Updated: Feb 11
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Greetings from Chicago! Happy New Year and Welcome to the Soaring 20s!
Here’s hoping you’re staying comfy, safe, and healthy, and looking toward a bright future. That last bit can be challenging. The other things probably aren't so difficult for most people reading this. Not comfy? Grab another pillow for the couch. Trying to stay safe? Watch your step on the ice, stay alert. Want to live healthy? Eat well, stay fit. We’ve got all the generalized answers. But… looking toward a bright future? "Take off your rose-colored glasses, Phil, and get real," you might say, "the world is raging around us." Well, I admit it's taken me the entire first month of this new year to get myself sorted out and goal-oriented for the rest of this new year, made especially tricky as we are also looking at a new decade. I started this process by looking back a decade and seeing how much has shifted in my life. It's been a lot. Like night and day. Like a seismic shift. Okay. Then, I look at the changes in the world, in our overall history, in order to gain a perspective. So, it's 2020. What are we looking at today? In 1920, a hundred years ago, the world had just come out of a devastating world war. It was moving into the roaring 20s, under prohibition in this country, with no idea that a massive economic breakdown was on the way, followed by another world war that was concluded by the detonation of two atomic bombs over densely populated cities that incinerated 100s of thousands of people. Wow. I trust we're not headed that direction again.
I have a picture on the wall of my studio. It's from about 98 years ago and it's of my grandfather, Herbert Phillip Wagner, and his quartet. Did these gentlemen know what was coming? I know at least two of them survived to old age. My grandpa and the guy on the far right, Nils Tavares. He became a Federal Judge. Years after this picture was taken, his homeland of Hawaii was bombed and the U.S. was dragged into war with Japan and the Axis.
My gramps is the guy with the ukulele. He didn't actually play it. He was the tenor in the group, but they thought he should hold an instrument for the promo photos. I was named after him. Well, I was named after the first Phillip Wagner who came to this country from Germany in 1848 or so, we think to escape persecution. His name, Phillip, was then handed down. I'm told music has been handed down through the generations, as well. My Grandpa Wagner here was a recording artist, but made a living as an accountant. My mother, Lilias Wagner Circle, was a musician, writer, and producer. My first memories are musical. I'm grateful for the upbringing and for having been bitten by the musical bug at a very early age.
And speaking of gratitude...
As I said, it took me a minute to get my goals together for this new year. Part of the reason was fear of not accomplishing them. Part of the reason was overwhelm. Part of the reason was a focus on what I hadn't accomplished in 2019, instead of what I had. And part of the reason was that I legitimately wanted a little room, to look back from a spot clear of the holiday season.
There's a lot of talk of gratitude these days. I'm well aware that it can sometimes be annoying and frustrating to implement. People make it sound as if just showing gratitude will make your life all sparkly and perfect. But, that's not the idea at all. The universe is not a slot machine. You don't just put in gratitude and get back good fortune. Gratitude as a mindset is more like a means for gaining perspective. It's like a little emotional Easter Egg Hunt. You walk around looking for small things that may at first be hidden from your view. When you find them, a simple kind of joy emerges. It's the reminder that you've actually got access to more than you think. It's the feeling that highlights the strength of our emotions. You can't fake gratitude to get stuff, because that's not how it works. But when your gratitude is real, it wells up inside you and motivates you to take the kind of actions that create even greater fortune in your life.
Through hindsight, I recognized the power of gratitude in my life. Again. Like any of us, I need constant reminders. So, by surveying things with an eye for good, I saw how things are working, and it allowed me to develop a clear vision for 2020. Allow me to share.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that remind us of the big changes. Sometimes, it’s the big things that bog us down. The world is at once a massive place that’s getting smaller by the day. It can also make us feel very small. Once in awhile, I’m just working my own little grind and keeping big plans for my expansive future in my over-active mind, while simultaneously hoping for a little more money to cover some big expense, and my little world gets up-ended with a great big reminder. This happened with a small show I did just before a big turn of the clock to the new year.
It was the Eve of the Eve, December 30th, the last little breather before the big night. I was playing to a small audience with a wonderful and diverse line-up of artists.
At one point, I was musing aloud to the audience about developments over the last few years. I commented on my music being added to some "best of" lists, my teaching studio and my book each receiving awards, and that I had never really been that guy in the past; the award-winning type. While I got pretty good reviews for my music, my lack of overall mainstream appeal hadn't typically put me in the path of awards. I was filled with curiosity as to why. Then it struck me as I stood there staring off at the back wall, wondering out loud before my audience. Gratitude was the reason. Over the last several years, I've intentionally developed an ever-deepening gratitude for my life. I switched off the complaining and finger-pointing about the industry I'm in, and turned on a greater appreciation for the people who enjoy my work and the many opportunities life has given me to grow into the man that I am today. And the man that I hope to grow into, for that matter. Where I lacked in the past was that, while I’d find it in my heart to thank people and really did appreciate any recognition, I also tended to promptly undermine it with a big fat “but.” But, I sure wish more would listen. But, I can barely make a living off so few downloads. And the ever popular; But, then there’s that guy over there, doing so much more, or making so much more, etc. Compare and despair. I did it regularly. I couldn't hear the compliments under the din of my screaming lack of self worth. I couldn't find the gratitude between the weeds of my whining. I also plainly ignored the vast numbers of people who wished they were in my shoes.
I suppose I could point to a number of clear moments in my life that changed this. However, I see a longer arc leading to this moment. There's a process happening here. I’m still in the long wide turn toward a clearer view of what it means to live in gratitude. I’m still working on it. In fact, I started this blog to remind myself to be grateful after a couple seemingly unremarkable days. I'm a Buddhist and a musician. They call it a Buddhist practice. I practice my music. We're always working on it. There's no perfection, only a great and exciting journey.
Moving along, here’s the chronological view of this recent trend in my life, in case it helps.
In 2016, I quit drinking altogether.
I was grateful for overcoming one of my greatest demons, to say nothing of the accompanying pancreatitis and liver disease. As a result of my gratitude, I reached out to share my experience anywhere I could. I sought out a life of giving. This had actually been the life I saw for myself as a child and young adult, but it became buried under resentments and fears and failures, none of which I could seem to contend with. I wallowed for years. Now I climbed. It truly was a day by day thing. Searching for good in my life and expressing open appreciation took real effort, but it just felt better. Especially as it became more habitual. And it did.
In 2017, I self-published my memoir, The Outback Musician’s Survival Guide, in paperback and ebook. While many of the sufferings in my life were not such a huge deal, some were pretty intense, and like any normal human being, I often wondered “Why me?” with at least a few of them. When I read the reviews of my book, I had an answer. With both professional and reader reviews citing the inspirational stories of “grit and realism,” and individuals contacting me to share their similar experiences, I saw the power of inspiring others through one’s own hardship. It wasn’t a new concept to me. I’d always understood this intellectually. I had always tried to inspire others to continue through difficulty. But not exactly demonstrating it in my own life, I don't think I was ever totally convinced myself. Now I understood it in my heart. With my life.
In 2018, my book received an award from The Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.
I didn't know these things were happening. In each case, and in the ones that followed, I hadn't submitted myself for anything. I just continued to share my life with openness and truth to the best of my ability.
My gratitude grew. And because growth and forward movement will include friction and pain, my difficulties also grew. Although I quit my on and off again smoking habit completely, my lifelong asthma appeared to be worsening. A pulmonary function test and x-rays showed that I had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). The x-ray also showed signs of an enlarged heart. A cardiac stress test (yes, they suck) showed my heart was just about as damaged as expected for my age and past lifestyles, but was nothing to be worried about. I was relieved to find that my heart wasn't going to give me any real or immediate trouble. The weeks leading up to the stress test were, stressful. But I found myself emotionally challenged by the COPD. The prospect of not being able to sing and perform live with the kind of vigor I was not only accustomed to, but even known for, upset me greatly.
At a loss for what to do or even how to respond to the myriad feelings and fears I was experiencing, I went to a friend and senior-in-faith within my Buddhist organization. He was also a jazz musician through much of his life, so I guessed he'd understand my plight that much more so. He listened patiently while I pouted my way through my impending doom. The he smiled warmly and said,
“Phil, as an artist, you’ve spent your entire career pushing against the tensions of life and responding to them, sharing your experiences through your music. That’s where your art is! That's where it all comes from! How is this any different?”
After that, we just talked about other stuff, because what he said was one of the biggest “duh” moments I’ve ever had. I’m a coach! I say it all the time; Life and art are one. You cannot separate your day-to-day living from your work as an artist. You cannot create in a vacuum. I was grateful for a friend in faith and the clarity he brought, and I'm trying to listen to myself more often. This just makes me realize more deeply the benefits of being a coach. Very often, in leading others toward answers, I stumble upon solutions to my own problems. It's a very interesting reminder that we're all deeply connected and interdependent.
In March of 2018, I recorded a new album. It grew from my desire to intentionally challenge every sensibility I’d developed as a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. I completely up-ended my tried and true processes. In my own head and heart, I shared a personal story of human revolution. I didn’t concern myself with anything but the truth of my life in those moments. I showed up in Los Angeles at my friend Ted Wulfers' studio with a couple months worth of loosely pieced together songs. I played guitars and sang. Ted played everything else and recorded. Five days later the album was complete. I released it on my 53rd birthday, April 12th, did the usual promo, and moved on to my next project.
That album I recorded with Ted was Baritones 61.7. Three “best of” lists included it in 2019. The song One More Man, about the overwhelming feeling of our shrinking world amid an expanding population, was among the Top Singles on NBT Music Radio out of Germany. They also rated the album itself among their favorites, ahead of many well-known artists. Chicago Music Guide included the 8-minute long diptych Simple in their Best of 2019 playlists. This song shares the confusing and painful shifts between feeling worthwhile and worthless within moments of each other, and the way in which gratitude and perspective can calm that whirlwind. It’s so very simple go the lyrics. It really is.
In July, after spending about eight months expanding my label, Guilt By Association Records, I brought my first two new artists to Chicago. I fund the label through Patreon and a little online store. The artists keep all their proceeds. Once again, I was bathed in good fortune when Darin Jellison and Shenendoah Thompson turned out to be the kind of guys who want to work on something bigger than themselves. They see something better for our industry, not the "long plastic hallway" described by Hunter S. Thompson (no relation to Shenendoah).
Darin is also an architect. Shenendoah is also an actor. Here's a video from their visit:
Now in 2020, looking for a clear vision at the start of a new decade, I'm sitting here thinking about the email I received from someone I'd never met prior to my show on the Eve of the Eve. A man and his wife heard me reflecting on gratitude from the stage. That very night, he sent me an email:
"Thank you so much, for sharing your beautiful music and life. You had my wife and I as soon as you started talking about gratitude!"
He went on to relate his own story of discovering and sharing this most powerful of all emotions and how he uses it to mentor others.
Even science is talking about gratitude now. I found an article referenced a couple of times on LinkedIn, including in their Daily Rundown. The healthy chemical oxytocin has been found to be produced when we express gratitude to someone. In fact, we get more of it by giving gratitude than receiving it. How cool is that?
I'll be the first to admit it's hard to express gratitude when the deck appears stacked against you. There's no question that there’s evidence that people with no sense of gratitude seem to reap rewards in life. And it’s pretty tough to ignore the negativity flying about every day, from seemingly everywhere. But that's exactly why we need to seek it out. That's when I walk around my apartment and remember when my desk, my bed, and my kitchen table were all the floor.
Or glance over at my wife Megan, who’s truly my best friend, and recall all the countless failed relationships that had me thinking I wasn’t worth loving. Or I look over at the guitar I’ve had for more than 30 years and realize how hard I've worked, which reminds me of how capable I truly am. Or I look at my other four guitars and recall how only a few years ago I only had the one, because I didn't believe myself skilled enough to justify the expense. Being capable means never giving up until you have what you came for. Failure is only in giving up on yourself. And trust me, the journey truly does teach you more than you asked for. Responding in gratitude, even for the hardships, will lead you down the right road without fail. Victory is in the obstacles. Winning is in our nature, because it’s the true nature of humans, and our intrinsic need, to help each other and solve problems together.
Look around. Do a little searching. Say something positive and see how it deflates the negative. Point to beauty and ask if that's possible in an evil world. We've got this. I do. With you. Because of you. Because of us.
Here's to the better angels of our nature.
Here's to each of us inspiring just one other person to continue in the face of hardship.
Here's to you for reading through this and looking for hope.
I'm grateful for that.
I’m grateful for you.