Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Quaker songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s most intimate album yet

Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

Carrie Newcomer doesn’t know it, but she has been part of just about every bad day I’ve had in the last decade. Not, mind you, that she caused those bad days! Far from it. Rather, she provided the wise, powerful, deeply spiritual songs that helped get me over the hump, time and time again.

The Indiana Quaker folk singer is a cult favorite of thousands of fans and has shared her life and faith in many interviews, including this favorite conversation on Krista Tippett’s program “On Being.” 

I spoke with Carrie by phone while she was on the road promoting her new album, The Point of Arrival, which hits stores today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. — JKR

RNS: Does this album have a particular theme you could pinpoint?

Newcomer: This is a very intimate album, and I’m working with themes that are about living with uncertainty. Themes of loss and grief. Where do we find hope in hard times, and what does that look like? I think writers have things they return to because they continue to fascinate them. Something that runs through my work is the idea of finding something extraordinary and sacred in the ordinary.

RNS: I can see that. Like the “Geodes” song on The Geography of Light, or that line from one of your other songs about praying as only laundry can. I love that image. It’s about a quotidian sort of grace.

Newcomer: Yes. These are threads that run through my songs because they run through my life. Some people say there’s the sacred and there’s the secular, the spiritual and the nonspiritual. But I just don’t see a dividing line there. There are all kinds of overlaps. When you choose to approach the world and your life that way, there are moments of awe and wonder and the sense of something really extraordinary and powerful about our daily lives.

RNS: Right from the beginning of this album, you’re exploring the spiritual wisdom of not knowing, which I find really beautiful.

Newcomer: The title of the album is The Point of Arrival, and that’s also the title song. But the point of arrival sometimes takes a long while to get to the place where you can even begin. There’s an overlapping nature to beginnings and endings, and being in process. The song itself is about that moment of surrender: here I am, where I can finally start.

I’ve been working with Parker Palmer on a collaboration called The Growing Edge, which became a website and a podcast. It’s based on a Howard Thurman quote: “look well to the growing edge.” We’re always growing vocationally and communally, and there is a process to it. There’s a moment when you start feeling that nudge that something needs to shift or change. We feel that call and start walking toward it in one way or another. And then there’s a point where we’ve come so far that it’s hard to go back. We know too much to turn back, but the way forward isn’t really clear yet. So we’re going forward with the knowledge that we don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we do know that it’s going to be different. So this album is the idea of being in process, and that this is always going to be happening. The first song on the album is about how to sit with not knowing.

Sometimes I get impatient with the growth: “I’ve read all those books. Shouldn’t I kind of be enlightened by now?” But no. There’s always going to be that growing edge. And one of the tasks I’m embracing with this album is to be a little kinder and more patient with myself. Some things just take time. You can’t push them any faster. You can be diligent and do the deepening work, but some things can only happen with time and integration. We’re a fast-paced culture, so this is not a comfortable place for most of us. Sometimes it’s a really painful place to be. But some things just take time and reflection and integration and being with the process. So the first song is about learning to be a little kinder to myself when I’m always a day behind. You know?

RNS: Yes, I definitely know about always being a day behind. Here are some of the lyrics, for our readers:

I’m learning to live with what takes time/

No ribbon across some finish line/

Stop feeling I’m always a day behind/

I’m learning to live with what takes time.

Newcomer: There’s also a line “To lay my hand where my heart aches, to befriend my mistakes.” It’s to be in process. To me this is part of the arc of having so many albums. When you’re an artist and you have a lot of albums—I’ve done 18 or 19, I forget—you have to be really comfortable with your growth being public. With some artists there’s this tendency to discount their earlier work, to diminish it or act like it doesn’t exist. But part of being in process is being able to say that the younger version of yourself was on a journey: “Good for you, past Carrie! And aren’t you glad we know now not to try to rhyme the word ‘orange’?”

RNS: I’ve recommended your work in particular to people who are going through a faith transition, where the old answers don’t make the same sense to them anymore. Your music has helped them to negotiate a more adult faith.

Newcomer: As an artist and a songwriter, you send your songs out there and you don’t know how they will land. I’m so grateful that people let me know often that the song landed well and safely. I do have people let me know that the songs I wrote and the music I’ve been presenting have been a good companion on their spiritual journey, as they transition to asking questions instead of living with an easy answer.

I think as a songwriter, I’m just one of a growing number of people who don’t want to put something so sacred in such a small container. It’s expansive, and that’s exciting. But it’s an unsettling process to let go of one particular idea and move into a more adult spiritual understanding.

RNS: Do you have any particular favorite songs on this album?

Newcomer: We had a lot of fun with the song “Impossible.” It’s a romp. It grew out of the idea that things are only impossible until they’re not. Women will get the vote: that’s impossible! I could just start rattling off the impossible things that have happened. An engineer determined that bumblebees could never fly because of the way they’re made, but they’re all flying around saying “Yeah? Watch me.” People are going to keep telling us that things are impossible, but I just think that “impossible” is an overrated concept.

That’s where hope comes in. The idea of hope is not candy-coated or a Hallmark card or wishful thinking. Hope is a gritty thing, a daily action and decision. Parker Palmer defines hope as holding in tension everything that is with everything that could and should be, and each day taking action to narrow the distance between the two. Hope is daily and personal. It’s an action that you choose, and it’s risky business. If you decide to hope in that way, you take the risk that your heart may be broken someday.

RNS: Speaking of heartbreak, the album has some beautiful things to say about the process of grieving.

Newcomer: There’s a couple songs that are really specifically about grief. “It’s Always Love” and “That’s the Way These Things Go.” In our culture, we’re not supposed to take the time for grieving. We can have a day, maybe a month. But that’s not how grief works. Grief is the point of arrival, a process that you can’t hurry. You can only be with. Our culture does a real disservice by giving us prescribed times for grieving. If you’re not moving through it quickly, then somehow you’re not doing it right. Parker talks about how there are times in our lives that our hearts break, and we can choose if they break into a million shards, or they break open. Grief is a time when our hearts have that possibility of breaking open. And when you emerge from it, you have a deeper sense of empathy and compassion. Something deepens and widens.

RNS: What’s your next album?

Newcomer: I don’t know. I’m just going to sit with this album for a little while, though I’m always writing. Writing is how I process my life and the world. So there are already new songs happening, but I’m kind of enjoying being with this one coming out right now. This particular album felt risky to put out. Because of its intimacy, there’s a lot on this album that is very human and open. As a writer, my goal is never to write my diary. I have journals for that, and I have no interest in putting my journal out there. But what I am interested in is writing about human experience in a way that tells an honest and vulnerable human story so that it’s no longer just my story; it’s your story and our story.

 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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