Cold Night In (Lovely Lost Cause)

Week 50! This is one of those songs where the suggested theme (from #songaweek2018) actually caused the song to be written. I wouldn’t have gone this direction at all if it weren’t for the suggested word, “metal.”

Not much I want to say about this song – I think we’ve all been here from time to time and know something about it. The cycle of love, the journey of living well. The bridge (“thieves break in and steal . . .”) comes from Matthew 6:19-20, that little passage about storing up treasures in heaven rather than earth. I interpret that not as sacred versus secular; but cosmic, big-hearted wisdom versus short-sighted, me-and-mine foolishness.

My heart’s made of metal
invincible steel
that’s why when you hold me
there’s nothing to feel

It’s a cold night in
It’s a lovely lost cause

I swam in the ocean
I crawled up on land
but there’s no harder journey
than the one to your hand

It’s a cold night in
It’s a lovely lost cause

Thieves break in and steal
Moth and rust corrupt

Come light your best fire
to melt me all down
I’m sick and I’m tired
But I’m coming around

On this cold night in
For this lovely lost cause

November Psalm 2

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted a song called “November Psalm.” Last month on a personal retreat, I reread  God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, and was newly moved by it. This month I finished listening to season three of the podcast Serial, which follows the justice system in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for one year. And currently Nathan and I are watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which often feels like a nightmare before we go to bed.

These are all, to some extent, influences on the song I wrote for week 47 of #songaweek2018. The suggested theme for the week was “justice.” Life is – and always has been – torn up with suffering and death, so much of it senseless and unjust, so many lives seemingly forgotten, moments of agony buried beyond human memory.

But not, I believe, beyond the memory, presence, love – and redemption – of God, who John F. Haught in God After Darwin calls “the boundlessly redemptive future” (I added the bold font below for emphasis):

The fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution now appear, in the perspective of faith, to have always been seeded with promise. From its very beginning this extravagantly experimental universe has been bursting with potential for surprising future outcomes. And the undeniable fact that life, mind, culture, and religion have emerged out of the barely rippled radiation of the primordial universe gives us every reason to suspect that the cosmos may still be situated no less realistically within the framework of promise than of tragedy. Even prospects of eventual cosmic doom are not enough to defeat the proposal that nature’s present indeterminacies are the repository of promise. The so-called “heat death” that may be awaiting the universe is not inconsistent with the notion that each moment of the entire cosmic process is taken perpetually into, and preserved everlastingly in, the boundlessly redemptive future that faith names as God.

Leaves flash and fade
Trees fall asleep
Ice puts down roots
But not as deep
As my love for you
That cannot be erased
As hope and beauty
And unrelenting grace
Selah

Days come and go
Night wears on
Cold comes to stay
But not as long
As my love for you
That burns eternally
As peace and justice
That set the captive free
Selah

Worlds form and die
Stars breathe their last
Time marches on
But never past
My love for you
That never can forget
My heart holds you
And never will forget
Selah

It’s Just Life

[Don’t forget to vote!]

The chorus of this song was a random idea I’ve saved for a couple years. I didn’t have a sudden burst of inspiration for week 44 of #songaweek2018, so I went back over past notes and found this idea saved as a voice memo. The only thing I changed for this song was “why we carry on” which initially was “why you carry on.” Otherwise the words and tune you hear in this chorus are exactly the original idea around which I built the rest of the song.

So many influences here. The general political climate in our nation. The mass shooting in Pittsburgh. A moment at a stoplight with a homeless man. My plodding through a volume of famous and obscure works by H.G. Wells. The Pale Blue Dot poster that hangs by my desk – a cherished gift from a friend.

This song is constructed slightly differently than my – and many songwriters’ – standard format of multiple verses, a repeated chorus, and one bridge somewhere after the middle to break things up a bit. You could say it either has two different verse formats, each repeated once; or one verse format repeated twice (“So talk to me . . .” and “oh sing to me . . .”) and one bridge repeated twice (“what a waste is there . . .” and “if I hadn’t rolled my window down . . .”). And a single repeating chorus.

The tune for what I’m calling the bridge (“what a waste is there . . .”) actually grew from another quote that didn’t make it into the final song. It came from a G.K. Chesterton book I’m also plodding through, the Father Brown mysteries. (Why am I such a sucker for books by dead Englishmen with initials for names? Besides H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton I’ve also read nearly everything I can find by P.G. Wodehouse. And then of course there’s J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Apparently a trend of their time and culture. Along with the cringey moments of racism and sexism their readers must stumble through.)

But the Chesterton quote – I loved the way it flowed so much that I copied it into my notes for possible later use: “I knew Jupiter Jesus out in Denver; saw him for weeks on end; and he was just a common crook.” (from “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” in The Incredulity of Father Brown).

I sang those words till I had a tune and chords I liked for them. Then as I worked further on the song, I tried to keep them intact as my first bridge, but eventually had to “murder my darlings” and let those words go from this song. Maybe they’ll show up elsewhere someday. I just think they’re too good to only be used once, now that they’re in public domain!

Not much more I want to say about this song except an emphasis of one main idea in it – that sometimes when everything feels dark and wrong and impossible to set right, it’s good to step back and look at it all from a wider angle. In the grand scheme of things, every atom matters. But I can’t see or feel how much it all matters until I roll down the window, put down the phone, embrace life with an active presence and all my senses. That’s when life feels more approachable, manageable, liveable, too.

The videos are all from the International Space Station, downloaded from this website – https://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/BeyondThePhotography/CrewEarthObservationsVideos/. I didn’t set out to do this, but I think you won’t see any views of the United States here. That feels like a timely reminder for me and my fellow citizens, that the world doesn’t actually revolve around us.

So talk to me
So tell me how it goes with you in these dark days
Before the dawn
And stay with me
Believe me when I say to you it’s coming soon
Keep holding on

There must be a reason why we carry on
We’re here a little while and then we’re gone
There, there, it’s alright, it’s just life

What a waste is there of exquisite things
The young are the food of war
We are just a mote of dust

Oh sing to me
Open up your soul and let the truth fly free
Into the night
Be not afraid
The killers have no power over shining stars
And rising suns

There must be a reason why we carry on . . .

If I hadn’t rolled my window down
I’d never have seen his smile
And he was just a homeless man

There must be a reason why we carry on . . . 

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.

Open the Door, Pull Up a Chair, Make Friends

At my church our pastor often starts the service by leading us in taking a deep collective breath, literally. Silence, breath, space.

Last week, week 39 of #songaweek2018, my song was inspired by the contrasting sources of episode 656 of This American Life, about immigration policy and practice under the Trump administration; and the policy and practice of my church, whose website declares what it lives out: “Welcome. You already belong here.”

This past summer a group from our church attended our denomination’s nationwide youth event. One memorable idea from the event was that if a new person walks up to your group and you’re not sure if you have room for one more, make room. Say “pull up a chair,” invite them to join you and expand your circle.

I need to believe in the power of open doors and extra chairs. But many times I find myself operating from the same fear and greed that motivates my country’s immigration policy – fear that if I open up, hold out my hand, offer a seat at the table, there might not be enough good stuff left for me.

That’s why the last verse is important – it’s not “we” vs. “they.” Even if I’m not making public policy or being unkind or unwelcoming, I can still find myself prone to hoarding and hiding.

And that’s at least partly why I still tie myself to a faith community, despite my skepticism, despite my personal history with spiritually abusive church environments. I’m still here because I need to remember I’m not the center of my life. And it helps me greatly to gather regularly with a roomful of other people, and breathe, and confess our failings, and affirm love and welcome, and begin again.

Face it, no one needs to go away
Hold it, there’s poison in the words they say
Let it sink in, I am not the living end
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends

They twist the truth and crush the poor
They study war forevermore

Stop it, this drawing lines and closing minds
Keep it, that ancient faith that love takes time
Every generation new ears will hear again:
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends

They devastate all that they take
Establish empires on heartbreak

Name it, this tendency to hoard and hide
Own it, my part in shutting out the light
Take a deep breath, feel the lifeblood flow again;
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends.