Song Stories From the Edge: Track 13 – Leave

In the spring of 2006 some dear childhood friends of ours, Casey & Shayle DenBleyker, were moving from Kansas City and heading toward the pacific northwest to chase a vague dream associated with better views
and finer coffee. (Or so I like to think.) Their journey was prefacing our own relocation to Boston, causing us all to collide with joint sobriety and excitement. Leaving will do that to you.

donA few days before their departure, we drove together up to Parkville, just north of the city, and sat along the banks of the Missouri River, a winding, muddy body of water that has long served as a metaphor of desire for myself, Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, and many others along the way. I opened to the first pages of a book by Donald Miller called Through Painted Deserts, which wonderfully chronicles his road trip from “old” home in Dallas, Texas to “new” home in Portland, Oregon. Miller’s words captured me enough that I think it’s worth including a longer portion of them here.

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one word for you: Leave.

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry.
Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”

― Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road

Tonight I write on the eve of our departure to Beirut, Lebanon. Marisa and I have been carrying the dream of this move for almost 15 years, so tomorrow is a true fulfillment. However, a few hours ago, as I was hugging my niece and nephew who were crying the type of tears you would quite literally do anything to stop, the cost came into full view. Not just Marisa’s cost, or Lincoln’s cost, but the cost for the family that remains – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings… As we drove out, I remembered what Jesus said about these type of moments: “Anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields, whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over.” There is some true consolation in that, but it doesn’t in any way lift the weight of what it means to go.

Leaving is exciting and full of possibility, but it’s also risky. More than that, it can be downright hard, particularly if you genuinely like the place you are setting off from. I sat on the couch across from my brother-in-law tonight who was confessing how normal our closing moments were feeling even though it seems they should be so much more epic. That seems to often be the case in monumental chapters of life (I recall being particularly let down by the normalcy of my high school graduation). But that’s no reason to stop chasing those dreams that only exist out there in the cloudy, foggy, grey unknown. After all, who wants to be boring or predictable?

It doesn’t have to be a geographical move, though it could be. It’s often simply a repositioning of your heart and soul.

There is a quote by Victor Hugo that stares down from the south side of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It reads, “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. For by the real we exist; by the ideal we (truly) live.” I will spend my life clinging to the ideal while enjoying the way it shows up in the real. I will keep leaving, whatever that looks like, however near or far, however slight of an adjustment or major an upheaval. I really do believe that the best is yet to come, and while contentment in the present is a wonderful, necessary grounding place, maybe the most orderly, normal existence, as exemplified by the God-created universe itself, is to risk. To change. To expand.

Perhaps it’s time for you too… to “lose all the life (you’ve) been storing…”

…and leave.

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Song Stories From the Edge: Track 12 – Everyone's Waiting

I feel inclined to leave this song open to a freer interpretation, as several conversations I’ve had about it have gone various directions, and I’d like to keep it that way. Thus, I’ll keep the commentary simple.

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1I read a highly recommended book last year called The War of Art, and in it author Steven Pressfield challenges artists and creatives of all kinds to face the “Resistence” between who they are and who they could be… and to overcome it without excuse. He explains, “We are not born with unlimited choices… Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be, but to find
out who we already are and become it.” That process reads very romantically but lives out very sacrificially, doesn’t it?

I hesitate to call myself an artist.

Maybe it’s because of the stereotypes that come with it. Maybe it’s because I don’t give myself to that artistic expression on a full-time vocational basis, and somewhere inside me I think I should. Most likely, it’s simply because if I call myself an artist, I embrace the inherent pressure to create and be creative… and that accountability is some high pressure stuff (that’s right, I said “stuff,” lay off me).

Maybe it’s just to fuel my momentum against Resistance, but I like to imagine everyone in the world waiting for some of the songs and stories inside of me to emerge. We spend so much effort trying to perfect our voice before we make it heard, but perhaps instead we should raise our voice and find it in the process. There is a war to making art of any kind, and I would argue that if you are holding back on the creative expression inside of yourself, you’re limiting God’s own creative expression in the earth. What if He deposited the next “Blowing In the Wind” or To Kill A Mockingbird or poverty-eliminating business idea inside of you, but your own insecurity – your constant complicating – your self-imposed distraction –  is keeping it buried inside?


Everyone’s here, and they’re waiting… Start acting like a son and sing.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 11 – The (un)Examined Life

I have a tendency to overthink things. (I explain the idea slightly more eloquently in another song I wrote, called “Validation” from the album Moratorium.)

The view from 185 Webster St. Boston, MA

The view from 185 Webster St. Boston, MA

The final year we were in Boston, we lived in a small apartment that was part of a brownstone building dating back another century or so. It overlooked the harbor and gave us quite the view of the sun setting over the manmade mountains downtown. You know, the kind of scene that brings life into perspective.

“The (un)Examined Life” was inspired by that perspective, found with unusual clarity on the third story of 185 Webster St. as I battled another evening of mind games with myself. The hammer smashing the magnifying glass is my attempt to get rid of those complications and lay hold of the simple thankfulness that makes powerful people.

Portrait Herm of 36adfa0b81aba24d46d5d18017fa94e8

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I love this quote and the way it convicts people out of mediocrity and thoughtlessness. It’s a good foundation for philosophical thinking.

Cornel West, a modern American philosopher and professor, added his own spin, saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is painful.” When you actually choose to fight your own apathy and engage in tough questions, you simultaneously open yourself up to disappointment and despair. To question is to revolt, and typically that involves some sacrifices to your comfort. That’s why a lot of people would rather just keep from examining things… which leads us to a conclusion of sorts.

Samuel Clemons, better known as Mark Twain, did his fair share of examining life; often making comical observations that demonstrated a philosophical insight and social commentary that few (next to Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame) have been able to replicate. Twain said, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.”

Leave it to Sam Clemons to remind us to examine life, but not to the extent that we fail to actually live it. That’s the kind of life I want.


Song Stories From the Edge: Track 10 – Facing East

After Marisa graduated from law school in Boston, along with a good portion of her family, we headed a few hours further northeast to a little cottage on the ocean. In fact, Lubec, the town we were staying in, marks the eastern most point of the contiguous United States. We looked forward to being the first people in America to see the sunrise, but we encountered a majority of rain instead. No worries, it was still quite beautiful.

traveling to the maine coast

traveling to the maine coast

We arrived late in the afternoon, and I woke up early the next day to take a walk along the water. I saw a small peninsula off in the distance, and determined that I would reach the end of it before turning around. As I walked, I started singing about the eastern ocean meeting the land, reflecting on four challenging and inspiring years in Boston that was about to end with our impending move back home to Alaska in another month. I was grasping for words to encapsulate the ways that I had changed and grown over our time in the northeast, hoping that it looked something like a shift from “servant boy” to “dreaming man.”

As I walked along the beach and toward the start of the peninsula, the rain started coming down a little harder, and the wind picked up with a slight threat. I ducked my head and pressed on, raising my voice a little louder and allowing the weather patterns to provide the lyrical content: “Heaven’s rain is pouring down, more is lost and less is found, there’s still a storm I’m ready to confound.”

By the time I reached the peak of the peninsula, the tide was rushing in and I knew I had my work cut out for me in getting back to the cottage in one piece. But I felt untamed and ready to take on the wind (perhaps with the slight inspiration of Lieutenant Dan). I stared defiantly at the Atlantic Ocean and cranked out the bridge: “Your eyes as wide as the sea, no fear that you have to flee, your purpose: possibility.”

Long story short, I made the return journey (evidenced by my writing today). I closed the back door of the cottage and rushed to the bedroom, quickly transcribing the lyrics before I lost them, the paper smudged with the remnants of the rain and ocean water on my clothes.

The song was complete, and so was our time where the eastern ocean meets the land.

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 9 – Wise Old Man

This song didn’t even originally make the short list for the album, but my brother talked me into including it. Thank him or blame him for the final result.

I like listening to author and apologist Ravi Zacharias, partly because he is a phenomenal thinker/speaker and partly because I enjoy having my mind blown from time to time. As those pieces of my brain slowly drift back to earth post-explosion, I feel somehow lighter and heavier at the same time. I highly recommend the experience.

Even Ravi's hair looks smart, doesn't it?!

Even Ravi’s hair looks smart, doesn’t it?!

I especially like what Ravi says in response to the question of life’s meaning:

“What brings meaning is when you can combine a sense of wonder, under-girded by truth, experiencing the richness of love, with the knowledge of security.”

In his teaching, Ravi connects each of these four elements to corresponding seasons of life: wonder in childhood, truth in the college years, love in one’s middle age, and security as an elder. I wrote this song quite simply because I wanted to remember the elements. You can hear the flow if you listen through the verses and encounter a character of some kind (maybe the same one as he ages) at each stage of life. Ultimately Ravi suggests there is only one person who effectively encompasses all of these elements – that would be Jesus the Christ.

The chorus talks about the setting sun being beautified by the pollution that acts as a thin curtain in front of it. This idea emerged as I meditated on Ravi’s words and shot back in my mind to time I spent years ago in his home nation, India. The sunsets in the large cities were so striking, but were contaminated and thus felt somehow cheapened by the fact that the intense smog created much of that dynamic effect.

I’d say that’s a decent metaphor for discerning the meaning of life, but I’ll let you decide for yourself. (And if you disagree, you can talk to my brother about that as well.)

Seagulls fly over the River Ganges during sunset  at Sangam in Allahabad. Allahabad, located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and where the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers meet, is a focal point for Hindu pilgrims during the Kumbh Mela, where devotees gather to bathe in the holy waters of the three rivers. (Sanjay Kanojia/Getty Images)

Seagulls fly over the River Ganges during sunset at Sangam in Allahabad.

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.”


“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.”


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.