The Sad Song

I had a rare treat last weekend: a Barnes & Noble sat across the street from the hotel where we stayed. Since most bookstores in our area have closed, I relished the opportunity to spend an hour meandering, collecting a stack of books that attracted my attention for various reasons, and sitting in a corner with them, slowly turning pages.

One book addressed our fear response to life’s hard times. The author wrote, “We habitually spin off and freak out when there’s even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out…The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).

Yes, and yes. Life is hard. We feel badly. We check out and cheat ourselves.

Or we could not. Listen to my friend Mike advocate for a different approach…

re:create recess #19: Mike Loretto

I might be a little bit odd.

I had this thought recently when I was feeling the need for a break–for recreation–and my first impulse was to reach for…

…the saddest music I could put on.

I love sad songs. I love them. And I love them because–hang with me now–they make me feel sad. I actually love feeling sad. I know. It’s weird.

When I’m in the thick of the busyness of life and feel that internal prick of “I need to recreate, to play,” I have learned that some of the things that felt like recreation when I was younger don’t call to me as much. In those needful moments, I still might reach for the remote control, a tennis racket, a video game, a drink, a book, or any number of other things. Some of the time those things are the right decision; some times they’re really not. Most of them have no inherent goodness or badness. They all have the potential to be informative or celebratory or good exercise or just plain fun. They all also have the potential to be avenues for escape.

And I’m prone to escapism. Some combination of my personality, my experiences, and the myriad ways that modern culture offers us to escape our reality have, for me, led to 37 years worth of finding creative ways to escape. To not be present to what’s really going on in my life. To not be attentive. To not, in all honesty, be fully alive in many moments.

Sadness and grief can be paralyzing. Depression is no joke. I say all of this from experience. Intentionally diving into the waters of sadness isn’t always the right move, either–sometimes escape is a survival technique. Everything in its season, and everything in moderation. But I find that my default setting is one in which I’m not really letting myself grieve the big or small rips in the fabric of life that I encounter. The ways I’m broken. The ways the world is broken. The pain of people I love. The pain of people I’ll never meet. And I need regular doses of art, conversation, experiences that will prod me to do that grieving.

That’s where, for me, sad songs come in. A well-written, well-performed sad song has the capability to take me right to the core (or at least to dig into the mantle) of feelings I’ve been avoiding. When I turn on Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” or the soundtrack of the musical “The Last Five Years,” I access the pain and grief of relationships not going like we thought they would, hoped they would, needed them to. When I listen to Jason Isbell’s “Elephant,” I’m seared by the sadness of death and dying and of loving someone deeply. I remember in college listening to David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” on repeat, and feeling the desperation of spiritual longing, of the “dark night of the soul.”

Sometimes the sad song might end on a hopeful note. Many of the best don’t. The hope is found in the alchemy of turning grief into beauty, and in the “Oh, you too?” recognition that breaks us out of our isolation. There is something incredibly moving to me about a piece of art that tells the truth about the hard parts of life and somehow begins to redeem it in the beauty of the telling. The craft of the lyrics, the choices of instrumentation and rhythms and chord progressions, the sigh of a steel guitar line or the weeping of a mandolin, the voice soaked in the waters of experience–the right combination of these things cracks me open and brings me to my knees.

My faith and my experience tell me that the world is (and that I am) flawed and broken, and also that even good things must eventually burn down to let something better rise from the ashes. Being intentional about accessing sadness is, for me, a way of sifting through those ashes and finding the building blocks of new creation. As an (often frustrated) songwriter, I find that listening to a song that gets me in touch with my sadness is one of the best avenues for finding the head- and heart-space in which I do my best creative work. It’s a way of touching the live rail that energizes creativity. It hurts, but the hurt motivates and animates.

So here’s to the sad song. Turn it up and cry it out, my friends.

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com

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Phoenix

It can be hard to find beauty as you walk in the wasteland… And some days, seasons, in our lives feel just like that: devoid of beauty, wasted, bleak. But there is hope, friends, always hope. My friend Kristi reminds us to look to the phoenix. Grieve the losses, yes, but look for the new arising from the old.

re:create recess #18: Kristi Grover

Phoenix: a beautiful mythological bird resembling an eagle. It burns to death at the end of its life cycle…and from the ashes another phoenix arises.

As a young child I was absolutely fascinated by the phoenix myth I encountered through story. As an adult I continue to be intrigued by the imagery. I can look back over my life and clearly see many parallels when I consider various eras, relationships, and energies as they emerged, blossomed, and later flamed out—some slowly and quietly and others in a sudden whoosh of flame, leaving behind only ashes.

Yet, each time, those ashes held the promise of re-creation. Ashes are, after all, soil for new growth. They may appear to be a dull, gritty waste but they are in fact rich with nutrients and conducive to vibrant new life. Re-creation.

In the story I read as a child the protagonist is a young boy who has experienced a series of losses. He is lonely, suddenly living in an unfamiliar place, and not clear about what to do next. He strikes out on a solitary, aimless ramble in the woods and comes across a tiny phoenix emerging from what looks like a campfire. They become friends and share wondrous adventures until one day when the phoenix disappears.

The boy’s search for his trusted companion leads him eventually to the same place they first met. He witnesses the flames engulfing his dear friend, and grieves as he accepts that their time together has ended. Eventually he gathers himself to leave until a small sound causes him to look back and he sees a tiny new phoenix emerging from the ashes. Suddenly there is hope and the promise of new adventures.

In my life I have seen this pattern repeat in various ways. A good friend moves away or some other change causes the end of a once close relationship. A dearly loved family member dies. A move severs connection on many levels. A health challenge suddenly arises which effectively closes off meaningful work.

Even good, happily anticipated changes hold some significant loss. I was overjoyed as I anticipated being married to my beloved one, yet also privately needed to grieve significant losses as my life changed quite dramatically. As my children grew into maturity and moved off into lives with their own families, friends, and work, I could rejoice in the new beauty I saw as they grew into the promise of early years, yet there was also bittersweet acknowledgement that a precious window of time closed—family life on this particular level. What helped me in these times, and others like them, was knowing that a new era of life would open up eventually with its own extraordinary beauty.

Each time I needed to accept the change, grieve what was lost, and honor memories. And then I needed to wait patiently until it was time for a new beginning. As a woman of faith, I needed to trust that God was working things out in ways beyond my understanding and that He would bring into my life new relationships, work, or insights which would open the way to new adventures in my life journey with Him.

It is hard to wait, harder still to wait in hope with an open, trusting heart. I have often thought at such times of the answer I would give to young children in my care when, school day over, they waited while all the other children were picked up by a parent or led off to another activity. “When is my mom coming?” they would ask, sometimes with tears. And my answer would always be, “She’ll be here at just the right time.” For young children, waiting is very hard, even agonizing.

Even a two-minute delay feels like forever when everyone else has someone to be with or something wonderful to do. But Mom or Dad or Nanny or Grandparent always did show up eventually and they’d embark on new adventures together, grief eclipsed by the promise of excitement ahead.

In my “wisdom years” now, I’ve lived with chronic pain, cancer, tough challenges to my marriage, deep concerns for my children’s safety as they headed off time and again into dangerous places to do the work they believed God had called them to do, the end of relationships with various family members and friends due to death, moves, changes in work, and many other challenges.

Each loss has needed a time of grieving: remembering the good and trying to learn from the difficult. And always, always, at just the right time—not necessarily the time I would choose but the right time—new opportunities, new challenges, new relationships have emerged. I am given the opportunity to be “re-created” once more. The ashes of loss are real but the promise of new adventures ahead is also real.

I will choose to both honor the beauty of what is gone and welcome the beauty of what lies ahead.

some things that are true about me

My work in life is as a teacher and storyteller.  I take joy in many things – time spent with children and my family and friends, working in various ways for justice, hiking along high mountain ridge lines and walking in the woods and sitting quietly to stare at the ocean, hearing people share their life stories and affirming them, writing and reading, rainy afternoons by the fire with my small grey cat, listening to music and singing and dancing, intelligent conversation and laughter, making a home.  These and other things are true about me but the truest thing is that I am a child of God.

 

Practicing Re-Creation

Today’s guest post makes me so happy, in part because I recently got to spend an evening with this friend…in person, after WAY too many years (we have spent more years not seeing each other than we were old the last time we saw each other–yikes!). And because, as long as I’ve known her, this friend has demonstrated through her daily actions how to live creatively. I have watched her practice, keep at it, create, for the years we lived nearby and on social media over the years we’ve lived far away. I can’t wait for y’all to get a glimpse of this talented artist (by the way, she was also the first person I knew who actually said “y’all” and it has stuck with me ever since).

re:create recess #10: Amy Bailey

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.A Man Without a Country

When I think of re-create it conjures all sorts of deep aesthetic and art education theories and other related thoughts. Overthinking, no doubt. I am an art teacher. I facilitate creating. I feel blessed that my job is a chance to celebrate the unique and praise the process and growth in students. It’s an amazing thing to see the world from their own framework as they are influenced by nature, their interests, the limits and strengths of the supplies and art medium, art history and cultural awareness promoted in the lesson we are embarking on that given day. It’s a matter of how to be creative, how to be more unique, how to encourage creativity in others that stays with me most of my waking hours. My job is to pull creativity out of students despite their mood, what they had for breakfast and if they got a detention last period or aced a test. Yet, I make more excuses for myself about making ways and time to create.

It’s all re-creation and it’s all attempts to transform.

While I get to embrace creativity and it’s a natural part of who I am, I find it important to nurture my artistic side and battle with the challenge of making time for me when I’m not busy working and being a single parent. As an art teacher, so often I am creating art samples for my lessons at work and get these little moments to create that benefit my work and benefit me. Yet that doesn’t fulfill me as much as my own personal projects.

When I beat myself up inside that I haven’t made something big and artistic lately, destined to be posted on Instagram or mega-crafty Pinterest, I have to take a step back and reframe my feelings. Creative moments are not always about the big creative moments. They’re often little outlets in the day, from creative ways to send sweet words of love and encouragement to a new spin on a favorite recipe, a well-cropped photo on my phone, color choices to liven up my day. Then when life is most balanced, there is time for studio art production and writing a blog entry. 😉

That has to be very intentional. So how do I translate that to adult life? It should be easy, but it’s not.

What I hold to about creating is: it’s all really re-creation. Honestly, it’s all been done before.

When I am devoting myself to re-creation, those are some of the most refreshing times for me. Honoring the past by re-creating the symbols that connect the past and present for me are some of the healthiest and rewarding artistic moments I can have.

It’s never because I can make it better than the original; it’s because the original makes my life better. When I make a chalk pastel and charcoal blue jay, in no way do I make it better than the original forms in nature, but rather it connects me to a time in life that is gone. So I go back to the same subjects and draw them and paint them and print them, as a measure of preserving memories.

One of my favorite subjects to transform in art are blue jays. Losing my mother one month before my son was born left me in a helpless state away from friends and family figuring out parenthood with a spouse working eighteen-hour shifts. I had this sweet bundle to take care of and the awesomeness of that responsibility was terrifying and wonderful.

One day, I was feeling very alone as a new mother, wishing my mother was alive so I could pick up the phone and talk to her. As I cried out, I heard an awful squawk over and over again outside my window. I went to the window to find a couple of blue jays chattering right outside. In the two years of living in that duplex in downtown Denver I had never seen blue jays hanging out, nor heard them disrupt my day.

It clicked with me immediately that my bird-loving mother had this strange admiration for this grouchy, feisty variety of bird. Her bird feeder would be full of sweet and beautiful smaller birds and charming doves. She loved them all, and had this wonderful patience and love for this colorful, bold and confident bird. She collected bird figurines and spent a long time tracking down a jay. I had often wondered, because most people did not like jays enough to have one in porcelain!

So there I was with a newborn, grieving my mother, and these blue jays were calling out. I had to be bold and I had to remember I was not alone. As they squawked at me, I felt my mom was there. Now as I see blue jays flock around my house from time to time, I remember to catch my breath and know her love is with me. I must be bold and press through the challenges of my day.

It’s important for to hone in on those subjects that honor the past and celebrate the significant memories. Transforming it to keep it alive and vital in the journey.

Honoring the past and re-creating the symbols that connect the past and present for me are some of the healthiest and rewarding artistic moments I can have.

So I go back to the jays and draw them and paint them and print them as a measure of preserving my mother’s presence. The jays nag and nudge me to not dwell on what is missing and to fill life with the things that are loving. Creation, when I am most focused, re-creates feelings that call me back to times when my heart had less scars.

Amy Bailey is an artist, art teacher and proud mother of 2.

Thankful Thursday – Celebrate

Oh, friends, what a week!

Thursday to Thursday, I’m not sure there is any adequate way to sum it up, but let’s try this: joy, and grief, and joy… In all, celebrate.

One week ago we were in the final hours of the school year, during which both kids managed to drag out the drama and just about drive their mama over the edge. All is well, thank God, but all became well in those final hours. Sheesh!

Celebration commenced. Baccalaureate services and parties led to graduation and graduation parties. Teen graduated–hooray and hallelujah, amen! WOO HOO!

Honestly, I cried on and off (with greater and lesser degrees of humiliation) Wednesday-Thursday. Maybe I was cried out by Friday, but I made it through graduation tear-free. Perhaps it was the ear-to-ear smile Teen wore beginning to end. Or his willingness to at least quickly allow a hug or give me a quick peck on the cheek. I saw his happiness, his pride, his joy. It overflowed.

Imagine my surprise when, on the first day of “summer,” this late-sleeper woke up early and ready for yoga. When asked to choose my intention, the first word that popped to mind was “release,” which I immediately rejected: “release” held way too much possibility for full-on sob-fest! So I very carefully selected, “Celebrate.”

Yes. I can celebrate. Let’s celebrate: graduation, growth, summer, new adventures on the horizon, life lived and life ongoing.

This week we have joyfully celebrated graduations, and we have–with tremendous sadness and loss–celebrated lives well lived. Tucked between graduation parties, we attended a memorial service for an amazing man, a Navy Admiral, a gentleman who poured his life into his country, his family, his church, his business, and the Boy Scout troop in which each of his sons earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

The Troop in which my boys also participate: one has Eagled; another is on track. My boys attended the memorial service in Class A uniform, and each reported feeling impressed by the military salute (what American doesn’t bow low for a military gun salute?), the pastor’s heartfelt message, and their Scoutmaster Emeritus’s tribute to one of his best buddies, a friend of 30+ years. This man’s son and family have been our longtime dear friends. It was our honor to honor his life with them.

Monday we celebrated the first “school day” of summer, and the Bay Area whooped it up for the NBA win of our team, the Golden State Warriors. If you knew me in my SoCal life, this surprises you; but go on, be surprised at what raising two boys in the Bay Area can do for a mama’s respect for basketball!

Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my beloved Mor-Mor’s (mother’s mother) heaven-home-going. I miss her like crazy; anyone who ever met her feels the same. When my dad was flying Pan Am jets and my dear mom was working, little Mor was it: on duty, making cookies, wooden-spooning naughty bottoms, keeping all of us–and friends–in line.

Yesterday, I read these verses in Proverbs (14:10, 13):
“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can fully share its joy.
Laughter can conceal a heavy heart, but when the laughter ends, the grief remains.”

Grief and joy. They coexist in the heart. Sometimes we lean more fully to one or the other, while on occasion, they lean heavily together. Brene Brown wrote (coincidentally, of her own daughter’s recent high school graduation): “There’s a combination of joy and grief that can take your breath away. The sum of those two parts wells up inside you and holds your breath hostage until you let go of the notion that you can control the paradox and choose between joy and grief. Your breath returns only when you submit to the reality that you are caught in the grips of both delight and sorrow. Both are strong. Both are true.”

We celebrated Teen and his peers who have achieved a milestone in their yet-young lives. We celebrated the well-lived long lives of my friend’s dad and my grandma.

We celebrated the Warriors’ win. And last night we (belatedly) celebrated Tween’s 13th birthday and (early) celebrated Father’s Day with dinner and a movie [Wonder Woman, highly recommend!].

Life goes on. In each day, in daily life, we embrace emotional fullness: breath, movement, work, rest, feelings, enjoyment, mourning. Yesterday I felt like my sweet Mor-Mor moved through the day with me: through waking kids, work stuff, kid and family stuff, and family night out. I felt like she smiled down us, like she would have approved, if she could have been here to do so, that we ‘celebrated’ her departure by celebrating the lives we live in the moment.

Here’s to life, and to fully living in the moment all of this beautiful life that deserves celebrating!

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