Summer is one of my favorite times of the year. I remember waking up so early (yes, I used to be early) and sitting on the front porch eating breakfast with a neighborhood friend because my mom said it was too early to play in the house. At the Neve household during the summer months (thanks to a very creative mother!) we had our own Olympic competition and medal ceremony with my cousins despite being in a backyard. For five summers I worked as a camp counselor at Lake Okoboji and had experiences that transformed my life. And summer was never really complete until I had picked sweet corn from the grandparents’ farm in Iowa. So it felt pretty natural that as I’m reflecting back on my Midwest home that I find myself tonight drawn to album about a neighboring Midwest state, Illinoise, by Sufjan Stevens. The concept album features songs referencing places, events and people related to the state of Illinois. (He also did one for Michigan.)
Aside from our common Midwest upbringing (he was born in Detroit), there are so many beautiful and amazing things about his music that make his inclusion in the book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, so important. First of all, he plays a lot of the instruments on all of his albums (oh, the power of multi-tracking), including piano, banjo, guitar, drums and various other instruments. Maybe it’s a throw back to my drum major days at Hoover High School (don’t laugh, yes, I did that), but his music can feel like a marching band one minute, orchestra the next and then all of a sudden an intimate singer-songwriter show. He definitely is a performer, complete with costumes, cheerleading outfits and even sometimes bird wings at his shows.
Secondly, his lyrics are rare, honest, longing and filled with emotion. Even the title of his album draws you in, (Come on! Feel the) Illinoise! “Don’t just watch from a distance, take the time to sit with this album,” he seems to be saying. His intimate lyrics can’t be more on display than they are with his song about a personal tragedy of a girlfriend who passes away from bone cancer on an Illinois state holiday “Casmir Pulaski Day.” After she passes, he sings “all the glory that the Lord has made and the complications when I see His face.” There is something about honest, unguarded emotion that resonates with people. That resonates with me.
How I long for home, sometimes in a tangible way, as I long for simpler (or so it seems looking back) days of growing up in Iowa. And yet, I find myself standing in all of this complicated reality, which really just leaves me with a lot of questions to ask God when I finally get to see him face to face. Although I try so hard sometimes to shelter myself from pain, from loss, my ability to lean into the grief may be one of the most important rhythms I learn how to weave in my life. I hope that this stretching and aching will enable me to love people in a deeper way and to have greater empathy for those hurting.
I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Road to Daybreak recently. The book is his intimate diary of his search for a home. A Catholic priest teaching at Harvard, he decides to leave academia to serve at a home for adults with special needs, a place which he calls “closer to the heart of God” and where he finally learns that he has “come home.” Why would he choose to spend the final years of his life with people with mental and physical disabilities?
In the midst of this, I find myself scheduled to go and see Jane (name changed) for a piano lesson. Living in a group home, Jane is 47 years old and has Down’s Syndrome. How can she contribute to world? Her days consist of working at a thrift store to raise money for the hospital (she doesn’t get paid), dinners with her housemates, visits with family and now music lessons. Greeting me with a huge smile, she was eager to play “When The Saints Go Marching In” for me. As I listen to her play, the questions come, “How can she be so content?” I wonder. She doesn’t have fancy toys, a career, a boyfriend or even freedom to go where she wants to go when she wants to go. I couldn’t help but get teary eyed knowing that on some level she had a much greater understanding of peace, joy and God’s presence than I would ever know. As she stood up to give me a hug goodbye and I am still contemplating my questions, she mentions something about growing up at “Lake Okoboji” and I realize that she is from Iowa too. In that moment, I realize that God is trying to teach me (in a not so subtle way!) through this Iowa connection, something about our home in Him.
These days, as I am crawling out my grief, as I am renewing my heart, as I am seeking a simple, hope-filled life, I am realizing that home is less about a physical state and more about a state of my heart. Learning to lean into grief, to let go of places that don’t fit anymore, to make my life more simple and content and to not be afraid to “Come on! Feel!” knowing that the aching will be made beautiful in time, amidst all the questions. And I think that sounds home.
“I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”