Song Stories From the Edge: Track 8 – Legacy

IMG_5730My good friend Shawn VanTassel joined my brother and I in the studio early on when we were finishing the scratch tracks and starting the drums. We were currently working on “Legacy,” and he made an off-hand suggestion that we use the heartbeat of my baby, currently in utero, as a metronome for the track. Now that’s a clever idea, Shawn. Most likely the best one you’ll ever have. (I kid, I kid…)

It was a big deal to hear that heartbeat. We had a miscarriage a year prior, and I still remember the immediacy of the shift from joy to sorrow when there was no pulse on the initial sonogram. The strong, steady heartbeat of this new, growing, tiny human was reassuring on a number of levels, and it is incredibly special to be able to share it with my son (as he turned out to be) once he’s old enough to care. The heartbeat heard on this track is recorded from the first time I heard it.

I really wanted to write an epic song for my first child, but I got stuck repeating a few of the opening lines and couldn’t manage to finish it, likely because I wanted it to be perfect. That’s probably part of the reason I left this at one verse and one chorus… there is no miracle that compares to this one, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Lucky for me, more breakthrough came in my family when my brother and sister in law, who had been trying to get pregnant for nearly a decade, discovered they had twins (and more cousins for my son) on the way. The chorus flowed freely from there:
IMG_6383We are prophets of a future not our own (tip hat to Oscar Romero)

We are children of a promise crowned upon us long ago (thanks, Father Abraham)

There’s a seed inside my family that’s growing wild (cheers to the Chud/Pepperd clans)

And this legacy is yours, my child (that’s for you, Lincoln David)

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 7 – Springtime

Lately I’ve been a little obsessed with the Humans of New York project, in which a very normal guy has started a wildly successful photo blog that simply pauses to bring notice to every day people and the stories they are found in (currently taking place in Iran). I love the way it has forced Brandon Stanton, the photographer, to see and savor the very “normal” moments that everyone else passes by.

DowntownKC-May242011I remember encountering a similar sentiment when I devoured Ken Gire’s book, Windows of the Soul, and particularly his reflections on springtime, which was conveniently taking place outside as I read. I started to realize all the lessons to be learned within the story nature was telling on a routine basis. Chief among them: in the thick of winter, when everything is dead, it’s hard to even fathom the notion of everything turning green again. But every year the miracle happens. Life resurrects. And every year I’m surprised.

To me, the rising sun in springtime operates a lot like the grace. There’s nothing you can do but wait for it to happen, but it’s inevitable that it will. Grace is tricky and mysterious and hard to get ahold of. It doesn’t quite make predictable sense, but it tells the most beautiful stories.

I met a friend for donuts every Monday at 6 am for a year or two while living in Kansas City. I loved the feeling of getting up before sunrise (once I had the first round of coffee in me), and driving home I carried a strange pride at the fact that most people were only now beginning their day while I was already well into it. I also began to make observations on those “normal” moments. That’s how the first lyrics emerged:

“When the shadows are long, when the day meets the dawn,
you’ll find me singing along with you, waiting for grace to rise.”

Props to Kara Pennington, a multi-talented friend who has the tender, piercing voice that accompanies this track. She also sings one of my favorite lines on the project: “I never knew it could be so beautiful and still so gray.” That’s spring for you, and that’s the glory of life on the edge of the in between.

 

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 6 – Potential

My greatest fear in life is never living up to my potential. I know there in an amazing stamp of heaven on me… (known less in an “only me” type of way and more in a “there’s a unique divine image in everyone” type of way). I know I’m made for great things, whatever exactly that means. But I spend a lot of my life paralyzed by the possibility of missing out on something because I’ve chosen something else. On my worst nights, that fear forces me to stay awake longer than I actually want to, typically striving for a sense of tangible accomplishment if my day didn’t feel quite fulfilling enough.

Charlie Goodnight Jr. on his Colorado Ranch.

Charlie Goodnight Jr. on his Colorado Ranch.

Place this struggle against the backdrop of my early-twenties in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that served as the gateway to the west when America was first stretching its legs. Under the world-renown arch is the Museum of Westward Expansion. Some years ago I wandered among the exhibits that described the exploration of Lewis & Clark, the courage and catastrophe that marked the Native American experience, and my personal favorite, the life of the cowboy. I paused to write down the words of one such maverick, aptly named Charlie Goodnight:

“All in all, my years on the cattle trail were the happiest I have lived. There were many hardships and dangers, of course, that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery; but when all went well there was no other life so pleasant. Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of of those who dared.”

Charlie’s words got me then, and they still get me today.

Shortly after my time in St. Louis, I learned about a town called Blue Camp Twenty, just up the road from my own house in Kansas City. “Blue” because it was on the Blue River, “Camp” because it was meant to be temporary, and “Twenty” because it was just outside of Independence, one of the final legitimized stops before pioneers faced the Wild West.

Many of these adventures were heading toward Santa Fe, where they dreamed of living out their days in pioneering fashion, making a new home for themselves on the open stage of the frontier. They stopped near Blue Camp Twenty to make final provisions for themselves before setting out into the vast, unconquered unknown. After 24 hours they grew familiar with the camp. After a couple days they began to enjoy the provisions available at the general store and the post office. After a couple weeks they began to reconsider their dreams and settle into their comforts. Near Blue Camp Twenty, another settlement sprung up to host the growing number of once pioneers. They called it “New Santa Fe.”

The St. Louis Arch, a.k.a. The Gateway to the West (Museum located underneath)

The St. Louis Arch, a.k.a. The Gateway to the West (Museum located underneath)

Dreaming can be a great process, but sometimes the idealism involved in dreaming means that once you’re on the precipice of fulfillment, reality kicks in and you realize what a cost comes along with the breakthrough. There’s nothing wrong with a dream changing. In fact, sometimes the journey toward a vague goal provides an opportunity to discover your actual dream in some other place along the journey. But more often than not, we let go of the far off, hard earned inheritances that don’t come without a struggle. It has become tragically normal to give up on Santa Fe (insert dream here) and just rename our present, mediocre state “New Santa Fe.”

I don’t want to spend a bunch of effort trying to justify who I could have been and why I’m not.

I don’t want to spend my days pondering possible options of where to go or wondering what I might miss out on.

I don’t want to prepare to live.

I want to live.
I want to go.

I want to be more than potential.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 5 – Jenny's Song

Years ago, we were driving from Alaska to Kansas City with some friends and decided to take a detour to the San Juan Islands in Northwest Washington. It’s a detour I would happily take on an annual basis. We caught the ferry late into a clear-skied evening, making way for a ceiling of shimmering lights above us. I wandered to the back deck and tipped my head back as if to swallow the white specks whole, whispering to myself, “Hey, those stars are singing of a world far away. My heart is living for eternity today.”

Ferrying in the San Juan Islands

Ferrying in the San Juan Islands

A few days later we were passing through Portland, where we stopped for a drink with an old friend from high school. I had always viewed Jenny as one of the more straight-laced, pieced-together people I knew. She was brilliant, kind, and driven, and no one ever doubted she would accomplish everything she planned to. Jenny had a strong start in college, made even more colorful as she fell in love with a boy named Monty. It was a storybook tale, and they were in the midst of dreaming about a wedding and a long life together. Then one night, driving back from an evening at Jenny’s house, Monty was killed in a car accident.

When we caught up with Jenny in Portland, she showed us a scrapbook she had made in memory of Monty. I turned the pages slowly, shaking my head at the beauty and the tragedy, pausing to wipe the tears from my eyes. But Jenny didn’t cry. In fact, she seemed empty of tears after having cried them all out. She spoke so matter-of-fact. Not in a way that seemed dull, but real. Like she had spent some serious effort wrestling with God. She shared candidly about the frailty of life and investing in the things that matter. I kept thinking of the times Jesus told people “to find your life, you must lose it.”

We left Jenny’s around midnight, and as my friends each fell asleep in the car, I lingered in thought, penning the verses to this song and connecting my lament with the wonder I had felt aboard the ferry.

Jenny’s life hasn’t gotten much easier since those days. She has experienced much more pain and, in an effort to help others in dire places, has exposed herself to much of humanity’s ache. But Jenny’s pain isn’t an empty one. She still carries the grief of those days, but literally tattooed onto her body and written on her life is another reality: “HOPE.”

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“Today is all I have here, so here is all I have. I’m trusting that the sunrise will bring a new man.”

This past summer, Jenny was married in Colorado, where she now lives.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 4 – Looking

My wife is the most courageous person I know (and I’m not saying that in the flattering-Facebook-status-attention-getter way). I always say one of the primary reasons I asked her to marry me was because I knew she would forever move me, never letting me settle halfway. Her journey the past decade or so has provided endless proof to the truth of this claim. There is all sorts of storyline that explains the evidence in depth, but you’ll have to have a 12 hour coffee with her sometime to start into that.

I’ll just start at the chapter where she failed to pass the bar exam here in Alaska. There had been such momentum leading up to the test, and such wind behind the dreams we anticipated fulfilling shortly afterward. We had the timing down and the puzzle pieces arranged, and we were already riding off into the sunset. Then, while we blinked, the sun suddenly set and we had to backtrack to the previous lodging where we would be staying for an extra year, studying the laws about how to ride into the sunset… or something like that.

It’s funny that we think we can control our own story. I’ve always loved and hated that proverb that says, “In his mind a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” I might rewrite that proverb to say “Sure, go ahead and decide what you’re going to do, but you might as well accept that God is going to end up messing it up.” Then I would pause and add an asterisk that lead to a footnote that reads: “But He’ll do so in a way that is much more painful, confusing, colorful, and ultimately fulfilling.”

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Marisa Diane welcoming the winter, and all that it represents, with open arms.

I was grasping hard for perspective in our Palmer apartment as I watched the snow creep down Lazy Mountain and team up with the ever-shortening, ever-darkening days, as if they were collectively flexing their muscles and declaring their dominance over the residents of our quaint, unsuspecting, town. I said to myself, “I’m looking forward to looking back on this.” I’d been through enough in my short 32 years to know that things rarely, if ever, go according to plan. Hindsight had become a good friend, and I was calling on him far from the type of location where he tends to show up.

Marisa always skipped that track on the album. As a principle, I like to wallow in my despair, and she likes to press through it like a tunnel through a mountain. Maybe that’s where she earns her badge of courage. These days we can effectively listen to the song together, here in the place where hindsight actually does reside and looking back is actually enjoyable. On the far side of the mountain. Where the weight that felt so discouraging before has turned to gold.

John Lennon had his own interpretation of the aforementioned proverb, and he included it in a song he wrote for his newborn son: “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” I think the strongest hope is birthed in the most hopeless places. And those who dare to continue to plan their way while welcoming the direction of heaven have found the better way.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 3 – I Love the Autumn

The autumn has long been my favorite time of the year, and this tune is my ode to the glory that I find there each September-November (depending on where I happen to be living at the time). I wrote this song shortly after we moved to Kansas City, where I was delighted to encounter a fall that lasted more than two-three weeks (the Alaskan norm), and was much more inclusive of various tree-types.

While the lyrics tend to speak for themselves, I will say there is a unique story that is to be told in the journey into death. I feel a slight despondency every time a strong wind hastens the end of the autumn, as I have inevitably grown loyal to the bright leaves that helplessly lose their grip on the host branches. Yet death is an inevitable part of coming to life. The key is to find the joy of dying full of the assurance of resurrection.

Special props to Johnnathon Brown for bringing color to this tune with the addition of the horns, all brilliantly arranged and executed by himself (also sparing me (and thus you) a scat solo instead). The transition into that trumpet solo is one of my favorite bits on the album, performed by my brother Aaron, who adds the triplets on the snare. Nice touch, bro.

And here’s to Michael Heath, who brought it to a little visual life:

 

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 2 – Character

While living in Boston, my good friend had started a new job that was well over his head and well overwhelming of his normal way of life. As we sauntered and smoked along the harbor impersonating regular New Englanders, he busted through the conversation with a startling realization: “I think at the core I am interested in my own comfort and God is interested in my character.” The comment pierced me in the kind of way that hurts so good.

The next day I was hanging with another friend, and we were discussing Rob Bell’s recently released book Love Wins, which at the time was providing room for controversial and competing opinions on eternity among all kinds of people. It got us talking about the nature of resurrection and where we’ve misinterpreted the ideas and priorities of Jesus. What would life look like if we stopped concentrating all our efforts on “everyone’s approval of us” and instead looked to be creators of a culture that is anchored in an eternal perspective? The answer: probably something good.

The Boys of Boston

The Boys of Boston

The next evening I sat on the back porch of our Everett Street apartment to get some of these thoughts down on paper. As I thought about doing so, I got intimidated at having to fit them into cohesive narrative. So I left the ideas in their vaguely conclusive state and began tying them together with some loose rhymes instead. This is the art of much of good art, I suppose.

Character – the kind that I imagine endures in the resurrected scope – is not something you can force. It has to be developed, maybe even earned, most often by persevering through the most challenging of circumstances. In the end, I would say it looks a lot like an oak tree that stands tall and serves all the leaves that adorn it. The heat and the drought don’t throw it off, and it never ceases to bear fruit, whatever the season.

“I want in on some of that.”

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 1 – Summer Dreaming

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Lincoln enters into the joyous legacy of the “endless front yard” at the Chud homestead.

It was the summer of 2003, and the first full year that I had spent away from my Alaskan homeland. I was in England for the three months, and as much as I was enjoying the old country’s rolling hills, I was missing the more dynamic Talkeetna mountain range near the point of tears. I did a lot of daydreaming that summer, picturing myself running through my “endless front yard” and across a ridgeline in Hatcher’s Pass in order to maintain my sanity. Most people call it “homesickness,” but for me, it’s more like “childhood-sickness.”

This song was my self-therapeutic attempt to articulate the tension involved in leaving home and all that it represents. I always knew I was nostalgic, but as I wrote this tune across that summer, I realized just how core that fact was to the way I see the world. I’ve never been good at growing up. I feel a lot like every day of adulthood is simply pretending to have a clue of what I’m doing (and most of the time I fail at effectively convincing anyone that I do). I am all the more aware of this as I watch my son listen to this song. Fittingly, it has been our cure to his temper tantrums while riding in the car since the day he was born. When the tears are uncontrollable, for some reason this tune is the quick fix.

The final verse of “Summer Dreaming” has been a resolve I’ve returned to many times along the journey, and it rings as true today as it did 12 years ago when it was first penned. I’ve gotten comfortable existing in the in between over the years, and increasingly confident that the good Lord is comfortable – maybe even appreciative – of that part of me as well:

I was only dreaming,
But I’m ready to do some of that with my eyes wide open
Here’s hoping
Cos the present is a gift that I’m ready to open too
I’ve gotta find the line that lets me be
some kind of grown up and still a kid
Cos I know the good Lord smiles as I love what I’m doing now,
And I long for what I once did

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Hatcher Pass Sunset (courtesy of Cecil Sanders Photography)

On The Edge of the In Between: Song Stories

A week ago I drove home from the States (as we Alaskans call “the others”). It was the first time I made the 2500-mile trek alone, and it provided some much-needed introvert time after a summer of people. Wonderful memories, wonderful places, and wonderful people, but people nonetheless.

As I passed through Beaver Creek (the last “town” in Canada) and approached the Alaskan border, I had a flashback to two summers previous when I was driving up with my childhood friend, Casey. He had joined me for the Seattle-Palmer, AK portion of the move I was making from Boston. We called ourselves “two hobbits on an open road,” and we were in fine form, embracing our delirium after 30 hours on the highway by singing old songs with the accompaniment of a travel guitar my mom gave me in high school.

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Here’s Casey and I rocking the road trip to Alaska in July 2013.

Eventually I started sharing with Casey some new songs I had written, and we began discussing the possibility of an album made of these tunes. Little did I know a year later I would be holding that project, On the Edge of the In Between, in my hands. (Although if you want to get technical, it was in post-production at the year mark.) Which brings me back to my drive last week and that same point on the road where Casey and I had been talking over this dream.

I thought about how quickly I lose sight of the amazing fulfillment of a dream once it is indeed fulfilled. I forget the pain and the vulnerability and the waiting that preceded the actualization of that desire, and I’m onto “bigger and better” things. Marisa, Lincoln (our son), and I are currently making final preparations for a move to Beirut, Lebanon, a dream that has been in the works for over a decade. I wonder how long we will be settled into our new life there before I forget how long we ached for it to happen.

My thought via the road last week: I want to do a better job of remembering. Of not rushing past the breakthrough and onto the next thing, but of actually sucking the marrow out of life (Thoreau-style), starting with the places where longings have already been fulfilled. So for the next two weeks, I’ll be breaking down the songs from that album, now almost a year old. Maybe you’ll enjoy hearing my take on a song you particularly like. Maybe you’ll add my thoughts to your own and it will keep the creative process multiplying, which would be grand. Most likely I will be writing, like most blogs, for my mom and myself (although my mom might have a difficult time navigating to this page on a daily basis (love you mom), leaving me to reflect in solitude on my own words). Whatever the case, I figure I will gain a few pounds of philosophical weight in the process, which is reason enough for my to do some remembering.

So here they come: song stories from the edge.

I mean, they’re coming tomorrow and so on…

Right after I show you this video I took on the road last week in between my incredibly pensive moods.