Restless this summer? Eager to roam? Hoping to discover something that will energize and motivate you all year long? Then, don’t wait: Get Carrie Newcomer’s latest collection, A Permeable Life, and start singing along.
You can enjoy her first song, today, in our Interfaith Peacemakers department. It’s called Every Little Bit of It, a perfect song for a summer adventure. Here are a few of the lyrics:
Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I’ve been circling around a thought,
That’s been circling round me. …
There it is just below the surface of things,
In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings,
Drain the glass, drink it down, every moment of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.
Around our offices, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I’ve been humming that song for weeks—alternating with Carrie’s triumphant hymn of praise for America’s all-but-forgotten workers. In this season of political struggle to raise the nation’s minimum wage and help working families have at least a shot of climbing out of poverty, I can’t get Carrie’s The Work of Our Hands out of my head. Her song’s title and refrain echo my favorite Psalm 90:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
Through all generations. …
May the favor of the Lord rest upon us;
Bless the work of our hands.
Yes, bless the work of our hands.
Carrie’s version of The Work of Our Hands could become an anthem for the movement to recognize, honor and improve the lives of millions of marginalized laborers who shore up the foundations of our nation:
They lay hands on boards and bricks,
And loud machines,
With shovels and rakes,
And buckets of soap they clean.
And I believe that we should bless,
Every shirt ironed and pressed,
Salute the crews out on the road,
Those who stock shelves and carry loads,
Whisper thanks to brooms and saws,
Dirty boots and coveralls,
Bow my head to the waitress and nurse,
Tip my hat to farmer and clerk,
All those saints with skillets and pans,
And the work of their hands.
Ready to meet Carrie? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I interviewed her about this new album. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CARRIE NEWCOMER ON
‘A PERMEABLE LIFE’
DAVID: Our regular readers know you already—either as longtime fans of your music—or from reading our earlier interviews on your album Before and After and on your East-West collaboration with Indian musicians in Everything Is Everywhere. Beyond the music you write and perform, the one other identification people make with your work is: You’re a Quaker. But, what does that mean?
CARRIE: That’s an interesting question because usually, when I tell people I’m a Quaker, that’s it. It’s wonderfully vague. People kind of know that Quakers are people who have a long history of peace-and-justice work. People think we’re kind of a religious group but they’re not too sure about that. Generally, I say I’m a Quaker and they don’t ask any more questions.
And, I do shy away from hard-and-fast categories—I do that in my art, as well. I feel very much akin to Parker Palmer. Often we’re put into categories of “progressive Christianity” or “progressive spirituality” because of the Quaker affiliation. I can say: Quakers are spiritually grounded and a great deal of attention is paid to living out the ideals of justice and peace and love in the world in a particular kind of way.
DAVID: Quaker communities vary widely in style and worship. What kind of a Quaker meeting do you attend?
CARRIE: I go to an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, which means the meetings are for worship but they also are meetings for discernment and contemplative mediation and prayer. You’re right: There are a lot of flavors of Quakers and there are some Quaker communities that do have programs like some of the mainline Protestant churches. Then there are Quaker communities where people don’t even refer to God as God. They prefer to speak to whatever connecting unity there is as The Light. There are some Quakers who don’t call themselves Christian, and there are others who call themselves absolutely Christian. I like the unprogrammed meetings, because I think they are more open to all of the above. It is more about individual revelation and journey—experienced in a community context. Each person’s journey is their own; and the community is there as well.
DAVID: Describe one of your unprogrammed meetings. Readers, I think, may be surprised that a woman known around the world for writing and performing music attends worship that is mainly an experience of silence.
CARRIE: In an unprogrammed meeting, people enter at a certain time. Our meeting starts at 10:00 and it’s in a circle. There’s no pastor. People sit in the silence and they listen. In our lives, we tend to do a lot of talking at God or at the universe and, in a silent Quaker meeting, part of the idea is that you’re not praising or asking or confessing. What you’re doing is listening—you’re spending time with what’s sacred in our lives in that space. Sometimes people will stand and speak out of the silence but there’s a lot of respect for the silence in our group. This isn’t group therapy. Unless you really feel pressed upon your heart to say something, then you probably shouldn’t say it.
This usually takes place in about an hour. Sometimes, people will speak. And, sometimes it’s an hour of being in community together in silence. Generally, there is someone in the meeting who sits on a facing bench. That person finally will turn to the person next to them and shake hands. And that mean’s its over. Sometimes, once a month generally, we have a query where there’s an hour afterwards and there’s a question we talk about. We might ask about the testimony of simplicity: How is that working in your life?
PLAYING WITH IDEAS UNTIL THE SONG UNFOLDS
DAVID: I started with those questions, this time, because this is the first project you’ve published that also comes in book form. In A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays, you invite people to go beyond the music and actually explore some of the experimental poems and essays that you write before finally creating your songs. The collection in this book is fully formed—really thought-provoking poems and essays to read on their own. But, as you explain in the book, these pieces are experiments with ideas that may evolve, over time, into new songs. Tell us about your process, because it’s different than the creative process followed by many songwriters.
CARRIE: You’re right—we’ve all got our processes. If you ask 11 different songwriters what their process is all about, they will come up with 15 different ways they do this! My personal approach usually starts with a poem or an essay or a story. I’ll do a lot of writing that isn’t songwriting—I’ll write in these other forms and I’ll explore the topic for a while. That lets me play with the idea, write about the idea and hone the way I talk about the idea. From this process, I may come up with the one line that starts the song. Then, by the time I am writing, the words and music usually happen at the same time for me.
In this book, I’ve put together a collection of my essays and poems and stories—and most of them in this book represent the writing that started a song. That may be overt or it may be subtle in the way these pieces started songs. Then, for this book, I also added a few other pieces that weren’t the beginnings of specific songs, but were related to the themes that show up in these songs.
DAVID: I love the richness of your language in the songs you create. Compared with other songwriters, these are beautifully written songs. And, the interplay of language in nearly all of your songs makes you want to hear the song again—often right away. You want to catch all the twists and turns. Talk a little more about the way you use language.
CARRIE: I am a songwriter. I use these other forms of writing as a place where I can develop food for my work as a songwriter. One challenge is the condensed format of songs. You only have a few verses, a chorus and maybe a bridge—so every word has to count. And, the words that you choose to include should reach further than the actual, individual words. Then, you have the element of music. Lyrics share a lot with poetry but lyrics are not strictly poetry on the page. Lyrics are written to entwine with music so, if you read lyrics out loud, they don’t come off with the full effect that the words are meant to have. The words on a page aren’t the same as the final music.
DAVID: You’re right! And I did struggle with this in planning this interview. We are going to quote a few passages from your lyrics, but we’re also going to link to your website www.CarrieNewcomer.com, where our readers can find samples, and we are going to include one of your videos in the Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website today: Every Little Bit of It.
PSALM 90 AND THE WORK OF OUR HANDS
DAVID: My favorite song in the new collection is The Work of Our Hands. I hope this song travels far and wide. I hope we all hear it being sung at events celebrating America’s millions of workers—especially those who are underpaid and under appreciated. In that song, you’ve got a memorable melody, a rhythm that builds as you lay out the litany of workers—and a wonderful interplay of words.
CARRIE: Something really good happened in my songwriting when I gave myself permission to do a couple of things. One thing is: I allow myself to write the song I write today. When songwriters are starting out, they want to put the whole sum of their worldly knowledge into every song. It’s like pastors trying to write their first sermon.
But the best songs usually are about one thing. Just one thing. So, I write the song I write today and, another day, I write another song. I give myself permission to write today and that day’s masterpiece (she laughs) will likely be about one thing.
Here’s another thing: I have given myself permission to be a Hoosier.
DAVID: Anyone who has listened to much of your music knows that you’re from Indiana. Among my favorites from your earlier albums is the song that lists a lot of the county fairs and local festivals in Indiana. In this new song, The Work of Our Hands, you start with a description of how you prepare spiced peach jam and how you can dill beans “from an old recipe that my mother gave to me.” That’s a vivid, flavorful picture.
CARRIE: My potent voice is my most authentic voice. I’m never going to sound like someone who grew up in Manhattan. And I don’t have to cover that voice in my music. That’s for someone who actually grew up in Manhattan. My most potent voice comes when I give myself permission to be a Quaker from the middle of the Midwest.
I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.
Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.
DAVID: As I listened to The Work of Our Hands, all sorts of associations were firing in my mind. I heard the song as an echo of my own favorite Psalm 90. And, I also thought of an interview I did with Barbara Brown Taylor a few weeks ago. In her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she describes a back-country graveyard for poor sharecroppers in the Great Depression. The graves were hand dug; the soil was mounded on top; and the families lovingly placed on those dirt mounds objects from everyday life: a nice dinner plate, a tea cup or even, in some cases, lightbulbs in that era when electricity hadn’t reached every home. Why? These objects represented vocation and aspiration: In other words, they represent hope in “the work of our hands.”
‘Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.’
DAVID: Tell us more about the origins of your song.
CARRIE: The genesis of that song began with a friend of mine who is a wonderful organic farmer in the Bloomington area. She invited me to do some canning in her back yard one August afternoon. At the end of the afternoon, there were about 20 sweaty women and a million jars of salsa. And as we were getting ready to leave, I just listened to what people were saying about the day’s work. These women weren’t talking about where they were going to store or keep the jars; they all were talking about the people to whom they were going to give these jars.
One would say, “I’ll give this to my sister.”
Another would say, “I’ll give some to my neighbor. She’ll love this.”
This work had turned into an expression of love. We all were thinking about the people we love. I went home and wrote a bit about this and then I started the song.
In spiritual community, we talk about “love,” but that idea of “love” can get really big and unwieldy and unfocused. I’m much more interested in the small kindnesses we do for one another every day. Kindness is the country cousin of love. Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks. Kindness irons the shirts without even mentioning it.
DAVID: I think you’ve just given us a very quotable portion of this interview. I love that: Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.
‘A movement of air from the singer to a listener’s heart’
CARRIE: These are ephemeral things, really, and I hope that people will see and appreciate these things. After all, my art is ephemeral. I make air. It is relatively recent in human history that technology has existed to carry a song beyond the one time and place in which it is sung. The artform is ephemeral—a movement of air carried from the singer to the heart of the listener.
As I wrote The Work of Our Hands, I was playing with this whole idea. We need to see and appreciate these lovely, humble, daily things that we can do for one another that we so often miss and that are gone as soon as we do them.
DAVID: It’s crucial that we develop this vision in our lives—this constant awareness of things happening on the periphery of the circle. Or, as you put it in Every Little Bit of It: “Just beyond my sight, Something that I cannot see …”
I’ve been talking about these transformative challenges with other authors this spring—with Brian McLaren in an interview we’ll publish soon about his new book We Make the Path by Walking and with Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark and Marcus Borg about his new book Convictions, which really is a book about change and growth in a rich life.
CARRIE: I think that this is so important, as an artist but also as a person. You have to be able to give up what you already think you know. You have to grow. And that’s not always an easy thing. We are comfortable with what we think we know
Maybe that’s part of getting older, too. You know, if I stop and look back, I sometimes think: Once, I really did think that was true! Parker Palmer calls it reaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Sometimes you do wind up returning to a simple truth—but now you know it with a much deeper complexity.
DAVID: I wish that you could somehow collaborate on a soundtrack to Barbara’s new book or Marcus’s new book. You’re singing about the same themes they’re exploring in prose. One of the first questions I asked Barbara Brown Taylor in this recent interview was: Why did it take so long for you to complete this new book? She answered: “Honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”
CARRIE: It’s a hard truth to appreciate.
I like thinking about the seeds that sit in the ground all winter. Then, in the spring, we’re surprised by all the green. All through the dark winter, those seeds were deep in the ground and something was happening there that we couldn’t even see.
And then the spring comes, the leaves come out—and there’s this riot of color. Life is both shadow and light. And I’m saying to the world: I want to embrace all of that—every little bit of it.