Finding Beauty From The Ashes with Singer-Songwriter Alex Woodard
Life has its own way of showing us the brighter side of darkness. When we are in despair, what comes after is this sudden glimmer of hope that seems to contrast and show us how immense the grace from the other side. Bringing us deeper into that connection is singer-songwriter, Alex Woodard. Alex shares how she found beauty from the ashes through her For The Sender project. With her passion for singing and songwriting, she has seen many wildflowers come out of their struggles. Alex believes that there can be a deep connection from what seem to be disconnected ideas or events or concepts – the beauty rising from the ashes.
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Finding Beauty From The Ashes with Singer-Songwriter Alex Woodard
This is the full presentation of Alex Woodard’s TED Talk titled Wildflowers from the 2018 Coca-Cola CMO Summit.
“From the ashes, we watched beauty rise,” I wrote that song about this letter, which is from a woman named Katelyn. It describes the night that her husband, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty during a gang initiation and left behind this infant son that was just born named Wyatt. How do I get a song about beauty rising out of a letter like that? That’s why I’m here, as this Summit is revolving around the connection. I’m here to suggest that there can be a deep connection from what seemed to be disconnected ideas or events or concepts. It’s beauty rising from the ashes. We all have these ashes. We have these wildfires that run through our personal lives. We call them by different names, but they leave the same ashes behind. Nature has a very interesting way of showing us what can be on the other side of those wildfires, just waiting there. I live in Idaho. Not long ago, the biggest wildfire in the country, the Beaver Creek Fire, came within about eighteen inches of my house. The house was saved by firefighters on the roof with garden hoses. I was out there surveying the damage to the fence rails right after the Evac was lifted. I saw this little green shoot pointing up out of the charred soil. The next morning there were a couple more. The next morning there was some color. By the end of the week, this whole burned field was wildflowers.Devastation and beauty are two things that we consider opposites when in reality, they can't exist without the other. Click To Tweet
It turns out that my ranch is in what they call a fire-dependent ecosystem. The soil is depleted and it needs the nutrients in the ashes in order to support future growth. All these beautiful pine trees, lodgepole pines were decimated like matchsticks, but they were all old growth at the end of their lifecycle. The only way that lodgepole pines can release their seeds out of the cones is through extremely high heat. The only event that does that is a wildfire. The point is that devastation and beauty are two things that are opposites. We consider them opposites. In reality, they can’t exist without the other. They’re deeply connected, which is what I saw in that field of wildflowers. I saw a different kind of wildflower when I went and visited Katelyn who sent me that letter. I wrote some songs for her about her letter. I went and visited her. The little infant, Wyatt, he had turned into this incredibly curious, kind kid. This kid sat there and told me that he understood what had happened to his dad. All that meant was that now he had to give more love to his mom because his dad had to leave. What a beautiful wildflower rising up from these ashes.
For The Sender
I write songs about letters. I started a project called For The Sender with one song about one letter. It evolved into this project that features Grammy-winning and Platinum selling artist that donates proceeds to causes that the letter senders chose to, so For The Sender. This whole deal grew to something far bigger than I could’ve imagined. It started with a wildflower that grew from the ashes in that box. How does that happen? I’m younger and I’m living in this loft apartment in Boston. I’m working in an entry-level monotonous job. I wake up one morning to Springsteen singing from my clock radio. He’s singing about how he’s trapped, but someday he’s going to get beyond these walls. He can see what’s on the other side. I feel like I’ve got these walls too. I’ve got the walls of this tiny loft apartment. I’ve got these walls of expectation. I’ve got the felt walls that I’m sure we’ve all had in our cubicle, we might still have them. I had the walls of the concrete and chaos in the city. I had walls around my heart already. By the time the sax solo hits in that song, I can see beyond them because I’ve got dreams beyond those walls. I’ve got dreams of writing songs that connect to people. I’ve got a dog at my side because I tell myself that a dog’s going to fill the space. The songs are going to help me reach people and connect in ways that I haven’t been able to.
By the time that the end of that song rolls around, I know what I’m going to do. That morning, I went to work and I quit my job. Two weeks later, I’m driving across the country on I-80 because back then Seattle was where it was happening for music. I went straight for Seattle, but I stopped at one place. It was my aunt’s house. She just had a litter of puppies. I pick one up in my arms. It’s this little tiny black Labrador. I named her Kona. I put her on the passenger seat of the truck that day and off we went to Seattle. I found a temp job. I found a place to live. I started writing those songs. I started playing shows. I played for six people. Tony was talking about the Barnes & Noble experience, mine was that minus degree of four. I started selling some CDs, not a ton but enough to keep me thinking this was moving in the right direction. I went on the road. I was on the road for a long time, just me and that dog. I would sneak her into the clubs at night and she’d stay backstage. I’d sneak her out of the dingy hotels the next morning because they didn’t allow dogs in the hotels. We would talk about my dreams. I would talk. She would listen because she’s a dog. It was mostly me talking full disclosure. I talk about my failures, little victories, that kind of stuff. She always listened without judgment and she’d end the talk with usually a search for something to play with, which reminded me of the more important things.
I was alone for those years. I told myself this, I don’t know if Liz and Tony ever had this experience. I told myself that I was alone because I had to write. I wasn’t sure if anybody was listening. Liz talked about being in her pajamas and in this room. I told myself that I had to be alone. I’m also alone because I’m writing. It’s a strange paradox. I’m alone, except for her. By this time, she’s not a puppy anymore. Many years from that, they come and they go. This gets hard. In harsh white lights of a vet’s office when some faraway boy tells me that she’s dying with ten days to live. It’s bone cancer. Her bones are disintegrating. I pick her up and I take her home. I fall asleep next to her. I hold back all the way, I don’t want to cry. I started crying there and then I don’t stop until I fell asleep. Even then I don’t stop.
A few months go by and I get a letter from a fan. I had one, so that’s good. Her name is Emily and she lives in Connecticut. She had heard about my loss and she felt our losses were the same. We call them by different names. Different wildfires or same wildfires, different names. She had lost her soul mate some years before. She sends them letters like this every year. This year she wanted to give me a piece of herself so she sent me that letter. I wrote a song about it. I was so inspired. A friend of mine called For The Sender about how a letter is like a prayer and that it’s more for the sender than the person receiving it. I sent it to her and her response was gracious. I felt good doing it because it wasn’t about me anymore. It wasn’t my story. It was somebody else’s story that I was giving music to.
I wrote another song. I recruited another friend who was more famous than me. We wrote another song about it. That one wildflower that came up from both of our losses ended up spreading to two and then it spread to three. Almost on the wind, letters started showing up. I got a letter from a first responder in Haiti, of all places. I got a letter from Scarlett Lewis who lost her six-year-old son, Jesse, at Sandy Hook. He was the kid that charged the gunman. She sent me this letter and it spoke to the tragedy, but it spoke louder to the response. She started this foundation that successfully puts social and emotional learning into classrooms, into curriculums. Each kid that chooses the power of love over fear, every time that happens another wildflower is going to come up from the ashes or her loss. I got this letter from Kim. Kim’s childhood was incinerated by drug abuse and violence and rape. She was a street kid. She was homeless for years. She has a shelter for homeless kids that she runs now that gets people, teenagers like she used to be, off the streets. For each kid that she closes or maybe shows a new way of thinking about things, another wildflower is going to rise up from those ashes.
I didn’t know what I was doing here. I was writing these songs about these letters and I was winging it. Wildflowers aren’t planned. There’s no agenda. There’s no one plus one equals two. I thought, “It would be cool to go and surprise these people with these songs.” I flew to Haiti. I surprised that first responder. It was in the weeks immediately after that quake. It was an experience in and of itself. We went to California to Kim’s shelter. We played the songs for her there. I went to Connecticut and I was looking at the airport in. Emily was the one that sent me the first letter. Scarlett Lewis, who’s singing along halfway through one of the songs, she started figuring out the words and singing. I saw what these songs were doing for these people. I felt these patches of wildflowers were starting to rise up around me. I wanted to keep it going. I produced shows with the letters and the songs and donated the proceeds from these shows which mostly sold out to causes that the letter senders have chosen, like Scarlett’s foundation and Kim’s homeless shelter. There is a surf camp for veterans the project pays for. We pay for two every year in Huntington Beach, California. There is a therapeutic equestrian center that the project supports. There is an incredible organization that rescues dogs from kill shelters and trains under psychiatric service dogs for veterans. It’s like saving two lives. It’s an incredible organization.
I started to notice the field of wildflowers because I was helping people with the songs, but now I was able to support these organizations that were doing real change. I was winging it. I thought, “As a thank you, I’ll write the backstories into a book and give it to the people who sent me the letters.” I thought that would be nice. I did that and I stuck the album in there. This was all coming together. The book hadn’t been printed yet, but it was done. I was in the water living in California and had a celebratory surf session out front because I thought it was the end of the process. It wasn’t, but I thought it was. I had this lightning bolt realization when I was in the water. I didn’t know why I was connected to these letters. It was cool that they arrived and this turned into a beautiful project, but I didn’t understand my connection to it. In the water when I remembered I had my own letter. I ran in. I had my wetsuit on. I was dripping water all over the place. I took this box down from the shelf. I hadn’t opened it in years. I took this letter out. I’d had in the box this comic strip that was printed in the paper the day my dog died. I also had taken a photo that day. I hadn’t looked at the photo in a long time. I’d forgotten I had it. I put it in the box and locked this away for a little while.
The photo is of the day I got her. It’s our last day on our first day. I sat down at the table and I started reading this letter. It starts with, “Dear, Kona. Thank you for being with me for so long. The times I was most alone, I was never alone because you were always there.” It ends three pages later, “I suppose that’s the closing of a chapter. Thank you for being here. I love you. Alex.” This is when something remarkable happened. I was sitting there at the table and she’d been gone about a year. I heard an old song of mine float in of the ocean and into the room and into my heart. I’d written a song way before she died. It was remarkable because it predicted the moment I was in eerily. The first two lines are, “He sits down at the table. She’d been gone about a year.” That was me there, but here’s where it got connective for me. “He says the cancer took her, son but he still keeps it near, right here.”Choose the power of love over fear. Click To Tweet
When I wrote that song, I didn’t know anybody who was dying of cancer. I didn’t know anybody who’d lost somebody like that. I remember thinking, “Why am I using the word cancer in here?” I didn’t edit myself. I didn’t know why. My dog, she was at my feet. She’s probably dying of it right then. I had no idea. It was probably a couple of years before. This song that I didn’t know why I wrote, I wasn’t connected to it at all. It turned out to be as deeply connected to me as could be, as possible. Now I knew why I was writing these songs about letters. I had my own song and my own letter. They were more for the sender. It had risen from the wildflowers in that box. It had been one wildflower, that’s the point that I’m getting to.
That one song had spread into this field. I never imagined doing something for somebody else. It was such a small act of service could lead to such a change for me in a field like this. This is what my life looks like now in a lot of ways. It’s because of that box and that wildflower that rose up from it. Some of you are holding back a tear. Some of you are not holding back a tear, which is great. I don’t think that you’re feeling emotion or maybe crying because you knew my dog. It’s because you have a wildfire of loss or you know somebody that does that looks like this. You might call yours the loss of a partner or a family member, maybe a dream. The point is that the wildfires, they are the same. We call them by different names. The ashes are the same too. Waiting to rise up from those ashes are small changes that we can all make and that the world needs now.
In little moments, I’m not talking about anything major. I hope that you will be open to the possibility of connection and disconnect, especially in the friction when two things come together. That’s what disruption is anyway. That’s our catchword, it’s disruption. That’s a connection. I hope that you’re open to it. You look for the ways that the ideas or concepts are related when they seem to be unrelated because that’s where the beauty is. Especially in your life, but even in your business, real change can happen. It might be your wildflower might be a partnership that you didn’t see coming when you got to Nashville. It might be some kind of disruptive idea that you had while you’re listening to me speak, some guy you did not expect to see at an event like this. Maybe it’s a service initiative for a new start.
Be open to it. It can start with one little thing and change your life and change many people’s lives too. You are in the position where you can do this. That’s why I’m happy I’m speaking to you. For me, it was a song, for you, what it is going to be? Thank you, Kathy, for having me here. Thank you for reading. Before I end, I have to tell you about Liz. I knew her, I didn’t know her. I met her in the back and she made me reach into this bag and pull out a temporary tattoo. I pulled one out and then Ron pulled one out. Ron pulled out the wildflowers. I was like, “That was supposed to be mine.” I put on the tattoo that I pulled out, which was a butterfly. I was sitting back listening to Tony and Liz talk and I realized that, “What comes after wildflowers?”
About Alex Woodard
Alex Woodard has toured nationally behind three critically-acclaimed albums, earning prestigious industry nods and sharing the stage with some of today’s most popular acts, before becoming a published author.
His book and album series, For The Sender, features a story of release and redemption woven through songs written about real-life letters. When he’s not surfing in his beach town north of San Diego, Alex lives with a big dog and two bigger horses in the mountains of Idaho.