Aren’t We Made To Be Crowded Together, Like Leaves?

Light ended the night, but the song remained
And I was hiding by the stair
Half here, half there, past the lashing rain
And as the sky would petal white
Old innocent lies came to mind
As we stood, congregated, at the firing line

Night ended the fight, but the song remained
And so I headed to the wall
Turned tail to call to the new domain
As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free
But it’s all the same…
Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center
Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?


On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.

Listening to Third of May / ŇĆdaigahara¬†brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.

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I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark,¬†& even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.

And you will go to Mykonos
With a vision of a gentle coast
And a sun to maybe dissipate
Shadows of the mess you made

I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about –¬†Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with¬†Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses¬†when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:

Lay me down…
Darkening…
Come to me…

Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever¬†Oliver James¬†comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.

Here are portions of that note:

Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”

Another one, & a lasting favourite.

In that dream I’m as old as the mountains
Still is starlight reflected in fountains
Children grown on the edge of the ocean
Kept like jewelry kept with devotion
In that dream moving slow through the morning

Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide-eyed leaver, always going…

Red Doors – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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Wilderness

…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart‚ÄĒand I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where‚ÄĒFor I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

(Carl Sandburg)

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The Flower

I think I grow tensions
like flowers
in a wood where
nobody goes.

Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
imperceptible blossom,
making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.

(Robert Creeley)

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yes is a pleasant country

yes is a pleasant country
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)

(ee cummings)

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Red Doors

Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town ‚ÄĒ

one, two, three, four, five, six

I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind‚Äôs eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian ‚ÄĒ so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.

Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:

I’m still here

I’m still here

I’m still

Here

I

…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.

Selah my soul, selah.


Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent¬†SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way.¬†I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to ¬†contribute to¬†such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.

In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head¬†need a good¬†oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.

Let the Sun

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Untwist yourself
from the life that you had
Oh we’re falling, yeah we’re falling
in the in-betweens

Let the sun sun sun
Wash away our shame

(“Oslo”, 2014)


I am a terrible performer. I’m not saying it in a self-deprecating way but because it is the truth – I really am.¬†I don’t have natural stage charisma & I have difficulty telling song stories & maintaining an on-stage persona or even calling my song “my song” in front of other people because I don’t like the way it sounds when I say that. I¬†shudder when people call me an “artiste” or a “singer-songwriter”. I have been surrounded by many people who do all the above things with ease & of course, it wasn’t fun¬†that these things just eluded me when it seemed to be a prerequisite for the creative field that I was in.

Whatever the case, I stopped gigging in early 2014 & shoved it aside for a couple of years because it all seemed too trying. People urged me persistently to give it another shot but there just never seemed to be enough time, or it wasn’t important enough, or I just couldn’t muster the courage to. The real push finally came at the tail end of 2015, when an artiste & friend who¬†I really respect told me rather firmly that I had better get over my stage fright & get my music out there or I would regret never trying in the years to come. Faith was then brought into the picture. She said¬†that ministering to people often happens through the most unexpected songs¬†in the most unexpected places & challenged me to not put God in a box i.e. ministering only through worship songs. Who was I to say that my “secular” songs couldn’t reach people in a profound way? If I got my act together, maybe something could actually happen. Ouch.

So I reckoned that if God really wanted me to do it, He would open up doors for me. So right there, over supper at a crowded dim sum restaurant, I kinda struck a deal with God (obnoxious, I know) & told him:¬†OK God, your move. Three shows for 2016. Your move.¬†Within a week, I had gotten a really unexpected call to do a gig¬†by Kevin Mathews. It kinda turned out to be a¬†big deal & even though I was incredibly nervous & mucked up all my lyrics & talked way too much / way too little at times & had a loud ringing sound in my left ear the whole time – told you I’m a terrible performer – I managed to pull through the 45-minute set, breathless but still alive. The biggest compliment I had that night wasn’t about how catchy the melodies or poetic the lyrics were, but¬†that it seemed that my songs were different as compared to the others in the way that they “emanated joy”. Bless your soul, stranger. I choose to think that this uncontainable joy comes from a love for Christ, & a subsequent overflow of that very love.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him & rejoice with joy that is inexpressible & filled with glory. 

(1 Peter 1:8)

I managed to score two other gigs in 2016 (The Rooftop Sessions & The Night Festival) but unfortunate circumstances forced me to drop the latter. It was a tough year, & it was such a bummer to not fulfil a resolution that seemed just about attainable. So when the opportunity came up to do a spot in January when I was still in the thick of things, I felt like it was a fight against the flesh to say yes. Truth be told then, I had sincerely felt that I had been silenced by my transgressions, that God had taken away my gifting. I could feel a very tangible mental blockage whenever I tried to do anything creative. Simply put, my river of songs & poems had dried up. It was only a week before the show that I agreed to do it, mostly because I was seized one night by the feeling that this would be extremely important for me, spiritually & emotionally, & that I had to trust that the big guy upstairs was about to teach me something. So there it was Рthe moment to jump. & I did.

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Artistry Cafe, January 21st 2017

Long story short: with the help of my ridiculously talented friends (Nick the basslord who sacrificed his usual funk grooves to play folk bass for a night & Anthea who is a much better singer than me by miles), we put on a half-hour set of six originals & a cover. It wasn’t great, but it was a grand time all the same. My friends came & I made new ones; I sang & people listened. There was beer & food & chatter & laughter & for a single night, it was enough. I survived. I am still a terrible performer but at least I was still trying, & isn’t that what matters, the trying?

Artistry was one of the smaller shows I had ever done¬†but in many ways it might have been the most significant because unlike the others (which was mostly a mixture of fanfare & fear), it was then, on 21st January 2017, emerging right out of a rough season, that something in the spiritual realm shifted & I was hit square in the chest by this realisation:¬†Hey, I can still sing. Not fantastic, not fancy, but look – the voice is still here. I’m still here.

Watch the set here & here.

A Safety in the End

Ever since I heard the howling wind
I didn’t need to go where a bible went
But then you know your gifts seemed heaven-sent
Just lead me to a choler, dad, that’s the thing
I don’t know how you house the sin

(But you’re free now)
I was never sure how much of you I could let in
(Am I free now)
Won’t you settle down baby here
your love has been
Heavenly father
has brought you a lover
Why you don’t carry other names?
Heavenly father
is whose brought to His autumn
& love is left in end…


When I finally hit rock-bottom late last year, I finally understood what my mom meant when¬†she said:¬†Don’t cry, you’ll make yourself sick.¬†She used to say it when I was a child, whenever I was particularly upset about something, like a feud among childhood friends or a failed final paper. After everything finally imploded, I promptly developed a 39-degree fever & my whole face hurt from the non-stop crying. I stayed in bed for days:¬†miserable, unconsolable, shame-stricken, guilt-ridden. & then I heard this song.

Maybe it was that unexpected scream that Justin Vernon let out right in the middle of the song. Maybe it was that line & the flighty harmonies that came with it: “I don’t know how you house the sin (but you’re free now)“. Maybe it was¬†the 12 years in Catholic school & how the stately nominal “Heavenly Father” – so foreign to me lately¬†– hit somewhere raw & latent underneath, the reverence & awe of it all… but anyway, something made me seize up, stop, listen.¬†What a grotesque, utter cry of defeat. It was as if someone had¬†knocked the wind right out of my chest & I clicked the replay button again & again, let the emotion brought out by this 4-minute song wash over me as I curled up in bed & squeezed my eyes shut.

& so I found myself at the same place that Justin Vernon was at a few years ago after the groundbreaking success of For Emma, Forever Ago & Bon Iver, Bon Iver Рat the end of himself.

“This spectacular upheaval of life after these albums provoked an inner storm, a mental sickness of anxiety for Justin. Of course it did. The dream had taken on its own life. It all came to a head on an empty Atlantic beach. I bore witness to my best friend crying in my arms, lost in a world of confusion & removal. Justin could barely talk… The forecast that begins this next Bon Iver undertaking is a reminder of our fragile existence. How when everything appears stable, it may crumble & fall through our¬†fingers. How do we hold on to what is important? How do we make sense of the events that rip us apart? What choices do we have & how do we make them? It was the beginning of an unwinding of an immense knot¬†inside… & the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding.”
 
(Trevor Hagen, close friend of Justin Vernon)

I recognise that process because it is mine as well. Almost always, it¬†starts with the beginning of¬†the end, where one has gone through an emotional whirlwind & is¬†in thrall to a¬†very human sentiment:¬†I’m done.¬†Completely wrecked, bruised, ruined. & yes, it feels like you’ll never muster the strength to crawl out of the¬†pit,¬†but hey, can I let you in on something? & I only say this after complete annihilation of self & spirit – This too shall pass. Take comfort in the fact that the feeling slowly but surely fades & when it is over,¬†there is a sure¬†arrival to the most quintessential question:¬†Now what?

& before you know it, there it is – & I am beginning to taste the reality of it, finally, a few months into the new year – a¬†soft, glowing hope of what’s to come. Goodness. Restoration. Peace. It is what the darkness promises – a safety in the light in the end.

“This is not the sound of a new man
or crispy realisation
It’s the sound of the¬†unlocking and the¬†lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me”
 
(RE: Stacks, Bon Iver)