Of Souls and Long-Term Memory (a Mumford & Sons reflection)

Mumford and Sons in concert
Mumford & Sons in concert at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Salida, Colorado, on August 22, 2015.

I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.

The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.

Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.

Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.

But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.

I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.

The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.

Finally, it did.

The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.

Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.

As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.

The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.

When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.

These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.

We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.

Of Magic and Memory

Trains

Six months ago, she hugged her family goodbye, and the page turned as they went upstairs and she stayed downstairs.

The night before, the first night, she lay on the blue-and-white rug looking up at the ceiling, knees pulled to her chest. She won’t remember most of her thoughts from those early days, but she’ll remember these:

There are so many memories waiting to happen in this little house, in this big city. I know there will be days when I’m lying on the floor looking at the ceiling and I won’t be able to stop laughing. Other days, that view will be blurry with tears. Now, though, everything’s a blank slate. Anything could happen!

That slate is full of colors now, some sparkling and some dull, and when she has eyes to see, they blink back at her from every surface she passes.

In some of these new memories, there is déjà vu: Riding the bus again, but this time without Mandarin coming out of the PA system. Running again, but in parks and on trails and along city streets, not around and around a sleepy Midwestern school.

She counts the cyclists who fly past, she pulls yet another book out of her backpack, she walks in the rain and in the night. And on some of those nights, she sprawls into the welcoming grass outside the house, hair sweaty and soul at peace and stars twinkling.

Oh the joy of solitude. Oh the pain of solitude.

She’s seen whole weeks swallowed up in loneliness, in which the darkest rooms have been the most crowded ones. She’s longed to link arms with people, but has often recoiled in fear, scratching out spaces just big enough for one and crawling into them.

That sort of darkness, though, is fading into dawn. Her box of treasures is filling, filling, filling with the gems found in moments and evenings, found in people: That time she stopped to pick up tickets and stayed for four hours; that night walking almost aimlessly through downtown Denver after the game; the many times of sitting around dining room tables and coffee shop tables and restaurant tables. In short, those moments of truly seeing and being seen, of freedom and flung-open doors and hands that reach back.

But how do you know when you’ve woven your story too deeply into someone else’s? When you don’t know what your purpose is apart from them?

Nine hours in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Three days of structure and spontaneity, static and movement, but all with an undercurrent of restlessness.

In the quest to uncover the truest, oldest imprints in the clay of herself, she keeps coming back to three words. Sometimes they seem to drip with magic; sometimes they seem like just words:

Write. Speak. Teach.

And behind those, behind everything, beats the most mysterious, frustrating, and confusing word of all … but the word that just might hold the deepest magic:

Jesus.

Streaked with Grace

hands that sow
Photo by Molly Stoddard on Flickr’s creative commons.

I don’t mean to dip my fingertips into the wine along with the bread, but in that dimly lit basement, it sometimes happens. And I’m always glad when it does.

Within seconds I’ve chewed and swallowed, but my fingers are still streaked with light purple. It feels like a measure of grace, like my skin has mingled with something holy, like that holiness is moving down my hands and up my arms and into all of me.

We are speaking and listening together, standing and sitting together, breathing in and breathing out, and I look at the hands that held the bread and still carry signs of their participation in the Presence.

A week ago, I was distracted and looking around the room, I was feeling alone and desperate to change that, I was tired. And then six words planted themselves in me: I will take care of you.

This is why I keep going back.

The rest of the week may drift into monotony and shadow, relationship moving into elusiveness once again, but in these moments I can almost see.

Forever Unraveling

bricks puzzle
Photo by Magdalena Gmur on Flickr’s creative commons.

Three years ago, I told my roommate, “I don’t know who I am.” She didn’t understand how that could be. But it is a journey I am still on, to find the threads of desire and movement, of the words that leave my mouth and those that shrink back, of fear and freedom, stillness and noise, and follow them to their points of origin.

I try to solve me like a riddle, but I am Rubik’s cube that’s stuck; I am an instruction manual with half the words missing. The threads are knotted and intertwined and frayed. So it is with all of us, I think.

I sit in the library or on a plane and write pages and pages, and then exhale from the deepest part of me and think, There. I’ve figured it out. I’ve discovered what makes me come alive and what crushes my spirit.

But the unraveling doesn’t stop. There always seems to be another layer to peel back, another false skin to dig my nails into, and even when I think I have found my true, naked self, I only have to open a door, any door, to scare her away again.

I love my conclusions, and I want more of them, and I want them to stick this time, but they keep turning into contradictions and dead ends. Or I keep turning into contradictions and dead ends.

I hate people and I love them. Fear is my everyday apparel; confidence is the garment of special occasions, worn over the fear like so. I long to be around Christians, and then I long to be away from them. I thrive in solitude; I decay in solitude. And on and on it goes.

In between work and feeding myself and figuring out the contours of this Colorado life, I am trying to find out what I love simply for its own sake, simply because I’m me and this is what shatters me, this is what saves me, this is what nourishes me, this is what delights me.

Can I step away from what they might think or expect, from my own addiction to approval, from all the distractions? If so, what will I be left with? What will I see? And perhaps more importantly, will I be able to carry what I find into a world screaming with all of that without it twisting into something false and unrecognizable again?

What I know, or seem to know, today carries itself away on the back of the sun as it sinks below the horizon. What I find in solitude disappears in the noise, and what I find in the bustle and color seems to fade when my world contracts again.

If I can pin myself down, maybe I will be able to pin everything else down. That is the hope, but is it to be hoped for?

To Be a Part of the Mystery

Communion
“Communion.” Artwork by Ruth Catherine Meharg, inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday.”

In a few days, I will be offering to others something that is not mine. I won’t be able to take credit for a single taste, for the mystery that’s among us, for any trembling hands or averted eyes, and I don’t want to. The body of Christ, broken for you, my friend, for you, my neighbor, for you who are hungry. The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I tell people I’ve found a church in Denver, but most of them don’t understand how big of a deal this is for me. They don’t know the backstory of doubts and church-weariness and all the sharp points that started poking out of my skin two or three years ago. This church I’ve found now, rich in liturgy, gentle in spirit, a meeting of the old and the new, is a gift in my rocky faith story.

I’ve inhaled that same sweet air in the written word too, in those men and women who write blogs and books that remind me that I am not alone in the questions I ask, in the injustices I see, in what I’m frustrated and passionate about.

One of those writers is Rachel Held Evans, whose third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, came out yesterday. Her book takes us on a journey through the seven sacraments (Communion, Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage) that carries us into the Bible, into church past and church present. At times, I felt like I was reading a series of interconnected and yet unique essays. One moment, I would be nodding at an oh-so-familiar description of doubt, and the next I would be catching my breath at the enumeration of the many ways throughout its history that the church has descended into darkness. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Rachel would revisit Bible stories, she would do so in such a rich, sensory way, attuned to the history and humanity of it all, that it felt familiar in the best way. My favorite of these, I think, was a chapter that wended its through parables of seeds and wheat, through kneading and baking, and brought us to the Last Supper.

I learned more about Rachel’s story through this book, and I also learned about how the early church celebrated communion, how the Orthodox church celebrates weddings, and how church as it’s meant to be is present in AlcoCover of "Searching for Sunday"holics Anonymous and the Gay Christian Network.

There are many reasons why I love this book, but the main one is that it has given me another place, another conversation, where I can breathe a little easier, where I can be myself and yet have hope in this journey at the same time.

Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

This Sunday, it’s my house church’s turn to set up the chairs, to welcome people, to pray with them, and to hold out the elements of bread and wine as we all remember together. My doubts are still there, but the weariness is lighter, the cynical daggers are blunter, and I’m hanging on. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this church is a place of peace and welcome, a place that resonates with my soul, and it’s worth it to be a small part of this mystery.

House Church

darkness into light
Photo by Jasleen Kaur.

Please be my people.

Almost every time, I leave their house feeling lighter than when I got there, even in my work clothes and work grime and work weariness. What was dormant in me is now stirring; what was dull is now reflecting bits of light as I walk back to my car on another Wednesday night. It’s been two and a half months.

One week into my new city life, I was pressing send on an email to an unknown person. I was feeling around in the dark for an open table, for other hands that would reach back, for faces that weren’t hiding behind plastic or paint or cliches. It was a hopeful search for the truest kind of community.

I think I’ve found it, but I’m not sure it’s found me … or that I’ve let myself be found by it.

There is laughter, connection, and contentment. And then there is tension. I don’t mean a tension of opposing worldviews, of my grayness meeting a black-and-white environment and pursing its lips, but a tension in my body, in my very bones.

I feel it when we’re sitting in quiet meditation and all I can think is don’t breathe too loudly. I feel it when I’m saying something about prayer or solitude and my voice doesn’t sound like my voice and there’s an undercurrent of anxiety and maybe a flash of red on my face. I feel it when I don’t know where to put my hands or where to stand, when I can’t seem to join the conversation, when I don’t know how to answer a question, when I’m coming in in the middle and I don’t understand.

I’m no stranger to this sort of tension. When I was a teenager, I was like a light bulb. At home, my wattage was too high and I would start fires with my words and actions, but I was on. In the time it took to open the car door, say goodbye to my dad, and turn toward another day of high school, the light had turned itself off.

I’ve seen growth in the last 10 years, a smudging of that dark dividing line, a dance toward natural light.

But insecurities still pop up even in the safest of places, darkness still attaches itself to the light, and I’m still afraid of rejection and indifference and hands that won’t reach back.

Please be my people is the unspoken desire, and my body tries to do and be and say everything it thinks it’s supposed to do and be and say to make this a reality.

But maybe they already are.

It’s time to change the song

stringed instrument
Photo from Nathan Siemers on Flickr.

The same song echoes in a new room. The acoustics are different, the walls are a brighter blue, and though there are familiar faces in the lopsided pictures hanging between windows and corners, the faces belonging to those who are tangibly here  are new additions.

I can breathe easier here. The windows aren’t stuck and I don’t feel claustrophobic. With all these changes, it’s easy to think that the music filling my ears is different too. And in some ways, it is. A couple new stringed instruments are in the group, adding a richness that wasn’t there before, and the new vocalist is bringing something to my words that wasn’t there before.

There’s more experimentation, more stamina, more fullness, but the longer I listen, the more the novelty fades and I understand what a new environment can and cannot do.

It can expel the stale air, it can brighten the eyes, it can quicken the hands.

But it cannot sustain forever that freshness, that brightness, that quickness.

There is a long-awaited quality to conversations, a relief in going there with kindred spirits, and I’m physically shaking, sometimes, when I talk of the shapes I’m uncovering − those things I’ve felt around for in the dark and am finally starting to lay my hands on, finally allowing myself to speak of. Right now, there is movement in the talking. I know that eventually, though, if I stop feeling around, if I content myself with that low light on the other side of the room, I will start sounding like a broken record … even if only to myself.

The same old defense mechanisms and habits easily resurface when normalcy returns, like the emergence of ants when spring comes in earnest.

There is risk in the movement, and awkwardness, and uncertainty. For all its faults, for all the ways it hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain, that one song and I have developed an understanding over the years. The thought of changing it − of adding a bridge, maybe, or a bold trumpet − let alone replacing it, scares the hell out of me sometimes. Other times, it doesn’t even seem possible.

But it is possible, not just for the venue to change, but for the music also to be reborn.

A First Homecoming

Leaves of Friendship
Photo by David Goehring on Flickr

“There isn’t a cloud in sight,” they say, though sometimes there might be a few wispy white things on the edge of the horizon, hovering above housetops and distant mountains. And while I can’t see those distant mountains from here, I looked around, squinting, and there truly is not a cloud in sight.

I’m home.

I’ve lived here for two months now, but this weekend was the first time I left town, stayed away for a few days, and then returned, groggy, with a bag of dirty clothes and several dozen pictures on my phone.

If the 17 pages in my journal sporting new writing are any indication, this trip was steeped in thoughts and feelings as well as faces and experiences. Someday, I’ll write more about these revelations, but for now I’m simply soaking up home.

When I shuffled through my front door after one flight and three bus rides, there was no ache in my chest for a certain forested neighborhood, a queen-sized bed with a blue-and-white comforter, or those three faces that look the most like mine.

Small-town California hasn’t seen the last of me, make no mistake about that. I’m still squeezing two states into my answer when people ask me where I’m from. But I’m attaching the word home to my little brick duplex and finding that it fits.

I left for the weekend anxious to reconnect with some of “my people” and to set aside the loneliness that brushes up against me. When I returned, though, it was with a greater appreciation for the friends I do have here.

I close my eyes and I dream of familiarity and ease, of knowing people well enough to invite them over “just to hang out,” of companionable silence and tossed-aside masks.

For now, though, I will lean into ultimate Frisbee afternoons and house church evenings, trying not to cringe when my disk goes wildly off course yet again or when the words coming out of my mouth don’t quite sound normal. I will practice hosting and being hosted. And I will hold the laughter and the good conversations close to my heart like the gems they are and see what comes of them.

Now is the right time

Hello Colorado

It needs to stop, this wanting to write but never taking the time

It needs to happen, this writing I keep talking about.

This is my corner of the Internet. Facebook can feel too much like being at a family reunion, with all the aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins asking me what’s going on in my life in that big city twelve hundred miles away. Twitter is like a party with all the cool kids: a lot to stimulate and energize, but too much going on and too many people I don’t know to really feel comfortable there.

I have things to say here, and I know it won’t always be easy to press Submit. I want to talk about the Enneagram and Parenthood and that intersection on the way to work where there’s always a homeless person with a sign. I want to talk about loneliness and fear and my turbulent spirituality. The sharing may not be without its trepidation, but I think it’s important to be bold and brave where I can be.

A year and a half ago, I had two glorious months of writing regularly in this corner, but then I was too ambitious: I decided to write every day for a month on a topic that seemed right at the time, but that quickly ran dry without providing the hoped-for jump start to my floundering faith. I kept writing, though, determined to see the month through. And that’s what happened, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it saw me through … and bid me farewell at its end.

Whenever I move to a new place, I’m always hopeful that this is it, that my life will finally stop stagnating and I will no longer fall into making myself be who they expect me to be and I will stop reverting and everything will be better. But I keep having to remind myself that a new zip code isn’t enough, even if it’s a fine beginning. Some changes and growth have happened simply because of being on my own in Colorado, yes, but the deeper, heart work can’t happen without intentionality and even pain.

There are millions of blogs out there on every conceivable topic, but the ones that resonate with me the most tell the truth about the hard places and don’t shy away from the gray areas. That’s the kind of blogger I want to be: one who doesn’t ignore or sugarcoat the messiness, the contradictions, the failures of life, but who walks straight into them even if she doesn’t know what she’ll find in the middle or on the other side.

May the words I write be honest and yet life-giving for all of us on this journey, and may we be able to truly come alongside each other in this place.

When the Darkness Wins

Today, I’m mourning the loss of a man I never knew.

I read line after line about the impact he had on people, about their love for him, about his love for them. There was so much more to him than the brokenness in him and around him. There was kindness and faith, there was a love of Mumford & Sons and Raisin Bran, there was a whole person-sized ray of light.

Then, he returned to his hometown, where he was murdered.

It breaks my heart that he died, and in such a horrible way. That the darkness won.

I light a tiny candle for him, to pray by. Behind the flame is his picture on my computer screen. I pray for everyone who’s grieving, everyone he left behind, everyone who loved him. But that doesn’t seem like enough, so I pray into the mystery to a God who’s supposed to be outside of time. I pray that the assurance that he matters, that he is seen, that he is loved, would reach Trinity Smith before he dies. I’ve never heard of anyone praying outside of time like this before, but all I know is that I can’t just pray for his survivors; I must pray for him too.

For him, and for all the others like them, those men and women who are so often not seen.

Help me see them, now, before it’s too late.

I blow out the candle, and a small amount of wax runs down the side, and it looks just like a tear running down the side of a face.

In memory of Trinity Smith
{image from the Dry Bones Denver Facebook page}

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”    

Matthew 25:35-36