Of Angel Stories: Stylevester Brown (Sara’s Angel Story)

Upon you now is an invitation. I invite you to share with me your angel stories, short or long, so that I may in turn publish them and share them with the world. To participate, send your story to me at sbquah@outlook.com. I will post them here under the title series “Of Angel Stories.” 

I’ll go first. So this story is almost two years old now. My circumstances since this experience have changed quite a bit, and I wonder if I’m not being too dramatic to think that this was a pivotal moment for me ending up where I am today. Read on.

Two years ago I was up in Chicago at a musician’s conference. It was a first for me; calling myself a songwriter enough to go to a conference full of them. I think I had just released “Windows” and was about to release “The Bookstore;” I was hesitant and unsure of what I had written and its value. The first night of the weekend, I met new friends and partied and had a blast; the next night we built on those new friendships and filled up a hotel room with music and laughter and meaning. I was surrounded by talent and vibrant people going places; it was a great feeling, but I confess I didn’t think I belonged or deserved to be there. I kept thinking, “These people are incredible, maybe I just need to be a fan.” So on Sunday morning, early, I was feeling the urge to get away from it for just a minute and think. Walking down the sidewalk, a beautiful, cool Sunday morning, empty streets, I was feeling happy but also just a little out of place. I walked for a couple blocks, hoping for a place to get breakfast, and Yelp led me to a little diner a few blocks away. Waiting at the crosswalk, the only other human walking around at that time, I met an older man with a huge smile and very kind demeanor. I don’t know why, but I can’t remember what he looked like. I have tried very hard to see him in my mind, but I can’t. It’s weird. All I know is what I wrote down. I know he was brown. I know he wore a hat. I know he had freckles and long eyelashes.

So, we are crossing the street, and he says something casual to me like, “What do you do?” and of course I have this internal squeamishness on how to answer. Do I call myself a songwriter? Even to a stranger? I answered that I was a teacher. So he asked me a couple questions about that. We kept walking for just a bit and arrived at the diner where I was heading. I opened the door and without thinking about it at all said, “Will you join me for breakfast? It’s on me.”

He was as surprised as I was, but I asked again and he agreed, shyly. We went in and ordered, and you could tell he felt a little funny about accepting. We walked over to the counter and ordered; he was going to get just a drink until I insisted that he eat with me. Then we went and sat down at a booth and started our talking. I asked him a few questions. He was a writer of poems and stories, lived in uncertain circumstances most of the time, loved his parents,  loved people, loved to ask questions and explore the past and motivations of all people, to understand them utterly and love them despite. That was my impression, anyway.

I asked him his name, and he smiled and told me a story about his father and how he taught him to always regard women; that as life came from them they possess an earthly goodness to be revered. As he is saying this he is slowly reaching for his wallet and stretching the story out. I am feeling off center. I am feeling overwhelmed. I am feeling I have stumbled into another plane. He pulls out his driver’s license and shows me his name; I guess he knew I wouldn’t believe him otherwise. His name was Stylevester Brown. Not misspelled. Not made-up. Stylevester Brown.

He asked me a few questions, and I told him why I was in Chicago; told him about songwriting and music. He knew which things to say to bring out the root, the truth of what was on my mind. The things he told me were so surreal and strange and wonderful that I cannot truly express to you what it felt like to sit there and listen. I had the feeling of being outside of myself and talking to myself and I said, “Don’t miss any of this. Remember every single thing.” But I couldn’t. It was too much. He talked of Adam and Eve, he talked of voices and poetry, goodness and truth and living. He talked of existence and place and meaning. He said to me, “All the good you see in me? That’s all the good inside of you. You talked to me when we crossed the street. I’m not someone you ever thought you’d meet.” He said, “You have something to say that needs to be heard. You have a truth that needs to be known.” He spoke of God. He spoke of good things, and where they come from. He talked of stories and of telling them and love and loving and how best to be that in the world.

All this time of course I am thinking also to myself: What is happening? Is this a dream or is this real? He asks me what time I have to leave. I look at my phone. Say –it’s okay, this is more important. He smiles. He tells me about his mom and what she taught him; he says: “Everything good I ever got or ever learned came from a woman, glorious and powerful in kindness and love. And when they cut you out of me, and I opened up eyes, I beheld what loved me and taught me to be. From that moment I worshiped you.”

So in this moment my brain is searching for some kind of sense-making and I realize suddenly and with an audible gasp what is happening and I say: “I just figured it out– You’re an angel.”

He smiles, doesn’t miss a beat–he looks up, gestures with his hand “She figured it out.”

So what happens as I part ways with this angel-prophet on the street on a Sunday morning in Chicago, two strangers as commonplace, as unimportant as they come? Angels sing in my mind, and the day, the path, is brighter and clearer as someone has highlighted each step in front of my feet. And I can walk even faster and I can smile even brighter, and I can fill up each human I pass with the goodness that is flowing out of me in abundance, like excitement, like happiness. And I arrive late and completely brimming at the opening session and find my new friends who have saved a seat for me near the front of the auditorium. I sit by Blair and his goodness is evident in his whole self, and he smiles at me and I feel secure despite my smallness in the big room. And I see that I belong there. That I am part of it. Part of it all. And needed in a way that I may not understand or need to. But with confidence in the divine blessing of it all, I sit and listen and take in what I now see is mine to be.

Here’s the song I wrote for Stylevester Brown, the angel.

Not In Our Town Rally Performance: Refugee

I was given the chance to sing for a Not In Our Town rally on February 1, just after the chaotic weekend where 45’s executive order came down leveling the travel ban.  The rally was inspiring as 1100 people showed up with just a couple days warning to speak out against the prejudice and discrimination of the current administration.  Speakers from all faiths led us in prayer and reflection.  Community leaders spoke proudly of the traditions of inclusivity and compassion which we honor now and refuse to part with in the future.  I was proud to be included as an artist and be able to use my voice in the cause of  justice.

My friend John Parrott recorded the song and edited it, with content added from another recording by Kelly McNamara (k3llymcnamara@gmail.com). Here it is: Refugee (video link):

I wrote this song this past summer when the news cycle was filled with images of both the refugees from Syria and victims of the flooding in Appalachia.  They were both in the midst of losing their homes and livelihoods. I was struck by the similarities in these images, the expressions of fear and uncertainty on their faces. In that expression, I sought to blend elements of both middle eastern and bluegrass music into my composition.

The melody for the haunting “ooh” part had already been in my head for months.  It was a little bit middle eastern, at least I thought so because of the vocal trill, and that’s what made me think of adding it to this song.  It’s played in C minor (though sometimes I drop it to Bm if I’m feeling throaty) with the first, fourth, and the fifth hovering behind the same melody line as a hook.

I composed the verses with simple wording and in a pattern that is reminiscent of some bluegrass folk songs where the first and last lines of a verse are the same.  There are three verses, broken up by the “ooh” part, and a chorus. When I perform this song, I don’t sing the chorus until after the second verse, which makes the first half rather sad– the song stays low emotionally–with no chorus to lift the senses.  The chorus is meant to part with the tradition in the rest of the song in that it doesn’t contain the root chord at all until the very last, perhaps that strikes some with the feeling of strength or defiance.  I think leaving out the root gives the illusion that I have transitioned to a major key, though I haven’t. The melody pattern shifts here too.  Instead of going up and down, like stair steps, the melody takes two steps up and holds, like a stance.  This to me feels right; as if the speaker is getting his feet under him and claiming his truth without either wallowing in despair or ignoring reality. Just stating what’s real.

Refugee

I went down today
To leave my home
I went down today
Where orphans go
The door has been closed
The steps are no more
I went down today
To leave my home

The sun blinds my eyes
My shadow falls behind
The light fills the sky
The earth to dry
Too late for our land
Too late for our life
The sun blinds my eyes
My shadow falls behind

For my home, for my home
I am none but my own
For my home, for my home
And for all I have known

My life and my past
I can’t carry
The building of each day
A memory
I own what I am
I own what I make
My life and my past
I can’t carry

You can also read more of my Morning After thoughts on the things swirling in this world right now.

Even Woke Boys Need Some Shaking Now and Then

Mark (that’s my husband) wakes up happily at like 5:30 ON PURPOSE.  He is up being responsible and annoyingly healthy every day on the dot.  My son, however, left to his own devices will sleep until 11:00 every day and consider it morning whenever/if ever he wakes up.  He’s annoyed that like 20 things have happened that he didn’t know anything about. I wake up like a NORMAL person.  I set my alarm for a reasonable 7:30 and drink coffee and get on with it like a NORMAL human.

I don’t like to wake Evan up.  It goes against a mother’s instinct to wake up a creature that will proceed to need you once it’s awake.  But sometimes you have to.  Sometimes you can’t just leave them to be blissfully and wantonly unaware of this world, no matter how much you want to or they want you to.

I grew up with Captain Kangaroo.  With Sesame Street and The Electric Company.  I had saddle shoes and polyester dresses and a wore yarn in my pig tails for my school picture.  I sometimes didn’t wear a seat belt and sat in the middle of the back seat, leaning up to talk to my mom while she drove her baby blue Camaro. Mr. Green Jeans and my first grade teacher Mrs. Montgomery and my mom all told me I could “be anything I wanted to be.”  It was the beginning of that idea.  That girls really could grow up to be anything.  And I believed it.

Mostly, it’s true.  Mostly, you CAN be anything you want.  You deal with a lot.  But you slog through and get somewhere close to fair, stronger and smarter and harder than the boys who didn’t have to slog (lots of boys have to slog more than girls of course and for harsher reasons).  There are still the monsters among men who demean women for pleasure and are not ostracized sufficiently.  There are still the leaders among men who delight in elevating women WITHIN traditional roles to the point that we are flattered and patronized into submissive ignorance.  But for the purpose of this entry, let’s not think about them today.  Let’s focus on the woke boys.

Woke boys can wear pink t-shirts and hold up signs and recognize injustice and identify as feminists and STILL carry your boxes to the car.  And STILL reach the pasta press that’s on the highest shelf in the highest cabinet that you use once a year.  And STILL take out the recycling and put the leaf in the table.  Woke boys can let their little cousin paint their nails and not care when it’s still on, red and peeling, 3 weeks later.  Woke boys are awesome.

But even woke boys need some shaking every now and then.

When I was 6 and leaning up in the backseat with my elbows on the black vinyl console, and we were singing Sara Smile and my mom asked me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  I imagine she thought my answer would be…..a teacher, a mom, a writer, a singer.  Maybe she knew…maybe she hoped, that I would grow up to be ALL those things.

I AM all those things and a few more.  And, important point here,  I happen to love doing all the things that I do.  Somehow I lucked out and have found several jobs which can coincide and coexist and bring me joy.  I TOTALLY lucked out because somehow I found occupations which allow me to (mostly) set my own schedule, be creative, work with people, earn a little money, and still homeschool my kids. (I could never have done this when they were little.  I have gradually accumulated these jobs as the kids have gotten older.)  So, my schedule is random and full and sometimes unmanageable.  And it always seems like there’s more to do than I can do.  And it always seems like I’m not doing anything quite the way I would like to.  And it always seems like I’m letting someone down.

That last one is what brings me back around.  This year has been a growing one for my career in music, lots of changes and big steps forward.  Lots of focus outward to the world and what I will do next. And the two woke boys in my life, the one that is awake at 5:30 and the one that’s snoozing, both have had a really hard time accepting that.

Why is it okay for me to spend 17 hours on the laptop prepping for teaching grammar and writing, but I’m in debt if I spend those hours in the studio?  Why is it okay for dad to be gone every day, all day but not for me to be gone some days?  Why is okay if I didn’t get something done because I had to help Mallory study for a test, but not okay if I didn’t get something done because I was rehearsing for a gig?

I don’t want you to think the worst.  There is no out loud complaining or disrespect going on, because I told you, these are woke boys.  They want to want me to succeed.  They want to want to support me.  They just also want me home.

So what to do now but to shake them.  And it hurts when I shake them because they are so good and so loving.  Because they get it right so often and always forgive me when I get it wrong and so it’s brutal to point out when they are wrong. And it’s hard to shake them because they feel sharply how very low even that faint echo of sexism points.  And it’s hard to shake them because many of my own choices have led us to this impasse.

But shake them I will when their expectations are unfair.  When their comments conjure guilt.  When their teasing is meant to alter my choices in their favor.  When their support is withheld in the hopes that it will slow me.  When their greeting is different at the guitar than at the sink.

Even woke boys need some shaking now and then.

P.S.  Funny little aside:  While typing this blog I texted my mom about the Camaro.

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