Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Cave

Have you ever had a song completely knock you for a loop?  I mean a punch-you-in-the-face-and-lay-you-out-on-your-ass song?  I’m not just talking about a great song; I’m talking about something that goes a quantum leap beyond that.  I’m talking about a song that seeks you out like a smart missile from amongst the crowd, and explodes on you, and on you alone.  A song that clears away the countless outer distractions and those within your own mind with one sweeping motion, like so many dirty dishes sent crashing from the table, compelling your complete attention.  A song that stops the hustle and grind of everyday life cold, cups your face with both hands, locks its eyes onto yours, and sings itself into you. 
How is it that a song (a song!) can have the ability to penetrate us with such ease, cut through the calloused and scarred layers of our hearts, bypass the blockades and barriers that we spent so much time, so many years, planning and strategically positioning to protect ourselves, and materialize before our inner selves, as tangible and real as we are?  Its suddenness startles; so few things ever make it this far, and here this song is, face to face with our naked heart in barely an instant.  It renders you helpless, vulnerable, powerless to resist, but instead of being afraid, you are thrilled.  Something in you recognizes the truth in it; you want to listen, you have to listen, every component of your body craves to listen.  And you do.  You hold the door open and watch it come flooding inside, flowing through and coating the walls of those inner chambers, and pooling in those tiny places where only music can reach.  You absorb its lubricating, fortifying qualities, and regret if a single molecule slips away.  When it’s over, you implicitly understand that something exceptional has just happened, something that may only happen once in a lifetime.  You may be shaking, you may be crying, you may be thunderstruck into silence, but your grateful heart thanks God for the gift of that song.   

For me, this happened only a few months ago, with a song called “The Cave.”  It was April, and I was on my way to work.  I had just dropped Maria off at my mom’s house in Sun City, and was on the 101 heading south.  It was a very long early morning drive every day, and for weeks my mind had been beset with worries and doubts about the decision I had made, and whether I was doing the right thing.  After months of agonizing, I had chosen to leave my teaching career behind, and now the end of the school year was not far away.  I was thinking about how hard it was going to be to leave behind the students I loved, wanted to help, struggled with.  For the umpteenth time, I reviewed all the ways I felt I came up short as a teacher, all the things I should have done better, or should have known, why I failed.  The extensive, looping list of all the things that kept me from being the teacher I had wanted to be.  When I tired of that once again, my mind would transition to the future, the uncertain, unplanned, unknowable future.   Three of my unfavorite words.  I had always been opposed to relinquishing any portion of control over my own life without a bitter, dirty fight, and yet I had purposefully chosen to let go of everything I was used to doing in order to force myself into a new direction.  My mind was filled with uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant thoughts.  More un’s I didn’t like.  I was in the middle of all this when “The Cave” came on the radio.  The song started with a folksy, curiously gentle guitar, and then was joined by a subtly twisted, Dave Matthews-like voice.  My mind casually noted these impressions before starting to submerge back into darkness.  Then I caught the end of the beginning lyric: “the sun it rises slowly as you walk/Away from all the fears and all the faults you’ve left behind,” and some part of my heart snapped to attention.  At that moment, the sun was literally rising over my left shoulder.  At that moment, I had been dwelling on thoughts exactly like those.  What is this? I turned up the volume.  Then, out of nowhere, this banjo kicked in, picking in triple time, and the whole song throttled forward.  A banjo? I was listening to an alt rock station.  Who plays banjo music on an alt rock station?  I was transfixed by the strangeness of this song made even stranger by the circumstances under which I was hearing it.  What is this song?  It was like nothing I’ve ever heard, alternative or elsewhere. 

I focused away from the music and back to the lyrics in time to hear, “And I will hold on hope/And I won’t let you choke/On the noose around your neck.”  I felt chills, and I almost drove right into the outer wall of the freeway.  “A noose around your neck.”  That was an image that came straight out of my own private vault, my locked drawer of intensely personal anxieties.  The idea of there being a noose around my neck had been knocking around in my mind for a long time, years in fact.  It arose from a realization I had one day while working as a mailman.  I was delivering mail in the same neighborhood where I once lived as a kid.  I was delivering mail to the same houses I had delivered newspapers to twenty years before, when I was a thirteen-year-old boy.  At some point along my route that day, I finally had to stop to deal with the unavoidable weight of recognition:  This is the total circumference of the circle of my life?  Me, who had all these dreams of leaving home and seeing the world and doing great things?  It’s was as though I hadn’t moved an inch.  I thought of all the opportunities I had ignored out of fear, all the possibilities I had denied myself because I didn’t have the courage to try.  And now, twenty years were gone, and I’m standing in almost the exact same spot, doing almost the exact same thing.  The circle of my life is getting smaller instead of bigger, I remember thinking.  Small enough to hang myself on.  Small enough to be a noose around my neck.  That image of myself stuck, and it would rise up in my mind periodically, whenever it managed to free itself from that locked drawer I tried to keep it in.  Now this song was suddenly inside me, pulling out words from my own private vocabulary, accessing my own secure images.  No song had ever gotten that far inside so quickly.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wasn’t filled with fear by this sudden confrontation.  Instead it was more like wonder, amazement, and excitement.  I had to hear more, I had to know if this song contained more truth, more of me.  Somehow, the song anticipated me: “Now let me at the truth which will refresh my broken mind.”  What are you supposed to do when a song doesn’t just speak to you, it behaves as though it were being created in that very moment, generated from your thoughts and all the stuff swirling inside you?  To say it was a surreal experience doesn’t go far enough; I felt my mind going dizzy trying to keep separate what it was hearing from it own thoughts, like looking into an endless line of mirrors aimed at each other.  But the song kept going, and carried me with it.  “And know my call despite my faults and/despite my growing fears.”  Yep, that’s me.  “And I’ll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways/I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”  Yes, I had found my strength in the pain that comes from ignoring my calling for thirty years, and yes, I was committed to changing my ways, and yes, I do know who I am now, even if I do doubt myself as I’m driving in to work in the morning.  “So come out of your cave walking on two hands,” yes, even though I’m not very limber, I would try it. “And see the world hanging upside down,” yes, I am ready to see the world in a new way.  “You can understand dependence when/You know the maker’s hand.”  Yes, I had chosen to let go, and I could only do it because I trusted God to lead me forward.  I would be dependent on Him, and not on myself anymore.  Yes. “So, make your siren’s call/And sing all you want/I will not hear what you have to say.” I will not give in to what’s comfortable, what’s expected, what’s easy, no matter how attractive or appealing it sounds.  “’Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it’s meant to be.”  I do accept the challenge to figure out what it means to live, and what it means to be me. Yes! Yes! Yes!  I would not deny the truth any longer, I would not dishonor my soul by disregarding it anymore.  I felt my spirit swelling up inside me with the rising intensity and fury in the music.  I wanted to punch straight through the thin steel of my Kia’s roof and soar up into that glorious blue firmament and fly until I wore myself out from flying.  Something inside me was being released that cannot be measured with mere human instruments, and cannot be contained by any vehicle.  The spirit in me was expanding like the shockwave of a small nuclear explosion, flashing out in all directions, emanating from a small Kia Sportage rolling south down the 101 at 75 mph. 

But the song wasn’t over yet, and it still had more to show me.  My spirit had been in some way validated, invigorated by the song on the radio because it came from outside me, yet it reflected exactly what was inside, things I thought only I could see and feel.  And the fact that someone else was telling me about these extremely personal things wasn’t magic, although its effects were.  It told me that there are others out there who feel like me, who are suffering and struggling to understand and accept their own souls.  It told me that I was not alone, that I had never been alone for any other reason than that I had chosen to be that way.  It was a sublime realization on a scale I’m not sure I had ever felt before.  But it didn’t tell me anything about what’s ahead, where to go from here.  And, as I am coming to understand, it’s uncertainty that drives my doubts.  The song kept coming back to a line that had wedged itself into my mind: “I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”  As I mused over the possible meanings of that line, it was repeated one last time, bringing the song to an end.  And suddenly, the weight of that line collapsed upon me:  I realized it did give me a kind of answer, at least it told me what I needed to do.  The promise the song delivers is that our name (our true name, who we truly are) had been called, is being called, and will continue to be called again, and again, and again, just as it was in the song.  It will be called in unending succession until we answer, or until we die.   In the months before I heard this song, I had already determined that who I am, my real name, involves being a writer.  Now it was my purpose to answer the call.  And now that I know my name, I would answer this time.  And even after I answer once, the song tells me it will be called again, and again, and again.  It would be up to me to answer again, and again, and again.  Answering the call is what it’s all about.  Answering is my future.  Tears started flowing, and I welcomed their lubricating, fortifying qualities into my heart, and thanked God for the gift of that song.  

Incidentally, I didn’t mention this in the essay above, but the song “The Cave” is written and sung by a British band called Mumford and Sons. Thank God for British music!  Saved my life more than once, but those are stories for another time.  In case you’re curious, here’s the video for the song:

P.S.  Please don’t blame the song if you don’t have the same reaction as I did.


  1. Just finished reading this and am now playing this song on my mp3. Along with the others too.

  2. It appears to me that YOUR thing is Caves--- and how GOD is using that as confirmation for your decisions, decisions that are following HIS path for you. Just as Rainbows is Kyle's and the song Everything is going to be Alright is Mom's. I love you Kevin and you are a magnificent writer! GOD has given you many talents, but this is one of the greatest one's you have been blessed with. Just behind being a husband and father.... XXOO

  3. It is within each of us to transcend ourselves. All that is needed is the trigger to begin that journey out of the cave. Seems sensible to me that music could be that trigger that allows us to move out of our own way.

  4. Yes, music has mystical qualities. In my case, I had already made the decision about what to do, but was having doubts about what was already decided. The song validated everything that led me to make the decision in the first place. Maybe this is only true for me, but validation is a tremendously powerful force. I will often question things I know are true, until I see them appear somewhere outside of me. I guess I'm a classic "doubting Thomas" in that sense.

  5. virgalvarado - you remember when you posted that you were listening to this song on Facebook? Well, that was just a few weeks after this whole thing happened. I think I might have mentioned it on fb at the time, of course without all the details. I love that whole album! There are other songs that speak to me. In fact, it seems like everything is speaking to me these days! It's a strange and wonderful feeling.

    Anonymous - thank you for the compliments. Since you chose to be anonymous, I won't venture a guess as to who this might be. Just know I appreciate your love and support more than you know.

  6. Kevin I felt as if I were on this ride with you on the freeway. It was frightening when you almost hit the wall. Perhaps such inspiring music should only be listened to in the safety of your home?? But seriously thanks for posting the song I enjoyed it.

  7. SB - Thanks for the comments and thanks for reading the blog! I'm glad I was able to bring you along for the ride, so to speak. Maybe you're right about listening to music like that at home; it can be dangerous, and not just from driving into walls. Glad you enjoyed the song. Keep reading!

  8. Loved the song. I can see why it spoke to you. Thanks for posting.
    P.S. I know who SB is. :)

  9. I call this visceral reaction "truth"