“Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”
— The Bhagavad Gita
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon contacted me in the fall of 2015 to obtain headshots for an upcoming voice recital.
The request came at a time when anxieties about some personal issues were mounting. Taking photos started to become a challenge. The excitement I once felt when preparing for a shoot was nowhere to be found. I would get worried about the end result being "cool" enough.
I used to get a similar sinking feeling when I worked various day jobs, but instead of being worried about the hip-factor, the sensation had more to do with work that required me to compromise my ethics in some way. Having since shed all such employment, the reappearance of those feelings was troubling.
It was a time when I learned to lean into a quote from The Bhagavad Gita, which Steven Pressfield paraphrases in The War of Art:
"We have the right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor."
The shoot took place on a foggy afternoon in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. With rainwater dripping all around us in a leaky parking garage, we started off with some traditional headshots. After about an hour of snapping photos on my 5D Mark II and a Pentax MX 35mm, I started to feel a bit more comfortable (submitting to the process).
I clipped my UE Boom Mini bluetooth speaker to a belt loop on my jeans and let tUnE-YaRdS set the new rhythm.
Jeremiah transitioned from formalwear into street clothes, and then into something more representative of his true self: a Lebanese thwab, chalked-up Nikes he wore during high school basketball days, a baseball cap and a hooded green bubble parka. He could have just as easily looked like a cross-dressing hobo, but instead the ensemble felt cohesive and natural. He pulled some recent artwork out of his car, a Sharpie from his pocket and inscribed the number “3” on each palm.
The singer held the backs of his hands up to his eyes, recreating the scenes with El Hombre Pálido in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
I meant to ask him then the significance of the 3s, but I often get into a moment-to-moment flow while my shutter fires. The thoughts slide away. I’m simply breathing: present and responsive to the human on the other side of the lens.
When I sent him some digital samples later on that evening, I shot him a message on Facebook.
“Oh yeah. What’s behind the 3s?”
“33 is one of my favorite numbers,” he corrected. “It’s related to numerology.”
My only experience with something even related to numerology, the belief that numbers have a mystical connection to real life events, is the esoteric Jewish practice of assigning numeric value to Hebrew words from the Torah I read about in Chaim Potok novels.
I’ve never given it a second thought, but I’m a lot more spiritually open/curious these days. I looked into it, and immediately connected with a couple lines:
“A 33 used to its full potential means that there is no personal agenda, only focus on humanitarian issues. Someone with 33 strongly featured in their chart has the ability to throw themselves into a project that goes far beyond mere practicality.”
While I have yet to begin any investigation into my “chart,” this sentiment struck me because of the way I approach my life and work as a single practice.
After years of being employed at various functions — copywriting for evangelical higher education, editing advertising-heavy newspapers filled with syndicated content, receiving payment from companies that mistreat their staff and getting glimpses in the national advertising world that hocks harmful products for the sake of profit for a select few — I came to the conclusion that I cannot ethically accept a check in exchange for my complicity with what I believe is damaging to our lives and environment.
No, I don’t wish to help you sell your tobacco product. I will respectfully decline to create video content for a low-prices retailer with an inhumane work culture and bottom-dollar wages. Making any amount of money is not worth the weight of my soul, knowing that I am perpetuating “the problem.”
Instead, I’d like to take the route numerology ascribes to the Master number 33: Focus on humanitarian issues, no matter how “far beyond mere practicality” doing so might seem.
I would much rather film a low-budget sizzler for a local yoga studio than create another wine commercial. Or, like in this instance with Jeremiah, help a fellow artist bring more beauty into the world.
Up until the day of this shoot, I had only known him as the fiery-haired singer-songwriter who kept popping into my periphery through the landscape of the local music scene.
About a year before, my brother sent me mobile footage from a coffee shop performance where Jeremiah played an original tune, “January Eyes,” on a harmonium, and also a cover of Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy” — both of which challenged the capacity of my iPhone speakers despite the simple live setup of one voice and one instrument per song. I was shocked by his level of vocal ability, a cross between Jónsi, Jeff Buckley and a soulfulness uncommon to his complexion.
I texted back to my brother: “Holy shit.”
He’s an anomaly: a ginger who sings in a gospel choir, performing solos simultaneously transcendent and reserved that break through already-powerful backing harmonies. And his personal work draws heavily from electronic experimentation, otherworldly folk music, jazz, eastern philosophy and esoteric knowledge.
For a transient town such as ours where bigger talents pass through from time to time — but only to get a degree and shove on to bigger cities to find room for self-actualization —discovering an artist’s artist such as Jeremiah is a rarity. He isn’t waiting for greener pastures to flex the fullness of his creative muscle. Instead, he’s actively engaged with the process of fertilizing his work in the “here and now” of a strange (yet lovely) Bible belt city.
Pressfield, in Turning Pro (his follow-up to The War of Art), lists this attribute in his twenty Qualities of the Professional:
“10. The professional plays it as it lays.”
Even pro golfers foul up a stroke from time to time and send the ball into the cut. There’s no option but to submit to the reality of a bad shot (“play it as it lays”) and get back into the game. The lesson is that any amateur wanting to turn pro must learn to not approach these moments with discouragement, but to perceive shortcomings as opportunities to embrace her or his current skill level and to attempt a course-correct.
Accept and work with reality. There’s no other way to progress.
No, Lynchburg isn’t the most opportunity-laden town for artists of any medium (at the moment), but a true artist like Jeremiah practices regardless of externalities. I pass by his room now late at night (I now rent a makeshift “studio” — a spare room in the midtown duplex where he lives with two other singer-songwriters) and hear him live broadcasting his painting and songwriting process on Periscope. Or I come by in the middle of the day and hear him experimenting with outlandishly beautiful sound samplings and beat makings on an Akai keyboard. I hear him pumping away on his harmonium while he allows his voice to effortlessly float with the powerful, always-on-pitch control that a show tune singer would envy.
And while the experience of his art (like I said earlier) is one of transcendence, a near mythical vocal quality infused with the musings of a mystic, there’s also an undeniable practicality to its practice — an application of ass-to-chair (to paraphrase Norman Mailer), an application of Self to simply do the work we feel compelled to do while letting the unknown results of that labor come about of their own accord.
Perhaps this “mere practicality,” attributed to the number 33, the number Jeremiah wrote on his outstretched palms doesn’t mean impracticality, but rather a far greater practicality. Perhaps if instead of doing things merely for an anticipated and assured outcome or gain we did them simply for the sake of doing — for self and for humanity — we would find a far greater reward than we could have ever conceived.