Trying To Be Free

Trying To Be Free was written the morning after a high-desert bender.

We drank too much under the Sante Fe stars, shared religious doubts and frustrations, then finally threw up in the sagebrush. This song became our anthem of religious tension – a wrestle between community, love, and hope in one corner and fear, guilt and protectionism in the other.

The recording features many who shared that night, contributing remotely during the pandemic.

Lyrics

Kneel down while I hold back your hair
There’s no need for shame honey, we’ve all be there
I know nothing I say will make it seem fair that
Pleasure and pain are so tangled together

Please know you deserve to be loved
And the shelter he’s giving you – it isn’t enough
When then nights have gone cold and you lie in the silence
With passion and pain held so tightly together

We are shaking off shackles
Trying to be free
Without walking away from everything

So spill out all of your rage
Line after line, page after page
Knowing nothing you write could ever erase
How salvation and pain are so bound up together

We are shaking off shackles
Trying to be free
Without walking away from everything

I keep scrolling through the photos on my phone
Cos I love who I am when I am not alone
There’s an ache that you left me – a sliver of home
Why do friendship and pain always wind up together?

We are shaking off shackles
Trying to be free
Without walking away from everything 

Credits

This song came together with contributions from many wonderful talented people who aren’t me. 

Drums – Brendan Lyons 

Keys – Brennan Cameron

Mandolin – Tania Runyan

BGVs – Seth and China Kent (Alright, Alright)

Voices Captured in the Desert – Kristin Tennant and Todd Truffin

Mastered in Ottawa, Ontario by Philip Shaw Bova

Streaming

I didn’t drink until I was in my thirties.

In part, I was staying faithful to my religious community. In part I was scared. Afraid of transgressing. Fearful of what I didn’t understand.

These days I really love a good craft beer. A fine whiskey. A rich red wine.

As I near forty, I’m loosening.

I’m starting to see my life in two parts.

The first part was a process of binding. Binding myself to institutions and creeds. Bonding with a small set of friends and family. Holding myself up to standards and imagining everyone was watching for me to slip. Submitting myself to others’ expectations of me.

The second part of life, which I’m still entering now, is a process of loosening. Releasing the pressure. Coming out from under rules I’ve held myself and others to. Loosening my judgements and beliefs. Making room for doubts and surprises. Untangling myself from lies I’ve been told about myself and the world.

I’m trying to let go of the wrong things and still be held by the right things.

I’m trying to be free, without walking away from everything.

I’m not alone. I feel this loosening all around me.


It’s the end of July and I’m sitting in a shack under the stars in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sipping whiskey with friends.

This particular whiskey is peach flavoured, and not very good. A friend of mine loves peaches. And loves whiskey. So this seemed perfect. She, like me, comes from a religious background where drinking is taboo. There’s a shiver of rebellion as we pull this bottle of oblivion from the shelves of the Saints & Sinners liquor store.

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The whiskey is too sweet and too fruity for most of us in the shack, but not for my Christian poet friend. She’s fallen in love with peach whiskey without first learning how to pour a sensible amount. The sugary, smooth whiskey goes down too quickly and none of us notice.

We don’t notice because we are deep in conversation. A half dozen of us are reflecting on things we are proud of from the past year. One friend’s answer is unexpected. She’s proud of starting marriage counseling. Which is good. Her marriage is struggling. Which is not so good.

This friend, another Christian poet, comes from a religious upbringing with clear roles for men and women. In these communities, marriage is sacred, as is our place within it as a man or woman. She friend is chafing under these ancient expectations. She’s in pain.

Her story releases a flood of stories from Christian women whose husbands have not loved them well. Women who were held back and put down.

Another friend tells of a time when her husband (now ex) was given an assignment to spend 15 minutes with her each day for a week. 15 whole minutes of attention. She feels embarrassed at how exciting that was for her. Her husband didn’t complete the assignment.

As I listen I keep thinking how these women deserve to be loved. How we all deserve to be loved. And to love.

Earlier in the day we are driving the New Mexican countryside and confessing our theological doubts and hangups. More and more, we feel like we don’t belong, and like we want belonging.

Back in the tin-roofed shack, our solemn silence is broken by our whiskey loving friend, now tipsy and loud.

Over the next half hour, we watch her sway from teetering to toppling over as the liquor sets in. I hold up the bottle and it’s nearly half gone.

I get worried.

She starts telling us she loves us. And asking us if we love her. Over and over and over.

“Do you still love me?” she asks.

“I’m 47 years old!” she protests. “I’m a professional!”

“Do you still love me?” she asks? “You guys love me, right?”

We wait it out while she lies on the bench, moaning and asking if we love her. Of course we do. Beyond telling her this, we’re not sure how to help her. We are half a kilometer from her dorm room, down a steep hill. There’s no way we can get her there without a commotion and some bruises.

We stall for time. And then the miracle begins.

From a dark path, another friend arrives. A friend who does not appear daunted by any of this. A friend who springs into action.

She helps our poor poet to the bushes where she vomits up the poison, tries to pee and rolls down the cactus-scattered hillside. She’ll find new scratches and bruises for days.

Our hero gives water and some magical pills for later, when she’ll wake in the cold dark feeling awful. We make our way back to civilization and and others help our dear poet to her room while head off to bed, hoping to God she doesn’t die of shame or alcohol poisoning by morning.

I wake up thinking about all of this. Feeling the weight of it. Then a song pops into my head.

“Kneel down while I hold back your hair

no need for shame honey, we’ve all been there

I know nothing I say will make it seem fair

that pleasure and pain are so tangled together”

I grab my borrowed guitar, borrowed from one of these dear friends, and write the rest of the song.

Our poet friend wakes up with no hangover and we all believe in miracles again.

In the coming days we fill her in on the bits and pieces of the night she can’t remember and she’s embarrassed but not ashamed. She can laugh about it. I write my song and another friend writes a poem. There is no judgement. There is no sitting in the past. Only moving forward. There is only grace. This is beautiful and for some of us, new.

Somehow the madness of this night draws us together. Somehow this captures where we are in life right now. Removed from bright lights, out in the unknown under the stars. Testing the fences and pushing the boundaries and failing and getting back up again to find ourselves capable of holy love.

“We are shaking off shackles

Trying to be free

Without walking away from everything”

Here I am performing Trying To Be Free.

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Practicing a new song for this afternoon’s show. A few kinks to work out but we’re almost there!

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5 thoughts on “Trying To Be Free”

  1. Your song, “Trying to be free,” is so telling of where I’m at these days, too. I’m nearing on 60, and also have had a very strong religious upbringing. I also am not walking away from everything, yet I am discovering that there’s so much of what was taught as“correct” and “true” that really is just plain human tradition/opinion. Thank you for your music. I know it’s tough these day with the pandemic, but hopefully things will be opening up soon.
    I heard you, by the way, on my favourite radio station, CKUA.

    Reply
    • Hi Walt – thank you so much for taking the time to write this comment. Writing these songs is often a very personal journey for me so it always brightens my day to hear when my own story connects to someone else’s. I’m sure there are SO many more just like us wrestling with these things – in fact, I’ve come to believe that life is best lived in the wrestle, as hard and uncomfortable as that can be.

      I’m happy to hear you heard the tune on CKUA – they are such a great support for artists like me. If you ever feel inclined to request any of my songs there that’s a big help to an indie artist like me.

      I’ve been playing a lot of small backyard shows this summer touring my new album as things start to open up which is glorious. Where are you located?

      Reply
  2. I live in Camrose, Alberta; just south of Edmonton.

    It’s such a relief that things are opening up again. Glorious indeed!

    All the best to you, and I just might feel inclined to make that request!

    Reply
  3. I live in Camrose, AB now; it’s just south of Edmonton. I see on this page that you mastered the song in Ottawa, ON. I grew up just south of there, in Brockville. Where are you living?

    I’m so glad that things are opening up again! The pandemic has the creatives among us trying out different ways to get the work out there. Back yard concerts, live stream, etc. Another tool to use, so great!

    All the best to you this summer as you tour.

    Reply

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