“Jewel – She Stands in Wonder” 
by Ganga Nath

“Jewel – She Stands in Wonder” 
by Ganga Nath

About ten years ago, I wrote this piece about the life of Jewel, the folksinger singer from Alaska who became a major pop star. For a while it was the biography on her official website. Recently, a friend in Germany asked if I still had it, so I searched and found it.

 I’m posting it again because it’s more than about Jewel. It’s about discovering your purpose, finding hope in hopelessness and living a life of integrity.

“Jewel – She Stands in Wonder”

by Ganga Nath

Jewel_300

What tells the story of a life? Do a series of names, family and friends, facts, large and small, places, near and far, like home and high school, Homer and Hawaii, convey the reality of the miraculous nature of living? What is the measure of success? Is it determined by numbers of records sold, Grammys given, fame bestowed, adulation received, like athletic trophies sitting in a glass case in an empty hall during summer vacation?

A young girl wakes up and feels the frost on her eyelashes. She pulls on her parka and tiptoes past her sleeping brothers. Will the squeaky hinge on the cabin door break the rhythm of the snoring? Her little feet follow the path to the outhouse, etched in her memory like the well-worn steps to the cabin that her grandfather, Yule, built when he homesteaded this piece of wilderness before it was known as Alaska. Although barely awake, with the echoes of a night’s dreams still filling her head, she feels the weight of her little body crushing the delicate layer of frost on the frozen earth. She remembers the frost on her eyelashes when she awoke and feels her connection to the earth. We both freeze. We both are fragile.

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Suddenly, the silence is shattered by the howl of distant wolf. She looks up and gasps in amazement at the awesome beauty of the heavenly display, the Northern Lights. The colors, the shapes, forms and nuances of shading are so beautiful that they seem supernatural, and yet they are natural. Infinity manifesting before her. Is God putting on this light show just for her?

She stands in wonder.

The lights speak to her of things most people call “mysteries.” They speak of the miracle of living, of the pulse of life that flows in her veins, of her connection with all things, of unity. Unity with the billions of distant stars that sing their silvery song through the emptiness of space and yet seem so close that you could reach right out and touch them. Unity with the larkspur that push their way through the melting spring snow toward the warmth of the sun like the way she creeps closer to the wood burning stove. Unity with the caribou who leave their tracks on the frozen tundra like she does, hitchhiking her way to school down the dirt road covered overnight in fresh snow. Unity with the salmon who run upstream toward their destiny the way she does, not knowing what awaits her but sensing that there is a special purpose guiding her.

She stands in wonder.

She remembers the words her mother, Nedra, whispered last night before singing her to sleep with her favorite lullaby, “You have a special purpose, Jewel. Discover it and live it.” She knows it’s true. She feels it. It’s as clear as the icicles hanging from the cabin roof. She knows things that most people think she’s too young to understand. She knows that life is beauty because the flowers that she talks to tell her so. She knows that life is pain because she sees it in the faces of the people that sit in the audiences when she sings with her mother and father. She notices the emptiness behind their eyes and she wants to fill it. She feels how the hearts of those around her cry out in pain from a thousand tiny cruelties inflicted day by day. She wants to make a difference.

She stands in wonder.

But enough of dreaming. There’s work to be done. Water to be fetched. Wood to be chopped. Eggs to be gathered. Cows to be milked. Horses to be fed. There isn’t the luxury of laziness growing up on a homestead without electricity, running water or TV. Working hard is just what you do. It’s a matter of survival. No lolling around like most kids on a soft living room couch watching morning cartoons. There’s work to be done. There’s a special purpose to be discovered and lived.

And where will this life lead her? While her heart and mind are full beyond her years, there is still mystery. There are questions unanswered that she wants to understand. She thirsts for knowledge. Why do they make fun of my friend because he’s fat? Why do the men stare at me that way when I sing on stage? Why do I make their faces light up and smile? Why are people jealous? Don’t they know that they have a special purpose, too? She knows that she’s connected. She knows that it’s all one. All the pieces are one. All is one. I am the fat boy. I am the ugly girl. I am the pretty girl. I am the person persecuted because his skin is black. I am the baby deer wobbling on its unsteady legs. I am the Northern Lights.

But why don’t they see it? Why are their eyes closed to the beauty that surrounds them and is their very essence? I know it’s there. Am I the only one who knows it, who sees it, who feels it? My mother must know because she speaks to me of such things. I know she knows. But we aren’t alone. That old Greek guy Plato knew it. He said that people were locked in a dark cave unaware of the beauty outside. He knew it. Maybe others know it too. There must be others who aren’t willing to pass their lives asleep. There must be others who dare to push aside the door to the cave and run outside to enjoy the infinite wonders of existence. Anais Nin must have known it, as surely as the blood flowed in her loins. She dared to live and love and endure the wrath of those too scared to leave the safety of the dark cave of their ignorance. She feels the pull of the light. It leads her.

She stands in wonder.

It leads her to the stage where under the lights she finds her voice and discovers the power of its magic to connect the pieces, to open the eyes so accustomed to sleep, to awaken the minds and touch the hearts so that they feel the mystery again. In hotel restaurants and Eskimo villages she learns her craft. She learns from her father how to use the gift, the voice, to “work the crowd,” to connect with the audience, to reach out and touch them. And they are touched. She sees the smiles on their faces, their laughter, and she hopes that they see what she sees – the awesome beauty that they are in every moment of eternity.

jewel-young

People treat her like she’s special but she doesn’t think so. She knows that she’s been blessed but everyone is blessed. Some just don’t know it yet. Maybe their mothers didn’t tell them about their special purpose. Maybe they watched too much TV that filled their heads with too many ideas like clogged drains. Maybe they didn’t have a chance to lie on their horse’s back at twilight and watch the soft, pink glow over the distant ridges and greet the first star that sang its song to you alone. Maybe they believed the news reports that only spoke of brutality and suffering and convinced them that they were anything but beautiful. A million mysteries left undiscovered.

What a waste of life.

With the sensitivity comes pain. Sometimes it strikes close to home. Sometimes it is at home. Her parents divorce. Sometimes your perfect life cracks like the ice covered puddles she walks through on the way to school, leaving only a mess of shattered ice and muddy brown water where a moment before all you saw were pristine snow flakes on a smooth sheet of ice. Through the back window of the car, she watches her mother standing on a street corner as the car pulls away. If she’s all the pieces, then she’s this too. She’s the orphaned foal shivering without its mother.

She cries.

Puberty comes and all the confusion that it contains. It’s not easy growing up in a cabin of only men. Sometimes she feels so incredibly alone like those distant stars, each isolated in the blackness. But, even worse, she begins to distrust her own instincts. She begins to believe the people who tell her that she doesn’t really know herself, that others know her better than she knows herself.

She loses hope.

Maybe she doesn’t really have a special purpose or, even worse, maybe she does but will never find it. The thought of that is too horrifyingly painful to consider. She takes refuge in writing. Writing poetry becomes her life raft where her life experiences and the thoughts that fill her mind become defined on paper. She remembers that luxuriously delicious feeling she had around the age of six during one of her mother’s home poetry workshops. That’s when she discovered the magic of poetry and how it made her feel free.

At school she tries to push her way. She sees the hypocrisy, the jealousies, the little cruelties that injure the soul. She wants to confront them all, to shine her light on the dark lies that choke out life. But they resist her. They fight to persist. The lies want to endure and she finds herself swept up in a cyclone of conflict and resentment. A wise teacher asks her, “Why do you argue so much?” She replies, “Because I want to bring about change.” He suggests, “If you really want to bring about change, maybe you’d want to do it efficiently by entering slowly and gradually winning them over.”

She discovers patience.

An Native American family shows her the way. They adopt her as their own, accept her into the circle and tell her of our place in the interconnectedness of all things. They speak of the gift from the Creator, the Great Spirit that made all things and breathed life into them. They teach her many things that she has thirsted for for so long, spiritual things that her mother used to talk about, like the sacredness of the land, of the God that surrounds her, in beauty and in simplicity.
 They tell her about the White Buffalo Woman who carried the pipe to the first American Indians. 

She learns to give up her reliance on cleverness and to trust the heart. Of how to speak honestly from the heart and how to walk with integrity through this world, caring for the four-leggeds and two-leggeds. Of how to live in harmony with nature rather than trying to conquer and destroy it. Of how to open our hearts to each other and to the Creator from whom we came.

She remembers the night her uncle found a pregnant cow that had given birth to a calf in a snowbank. How the calf was dead but her uncle brought it into the house and all the children rubbed its feet to get its circulation going. How they made a fire and gave the calf mouth-to-nose resuscitation. And how, after it came back to life, she took the mattress off her bed, and slept with it each night on the floor to make sure it stayed warm and kept breathing.

Her Ottawa uncle tells her that she has a gift to give the world but in the talking circle she sits paralyzed, unable to speak. Where are the words that flow so effortlessly onto the pages of her journal? She cries for fear that she can’t say an honest word. She sees the chaff that needs to be winnowed. She makes her vision quest. She feels the sacredness of the land. She finds her mountain and her place on it.

She stands in wonder.

She pours herself into music. The path toward her destiny is unfolding. It’s the voice. She discovers the magic of the voice’s power. While spending a year living with her aunt in Hawaii, the local boys taunt her for being white and she wins them over by yodeling. The voice is magic. She practices for countless hours. She plays Ella Fitzgerald, Jennifer Warnes, Kate Bush and Nina Simone copying each vocal turn and inflection until she can mimic them all.

She leaves home.

She receives a partial scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. The residents of Homer contribute to cover the balance. They believe in her. She studies opera but longs for a freer expression. She’s beginning to discover the chords that match the colors she saw in her head when at an early age, standing at the bottom of the basement stairs, she heard her mother call out “Jewel, how did you get down there?” That’s when she first realized that she was “Jewel.” I am the colors inside my head. I am Jewel.

After graduating, she moves around like a bird looking for the way to migrate. Finally, she visits her mother in San Diego where she discovers a wonderful new world full of beaches, surfing and warmth, a warmth that Alaska never offered. But living in Southern California isn’t all fun in the sun. Rent has to be paid. Food has to be bought. This isn’t Alaska where you could chop down some trees and build your own cabin. Run a hose from the river and have fresh water. Catch some fish. Plant a garden and feed yourself. Welcome to the world. Getting hired as a waitress isn’t a problem when your 18, blond, cute and have that sparkle in your eyes. It’s keeping the job that’s hard when you spend to much time talking to the customers and can’t add a bill up right. Maybe it’s the dyslexia or maybe it’s because that third grade math teacher threw her out of class for yodeling but she never did learn to multiply.

The series of dead end jobs and inevitable firings is wearing on her. The humiliation of feeding herself with the scrapings of leftovers off other people’s plates. The fear that her life may be spent merely on survival. That maybe, just maybe, she’ll never fulfill that special purpose. Losing her center, despair sets in. A kidney infection requires medical attention but there’s no insurance and no money for a doctor. She can’t bear to see the look on her mother’s face as she walks back to the car from another clinic that refused admission.

She sinks in a pit of hopelessness. What is the purpose of living, of facing each day, knowing that she has to sacrifice her passion, her dream, to merely survive and pay the rent? Once again, her mother and best friend provides spiritual insight insisting that she must figure out what her spirit wants. “You do have a spirit, Jewel, and it does have a purpose”.

She wonders.

But, if she feels standed like a fish out of water, she finds a safe haven in the flourishing San Diego acoustic music scene. Others believe in her and lend her their support. John Katchur, a gifted local musician whose been teaching her guitar, offers from the little money he has to pay for her medical expenses. Joy Eden Harrison, another talented singer-songwriter, welcomes her into the circle of up and coming female artists. Gregory Page and Steve Poltz invite her up on stage at Java Joe’s Coffee Shop and help her get a one-night-a-week gig at the Innerchange. Steve teaches her how to take her meandering poetic songs and formalize them into a more traditional verse/chorus structure. They join in a songwriting collaboration that results in her first number one hit, “You Were Meant For Me.”

jewel-rugburns

Most of all, her mother Nedra in a supreme act of solidarity, suggests that they give up their apartment and both move into vans to free themselves of the burden of having to work to pay the rent. Now she’s free to focus on what she loves. Already used to living on very little, she cherishs living in the van, for its simplicity and freedom. She may be subsisting on peanut butter and carrots but now she can concentrate completely on writing songs. She shifts the focus from what she’s lacking to what she wants. She parks at night next to a flowering tree where she can open her windows and in the silence hear who she’s going to be. She hears a lot. It’s a tremendously creative and prolific period.

jewel-vw-van

The songs pour out.

The exhilaration manifests in a poem called “Upon Moving Into My Van.”

“Joy. Pure Joy. I am
What I always wanted to grow up and be
Things are becoming more of a dream with each waking day the heavy brows of
Daily Life are becoming encrusted with glitter and the
Shaking Finger of consequence is beginning to giggle
Grumpy old men have wings
Bums sport halos and everyday dullness has begun to breathe as 
I remember the incredible lightness of living”

She’s learning to play the guitar and it’s made all the harder by the dyslexia she’s struggled with all her life. But hard work is something she’s grown up with. She applies herself like she did when a teacher barred her from gym class for being too clumsy. Never to be convinced of her lack of worth, Jewel secretly practiced the balance beam on her own and then returned to amaze them by her ability.

The crowd at the Innerchange embraces her. They overlook her still developing technical ability and love her for her heart. Soon it’s standing room only on Thursday nights and, thanks to the championing of Inga Vainshtein, the record company executives in Los Angeles begin to hear about the 19 year old Alaskan folksinger who’s packing them in down in San Diego. The companies come a courtin’. A bidding war ensues. Having no place to bathe before the meetings, she washes her hair in the bathroom sink at Denny’s and endures the disdain of blue-haired ladies whispering behind her back, “She’s such a pretty girl. I wonder how she could have ended up like this.” But, it rolls off her back because instead of feeling homeless, she feels like Cinderella with a van for a pumpkin.

Jewel-Pieces_Of_You

Atlantic Records signs her and decides to record much of her first album “Pieces of You” live at the Innerchange, expecting to sell only around 40,000 copies. Initially, the response isn’t good. Radio stations don’t think the music of an Alaskan folk singer is commercial enough. No one wants to tour with her so she hits the road opening for Goth bands. She’s booed. Sometimes they throw bottles. After shows she sits and cries. But she’s undaunted, doubling her resolve, she tours incessantly driving herself around the country to over 600 shows a year. But, everywhere she plays she connects with someone, touches their soul, and soon the word begins to spread. It’s as though she’s waging a one woman war against cynicism and hopelessness, simply with the power of her pen and that wonderous voice.

jewel-early-poster

Atlantic realizes that the key to her success is in letting people see her live so they book her in coffehouses and small clubs around the country, returning each week to build her audience. What happened in San Diego begins to happen in other cities around the country. Through word of mouth people hear of the young girl singing simple, honest songs that ring of sincerity. And, like she learned from her father, in between the songs she tells her stories about the importance of living your passion and not sacrificing your dream for just survival.

She tells them, “Reality is a funny thing, you know… Reality is what you believe, what you believe it to be. It’s what you put your thought and energy into, because your hands physically manifest thought. So your world becomes what you feel and what you think.”

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She appears on Conan O’Brien and the next day sales of “Pieces of You” skyrocket. The day is forever etched in her memory when she first hears that her album has sold 6 thousand copies in a single week. She sits on her kitchen floor and cries, knowing that she’ll never have to waitress again.

Sean Penn sees her on TV and offers to direct her first video. Bob Dylan, one of her greatest musical heroes, asks her to open for him and they sing a duet of “I Shall Be Released”. Afterwards, he pushes her forward to the edge of the stage to take her bows and exclaims, “Dang, she sings better than Joan Baez.”

She stands in wonder.

She’s nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy. “You Were Meant For Me” and “Foolish Games” become back-to-back number one singles, with hit videos on heavy rotation on VH1 and MTV. Time Magazine puts her on the cover. “Pieces of You”, the debut album recorded in a coffee shop, that radio stations didn’t want to play, sells 6.5 million copies and stays at the top of the charts for almost two years. But, it was never about fame.

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Passing by airport newsstands she looks in amazement at her own faces staring back at her from countless magazine covers. That night she tells her fans, “People look at me in magazines and feel like I’m a phenomenon, as if what I’ve accomplished is beyond their ability. I tell them to knock it off. If you respect what I’ve done, then do something yourself.”

The swelling audience spans all ages, from middle-aged people who claim she moves them like no one has since Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, to kids in grade school who identify when she sings, “Be careful with me. I’m sensitive and I want to stay that way.” Her fans are legion and they feel a connection with her that is unique. When she agrees to perform for her swelling internet fan club, the Everyday Angels, at a two day free concert in Woodstock, New York, fans carpool from around the country just to get there. When asked by her fans what she’d like for her birthday, she replies that she has everything she needs and, instead of being treated like a celebrity, she’d rather that they help someone who is really in need. The fans organize a blood drive, raise money to buy a van for a paralyzed victim of a car accident and volunteer in countless ways to help those in need. They name a star after her, “Jewel Kilcher – Star of the North” and the State Legislature of Georgia even declares her birthday, May 23rd, “Everyday Angel Day”.

But, she doesn’t run the guantlet unscathed. Some critics, unaware that she’s very conscious of the stark realities of life, complain that her optimism belies a naivete, “What do they expect”, she replies, “I’m only 22.” And besides, she works hard to maintain her innocence. “Innocence isn’t lost. It has to be maintained.” While the criticisms sting, she believes above all else in the power of the music to heal. “After all”, she says, “In the end, only kindness matters.”

The thousands of expectant faces in the audience wait for her, waiting for whatever she can give them. But this isn’t new to her. She’s seen it since she was six years old when she made the rounds of Eskimo villages singing with her parents. She wants to give them all she can. She wants to share with them what she’s learned. What she knows about finding your center and following your dream. About never doubting your self worth. About walking in this world with integrity. About the magic. About the heart.

She walks to the center of the stage and stands under the brilliant rainbow-colored display of lights that shine on her. They shine down on her like the Northern Lights did when she was a child but this time the lightshow really is just for her. And, as she steps to the microphone, she carries in her heart of hearts the silent prayer that she said every night in her van – that somehow by her living her dream somehow people will remember theirs. This is her special purpose.

She stands in wonder.
She stands in wonder.

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