Restless Burning

Finding harmony and stillness in a breakdown in Iowa.

“My love for you is not contemporary/Modern days just seem a bit too scary/And like the grasses creeping ‘cross the prairie/I ran away with all that I could carry.” —J. Sykes, 1995

I’ve always believed in the notion that everything exists all at once, that everything that has happened before is happening now. Light is eternal, light bends, and everything is connected. This concept of entanglement leaves me with the sense that sometimes we are living a life in reverse, trying to understand in our conscious mind what our subconscious has always known and understood, because on some level it’s seen it happen before.

I’ve been on this earth long enough to feel like I’m living various dreams at once. Slowly I’m beginning to understand these dreams as they unfold into one another.

For most of my life, I would not fly on airplanes. For many years after moving to Seattle, I’d ride Amtrak to visit family back East. I even took the train out to our band’s first East Coast appearance—a one-off in New York City—using the excuse that I’d stop over in Boston to visit my brother’s family. My very first cross-country trip aboard Amtrak was back in the 1980s. My mother and I were en route to Colorado from Penn Station, and she turned my phobia into an opportunity. A three-day train ride is no picnic, especially riding in coach, but “It’s a great way to see the country,” she said. It was far more than that for me.

The train rolled south and serpentined through the Eastern hills and hidden rural gullies behind ramshackle homes before branching off to the west. It was clear we’d left the cities behind, and were being given access to hidden worlds seen only from a train’s vantage point. Somewhere around West Virginia, a group of young boys mooned us off a steep hillside. I’m sure this must have been a daily after-school ritual—tribes of bandit kids defending their territories by the tracks, unafraid of the metal fortress that intruded on their kingdom.

I remember the first state we rode across that made me feel truly far from home, far enough away from my comfort zone to wonder what it would be like to “be from here.” “Here” seemed like nowhere, just a small cluster of lights—sometimes just a single light shining like a lantern on the horizon. Every few minutes these lights would reappear, flickering, before they’d evaporate like tiny vapor dots, always in sync with the train’s rhythm. “Here” it was dark, vast, and lonely, and I couldn’t peel my face away from that window. I wanted to know what those lights were. I loved how they made me feel, awakening this wondrous sense of dislocation within me. The train was an invisible whistling force, and it was just the two of us—inside the darkness—passing through Iowa.

Had you told me in that moment that I would someday live there, I would have been thrilled. All that distance and space would have set well with me then—far from home, the mystery, and my God, you had to cross the great Mississippi to get there. It was the only state we passed through at night that I was awake for, so I didn’t really see it as much as intuit it. But I liked what I thought I saw.

By the time I was touring with my band, The Sweet Hereafter, Iowa had been relegated to the state we passed through but never played. We slept there a time or two, and got fuel. But it was just a milepost that meant two nights in a hotel and six tanks of gas to get back to Seattle. I’ve always hated that touring can taint a perfectly beautiful state that way, turning it into a disposable window of time that one must simply “get through” to be somewhere else—eroding much of its magic. Anywhere can seem tiny when unfairly judged from the vantage point of a rest stop and a broken scope.

Iowa seemed too far east for my internal barometer. Heading east reminded me of a past I’d struggled to leave behind 20 years before.

My move to Seattle from New York seemed so epic in 1991. It wasn’t the easiest transition, and it took almost a decade for me to feel like I belonged here. The thought of ever moving away was a terrifying prospect, and all other states felt like a threat—contenders for a future that deep in my gut I feared remained open and unresolved.

Although vast cornfields as seen from the vantage point of a highway didn’t hold much mystery for me anymore, if I could view them at night, as I often did on a vacant stretch of road in the wee hours, I’d get that pang in my heart. I never forgot that first sense of wonder when I was introduced to what I now realize was some sort of strange metaphysical phenomenon, a premonition, where an internal bar was being set: the wonder and mystery bar, and the clarion call.

For a period, I remember needing to be everywhere all at once—which meant being somewhere else, even when I was home in Seattle. Sometimes I’d fall asleep to the memory of hotel rooms that I could vaguely recollect: Their emptiness, which at times horrified me, was now comforting. For so many years I longed for that feeling of being lost. I needed to be gone, jarred and uncomfortable, not in my element, to feel like I was growing. I began to love this feeling of waking up in what felt like someone else’s dream. I learned to see the beauty in being lost—until it became my own dream. And I started to wonder if a few bad tour experiences and being in a van all the time had stripped me of my ability to dream another life.

There is a lot to be said about the silly games we play in our heads as kids. Even in my 20s and 30s I played those games constantly, visualizing myself in one place or another. But this gets harder to do later in life, when you actually find yourself in a place or time where you can’t visualize yourself anywhere else because you are home—even if home is temporary on a physical level, you are home both internally and externally wherever you are.

I felt “home” in Seattle in many ways, and my time there was magical once the 2000s rolled in. But as time rode on, one element remained lacking. A deeper part of what I wanted and needed to be truly fulfilled had been put on hold for my musical path. I’d talked myself into the notion that it was a necessary sacrifice to create and pull off a musical journey beyond my own living room. Personal happiness often does need to be on the back burner, and sacrifices do need to be made when one pursues any career path they are passionate about. But as the years went on, I whittled away the ability to distinguish between sacrifice and a pathological inability to allow myself to be happy. Music has always made me happy beyond measure. Happiness isn’t even a word to describe it: It saved me, and continues to. I loved my life, my friends, my community. So I thought that even though I may never find my soulmate, I was at least being filled up in other ways. And, I thought, you can’t have it all.

Phil Wandscher, my musical comrade and musical soulmate, had been my boyfriend for a decade, but in time our relationship morphed into more of a familial love than a romantic one. But we were able to figure out how to be in each other’s lives and create music. I think we both felt that the band was our child and could provide us with enough nourishment without the emotional intimacy of a romantic relationship, as long as we held on tight and kept the wheels rolling. Had we stopped long enough to look, we would have seen it wasn’t working.

The danger of living life in record cycles (writing, recording, touring) is that life is allocated into three- and four-year chunks, much like dog years, and time becomes compressed, leaving little chance to reflect.

I moved to Iowa because I fell in love. Before MySpace or Facebook existed for me, I received a short e-mail to congratulate our band on its second album. I had no idea who he was or what he looked like, but that e-mail blossomed into a friendship that lasted for many years before we ever met in real time. I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t need to know what he looked like. I just knew I loved how he made me feel. I loved the stories he told, the things he’d seen and done, and the way he “saw” and interpreted these things. A wildlife biologist, he’d soon be leaving his life in Alaska to pursue a Ph.D. in Iowa. It was for him that I was able to get on a plane by myself for the first time.

Less strange than the letting-go of the terror of flying was the reconciliation with how flying makes the world feel small. Distance becomes something tangible, less epic, and for me there was a sadness in losing that sense of magnitude and mystery. At the same time it made moving to Iowa less scary. My brain interpreted it as an eight-hour journey from Seattle, not six tanks of gas and two nights in a motel.

Seattle represents for me the epicenter of movement and possibility. Iowa was a place of repose, where I’d come between the craziness of touring and recording. When I was in Seattle, I’d long for the quiet of Iowa. There were times I was torn and begged the universe to give me only the peace and quiet I felt I needed and had forgone for so many years. When in Iowa, I’d revel in the stillness . . . at least most of the time.

Before the move, I’d have intensely anxious moments when I visited my boyfriend. If we were at a filling station or saw a Culver’s, I’d feel like I was being pulled in the wrong direction. I’d long for the “real” road, the band, Seattle. It was very confusing because I wanted nothing more than to be with him.

There’s a comfort that comes with being on tour and having the constant ability to re-create the day or the moment, the never-ending end, the never-ending beginning. I associated everything with this mercurial state of being. I was working hard to change this perception, to open myself to develop a new relationship with each state, this state, and, most important, my state of mind. It was working, and in time this anxiety began to feel more like a nip on the heel. And I knew that before long I’d be back on the road.

But then something changed abruptly. We had a loss of stability within the band, causing us to lose some momentum as well as some of our internal and external machinery. I had thought I could come to Iowa and keep everything “musical” on track, but now I felt like I was stuck, with my limbs severed and my heart broken. All of a sudden “here” felt like that nowhere I’d seen from the train years before, but this time it was less intoxicating. “Here” felt like two nights in a hotel and six tanks of gas to Seattle—where I was supposed to be. All of a sudden home meant something else. Iowa equaled panic, a lack of forward momentum—everything I was primed for.

When the band’s brief hiatus was forced upon me, it felt more like a blow from a blunt object. It was like being kicked out of a speeding van on the highway—plunked down here without any say in the matter, like waking up from amnesia. I felt I was losing the machinery of my heart and soul, and in that window I began to associate everything that reminded me of being on tour with stagnation and loss. There were no distractions to hide behind. The noise was gone. The quiet I had wished for and coveted closed in on me while I convalesced and picked myself up.

I’ve cringed reading interviews with artists speaking from the “later in life” vantage point. But I’ve come to understand that when you reach a certain age and are still in the rock-‘n’-roll trenches, as I am, one needs at least to acknowledge and do some assessing as to what’s working and what isn’t. This doesn’t mean quitting or even slowing down; it just means taking a step back, and for a moment allowing for the possibility that the machinery may go on without you.

I had created for myself a sanctuary in Iowa—that place I’d always visualized externally, and, more important, the place my heart wanted to go. But nothing had prepared me to accept the possibility that I might someday get what I wished for—the music path and the love—and that I would be able to recognize it when it presented itself, to not see it as being stranded in a state I’d driven through so many times, almost purposefully dismissing while looking for that clarion call elsewhere.

It’s funny: Anyone who travels the roads of America knows there are at least a handful of towns called Clarion. Iowa has its Clarion, too. The state with almost no wilderness to be had, but endless space—space that forces you to find the wilderness within—the state that you need to get down inside of to see and appreciate for its incredible pockets of beauty. When I decided to move in with my boyfriend (now fiance), he tried to console me about leaving my beloved mountains and water behind. He said that he was skeptical of people who needed a dramatic landscape to feel fulfilled. It takes creativity and a deep connection to your internal world to see Iowa as a blank canvas for the psyche, rather than a boring landscape. Another friend from Nebraska said that the straight lines and flatness of the midwest had a power that allowed the imagination to thrive, a power that could divine all sorts of forces. She felt unchallenged by the Northwest’s “obvious beauty.” I love that about her.

My whole life has been about expectation and movement, feeling unsettled. But now I am still, or at least it appears so outwardly. It has taken a lot of doing to let go of that feeling of being kidnapped from my band and former life—to realize that now I’m able to see life as more than a series of record cycles, and that it doesn’t mean that everything I worked hard for isn’t moving forward. It is. It’s just a different form of movement—the kind that can look like stillness, because behind the veils of consciousness things have been evolving faster than ever, and the conscious mind is racing to catch up.

Sometimes when I drive down the highway here in Iowa, or when I’m walking my dogs on some prairie remnant, or I stumble upon a road, I still feel like I’m passing by. When I see a hotel, I still wonder if the trailer will fit in the parking lot. And I find myself looking for the band’s white Chevy Gladiator van. I imagine they’ll pull over and throw open the door and I’ll jump in, apologizing for ever abandoning them.

Then I remember that soon enough I will be in that van again.

Jesse Sykes is a singer and songwriter with The Sweet Hereafter.