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Washed by Beauty
A summer concert, a thunderstorm, and an anxious mind
That familiar feeling of being there but not fully present crept into my mind. My words began to sound muted, like we were overhearing a conversation outside the car.
Isaac and I were on our way to a Bon Iver concert with our friends Casey and John. The guys were catching up in the front while Casey and I talked in the backseat, quickly diving below the surface, as is our way.
Casey asked thoughtful questions: How’s your anxiety? Have you decided what to do about your job? How are you taking care of yourself in the meantime?
Not much had changed since we’d last talked. My job was making me incredibly anxious, but the thought of quitting wrecked me. I was stuck, living in a haze of anxiety and indecision that was quickly growing unhealthy.
I could feel myself slipping out of the present as I doled out answers to Casey’s questions. I wasn’t trying to be elusive—I wanted to talk it out with her, one of my closest friends—but my answers sounded stale, the same fears and excuses on repeat.
We pulled into the long line of cars entering the venue and turned into a large field that served as a parking lot.
“I just want to figure out my next steps before I make a decision,” I said as we got out of the car.
“I get that,” Casey replied, maneuvering around muddy spots in the matted-down grass. “But I think you may need to make a change before you have that figured out—for your own mental health.”
I nodded and murmured something that sounded like agreement. I knew she was right, but I also knew I wasn’t going to do it. Not yet at least. There was still too much fear standing in my way.
We scanned our tickets and joined what felt like most of the city inside the venue. A lazy drizzle began to fall, and concert-goers juggled beer cans and margaritas in plastic cups while fumbling to put on rain jackets. As the rain picked up, the four of us huddled under an awning near the concession stands while the more devoted fans stayed in their seats for the opener.
I attempted to smooth my frizzing hair as we talked about the possibility of being soaked during the concert. The evening forecast predicted thunderstorms, and a foreboding rumble from the darkening clouds seemed to confirm it.
“Will they cancel the concert if there’s too much lightning?” one of us asked, and we all shrugged, looking up to see if the sky would reveal her plans for the night.
Thankfully the rain stopped just as the opening band cleared the stage, and we made our way to our seats. As we settled in, I tried to remember the last concert I’d been to, but my mind was blank. I knew it had been a couple of years—pre-pandemic, at least—but the fact that I couldn’t place it made me wonder if it had been much, much longer.
The band took the stage and the bass kicked in—deep and steady, the kind you feel in your chest—while the stage lights pulsed with the beat. Justin Vernon, wearing a sleeveless shirt and a sweatband around his head, began singing the crowd’s cheers. His voice melded with the guitars, keyboards, and drums into a haunting, ethereal sound, the lyrics dripping with feeling and meaning.
After a couple of songs, my racing thoughts began to subside. I don’t remember thinking much at all as the music engulfed me, and it was a welcome change. As my mind quieted, my senses woke up. I watched a couple a few rows in front of us, the woman swaying and bringing her hands to her heart as she sang every word. Her guy stood with her in solidarity but only moved to bring his drink to his lips. Other people bobbed their heads to the beat or rocked from side to side as if soothing a newborn. Still others looked like they were at church, arms raised, heads tilted toward the electric summer sky.
I followed their gaze upward to find the sky was far less threatening now. Soft pink clouds, recently freed from the weight of rain, floated across a periwinkle backdrop. The fading sunlight illuminated the venue in an amber glow, and the whole place felt fresh. Washed. At ease. The muscles in my shoulders, nearly permanently tight in those weeks, began to relax.
I turned my attention to the stage and took in the talent and passion emanating from the band. I couldn’t claim to be a true Bon Iver fan at that point—I’d mainly gone to spend time with Casey and John. Since I only recognized their biggest hits, the concert gave me plenty of space to just be. I sat for a while and perched my sandals in the grooves of the seat in front of me. I relished this excuse to be alone in a crowd, to feel the music in my body and let my mind rest.
Watching the musicians perform made me love the concert even more. It reminded me of what Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz:
“Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”
The band showed me the way as their songs created awe in me. I was in awe of their voices, in awe of the melodies and harmonies, in awe of the creativity humans possess.
In more cynical moments, I sometimes wonder if beauty—a great concert or a colorful sky after a storm—is a luxury in the light of the more “serious” things of life. In Art + Faith, artist Makoto Fujimura talks about our culture’s tendency to prioritize usefulness over art and beauty. This mindset, Fujimura explains, was shaped by the Industrial Revolution, which placed such a high value on efficiency and pragmatism that it still lingers in our society today, including our approach to art.
However, Fujimura argues, if we only make things in order to be useful, we’ll miss out on the gift of art—something that’s essential and indispensable to our understanding of God and ourselves.
He says, “Therefore, we need to consider the arts as a way to value life’s mysterious details and as a way to train our senses to pay attention to the world. The discipline of the arts allows for this luxurious communing to take place in the deeper soils of all our lives. Artists are the conduits of life, articulating what all of us are surely sensing but may not have the capacity to express.”
Going to the Bon Iver concert didn’t help me meet looming deadlines or make a decision about whether or not to quit my job. I couldn’t “use” it in that sense. But it did something else entirely. Something that’s harder to wrap words around or check off a to-do list. The concert helped me pay attention—to the textures of the music, to the colors of the sky, to the idiosyncrasies of the people around me. It reminded me that I love creating too. It reached through the veil of anxiety, if only for an hour or two, and helped me snag a glimpse of what I’d been missing.
The music made space for me, as if it were saying: You can be here, just how you are. You can be sad. You can be anxious. You can feel deeply. And look at that—now you’re tapping your foot. Now you’re smiling.
Scarcity was my subconscious mantra in that season. Anxiety was stealing so much from me—joy, energy, creativity, and presence, to name a few—so I went into self-preservation mode. I was physically present, showing up for Zoom meetings and getting together with friends, but internally, my mind was buzzing. I spent so much time either feeling anxious or trying to avoid feeling anxious that my capacity took a huge hit. Getting through the workday was about all I could handle for awhile.
I was frustrated with myself, so it wasn’t a far leap to assume God was frustrated with me too. Was he annoyed with me for being anxious? Was he rolling his eyes because I couldn’t just get over it?
Fujimura says art shows us that God is a God of abundance. The fact that God created beauty and gave us the ability to make beautiful things means it’s not all about efficiency and productivity with him—he’s not worried about running out of time, energy, or resources. God doesn’t need anything from me, and he doesn’t love me because I’m “useful” to him—or even because I love him. God doesn’t love me because I’m productive, so he isn’t annoyed when I’m not. He’s not concerned with my efficiency, my output, or my accomplishments. He loves me—abundantly, completely—because he created me.
I’d been operating on one plane only, obsessed with the issues in front of me and letting anxiety tell the whole story, but being immersed in music that summer night helped to restore a little bit of depth. It reminded me of God’s abundance, of his uniquely layered reality that has enough room for joy and delight right in the middle of anxious days and hard decisions that need to be made.
In a way, art is luxurious—more about abundance than practicality—but that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary.
As Fujimura says: “. . . the essence of humanity under God is not just utility and practical applications; the essence of humanity may be in what we deem to be ‘use-less’ . . . but essential.”
As we walked back through the muddy parking lot after the show, I felt more relaxed and present, a little more like myself. I still dealt with anxiety in the weeks to come. I still had decisions to make and knots in my heart that needed to be untangled. But the art I experienced that night, the beauty of it all, shifted something inside me. The music washed me like the evening’s rain, rinsing away lies and making way for other possibilities, like a periwinkle sky spotted with pink and drums thumping in my chest. And that sure seems essential to me.
Resources to help us engage our inner worlds, be present in our daily lives, and delight in beauty along the way
Art + Faith by Makoto Fujimura
An insightful, thought-provoking exploration of the importance of art and making in our world and God’s kingdom.
I’ve listened to Bon Iver exponentially more since seeing them live. Here’s a playlist with a few of my favorites.
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