Oh, Cornerstone. So different this year from other years in so many ways. And yet, still your old self.
This year, like several times before, I went to Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, IL to help my friends sell merch. I think my experience this year can be summed up by recalling a few specific points of importance:
- The drive. The drive was beautiful. I had to drive by myself, which I was really nervous about. If I get tired in the car, I am very likely to run right off the road. I’ve been saved by the rumble strip many times. But I caravanned with Sean and Daniel, and the drive was really not so bad. I sang loud to lots of music, and enjoyed the scenery. The real payoff came when I got on I-74 West just past Indianapolis. That’s where the drive got beautiful, and I happened to be passing through the corn fields just as the sun set. The colors of the sky, the beautiful smell of the air, the lone farmhouses, and just being able to see the horizon in all directions moved me. I felt like crying, but in a good way.
- The romance. Dan and I met at Cornerstone in 2006, and felt a connection of some yet-undetermined significance there in 2007, so going back this year was like revisiting not quite our beginning, but our prologue. It was fun to have a do-over of some of our activities from 2007: slinging merch, sharing a strawberry-lemon shake-up on a bale of hay, and watching Rosie Thomas perform.
- The barn tour. I looked online to see what kinds of historical sites were located near the little town of Macomb, IL where we were staying. One day Dan and I took the morning off and went on a historic barn tour. This basically means that we went to the tourism office, got a map, and drove to some of the barns. That’s right, folks! The midwest: it has barns. Some of them are historic. Some of them are even beautiful. Here’s the lovely Kleinkopf barn, which is (barely) still standing after almost 100 years. There was a dead possum on the floor of the barn.
- The music. My 15-year-old self is aghast at the notion of being pretty bored at a music fest, but such is life. I’ve been growing tired of the music business for the past several years, but usually it doesn’t matter since I’m not in it…I’m just adjacent to it. But this week I was sitting at a merch table for the better part of five days, and the pomp and circumstance of it all just ground my nerves to a powder. First of all, the sheer number of bands in existence these days is staggering. Any teen with the ability to whine for extended periods can eke a guitar out of his or her parents, and the end result is that there are about a bajillion bands and they all sound the same, and they’re all shoving a cardboard poster in your face wanting you to SEE THEM ON SUCH-AND-SUCH GENERATOR STAGE AT 3PM! It is overwhelming on a huge scale.Of course this is annoying, but can also be cute and entertaining. The truly disheartening part about the Cornerstone music scene is that all I hear day in and day out are self-aggrandizing conversations about what a band should do in order to “get BIG.” Oh we need to have more parts like such-and-such popular band. Oh we need to dress like this. Oh we need to get this particular type of mesh basketball shirt printed. Oh we need to say something about straightedge in our album art so we sell more records. And blah blah blah blah blahhh, the list goes on. Why in the holy name of fun on a summer vacation is rock music suddenly about FAME and only FAME? Is this really why you got into music? To be famous, or die trying? Guys, I’m only going to say this once. Financial success is possible in the music business. Possible, but highly unlikely. When the heavens choose someone to become a wildly rich and famous musician, it’s never because they worked harder than everyone else. It’s because of a mixture of knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time, sheer dumb luck, and maybe a tiny bit because of working hard. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than becoming a profitable musician. Accept this now, and stop valuing your life on a scale of how popular your band is. If you enjoy doing music and you just happen to become famous somewhere down the line as a side effect to doing what you love, that’s great. But if your happiness depends upon notoriety rather than tranquility and occupation, you are in for a long life of suffering and disappointment. As Max Fischer would say, “I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.”
I once knew a very talented musician whose former bandmates got pretty famous in a new band that they started. As Morrissey says, “We hate it when our friends become successful.” This musician frittered his life away by constantly watching their progress like a hawk and wincing every time they had good review or got asked to play some huge tour. It got to the point where almost all he talked about was this band, and how unfair it was that they became famous and he was stuck working a real job and raising a family. [Stuck! Some people would trade everything to have a simple life and a loving family.] The truth became apparent to all around him: that he never enjoyed music just for music’s sake, and that his interest in music depended on whether he was paid the proper respect by the masses. And his life could probably have been great if he spent more time enjoying the amazing things he was given and less time having nightmares about his successful friends. It sucks that some of the younger people I know are doomed to repeat the mistakes of some of the older people I know.
All of that being said, I did see some great bands including the lovely singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas, the old-school Christian metal reunion of The Crucified after like 15 years, and new goth sensations Leper. And the excitement on the faces of some of The Blue Letter‘s new fans as they thronged to the merch table made me smile as well.
- The talks. I was talking to a guy I met and he said “It’s funny, but as the years move on I seem to be more and more interested in the talks rather than the music.” My thoughts exactly. The best part about Cornerstone is cstoneXchange, which is the amazing corner of the fest that features speakers and discussions about all kinds of topics. This year I was truly challenged by all that I heard.
- Chris Heuertz from Word Made Flesh gave a talk called “Re-Thinking Evangelism Through the Lens of Friendship,” and he put into words the same things I’ve been thinking about in regards to the trendiness of causes. Talking about some of history’s missionaries who devoted themselves fully and for a whole lifetime to a group of people, Heuertz pointed out that our culture has moved from the career missionary to just causes. It’s all about whatever cause is the sexiest and can hold our attention for a few seconds. So we join the Facebook group and sign the petition and buy the t-shirt, but we’re not actually helping the root of the problem. It’s our luxury to stand at a distance and brand ourselves with these causes, and in reality do nothing to support them. On the other hand, all of these causes are legitimate and even just increasing awareness about them is a good thing. Heuertz also talked about “evangelicals,” and what that term even means. In biblical times the word root “evangel” meant announcing a change of regime. This was something subversive, something that went against Roman laws of the time and actually announced that people were choosing to follow someone other than Caesar. And now the term “evangelical” means a set of rules and requirements that say “in order to be a real Christian, you have to look like this and vote like this, etc. etc.” And of course that isn’t biblical, and subverts us from what we’ve really been asked to do: get out there and just love people and do whatever it takes to meet their needs. Heuertz really blew my mind and I came back from his talk feeling totally inspired to look into joining up with Word Made Flesh, because their simple purpose and straightforward actions make sense to me and make them stand out in a sea of other organziations. So that’s one idea for the future…as soon as someone gives me a giant bag of money to pay off my school loan bills with. Har har! Aaaaaaand college remains the biggest mistake of my life.
- Neil Taylor’s topic, “Christian Community (Intentional or Otherwise)” had sort of a vague description in the fest program, so I went there expecting it to be completely different. But it was about communal living, which although it isn’t immediately interesting to me, has some good lessons attached to it anyway. Mr. Taylor talked about how the worst thing you can do is go into communal living thinking about how much use the community will get out of your skills an energy. Being so excited to give up your resources for the group is great, but really the focus should be on how much you as an individual needs the community. Living in community should be like holding up a mirror at all times, so that you can more easily see your own weaknesses. About weaknesses he says “We are to take hold of them, accept and own them, and they become like cement to us. We don’t relate to someone who always does things perfectly, but we do feel close with someone whose weaknesses we acknowledge.” An interesting thought, that it’s our weaknesses and not our strengths which bind us together as people. He also had some good advice for dealing with difficult people. “With difficult people, say ‘Just for today, I’m going to love and be kind to this person.’ And even if that person never changes, over time you learn to be more kind, more gracious, and a more patient person. You change. And that’s the benefit.”
- Chad Mager delivered a talk called “Storytelling,” which was about how we can relate to others better and impact others’ lives more effectively by learning the craft of storytelling. This is something I’ve always been interested in since the advent of the Midnight Society, and Mr. Mager was fun and passionate in discussing storytelling as a purposeful art. Most of what he said was just the basics, but entertaining and informative to us nonetheless.
- The goth tent. There’s nothing like the goth tent for bringing it all back to simplicity. This might seem contrary to what goth is all about, but it’s not. All around the fest, people are trying really hard to look like they’re not trying hard. Every group of kids is making fun of every other group of kids for being “too obvious.” In the goth tent, everybody’s trying hard to be true to their own sense of style, and everyone else knows it. So that level of pretense is gone and you never have to deal with figuring out who’s trying the least hard. It’s the place where the most real conversations and meaningful interactions take place. It’s full of candles and hanging bats and coffee and a piercing station, and I love it. During my visit to the goth tent this year, I heard a gentleman read tons of poetry from his formative years, documenting his spiritual journey through the lens of the time period’s horror films. Amazing!
- The drive home. My friend Tess, a nomad who travels around with nothing but a camping pack full of wonderful things, accompanied me on the drive home. Two Tesses, one car. I had to drop her off at her mother’s house in NoVa, so the GPS routed us a completely different way. Instead of going through Charlottesville, Charleston, and Point Pleasant, we went through Wheeling, Morgantown, and Cumberland. I had never passed through those towns before, and I was delighted. They look like they’re frozen in time, an effect that the protective mountains have probably helped to create. I gasped as we drove through them. And I gasped some more at the amazing mountain sunset that lasted for hours while we talked and drove. It was beautiful, and the perfect end to my trip.
So as fun as the trip was, I got back and have been completely tired and out-of-it for the past couple of days. I am now ready to dive back into Richmond, my favorite place in the world.