A lot of the questions that come in through my survey revolve around what it’s like to have and maintain relationships with people back home while I’m on the road. I’ve never wondered the same thing more than at this time in my life. Since the beginning of March, this has been one of the busiest travel seasons I've embarked upon in the last couple of years.
Last month, in Muncie, IN, a guy named Caleb asked me if I ever keep in touch with anyone I meet on the road, or if it’s just too crazy to keep up with. (Caleb and I spent quite a bit of time talking that day, and I’m writing his name here because it is a miracle that I remember it – not because he’s a forgettable guy, just because I am convinced there is no one else on planet earth worse at forgetting people’s name than I am.)
I have a hard enough time making, or answering, or returning the phone calls and emails or texts from friends I actually have quality relationships with, let alone anyone else. I think I eventually get back to 80%ish of messages that come through, but it might take months. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a virtue. I’m literally the worst.
All of that to say, there are maybe six to eight people that I’m in a couple group text threads with who talk daily. These people are my closest friends, and even though I hate how uncomfortable it makes me feel to differentiate between relationships with those that I love deeply, but differently, I know none of them would disagree that two of them, specifically, are friends that I would call bests: Caleb and Jonathan.
If anyone has been following me on Snapchat for long enough, you likely saw a lot of Jonathan during our trip to Europe together this past April. I zoomed in on his face a lot and confused everyone and laughed nonstop for three weeks.
And, though you may be unaware, if you’ve ever seen a piece of Levi The Poet art or design, you probably have Caleb to thank for that. The LTP logo that so many people have tattooed on their bodies? That’s Caleb. His art project is called Toothfeather, and you can follow him on Instagram here. He’s only getting better.
My wife introduced me to Jonathan when I was still in high school. He was in his freshman year of college. I remember the first time I saw him, standing silhouetted in a doorway, out from under a blanket of snow during the best winter of my life. I was intimidated because he’d long been friends with the girl I’d begun to fall in love with. He introduced me to Manchester Orchestra. We drove to Denny’s to eat (I think) cheesecake, and listened to I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, while the unlikely storm covered abandoned parking-lot cars in a sea of white. I don’t think we had much in common, but somehow intimidation gave way to vulnerability and morphed into the best friendship I’ve ever known. The kind of friendship that reminds me of the way “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” in the biblical account of those ancient characters.
The first memory that I have of Caleb is as an Elvin-long haired hippie-looking kid playing the drums for the first Albuquerque band I opened for – Braillist. He and his brother both played and were willing to let me hop on their show, make everyone extremely uncomfortable, and then – for some reason – continue to support me even beyond that fateful day. I always wanted Caleb to be the main creative guy behind my own project. I still run almost everything I release through his artistic voice and vision. It’s interesting – for years, I felt like I had a hard time connecting with Caleb. I don’t really know when that changed, but it’s not that way anymore. Caleb is kind, and fearless. He is confident, and wild. He’s free.
Last month, I said goodbye to Caleb and Jonathan.
Jonathan now has a “Dr.” in front of his name, and moved to New Orleans, LA for his residency. Brandi and I actually just got to visit him over the last couple of days. Caleb moved to Atlanta to pursue an amazing opportunity that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about yet, so I just won’t.
As I was leaving Albuquerque to begin my last tour the morning after I said goodbye, I had the thought that driving away from my friends felt like a small death. It felt like small deaths the further east I moved. It feels like a small death when I think of going back home without them there, now. It feels like a small death when I think of my wife being home without the friends that used to be there for her when I was gone.
Perhaps that all seems melodramatic. Let it be. I could not possibly care less. If anything, “small death” is a great song title and Caleb will appreciate it and Jonathan will be so depressed by the frozen chicken he's been forcing himself to eat during residency that he won't read this anyway. I recognize that farewells are not forever, but I am surprised by the pain.
Years ago, another friend of mine – Donovan – spoke of friendships as shifting. He talked about the seasons of change you can see when you cut a tree at its trunk, and view the age in its rings, and said that we are finite. I’ve got a fairly beautiful word picture in my mind because of that analogy, but I still hate it, because it still means: loss.
Losing a piece of life.
A small death.
More than anything, I wanted to write about my friends. I am unbelievably proud of them. I want to honor them, and writing is one of the only ways that I know how to even attempt to do justice to the love that I long to show them. It’s one of the only gifts that I feel like I have to give, meaningful enough to give it.
Maintaining relationships on the road isn’t easy for me. I fail at it pretty miserably, most of the time. But there are some people who you can come home to and start right back up with like you were never gone, and Caleb and Jonathan have always been two of them. The kind of people whose house you can walk into without knocking, whose fridge you can open without asking, whose beer you can drink without minding, whose couch you can sit down on and know that there’s no catch-up necessary unless you want to open your mouth, because you’re all back together, and the music’s playing, and sounds just fine.
Maybe you have friends like that. I hope so. Tell them you love them. Tell them you cherish them. Tell them you couldn’t have done it without them. Tell them they’re the grace of God to you.
And when they go, or when you go, or when that trunk grows a new ring, know that God is close to the brokenhearted, and maybe he can be peace in your small death.
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Love the ones you love out loud.