Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome to the Masquerade

Thousand Foot Krutch released a new album on September 8. I've been listening to TFK for nearly a year now, and have come to really enjoy their music, so I bought the new album. It's one of my favorite albums of all time. The album is titled Welcome to the Masquerade. The common theme woven in and out of a lot of the songs is that of masks, of the things we hide behind, the things we try to hide, and what would happen if we took the time to be honest and to listen to each other.

I didn't think about it much, honestly, until Chapel at my school on this past Friday (a week and a half after the album's release). The Christian Ministry majors were doing their chapel, as they do every semester, and the theme they chose to dramatize was that of masks. The second they all walked out on stage wearing bright masquerade masks, I thought back to TFK's album.

What followed was an incredible time of the students talking about what masks they wear, and literally taking the masks off and just being honest as a thousand students and staff listened. I mention honesty a lot. To me, the chapel was absolutely beautiful.

This had me thinking back to the Newsboys concert in March, and VOTA's song, Honestly. I re-watched the video and listened to what Bryan Oleson had to say (watch here). And I started to find it odd how this theme kept coming back.

Skip ahead 24 hours. I was getting ready for the Creation Fest Tour show at my University. I had bought a VIP ticket, which would get me access to a meet and greet with some of the bands. I was going to be meeting Thousand Foot Krutch, who had written this album that was so strongly on my heart right then. In particular, they had written one song that impacted me indescribably strongly. There is probably only one other song I've ever heard that could claim to impact me more strongly, in fact. I was thinking how weird it would be to talk to the guy who'd written this song. I was wondering if I should say anything about it to him. I was wondering if I should say anything at all, how to act like myself in just the few brief minutes I'd have, how to not be too obnoxious.

Then the thought hit me. Just be honest. I frowned What? What's that supposed to mean? But I didn't find an answer. I was still unsure and uncertain as I walked over to the auditorium.

As we waited in the reception room for the bands to walk in, I was third in line. I talked to the people around me (a mom and her daughter standing behind me had been at the Skillet concert in April, and we remembered each other, which was kind of cool). Chick-fil-a brought in a bunch of free food for us, but I didn't want to eat. I just waited. I felt shaky and kind of sick, and I was praying.

When TFK, Jars of Clay, and Mark and Will of Audio Adrenaline actually walked in, it took me a few seconds to process it. A girl and her dad in front of me went forward to talk to TFK, and I hung back. The words echoed in my head again. Just be honest.

The girl and her father moved on, but I was too afraid to take a step towards them. But Trevor stepped up to me and shook my hand and said "hey!" And I felt better. I asked them to sign my CD, and Trevor signed the cover and then passed it down. He asked me my name, and said he hoped I'd enjoy the show. And then came a moment of startling, incredible clarity, the kind of moment that comes down hard and beautiful and afterwards lives in a dream state in the realm of memory. Suddenly I was telling Trevor about how much this song meant to me, about how beautiful it was, about how I'd needed to hear that song for a long, long time.

Perhaps this is paragraph going to sound weird to most people. But he listened to me, and honestly accepted what I was saying, and told me it was awesome that it meant so much to me, and he was so glad. And I believed him. And it was incredible to me, because he listened to me. This lead singer of a rock band who had met me 30 seconds ago cared enough to listen to me and accept my honesty, to do something that not one of the 2000 students at my school have done in the past year and a half. He totally didn't shrug me off. I expected him to say "oh, cool" and then ignore me and move on to the next person. But he didn't. He held my eye contact and talked to me until I chose to move on to let the person behind me move forward. He probably won't remember what I said for more than a few days, if that. But he listened.

So often the reason I don't talk about the things in my head or in my heart is because I get met with people shrugging it off, or telling me "it'll be alright. You'll be fine." But what if I won't be? What if I can't even see that far ahead at that time? What if I need to be allowed just to bleed? And I know I'm one of millions who feels this way; there's no special, unique pain here. What would happen in a world where we listened, where we accepted honesty, where we were willing to love complete strangers by the simple act of listening? How many hearts would heal if they were allowed to face hurt instead of being told that that hurt shouldn't exist?

I moved on to Jars of Clay. Ironically, I didn't actually know if it was Jars of Clay or This Beautiful Republic until after I'd talked to them briefly and got their autographs. Then I talked to Mark and Will of Audio A. They were so incredibly friendly and ready to just chat and have fun, and then they asked the person behind me in line to take a picture of me with them. It was awesome.

After that I left the meet and greet room, getting some tea on my way out to try to calm down. I was still trying to process it. I was a little disappointed that B. Reith hadn't been there, because I really wanted to meet him. I was guessing he'd be at his merch table after the show though, so I could catch him then.

I picked up a TFK shirt at their merch table, and then fought my way through the press of people to get into the auditorium and find my seat in the third row. It was a good seat, though it can be awkward to sit by total strangers. I had to climb over the laps of four guys every single time I got in or out of my seat. They were really nice about it, but that didn't mean I liked it.

FM Static kicked off the show. FM Static is Trevor and Steve of TFK's side project. They were mostly playing music from their new album, Dear Diary, but they also played the old classic Definitely Maybe, and Trevor threw in a wild card by singing Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis as a worship song.

After that there was a quick set change before B. Reith came on. I was very highly anticipating him. It may seem odd that I would like a hip hop artist, considering usually I hate hip hop. But B. Reith incorporates piano and acoustic guitar and real singing into his songs. The guy is insanely talented. In addition to that, he is just incredibly real and honest and open. He's the kind of guy who'll stop randomly mid song to wave and say hello to people walking into the auditorium, or who will forget the words of a song and announce as much, or who stares in awe and excitement at his own music video coming up on the stage screens. He is infectiously happy, and infectiously unafraid. They only gave him a 4-song set, which was ridiculously short, but I enjoyed every moment.

Audio Unplugged led us in worship (ending in an altar call) after that. I wasn't sure what to expect, but after the first song or two it was just incredibly obvious that God's presence was strong there as 2,000 people worshiped together. It was beautiful, so much more so because it's a rare opportunity for me. At the end we had several people give their lives to Christ. Very, very unforgettable.

There was a brief intermission then, so I went out to meet with my sister and a few friends who were there out in the lobby. They were talking, and I didn't want to be rude and leave, but I also wanted to get back to my seat. I waited, hoping they'd want to go back soon. No such luck. Then I heard the first few strains of TFK's Welcome to the Masquerade. All decorum aside, I dashed out of the lobby, ran down the aisle and practically threw myself past the four guys to get to my seat right as Trevor started singing.

They followed the opener up with Move. The energy levels exploded. I felt kind of silly headbanging, because I was the only one in my area doing so. The feeling continued as Bring Me to Life started. I saw a few of my friends staring to form a mosh pit right by the stage.

If there is a mosh pit, there is a 99.9% chance I'm going to be in it (and by mosh pit I do not mean literally moshing, which I am against; I mean tight packed crowd jumping and headbanging together right by the stage). So for the last time I got past the guys, ran down by the stage and leaned against it, just a few feet from Trevor. A few minutes later my sister joined me, as did the friends we'd been talking to earlier.

I hadn't been able to just let go and rock like that except at the two Skillet concerts I've been to. It was incredible. During Fire it Up, Trevor came over and pointed the mic first straight at my sister and then at me to sing. Which may or may not have something to do with the fact that we were already screaming the song at the top of our lungs, even though it's a brand new song that not a lot of people knew.

By the time TFK finished I was sweaty, bruised, and on a major adrenaline high. I had time to get water before going back for Jars of Clay. I decided that I wasn't going to bother with climbing over the guys to get to my seat. I just stayed right by the stage, camera in hand. Jars of Clay's set was much less energetic, as is to be expected. To my delight they played all my favorite songs (meaning all the ones I actually know). I was incredibly impressed by how well their vocals held out live. Most of the people in the room were there for Jars of Clay, which meant they had tons of people singing along.

After their set was over, I was rather tired. But when I walked out into the lobby to get some merch and wait for bands, I got a fresh flood of adrenaline. I bought all the music B. Reith currently has released, and then had him sign the EP. He was so incredibly nice and friendly. My sister and I got pictures with him. I was glad I finally got to meet him. My sister went through TFK's line, but right before she went through, an employee told Trevor not to agree to any pictures until after almost everyone had left. So he told Telpe they'd be doing pictures later.

So we waited in the lobby as everyone left. It was nearly 11:30 by now. Once TFK started doing a few pictures, we went over to wait for our chance. But once the group in front of us finished, TFK started walking away.

Telpe was brave. She got Trevor's attention and asked if we could get pictures. He was like "oh yeah sure, let's do it!" So then he literally ran after the rest of the band and called "hey guys, come back to do one last picture!"

Actually, they let us get two, so Telpe and I both got individual shots. They were in a rush, but I got to thank Trevor for the show, and he said he hoped he'd see me at another one. And then Telpe and I walked home, excited and completely happy.

Now, this all ties back together. In chapel on Friday I realized something, as I sat in the dark watching students on stage talk about honesty and masks. I finally understand why music means so much to me, especially concerts. It's because music is honest. Music says things that we are afraid to say aloud, that we don't know how to express. At concerts we throw down the walls, we throw down the masks, we throw down pretending. Pain is allowed to be real. Hurt is allowed to cry aloud. But more importantly, hope is allowed to shine, love is allowed to embrace, and truth is allowed to conquer lies.

This is why I love concerts so much. This is why I'm so unafraid to scream aloud words about hope, and love, and life. The honesty is so beautifully breathtaking that it steals away all my pretensions.

This is also why I have for so long been unwilling to sit with people I know during concerts. I don't want them seeing me cry. I don't want them seeing me sing, the expressions on my face as I worship. I am afraid, as selfish, insecure, and silly as it is. But that's another exciting thing. I was with people I knew during TFK's set last night, and it was OK. Maybe it's a sign that I'm learning something, that God is bringing me into new places I've never been before.

So the challenge I pose to you tonight is this: what mask do you wear? Do you hide behind an internet persona, behind facebook or twitter or forums? Do you hide behind your schoolwork? Do you hide behind your social life, behind the laughter that isn't always real? Behind your own fear and insecurity? God wants the masks gone. He already knows what's down there, and He loves you anyway. What else could you possibly need? I'm daring to suggest that it's OK to be honest about struggling, to be honest about not always being alright. It's human. It's how we heal.

And when was the last time you asked someone how are you and meant it? I think we're all at fault in this, because we feel we're too busy, or because we're so drowned in our own issues that we can't see clearly enough to listen to someone else. But if we would do that, if we would simply listen, lives would be changed.

The masquerade may seem beautiful on the surface, but anyone who's seen beneath the masks can tell you that it's definitely not. Breaking away from it takes courage, because it often hurts. Fortunately God has enough strength to go around. And I'm so glad that, in my case, He gives me that strength through music, through nights under bright stage lights with my open hands in the air.

Out of the fire, rise from the ashes
Reject your doubt and release the passion...
I’m not ashamed, I’m not afraid, I’m not ok:
Welcome to the masquerade.

- Elraen -

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Coffee and Choices

This will perhaps be a strange blog entry-- definitely not my longest or most profound. But I wanted to share a few thoughts.

The past few days have been long. I had a test today, and several journal entries due. Tomorrow I have a long assignment due in History, a test plus a paper and several worksheets due in Government, a presentation in Digital Literature, and a quiz in Computer Science. Homework has been keeping me busy during the day (and night). All week, I'd been planning to go to Starbucks once I got through most of the homework, as a celebration. I haven't been to Starbucks in nearly two weeks, and I thought it would be a nice reward for myself. I budgeted in enough money when I got my paycheck cashed and alloted to various funds.

After some intense prioritizing and scheduling, I got through all my homework on time, with some free time to spare. I had had a rather stressful day, and all day hoped I could make the planned trip to Starbucks. But I got home and found out that my older sister would be gone until late that evening. I can't drive, and my brother can't drive without someone over 21 in the car. There's no way my father would willingly take me to Starbucks. Tomorrow will be too busy, because we'll be working in the evening, and on Saturday we won't have a vehicle available. No chance of making the trip until sometime next week.

When I first got home I was frustrated about multiple things, so I banged away on the piano for a long while before stopping to think. I then realized that I was disappointed that I couldn't make this trip I'd been planning, as petty and silly as it was. But I decided I wasn't going to let myself totally give up.

I went in the kitchen. I started coffee brewing on my little coffee maker. I opened the fridge and dug around. I found some chocolate syrup, some caramel syrup, and some whipped cream left over from who knows what. I pulled them all out and lined them up on the counter. I made coffee with chocolate syrup in it, and topped it off with whipped cream and caramel syrup. I felt absurdly proud of myself for finding this compromise.

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Because you see, even a few months ago I would have just completely given up. I spent all of last year not allowing myself to do things like that. I never rested, I never slowed down. Even when I had no homework, I either found other ways to punish myself or slept. On the rare occasions when I planned to take a few minutes off and just do something relaxing, if it didn't work out first time I threw up my hands and said "I guess I just wasn't meant to be happy" and gave up.

But now I'm finding solutions instead of accepting brick walls that aren't even there. This may not make sense to many of you unless you've been in a similar place, but so often just being willing to overcome obstacles seems so incredible-- it seems like healing.

As for what I want you to take away from this: Jon Foreman of Switchfoot said on a live chat the other night "storms will always come, and we cannot change that, but we can control how we act in the face of the storms." It's not about how bad our day's been. It's about how we react to that. Do we blindly submit, accepting the lie that we were made for failure, or do we press on and overcome? It's not about what happens. It's how we react to it.

We have a choice on any given day as to how that day will go. We can choose to cry or to laugh it off. We can choose to doubt or to trust. We can choose to be angry or to forgive. We can choose to surrender or to fight. We always have a choice.

Funny how meaningful a cup of coffee can be.

God bless, tonight and always.
- Elraen, the Wandering Star -

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Of Frostys and Rock Concerts

One of the unique things about my college situation is that I am still living at home. It’s not even that I drive to school every morning and drive back every night. I go back and forth throughout the day, walking through the same parking lot, unlocking the same gate, and walking down the same road over and over again. For the most part, I have looked on this situation as being an unbreakable chain that makes everything I try to do more difficult. But over the two weeks since I’ve gone back to school this year, there are a lot of things I’ve been able to see at least somewhat differently.

Every time I come in after being at class or work for a few hours, the moment my 8-year-old brother knows I’m in the house, he’ll run from wherever he is yelling my name and throw himself at me to give me a hug. On days when I’m particularly tired, this nearly knocks me over, but somehow I don’t mind. He’s honestly just glad to see me, and that is something special. Sometimes he comes and sits on my lap (even though he’s way too big) when I’m doing homework, just because he says “I want to be with you.”

I normally don’t get to spend much time with my younger siblings, aside from passing interactions, because I am so busy. I only eat one meal a day with my family (and sometimes not even that, if I work evening shifts), and the in-and-out nature of my life keeps me in constant motion. But last week I had a chance to go out to Wendys for dinner with my father and my two youngest siblings (my 8-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister). They were thrilled beyond what even seemed reasonable to have me with them. Every time we had to walk between the car and any building, they each chose one of my arms and literally clung to me as we were walking. It made it hard for me to walk, but I didn’t tell them to let go. I knew it was important for them to have me there.

We ate together, and I listened to them talk in their random, sporadic way. I was sitting beside my little brother, and he discovered that because we were on a cushioned seat, when one of us would sit down the other’s seat would suddenly puff up— basically a waterbed effect. We amused ourselves for the next five minutes, taking turns standing up and then dropping back onto the seat to jostle the other one as much as possible. I realized at some point while I was doing this that most college students wouldn’t have the chance to do stupid, childish things like this. Most wouldn’t even want to. I felt sorry for them.

We all got Frostys, and my little brother kept clinging to me because he said he was getting so cold. He made me laugh by shivering dramatically and letting his teeth chatter.

By the end of the evening I’d lost a lot of valuable homework time, but I knew that what I’d done was even more valuable.

A few days later, I used my student ID to get discounted tickets for my 14-year-old brother and I to attend a DecembeRadio concert. He’d never been to a rock concert before although he’d wanted to for years, and so he was excited.

The concert ended up being amazing. The first opening band, Dekree, was a lot harder than the two bands that followed, and they called anyone who wanted to come up to the front to form a mini-mosh pit. I looked at my brother, grinned, and brought him down to the very front, where we stood together headbanging. At the end the drummer threw his sticks, and my brother caught one. I think I was just about as happy as my brother was.

After that we were all told to go back to our seats for the next two bands. However, we didn’t stay there. During DecembeRadio’s set, several people were going down into the aisles. Once again, I looked at my brother and told him to come with me. We jumped over the backs of our seats and ran down into the aisle to jump and sing with the others.

Afterwards we went out to meet the bands at the merch tables. My brother went over to the opening band’s table, but I was too nervous to, particularly because I felt bad that I had no money to support them with. But then my brother came and said “they want you to go over there.”

I blinked. “What?”

“Dekree,” he said. “They said they want to meet you.”

So I went over, and we talked to the band. Apparently they’d noticed me rocking during their set (I guess my hair makes me rather noticeable). My brother bought their album and got it signed, and I had them sign my ticket. We talked for a bit longer before going over to DecembeRadio’s table.

I’d met DecembeRadio when they’d come to my University in March, and I’d been talking to them that morning as well for a good long while, so I waited until everyone else had gone through the line before going to talk to them again. My brother bought a poster, and wanted them to sign it. He was so nervous to ask them, but I encouraged him to just go ahead and ask— I knew they’d want to sign it for him. I talked to their lead guitarist for a while (I’d talked to him for like 20 minutes that morning) and then to their lead singer. They were very, very nice, and it was fun talking to them. (I’ve told most people the full story of meeting them, so it won’t go here, because it doesn’t really relate to the point I want to make.)

After I made sure I got a picture of my brother with the band, we walked home.

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We walked and talked about the concert, and then I settled in at my desk to do homework. Over the next few days, I started planning out a blog entry about the concert and how and why music is so important to me. But in the end, I realized a different entry needed to be written.

One of the major reasons that concert was so special was because I got to share it with my brother. I got to show him the ropes of concert-going, and he got to experience something he loved for the first time.

I heard so many times from freshmen last year that one reason they came to my school was because it was far enough away from their family that they wouldn’t have to see them too often. I understand that, and at times I have envied them. But I’m coming to understand that they’re missing out.

I don’t want to be the older sister who drops out of her siblings’ lives or who, worse, comes home and yells at them and tells them to leave her alone. I want to be a sister who my siblings can want to have around. I want to be the kind of sister who can do silly, childish things with her 8-year-old brother. I want to be the kind of sister who takes her brother to rock concerts and helps him meet the band. I want to be the kind of sister who gives up Starbucks money to buy snow cones from her little sister’s stand.

Most of all, I want to be the kind of sister who loves her siblings like Jesus would.

I’ve failed pretty epically on that last one, but I’m working on it. I hope my younger siblings understand that some day.

- Elraen -