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Nashville, TN


Chicken Coop for the Soul

Jen Hartry

I live between a peak and a valley. My house is on the way down. The peak is just the edge of level land, not some grand mountain top. The road just drops off it and passes me by.

It was sometime near 3AM when I stepped outside with Pablo, our new pup, and it was 20 degrees outside. The stars were the sort made closer and clearer by the cold. The winter view of the Orion Spur of the Milky Way, where the sun lives, where the stars are actually closer, and where there’s more blackness behind them. I was standing in my front yard looking up at them and it made me feel a warm mix of awe and luck. This is my front yard and my view and I am alive and alone to see it. About thirty yards from where I was standing there is a small greenhouse where our six chickens live. Inside, there is a red heat lamp to keep their water from freezing. That night the lamp made the whole greenhouse glow red. I thought to myself that it was like a soul, the warm center of the universe, beneath the Orion Spur, where six chickens slept in the quiet, these helpless but hearty little creatures. These are things I think when I get out of the way for a minute. I felt myself lift up. I put that light there. Those are my chickens. That is my soul.

I have always seen myself as one sort of man or another, not now, but in the future, and I have used these visions to try and make myself a man I can live with. It has rarely worked. I’ll forget the vision, try it and discard it, or never take any steps toward the vision. (For example, when I moved to LA I saw myself as a man who like to surf. I imagined it day and night. Then, in the seven years that I lived there I tried it only once. ((Incidentally, I tried it when the water was very cold, and the wetsuit I’d borrowed had a hole in the crotch. What happened is that, seeking warmth, my testicles traveled north, so that they were no longer hanging loosely and safely beneath me, but clinging firmly and frontally, and paddling myself out became a gauntlet of waves-slapping-surfboard-slapping frozen bits. This might have played a part in my never trying again))) So I am left comparing myself to the man I am and the man I want to be and the work I need to do and the work I have failed to do. I have wanted to be a man who is comfortable in nature, even ecstatic in it, and I’ve pictured myself with a nice little house with land where I can be alone with my pretty wife and some animals. I’ve got that. It’s one of those rare times when the man I am becomes the man I want to be.

But the man I am now is also constantly reminding himself of his failure. It’s always there, nipping at my heels even when I have a rare momentary lift off into transcendence. I’m standing neath the stars and looking at my warm red soul and remember that, inside, it’s full of chicken shit.

This year I released my first record on a record label, signed a publishing deal, found myself (or, was found by) a manager, and played my first profitable tours. In Ireland no less. At the moment my label in LA is speaking through my new manager to a label here in Nashville about collaborating on the push of my latest record, which would mean that there would be lots of money put behind it. More money than I’ve ever made in any two years of my life combined. (My record would see the money, not my wallet.) That label in Nashville, via my publishing contract, has dibs on the release of my next record, which means I am all but guaranteed to have another label release. All of these things, on paper, are quite impressive if I say so myself (which I am currently doing). The man I was a year ago might be impressed with the man I am today. I assume too, perhaps a little haughtily, that many friends would sure like to be in my position as well.

There are some hard rubs in all of it, of course. First, as always, so much is up in the air all the time. I constantly worry about my future. With everything I have on paper going for me, I have absolutely nothing in stone for 2014, nothing to make me optimistic. Yes I know this is my fault: I am getting to that. Second, this way is a dumb way to have done things. Had I been brave I would have started touring when I was 18. That was the man I wanted to be. By now I could have been making at least the money I make now but with no contracts and…But I didn’t know how and I was scared. So I took jobs and hoped I’d be DISCOVERED. Mercy on me, I was more ignorant than cowardly. That’s what I tell myself. Third, in regard to my publishing deal, I have done musical things for money that I am not proud of. I cannot think of any other way to put it than to say that I have sold out, at least a little. I accept money to write songs with others that do not measure up to my artistic standard, and it makes me sad. I don’t hate myself too much for it. It beats a lot of other jobs. And I need that money, little as it is.

To make the rest of the money I need I work in a liquor store for about 24 hours a week. The work is easy going, and my coworkers are easy going, and it’s all easy going, except that lately it’s not easy going to work. I have a hard time sticking to a job for more than a year or two anyway. But the problem with the liquor store is that there can be a lot of down time. And in that down time I pace the aisles, putting a bottle of vodka up, a bottle of wine in the cooler, and I think about the man I am and the man I want to be and I go fucking crazy.

Simply put, I want to be a man who writes a lot, who writes well, and who writes meaningfully. I’m talking outside of songwriting. I think that that writing would would be meaningful and lead to other meaningful things. The writing would inform me first, then other people (if it’s up to snuff), and then the writing would lead me to be engaged in cultural conversations with people I find meaningful. I have raged against this man every way I know how, and it’s sad, because he seems like such a very simple man to be. To be him, I’d have to just pick something to wrote about and sit down and write about it. But I have not been able to do it, ever really. Instead I pace the liquor store aisles. I surf the internet. I read. I stare. And at the end of the day (get out the tiny violins) I pity myself for letting another day go by.

It’s gone on long enough that now the pity is hardening into resentment, into anger. I go to bed many nights and absolutely hate myself. My lovely domestic situation aside, I truly feel like I’m fucking my life up. I am failing to live it well. I’m so sick of it. I would love it if this anger would at least motivate me. But I don’t kid myself. This writers block is a habit. The relationship between myself and failure is that of an addict and a drug. I must find some sort of pleasure in it.

I have been thinking about the reasons I am stuck (even though my mind calls this sort of dwelling a type of procrastination…which it is). But I think I have some answers:

1- I most often believe that I am not informed enough to write, or not smart enough.
2- I most often believe that nothing is worth writing about.

It’s nice to put these things down, because they look so ridiculous. They are so easy to argue with. Against the first I can say that I am well educated, that I have read a whole lot of books and articles about various interesting and important things, that I have lived in a few interesting places, and that I am, in general, a very thoughtful person who appreciates complexity. I can also argue, the quality of my mind aside, that there are people out there who are writing and conversing in a public sphere who are complete morons. How come they can do it and I can’t?

The answer from my gut: a pathetic shrug. “A hundred more books and maybe you’ll be ready, buddy!”

The second point is harder to argue with, but is connected to the first. Meaning is subjective, but the search for it is the thing. Is my thing as least. It’s Frankl’s idea, that meaning is the driver of psychology, not happiness, as Freud claimed. I believe this, for myself anyway. When I am off I waffle between feeling meaning and not, which, of course, makes it all the more suspicious when meaning is there. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel meaninglessness, but I think it might be a bad thing to scorn the meaning because you’ve felt meaninglessness. That’s cynicism at its worst. I first found meaning in books. So I devoured them, and I still do. But lately, I read a book, or a whole Harper’s, and it doesn’t touch me. “Great,” I say to myself, “so that was post WWII Europe. Whatever. Next?” Or, “Great article about the disappearing aquifers, Harper’s. But what am I gonna do about it?” I consume thoughtful books and articles like they were Twizzlers. And I guess it’s like, So what? People watch TV the same way, they read US Weekly the same way. Why can’t Harper’s be my US Weekly?

Because Harper’s is not empty. Because if Harper’s is empty, then post WWII Europe is empty, then I am empty, and everything I could choose to write will be empty, because everything is empty. So I don’t write.

Living in that emptiness is not an option if one would like to stay alive. It is not survivable. That emptiness nearly killed me ten years ago. The idea of emptiness, of pointlessness, has good lessons to teach, but you can’t live like that. You can’t not write because of that. It’s pathetic.

I believe I am someone who could express great things. If I’m not, then I would at least like to be a man who has mined his potential. Instead, I’ve spent the last few years flashing forward to see a man on a deathbed, ashamed of his life because he never even broke ground. The shame of that image in the mind of a young man, with two hands and a healthy brain…

I would like to be a man who frequently feels the connection with the world that I felt the other night night beneath the stars looking at the glow of the chicken coop soul. Writing something good about the world makes me feel that. Being a writer makes me feel that. It’s not that hard. Even writing about the silly chicken coop makes me feel that.

But I’m up to my head in chicken shit, and it’s paralyzed me, and I’m just so sick of it.