Monday, October 28, 2019

Nowhere to Go but Forward: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue, focused on music that was really doing it for me at the time.


Households of the future will be identified by one thing: which global corporation they’ve allowed to take up residence. We’ve recently become serfs under the House of Amazon, inasmuch as we’ve invited Alexa under our roof. For the most part this is a great convenience—we can now listen to any music we’ve bought through Amazon all throughout the house simply by saying “Alexa, play ____________. Everywhere.”

I’ve already shared with you some of the limitations of this proprietary technology (see Middling 2: Electric Boogaloo). But I’ve discovered another one: I have no idea what album a particular artist’s music comes from.

Exhibit A, in which the A stands for Audrey Assad. This very talented Catholic songwriter has restored my faith in contemporary Christian music (or, at least, has mitigated my general lack of regard for it). She’s consistently contemplative and resists the cliches and tropes that make so much CCM sound the same. Some of Assad’s songs are made for radio and yet they still defy the constraints of radio friendliness; others are deeply spiritual in that they are deeply thoughtful while also being thoughtfully crafted. She challenges the genre she competes in, which is always a good thing, even though I would imagine it sets her up for the occasional bout of loneliness.

I first heard Assad on a podcast, talking about music rather than performing it. That probably biased me toward her, as I heard her reflecting on her craft and process. I’m a sucker for such things. My wife discovered her a little later and bought her whole catalog, and now almost every weekend there’s a block of time inaugurated by the phrase “Alexa, play Audrey Assad everywhere.” I dare say such a command might make the world a slightly better place.

The only problem: I have no idea which of her albums is my favorite, which song goes with which. Here are a couple of favorite tracks; I’ll let you decide how to bring them home.

On the turntable lately is Good Thing, the sophomore effort by Leon Bridges. His first album was so good that his second album made me nervous: nowhere to go but down. But he proved me wrong by going forward. His first album was an homage to 60s soul and earned him comparisons to the great Sam Cooke; this new album is of-the-minute but no less soulful—and by “soulful” I mean heartfelt and expertly performed. We had some houseguests over and I put it on for them, and the thirteen-year-old bobbed her head in critical approval. She’ll probably still be listening to Leon Bridges when she’s thirty-three and a third; that’s how good this guy is.


Come back soon for more excerpts from Middling. And do let me know if you want to receive the newsletter.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Gospel According to Sisyphus: Chapter Seven

This is the final installment of a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus.

Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here.
Chapter two is here.
Chapter three is here.
Chapter four is here.
Chapter five is here.
Chapter six is here.

If you find you like your Sisyphii a little more cynical, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.


He motioned to the others. “They need you,” he told me, “and you need them. You’ve got a rough stretch ahead. The ones who came for me are not going to stop till my message gets crushed to fine powder. They’re going to bring to bear all the power they think they have. They’re going to try to intimidate you into silence. I’m telling you now, it’s not going to work. You’re a new person. Don’t worry.

“But they won’t stop with intimidation. You need to know this. They’re kings of the hill here, and they’ll win every battle on this hill. But they won’t win in the end. In the end I’ll be with you, and you’ll be with me, and this place will be salvaged from the rock heap they’ve made it. There’s a good life ahead of you, even though it’s a hard road to get there.”

He motioned for the others to join us. “Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “My work here is finished, and I’m going back to where I came from. When I get there I’m going to keep preparing the place I’ve been promising you. And when I come back to you, I’ll bring it with me.

“In the meantime, your job is what it’s been all along: Ease people’s burdens, not least of all each others’ burdens. When people are injured, stop and help. When overseers tell you to stop, tell them to follow you to freedom. And wherever you find yourself, whoever you’re talking to, tell them what I’ve been telling you: There’s a better life than this, and you know the way there. Tell them to follow you. Tell them that I’m coming back.

“You need to know that you won’t be alone in this. I won’t be right next to you, and I don’t expect you to understand this, but trust me: I’ll be with you. I’ll be in you, giving you strength, continuing to heal your souls from all the damage this hill has done. You won’t lose me, and I won’t lose you.

“Now, get going.” That was the last thing he said. And just as he suddenly showed up, he suddenly left.

Since then, every day has been the same. Wherever we find ourselves, whoever we’re talking to, we tell them what he told us: There’s a better life than this. And we don’t just say it, we show it: We notice people who never get noticed—even by the overseers, whose job it is to see. We take care of people (not least each other). We enjoy each other. And we remind each other that he’s coming back, and he’s bringing a better life with him.

That said, this life—this life he led us into? Turns out it’s a pretty good life.

Thanks for reading this little thought experiment. I hope you enjoyed it.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...