Most of us don’t have our dreams handed to us on a silver platter by a man dressed in black. –But, I did. On the cusp of turning forty, I was presented with my dream, perfectly packaged and ready to open. Unfortunately, I needed to walk through fear and face my worst self before I could step out with courage, and unwrap the gift before me.
My dream was simple: All I’ve ever wanted to do, for as far back as I can remember, is be a musician. I pictured myself in the studios and on the stages of the world channeling my feelings and creativity through music. Unfortunately, the vision I had was drastically different from the one my parents had for me. The chasm was like night and day, and it was one I dared not to cross.
From a very young age I was prog-rammed to seek security and comfort outside of myself; through work, through purchased things, through education and achievement. I had bought into the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Over time, I was taught to fear my dream because of the unknown path it represented. And so, I downsized my musical ambitions and set out down the well-trodden path of success as defined by others.
I earned a master’s degree, was rewarded with a high-paying corporate job, and enjoyed all the privileges that came with a yuppie lifestyle. I worked long and hard and attained all the external comforts money could by. I had made it according to the standards of my parents and our culture.
Then one day it was all swept away. At the height of my success I experienced a perfect storm.
Within the period of one year, I lost my corporate job, career, retirement package, savings, house and my girlfriend. If I had a dog, I would have lost it too. I had absolutely and unequivocally hit rock bottom.
In my darkest hour though, even to my surprise, I found the strength to re-build my life brick by brick, year by year, until I had once again made it financially. I built a new company and the future looked bright. The promise of new products, a growing and energized work force, and the opportunity to franchise nationally was all within reach. It was a long, hard slog but security and comfort were once again mine. I held them both tightly in a closed fist. Then, out of the blue, my childhood dream appeared. Presented on a silver platter not just by a man dressed in black, but the man dressed in black… Johnny Cash.
I was asked to join the band Wilco, a darling of the critics. They were poised to break out on the international stage. I was offered an opportunity to play around the world every night to more people than I had ever imagined. I would be rewarded with instant fame, money, press interviews, television appearances, and recording sessions. All I had to do was step on the tour bus and this life, my dream, would come true.
I had been conditioned to believe there was a price to be paid for this dream and that price was the hard won security and comfort that I pursued my entire life. I would have to trade my safe, successful business and face my fear of the great unknown head on. The prospect was nothing short of terrifying. I declined on Wilco’s offer several times. But they were persistent, insistent that I play just one show with them, opening for Johnny Cash in New York City.
The offer was a gift that forced me to walk directly through fear. When I heard the knock on the dressing room door in New York, I had no idea it was a sign my life was about to be changed forever. In walked June Carter and Johnny Cash and they were about to start me on a path I never thought I’d choose. They spoke to the band for a bit, and then Johnny came over to me, shook my hand and said, “I understand you’re the new steel player in Wilco.”
“No sir, Mr. Cash” I replied, “I’m just playing this one gig as a favour.” What happened next, surprises me, even to this day.
Although I was the trained psychologist, I virtually vomited up my life story to Johnny. Exploding in a torrent of emotion held back over time, I admitted I was terrified. My barely audibly objections, that I was almost forty, too old for the brutal lifestyle of the road, too worn out by change, too afraid to take risk, and convinced I wasn’t good enough, tumbled out in an embarrassing confession.
Johnny nodded patiently and never took his eyes off mine. Putting his hand on my shoulder he said: “It can be a hard road but if your heart’s in the right place it’s a good life.”
As he stepped back and said goodbye I had one of those moments where the world stops, the skies part, and the angels sing. Before me stood a man righteous and true, a man who had navigated the hard road to live a good life, a man who represented the very hope I needed to know existed so I could walk through fear. Johnny Cash was living proof of what can be accomplished, when your heart is in the right place. In that moment my fears evaporated and I faced my future a free man.
Thanks to Johnny, I got on that tour bus with Wilco. It’s been almost fifteen years since and it’s been the ride of my life.
Has it been a hard road? Absolutely. Living my dream meant paying my dues all over again – I fell in the music business as far and hard as I had fallen from my corporate perch. For the second time in my adult life I experienced bankruptcy, failure, fear, doubt and depression. Living your dream can be a hard road.
But has it been a good life?
I learned that perseverance, sacrifice, vision, and hard work are required in spades to live one’s dream. I was rewarded with personal freedom, world travel, deep camaraderie and friendship, the opportunity to pursue my craft, and a peace that can only be born out of knowing your life’s purpose and mission. Living your dream is a good life.
And was my heart in the right place? Johnny’s example of compassion and support has inspired me to pass his gift on to friends and strangers alike. It has enriched my life immeasurably and opened doors to experiences I would never have imagined. And, in my greatest hours of need, I in turn, have been rewarded with the compassion and support of friends and strangers. I learned that the bridge between the hard road and the good life is your heart.
Do I have regrets? In the past decade and a half I have played the world’s stages thousands of nights. On every one of them I have looked out into the spotlight and silently thank the man who changed my life, and to remind myself to spread his message of the power of the heart. No regrets for that.