I spent four days last week at the Escape to the Lake music conference in northern Indiana. Every year, I discover afresh how needed and how wonderful this gathering is. The efficacy of the conference was in question this year, what with a new venue (which worked out beautifully) and a new time, along with major changes currently going on at Under the Radar, the organization producing the event. It went off without a hitch, however, and what hiccups there were seemed to play into the conference instead of working against it. This was my third year, and I’m always struck by the degree of healing offered through this congregation of musicians and listeners.
Healing comes in strange ways, and it’s difficult to pin down. You have to be paying close attention to notice it. I had been working for months with little to show for it. Half a record accomplished, a novel pacing through the drudgery of revision, a half-finished painting awaiting my free time, several poems languishing in draft form—I’m very good at doing half of something. Thus, every time new music or writing comes out, I have a little one-sided conversation with my demons in which I remind myself how much I have not accomplished. Enter: Escape to the Lake, a gathering of many people in the midst of the creative process. The week is one part summer camp for all ages, one part music conference, all parts church. Something good is bound to happen in such a mix.
Remember that scene in Finding Nemo, in which Dory and Marlin are poised over a shadowy chasm, having lost the key to finding Marlin’s son?
DORY: Hey Mr. Grumpy Gills! When life gets you down, you wanna know what you gotta do? MARLIN: I don’t wanna know what you gotta do. DORY: (singing) Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…
I crack up every single time at Marlin’s attitude. He’s as sardonic as Jerry Seinfeld, and anybody who dares to be optimistic better prepare for blistering sarcasm. Yet Dory keeps it up with her great attitude, likely due in part to her short term memory loss—um, spoiler alert, in case you haven’t seen Finding Nemo and are living under a black hole somewhere. As irritated as Marlin gets, he does just that: he keeps swimming.
Like many others, I went to Escape to the Lake with baggage. The administrative side of the arts can be soul-sucking. Sending emails off into the bleak and apathetic ether, facing bills that deride one’s monthly royalty check, waiting for the phone to ring and somehow change one’s life—it’s all rather absurd, and we only do it to get a chance at doing what we really love. I took along my difficulties and immersed them in creative community.
Yet the problems of others far outweighed mine. Family struggles, depression, and disbelief were common themes in personal stories I heard. A good friend’s brother was actually lost at sea while we were there, a fact made weightier as I listened to Nick Flora sing “Lost at Sea” (Take heart, he was found later!).
You might think that a bunch of people with common neuroses and like struggles would only compound their problems by hanging out together, but the opposite is true. Through the work of the Spirit, they find empathy and goodness. Several times I saw or heard of people breaking down crying as they discovered strange catharsis in the midst of deep sadness. As the music brought down people’s defenses, they found healing in sharing their troubles with one another.
Now, don’t hear me say that such medicine is a guarantee. Beauty, truth, and goodness are rarely, if ever, formulaic. If you go to church, you’re not promised some sort of spiritual magic pill. The Church is promised redemption, and redemption is usually messy. I think our reception of healing is dependent on our openness to it. Like Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, sometimes we limit our ability to accept blessings. Being amongst such a concentration of wonder and delight as Escape to the Lake, however, it doesn’t take much to bring down the walls of the heart and let beauty in to do its work.
As for me, it was good to see my friends. I am guilty of crafting hagiography—that is, the glowing writing surrounding the lives of saints—around my compatriots. After all, I tend to see their success at the forefront. That’s by design, because most people are edified not by seeing the eighty-five percent of creativity that is bleak labor, but by seeing the resulting successes. However, if you’re part of the crew that lives with that eighty-five percent, seeing other people go through it with you provides a world of comfort.
To be sure, that doesn’t detract from my friends’ success. It puts their victories in the proper place. Hagiography does not break down in the light of reality; it finds much-needed context. Every time a new record is released, I can remember the patient toil it took to craft it. Every time a new painting appears on the merch table, I can imagine the days and weeks of working in the middle of attendant familial difficulties and financial woes. In short, I get to have friends again, and not just heroes. With that in mind, I find the strength to keep swimming.
You can learn more about Under the Radar, including how to support their much-needed ministry at Radarradio.net.