago? A collection was taken up for the Amish families who lost children. The families said they would not accept any unless the family of the shooter received some too because that family had lost a loved one as well–he had shot himself. The Amish families also told the shooter’s family they had forgiven him. A powerful lesson there.

      1. I remember that but I remember being bothered by it. I think if a child dies then it is natural for living family members to rage/vent/scream/plot revenge/be sad/grieve but the Amish way is to forgive (almost immediately) thus skipping a lot of steps.I can’t imagine it’s healthy.

        On another note -loved this post

  2. Ben, re: trying to do better in the future. As a friend of mine says, “If you try to feed the dog, the dog will starve to death”. The word “try” has failure built into it. Either you will do better at times or you won’t.

    1. …and regardless, you ARE always doing your best.

      Man, if you start giving away guitar picks, you’d better have a passel of them because a lot of us love what you are doing. This piece of writing is a gem, just a gem.

  3. Long time reader – I have both of your books and truly enjoy and miss your writing on a more regular basis- having said that, this piece could not go unanswered as kindness is the byword by which I govern my own life -with a generous sprinkling of Grace. Some truly beautiful passages here. Thank you for sharing the little vignettes of your life and self discovery with us. And congratulations on finding your own measure of Grace in an unlikely place. And so we all continue to grow…

  4. When I was getting married, the church lady who helped coordinate my wedding told me “there will be lots of people today who say really nice things. your job today is just to sincerely thank them.” And she made me practice saying ‘thank you so much for your kind words’. Because I am not stunningly beautiful and don’t normally hear those words.
    Later, when my son started to show promise as a potter, people would say things about his beautiful work and I made him practice saying ‘thank you so much for your kind words’. Because those words just don’t normally come from an ordinarily sullen 12 year old.
    Because of our own insecurity or lack of confidence in ourselves or our talents, we can hurt those who send out messages of appreciation, gratitude, or encouragement. Maybe there are people like Davy who are naturally gracious but based on my experience, you actually have to be taught manners and civility. And so I practice it and tried to teach my children that. Maybe this is your time in your life to learn those lessons. Maybe it was just your job to remind each of us of that lesson. Whatever, I thank you for a beautiful piece of writing.

  5. Is there anything that any of us can do for your poor hurting face, Ben? Has the hurting receded? Don’t pretend that Davy Knowles hasn’t regretted missing opportunities to pass our more picks. I wonder if my guitar playing would be better if my last name started with “Kn”, ya know? (The dance tune at my wedding was a Knopfler tune, “Going Home”, from film Local Hero. )

  6. Guitar picks, I don’t know, but you could send a couple potatoes or a slab or bacon or something, or just some good magic Hewitt soil for others to start gardens in luck. 🙂
    But if seriously, I think you and Penny are some of the most approachable authors. I had dropped notes to a few people whose books or work had touched me, and it is nice to know that the appreciation does make a difference, but it is totally understandable when a person does not want to or cannot respond. I can not even imagine all the fan letters some of those best-selling authors get.
    Wonderful idea to get funding for Lazy Mill. I appreciate all you guys are doing.

  7. You work your days, your life, your farm, your books, your teaching – these are your songs. But you give this blog, these tasty morsels of your life, freely to anyone who wishes to read it – this blog is a series of guitar picks. I’m sitting here reading your blog, enjoying Davy Knowles on Youtube, feeling so lucky to live in the days of the internet where a 64 yo woman can sit on a gorgeous summer morning, drinking her breakfast cup of tea, enjoying the writing and music of two talented people who are surrounded by snow on the other side of the world. Forget guitar picks – you have thrown a warehouseful of orchestras at me.

  8. It’s sad really, that one would feel vulnerable in doing good. But we do. In most cases, kindness costs nothing to give. Fact is, the people who usually are the most willing to give are those who understand what it’s like not to have much; the one’s that in the true sense of the word are the most vulnerable. This was the observation my daughter shared with me
    yesterday after giving a homeless man her change as well as pouring some of the coffee from her travel mug into his empty cup. I’m sure she didn’t think twice.

  9. The few times I have corresponded with you outside of this comment page you have been more than gracious and very prompt in your reply. I remember commenting to my husband that I’d bet you would be one of the few who would continue to do so no matter how well-known you became. I regularly use the couple of notes your family sent me as bookmarks if only because Penny’s photos are so beautiful. So, don’t be too hard on yourself. I think most reading this would agree that you have landed more than a modest amount of sparks out there in the world – many more than you’ll probably ever know, I’m sure.
    The subject of kindness has come up a few times in challenging conversations with others about our home schooling, To those who seem so “concerned” with what our children are or are not learning, I have responded that the fact that they are kind (which is very different from nice in my opinion but that’s a whole other subject) matters most to me. On the blackboard wall in my kitchen I have a favorite line from the Dead, “Oh, oh what I want to know-oh is are you kind?” The older I get, the more this becomes the true test of my worth as a human being. Years ago, I learned of the three-fold sieve (asking oneself “Is it true, kind, necessary?” before speaking) from a Quaker friend. Complete adherence to this is most definitely a life-long pursuit. To your encouragement to be kind I would add to remember to thank others for the ways their kindness has touched you. I recently had an experience where I thanked someone and she was astonished that an ordinary (in her mind) act made such a difference to me. It seemed to complete the circle of kindness. So, I thank you for sharing another wonderful story. Be well!

      1. I know, Renee. I think I bit off more than I could chew when I resolved to do this. There have definitely been times I have bitten my lip so much it hurt but, most of the time, it has been worthwhile. The part I like best is the necessary part. That keeps you from becoming a door mat. Some tough things DO need to be said but there the trick is to find a kind way to say them. Peace!

    1. Thank you, NC, this is helpful. I was just recently discussing with my dad how my kids may have a chance at college even if they are unschooled. He has hard time believing that, and was not buying my explanations that college may take ‘chicken raising, gardening, and volunteering at a nursing home’ as a credential. In Europe, especially, college qualifications are very much quantified in numbers, like Brene Brown mentions in her Ted talk on vulnerability, her professor’s words: what cannot be measured, does not exist.

      You just crushed me with that “true, kind, necessary”…. Back to the drawing board. 🙂

      1. Hang in there, Mama. 🙂 Conversations with concerned grandparents seem to me to be the perfect opportunity to try out the three-fold sieve if only because you will be given AMPLE opportunity to figure out how to say necessary things in a kind way. Or, as my husband likes to phrase it, I am not letting go of my Mama Bear role – just learning to swat without the claws. 🙂

  10. Oh, one of those kinds….front rower eh? Is there any other place to be though? :} Geez, never even heard of Davy. Then again, I’m out of the loop. Way out. He has a pretty soulful voice, and guitar. I get the impression you like him just a little…..or you were just stoned out of your mind. Kidding. I bet ya he’s never seen a couple of kids like yours, I bet you that blew his mind. You don’t see too many kids in tune with their own souls. Truthful kids, you’re truthful people in an industrialized society that’s mostly running in circles. So that Davy guy, well he obviously operates in truth…and him and your kids spoke the same language. That’s my theory. Anyway what a cool story…. I had one of those moments with Geddy Lee once, but maybe I was mistaken and he was just a pervert? Ha. I agree with whomever said that you’re words and stories are like handing out millions of guitar picks. You could be like Phil Spector and we’d still be hanging on your every word…. well, maybe not if your hair looked like that.

  11. I’m up for a metaphysical guitar pick anytime and I hope it helps me in some small way to get me and my bamboo flute some synchronicity. 😀

    Mainly, I wrote to say, I really enjoy your stories and your honest-to-goodness writing style and life style. Massive thank you.

    Lastly I wish to acknowledge the truth in what you say about the small almost meaningless gestures of good will – yeah I failed on that one very recently… I just need to figure out how to proceed to mend the broken bits. Sigh.

  12. Hi Ben,
    Three things…
    1. I love that you are back here again. Maybe you weren’t really gone but I kind of felt like you erased yourself out of your writing for awhile there. Anyway, I missed you and all of your insights and poetry and ramblings and I’m so happy you’re back.
    2. The writing guidance you gave me and the new lens with which to view my work is a kindness you gifted me that I will be forever grateful for.
    3. I am still writing almost everyday.

  13. I just listened to a Davy song. Holy smokes I wish I was 20 again. He just made me want to get up and shake my decrepit bootie. He can sing! He can play! Sexy good stuff! Not sexy in a tawdry way. Sexy in a way that people who have mastered a craft and put it out there in a strong self confident way are sexy.

  14. It might be cold in that barn now, but when all is finished it will have become a heartwarming memory. Something you, Penny and the boys shared and which will bring a “them good ol’days”-kind of smile to your faces.
    And you’re handing out guitar-thingies all the time…..

    Like that try-quote a lot really…. and the Stephen Jenkinson book too. Fascinating.

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