Little Brother

I’ve written songs for both my parents, my husband, both my children, my brother’s wife and all of his children – but until week 51 of #songaweek2018 I still hadn’t written one for my one and only sibling, my brother Jeremy.

I’d been wanting to write a song for him for years, even attempted it a couple times before, but until this week I never had anything worth finishing. Thanks to my parents sending me some old photos, I was even able to put together a video collage.

Life without you well I don’t really remember it
It’s like you’ve always been around
Climbing trees and making faces at me

Little brother I once held you all inside my tiny arms
But now I look up to you

We rode our big wheels in the trailer park
Played GI Joe and Barbie dolls
Super Breakout and Super Mario

Little brother I once crushed you playing football in the yard
But now I look up to you

You got the chicken pox and I was jealous
Until I got it worse than you
And while I suffered, you learned to ride a bike first

We played in puddles and danced to records
And explored the woods out back
I guess we were best of friends

And now we’re grownups with families of our own
We send our kids to cousin camp
and barely remember what life without them was like

Little brother I once bossed you all around in every way
But now I look up to you

 

Know You

I wasn’t consciously thinking about #MeToo or the conversations we’re having around consent in this cultural moment, but as this song took shape I can see its influence.

Just this morning I finished the last in a three-part Radiolab podcast called “In the No.” Which I did not enjoy but forced myself to listen to for my own good, like going to the dentist or cleaning the bathroom. In general I don’t like talking about sex or seeing/hearing it reenacted (all of which happens in this series, including both staged and real audio recordings of sexual encounters), let alone discussions of BDSM (a main topic of the last episode).

But I’m trying to parent two humans who mean more than anything to me, and this is their world. I won’t – and don’t – always understand, but I want to be engaged and informed.

Though there were important moments of insight and perspective throughout the series, all my discomfort in listening was worth it for the very last few minutes of episode three, starting at 24:35, when Michael Lissack, director of Empowering Victims, said this:

“Unfortunately, [consent] frames the entire question the wrong way. Consent means that you’re giving someone permission to do something to you. We don’t do sex to someone else. We have sex with someone else. . . It’s the wrong word.”

And the very last words of the series, from an unnamed woman discussing her current relationship:

“It’s so nice to have a partner that can read your body language and be like, this doesn’t feel right, are you okay?”

“Consent” is legal language and an obvious and irrefutable baseline. It’s unconscionable that it’s taken us this long as a society just to get to the point where this is an expectation for everyone, including men in positions of power.

But as a measure of a meaningful relationship, consent is much too low a bar. I want to know my partner, in every sense of the word. And I want my partner to know me, and to want to know me. This is what I hope and pray for my children too, as they grow into adulthood and seek out life partners, to love and be loved, body and soul, heart and mind.

Here’s my song for week 43 of #songaweek2018:

Tell me all the things you think about honey
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me all the jokes you think are funny
Tell me everything you know about love

I really wanna know
I really wanna know
I wanna know you

Tell me what scares you, what hurts and haunts you
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me about the hands you couldn’t hold on to
Tell me everything you know about love

Tell me all the things you dream about baby
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me what can make your legs get shaky
Tell me everything you know about love

I’m listening
With all my ears
And all my heart

Normal

I’ll be 43 this week. And still, I’m writing songs like this one, processing my childhood and the life that grew from it.

We are all shaped by histories we had little to no control over. Our agency grew as we did. Looking back at my history, some things seem especially strange now that felt completely normal then, as that was the only reality I knew in my short life span.

But of course I’m not unique in this. It’s a human thing.

There are several facets to the idea of “normal” in this song. There’s what I mentioned already – that what feels normal when you’re born into it can look anything but normal in retrospect.

Another facet for me, because of my particular history, is that I’ve struggled with feeling like a normal person much of my life – in two very different ways. First, when I was growing up inside fundamentalism, I learned that we the faithful were the chosen ones. We were “a peculiar people” and that wasn’t supposed to sound funny – because it was in the Bible, King James Version, which was the most highly regarded and the one I grew up with.

(We also believed that everyone outside our construct was destined to eternal damnation, burning forever in a literal hell. Sometimes I wonder if the “chosen people” idea was a way to help us cope with the horror of this belief. If you are constantly reminded that your “unsaved” family, friends, neighbors, grocery cashier, letter carrier, etc., etc., are doomed to that kind of suffering unless you can somehow convince them to join your club – I mean church – it might help to imagine them as somehow a lesser being than you are. Maybe they won’t feel the pain like you would. In this case I wouldn’t exactly call our outlook on “the unsaved” dehumanization because I think we were imagining ourselves as slightly above genuine humanity. We were “reborn,” “converted” – humanity plus. But it probably had a similar effect on our outlook.)

So that was one side of my struggle with feeling normal, the one I lived with while growing up in that environment.

The other side has been in the years since, exiting from fundamentalism, and feeling like an outsider trying to learn a new culture. For a long time I didn’t feel legitimate, because I had missed out on so many of the experiences that were common to my generation’s growing-up years. I don’t have memories associated with the music and movies of my generation, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to that music or go to theaters. I was married before I was even offered my first drink. The wildest oats I sowed was an all-[cis, straight] girls strip-and-run through the woods in my college years. Once. I think we might have howled at the moon for extra tension release.

Deeper than that, I just didn’t learn the everyday street-smarts that many people get growing up in a less sheltered environment. I was naive, shy, fearful. All those years of working hard to keep a long list of rules had ill-prepared me to live in a world where the rules weren’t always so clear, if they existed at all. I went into every situtation wanting to know what was expected of me, what I needed to do to make people like me, and I couldn’t always figure it out.

Only in very recent years have I learned that in most situations, there just isn’t a list of expectations for me to check off. There’s nobody standing by with a clipboard grading me. I don’t have to perform in order to be deemed a real live human being. I just am. And so is everyone else. I’m nothing special, and I’m the only me there ever was or will be. And the same goes for you.

That’s what I mean by normal, at least as I was writing this, my song for week 42 of #songaweek2018: (Wow, only ten weeks left!) The suggested theme was “socks,” so I stuck in some socks for good measure.

I used to live in Indiana
In a trailer park on the edge of town
There was a field where we ran and played
And I liked to pick Queen Anne’s Lace

It was normal, all so normal
Like shoes and socks, baby dolls and blocks
And black and white TV

I used to pledge allegiance to the Bible
And the flags of my faith and country
Every morning at the Christian school
Where they gave us all the answers

It was normal, all so normal
I was good as gold, did what I was told
And I won a lot of trophies

That was a long time ago
I still don’t know what I don’t know

I’ve moved a dozen times since then
Geographically, theologically
I own a single-family detached dwelling
And I took my trophies to the thrift store

This is normal, all so normal
I’m a bona fide, genuine
I have always been and I will always be
like every one of you looking back at me,
An honest-to-God human being.

The Demented Ice Cream Truck

So it all started when my husband Nathan put on an album our daughter Luthien made when she was maybe seven, with her band “Luthien and the Awesome Band.” While now-teenager Luthien groaned with embarrassment, we her proud parents reminded her she was only seven and this was a very fun glimpse into the beginnings of her creative life (check out this song she wrote and performed entirely by herself last week!).

When the album was over, my younger child Silas said, “hey Mom, let’s start a band! I’ll sing and you can write songs for me to sing.” Realizing this could dovetail nicely with my #songaweek2018 project, I agreed.

I’m not sure I had ever written a song for someone else to sing before, and it wasn’t easy. I think I was too focused on Silas himself, his personality, his likes and dislikes. So I wrote a cheesy-silly song for him to sing about being a vegetarian (a decision he made on his own when he was five) with a little bit of running thrown in.

“Mom, I’m not going to sing that,” he responded.

To which I sheepishly replied, “yeah, I don’t blame you.”

Then I asked him, what if we write a song together? He wasn’t sure about that. Wouldn’t it take a long time? No, I told him, if you’ve got something good rolling, it doesn’t often take more than an hour, might even be more like twenty minutes.

“But I don’t know what to write about,” he sighed. “How do you get ideas?”

Just then we heard the ice cream truck coming up the street, playing “Lullaby,” its pitch shifting as it drove past and away. My kids (and probably most kids!) have always thought that Doppler effect makes ice cream trucks seem a little creepy.

“What about the ice cream truck? How about we write a song about that?” I suggested.

Silas looked at me a little dubiously and then almost instantly launched into, “here it comes, down the street, the demented ice cream truck,” to the tune of “Lullaby.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “That’s perfect!”

“But we can’t steal that tune,” Silas said.

Oh but we could. And I explained the glories of public domain to my middle-schooler.

So with the frame of an old tune, Silas set to work writing lyrics. He sat at the computer and typed in the lyrics while I sat behind him and played the song on the guitar to help keep him on track. I contributed some of the lines and ideas and helped massage some lines to fit, but the general thrust of the song and most of the lyrics came pretty directly from Silas.

And it all took about twenty minutes!

So here it is, my song for week 33, cowritten with my fun-loving wordsmith son Silas Bloom:

And here are the lyrics exactly as he typed them:

Here it comes down the street the demented ice-cream truck
Selling kids icecream shaped like cartoons. If you stray too close they will suck out your soul. But other wise it’s a jolly good time.

There it goes up the road making boat loads of money.
Be careful they’ll get mad if you stand there too long. Then they might leave the block cuz time is money and there rent on the truck is almost overdo.

It’s not even a truck it’s really more of a van
With some speakers and a freezer and a driver slash cashier you may call it what you like but you better beware they will catch your credit card and will make you go broke.

How Many the Fallen

I started writing this song for week 25 of #songaweek2018 from the center of a Nerf gun battlezone. I was the lone adult at home while my son and three of his cousins took up their battle stations and went at it. That morning was the lull in a busy week, and the best time I could find to work on songwriting.

Earlier in the week, the amur maple in our front yard broke irreparably in a summer storm. The next day, my brother-in-law and his family came to visit for several days, and one day we all went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. My kids were eager to show their cousins a certain painting I’ve previously showed them, where if you look closely enough in a dark place in the woods, you can see the profiles of two ghostly faces, the remnants of another painting underneath the more visible one.

And running through everything last week, the horrendous news of my government thinking it’s a good idea to separate children from their parents – and doing it, to thousands of families. I haven’t had anything to say because it feels a little like saying the earth orbits the sun, or things we drop fall because of gravity, or everyone needs food, water, and sleep. Children belong with their parents. Tearing families apart is abominable immigration policy.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about this news story when I wrote this song, but it was keeping me up at night, throbbing like an unnoticed alert at the back of my head, a perpetual lump in my throat. I am both a child and a parent, and this action of my government leaves me breathless.

So as my mind and heart were processing all that in the background, I wrote into this song a baby, a tiny hand, the trusting heart of a child, the courageous heart of a parent embarking on an impossible journey into a better day for their children. What’s happening at our southern border isn’t what this song is about, but the heartlessness of my government towards people trying to cross that border has directly and indirectly added countless lives to the numbers of the fallen, the fading, the lost. (And it’s been going on a long time. Start here for an introduction to the US Border Patrol’s scheme of “Prevention Through Deterrence.”)

The very last line of the last verse, “into the fray,” was inspired by my friend Jen Bluhm’s song “Into the Fray,” which I learned was taken from a poem which came from the movie  The Grey. Which relates a bit to the line about the painting as well – that so much creative work exists, and has existed – so much good work that will never hang in a museum or get a million views or a thousand plays or even a second glance. So much is fading, so much is lost – and yet, it all – all of us, our works and actions and interactions – are expanding this mysterious circle of life.

All of the above are my reflections on what was influencing me as I wrote this song. I’ve been using these blog posts expressly for that purpose – to talk about the background of the songs I’m writing – but sometimes I think talking too much about the origin of a song can take away from the experience of listening to it with your own ears and perspective.

So here’s the song, in its own words, for your own listening ears and thoughtful consideration.

I held the edge of the universe
It sighed like a baby
And slept in my arms
I heard the very last note of the concert
They played at the end of all things
Then I lifted my voice

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

The tree that broke in the thunderstorm
Will crumble to soil
And grow living things
The painting speaking to me from the wall
Keeps past lives under its skin

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

The morning holds out her tiny hand
And begs to go walking
Into the day
You know you never can tell what’s beyond
the horizon but you go willingly
into the fray

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

Bloomington Avenue

Last Sunday we trekked over to Minneapolis to see my daughter and her friend – and lots of other revellers – in the annual MayDay parade put on by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. While watching, I thought, this might be Bloomington Avenue’s favorite day of the year, when for a few hours cars aren’t allowed and the street gets to feel dancing feet and music and laughter and the best things about the people in its neighborhood celebrating the return of spring.

Then later that day I looked up the suggested theme for week 19 of #songaweek2018, and lo and behold! it was “streets.” And so I wrote this song and made a video with footage I took while watching the parade. I’ll probably never actually perform this song, may never even revisit it, but it was fun to put it together.

Well aint you the lively one
Aint you the lovely one
There is something different about you today
The people of the city look good on you
Extracted from their cars

Bloomington Avenue look at you shine!
decked out in your Mayday finest
No more snowy white coat
And just for now
For a couple bright hours on a Sunday afternoon
Filled with dancing flowers, stilt-walkers and balloons
We can hear your heart beat

beautiful feet dancing over you
Drums reverberating off of you
Music and laughter and color everywhere
The only tires are bicycle tires

Impotent Citizens With Fancy Guns

I started writing week 8’s song for #songaweek2018 while standing in front of my son’s middle school as school let out and crowds of vibrant young people walked past me, just days after the latest mass shooting, which once again happened at a school. I thought, “let all these children be healed.”

That line morphed into “let all these children believe . . .” and you can hear the rest of it below.

Often (unless I’m writing a fun/goofy song) I try to spread my words in layers, make things subtle, pack the lines with depth so everything isn’t right there on the surface for an easy takeaway from the first listen. But this time I found myself bucking that habit and writing something more straightforward.

Creating art inspired by or expressing a political or controversial idea is a challenge. I want to make music, not propaganda. I want to appeal to common humanity and shared experience/empathy, not set up false dichotomies or overly sentimentalize. I want to make a case for what I see as important, but not be preachy. All of that was in my mind as I wrote this song.

Ultimately, my hope is that we as a culture will listen to our youth, and that they can be confident that we are listening, that we care, that we aren’t brushing aside their descriptions of their lived experience – and that we are willing to reconsider some things, including gun regulations, in light of what they say to us.

In the days even since I wrote this song, I’ve been encouraged by what I’m seeing and hearing in our country – a rising tide of concern from people of varying political stripes, companies breaking ties with the NRA, politicians’ feet held to the fire – and much of it driven by young people who aren’t even old enough to vote yet. Maybe these children are turning my first lyric idea for this song on its head, and by their activism, helping us all to be healed.

Let all these children believe
that when we lose them we grieve
and that we care more than we’ve been letting on

Let all their sad hearts be cheered
that love is stronger than fear
and no amusement’s too dear to be let go

But we’ll lower the flag have a moment of silence
Discuss mental illness and virtual violence
And when all has been dutifully said and done
We’ll get right back on out there and play with our guns

Let these courageous young minds
teach us to change with the times
and not be willfully blind to what they show

Let these new voices be heard
Let’s hear their hearts and their words
and not be hard and unstirred by what they say

If we just lower the flag have a moment of silence
Discuss mental illness and virtual violence
And blithely decide that our work here is done
We’re just impotent citizens with fancy guns

Let all these beautiful ones
be treasured more than our guns

Bill Reed Middle School

Day 43 in my “Leaving Loveland” challenge.

In 2015 my firstborn started middle school. We’ve loved that both schools our kids have attended while we’ve lived here have been walking distance from home. We also loved that at Bill Reed, Luthien started playing cello and enjoyed attending orchestra as part of her classroom schedule every day.

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She also joined yearbook club and played volleyball this year.

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The 7:25 am start time was not a favorite, nor was the predictable middle school social drama; and we felt her sadness both years when she tried out and didn’t get into the spring play – but we still loved going to all the plays because they were so well done. All in all, these have been good sixth and seventh grade years for my girl and I’m thankful she got to attend this school.

Stone Age Fair

Day 35 in my “Leaving Loveland” challenge.

 

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One Saturday morning a year ago or maybe two, we happened to be walking downtown as a family when we saw a sign reading “Stone Age Fair” with an arrow pointing towards the Pulliam Community Building. We were curious so we followed the arrows which led us to the basement of this interesting old building, a 1930s-era WPA project that has been neglected in recent years but still hosts events occasionally.

What we found was a basement full of tables filled with artifacts and arrowheads and archaeologists, amateur and accomplished alike. Enthusiasts had come from all over the country to share their finds and meet and greet one another and the public. And my kids dove into a huge box of artifacts they could take for free, which they added to their rock collection pictured above. Silas remembers that he filled his pockets so full his pants were falling down on the walk home!

The Stone Age Fair is free and open to the public and has been happening since 1934. In its second year, it was attended by 10,000 people! There weren’t nearly that many in the basement of the Pulliam Building, but it was a fun time nevertheless.