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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High School Graduation

Tonight I feel seventeen.

Tomorrow is graduation day. One more project to go: for English, a self-expression slide show of my life—my people, my friends and classmates—set to U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

We’ve been together a long time, but high school isn’t it. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for. It’s here, and it’s out there, our next step.

If I searched high and low in my mom’s house, my old house, I might still find the old slide projector reel filled with images of me and my peers growing from elementary school through junior high and then high school. We took different paths through adolescence, so I had to work harder toward the end to gather pictures of the people with whom we began. Still, I found them. For a time, at least, I had them.

On my final day of high school, I blared my U2 cassette tape through the boom box speakers in synch with my slides, blasting the darkened theater with familiar sound. Even the classmates who knew us only for a stretch of that time appreciated what came before and after. We were. We were little, we were middles, we were grown. We made an impact.

My presentation ended the class period. Lights up, and we were free until we reassembled in graduation gear. For a few hours, we felt oddly untethered to anything and anyone. We knew it wasn’t entirely true, but we felt FREE.

We went home. We weren’t the same. We might even have been a little crazy. Girls did hair and make-up. Boys did…what? I’m not sure.

When we came back together we were uncomfortably not the same, dressed as we’d never been before. We had worn jeans and shorts and T-shirts and skirts and blouses and dresses and collared shirts–even ball gowns and tuxedos–but we had never before worn caps and gowns.

Here we are, about to be, graduates.

Halt.

Tonight, my son is the soon-to-be-graduate. He is eighteen. He has one last final to go, sadly not the feel-good presentation of my last day of high school, but a hard-core final with a graceless teacher who least likes him.

Still, this is his night, his weekend, his now and not yet.

Time is funny. So slow, so fast. How can my little Christmas elf baby be the six-foot-something rugby-tough-guy almost-graduate? The years have been long, and not long enough.

Tonight friends threw a graduation party for their son and his buddies, including our guy. We swapped stories with parents with whom we’ve walked short- and long-lengths of this journey. Oh, how these kids have extended the high school drama! Nothing like giving your parents heart attacks in the last few hours…

I drove home alone, the long way, on purpose. I rolled down the windows, cranked the stereo, punched the gas pedal. I let the wind rush through my hair, felt my skin energized by its chilling flow. I’m no longer seventeen, but I remember. My adult (responsible) Honda Civic is no match for my once-upon-a-time ’67 Mustang, my ultimate cool car. That long-ago night, I knew I had great friends and I also knew, poignantly, that those friendships could not last forever.

I see it. He feels the same, and everything in me aches: for what was, and what is, and what has been lost. And for this boy: for what is, and what will be, and what will be lost.

This is the beginning, and this is the end. And it will come around again.

Quirky Christmas

School for 2014? Check!

*Sigh of relief* The kids are off to movies and friends as I borrow a couple of quiet hours to straighten up and address Christmas cards. For weeks the house has been an explosion of Christmas detritus landed alongside, underneath, and atop backpacks, shoes and jackets, sporting equipment, and who knows whose papers for who can tell which subject? I’ve done my best to focus on the important over the pine needle rug, the piled-up dishes, the un-addressed cards. The tree was up and lit for a week before we decorated it in the one 20-minute period both boys were home between school and activities.

Teamwork makes quick work

Teamwork makes quick work

My first waking thought earlier this week: “Even in my dreams I’m racing around!” I awoke just as exhausted as I’d hit the pillow. And then I read, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Jonathan Gottschall). My mind’s stories had to be of the rush, hurry, rest-less variety.

I haven’t been in a party mood this year. I have needed – more than usual – time for quiet and reflection, sacred moments carved from the craziness of December church and family life. When I gave my life-of-the-party husband the gift of my company at a Christmas party, a woman I’ve known for some time asked how I am, seeming concerned, then asked, “Just let me encourage you? How old are you?” Guessing where she might be headed, I demurred, “Oh, right, and everything’s heading south…” To which she replied, “But you are still beautiful! I know you don’t feel it, but you are!” … Merry Christmas to me! For encouragement’s sake, I’ve been reminded that my numbers, in years and on the scale, are inching skyward. I’m getting older – and fat – but still beautiful… for my age? Goodness…

So I’ve decided in this too-full season to capitalize on my unique brand of quirky Christmas.

"In My Santa Suit" red toes

“In My Santa Suit” red toes, even though it’s absolutely closed-toe shoe weather

My feather wreath: Dr. Seuss whimsy

My feather wreath: Dr. Seuss whimsy

The Christmas Tortoise candle holder makes me giggle.

Doesn’t everyone have a Christmas Tortoise?

Beautiful and broken snowglobe

Beautiful – and broken – snow globe

Not sure how it happened, but the inside base of this globe tilted while in storage. I almost threw it out last year. And then I didn’t. It’s not worth much, but I have liked it since I first spotted it. And as I held it, paused over the garbage can, I decided that this snow globe will remind me: our expectations of Christmas will always be a little sideways to the lived reality.

Christmas, like life, doesn’t go according to plan. At least, not my plan. And Christmas can still be beautiful, sparkling, iridescent, even when – perhaps especially when – it doesn’t go according to my plan.

These things remind me to be present, to laugh at the silly, to be okay with the imperfections of the season and in myself. Richard Rohr writes, “If you are present, you will eventually and always experience the Presence. It is so simple, and so hard…” (The Naked Now, p59). And my current fav, Ann Voskamp, writes: “I always get my Christmas miracle. I get God with me. That’s really all I have to get ready for Christmas – my heart. So I will just come to Him just as I am.”

My quirky Christmas decorations are talismans pointing me toward a better perspective, icons through which I experience an altogether more important Presence. They may look odd or out of place to you, but they serve a significant purpose for me.

Wishing you a merry – and quirky – Christmas!