Over the shoulder, through the heart. 

For most of my life I have thought about the ways we learn, about the ways we are formed as human beings, our habits of heart shaping who we are, and who we are shaping what we do.

This past weekend I watched this very closely, drawn in as I was to the visions and hopes of four friends, artists each one. For years I have known Charlie Peacock, Mako Fujimura, Bruce Herman and Cam Anderson, keenly aware of their gifts, sometimes more attentive because we have been together somewhere doing something. 

But over a long weekend near Woodstock, Vermont, we lived and moved and had our being at the Ottauquechee Farm. With its 500 acres of meadows and mountains— horses and alpacas and cows, chickens and turkeys and ducks and geese —this farm is an honest farm. But from the beginning it was more too, born of a hope that it will be an artists’ colony someday, a place where the Charlies and Makos, the Bruces and the Cams, and others, can be in residence, inviting younger artists to come learn in apprenticeship… over the shoulder and through the heart.

As I looked in on the beginnings of this life, I was intrigued by the seriousness, the moral seriousness, of the hope. That language, “moral seriousness,” matters to me, as it is a mark of someone who understands the costs, and is willing to do what is needed to pay the proverbial piper. Whether the issue is very personal or the idea very public, we flourish as human beings when morally serious persons decide that they are implicated in the way things turn out— and step into history, for love’s sake, with their visions and vocations, being common grace for the common good. 

From the the family who first imagined this, John and Jean Kingston, with mind and heart buying the property and dreaming a dream, to the principals they have drawn in— Charlie and Mako, Bruce and Cam —there has been the hope that a community could be born of shared conviction and commitment. And now several years in, we were a little community for a few days: women and men, older and younger, artists of all sorts and people from the many marketplaces of the world too, everyone eager to be part of what might be, of what should be. 

As I talked with the owners and principals, I was struck both by the sense of excitement about the future, but also the reality that no one knows how it will all work out. There was no hubris, but a humility marked by hope, manifest in a willingness to pour out one’s heart for an art that is now but not yet, that is already being done by very gifted people but is still to be born in another generation that is yet to come.

The first window into the vision drew 25 singers and songwriters to the farm at the invitation of Charlie— Grammy-award winning producer that he is —whose life over the years has earned the respect of musicians far and wide. Some who came are household names (in some households!), others are still on their way into their music, full of hope and gift each one was. For most of a week they played their songs, listening to each other, riffing off of each other, believing that iron-sharpens-iron in all kinds of ways, maybe even in the making of music. 

And we listened in, wondering what it all meant, where it all will go. But in the end, we were sure, very sure, that it was a gift to see and hear a vision being born, for a place to be and a place to work, for musicians and painters, for filmmakers, novelists and poets too, in their different ways telling good stories, in songs and on screens, on canvases and pages too.

This is not small; in fact it has far-reaching social and political, historical and cultural consequence. One of the truest truths of the universe is that good stories matter for everyone everywhere, because we never ever have good lives and good societies if the stories that shape us are not true to the way the world really is.

So what is a good story? As Walker Percy never tires of reminding us, “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” His insight runs across life and through the world: from books to films to poetry to songs, from political visions to economic theories to social constructs. If we fail to account for both our glory and our shame, the beauty and the brokenness at the very heart of life for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, then the story will never be true to what we long for and to what the world needs.

IMG_5652May good stories in every kind of art be the long, good work of the Ottauquechee Farm, nourishing imaginations that make for morally meaningful life for all of us… songs and paintings and more that offer windows into what it means to be human, honestly and deeply human, creatively twining together the wonder and the wound at the heart of every heart.


Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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