The Journey Begins (Part One)

FaceTime with Theo and Lesleigh as I boarded my flight to Tokyo

The sliding doors open to the terminal, and I turn around to wave goodbye to Lesleigh and Theo who are standing by our car in the passenger drop off lane at the Nashville airport. This sight has been a familiar one this year, and it isn’t easy… but we do know it’s purposeful and important.

On one hand, we miss each other so greatly that it feels like I’m separated from a part of my own self; on the other, we know who we are and what our mission is, which brings clarity to any situation.

Last night, Theo got up for a middle-of-the-night feeding. I went to get him from his crib and quietly walked him through the hallway in my arms to hand him to Lesleigh. We were all up together as a family at 3am.

Lesleigh just whispered to me, “I can’t wait to tell him how you moved heaven and earth and sacrificed time with us, to do what you do and to care for us.” The sweetest thing I’ve ever heard at 3am.

I’m really looking forward to one day soon when we’ll park our car, and all walk in together for a flight bound for an international mission as a family. Soon!

People sometimes ask me, “aren’t these tours hard?” Do you have to do them!?” My response is “I GET to do them!! I get to represent the U.S. people overseas, I get to share music AND a message, bring encouragement, and be encouraged in return.” I was born for this.

Remember: Just because things are hard does not mean you shouldn’t do them. Challenging conversations, missions, jobs, and even people are in our lives to grow us, shape character, and show our purpose more clearly.

With that in mind, I’m so eager to serve in Southeast Asia over the next two weeks. What a joy!

The Invitation

Post guitar lesson photo at Lucky Fin Project Weekend!

THE INVITATION: one of my favorite moments from my work with kids is when I invite them to try my guitar after a concert. 

It’s ESPECIALLY AWESOME at Lucky Fin Project weekend, because I get to help #LuckyFin friends from around the world to make their first sounds on the instrument… 

One of the greatest moments as a teacher is when a student plays his or her first chord, and looks up with the biggest, “HECK yeah, I can do this” Smile. 

I always remind students, “Remember that EVERY SINGLE PERSON at the top of his or her field of discipline (from farmers to astronauts to guitarists) started with one step like this in their craft.” Where can you make a first step today?

Deep in the Heart of Texas…

Headed out! – at Nashville International Airport

Here we go! Nashville Airport, bound for New Orleans, then on to Houston, TX, where I’ll be leading music and worship at a Christian Summer camp for kids with differences and disabilities (one of the only ones of its kind around the country).

This is the last big trip of this spring/early summer season. Though I am a little tired and missing my family, I know that this opportunity to serve is going to be so important and meaningful… For me it helps to look not inward, but to look upward. Stamina and the ability to encourage come from being filled-up then sent out… from being the messenger, not the message.

Can’t wait to make music with all of these wonderful people, in the heart of Texas!

Best Week Ever!

SPECIAL STORY and BRAND NEW SONG!

This month, I had the joy of being a guest at Muscular Dystrophy Association Camp in Burlington, WI. During our time together, the campers and I worked on writing a song about our time at MDA Camp. I recorded the students’ voices (heard here), then brought those tracks to my studio in TN, where I recorded the rest of the arrangement.

Thank you for liking, and sharing!

The hills are alive with the sound of music… in Tajikistan

I wrote this song for my son, Theo, before he was born. Lesleigh and I decided not to find out our baby’s gender – we wanted to be surprised! It was a season of excitement, mystery, and eager anticipation of meeting our little one. We didn’t know much about our baby, but we did know these things…

– our baby would “dance”/kick every time we played music (rock, old country, Irish… the list goes on!)… and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning!

– We had a boy name and a girl name picked out

– We had one photograph: our ultrasound photo

The day after we got our first ultrasound, we closed on the sale of our very first house! The first piece of artwork to go up in our new home was the black and white ultrasound photo. We taped it on the wall of the empty bedroom that would soon be our baby’s nursery. Every day, we’d find ourselves in that room, just staring at the photo, imagining what this little one would be like. And that’s all we had to go on until our due date in Fall of 2018…

This song is for our beautiful boy, Theo. We love you so!

Farewell, Kazakhstan. Hello, Tajikistan!

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

I’m writing from my hotel room in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It’s beautiful here. As I look around the city, I can see snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance, two boys running down the street with a goat on a leash, birds darting through the air, thousands of butterflies (I don’t know for certain, but there must be a monarch butterfly migration happening), the air smells like firewood and fresh-baked bread, and I can hear kids laughing and playing in the distance. 

—-

Our last day in Kazakhstan was bittersweet. We were all sad to conclude our time there, as we felt we’d made good new friends, and really enjoyed every aspect of our tour. 

The day started with a school visit which turned into an all out, festival-esque concert on an outdoor permanent stage with hundreds of kids in the courtyard. They were so sweet as they crowded the stage, practiced their english, and their voices were SO strong when we led singalongs, I didn’t even need a microphone. 

A concert at a school. So fun.

After an extended, especially-enthusiastic autograph session where we were completely surrounded by kids shouting “Tony, please! Joey, please! Alex, please,” pushing as close as they could to try and have their card be the next one picked for a signature, we learned that the school had prepared a special, homemade lunch for us that we’d eat in a tent called a yurt. Resembling a teepee in some regards, the yurt had feast-ready tables set up inside with local dumplings called manti steaming hot and ripe for the plucking (yes dumplings can be ripe, and can also be plucked… from a plate). 

Autograph stampede!
We’re in a yurt!

We had fun at our next two stops as well: visiting with English Access Students and youth with different abilities (the conversation/Q&A was so extensive, it had to be cutoff for time), and we concluded our day at a pedestrian mall jamming with local guitarists, ukulele players, singers, and percussionists. To lead the event, I just asked each new person who showed up if they knew a song we could all learn. Every time someone came, we jammed on a new tune. Before we knew it, almost two hours had passed. We played everything from Celine Dion to Sting to Daft Punk, and even a couple Tony Memmel tunes. It was a blast.

 

Almaty jam session amigos

The band and I relaxed at a local Georgian restaurant later that night, and recapped our amazing tour-to-date over khachapuri and drinks. 

—-

Our luggage was all waiting for us when we passed through passport control in Dushanbe. We were met at the airport by our new friend Mahmud who has been an AMAZING host. 

He took us to a place known for its grilled kebab where we feasted on fresh bread, smoky, juicy chicken, flame-kissed lamb chops, steak, tandoori-baked meat pies, fresh cucumbers and the best tomatoes we’ve ever had. To give you an idea of the special quality, Joey says, “I’m not usually a tomato-guy, but these are incredible.” So there you have it. 

Kebab for days!

More to come soon…

Teachers, Taldykorgan, and a Kazakh Cheeseburger

See the mountains in the distance?! They are huge! Photos don’t do them justice.

Towering, snow-capped mountains peaked through the clouds as we descended toward the runway. This was our first introduction to Almaty, and a sharp contrast to the regions of Kazakhstan we’d previously toured. I took about 150 pictures of the majestic range in two minutes… just a little excited. 

After baggage claim we met our new friend, Banu, from the U.S. consulate who brought us to our hotel to drop our bags before we headed to our first event: a presentation to teachers from around Kazakhstan about my own adaptive teaching work, and ways I’m working to encourage a new generation of people of all abilities to shine with their own unique talents. 

Teachers are such a special group. Worldwide. As we engaged, you could literally feel the interest, the passion, and strong desire to learn from one another. When the music started, it got even more exciting: clapping, singing, and dancing ensued… These teachers really know how to boogie! In all seriousness, it was a powerful beginning to our work here. 

This local English teacher brought friends and students to hear us play!

Today, our visit was to Taldykorgan: an outer region, three hours one way by car, and a spot where U.S. programming has not been frequent, so I was eager to hopefully have a unique opportunity for impact and bonding between our two nations. 

As we passed through rolling, green-and-grey rocky hills, and past lakes, fields and trees, I listened to music for a while, looked out the window, and did an interview with the documentary crew that is following our journey here. 

The theatre we performed in while we were in Taldykorgan. Beautiful!

The day was very full! Six hours in the van, a big public concert at a local theater (which rocked), a flash-mob-style concert in a local pedestrian mall (which also rocked), a visit to a local home where young people with various physical and cognitive differences work in community and are taught gardening and artistic craftsmanship skills to foster independence, a mini-concert at that home, a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a local business (I got to cut the ribbon… which is not as easy as it looks), and interviews with media.

Meeting SO MANY new friends with all different abilities!

At our flash-mob style concert, a woman who uses a wheelchair sat front and center, and was in tears watching the band play and hearing me sing. I needed help interpreting what she said afterward because she was speaking in Russian, but I’m told she said it was so important for her to see me there, and also for the people of the town to see me to hopefully continue to change minds about disability and what is possible. 

Meeting awesome gardeners and craftspeople of all abilities
Post-concert selfie with as many youth as possible!

After the show, I was adorned in these local, traditional clothes called “shapan.” Fun fact: Apparently the actor Nicholas Cage has also been given these clothes.

When we got back to the hotel it was almost 11pm; we were all tired and returned to our rooms, so I ordered some exotic food: a Cheeseburger and fries. It was a salty, juicy, delicious way to cap the big day.

Exotic dish: a cheeseburger and fries.