On Being with Krista Tippett

Gaelynn Lea’s Voice and Violin

Last Updated

December 23, 2020


Original Air Date

December 23, 2020

Gaelynn Lea’s voice and violin land like a balm — an offering of both clarity and gladness that can still be mustered in this midwinter, this upended Christmas season. She first came to the attention of many when she won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. This fiddler and singer-songwriter moves through the world in an electric wheelchair, and plays the violin like a cello because of the disability she was born with — a genetic condition that has made her bones more breakable. So much of what she’s learned through life in her body lands as wisdom, right now.

Guest

Image of Gaelynn Lea

Gaelynn Lea is a violinist and singer-songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota. Her albums include All the Roads that Lead Us Home, Learning How to Stay, and most recently, The Living Room Sessions: Gaelynn Lea LIVE.

Transcript

[music: “Amazing Grace / Down to the River to Pray” by Gaelynn Lea]

Krista Tippett, host: Gaelynn Lea’s voice and violin land like a balm – an offering of both clarity and gladness that can still be mustered in this midwinter, this upended Christmas season. She first came to the attention of many when she won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. She has now toured in 45 states and nine countries and recorded four albums.

Gaelynn Lea moves through the world in an electric wheelchair. And she holds her violin like a cello and her bow as if she were playing a bass — the way she and an ingenious teacher discovered to enable her to play at all. She first fell in love with the cello when she was in fourth grade. But because of the disability she was born with that gives her tiny and as she says “bendy” limbs —  she couldn’t navigate even the smallest violin in the ordinary way. So much of what she’s learned through life in her body lands as wisdom, right now.

Gaelynn Lea: [music: “Watch the World Unfold” by Gaelynn Lea]

What makes you think that you’ll ever get there?
What makes you think you deserve to know?
Who are you really, are you so important?
Take a look around and watch the world unfold
Watch the world unfold, watch the world unfold

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Gaelynn Lea was born and raised and lives in Duluth, Minnesota. Her latest album is The Living Room Sessions, recorded from her home in 2020

Tippett: And here we are, speaking in our pandemic year, in our pandemic winter. I’m in my makeshift — what my colleagues call my recording cave, in my basement den in my house. Where are you?

Lea: We have this studio apartment, so it’s really just one room. So I set up a makeshift recording area in front of our big window, behind — it’s such a tiny apartment, but behind a big red leather chair that we sit in at night, and right next to the bed. [laughs] So it’s all one thing. You can see, if you were looking at it, you could see our kitchen table behind me.

Tippett: So you grew up with a lot of music in the world around you, it sounds like. It sounds very cool to have a family dinner theater. [laughs]

Lea: I forgot. It’s one of those things where you don’t really think about how it’s cool, at the time, and then when you become an adult you’re like, oh, that was really neat. My parents were musical even before that. They actually met in a musical. And so that’s always been a part of our lives. And then around when I was ten, my mom decided, kind of spontaneously, that she wanted to open a dinner theater. And my dad went along with it, and they did that for 20 years. So it’s a really big part of my growing up.

Tippett: So you were born with this brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta? Is that right? Which means — and just, I want to make sure I’ve got this right — that it caused your bones to break in utero; so, while you were in the womb.

Lea: Basically, it’s a genetic disorder of the collagen. And so even now my bones are more fragile, but in the way that it manifested for me — it can look really different, depending on the individual. For me, I did break probably 30 or 40 or 50; they don’t even actually know, because X-rays and ultrasounds were pretty bad back then. But I broke a lot in utero, and then growing up — I think I’ve broken like 16 bones since I was born. But the vast majority happened before I was born.

Tippett: I was also thinking, I was thinking of a conversation with an anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson, who talks about “composing a life,” which is kind of akin to the musical, the improvisational nature of life, and improvisation being a virtue in a musical life, as well; and that in some ways, that virtue of music has worked with the virtues you acquired in, again, being in your body and leading the life that is yours.

Lea: That’s a good way to put it, composing a life. I think a disability, a big gift of that is innovation and rethinking how things are done. And a lot of people with disabilities, I think, have done that in their own lives. And one thing I’m grateful for, and I don’t really know, maybe it’s my parents, or things I’ve read over the years, but I do really feel that you have the responsibility to shape your life as much as you can, to fit not just you, but the broader sense of where you contribute. And so my life has been transformed and re-transformed a lot of different times, and I’m sure that won’t stop, but I think it’s a really fun part of being alive is that you can create — and I know I’m coming from a privileged place, in terms of support and stuff. But I do think that humans are inherently creative, and you can work with all sorts of situations.

I’m actually — I know this sounds terrible, but I’ve had a really fun time figuring out how to adapt to the pandemic. And although the pandemic itself is terrible and I know that a lot of people are suffering, from a creative standpoint of “how do I make art now?” — that part has actually been pretty invigorating to me. But that’s because I think if you see your whole life as, how do you create in the moment something that works, then a lot of different situations can lead to something like a positive outcome, or at least not be a wasted time.

There’s been a few months during this pandemic that I’ve been pretty depressed, so I’m not saying that I get up every day, eight o’clock, and make a ton of music or whatever. But in general, I don’t feel like there’s ever a lack of stuff you can learn or create. 

Tippett: So you’re a Minnesota girl. You’re a Northern Minnesota girl. And I have to say, the very first thing I heard of your music was you playing the fiddle. And I assumed — and I’ve spent a lot of time in that part of the world, and I assumed that you were Irish, and you were then an Irish transplant to Minnesota. That’s not something you grew up with, I don’t think, from what I can tell. I actually first discovered the fiddle in Scotland, and as you know, but even though Scottish and Irish fiddle sound very much alike, they’re also very different, in their way. But I’ve always felt like, as much as any other music, the fiddle — well, Celtic music in particular, but the fiddle in particular, really holds pain and joy, all at the same time. It carries this sadness, this old sadness that is ongoing, but it also carries right with it this possibility of something big enough to meet that sadness. Or that’s the way I would say it.

Lea: Yeah! There is something that is very moving about fiddle music. And maybe there were fiddle tunes that weren’t moving when they were first made. But those aren’t the ones that we have today, because they’re hundreds of years old, and we have kept the ones that touch us as people.

And one of my favorite things to do when I’m playing a fiddle tune is to think back on all the different people who have played it before me. And I’ll never even know who they are. But they might be a Civil War soldier, or a dude in Ireland from the 1700s. [laughs] And it’s just so cool to think about how that music has just been passed down.

But it is bittersweet. I just love — especially Celtic music, although Scandinavian fiddle, I’ve been introduced a little bit to that, and that has a darker tone a lot of the time, but it’s also very beautiful. The traditional music is just pretty cool.

[music: “Red-Haired Boy” by Gaelynn Lea]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with violinist and singer-songwriter Gaelynn Lea.

Tippett: We’re in December as we speak, around Christmas. And it’s a strange Christmas; every milestone in this year is — graduations didn’t happen, and state fairs didn’t happen, and Broadway is shut down, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are up in the air. And — one day, we will rebroadcast this conversation, and we will cut this part out, because we will [laughs] be in a different chapter of our life as a species. But I am curious about what’s Christmas, for you? I’m curious about what’s Christmas for you this year, in 2020? How are you gonna spend that?

Lea: [laughs] I have tiny lungs, so I really don’t want to get coronavirus. So I have been really locked down since March, don’t go to stores — we had to put our dog down in June, and I had to go to the doctor twice. But beyond that, I haven’t been inside, really, anywhere since March. And I also don’t want to spread it to people with disabilities, because people in group homes are more likely to die of coronavirus than almost anyone in the country, basically. So it’s something that I just don’t — I mean, I don’t want to spread it to anyone. But I don’t want to impact other people negatively, so we’ve been locked down.

But I will say that about two weeks ago, because my parents are just as locked down as us, and they’re the only people in our lives that are as locked down as us, we decided to form a little four-person pod, my husband and I and my parents. And we’re gonna cook a dinner together and Zoom on Christmas Day with the rest of my family.

I don’t know. I love Christmas. I had a Christmas album of live looped Christmas carols, because I am obsessed — I love Christmas music, and I really love the holidays; for some reason, Thanksgiving to Christmas is my favorite month of the year. So I’ve really been just trying to focus on the stillness of this year. Advent is right now, I draw from a lot of different faiths, but I’ve been reading some Advent devotionals, and this idea of stillness and waiting is very poignant this year, I would say.

[music: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Gaelynn Lea]

Tippett: Maybe we need to extend the spirit of Advent into these next few months, because the world is gonna shift again, but it’s not gonna happen yet.

It’s actually really energizing to speak to you and for you to talk about how you’ve actually had a flourishing of creativity, and you are in good spirits, obviously, and you’re even excited about Christmas. But as you said — you did mention this before — you’ve had rough days, also — you’ve written about that on your blog — in 2020. You wrote at one point about this feeling of dread, and how you had to kind of welcome dread. And you wrote something that I just want to read back, because it’s very beautiful and helpful. And so again, this was out of you being in lockdown, and then also reflecting on other hard passages in your life that also formed you; and I think that’s also true of a time like this, a time of loss, that the other losses of our life and the other traumas of our life come back to us a bit.

So anyway, you wrote this: “The saying goes, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But I would challenge you to reverse that saying for a moment. Love yourself as your neighbor. If you saw another person hurting, you’d want them to get the care they need, right? Well, you are that person today. You are absolutely worthy of care. Please reach out when life feels too difficult to bear. Hang on another day, so you can eventually find yourself in a better place and come to know your reason to keep living.”

Lea: Yes, so I deal with anxiety and depression at different times. Sometimes they are less prevalent, and sometimes they’re more. And when I wrote that particular blog, it was a pretty challenging part of this pandemic for me. And I think, especially in a time where there are so many people hurting in the world, it’s easy to just, I don’t know, just get overwhelmed and maybe paralyzed or frozen instead of thinking, well, what care do I need right now? What is something I could do to help myself?

But I think a lot of people, and myself included, sometimes — you always see other people suffering and not really acknowledge that you also can do something about your own without being a selfish or bad person, and that you are worthy of getting the care that you need.

The beginning of the pandemic, and then again a couple months ago, were both really hard, because at the beginning of it, I was just overwhelmed and depressed, but it hadn’t really come to Northern Minnesota yet. Nobody we knew was sick, but all this stuff —

Tippett: It’s come slowly to Minnesota.

Lea: And all this stuff changed — like our life’s changed; we drove home from a tour we were on our way to do, obviously. And I don’t know, something about the just not knowing the future, and reading the predictions of what could happen — it was a lot to take on. So at that point I got counseling online, which really helped. I mean, it really helps. I wish that we had national health care so that everybody could just go. But there are some places, like BetterHelp, where you can get it for less. But it’s important — it is so important — to do that if you need it, and just tried to give myself some slack.

Somebody said something that really helped me, around that time that I wrote the blog. They said, “A hundred and fifty years ago, basically the goal of life was just not to die.” [laughs]
“The goal of life was just to exist till another day. And we’ve added a lot of other kinds of commitments and expectations.”

Tippett: A lot of expectations on top of that.

Lea: And she’s like, “I think right now I’m just gonna focus on staying alive.” And I was like, wow, that actually really helped me to let go of some of the feeling of, “not only is there a pandemic, but I’m failing at everything, too.” That wasn’t helpful.

And then a couple months ago — it has been really difficult, and I’m not gonna downplay, as a person with a disability, not just for myself but for the community, how frustrating it’s been that people haven’t been following the rules in the way that they should, and wearing the masks and really not having parties; that kind of thing. So it’s been a lesson spiritually, for sure, in just having to accept what is and focus on what I am doing — speaking out when I can, of course,  But basically, being a totally angry person isn’t gonna help the world.

And so having to try to let go of some of that frustration and pain and — disappointment, I guess, is a big word for that — that’s been the other challenge of this pandemic for me, is just, I think people think of disability as negative, or something that they wouldn’t want. But I actually really think that it’s a really valid way to exist. And not only can it create different art, like my music is informed by my disability, but it can create different ways of seeing the world. And I just personally — other people have gone through far more terrible periods of history than this; we have the internet, we have a society …

Tippett: I know. It’s hard to imagine all that’s been possible. These concerts that you’ve broadcast out.

Lea: I think because disability is always reimagining or living outside the box, this particular time it’s been like, well, of course I’ll stay home. But again, I can’t control what other people do, so I’ve been really trying, especially at the holidays, to just realize that — you know, when Jesus was dying, he’s like, “Forgive them. They know not what they do”? It’s kind of that idea of, people aren’t trying, I don’t think, to really wreak havoc on the world.

I worked really hard in July to get a mask mandate in Duluth, and I’m glad that that ended up happening.

Tippett: Did that happen?

Lea: It did. And it wasn’t like I was the only person working on it, but I definitely had a voice in that discussion, so I feel like the things that you can do, you should do. I was like, you know, I’m home; I have time; I’m gonna work on this issue, because I think it’s important. And it felt good to see a change happen. I’m trying to focus on the positive stuff that I can do in the community, rather than getting too bogged down with watching people make decisions that I don’t agree with.

Tippett: Or that feel personally dangerous to you. I mean, there is a fine point on that, right? It’s really inner work that you’re doing, to know the validity of that feeling you have and the reality of the danger, and also make that decision not to assume that they mean it that way. That’s real internal labor.

Lea: That’s the thing, is I think this time is more than just metaphorical; a period, a point where we can choose to really learn from this time. And I really want to do that. I want to emerge from this situation not a bitter or disillusioned person. And I think that at least right now, that I will come out of it that way. But that’s because it takes a lot of inner reflection and just really trying to give — the whole idea of not judging other people, lest people judge you.

[laughs] When Jesus said, love your enemies, he wasn’t kidding about that part, you know? [laughs] That’s not very easy, but it’s definitely, actually what we’re supposed to be doing in the Christian context, and there’s probably similar verses in every other faith, too, the idea that you love people that hurt you, even though they hurt you. That’s what this is talking about, not in times of plenty. It’s like, right now is the time where that’s important.

Lea: [music: “Let It Go” by Gaelynn Lea]

Let yourself let it go
The urge to have, the need to know
Stay awake through the flow
And let yourself let it go

Tippett: After a short break, more with Gaelynn Lea.

[music: “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gaelynn Lea]

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
Long ago.

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, partaking of the voice and violin of Gaelynn Lea. She became known to many when she won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. She moves through the world in an electric wheelchair, and plays the violin like it’s a cello, because she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that makes bones more breakable both in utero and across life.

Tippett: Some of the ways you reflect on disability and also work for disability rights and, I don’t know, I would say disability kinship, also, with human kinship, and something that you’ve pointed out, that this is not something so unusual if you look at it in the large sweep of things, that nearly one in five people in America has a disability; 19 percent. But also, at a deeper level, what you’re talking about — we all are imperfect, suffering, wounded, different in some ways; it just doesn’t always show on the outside of our bodies. That 19 percent [laughs] is things that maybe show on the outside of your bodies, or show up in certain ways.

Lea: Yes. Again, I see disability as just a form of diversity, like a spectrum. And it changes throughout your life. I’ll probably be less able-bodied or whatever, when I’m 84 than I am now. And so —

Tippett: And so will I.

Lea: And so will everyone. So if you make it that long, you’re not gonna be the same person that you were when you were 30, in terms of your physical form, and I just think that if you see disability as entirely natural — I think what it is, to me, is we call certain things disabilities or diseases or whatever, but I just don’t see it as a compartmentalized thing. I think we’re all just humans, and we’ve labeled certain things, and that disability is entirely a natural part of every single person’s life, they just don’t identify with it. And when you do touch the idea that you’re a mortal and that you need support, or that it’s OK to ask for help, or that it’s OK to rethink things, or you don’t have to follow the crowd and do it the same way, there’s a lot of things that being disabled has made visible to me but literally applies to everyone.

I did a TED talk on sexuality once, and I said, some of these revelations I have seem like they’re because of disability, but they apply to everyone. A And anyone can become disabled at any time, and I think we just don’t want to acknowledge, maybe, that softness, or the vulnerability or whatever that comes with disability. But there’s also strength and creativity there, too. So I wish that we could take away the stigma, or the separateness, and just start embracing it as diversity that is a welcoming — a welcoming club or something.

Tippett: Someplace, you spoke about how — what you say is how we’re all disabled, in the same way that we’re all dying. It’s just more obvious [laughs] in some lives and in certain moments.

Lea: The reality is, we’re all headed there.

Tippett: And you said — this was very striking to me. Just getting this into context here, you were talking about your husband Paul and how it’s true that he has to care for you in complex ways, but really in ways that many spouses care for their spouse at different stages of life. He cares for you in a way that you might expect in many marriages, for him to care for you when you’re older or you’ve been married longer. But that reality belongs to all of us, just as you’re saying.

Lea: [laughs] We just sped up by like four decades or something. But yeah, and then the thing is, I think we care for each other, and his is more physical — well, his is both. But he does a lot of physical stuff. But to assume that just because you need physical care that you’re not also providing other care, is important to remember.

So I feel like one thing I would love to see in my lifetime is a linking of older people, to understand disability in a way that — so it’s easier to age. All of my grandparents have struggled with getting older, and being really frustrated with their bodies changing, and feeling like a burden, and all of these things that you have to deal with as a disabled person and make peace with, to just have a happy life. And I wish that we talked about this stuff sooner so that when you are older, and you suddenly may need someone to drive you to the grocery store, that you don’t hate your life. There’s no reason to, if you see it as a context of just a different part of the human cycle that’s just as valuable.

I think the biggest thing to remember is that all people are equally valuable, and that is true no matter what stage of life you’re in or what your disability is, and so that you don’t have to feel bad about needing extra help as you age, and that that creative thing about “well, how can I do it now?” rather than “I can’t do this anymore.” There’s just so many lessons, that disability and old age could work synchronistically if we could be talking about it more.

Tippett: In terms of the shared human condition; the spectrum of the human condition.

I did watch that TED talk that you gave. [laughs] And I actually wanted to talk to you about it. You actually studied political science at college. That was your major. And I think this was the TED talk where you talked about reading Marcuse, the philosopher, on Eros. And you had this epiphany that has really been important to how you think about — kind of what we were talking about a minute ago — your internal freedom. And often, when you talk about yourself as a disability rights advocate, you’ll join language like disability rights, inner freedom, accessibility and the arts. So would you tell that story? You’ve said this lightning bolt struck your brain when you read this philosopher.

Lea: [laughs] Yes. So the philosopher Marcuse was writing about how capitalism had usurped sexuality, in the way that they had discovered — and by “they,” I guess the people who sell things — had discovered that if you make people feel inadequate about themselves, like ten pounds overweight or not wearing cool enough clothes, that they will invest money to reach this ideal that has been set by capitalism. And so you can sell diet pills and different hair products and all sorts of things, magazines. And you just make the bar unattainable enough so that people will keep striving after it and never really be satisfied with who they are, so they’ll spend tons of money.

And that’s a very oversimplification of what he wrote about, but that’s what I was reading. And I was like, wow, I do not relate to this at all, which was weird. I was like, I see other people do that; I obviously see people spending money on stuff because they feel not pretty enough or whatever.

Tippett: To make them more complete, or more perfect.

Lea: But I was like, I just don’t feel that way. And I wondered why that was. And it dawned on me that because I look so different — my limbs are bent, I’m in an electric wheelchair, I’m just really small — I don’t see myself at all in those magazines. And it would be laughable to think about trying to look like a model in Cosmopolitan or something, because I just look so different that it obviously didn’t apply to me. So, growing up, that obviously does make you feel left out — luckily, all of my friends were nerds, so none of us really dated. But people around us were dating —

Tippett: This is as a teenager.

Lea: But people start dating, or you start thinking, oh, maybe I’ll never be able to get married, because nobody will ever find me attractive — you have those worries. But when I realized that I had this freedom to just develop into the person I wanted to become, without feeling weighed down by these standards that were unattainable anyways — that’s the reality of disability actually overlapping into everywhere — it’s designed to make you lose, the capitalism-sexuality world. Nobody can stay in the realm of desirable for longer than maybe three years in their twenties, and then all of a sudden, you have to keep working to fit this ideal.

And so I realized, I had this freedom right out of the gate. And when I realized I had that freedom, I think you just become more confident, or just less weighed down. And so actually, shortly after that is when I did start dating people. And that was sort of a coincidence, but I had to have that realization first, that where I was might look like left-out and sad, but where I actually was, was in this place of intense freedom to be who I wanted to be. And that was really liberating. We’re never gonna feel like we have the stuff we need or the looks that we need; it’s always changing.

Tippett: It’s [audio] can still make us better.

Lea: Exactly.

[music: “Moment of Bliss” by Gaelynn Lea]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with violinist and singer-songwriter Gaelynn Lea.

Tippett: What about this song Moment of Bliss? It’s so beautiful.

Lea: Oh, yeah! That’s a little older one; I wrote that when I was playing a lot with Alan Sparhawk. And that one is about marriage, actually.

[music: “Moment of Bliss” by Gaelynn Lea]

It seemed easy
But it’s so hard to do
Feels too empty
When we’re facing the truth
Facing the truth
All we need to know
Lies at the end of our grasp
We won’t choose to go
So we just face the next task
Humble at last

Lea: I think marriage is a really powerful place to — oh, I just read in a devotional recently, by some monk — I don’t remember who it was, actually — that marriage is a community of two. So if you’re married, it’s not like you’re a monk in a sangha or whatever, far away in an ashram, but you are a community of two, and you can learn to enact your spiritual principles in this one relationship. And I think that marriage, especially, for me has been a really intense growing field. Again, not always good at it; it makes you face the worst of yourself, and the best of yourself, in some cases, and there are never a lack of opportunities to put your spirituality into practice, in a marriage.

Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Lea: Oh my gosh, you know? We’re in a studio apartment. We’ve been here since March. If you think we haven’t argued since March, you are wrong. So, it’s a hugely, like, there’s your chance to figure out some of this spiritual stuff that you think about. Here’s how you do it. And so that’s what I mean about it “seems easy, but it’s so hard to do.” You read these spiritual practices, and they resonate with you, and these verses, and you feel something. But then to do it when your partner is bugging the crap out of you, is so different. To put it into practice is huge.

But then, “We won’t choose to go, so we just face the next task, humble at last,” I think it’s important to just —

Tippett: “Humble at last,” that’s the line that recurs.

Lea: Exactly. It’s like, “Well, here we are. Sorry I messed that one up, let’s try again,” basically. And I think marriage is a — for me, it’s been really cool to think about even though it can be a struggle sometimes, how cool it will be, hopefully, if we make it that long, in forty years you will know that person better than you knew anyone else, ever. And I just think that’s so cool.

But it’s very much a practice ground for this more lofty stuff you read about. It’s like the battlefield — in a not bad way, but definitely intense.

Tippett: Is there, maybe, one other song that comes to you, that feels resonant with what we’re talking about.

Lea: So in 2019 I wrote a song called “The Long Way Around.” And that song is about the relationships that start out really fun and light and joyful, and then you come to this sort of an impasse where you’re struggling with each other, and the idea that if you make it through that place, how it can really be a blessing to have that relationship in your life. There’s a couple different times where friendships have come to this “OK, are we gonna work on this, or are we not gonna work on this?” And if we don’t work on it, then the understanding is that you’re probably not gonna have each other in your lives. But the times that I have chosen to work through it have been just very rewarding.

That idea that “try not to burn the careful ties that bind us together,” I think just relationships in general — and it’s been amplified during COVID — it’s not like “we can get through anything,” automatically. You have to be willing to do either the work or the carefulness of not wounding each other. That’s a real part of being a human. And so taking the long way around, to me, means that you don’t necessarily have to resolve everything overnight, but that if you work on those relationships, it can end up being a really fulfilling place to be, I guess.

[music “Long Way Around” by Gaelynn Lea]

We reign it in
And there is better understanding
Nobody wins if there is fright without demanding
And we learn to keep our hearts in time
Try not to burn the careful ties that bind us together
And I am taking the long way around with you
And I am taking the long way around
And I am happy to be in this place with you
And I am taking the long way around

Tippett: I really appreciate you calling that out, too, that kind of love. And as you say, at a time like this, where we’re all — everybody’s stressed in their own particular way. It’s just true when any of us is not at our best, or is feeling stressed out or vulnerable or just tired, then we’re more likely to be hard on the people — when we’re hard on ourselves, we’re likely to be harder on people around us.

Lea: And that’s why I guess I just think a lot of this stuff in life is the long game. You have to play the long game. And that’s why getting help, for example, when you’re depressed, and just — my dad always said, when I broke my arms, he would always say, “This too shall pass.” And it’s true. Everything does eventually pass. So giving yourself permission to be like, oop, I screwed that up; but I’m playing the long game, and so there’s a chance to figure this out still.

I love that songwriting, I think, comes from a place in your brain that you can’t really access, or maybe the spiritual realm, it’s hard to say. But you write the songs, but I feel like sometimes you don’t really realize what they’re saying until later.

Tippett: I remember Roseanne Cash saying to me, “you catch the songs.”

Lea: Yeah! Yeah, I feel like they kind of just float down from a place that is very mysterious to me. And I gotta give the human race credit. [laughs] For what we are going through, people have really done some cool things — and not even just doing cool things, but people have endured a lot.

And I’m proud to see how people have coped, even the ones that are struggling, admitting that they’re struggling and then trying to figure out a way — “well, should I get a dog? Should I go to counseling? What do I need to do?” I think there is a deep resilience in the human race that that song touches on, I think. And I’ve seen it during coronavirus. And it’s a neat thing to witness; despite all the tragedy around us, there is resilience too, and I think that’s really cool.

Tippett: If I ask you — I feel like what you just have been talking about flows into this — if I ask you, through this life you’ve lived, through who you are, and in this moment but also through the fullness of yourself, how has your sense — and this is an impossibly large question, so just, how would you start to answer this; how would you start to think it through — What have you learned about what it means to be human? How does your sense of that keep unfolding?

Lea: Well, I think that at least for me — I can’t speak for other people, of course. But for me, it feels like you’re a spiritual being, whatever that means to you. As a human, you have this spirit, and that I know — I really do feel that there is this perfect love, somewhere. And you have glimpses of it; it’s real deep-down, there. But the practice of being human, for me, is just learning how to do that in a place that’s not perfect. It’s easy to think about — man, I do devotionals every morning, and it’s so easy — [laughs] you read them, and you just think, oh, yes, this is truth. And then you get out in the world, and somebody bugs you, and you’re like, “Oh, whoops. [laughs] Now I’m annoyed.” And it’s just, being a human is learning how to carry that love and that nurturing and whatever it means to treat other people with love, too; to do that in real life, in actual practice. And that’s what I think the point of being a human, for me, is.

And on a broader sense, I think that that means sharing yourself with the world, however that looks. It can look so different, for different people. For me, I’ve gotten a lot of messages about music. Like sharing music with other people is what I feel like I should be doing with my time. But it doesn’t have to be something performative. It’s just, how do you bring yourself into the world in a way that expands love, rather than contracting it, and just doing it in real life? I think that’s what you get out of being a human.

Tippett: [laughs] Real, unromantic life.

Lea: Yes.

[music: “Grace and a Tender Hand: by Gaelynn Lea]

I don’t know the words to the song I want to sing you
I don’t have a name for what I want to bring you
I don’t understand what you’ve seen or all that you have done
But if I could bring you peace today
My battle would be won

We don’t know the outcome, how this story will unfold
We only have a moment, and it is not ours to hold
A place to fall, a time to land; we grow by grace and a tender hand
The beauty of this hidden plan
Is our battle has been won.

Tippett: Gaelynn Lea’s albums include Learning How to Stay and most recently, The Living Room Sessions — recorded from real life at home in 2020. And she’s continuing to hold virtual “quarantine concerts,” every Sunday through lockdown on YouTube. You can find more about that and all her music and writing on her website, violinscratches.com, or visit her Patreon site: patreon.com/gaelynnlea.

[music: “Jim and Judy’s Wedding” by Gaelynn Lea]

The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, and Lillie Benowitz.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

 

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