A Group of Critters is my 10th book and first collaboration with other artists, the illustrators of the coloring book being Vicki Squires, Van Jazmin, and Anita Wexler. I decided to incorporate my latest music gig into the publication and use the opportunity as a launch party for the book.
It was the second time I was invited to play at Vino Bistro. It is located at 1419 5th Street in the Rosemary District of Sarasota. Through the years, I have visited the location to interview Ian Black when it was his real estate office, when Lori Frary used it as an art gallery, and I have come to play at open mic night a number of times since it has been Vino Bistro.
Although I have plenty of history with the space, I was truly amazed to see the various aspects of my life coalesce the way they did at my launch party. I had invited a number of friends, and I am glad to say that they filled every seat in the house. But there were two guests that I wasn’t expecting.
Two months ago, I met Elizabeth Smith at the Art Lab event organized by Stephanie Grae, who was also working at Vino Bistro the night of my launch party to promote Alex Cole, the artist showcasing his paintings at the venue. Elizabeth had recently released her book of The Sovereign Way, a spiritual path she has developed through the principles of Christ without the dogmatic trappings of Christianity, and knew I had immediately met a kindred spirit. When she arrived at Vino Bistro with her two daughters, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had served as a substitute teacher for her daughter Penelope at Bay Haven.
I’ve been serving as a substitute teacher at various elementary schools one or two days a week since November of last year. Most of my classes are at Bay Haven since it is two minutes from my house and the shift doesn’t start until 9am. It’s been interesting to see how my time as a substitute has started to intertwine with the rest of my life.
A number of my students have told me they saw me on a poster at the Van Wezel promoting my role as a tour guide for Discover Sarasota Tours when they went on their field trip last month. I’ve also run across kids at the flea market and other public places who let me know that I was their teacher. And most agree that I am the best substitute teacher they’ve ever had.
A few nights ago, I was at a fundraiser to help with medical expenses for Shannon Fortner, who is a powerhouse among the local musical and LBGTQ communities. My friend Trey Jones had texted me that his daughter Lily thought I was the best substitute teacher ever and loved my avocado shirt so I was sure to give her a hug when I saw her at the event.
Later on, his younger daughter, Seraphina, approached me and asked if I had been a substitute teacher at Bay Haven. I said I had and asked her if I had been her substitute. She coyly nodded, spread her arms and leaned in for a hug. I lead a very special and charmed life.
At the launch party, my friends Nicolas and Camilla also came with their children. They arrived during my first set, and when I approached their table during my break, their daughter Emma asked if I had ever been a substitute at Ashton Elementary. I have substituted at my alma mater on three occasions for kindergartners, first graders, and second graders, but it’s about a 40 minute ride pretty early in the morning, so I don’t get over that way very often. Nevertheless, the kids there are amazing!
When I taught first grade there, I had recently received the first proof for A Group of Critters. I read it to the class, and they loved it so much that I destroyed the book so that they could all color some of the pages. I quickly realized that Emma had been in that class so I told her how their feedback had helped me make some changes to the book and that I was very grateful for her help. So I gave her a free copy, and the delight on her face was probably the high point of my evening.
One of the reasons I don’t more actively try to get gigs in bars and restaurants is because as a songwriter, I want people to actually listen to my songs. As proud as I am of the lyrics I’ve written and with as much as I want people to hear the messages that are shared through them, I often find it frustrating to play as background to conversations. However, since I am also skilled at drawing people together socially, I endured the conversations that carried on through my three sets of songs, and even cut a few of them short so that I could socialize with everybody who showed up.
It’s my intention to perform in spaces that would encourage people to listen to the words that I’ve written, but I’ve also learned to enjoy just seeing them tap their feet and find ways to dance to my music even though they may not be clinging to every lyric. And seeing people enjoy the coloring book with the knowledge that I had enriched the lives of people who attended, it was joyful to step back a bit to see the bigger picture and realize how the various facets of my life have had positive effects. As challenging as my purpose here often is to brand, I am very grateful for the times I have answered the call to merely serve life rather than trying to define my role in it.
Maybe since I’ve now published a coloring book, I might get better at coloring inside the lines. But I’m really appreciative for the liberties I’ve taken with lines up to this point. However anyone may define me, as a songwriter, author, poet, tour guide, friend, or substitute teacher, and whatever lines may be drawn to give me definition, I feel a lot of joyful purpose in just being the artist of my life.