a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

sigur ros, “kveikur”

this hard-hitting, true-to-life album soars from darkness to light

-4 out of 5-

Sigur Ros - Kveikur - Album Cover

sigur ros, kveikur, album cover via RollingStone.com.

after a lengthy hiatus, the enigmatic icelandic band sigur ros recently returned to the music scene with the one-two punch of valtari (2012) and kveikur (2013). though both albums were released in late spring / early summer, they could not feel like more different seasons. if valtari’s soft, drifting sound found inspiration in the sleepy ambience of lead-singer jonsi’s side-project, riceboy sleeps, it seems their latest album took a few notes from trent reznor. The industrial rock in several of kveikur’s tracks would be at home in a trailer featuring rooney mara sporting a dragon tattoo as she kicks in a hornet’s nest.

for the uninitiated, sigur ros has been growing a cult-like following around the world since the mid-1990s, imported to the united states through such unassuming vehicles as the 2001 sleeper film vanilla sky. lead-vocalist, jón thor birgisson, or jonsi, often eschews icelandic or english lyrics for vonleska: a melodic language jonsi created that is only sung, not spoken. think scat in jazz music. the band’s hard-to-pin-down sound is often referred to as ethereal, ambient, post-rock, and even spiritual.

kveikur wastes no time in introducing its heavy sound. “brenninstein” opens with the crackling eruption of a spaceship taking lift off, incinerating the track’s edges. cue industrial rock, with massive, robotic beats thumping throughout, and jonsi’s otherwise angelic voice laying an ominous introduction to the album. the tone is enough to prompt headbanging from long-haired, heavy metal shirt clad twentysomethings, as I noted during a recent show in a rainy vancouver park.

“hrafntinna” continues the morose feel, though more subdued than angry, with what sounds like cymbals fashioned out of metal trash can lids replacing the robotic beats. the second track concludes with a showcase of haunting, funeral-like horns that play to their own distant-marching death.

if “hrafntinna” ends with a funeral procession, the next track, “isjaki,” didn’t get the memo. things pick up here, with what might very well be the most singable sigur ros chorus in years. it seems jonsi has hid his aching heart in a track that otherwise sounds optimistic, with (rare) icelandic lyrics roughly translated, “you knew about me, i knew you / we always knew that this would end / you miss me, i miss you.”  even so, “isjaki” feels festive, like a chinese new year parade, complete with brightly colored dragons dancing down the street and jonsi extending his hand, inviting the listener to join in.

though no more than my own interpretation, the emotion of the first three tracks on this album play out like an accompaniment to the paschal triduum (Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection). but we’re not out of the dark yet. several songs later, “kveikur” is perhaps the most haunting of the entire album. jonsi’s voice rips and roars in a blend of ghostlike and sinister tones, before the track concludes in a cacophony of relentless crashing drums and screeching bow guitar.

“rafstraumur” could be at home on jonsi’s 2010 solo album, go, or the playful soundtrack to we bought a zoo. its sound is flat-out jubilant, thanks to his celebratory falsetto and percussionist orri páll dýrason’s machine-gun drum lines. “bláþráður” is classic sigur ros  (see agætis byrjun). the one I keep coming back to, “stormur,” continues the optimism of “isjaki,” albeit with less parade-like jubilee. the pace is even, and jonsi’s voice soars and yearns brilliantly, threatening to make a sigur ros fan out of the most skeptical listener.

true to life, kveikur does not follow a direct path from dark to light. instead, it ebbs and flows from one to the other—and then back again—before leveling out with a sublime track in “var,” the closest things come to valtari. If a piano and strings accompaniment were set out to sea on a life raft, this is what it would sound like. at the conclusion of an album that starts out with a rocket launch and robotic drum base, the peaceful conclusion of “var” calls to mind the confident, hopeful words of 14th century christian mystic julian of norwich: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

time will tell whether any of kveikur’s songs have the staying power of such classics as “glosoli,” “hoppipolla,” or “svefn-g-englar,” but the true strength of the album is its diversity. kveikur showcases the full range of the group’s capabilities, making a fitting introduction for first-time listeners. the rich texture and diversity of this album makes it feel real to life in a unique way. kveikur not only gives time to some very heavy, emotional tracks, but it also warms like a sunrise at points.

when i heard the first songs released from kveikur, the dark sound was a bit much for my taste. but witnessing several of the more menacing tracks performed live, with jonsi bent at the waist, wrenching on his bowed guitar with all the strength his lanky frame could muster, i got it. they work.

for those turned off by the heavier sound, stick with it. when we fail to acknowledge the tragedy of human experience—which some of the darker songs on this album get at—we miss the full reality of hope. the only way to easter morning, of course, is through the darkness of good friday. contemporary worship music would do well to take note.

-kveikur is available for purchase on itunes.