TO LIVE IS TO FLY (New Beginnings in a New Year)
“To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eye.” Townes Van Zandt
The great Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt died tragically on January 1, 1997. I was living in Austin at the time and a group of us gathered the next day at sunset on Town Lake under a railroad bridge to read his lyrics and honor his memory. His life reads like a sad country song – battling depression, addiction, and mental illness – all the while penning poetry that likely saved others from his eventual fate. He once said that his songs “aren’t sad, but hopeless” – a statement that may put the pathos back in the pathetic or may leave just enough room for individual interpretation. Guy Clark observed that his lyrics were always “sparse enough to let you use your imagination.”
Recently I was back in Texas not far from Austin, hanging out in a bar owned by a ZZ-Top lookalike character that had chucked his “successful” career in Houston (where Townes got his start playing for ten bucks a night) and opened a bar in Round Top. We slept in a barndominium with a view of baby bulls, lulled to sleep by the call of cattle. It was enough to reconnect me with my inner cowboy, and I tried to remember if I’d left my boots in Marfa (and where I’d stashed my cowboy hat since moving from Hawaii to New Orleans). It also made me fondly recall all those years in Austin, celebrating the Texas singer/songwriter tradition.
In that sacred movement, there is no holier man more revered than Townes, whom Steve Earle crowned “the best songwriter in the world,” and adds for effect, “I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it!” Van Zandt’s own life gave him all the material he’d ever need: a dozen stints in rehab will teach you all about rising and falling, near-death and possible-resurrection, and dusting off your wings while wiping the slumber from your eyes. Plus, he had a dog named Geraldine, which proves there was a fine man residing inside all along.
On the way back to Louisiana from Texas, I wanted to share his songs with a special person, so I played a few selections from his tribute album titled “Poet.” If I had to pick a favorite, it would likely be “To Live is to Fly,” an anthem for a new beginning in a new year. “It don’t pay to think too much on things you leave behind,” Townes sings. Sounds like that Night Prayer from New Zealand: “What has been done has been done. What has not been done has not been done. Let it be.” Let it be and leave it behind. Whether 2019 was a cause for celebration or a lost cause altogether, it is now past. So, we move on. “We all got holes to fill” in every year, Townes tells us, and “them holes are all that’s real.” He tells the truth: “Some fall on you like a storm, sometimes you dig your own. The choice is yours to make. Time is yours to take.”
The good news is that we have been given the gift of time. We have all the time there is. What we do with it remains to be seen. In this New Year, as in all years, there will be lows and highs. Sometimes we’ll soar toward the heavens, other times we will crash and burn. The better news is that the Creator has given each of us wings to fly and eyes to see, the power to rise up and overcome what would drag us down, the vision to see beyond the state of slumber that sleeps through its true calling and potential.
May this year find you wide awake and aware of your wings. May you discover that to live is to fly.