Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chris Cornell

Some people like music, some people love music, and some people have it in their guts and bones. I'm in the last group. While my most common form of expression is writing, my native language has always been music. Like the Wilco's Sunken Treasure lyric says, "Music is my savior...I got my name from rock and roll." That's me.

My personal music hall of fame is reserved for only a few artists. My favorite songwriters are Bob Dylan, Dustin Kensrue, and Chris Cornell. All three men are confident enough in themselves to move beyond the normal themes of popular music and push the listener into uncomfortable social or personal territory. All three can tell the truth in a simple but profound way. All three write and sing with wisdom and authority about life's biggest questions and moments. They've helped me answer some of my own biggest questions and get through hard times. What they say speaks to me. They're brothers more than disembodied voices on the radio. We're kindred spirits, trying to life authentically and correctly. Trying to encourage others to do the same when necessary.

When I heard Chris Cornell died, I feared I knew what happened, and it was later confirmed. Suicide. But it's not supposed to be what guys like Chris Cornell do. They observe, struggle, create, and then teach the rest of us. That's what they're supposed to do - lead the way. Maybe that's too much to put on someone's shoulders. From Chris Cornell's Follow My Way:

So follow my way 
When I'm not leading anyone 
Open and frayed 
When you can see that I'm unsure 
Out on my way 
I'm only pure when I get lost

His trajectory seemed to be towards peace rather than trouble. Maybe it was. His wife has said their last conversation was about Memorial Day plans, and that he maybe had taken an extra Ativan or two. That means he might not've been himself when he died, but he was trying to take care of his mental health. In other words, he was doing his best. Maybe we'll never know, but it sounds right to me. Rather than focus on the loss, here are some of my favorite Chris Cornell songs that made the think or feel like I wasn't alone:


My natural inclinations are towards darker thoughts, isolation, and depression. God and a lot of cognitive-behavioral therapy have gotten me out of the idea that my loved ones and the world are better off without me. This song came out at a very lonely time in my life, and it reaffirmed to me that engaging the world is better than shutting it out.

I saw the world, it was beautiful
But the rain got in and ruined it all
Then I tried to be invisible
It was impossible
Even for me

I laughed at love, it was a big mistake
In the absence of I filled it with hate

'Cause there's no such thing as nothing
Yeah there's no such thing as nothing at all...

So what gives me the right
To think that I could throw away a life?
Even mine


My early twenties were a big, broody struggle with God, injustice, and myself. Audioslave's self-titled album had a lot of revolution-themed songs about political and social activism, and the aggression of it resonated at the time. The imagery in Show Me How to Live is evocative of both Bladerunner and Golgotha. I always took it as a respectful but urgent prayer to God to show me what I'm doing on earth. "You gave me life, now show me how to live."

And with the early dawn
Moving right along
I couldn't buy and eyeful of sleep
And in the aching night under satellites
I was not received
Built with stolen parts
A telephone in my heart
Someone get me a priest
To put my mind to bed
This ringing in my head
Is this a cure or is this a disease

Nail in my hand
From my creator
You gave me life
Now show me how to live


There's a two-word prayer in Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart: "Lord, help!" That's what this song reminds me of. Sometimes all you can do is hold on in faith that things will get better. This song nails that.

And even when you've paid enough, been pulled apart or been held up
With every single memory of the good or bad faces of luck
don't lose any sleep tonight
I'm sure everything will end up alright

You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do
To be yourself is all that you can do

Prayers and love to the Cornells, both family and honorary. For the rest of you, if you're struggling - hold on! I've been there, too. You aren't alone.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter, or God in the Hospital Parking Lot

This is the story of the time I saw God in a parking lot. It was the time I needed him most.

It was Easter, or the day before Easter. I was walking in aimless circles around Seton Northwest Hospital, frantic as a dog scratching his way across the deck of a sinking ship. Our precious baby boy, only days old, was in the NICU. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines. All Samantha and I wanted to do was to hold him, to walk around with him. We couldn't. He was sick. 

When Gabe was born, he was in great shape. There were no concerns. He had a strong cry, he was sweet, and he made what I thought was a cute croaking sound like a frog. On Gabe's first night of life, a nurse recognized the croaking sound as a sign that something was wrong. As she monitored his vitals and listened to his breathing, she furrowed her brow and squinted. She frowned. 

"We need to run some tests."

That's the last thing you want to hear in a hospital. You are already thinking about putting your baby in his car seat, taking him for his first car ride (The day before I washed the car so Gabe could ride home in style), and showing him his room. You don't want to hear anything about tests.

They ran tests. They found out that one of his lungs was full of fluid. In the middle of the night they carted him to the NICU. He was hooked up to a breathing machine, a feeding tube, and monitors. While the breathing machine helped give him the oxygen he needed, the force of the machine was too much for his little lungs. One of them tore. The medical team had to figure out the right balance of giving him oxygen while also protecting his lung. They started talking about transferring him to Dell Children's.

It's hard for a husband and father to know what to do in these situations. Your only job is to love and protect your family. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't do anything. I wasn't a doctor or a surgeon. I was failing everyone, and I was numb. One night became two nights became three nights.

When it was time for Samantha to be discharged from the hospital as a patient, we weren't ready to leave Gabe alone in the hospital. The sweet staff worked some magic and found us an empty room in a different unit. If you were to picture an unused hospital room that had not been updated since the late 1990s, this was that room. Still, we were grateful to be close to Gabe. Sam stayed in the NICU as much as she could, sitting by his side and holding him when she was allowed. His vitals always improved when his momma held him. I took shifts when Sam needed a break. One time, she came back to our little room and I was sitting on the corner of the bed in the middle of the day looking at nothing.

"Are you ok?" she asked. She told me that I crumpled, and that I wept harder than she'd ever seen anyone cry.

So, I walked circles in the parking lot, more panicked animal than human. I might as well have been sinking into an oceanic trench, or drifting though space. There was nothing to do; no way to help. The parking lot was full of the cars of sick people, dying people, and their families. All of these lives were completely changing all around me; all of these people were having one of the worst days of their lives. Just outside on the highway people were driving by, oblivious. That's one the weirdest things about grief or sorrow - you are gutted, but everyone is just moving along, scrolling through their smartphones. I wanted to grab everyone in the world by their shoulders and shake them. Don't you know what's going on? I tried to compose myself to be useful to Sam and Gabe. We had to make it through one test at a time, one day at a time, to see what was next.

And then there He was, on Easter eve. I saw God, In the corner of the cracked asphalt, in the middle of some weeds. He was a cluster of flowers. A burst of color.

I just stared at them for a minute, wondering how something pretty and hopeful would have the courage and inclination to bloom somewhere so ordinary. I walked up to then. I took about a dozen pictures of them.  Beauty in the middle of garbage. A decision.

Oh, ok, I thought. I knew you would show. I kept on walking, relieved and not alone. Not in charge of anything at all. The sun started to set. When it was dark, I went inside and sat in the hospital chapel and thanked God for Sam, for all of our sweet nurses and doctors, for all of the people who sent texts and doughnuts, and for little Gabriel, whose name means, "God is my strength." Me too, Gabe.

The next morning was Easter morning. The staff had shuffled things around and put us in one of the new, remodeled suites in the newborn unit. Our new room felt like a resort. It was large, with a wall of windows, a flat screen tv, and an extra bed for our new roommate - Gabe. If I've slept better than I slept on the little fold out bed in that room, I certainly can't remember it. After a week in the NICU, we were all able to go home together.

As I wrote earlier, every trip to the hospital doesn't end the way ours did. Sometimes the NICU trips last much longer than a week, and sometimes last breaths happen in the hospital. Eventually, we'll all take those last breaths. Our loved ones will be filled with sorrow and their foundations will shake while everyone else drives by on the highway, oblivious.

I don't believe that is the whole story, though. I don't believe that we're ever alone, or that everything ends in a hospital room. I think Jesus was real, and was a sign of how much God loved us. I think Jesus died and somehow conquered sin and death, and reconciled us to God. He moved the cosmos from a path of entropy and darkness towards one of order and goodness and light. I believe ultimately, all things will be perfect and reconciled. Revelation 21 says:

"I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, 'Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them, He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.'"

A year out, I still think about those flowers every time I drive by the hospital, which is often. I remember unshakable love, and a God that makes all things new. In hard times and in hard places, God is there, guiding us through hell towards goodness.

Gabe just had his his one year birthday party. He has always been a tough guy. As he's grown, he is a also a joyful guy, too. He's a lot like Sam. That's good. The world needs more Sams. It takes a special kind of courage to blossom in an unworthy place. But the rest of us need to see it, and take heart.

Show 'em how it's done, Gabe.