sad songs playlist

I sometimes half-jokingly refer to one of my favorite genres of music as “sad folk.” It’s the kind of music that inevitably comes to dominate my Avett Brothers artist station on Pandora if I listen to it long enough. (The Avetts themselves are always painfully sincere and can be quite sad–have you heard “Murder in the City”?) The voices of this genre tend to be soft and introspective, and the music sounds like a rainy fall day: think Bon Iver or Alexi Murdoch. And yes, sometimes the lyrics can be rather devastating (the question is whether you can actually hear them). I tend to like sad songs in general, even if they don’t fit under the “folk” designation (which has recently gotten so broad as to not be very helpful). Here are some of my favorites.

  1. “She Loves You” by The Gaslight Anthem. No, this isn’t a Beatles cover, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the title is a deliberate allusion; TGA does love naming their influences. This was a bonus track on American Slang, and I feel bad for all the people who got the regular album and didn’t find out about this song. Brian Fallon’s voice can make any song sound sad, even Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” which he covered with side project The Horrible Crowes. The lyrics to “She Loves You” aren’t necessarily sad, though, just wistful. Like West Side Story and that Dire Straits song about Romeo and Juliet, this song places everyone’s favorite Shakespearean young lovers in an urban setting, which means that like most good Gaslight Anthem songs, this one has a strong sense of place. The tune is wonderfully singable and sounds like it’s been around for a long time (you know what kind of tune I mean?), which evokes another sense of the word “folk” even though this song fits more into the rock genre.
  2. “The Stable Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov. You’ve probably heard this singer’s beautiful, pained voice even if you’ve never heard his name; one of his songs was in a Subaru commercial recently. (One of the many reasons why hipsters buy Subarus, I guess.) I’ll be honest; I’m not 100% sure what “The Stable Song” is about, though I get hints of deep regret over a series of foolish decisions. (It’s definitely not about the stable where Jesus was born, though it did come up on a Christmas station I was listening to once!) What I love about this song, aside from its heartbreaking tune, is that it seems to have an Appalachian setting: it mentions the Ohio River, and one of its loveliest metaphors is “turn these diamonds straight back into coal.” Listen to the album version, but also check out the movie-score-worthy version featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
  3. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart. Despite the creepy cover, which shows a man with a sheep’s head, I own and really enjoy The Head and the Heart’s first album. (I just have to hide it behind my other records.) I’ve loved this song for a long time, but just in the past week, as I’ve been thinking about moving away from the place I’ve lived for 15 years and, in fact, entirely out of the Appalachian region (see above), where I’ve lived pretty much my whole life, I’ve started to listen to it in a new way. This song, like most of the album, is about coming and going and wanting to return. My favorite line, which in its matter-of-fact profundity sounds like a line The Avett Brothers would write, says, “My family lives in a different state/And if you don’t know what to make of this, then we cannot relate.”
  4. “A Little Bit of Everything” by Dawes. I posted a link to this song on Facebook the other day on National Chicken Wing Day because while there are probably lots of songs that rep chicken wings (mostly country songs, I bet), this is the only one I’m actually aware of. I included a warning that this is NOT some light-hearted novelty song, despite the chicken wing reference, so you should not listen to it unless you are prepared to weep. Dawes has written some of the most perfect rock lyrics since the classic rock era, and many of them are on display in this song. The verses are about, respectively, a would-be suicide who can’t nail down one reason why he’s about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (“it’s a little bit of everything”), a beaten-down-by-life older man experiencing decision paralysis in a buffet line, who reviews his bittersweet life and then decides to eat everything!! (this is the chicken wing part), and an engaged couple contemplating the life they’re about to embark on (this is the happy verse, though it still mentions the bride-to-be loving “the way you ache”). It’s a sad song, but it also communicates a defiant, white-knuckled determination to hold onto the good parts of life.

Maybe don’t listen to all four of these songs right in a row. Or maybe do. And while you’re at it, let me know what your favorite sad songs are.

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Unite my heart

Yesterday, I was looking at some notes from a solitude retreat I took last August. At the time, I was feeling overcommitted and distracted, and I was trying to decide which of the good things in my life were helping me to glorify God by living a fulfilled life and which were not. So during the retreat (which took the form of a solo hike), I spent some time praying for focus and looking at scripture about having an undivided heart. Let me quote a few of the notes I took at the top of the mountain:

Today’s theme: asking God for focus. I feel like my mind is scattered among tasks and passions and I’m not giving my best to any of it (or truly enjoying any of it). I’ve often said that God’s promise of wisdom in James 1 is one of the only places in Scripture where God promises something without any qualification (e.g. You must be an Israelite). But that isn’t true–the qualification is that you must ask without doubting–“because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jas. 1:6-8). (I didn’t do a very good job clarifying this in my original notes, but the key word there for my purposes is “double-minded.” God’s gift of wisdom comes to those who are single-minded.)

“Be thou my vision” = Be thou my focus?

This mountain is a good place to be thinking about perspective. The birds are flying below where I’m sitting right now.

Ps. 86:11–“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (KJV–“Unite my heart to fear thy name.”)

Then follows a discussion of things I was going to quit and other things I was going to commit to instead (almost none of which really happened) and a list of things I needed wisdom about, most of which are no longer relevant (which I guess is an answer to prayer?).

This deep desire to be single-minded and united in heart, to be able to focus on one thing and stop my mind from racing down crossroads, is one reason–perhaps the greatest reason–why I decided to “quit everything” (the title, incidentally, of a Dawes song I’ve been thinking about a lot) and move to a new state where my only commitment, so far, is to my job (which is only three days a week this fall!). I’ve been describing this move as “hitting reboot on my life”–a cheesy metaphor, I know, but it’s what this feels like to me.

We’ve been talking about this united heart thing for a long time in Christian circles. I remember I used to feel so guilty when we would sing that song that goes “Give me one pure and holy passion, give me one magnificent obsession”–until I realized that the song is a prayer, not a declaration that we already have one pure and holy passion (“Hey, God. Check this out.”). But I think the secular world is also beginning to articulate the deep discomfort we feel when we are distracted, inattentive, and trying to justify our place in the world by showing all the different ways in which we can contribute. Lately, we have been seeing data about how multitasking is bad for productivity, studies about “flow” (the phenomenon, named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of getting caught up in a fulfilling task), and radical suggestions for strategies like putting our phones away during face-to-face conversations. As is so often the case, the Bible gave us a really good idea thousands of years ago, and we’re just starting to get it.

I know that having a heart singly focused on God is not the same thing as eliminating distractions and getting in the zone while completing a fulfilling task. But the two confirm the same truth: We were created to serve one master, to do one thing really well, to have one ruling passion under which all of our other passions are ordered. We were created to have a united heart.

I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The title of this post is the title of a song by Mr. Fred Rogers. Last Friday, I wrote about two important lessons I learned from Mr. Rogers. Today, I would like to write about another lesson he taught: It’s okay to express your feelings, even if they’re not the “good feeling” immortalized in the closing song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But because I’ve never, personally, had trouble expressing my feelings, I’m going to talk about this issue in the voice of one of my fictional characters, Sam Larson, who appears in my zombie apocalypse work in progress. Here’s what Sam has to say:

I had a weird childhood. I was an only child; I didn’t have any relatives who were close (in proximity or in relationship), and I didn’t have a really good friend until high school. My mom was deeply depressed; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she spent most of my childhood in a catatonic state. My dad did a remarkable job raising me, considering the circumstances, but he wasn’t much of a talker to begin with, and he especially avoided talking about feelings. (His own father had been a silent northern Minnesota farmer. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but “silent” is definitely the right word for him.) My dad’s typical response to sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion in himself was to eat something, watch TV, or go to sleep, and I learned the same behavior from him.

So I watched a lot of TV, and a wide variety of it, as a child. One day in the summer when I was 11, when my mom was feeling okay enough to come out in the living room but not enough to make recommendations or strictures about what I should be watching, she and I ended up sitting through the first two Godfather movies, which took pretty much all day with the commercials. I still consider those brilliant films, but I shudder to think of the messages about being a man that I was probably absorbing unconsciously while watching them at such a tender age!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even after I was probably way too old for it. I was fascinated by this man and his friends (mostly puppets), whose response to feeling mad or confused or out of place was not to eat a plate of chips and dip but to tell someone else about the feeling, perhaps in the form of a song. I think one reason that my dad tried to avoid feelings is that he equated emotion with drama (maybe he, too, had watched the Godfather movies as a boy!). But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, you could talk about your feelings in a calm, rational way, knowing that it was normal to have them and that the person you told wasn’t going to start screaming at you.

When I was a younger kid, I used to have trouble identifying my emotions. I might say that I was hungry when really I was lonely and wanted to spend time with my dad. That’s not unusual; it takes a while for children to develop emotional intelligence (though I think that whenever I would have an overwhelming, generic “bad feeling,” it was probably my depression, which I now believe I had even then). Mr. Rogers also helped me learn how to label my emotions so that I could then deal with them appropriately.

By the time I reached high school, I was still an odd, quiet kid, and, yes, I was clinically depressed, which is a different story. But I had learned that if I felt worried about my mom, or embarrassed because I liked to draw or because I was the biggest kid in my class, or mad at my dad for not talking about his feelings, I wasn’t experiencing something wrong or weird; I was just feeling like a human.

If I am a kind and gentle man today, which I hope I am, I certainly owe some of that to my dad, but I owe a lot of it to Mr. Rogers. And if I’m a man who’s cool with talking about his feelings, which I know I am–well, counseling has helped, but I owe that to Mr. Rogers too.

It’s such a good feeling

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching a documentary about an American icon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers, from here on, since it feels really weird to call him by his first name). I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a young child, and I enjoyed Idlewild Park’s (in Ligonier, PA) Neighborhood of Make-Believe trolley ride as an older child and even a teenager, but not until now have I understood the depth of what Mr. Rogers was trying to do through his show. I want to write about two aspects of the film that struck me in hopes that you, too, will see him as more than a geek who talked to puppets.

love and acceptance

There’s a clip in the documentary, which I know is not in context and may not represent the real tenor of the conversation, of some smug news commentators calling Mr. Rogers “evil” and blaming him for the sense of entitlement that is supposedly so pervasive among the younger generations today, because he told children they were special without having to try to be special. I’m not entirely convinced that Generations X, Y, and Z are really as entitled as conventional wisdom would have it, but that’s another topic. What I want to focus on is this: How could you look at Mr. Rogers’ sweet face and call him evil??? No, that’s not what I meant to say. Here’s my more objective argument: Those who blame Mr. Rogers for causing children to feel entitled weren’t really listening to his message. A message that led to entitlement would go something like this: “You are the best at everything you care to attempt. You deserve for the world to give you whatever you want.”

But that’s not what Mr. Rogers told children. He never talked about being “the best” because he didn’t believe life was a competition. He did tell children they were lovable and acceptable no matter what. There’s a clip in the documentary of Daniel Striped Tiger asking Lady Aberlin if there’s something wrong with him because he is different from everyone else. Lady Aberlin doesn’t say, “Well, of course you’re different because you’re better than everybody else.” In the song she sings to Daniel in response, she uses the simple word fine, saying something like, “I like you fine just the way you are.” Telling kids they are “fine” doesn’t lead to entitlement; it leads to security, which is essential to basic human development. If a person feels secure, accepted, and loved, that person is free to love others, live a moral and responsible life, and try to make the world a better place. Mr. Rogers talked about those things too.

And he never claimed that the world would give children whatever they wanted. He talked about the truth that the world is a hard place. He did episodes on death, divorce, and difficult current events. He also talked about how making mistakes is part of life, and how that’s okay. There’s a wonderful clip in the documentary of Mr. Rogers trying to stand up on a pogo stick. I don’t think he ever got on that blasted thing! But he didn’t berate himself; he just said, “This is hard!” and kept trying.

make-believe vs. real

There was a part in the documentary that was strange to me at first. It seems that Mr. Rogers got upset about the rash of children getting killed or injured by attempting to fly off a roof like Superman. He got so upset, in fact, that after he had briefly walked away from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to work on other projects, he decided to return to the show and do a whole week on the pretend-ness of superheroes. My first reaction was that he was over-reacting. Kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, right? But the youngest children, who were always Mr. Rogers’ main audience, don’t necessarily know that yet–hence the Superman accidents.

The morning after I watched the film, I started thinking about this in a new light. I thought about how much I’ve always appreciated the fact that my parents never told me that Santa Claus was real. Santa was always just a fun story in our house. I know that millions of children every year lose their faith in Santa Claus and grow up to be well-adjusted adults, but I know what a sensitive little kid I was, and I think that if I had gone through that experience, I may have had some serious confusion and even issues with trusting my parents. So I’m thankful that while my parents always encouraged me to use my imagination, they made a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s make-believe, just like Mr. Rogers did. After all, as someone in the documentary pointed out, Mr. Rogers himself never appeared at King Friday’s castle or X the Owl’s tree. His home in the real world (leaving aside the fact that it was on a set in a studio) was separate from the world of make-believe.

And Mr. Rogers showed us that we don’t have to escape into fantasy to find delight; the real world may be a hard and sometimes scary place, but it’s also a wonderful place, where you can visit a pencil factory, bounce on a pogo stick (if you can get on it!), and cool off your feet in a pool on a hot day. In fact, I think maybe one reason I get so much joy out of the simple acts of getting the mail and feeding fish is that I watched Mr. Rogers do those things every single day–with a smile. Maybe this is what he was talking about when he sang, at the end of every episode, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”

Next week, I want to write about one more lesson that Mr. Rogers taught, but I’m going to do it in the voice of one of my characters.