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The first time I heard “women – you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them” was from a boy in junior high. That’s kind of how faith has been in my life. It’s never been something I’ve felt comfortable living with, or without. So I continue to believe, and doubt. Hope springs eternal even as despair dries everything up. My faith goes up in flames, and is reborn.

This song could have been written for Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent in the church calendar – 40 days of fasting before the biggest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. On Ash Wednesday, the pastor or priest says, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” while making the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads. (These ashes are usually made from burning the palms we waved last year on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’s big “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem where he was hailed as king and crowds waved palm branches to celebrate before turning on him a week later and crucifying him.)

I’ve been keeping journals since I was ten years old. And lugging them around the country with me, every time I moved. A couple years ago as I was in the midst of trying to simplify my life and my possessions, I began to resent that heavy box of journals in my basement. And then I came across an idea from Courtney Carver, to burn journals after filling them. Of course it seemed almost blasphemous to me at first – utterly destroy my painstaking record of my precious inner life?

But I couldn’t stop coming back to the idea. I imagined how freeing that could feel. Over the years I’ve gone back and read old journals quite a bit, and to tell the truth, it started to feel like hearing old voices I just didn’t need to keep around. I had lived those years. I didn’t regret them. I don’t regret writing through those years. I’m so glad I did. But I didn’t really need to continue to enshrine my written impressions of my past.

The more I considered it, the readier I became to let those journals go. I boxed them up over the winter and stowed the box in the garage, waiting for an opportunity to start a backyard fire.

This song became the perfect opportunity. I didn’t plan which pages to burn, just tore out a few pages, threw them in the fire, watched the flames overtake the baggage of my past, felt my present moment come into focus, felt my heart lighten.

These songs, too, and my body, and my life itself – are here for a season. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I can’t make any of this last forever. I have no idea if anyone – even God – can. I remain skeptical about such things. And I dare to hope. But that’s not what moves me moment by moment.

What propels me is this: I do believe – and experience – that right here, right now, every day, everywhere, beauty can follow ashes. Loss, death, endings are real and horrible. And then, beauty. That too. Over and over, and that is life as I know it.

This song (for week 16 of #songaweek2018) was a good exercise in stretching my musician muscles. I wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting and then thought I had a good tune and chord progression but the more I played it, the more same-y same-y it sounded to me. So I tried to mix it up with a more interesting chord progression. Being a music major I should be able to explain what exactly I did here, but those theory classes were years ago! The main thing is that I shifted from an A major chord to a C major chord, so I would sometimes sing a C natural and sometimes a C sharp. It became an engaging challenge working all this out in so many layers of harmonies.

Now I lay me down
With the dogs of despair
Hunting for hope in my dreams
I’ll sleep just like a baby
Wake up in the dark
wailing for a mother I can’t see

Good God it’s not easy
Dear Lord it’s so hard
This living and loving and losing
Sweet Jesus believe me I’ve made it this far
On the fumes of a faith that keeps going up in flames

I’d like to do like you
To fast in the wilderness
Feast on the bread of heaven
Take it as it comes
Breathe my last and be born again
Moment by inevitable moment

Remember you are dust
And to dust you shall return
And I will give you
Beauty for ashes

 

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Angel

We buried one of my best friends from college yesterday. Tomorrow my sister-in-law and her family bury her younger brother. My friend Troy lived with Parkinson’s disease for a decade. Jen’s brother Zach died suddenly in a plane crash.

“Angels” was the suggested theme for week 15 of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in using it. I’ve never been a big angels fan (baseball or otherwise). Too sentimental, too kitschy, too many ceramic travesties foisted on the world. I did briefly start a song tentatively called “Don’t Blink,” but couldn’t sustain an interest in it.

So I pulled up some old song ideas from my files and found a recording of a tune and some chords, no words. And then it all started coming together, a song woven from the threads of my life that week.

Zach’s sudden death. Troy weakly hanging on to the last moments of his life. Two men’s lives tragically and senselessly cut short.

Winter refusing to leave my neighborhood, breathing cold and snow over everything, week after wearying week. An insistent reflection of my own middle-aged angst.

The physics book I’ve been reading, Reality is Not What it Seems, and its discussion of a 3-sphere, a current understanding of the shape of the cosmos; and how Dante envisioned it long before Einstein did, possibly from looking up at mosaics of angels in the Florence Baptistery.

The visions of painter and poet William Blake, which thankfully are something else my mind calls up when I hear the word “angel.”

In writing this song, I more deeply felt why angels have been consistently present in stories and art. There are moments, especially the moments around death, in which we reach out for something like us but not. A being of great beauty, power, intelligence – but also one who brings deep comfort. Not a god, not a human, but someone who knows more than we do, who has seen further into the mysteries of existence and can still say to us, “fear not,” can guide us from what we know into what we don’t.

Hold me while I freefall
While the winds of death squall
Keep me in your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Let me sing forever
Where the clouds can never
Take me from your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Lead me from this dark cave
Sail me cross the light waves
Fill me with your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Fly me through the shadows
Lift me from the cosmos
Add me to your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel

God of the USA

“It is different in the United States,” I once said, not entirely realizing what I was saying until the words came out. . . “We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you [Turks] are doing just now. Because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how freethinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”

“Wow,” a friend once replied. “How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?”

– from Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

Last week our family drove to Colorado for our friends’ wedding. There’s nothing like a road trip to unwind your mind, get a slightly larger sense of the world. Even if it’s only across the monotonous plains of the midwest. A book helps too. Nathan read the book quoted above as I drove. That, and a billboard in desolate eastern Colorado, inspired this song. The first two lines are exactly what I read on that billboard.

Every American could benefit from a wider-ranging road trip, out of the country, to see what our “normal world” looks like from the outside. To get some sense that we are not everything. Or everyone. That our culture has become our god, and maybe it’s time for some healthy agnosticism.

Here’s my song for week 14 of #songaweek2018. Because of our road trip and kids home for spring break etc., I didn’t get to spend as much time arranging and recording this one. So we went for some sort of Woody Guthrie/church hymn mashup feel I guess!

God bless Donald Trump
God bless the American flag
God bless our feedlots and guns
Our ditches littered with plastic bags

God bless our ignorance
God bless our irrepressible greed
God bless the arrogance
Of self-satisfied cynics like me

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

God bless the invisible hand
And all the blood sweat and tears that it took
God bless monopolies
Apple Amazon Google and Facebook

God bless the movie stars
And Youtube and Instagram too
God bless our think tanks and blogs
Our talking heads with nothing to do

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

God bless our border walls
Our freeways and our towers of wealth
God bless our amber waves
Of grain that we avoid for our health

God bless democracy
And the way we do things here in the west
God bless America
At least the version that I think is best

There is no god
There is no god
Like the god of the USA

 

 

I feel a little like a cheater. And a lot like privileged. I spent Easter Sunday afternoon stretched out in the sun on my brother-in-law’s deck in Denver. No jacket, bare feet. I got a sunburn, so I guess there’s some justice for you.

But now, I’m dutifully back in Saint Paul, under gray skies, watching snow pile up outside, thankful for a few sunny days stolen in Colorado, where some of my March-in-Minnesota melancholy did indeed melt away.

My inspiration for writing this song (for week 13 of #songaweek2018) was taking a walk on a gray day, thinking about the cliche “save it for a rainy day” – and how that doesn’t make much sense here where gray/snowy/rainy days can be so common, so maybe it’s better to save up something for a sunny day – and since lots of gray days can bring on sadness for me, maybe I could save up that sadness, push off the full feeling of it till a sunny day when I could let it all hang out and see it melt away. (I think I sort of inverted the idea of the Jayhawks’ song “Save it for a Rainy Day”!)

Save your sadness for a sunny day
Hang your heartache out in the breezy blue
Let the melancholy melt away
Lift your lamentation off your chest

Whiteout
Hard-nosed ice
Steely sleet
Driving rain

Save your sadness for a sunny day
Hang your heartache out in the breezy blue
Let the melancholy melt away
Lift your lamentation off your chest

Gray skies
Paralyze
Heavy light
Leaden limbs

Save your sadness for a sunny day
Hang your heartache out in the breezy blue
Let the melancholy melt away
Lift your lamentation off your chest

Birds sing
Anyway
Branches reach
Treetops sway

Way of the World

“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” — The Empire Strikes Back

Probably restlessness is part of our human DNA, which is why our species has spread out and found ways to live all over the world. My problem is I have a hard time staying in one place for too long. Maybe restlessness is part of my personal DNA too.

And –

It’s been persistently gray and chilly here in Minnesota in March. I asked for this. I chose it, from my little sunny backyard with the mountain view, last year. It was a good choice, but this time of year in this place, it can be a hard one to live with.

This is the time of year when sadness inexplicably seeps into me. Or probably more truly, it seeps out of me – the weight I’ve been carrying surfaces and I must face it.

These were some ideas influencing me as I wrote this song for week twelve of #songaweek2018:

I don’t know why the river makes me cry
I left the west cause I was thirsty
after the years the desert drained me dry
it’s just the way of the world
just the way of the world
it’s the way of the world
in me

I don’t know how these clouds got in my eyes
I shunned the sun cause I was burning
Too much light can leave you hypnotized
It’s just the lay of the land
Just the lay of the land
It’s the lay of the land
I see
It’s just the way of the world
Just the way of the world
It’s the way of the world
and me

It’s just my heart on my sleeve
and my head in my hands
it’s the way of the world
with me
It’s just the way of the world
just the way of the world
It’s the way of the world
For me

TLDR: I saw a movie that was hyped to be a mind-bender and came away disappointed. The link to my song for week 11 of #songaweek2018 follows my rant on aesthetics below.

Sometimes you read a book or see a movie or hear a song (or see a painting, a sculpture, a play . . .) that makes you think. But not in the way you think its creator was thinking you’d maybe think you should be thinking.

What I mean is – well, I don’t know what I mean, and that’s the point of this song. Sometimes an artist creates something that they were excited to make, but they can’t properly complete it.

Now by “properly complete” I do not mean tie up every loose end, overly strain a point, or even come to a conclusion about something. All I mean is that to be satisfying, I think a work of art needs to have some level of cohesiveness to it. It may be very subjective – a hundred people could come away with a hundred (or more!) different interpretations of it. But whatever the answers its viewers/readers/etc. come up with, the questions it raises will be identifiable.

Ambiguity is a little like habanero sauce – it can add spice and bring out flavor when used in appropriate amounts. Pile it on like ketchup, though, and it overwhelms. You can’t taste the food anymore. The flavor is gone and all that’s left is spice. In art, too much ambiguity smothers the creation and draws the viewer’s attention only to itself.

But then there’s this sneaky thing artists sometimes do – when a work starts getting away from us and we just can’t wrangle the thing into a cohesive whole, we play the mystic/intellectual card – we make something so dense and ambiguous that confused viewers/listeners/etc. will either assume they are not smart or mystic enough to understand, or pretend they are and give us rave reviews to show their level of aesthetic sensibility.

Understand, I am not saying this is always what’s happening when you or I don’t understand a work of art. I think it’s not even what’s usually happening when we don’t understand. That’s what I love about good art – it pushes the limits and challenges the status quo. We learn and grow and are inspired to explore and discover when we encounter things we don’t understand. And sometimes we are left scratching our heads because something has been truly mind-bending.

But sometimes we’re left scratching our heads because we’ve been given an impressive show, lots of material to contemplate, but not even a semblance of a compass or a flashlight to navigate through it.

Here’s my song for week eleven:

Now this is the part of the story
Where you’ve got to help a storyteller out
I leave this bit to your imagination
Cause I can’t decide what it’s about

we’ve slain the monsters with our big guns
screwed a couple of people in a couple of ways
gotten our thrills and chills and kills

And now here we are at the end of the road
where you’re looking for a semblance of a thought
But I’m sorry to say I got nothing
I don’t know
I got nothing here

And that’s where you come in, you’re intelligent
Cause you chose to hear my story
So I’m confident you can take it from here
Take this story clever listener [reader, viewer, player?]
And run with it
Take this story where you’d like to see it go
Oh no
that’s not what I meant

I decided to go with the suggested theme for my song this week, which was “cartoons.” I think I had just as much fun making the video as I did writing the song this time. I wrote the song first, then scanned public domain cartoon titles for any I thought might contain some of the images included in the song. Loved what I found for the “eyelashes” line! Couldn’t find any bouquets of balloons though – only wanted to spend so much time on the project.

Lest anyone imagine I’ve somehow managed to actually keep the thrill alive for twenty years so that I really do feel my heart leaping into my chest every time my beloved walks into the room – no, that’s not true. Not literally, not even metaphorically like it was when we were first together. *But* it’s totally true cartoonishly – like, if I were to make a caricature of my feelings for my husband – the joy of sharing everyday life after all these years and still having fun together – it might look something like that.

(I could also make, as part of that same cartoon, a scene where smoke blows out of my ears and I breathe fire at him – because sometimes I feel like that too! – but I was going for sweetness and light here, which is just as real and where I prefer to focus most days.)

Here’s my song for week ten of #songaweek2018:

It’s been a long time since our first kiss
But we’re still holding each other
We’re not as cute as when we were kids
But that don’t mean the show’s over
Let’s dance around let’s jump over the moon
You know, like they do in cartoons

My heart leaps out of my chest when you walk in the room
And my eyelashes grow thirteen feet
And they sweep sweep sweep
For you

Most days are not any big to-do
But honey I’m so glad you’re here with me
We take a walk, we play a tune
We contemplate life’s countless mysteries
Let’s float away on bouquets of balloons
You know, like they do in cartoons

So on we go towards our setting sun
Awake, alive and happy together
This love is so good because it’s true
You know, like the heart of cartoons