This is the fourth and final (for now, at least) part of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the fourth decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 first.
2008: “Safe to Land” by Jars of Clay
There are lots of songs about longing to fall in love and experience the bliss of a lifelong partnership. It seems like there are far fewer songs about doing the hard work of keeping a marriage alive. Jars of Clay wowed me yet again by using a weary airplane, circling in terrible weather and hoping to be cleared for landing, as a metaphor for two people trying to rebuild the broken trust between them before their relationship crashed and burned. This was a song that I knew had deep meaning for me, even before my wife and I got to the point where it felt like our marriage was being truly tested. That was still a few years down the road. And when that difficult time came, this song brought great comfort – as well as a kick in the pants to keep fighting to protect what we had built together, even in the darkest moments when forgiveness and civil communication seemed next to impossible.
2009: “Hawaii” by Mew
Over the years, I’ve become more and more attached to music that has a sense of “place” to it, even if the place in question has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song or the origins of the band who wrote it. Mew is from Denmark, and I can’t say this song even remotely resembles Hawaiian music. But the clattering percussion, bright keyboards, and glossy vocal melodies certainly give it a bit of a tropical flair. It feels like the sort of thing an imaginative musician might conjure up, having never seen Hawaii or heard its music, but just seeing it on a map, fantasizing about visiting one day, and then trying to personify what they imagined it might be like, in the form of a euphorically happy indie rock tune. My wife and I were due for another trip to Hawaii to visit her family at the end of 2009, where we would celebrate the beginning of a new year and a new decade together. I guess I just had the old Sandwich Islands on the brain, and that’s why this song connected with me so easily. Plus the album it came from was just transcendent. Easily one of my all-time favorite indie rock records.
2010: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire
Remember Blondie, from my 1979 entry? This is the song that brought my appreciation for “Heart of Glass” full circle, since it was pretty clearly inspired by it. (To the point where Blondie even joined Arcade Fire to sing both songs back-to-back in concert.) This was a surprisingly dance-y song that showed up at the eleventh hour on The Suburbs, in which Régine Chassagne took the mic to wax nostalgic about neighborhoods from her childhood that she wasn’t yet ready to let go of, even as modern-day commerce threatened to swallow them up in a never-ending sprawl of lifeless shopping malls. Kind of a depressing thought, but it was easy to get caught up in the hopeful childlike atmosphere of her vocals, singing even louder specifically because some cold, cynical person seeking to crush her dreams was telling her to stop. The Suburbs had leaked early that summer, so I had been listening to it in anticipation of our trip to Vancouver and Victoria, which would be the first time my wife or I had traveled across an international border. (Except maybe for one time my parents took me to Tijuana as a kid, which I don’t remember at all.) As we drove around British Columbia, of course I had to cue up Arcade Fire and just about any other Canadian band I could think of on the trusty old iPod.
2011: “Beautiful Things” by Gungor
2011 was an excruciatingly difficult year. A combination of depression and anxiety issues that both my wife and I were dealing with in very different ways, and disagreement over how to implement our future plans for starting a family, led to a rift between us that took a very long time to heal. Have you ever gone through a dry season in life where it seems like you’re about to turn a corner into a new beginning, then it turns out to just be an illusion and you’re still going through the same old issues when you feel like they should have been over and done with forever ago? That was most of the year 2011 for us. It had been that way for long enough that I found it really difficult to muster up enough faith to believe it could change. I first heard this song, which was my introduction to Gungor, when it was performed as an interpretive dance at our church, with the dancers acting as flowers rising up from the barren ground. It made me curious enough to check out the band, and I was excited to discover that they had more of a fresh and creative take on contemporary worship than a lot of what I was hearing from other bands and on Sunday mornings at the time. Gungor did an acoustic opening set for the David Crowder Band on their farewell tour (with Kevin Olusola from Pentatonix as their beatboxer/cellist!), and it felt like a passing of the torch from one worship band I had long admired who was hanging it up to another who I was just getting to know. Hearing “Beautiful Things” in a live setting triggered the realization for me that these words represented the hope I still wanted to have that God could change us. As stagnant and unlikely to change as our situation felt at the time, I found solace in the idea that there was no ground too barren for God to bring forth new life from it. The resolutions to those long-standing issues wouldn’t come until a year or two later, but through the encouragement of friends, the wisdom of our pastors and our marriage counselor, and the common ground we discovered we still had as we enjoyed the Crowder/Gungor concert that night, we found enough resolve to stick with our commitment to love each other until the actual feelings of love, which seemed like they had lay dormant for most of that year, finally began to resurface.
2012: “Glass Heart Hymn” by Paper Route
I instantly fell in love with Paper Route when I first discovered the band in 2010 – they were an electronic rock band that felt like a melancholy yin to the more optimistic yang of their musical bretheren in MuteMath. Their songs could be heartbroken and downright dark at times, but it felt like there was a wisdom to how they articulated that heartbreak. This synth and bass-driven highlight from their second album pulled out all the stops, pulling together a bit of eerie Depeche Mode influence and a strange choir of hallelujahs into a psalm-like lament in which a man openly questions whether God has abandoned him. I think even some of the people we’d consider “heroes of the faith” have wondered this at times. The thought had certainly crossed my mind during some of the “barren years” from about late 2009 up through early 2012 when I felt like nearly everything in my life had gone stagnant. I had pulled out of that emotional nosedive by the fall of 2012 when this song came out, but I immediately connected with it because I vividly remembered feeling this way. And I loved how the chorus cried out “Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah! Let it rain, let it pour down on ya!” Even though it was almost daring the heavens to open up and deliver the full force of the flood that had previously just been a lingering storm darkening the skies, there was an honesty to it, as if to say this man struggling to believe wanted to see a sign that God was still there even in the bleakest of times. I feel like God honors honesty, and would probably prefer it to us spouting off the things we think we SHOULD believe – the pat Sunday school answers – when our hearts just aren’t in it. Some of my most meaningful prayers are the ones where I’m totally frustrated, at my wits’ end, just wanting to see some semblance of how this mess all fits into God’s plan. I don’t believe any of those have gone unanswered, though sometimes the response takes a lot longer than I would prefer.
2013: “Border Crosser” by Trails and Ways
2013 was definitely a year of rekindling for me and my wife. It felt like we were falling in love all over again, and I have mostly happy memories from that year, especially because of the two big trips we took – a return to the Big Island in February, and the first visit for both of us to New York City, New England, and Quebec in late summer/early fall. I had discovered Trails and Ways when they shared the bill with Paper Route at a concert I had attended in late 2012, and I loved pretty much every note of every song on their Trilingual EP, due to how it immediately whisked me away to faraway places where English intermingled with other languages – mostly Portuguese and Spanish, but there was a bit of German at the end of this song. We had started playing Ticket to Ride that year, which rapidly became an obsession for both of us. Thinking about all the places on the game’s map that I hadn’t been to yet ignited a few creative ideas for trips that I knew I’d have to take some day. That year, with my sister-in-law living in New York, and some other friends living either in the New York or Boston areas, the timing was perfect. I saw that triangle between New York, Boston, and Montreal on the board and wondered if a road trip between all three, with side trips to make sure we hit every state in New England (and of course Acadia National Park while we were in Maine), was both affordable and doable in a little over a week’s time. Turns out it totally was. And it was a whirlwind as all of our trips were, making us wish we had more time to spend in each place as we always do, but we had a blast nonetheless. Not only does this song, with its whistled melodic hook and its tempting invitation to run away with a lover to a foreign land, ignite my inner wanderlust like nothing else, it even starts and ends with the sound of a passing train.
2014: “California (There Is No End to Love)” by U2
The fall of 2014 was when U2 dropped a free album on everyone who had iTunes, and nearly everyone got pissed at them for it. I personally didn’t mind. I loved getting a brand new record from them out of the blue (though maybe allowing listeners to opt in instead of forcing it to download might have been a better strategy). My wife and I had just completed the hard work of our move to a new apartment at the end of that summer, and as a treat to ourselves after all the weekends we’d spent slaving over packing up a lot of assorted crap we’d barely used since the last time we moved, and shuffling boxes around on those hot summer evenings, we took a day trip to Santa Barbara on a Saturday that fall. It was nice to have this song, which name-checks the city as a sort of homage to the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, to serve as a memorable soundtrack for one of our many “get out of L.A. for a little while to restore our sanity” type excursions. My obsession with Ticket to Ride had also grown to the point where I started making custom maps that year, and my first attempt at one was a map of California, so I had started gathering songs about various places in my home state to serve as a Spotify soundtrack for the game. This one came along just in the nick of time to be included.
2015: “Us For Them” by Gungor
I love how this song turns militant metaphors on their heads, by saying that God’s judgment is love and God wields mercy like a sword. It’s not only a song about God’s children being shown grace instead of wrath, it’s a very social justice-oriented song about the church needing to be inclusive instead of exclusive. “If it’s us or them, it’s us for them.” Christianity, as a club where you’re either in or out, had ceased to hold any interest for me at this point. I had seen too much damage done by the church excluding people who didn’t fit into its cultural sensibilities or its misguided interpretations of Scriptural laws. This really hit home when my church, Evergreen, went through a season of deliberation regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the church body, and ended up forming a support group for them called The Open Door as a result. If our church was attempting to be a genuine home for some of these Christians who had been turned away by other Christian communities, I wanted to be a part of welcoming them in. So our pastor recommended that I join the support group. Doing so pretty radically transformed my whole attitude about going to church. Rather than it being something I took for granted because friends had left over the years, or a lot of contemporary worship music struck me as stale, or I was just too darn lazy to get going in a timely manner on Sunday mornings, I was now interacting with people who couldn’t afford to take it for granted, because they were recovering from their past exposure to toxic faith communities who had told them they didn’t belong. Now they belonged, and that was precious to them in a way that should have always been precious to me. It shed new light on those songs and sermons, and just the simple experience of fellowship, that I had failed to fully appreciate for the treasures that they were. I learned a lot about privilege from that group of LGBTQ Christians and allies, many of whom were Asian-American or belonged to other ethnic minority groups as well, and who understood how the need to stand up for sexual minorities intersected with the need to stand up for victims of racial injustice, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. It taught me a lot about my privilege as a straight white American-born male. And I felt pretty strongly that if I was going to believe the Church – big C meaning the community of all Christians, not just one building – is a place where I belong, that can only be possible if it’s a place where I believe others belong without them having to look or act or understand their identities the way I do. Our group held a weekend retreat the following year, and since I had agreed to lead worship at that retreat, I couldn’t resist choosing “Us For Them” as an unofficial theme for that weekend, because the song communicated my feelings on the subject so perfectly.
2016: “Local Construction” by Relient K
Much like “Beautiful Things”, but with a totally different energy to it, this is a song about not giving up the belief that a man can truly change. It’s a lighthearted romp, bringing together the piano-rock, pop/punk, and rock opera sides of Relient K heard on past records into a massively satisfying whole. I’m sure the analogy between a city being constantly under construction and the process of personal renewal never being truly complete has been made many times, but I loved Matt Thiessen’s witty phrasing as he described the painstakingly slow, but steady progress being made: “Days rolling by like local construction/I’m watching the tenements increase by increments/Work on it, work at it/Work, but it’s never done.” My wife and I were gearing up to pass the gauntlet of inspections and training and paperwork that we had to get through in order to get certified as Foster parents that year. It was a long process that we had begun in 2015 and then halted when things became temporarily uncertain regarding the stability of my job. Most of 2016 felt uneasy concerning our future plans, for one reason or another. And emotionally, I kept asking myself if I was truly ready for the responsibility of parenthood, or if I could ever grow and mature enough to consider myself truly ready. I keep expecting radical overnight change to happen, and all the while I’m failing to notice the slow but steady work that God is doing in me behind the scenes. I really think my involvement in The Open Door and the deep friendships I formed there were a part of that transformation as well. I was used to being a person who talked before he listened, and who responded to tragedy out of anger rather than out of a desire to soothe someone else’s pain. I had to completely flip those mental and emotional processes around in order to even begin to understand what some of my friends, dealing with rejection from family, or exclusive church language still dropping hints that they didn’t fully belong, or an unfavorable political climate trying to strip away their hard-won rights, were going through. Learning how to listen first, react cautiously, and just be a sounding board rather than trying to explain someone’s situation for them, unlocked a more nurturing side of my personality that I honestly didn’t know I had. I’m nowhere near an expert at these things, but I think growing in this area has helped me a great deal with the transition into parenthood, where I have to consider someone else’s needs before my knee-jerk reaction to their situation.
2017: “Magnificent (She Says)” by Elbow
This song was my lifeblood in 2017. Not long after I first heard it, I designated it as my “getting pumped for parenthood” song. There’s just so much wonder and admiration in Guy Garvey’s voice as he sings of a little girl – presumably a future child of his he had dreamed up before actually finding out he and his wife were having a boy – wandering the beach and embracing all of the sights and sounds before her with open arms. The song sees the world through the eyes of a child, which is perhaps the #1 thing that gets me excited about parenthood. We’ve had our little girl for just over half a year now, and while she still only grasps a few words of the English language that she can use to communicate to us what she’s experiencing, I can see the wonder and delight in her eyes when she discovers things that are brand new to her. She’s a brave and curious little one, and it makes my heart soar to watch her explore the world before her. Even the simplest, most mundane things that I would have previously taken for granted become magical when I get a glimpse of the way she sees them. I try to imagine what must be going on in that little mind of hers, and I remember how important it is for Foster children to be in a safe and stable environment so that they have that space in their brains to fill up with new and wonderful concepts, instead of constantly having to worry about whether they’ll be fed or changed or loved, or even make it through the day without something horrible happening to them. Trauma and neglect can really do a number on a child’s mental and social development, so even though I feel quite hapless and clueless as a father sometimes, I figure at least some of her earliest memories of the world around her will involve the joy of discovery and the certainty that she can trust us to always love her, rather than the constant fear of upheaval. As I’ve watched her learn and grow, I’ve experienced these little moments of awe that I would easily rank among the happiest in my 40 years of life so far. And now it comes full circle. I wonder what songs she will hear, that will get lodged somewhere in the back of her brain, so that the faintest memories of her most formative years will come rushing back to her one day much later in her life, when she hears a vaguely familiar melody that triggers those happy nostalgic thoughts, even if she can’t quite put her finger on the reasons why. (Probably a lot of kids’ stuff like “Baby Shark”, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will do that to her, honestly… but you never know, maybe some classy indie rock will work its way in there if I’m persistent enough.)