Suicide hotlines and what I really needed in the moment
Connecting the dots is natural.
Every time I see a photo of a newborn celebrating a family’s newest arrival, I can’t help but think of my own experiences waiting and wandering in the hospital anticipating the birth of our son.
Every time I hear of someone’s broken relationship with a parent, it inevitably calls to mind my own familial struggles, frustrations and hopes.
So it’s not surprising that I’m once again connecting the dots, the particular memories darker than most.
Reading news of recent suicides—from Scott Hutchinson to Kate Spade to Anthony Bourdain—is forcing me to connect the dots again, remembering a bit too vividly my own history of depression and suicidal thoughts. On a linear timeline, it was a long time ago, even well over a decade, yet that shadow of myself never feels too far from the present. The memories linger and remind me how close that version remains, a slippery slope that’s always a couple steps away despite the time passed.
The news of another celebrity suicide brings with it a wave of mental health alarms. Concerned citizens will post, tweet and share the right phone numbers to call, urging those who are lost in some stage of a downward spiral to reach out and do something.
“Reach out and get the help you need!”
“You are not alone! We are here if you need anything!”
Those sentiments are all well and good. Really, they are. Friends and family have the best intentions. And in a perfect world, these statements actually would be helpful. A person in their right mind would hear a phrase like “call me if you need anything at all” and would respond in kind with a phone call confessing all manner of negative thoughts and destructive activities. Then again, someone in their “right mind” wouldn’t exactly need help with their mental state.
Here’s what I remember from the shadow side of life: I was physically, mentally and emotionally unable to call you in case I needed something. From the outside looking in, the answers look simple (and they really, really are), but therein lies the issue. When you’re inside, everything is distorted. Everything.
There’s only one reason I am standing on the outside again: I had a friend who knew that everything was distorted and he entered into it anyway. To be honest, I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. He didn’t have all the answers. It’s not that he was trained for such emergencies. He was simply willing to enter into a situation he didn’t understand, and he remained present long enough to lead me to some real help.
When I see the advice flying around, it heartens me to know that concerned citizens are out there. I’m thankful for such services that exist to support those who seek help—suicide hotlines, recovery groups formed around an identified need or addiction, counselors who specialize in mental health.
However I also know that a great many, those teetering on the edge between this life and the next, are unlikely to dial those 11 digits or get dressed to go to that group that meets in the church basement. What they likely need is someone who will roll up their sleeves and enter into the void for them, someone who can bring that outside perspective into what feels like a bottomless pit.
What is needed in these moments is a real, meaningful connection.
I’m Sorry I Can’t Remember
I’m sorry I can’t remember.
You’re still adjusting to your loss, stewing in your anger, sitting with your grief. How could you not? The staircase gallery now a memorial. Weeks ago, the photos formed the foundation of lives to be lived, clips for a future montage—the graduation open house, the wedding, the records kept for children’s children.
I’m sorry I can’t remember.
It’s not that I don’t want to, although to be honest, I haven’t really tried all that hard. It’s just that there are so many of them. And life, as they say, goes on. We’re busy. We’re tired. We linger and listen just long enough to send positive vibes and negative memes. We argue over legislation while you sit in lamentation.
I’m sorry I can’t remember.
They say Parkland is the 18th school shooting in 2018. Eighteen for ’18. I’ll remember that slogan at least, staying informed enough to make conversation. I can recall Las Vegas, but wait, that was last fall. This year? Nothing else comes to mind.
I’m afraid we’re remembering all the wrong things: the predictable talking points, the divisive rhetoric. We remember well how to fire shots at each other—real live verbal ammo—before the body bags are completely zipped at the crime scene. As for the victims? They’ve faded along with the other details of when and where and how many.
I’m sorry I can’t remember what are likely the most important things of all. Real names and faces. Real stories of grief and loss. We’ve forgotten what it means to lament. We’ve skated over necessary emotions and called it normal. We’ve politicized and polarized, pushed and pulled. It’s not working.
Instead of allowing our reactions to take over, maybe we should sit in silence until a meaningful word surfaces in response. Maybe that’s our only way out of this—to temper our impulses, to ignore our busy-ness, to ignore the instincts. Maybe making your grief our own, choosing to feel for longer than a news segment, will lead us to a more centered posture—a place from which real, lasting answers can be spoken and meaningful change can take root.
Unity. Communion. Stories shared. Bodies offered in service to one another.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Maybe that’s what it means.
Thoughts in the shadow of a shooting
I freeze when I’m given an open-ended assignment. In school, I used to stay after class to ask the teacher about what he or she *really* wanted to me to research even though the class was told, “Write about anything you want.” It’s the same with painting or drawing. It makes me physically nervous to face a blank canvas. However give me something to copy, I am good to go. Tell me the end, and I can finally begin.
While I’m not sure my predilection for such defined parameters is healthy or not, I believe that understanding the end is very important for us in living in the present. And here’s what I believe about the end:
In the last days,
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2)
This is a poem. Let’s be clear. It’s intended to be read with the right cadence, and the goal is to inspire us with its rhythm and beauty. It begins with a vision larger than all of us, a forward projection of a time to come when the centrality of God will not be in question. The perspectives of all people at this future date will be shifted to recognize the Godwardness of everything.
At its center, the poem then describes to us the Godward world, a world defined by peace. Even though the specific word for “peace” is never used, the descriptions of life and relationships are all peaceful. When all things and all people are oriented toward God, we find peace. Disputes are settled. Matters are resolved. There is no more enmity. Cycles of violence are stopped cold. In the midst of that peace, we find weapons have no more use, that instead they’re transformed literally into tools for the common good, from a sword that literally cuts us off from one another to a plowshare that works the land for us all. Those whose job it is to be war-ready now have need for new employment.
At its end (and woven throughout) is an invitation. “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Here we find that this vision of our future orientation isn’t some warning of what’s to come. It is a present posture we’re invited to embody. Come, let us live out now the reality that will be our ultimate end.
If one day we will find new unifying uses for the things that divide us, let that binding work begin now.
If one day we will find only settled matters instead of unsettled tension, let that healing work begin now.
If one day we will find all of our perspectives shifted toward the same direction, let that understanding work begin now.
Ultimately I’m left with an uncomfortable question for which I don’t have a serious answer, not if I’m honest: What if this poem isn’t a declaration of what is to come but a hopeful invitation and nothing more?
Often in Christendom we picture this spiritual like-it-or-not moment wherein our present existence will be arrested and suddenly turned on its head. Maybe that’s true. Maybe there will be some literal “last days” in which cinematic moments play themselves out in the heavens and things play out as expected. But what if that’s not the case? Let’s entertain that for just a second.
What if this poem is borne from a deep, heavenly longing? What if this ultimate reality will never be unless some of us begin to accept this present invitation? After all, if all we feed is our base instincts, our violent impulses, how will we ever learn the difficult practice of transforming destructive tools into constructive ones?
Whether the passage is a true vision of something bound to happen or an imaginative longing for a better world, the invitation is something I’m inclined to accept either way. We are better than this, all of us, and perhaps if we can believe this is the ending, then we can now know where to begin.
On #MeToo, Shared Stories and the Ills of Dismissal
Every pastor has a few key phrases she or he will repeat again and again. Consider them adages or proverbs. It comes from giving advice as part of a living, from years of listening to a myriad of problems that all basically stem from the same longings or cycles of behavior. The first pastor I ever worked under said “hurting people hurt people” three times daily. He was right. It was true. Another always reminded everyone at the church that “heart work is hard work.” You get the idea.
I’ve got a few myself although I hate to admit it. It’s not that I mean to have them, but I’ve just found myself saying things again and again at times. A primary one comes in some form of “There’s no more powerful statement than ‘me, too’.”
My wife and I recently came home from vacation, and a return to social media featured those words in a way I’d never before seen. The #MeToo campaign was humbling and even overwhelming to read. The vulnerability and bravery of friends and family admitting they’d been victims of sexual assault and/or harassment on display all at once not only showed how widespread these problems are, but they also served as a powerful reminder of the privileges that I enjoy (or scenarios I can avoid) as a white male.
Reading these stories, these until-now hidden accounts of those closest to me, moved me to tears in some instances. I was inspired by their courage to share in the movement. I was saddened to read their experiences. I was broken to realize the power these moments from the past still had in the present over people I love.
Then I read the comments.
(Internet comments are, by definition, never worth reading. The content doesn’t matter. The author doesn’t matter. The website doesn’t matter. Internet commenters are always going to be internet commenters. I should have known better.)
When reading the responses of other friends or family members, I suddenly became angry. There was a common thread of dismissal sprinkled in with many who were expressing what I was feeling. Amid the compassionate responses were people (mostly white males) nitpicking parts of stories, asking silly questions or, mostly, writing dismissive responses. I couldn’t believe it.
The power of “Me, too.” (or #MeToo), whether in person or on social media, is rooted in shared stories. It’s the story of you breaking into my own story. It’s your struggle becoming my struggle. It’s your weakness meeting my strength. It’s your testimony awakening me to a reality that’s much larger than my own. By reading the staggering number of #MeToo accounts, the devastating power of such shared brokenness awakened something in me, the emotions and awareness I described earlier. I know I’m not the only one.
What makes “Me, too” such a powerful statement is that it reminds us that we are not alone—that others have been in the very places where we sit, that someone else got up from this dark dungeon and made it to the other side. I believe nothing is more powerful than someone saying “me, too” because I have sat alone wondering, “Am I the only one?” A hand extended in such a moment literally saved my life—as in, I honestly don’t believe I would be here today if it wasn’t for someone making real eye contact while saying, “Me, too” when I needed it most.
The expression of “me, too” is an expression of love, which is what makes love’s opposite—dismissal—such a shocking response to all of this. If someone wants to be a troll, so be it. Some people simply live out of unexplainable motives, fueled by unresolved hate or anger. But when I’m reading supposed friends and family members dismiss those they’re connected to in some way on social media, I can’t help but be shaken up (and angry myself).
Perhaps the most beautiful thing we have to offer one another in this increasingly fractured, two-dimensional world is a meaningful connection. It’s the time taken to sit down and really listen to the story of another. It’s eye contact and affirmation. It’s respecting the account of someone else.
Dismissal is to blame for so many of our modern ills. Our entire political system is steeped in it. We’re all trained well on how to dismiss each other by watching the 24/7 news channels that show us exactly how it’s done. If we would actually listen to the shared stories of those oppressed in our culture, if we would actually believe them, we might find a bridge between our neighbors and those sworn to serve and protect them (rather than increasing levels of distrust and militarization).
It has healed me on multiple occasions to have someone else simply listen to what I had to say and then validate that experience. It has also scarred me deeply to have a story to tell only to have it dismissed in one way or another.
I am so heartened by this #MeToo movement in what it means for our potential to turn toward one another in an era where such moves are a lost art. If we can link arms, if we can believe our neighbor, if we can share stories, we just might find a greater power to heal from the wounds we’ve carried alone all these years.
Coming into a Clearing
This is the wrong day to feel this way.
It’s 9/11, and even without the memory of such a horrific strategy, Mother Nature is declaring war in a number of places. Hurricanes and earthquakes, nuclear threats and political lunacy. I almost feel bad to say that I feel the way I do. But I know this feeling and it’s worth exploring and explaining. It only comes around so often.
It’s the clearing.
* * *
The first day like this came in my mid-twenties, after a year-long fall to the lowest point of my life. I’d lost my job and my girlfriend. My car was repossessed and creditors called me incessantly. An infinite loop of poor choices, informed by my poor character and complete lack of integrity, had left me with nothing meaningful for which to live. It was the first and only time I’ve ever felt suicidal. I’d experienced my undoing and I knew it was totally and completely my fault.
For one full calendar year, I’d driven or flown to various ministry job leads all over the U.S. only to be told, “We’ve decided to go with someone else.” I heard that phrase nearly 40 times during those 12 months. After the final “no” came on the one-year anniversary of getting fired in the first place, I gave up all hope. I’d lost hope before, felt depressive before, been sad for days or even weeks on end, but I’d never once felt the complete absence of hope.
Into this vacuum stepped a close friend, about two weeks after it started. I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t even getting out of bed most days, but Jay came one day and said, “Get up. You’re coming to church with me.” I knew he wasn’t leaving, so I did so, took a quick shower and went with him. I refused to sit with him and any churchy friends he had, so I remember rebelling by sitting in the back row (take that, God). My hope was to make an appearance to appease my friend and then go back home to do nothing.
Instead I found the first clearing of my life.
The sermon that day was all about me. It could have been for everyone else, but I knew that day was also all for me. I wept uncontrollably on one of those cushioned, stackable metal chairs that every church has ever purchased since 1987. I waited in the world’s longest line to meet the pastor for no reason at all. I just knew I had to say something. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked me to get coffee on Tuesday.
Two days later, I told him my entire story. He asked me to join his church staff then and there. It was the most irresponsible hiring in the history of employment decision. I had no resume. He had no official opening. No church or organization should ever hire someone that way. But in that moment, I’d been running for so long, deeper and deeper into the darkest forest I’d ever known. I had no way out.
He offered me a clearing. My life was never the same after that meeting over coffee.
* * *
A clearing or glade is a literal breath of fresh air.
Inside of a densely wooded area, a large tree might fall over due to a lightning strike or strong wind. The resulting damage will knock over other trees and forest growth to create a new opening. Within the resulting clearing, daylight breaks through and fresh air rushes in. Birds populate the trees near the newly opened space above. New flowers grow on the forest floor; old growth leans toward the light.
Smaller species of trees can grow in glades, diversifying the forest’s ecosystem since new growth is not overpowered and overshadowed by huskier, more dominant species. New flowers and trees mean new birds and animals and insects.
A clearing brings new life.
* * *
It’s been a heckuva year. It’s been a helluva last six months. The last three months? A nightmare.
A move back to the Midwest. A move back into ministry. A move away from friendships now former and a move toward new ones. All of these things can be good or bad, since moves themselves are neutral, but these changes have been hard for me personally. I loved Nashville. I loved writing full-time. Those around me seemed more excited about the possibilities ahead than I did.
Digging back into the church has proven tough on my end. It took me some time to adjust to the notion of being somewhere at a set time like the rest of the planet. Writing on your own schedule has a way of spoiling a person, I’ve learned. But the adjustments didn’t stop there. The expectations to say the right thing, to have something meaningful to say most hours of the day. The need to watch what you say, do or even post online (like this). Working for a church is just an odd vocation.
That last line is true of any church. Specifically, over the last few months, however, it’s become something more than odd. It’s become toxic. The deeper into this forest I’ve wandered, the more the branches became gnarled and twisted. Unhealthy leadership patterns rooted deep. Branches bent toward power and control. To be honest, I’ve wondered on several occasions whether I had the stamina to even walk this path any further.
Then recently came a break of sorts. Some people have left, including several leaders. Lots of people grieving. Lots of changes coming. The nightmare somehow becoming worse. Or that’s what I thought at least.
* * *
We had a staff meeting today. We prayed for each other, the church and our community. We discussed details from the previous days and shaped events for the weeks to come . We made lists, answered questions, divided responsibilities. We did what we do every week.
We also laughed. We laughed a lot. We shared the confusion and pain of the journey to this point and our joy and excitement of the road ahead. After months of heavy meetings and hearts, the room felt light. It hasn’t felt that way in a long time. Together, I believe we’ve stumbled on a way out of this chaos. I know what’s ahead. I’ve seen it before and the feeling is unforgettable.
We’ve needed this clearing.
Thank you, Nashville
When we set sail for Nashville (a poor analogy for a landlocked move) three-and-a-half years ago, I was mostly excited for the to-do list. Sure, we had friends on the ground, but after years of living in a small post-industrial town 20-plus miles north of Indianapolis, I was ready to live in the center of some action. Date nights at award-winning restaurants. Concerts every night of the week. We quickly purchased memberships at the Belcourt (arthouse theater), Frist (museum) and Cheekwood (botanical gardens).
After years of community development and pastoral ministry with minimal resources, it was time to sit back and enjoy ourselves. For the first time since we’d been married, my wife and I could actually savor a weekend. We both worked from home, which meant we could set our own schedule. Given that my work is mostly music/entertainment journalism, I even got into most events for free. It was a perfect scenario.
Fast-forward to our exit and Nashville’s thriving social scene is the last thing I’m going to miss. I mean, I’ve certainly taken advantage of living in Music City (seriously: Sigur Ros, The Killers, The National, Sufjan, Dawes, Alt-J, Andrew Bird, Stevie Wonder, Nickel Creek, Bruce Springsteen and 100 more), but the lights have dimmed on those experiences. Instead, this week has served as a tearful reminder of what I’ll miss most: the community we leave behind.
For the last few days, my wife and I have been saying goodbye to those who’ve stood beside us during some of the most trying times of our lives. I never realized that shedding the skin of ministry would allow for so much of my own needs to surface, yet in Nashville I found close friends who wanted to help make sense of my own past and present. It turns out they needed the same. Our marriage needed time to heal from years of living in community and/or allowing too many people to be too close for too long. In Nashville, we found friends to help us define those boundaries and realize healing together.
It’s in Nashville that we were presented with the ultimate surprise of all: a son, Elliot, now two-years-old, who is a source of endless laughter and joy. Yet in those early days, weeks and even months when we were more shellshocked and tired than enamored with the addition, we were surrounded by friends who offered us advice, meals, relief and hope. It’s in Nashville that I learned to face my greatest wounds and weaknesses, a task I would have never taken on without knowing there were close friends in the trenches beside me.
This morning, at a weekly gathering formally known as Dude Breakfast, I said goodbye to some of the finest men I’ve ever known. Last night, I had the same experience with a small group of guys who’ve gathered every other Thursday at the Tap Room to share the stuff of life. Tonight we’ll say goodbye to some couples who’ve been meaningful friends to us ever since we’ve arrived. It’s a week-long parade of final get-togethers over coffee or beer, lunch or dinner, one-on-one or larger group.
To those who’ve shared in our Nashville experience these last three-plus years, I want to say thank you. You’ve healed us — me especially — in ways you could not know.
We Need to Talk
I’m somewhat familiar with the feeling, but I’ve never made the decision.
There was a period in my mid-twenties when I felt completely undone. I’d hit rock bottom all on my own, an embarrassing and overwhelming string of poor decisions resulting from, what was then, my complete lack of character, integrity or long-term planning. The domino effect left me not only broke and umemployed but confused and depressed. The days and events spiralled until I began to think the worst. I was alone. I had no hope. I could see no single reason to go on living.
This morning I read about a man who felt the same. It was apparently not the first time he’d entertained such thoughts, given his prepatory work in advance. The short story: a year or so prior, a horrific prank went wrong that nearly killed his wife. Four young men were throwing rocks from an interstate overpass when one struck a car with this man’s family inside. In an instant, his wife turned into a dependent with “severe head injuries” including the loss of her eye.
One year later, this 55-year-old man decided he’d had enough. He made his preparations. He said what he needed to say. Then he took his own life.
I can’t imagine the cycle this man was in. Anger at the teens whose antics stole his life as he knew it. Frustration at this new set of daily challenges he confronted as a caregiver. The likely guilt he felt detesting his new role when his wife was the actual victim of the crime. In an instant, his identity has been stolen. Beyond the new set of demands, he was also dealt a slew of traumatic emotions and experiences to process and live with.
Try as I might, there’s no way I can understand the ongoing pain this man has endured, the ongoing hopelessness he must have felt. Another rehab appointment that only left her frustrated. Another med that didn’t quite work. A course of action or treatment that failed to yield the dividends hoped for. A realization that any mutual enjoyment of their four adult children and the assumed future grandchildren in their twilight years would now be a solitary venture.
He needed to talk.
Yesterday a friend came over to drop off some boxes. We’re knee-deep in the loathsome activity of moving, which means any and all boxes are appreciated. But it was clear that’s not why he really came over.
For the last few years, he has assumed the role of caretaker. Ever since the words “she has cancer” were said, his life was forever changed. His role as husband and father took on new dimensions: new stresses, new levels of responsibility, new emotions to process. Through it all, the entire family has provided witness for an unexplainable peace, a contagious joy, an inspirational courage and a Godward focus.
We didn’t speak for that long. I was sick that evening and had just woken from a short nap to find him at our house. We talked about his wife’s most recent treatments, the local school system, the pains of moving, the end of summer. Inconsequential? On the surface, maybe. But at the core, we all need to talk.
This morning, my eyes watered when I read of this husband/father who’d had enough. I thought of the hell he must have endured up to the point where he pulled the trigger, sitting alone in his car. I thought of the likely overwhelming sense of loneliness and anger at the life he should have had — the life he *did* have — versus the one he was living. I also thought of the lack of someone — anyone — to speak to in his life.
Would his kids yell at him if he even admitted that taking care of their mother was a chore? Would his family stop speaking to him if he floated the idea of seeking some outside care? Did he carry the weight of every unasked question since those rocks were heaved over the side of that overpass?
I don’t know that I’m so different. I don’t know that any of us are different. This morning, while reading the article, I realized that the only thing that separated my own story from this news headline is the community around me — friends who asked the hard questions, friends who didn’t care if it was awkward to bring it up. I also thought of my own attempts (that often feel so lame) to be that person for someone else scared to admit that they’re in over their head, that their circumstances are overwhelming them.
This afternoon I called a close friend who’s been there for me in some of my darkest moments. His life is now stressful on all fronts. Work. Home. There’s little respite from the incessant demands for his attention. Provide for this. Gear up for that. Keep your head up. Hold out hope. Rinse, repeat, despite the circumstances.
He is a champion in all respects to me. He’s a model of love and patience in the midst of trying times. He’s even reached out to me amidst his own crises, wondering how I was doing when he has every reason to focus solely on himself and his family.
Hey, what’s up?
Nothing much, man. I just figured you might need to talk.
For a friend’s passing
I can’t remember if it was the first time I was annoyed by Vince Stults, but it was certainly one of the earliest such moments.
Vince and I sat at the sort of table deemed picturesque if it sat on a cobblestone street under a cafe’s awning. Instead, it was just a too-tiny round table in my small kitchen in the last house I’d rent during my years as a single man. Furniture was not my forte, and even now I can’t stop thinking about how silly the memory feels, two adult men huddled over this child-sized tabletop.
Vince and I had served together in leadership at the same church for a few years. Now out on my own as the pastor of new church plant, I needed his advice. Fortunately Vince never said a word about my uncomfortable setting.
What Vince did tell me was annoying. I remember that much. In hopes of confronting a couple problems within our church community, I’d asked Vince if he wanted to hang out and help. He graciously agreed to drive 30 minutes and sit in my kitchen and listen to my problems. Then came his advice: it was vague and esoteric. He wasn’t nearly as concerned with the problem as I wanted him to be. Vince, as I’d known him to be all along, was always focused on the bigger picture.
Even as I’d ask questions about the immediate need for a new place to meet in, Vince would remind me that the place would shape the ministry we were going to have. At other times, I would ask questions about specifics — about specific issues between specific people — and Vince would often take the conversation into the bigger values of community and the kingdom of God. It’s not that Vince was trying to be difficult. Rather, he could see beyond the symptoms to the virus, beyond the parts to the process. It wasn’t the short-term solution I’d wanted to hear, but it is what I needed to focus upon.
Yesterday I read the news that my old friend had passed from here into eternity. Glioblastoma. A tumor or tumors in the brain. My first thought was this memory of our conversation and myriad others like it — always over a cup of coffee, always about the bigger picture, always about the kingdom of God. I’d never brainstormed with someone so much about what real Christian community could look like. He was constantly reshaping the world in his head, from as it was to as it should be.
Reading the responses to Vince’s passing makes me realize I was hardly the only one. Vince was always available to pray and listen and share. His wife, Connie, nurtured others in the exact same way, a hospitable duo who were always friendly and faithful in their service. Vince’s heart matched his head, and he used both to encourage, to serve, to shape, to challenge the Christian communities around him.
To an old friend who shared so much of his heart and mind along the journey, I can only say that I hope you’re enjoying the biggest picture of them all.
See you then.
Toward Our Better Selves: An Invitation from Prince
He only needed one name. For a stretch, he only needed a symbol.
I fell in love with Prince at the earliest possible age. As a child of the ’80s, Prince was among the first artists who earned my attention, my devotion, my money. I was too young to accept his millenial-closing party invitations, let alone to understand the sexually charged lyrics, but those early songs of lovers and cars and good times were tied to a charisma and talent that was undeniable. I was delirious. I wasn’t the only one.
When Purple Rain fell in 1984, everything changed for Prince. Suddenly we met Prince, the actor; Prince, the deeper songwriter; Prince, the cultural icon. From his performance in the movie of the same name to the striking album cover image, Prince had truly arrived. And those songs were ubiquitous. You couldn’t avoid them, not that you wanted to. The pain of “When Doves Cry.” The longing of “Purple Rain.” The spirituality of “I Would Die 4 U.” Prince became three-dimensional on Purple Rain, and it was a journey that continued through an era that valued superficiality.
The sex and swagger were always there, and Prince gladly played those cards until the end. But Prince’s music was also painting a vision of something better — a better self, a better America, a better world. He confronted a nuclear reality in the height of the Cold War. He eschewed racial and class divides in hopes of a unified humanity. He lamented cultural ills of gang violence and drug addiction, natural disasters and wars waged.
Nearly a decade after Purple Rain, Prince invited us to envision utopia together. “There will be a new city with streets of gold,” he sings on “7,” a symbolic song straight out of the biblical book of Relevation. Everything will eventually give way to a better way, a better world. We can and will be better. It wasn’t the last time he extended this invitation to us.
Beyond the memorable performances and music videos, awards and honors, sexuality and symbol, Prince’s greatest gift was one of encouragement. No subject was taboo. No person was left out. Every aspect of life was intended to be cherished, to be enjoyed, to be celebrated. He invited us to love ourselves and each other, and to work together to fill the world with beauty.
“Some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies.”
Prince, I can only hope you are truly happy now.
Everything is Magic ‘Til You Think It’s Not
“As kids we believed that the angels talked;
Everything is magic until you think it’s not.” –Cloud Cult, “No Hell”
I sat across from my friend and nodded again and again.
“I get it,” I said.
“No, that makes sense,” I added.
“No need to apologize,” I repeated.
When you’re raised to treat the things of God (or about God) with a certain reverence, it’s hard to shake such layers. Even if God is the very skin you’re trying to shed.
Two hours into the conversation had yielded one criticism after another, one point of confusion atop another as he detailed his journey away from his childhood faith. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe in God anymore,” he said.
“I get it,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he responded.
“No need to apologize. God didn’t send me here to defend.”
“I know. It just feels weird.”
“Yes. Yes, it does.”
This is the middle. Leaving doesn’t seem quite right. Staying feels even worse.
* * *
The first single from Cloud Cult’s latest album, The Seeker, speaks my friend’s language. “No Hell” is the script of this middle ground he’s inhabiting, where he’s waged war for a belief in something greater. He’s glimpsed such beauty. He’s felt something beyond. Yet the world has also delivered death blows to his faith, stomach punches to his innocence, uppercuts to the truth and beauty in which he believes — or at least believed.
“We grew up believing good wins over bad.
So you gave your heart away, but then the wolves attacked.”
There’s the script. The longing. The hope. The true belief in something beautiful at work in the world and then the wolves come. They always do.
I listened to my friend detail the wolves in his world. The disgusting underbelly of church leadership he’d trusted. Unanswered prayers for an ailing friend, dead long before death should have had any say. The general toxicity of the world. When you’ve encountered a wolf, the senses are transformed. Seeing becomes looking (for them). Hearing becomes listening (for more).
“I just don’t believe all that shit anymore.”
“You’ve said that.”
“Oh, are you mad?”
“Not at all, man. I’ve said it, too”
* * *
“We grew up believing we could learn how to fly.
We came from the earth but we belong to the sky.”
These lines are my favorite within the song. The magic of our youth will disappear; the wolves will see to it. But the second line holds a tension that I appreciated the moment I heard Craig Minowa (Cloud Cult’s front man) sing it. It’s grounded yet hopeful. It’s a mature perspective of knowing both where we are and where we’re going. Yes, this is where we’ve come from. Yes, that is where we’re going.
“You’ve said it too?”
“You’re conflicted. I’ve been there. I am there. But on most days, my doubt somehow gives way to faith.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had to take everything out of the room in order to know what to put back in it. It was a painful process. It made me feel guilty as I stomped on the sacred, so to speak. It made me feel alone, isolated, depressed, angry, confused. It was everything you mentioned. And I can still feel that way. But in the end I always come back around to the mystery, to the magic.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
* * *
“Oh, my love. Oh, my hope.
The Great Mystery cannot be solved.
There will be joy and grief,
But live it all in awe.”