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Jon Foreman

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Vice Verses: Making Art Out of Tension

Posted: 09/23/11 01:58 PM ET

Last night around midnight, I was onstage playing tunes with a band called Fiction Family in a town called Hollywood. By 3:00am I was pulling into my hometown with an empty bag of corn nuts and a caffeinated beverage that once resembled coffee. By the time the sun was up I was in seat 20C on a Southwest flight from San Diego to Nashville. (That's right, I only fly the classiest airlines. As a side-note, I am in no way endorsed by any airline, but I'm ready to talk). I was feeling pretty good but I must not have looked the part as my neighbor in 20A proceeds to tell me that I look like I haven't slept in a couple weeks. I laugh it off and tell him I'll sleep on the flight. When he finds out that I'm a musician he wonders aloud whether any of my songs are worth the bags under my eyes. He says it must be a hard road to travel, that I look like I'm stretched a little thin.

He's right that I don't get much sleep. And he's right that I might have skipped a shower. Or two. Or three. But he's wrong about the rest. I crunch down on a few delicious airline peanuts and tell 20A that I have the best job in the world. I do what I love. I love what I do. And I believe in what I do. He laughs, pulls the brim of his hat over his eyes says, "Well, good luck son. Hope you never lose that optimistic attitude." Within a few minutes my friend is asleep against the window and I'm left wide-awake with my thoughts. Am I overly idealistic? Am I stretching myself too thin?

20A and I are flying high above the United States in an airplane. Out the window to my left I can see snow capped mountains ambling by. Deserts, rivers, cities drift along as in a dream. My neighbor begins to snore a bit, and the world below seems so peaceful, so serene. We are floating high above the homelessness, the hunger, the funerals, the murders, and the wars. In a couple hours this aircraft will land on a planet of social turbulence far beyond anything our plane could handle in the sky. Ours is a planet of polarity: the poor and the rich; the hungry and the well fed; the healthy and the terminally ill. Within these apparent contradictions we struggle for meaning. For dignity. For equality. The human story is built into this struggle. Down below 20 A and I the world is waking up in the tender balance between life and death, love and hate, hope and despair. Stretched thin.

There is no way out. We were born into the fight. Every noble pursuit will cost you: justice, wisdom, strength, marriage, children -- you will pay for these with your breath, your tears, your blood, even your life. We're all in this together -- fighting to make sense of the madness, to make our lives count. All of us are on a journey of desire. Longing, yearning, hoping, dreaming for a better day. But these dreams of ours are held in tension by the obstacles between where we are and where we hope to be. We are suspended in mid-air like a still life, a photograph. Frame by frame, we live our lives, forever stuck in the ether of the frozen now. Frame by frame we are frozen in the present between yesterday and tomorrow. Frame by frame we step forward towards the infinite unknown that only tomorrow can bring.

Between the dialectic of life and death we are pulled tight, stretched out like the strings of my guitar. We are forever in still-life. A delicate balancing act between the end and the beginning, between the consciousness and the dream, between the forgetting that we call birth and the remembering that we call death. We are the notes dancing from the strings of time, held firm between life and death. This is the polarity of our existence, pulled tight between despair and hope, belief and doubt. We are strung tight between our birth and the grave. Humanity is dancing on the fretboard in-between. Death will one-day cut the string. Until then, we live in the tension.

Yes, humanity's song is the absurd, the tragic, the comic; the profane and the beautiful; the fallen and the redeemed. Our society is fraught with inconsistencies and absurdities. We claim to believe that all of humankind is created equal in a country torn apart by racial tension. We deem killing to be punishable by death but honorable under the title of war. We claim to serve a God who loves the poor in rich cathedrals and gold plated steeples. We objectify women and wonder why daddy's little girl has low self-esteem. The highs and lows, the dark and the light. This is the absurdity of our bipolar existence. Stretched thin between the dichotomy of death and breath, ashes and cash, pain and beauty. The scope of it all is enough to drive a man crazy.

And yet, we are yearning for certainty, yearning for authenticity. We are longing for the final absolution, the face that will never go away. The tension drives us to look for resolution. We look for safety in possession or position. We look for redemption at the bottom of the bottle, or on the tip of the needle. We look for justice in the overfed breasts of the government. Looking for enlightenment in the numb conformity of the suburbs. We're looking for deliverance, for the melody among the cacophony. The vices. The verses. And yet, all of these vices offer only a temporary release.

For me, the song has always helped to restore sanity. The melody can help to string broken things together, bringing me back from the ledge of from depression. Sometimes, the music says it better than the words do; the melody brings the tension and release into a dance rather than a struggle. This isn't to say that music stops the pain. Rather, music contextualizes the pain within the larger human experience and thus brings a certain timeless meaning and depth to the temporary despair and hopelessness I feel. And to this end, I love music. I love to find myself there in the songs of others. I love to find joy writing my own songs. Yes, even songs about the madness: trying to push through despair towards hope, singing into the storm.

Recently, my friends and I recorded an album about the the struggle that we call life. We wanted a record that would speak to the polarity of our existence, the darkness and the light, the despair and the hope along the way. These vices of ours, we wanted to make 'em sing. We wanted to make a musical world that was held in tension by the poles of darkness and light. Maybe my songs have always come from the tension, the things that terrify me, the things that stretch me thin and keep me up at night. As much as I want to run away from these things, I can't. The strings of our hearts were not made for safety. No, these strings are made to dance. I cannot to hold the temporal too closely for the final freedom I long for was never hers to give. Safety cannot be found in the transients. I struggle to look beyond all of this. The transcendent alone can give meaning to the tension, purpose to the release. So I give up hoping for safety. I've given up hoping in the overstuffed pockets of the powerful and well fed. I've given up hope that I could ever buy what I truly need. Indeed if the world knows no justice, we're better off staying maladjusted. Stretched thin.

And indeed, I'm still optimistic; still looking for the final release. That final chorus which will conquer pain once for all. I want more than simple cash can buy. I'm looking for "that majesty which philosophers call the First Cause." The eternal Redemption who taught us how to die. I look for him among ashes of American flags. The dust of Babylon, the remains of all of our the broken promises. I look for him in the ashes of our fathers. I see his face in passing glances on the streets- in the eyes of a single mom, trying to make ends meet; in a faded photograph; in the hands of a homeless woman talking to herself. Yes, I'm still idealistic enough to believe that everyone matters. That the kingdom of the heavens might be at hand, knocking, beckoning me to pursue. I run like the oceans, longing for the shore. I'm still looking for a place where open arms still welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Bigger than rock and roll. Bigger than America. Bigger than the darkness. I want to sings songs for the disenfranchised, for the ones on the edge. Stretched thin. Somewhere below me, Lady Wisdom still crying out in the streets. "To them's that's got ears let them hear." I look for her among the ruins of postmodern despair, where the last shall be first, and he who is not busy being born is busy dying.

Below me the entire human race is marching reluctantly from the past to the infinite. Meanwhile, 20A and I are flying high above all of this in the bright blue morning sky, each of us on our own respective journeys towards the unknown. And on this journey I'm not afraid of the truck-stop cuisine or the airline peanuts. No, the journey is where the music is found. So I sing. I read. I listen. The truck stops and the coffee shops, the cell phones and internet cafes. The rhythm of the southbound train. My life is my song: lyric, melody, line and verse. And this song of mine is still singing. These are not the songs of despair. My red eyes are still full of wonder, still hopeful, still singing among the catacombs. Yes, I love what I do. These humble hymns are my anthems. When I sing them I feel hope. I feel joy. I feel the warmth of eternal, transcendent truth. And my neighbor in 20A is right: the journey can be hard. We lose loved ones along the way. I get so depressed from time to time. I miss my wife. And I surely can't do this forever. Certainly, there will be a time to slow down. A time to stop motion altogether. But for now, for now I'm gonna sing. I'm gonna string up my guitar and let those strings dance, stretched thin. It's true, one day the strings will snap. But for now string 'em up, let 'em ring. I still can hear the sound of my heart beating out. So let's go boys, play it loud.