The Difficulty of Distance, And Making Good On Promises
Moving away from home is difficult. Not only is there the obvious fear of the unknown – of leaving your safety net and support group behind – there’s also the idea that you’re distancing yourself from friends and family – your loved ones – effectively either removing yourself entirely from their everyday lives or, if nothing else, making it extremely difficult to see them on even a semi-regular basis. You miss things; you become rather disconnected. You try your best to stay in touch and to visit as much as you can, but particularly when your own life takes on a… well… life of its own, it becomes a real chore just to do the simple things like make a phone call. And forget about comprehensive visits – if you can even make the journey home now and then, you’re lucky if you can be there more than a couple days (depending on how remote it is), so good luck seeing most of your friends and any other members of the family that aren’t right next door to your parents’ house. Facebook helps to keep tabs, but not everyone has the time for a full-on social media experience.
When you grow up, leaving home is a rather normal thing to do. That’s part of the process, after all, to leave the nest and build one of your own in some other tree somewhere. Stick your own toes in the mud and take root. If your parents did their job, you can navigate life at this point without having to depend on them all the time.
But, again, be prepared – that kind of independence can cause you to lose some of that connection you used to have.
In 2006, at 26 years of age, I was recently single (after two failed engagements), had a job I didn’t care for that really had no future in it for me, and wanted nothing more than to follow my dreams of making music. By this point I’d released three albums and an EP, and had started but failed to keep together a few bands of varying members and styles. I knew at this point that Northern New York was just not the place that my music destiny was going to be reached. So, after careful consideration and soul-searching, I moved to Nashville, TN – “Music City”. While my family and my closest friends were sad to see me go, they were also happy for me to get out of there and follow my dreams. As far as I know, most – if not all – had varying levels of confidence in me to make these dreams reality. My mother, my Grandma, and – I believe – my Grandpa, (among others) all had not only a real interest but a strong belief in my capabilities.
So it should have come as no surprise when, in February of 2007 – mere months after I had moved – I signed a recording contract with an independent music label. In my mind, it was like “well of course I did! I’m awesome! And this was obviously the right path for me to choose! That’s why I chose it!” Obviously, I felt the whole uprooting to Nashville had been worth it, as had leaving my loved ones behind. This was going to work out! I had fulfilled my unspoken promise. I followed God’s pull and it led me to my destiny.
Except that that obviously wasn’t where the story ended. In fact, for many reasons, being an artist on this particular music label was not the experience I had hoped it would be. It was actually rather terrible. Without getting into too much detail, it had become abundantly clear that I was not the most important thing in the world, that I had a seriously over-inflated sense of self, and that although God had led me down to Nashville for a purpose, there was such a thing as too much focus – the kind that keeps you from really seeing past your own nose; that causes you to become a bit of an asshole. Within a year and a half of signing the deal, I asked for, and was granted, my release.
All without having recorded any music, playing with any bands, or really doing anything to further my music career. In fact, it was a complete waste of time.
It left such a horrible taste in my mouth that I didn’t want anything to do with music for a while. Maybe even indefinitely. I had been knocked down so hard that while I came in thinking I was a musical prodigy who was going to take over the world, I had now walked away thinking I was worth absolutely nothing and had less than that to offer the world. It was so bad that at this point I haven’t released a real album in almost ten years.
I still played bass for another artist, in the hopes I might make some music connections, as I hadn’t entirely given up. In doing so I saw the ugly side of ego and focus (a side that looked a lot like me, and I thought it absolutely disgusting). I also did make some music connections but, due to my own lack of confidence brought about from the previous year’s experience, I mainly sat on my hands and let all of that fall apart. I squandered opportunities with various musical talents – opportunities I would have killed for back home – while they waited for me to get moving on projects so we could make this thing happen. Yes, I still did record some music, put out my first music video and eventually released all of this music in a compilation earlier this year, but for all intents and purposes, I was done with music. When people I worked with asked me what brought me down to Nashville, I told them either “I wanted to be a rock star” or “I used to want to be in the music business.” The passion was gone. And in its place I took up writing, acting, and film making. All the while I was really confused. I had thought God had put me on this earth and had given me these talents to make music. Why hadn’t that worked?
Meanwhile, my family back home still took an interest in what I was doing, as long as I was following my passion. Though I always found it rather interesting that whenever my Grandfather checked in on me, he was asking about my music. Always. No matter what I was doing, that never changed. I did get to visit them from time to time. And I did get to talk to them on the phone and sometimes via Skype, but as I got more and more busy, as my relationship with my then-girlfriend turned into an engagement and then finally a marriage (and earlier this year, a family), it became more and more difficult to find the time to communicate.
Around Thanksgiving 2012, after having just dealt with the shocking loss of my wife’s stepfather (whom we all adored), my Grandmother passed away. For the most part, it was expected. We had all really been coping for a little bit already. My Grandmother was someone who thought very highly of not only her own kids but her grand kids as well. She took a very clear interest in their interests. I remember being 16 and playing drums in a band called The Waffle Senate. We had a live gig out on the patio of a local college dorm, and both my mother and Grandmother sat in a car in the parking lot facing the stage so they could watch me play and support my love of music. They were both always at parades to see my brother and me march, always at school concerts to see us play. Like my own mother, Grandma was there all the time. When she passed, I managed to get up north to say goodbye and say a few words at her funeral. She was a great woman; she had a very large part in raising me.
And because I had left to follow my music passion, I didn’t get to be there very much, nor did I get to be there near the end.
Somewhere around the time of my Grandmother’s passing – maybe even shortly before – my Grandfather (definitely a person of strong faith) found out I was going to Church; that I’d been finding may way spiritually. Now when we talked, he wasn’t just asking me about music anymore – he was interested in what I was getting out of Church. We started to dance around what could have probably formed into full-on theological discussions (which I love) during our phone and in-person conversations. Because we didn’t get to talk much though, it was difficult to really get these sort of conversations to form, as we’d always have to start out with the obligatory “hey how are you” and “what have you been up to” which left little time for anything else. But the short version of that is to say that suddenly – even though I’d known my Grandfather for a long time – we were starting to connect on something. He and my Grandmother weren’t together when Grandma was helping to raise me, so we had never been anywhere near as close as Grandma and I had been. But now there was something interesting happening, and I was looking forward to seeing where it would go. (I think it worth noting, by the way, that when I was really young, I wanted to be a school bus driver like he was).
Then I learned that Grandpa had prostate cancer. Initially it seemed like he might have defeated it (and in fact I actually thought he had, though I knew he was still getting up there in age and poor health) but then I learned fairly recently that he still had it, and at this point, he had opted out of surgery and didn’t have a lot of time. Somewhere in this last couple years I disconnected. Right when it looked like he and I would have something really interesting to talk about and bond with, I panicked, didn’t call as much, and tended to want to avoid more than reach out. I don’t mean I wouldn’t answer if he called, but it wasn’t typical of him to do the calling, and at a certain point he couldn’t anyway. In fact, at a certain point he couldn’t receive them either, and I wasn’t going to be able to get up north to talk in person.
I don’t know what caused me to react this way. I’m not making excuses for it either. And it’s not that I never called, I just didn’t do it as much as I could have, and certainly didn’t do it as much as this new connection with him would have implied I should have. I had never experienced the death of a family member (a close one) until Grandma died. And that was only a couple months after the death of Emily’s stepfather – someone else I cared very much about with whom I had made a connection shortly before his completely unexpected passing. It’s possible I was afraid of making a connection again only to lose it and hurt more for it. I don’t know. That sounds rather immature. I don’t know what it was, but that’s what I’d bet on.
And it’s a shame really, because this morning my Grandfather passed away. And because I had left to follow my music passion, I didn’t get to be there at all, nor did I get to be there near the end. I won’t get to be there for his funeral either.
Within the span of a couple years, my mother has lost both her parents. I can’t imagine what that’s like to go through, even when in both cases their passing was largely expected and there was time to prepare. But I don’t get to be there to find out.
So that begs the question, was it worth it? Was it worth missing all of this and losing these connections to move to Nashville only to give up on the thing that I had moved down here to do in the first place? Have I let my Grandmother and Grandfather down by not following through on my unspoken promise? Have I gotten value in the trade-off? Have they? You may be thinking these are ridiculous questions; that it’s silly to even ask them. But there they are, in my head.
You may also be thinking, “Wait, Ender. You’ve got a great wife, a child, a house, a family, you’re working in the entertainment industry… why are you bothering with these kinds of questions? Isn’t what you have enough?”
Oh, absolutely. Except for the fact that only recently I realized my passion for music never actually went away. It was in the fact that saying I “wanted to be a rock star” all the time was consistently leaving a bad taste in my mouth; it was there whenever I’d go to a rock show and get insanely jealous of the band on the stage; it was clear when songs would keep appearing in my head even though I kept telling them to go away; it was obvious when the people I work with (in the film industry) would show unveiled shock at the idea that I had performed all the instruments on my albums and written so many songs; and it was plain to see when others would consistently note my music talents (either to me, or to others within ear shot of me).
In retrospect, it was clear to my Grandfather. That’s why he’d always asked me about it.
He’d be happy to know then that earlier this year, after releasing my latest compilation album Middle Aegis, and after really taking stock of all those music-related things that were happening around me, I’ve decided to jump back into music again – wholeheartedly.
I wish I’d told Grandpa that.
No, I’m not the world’s greatest gift to music and I’m certainly not likely to take over the world, but despite the fact that I live in a city full of talented musicians, I have a musical talent, too. One that might stand out. God gave that to me. He gave it to me for a reason. I have this ability and I’m not going to squander it. So my talent isn’t the exceptionally huge deal that I had thought it was eight years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth nothing. It’s taken me six years to have the courage and confidence to even think that.
Six years ago I was humbled – hard. I deserved that. I needed that, in fact, if I was going to do this and do it right. I still have work to do. And I’m going to do it. This is who I am and who I always was.
God always knew that. And I think Grandpa always did, too.
In memory of William Strate.