Monday, November 14, 2011
Lessons from THE TAO OF WILLIE NELSON
An “interview of Willie” (as portrayed by Jane) by Rev. Jane Page
November 13, 2011
This book, The Tao of Willie Nelson, was suggested to me by Rodney and Lauren Fowler. Now Rodney and Lauren shared with me that they are big Willie Nelson fans. In fact, Willie gave Lauren a signed Bandera when they connected at one of his concerts. Willie says in his book that he always makes a special connection with one person in the audience and then that connection just spreads. And it seems Lauren was the lucky lady that night. So, perhaps that’s why this book meant so much to them. But it has gems for those who are not Willie fans as well --- if there are such people. ‘Cause most everyone I know likes Willie Nelson. Even if they aren’t fans of his music, many Unitarian Universalists are fans of his ideas. But we’ll let Willie speak for himself on some of these.
For I have decided that this best way to share about Willie’s ideas in this book is for me to interview him about them. I tried to get him to come, but he does have a busy schedule. He was playing in Texas last night at the Grand Opening of a new music hall. Don’t worry though, Willie assured me that he’ll be on the road again headed this way in February. In fact, Rodney, … if you haven’t already bought tickets yet you better do so soon – because on Valentine’s Day, Willie will be performing at the Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah.
Since he couldn’t be with us in person today, I’ll provide the voice for his responses to my questions. But for sure – when I put on this cowboy hat with the red braids – you’ll know that these are mostly Willie’s words – not mine. (Note: The words in parentheses are mine – usually transition phrases or summaries of Willie’s own words. Other words of Willie’s are excerpted from The Tao of Willie Nelson.)
Willie, welcome to our service. Now, what I’d like to know from you is what made you think you could write a book that someone would suggest to me as a sacred text.
(Thanks Jane, it’s good to be with you folks. I’ll tell you), the ways my life has changed seem pretty amazing to me. By hook or by crook, I seem to have stumbled onto something all of us search for in this great mystery of life. Some would call it happiness, but I like to think that what I found is me. That sounds simple enough, but the truth is, it took quite a while to do it. Among other things, it took me learning that I had to quit trying to be someone else. Trying to be someone else is the hardest road there is.
So Willie, would you call the Tao your religion?
(Nah), The, Tao is NOT a religion. It has no gods, and could be as helpful to a Christian or a Jew as to a druid who worships trees, a narcissist who worships himself, or a record executive who worships money. Once you know what the Tao is not, then everything else is the Tao. The Tao is the biggest thing there is….. It is the link between you and the natural world, the link between you and the universe. The Tao is the link between you and yourself.
When Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true,” he was dipping into the Tao…or into some really good snuff.
So Willie – where did you get this knowledge to get to where you are now – knowing yourself and all?
(I started learning my lessons in Abbot Texas, where I was born in 1933. My sister Bobbie and I were raised by our grandparents.) Times were hard in Abbott and most other places during the Depression. We never had enough money, and Bobbie and I started working at an early age to help the family get by. That hard work included picking cotton at age seven in the rows beside Mama Nelson. Picking cotton is hard and painful work, and the most lasting lesson I learned in the fields was that I didn’t want to spend my life picking cotton.
In Abbott, Texas, you had to learn fast or pay the consequences. Luckily that learning curve also included some patient teaching. Early on, I was taught a number of things that have served me well.
The starting point was to respect your elders. Now that I’m an elderly fart myself, it’s no wonder I like this one.
(And I learned not to be afraid to ask questions.)
In church I was told that if I so much as smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol, I’d be damned in hell for all eternity. Even when I was a young boy, it didn’t take long for me to start thinking that sounded all wrong.
Yeah, Even as a boy, I didn’t cotton to the idea that your religion should be flaunted to other people. Your religion is for you, and is best kept close to your heart.
(Now, though I questioned a lot of it, I’ve kept a lot of my church upbringing with me.) Sister Bobbie and I still play songs from the church in Abbott at every concert, and every few years we record a new gospel album. It’s part of who we are, some of the best part.
Well, I know you said you picked cotton when you were a boy Willie. And I can appreciate how hard that is from listening to my daddy describe it. Of course, the only cotton I ever picked was out of an aspirin bottle. But somehow – you also found the time to learn how to pick guitar and sing. Did your community provide the right kind of culture for you to easily learn these skills?
There were two kinds of culture in Abbott when I was a boy—one was agriculture and the other was yogurt. Luckily, Sister Bobbie and I were born into a world of music. After I got my first guitar at age six—a Stella that came from the Sears & Roebuck catalog—I’d sit on the end of the (piano) bench and play along with Bobbie.
When we were five or six years old, our grandparents put Sister and me on stage and said, “Our kids do things. Now start doing.” We’ve been doing ever since.
I was in the sixth grade when I got my first paying music gig, strumming guitar in the John Raycheck Band in Bohemian dance halls. Mama Nelson was dead set against me working in sinful nightclubs until she found out I could make eight or ten dollars a night. You had to pick a lot of cotton to make eight dollars.
Well, all of us have certainly benefited from you’re your musical knowledge and skills Willie. But since we are here in a church – I’d like to come back a moment to your religion. Can you share a little more about that with the folks here?
(Jane) Some people like to make a big deal about their particular religion. If your religion is an important part of your life, then I am happy for you without any regard for which religion it is. As far as different religions are concerned, to me they’re just different paths leading to the same place.
The Golden Rule is the main thing I live by, and every religion I’ve read about or studied—both East and West—has the Golden Rule as a common thread running through it.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
(And I guess I carry with me a little of the religion of my Cherokee ancestors.)
(You know) With belief in gods above and below the earth, in the waters and across the land, the Cherokee seemed to share much with the way of the Tao, which also sees God in all of creation.
(Of course, you all know about the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee) men, women, and children died of starvation, exposure, and disease along the way.
Knowing that my ancestors got a raw deal, I’ve long believed in supporting American Indian causes. In 1987, I was named Indian of the Year…and spent all night playing music and dancing with fifteen thousand Indians. That experience made it clear to me just how powerfully musical Indians are, and what a large influence my Indian blood has been on my music.
One of my favorite Cherokee stories speaks as well to us today as it did to them hundreds of years ago. (Now listen to this.) They believed that within each person was a battle between two wolves. Sitting with his grandson, a grandfather explained that one of the wolves was evil and was driven by anger, envy, regret, ego, and the worship of war. The other wolf was good, and was driven by love, hope, compassion, and the promise of peace. Thinking about the wolves already growing within him, the boy asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” And the old man replied, “The one you feed.”
Well Willie, you and I and all these folks out here have probably spent time feeding both of those wolves. And we’ve had our ups and downs. But since you are a celebrity, yours are very public and have probably been very stressful. What do you do to keep yourself healthy with all the stresses of life?
…(takes deep breath, then says) BREATHE
People tell me they’re surprised that I don’t run out of breath at my concerts, even when I sing for a couple of hours straight… I don’t explain it to them, but I will to you. The secret is breathing. When I was very young and just learning music, my grandmother taught me that voice control depended on breathing from way down deep. Everyone knows that filling your lungs with oxygen is good, but not many people choose to do it.
(And you’ve got to drink lots of water!)
My number one roadie, Poodie, says, “You can’t make a turd without grease.” I like the line, but the truth is, what your turds need is water. (And it helps get rid of the toxins, too.) For most of us in America, clean water is easy to come by. All you have to do to is make the choice to get it to your mouth. (Pee) more. You’ll live longer.
(And then, of course, I’ve learned how to meditate) If you’ve never tried meditation, no worries, because it’s really about not trying. It’s about just being
(Another thing I do is to practice both patience.) I was pretty good at making money during the sixties, and even better at spending it. I recorded a lot of albums (back then, but) none of them made me a big Nashville star. I was also not much of a pig farmer. The pigs had a great time, but I didn’t make any money at all… (However), I learned some invaluable lessons in Nashville that apply to both farming and show business.
Do not corner something that you know is meaner than you. Keep skunks of all kinds at a distance. And I learned: If you forgive your enemies, it messes up their heads.
Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.
Well, Willie – you’ve had to bounce back pretty far some times. Would you mind sharing a little with us about your troubles with the IRS and how you managed to bounce back from that?
On first glance, you might conclude that I may not be good with money. But if you look closer, you’ll realize that I’m definitely not good with money.
I had a rough beginning, (but by the end of the 80’s), I owned a golf course, a recording studio, and an assortment of houses and ranches, and I didn’t ever have to worry about where the next dollar was going to come from. Then one day I answered the phone and discovered that I owed the IRS sixteen million dollars. Shortly after that, the debt magically became thirty-two million,..which might have been more than I’d made in my whole life.
This happened not because I was trying to cheat our government, but because I’d taken the advice of financial advisors who were supposed to be the best in the business. Stupid me. But even though… they took my (possessions and my) money, they couldn’t take my music. So I vowed to tour harder and then started to retire my debt by releasing a double album called The IRS Tapes. It’s a winner, by the way. I recommend you buy a copy right away.
I’ve heard people say I was singled out by the government because of my pot smoking or my politics, but the way I see it, there was a legitimate tax owed, it was the Feds’ job to pursue it, and my job to pay it off. There were a lot of numbers being tossed around in the press, but by the time the IRS had decided what I really owed, I’d paid much of it off.
And if I’d never been able to pay it off, I’d still be the same person I am today. I’d still love my family, I’d still have a lot of friends, and I’d still have my music.
SO Willie, since you’ve brought up your use of POT in discussing that episode – perhaps you could share a little of your wisdom on that subject with the folks here today. Here’s your chance to make your case.
(Well, thank you Jane – I’ll try to make my case.) One place to start is in a typical American medicine or liquor cabinet. The highest killer on the planet is stress, and there aren’t many people in America who don’t medicate themselves one way or another. Some people choose an occasional beer or a little pill the doctor prescribes, and I’m not knocking that. But the best medicine for stress is pot. I think people forget that in all the ..debate over marijuana, we’re only talking about stems and seeds… As far as I can tell, the primary reasons and uses for the hemp plant are to smoke it, wear it, or use it to make fuel to burn in our cars. And I’m in favor of all three. (Now), no matter what I choose to do, I’m not trying to get anyone else to do anything he considers immoral or the law considers illegal…. On the other hand, it seems pretty stupid to put people in jail because they have a small quantity of a plant that grows wild in large portions of the United States….
I don’t know why pot agrees with me when alcohol and a lot of prescription drugs do not, but I suspect it has something to do with my Cherokee heritage. Among their many talents, the Cherokee were known and celebrated for carving ornate pipes. And I don’t think they were carving those pipes just to look at.
(Now folks) --If this conversation has stressed you out, I’d recommend a solution, but it might get me in trouble.
Well Willie, I think we better change the subject before I get in trouble. I think a little safer subject for us is your encouragement of sustainable energy. I saw a documentary last week on television in which you were sharing about your activism in this area, specifically as it related to biodiesel. What is that and what are you hoping for?
You may have never heard of biodiesel fuels, but I believe strongly that biodiesel is something that can benefit all of us in a great number of ways. Biofuels are motor fuels that are made from farm products. They can be made from crops grown specifically to make fuel, from crop by-products, or just from recycled products such as used French fry oil. The world fries a lot of potatoes and all that recycled vegetable oil can be put to use to power millions of vehicles. (And), biofuels can start us back on the overdue road to energy independence.
There is really no need going around starting wars over oil when we have what we need right here at home. And no, we don’t have to start eating French fries three meals a day, because farmers can grow crops that are planted and harvested just to fuel our cars.
Choose to do the right thing in your life, and you’re choosing to empower yourself and the country you love. It seems so simple.
Willie, you’re 78 years old now, living the good life at your homes in Hawaii and Texas – and your home, of course, on the road in your bus, the Honeysuckle Rose. But you have to also be giving some thought to the end of your life. Care to share some thoughts on that?
If you’re thinking that I’m old enough to be offering any final words, you should forget about that right now. I’m still learning, and hope to be doing so for a good while yet…. Besides, I don’t have anything I feel I need to get off my chest. No confessions. No last-minute pleas for forgiveness.
(Now when my life is over, I think I,ll probably be coming back again and trying to get it right again. But whether you believe in something like reincarnation or not, here's something to think about.) In the music business and in just about every other facet of life, what you leave (when you die) is who you are. And that’s a thought that at some point in your life deserves a fair amount of your attention.
When I leave, I will be a lot of fine music – at least I know it was fine having the opportunity to make it. I will also be a father, grandfather, great-grandfather; a husband, a friend, and a person who cared about other people and the beautiful world I was born into.
In time, though, my music will fade away to a soft, distant song, and then it will be no more. Ultimately, all of our achievements will fade away, which is why the point of our lives is not just to become famous or even to produce lasting work. Really, when you get down to it, aren’t we all just doing the best we can?
At this moment, my best is going toward (sharing with you folks.). It’s a nice coincidence that this moment of mine is coinciding with a moment in your life when you (hear) them. Here we are – connected …by the thoughts we share.
(Yeah), each of us is just doing our damnedest to finally get it right. They say the end of one road is just the beginning of another. Does that deserve a hallelujah or an amen?
(And with that – I think I better go get) on the road again.
Thank you Willie! Maybe we’ll see you in Savannah on Valentine’s Day! Let me give you a hug before you go!