A visit from my brother — through Sufjan and music

“Sufjan Stevens is incredible.”  It was a hot day in Kentucky a few summers back and my brother and I were driving the back roads on our way home from I don’t remember where — one of those rare moments we shared in the car, just the two of us.  I had put in a mix CD I hoped he’d think was cool, and I didn’t even know that Sufjan Stevens was the artist, but the song was one of my favorites on the mix.  It surprised me that Bryce liked it.  “To Be Alone With You” is a mellow song with a blatantly Christian vibe — a far cry from the upbeat and worldly rhythms of his favorite Third Eye Blind.

I’d swim across Lake Michigan
I’d sell my shoes
I’d give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
To be alone with you…

I didn’t say I didn’t know who Sufjan was. I didn’t ask if he thought the song was about Jesus.  I listened, without reply, to the words of the song and my brother sitting next to me as we drove down Wolfpen Branch.

You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree…

Wolf Pen Branch Mill (courier-journal.com)

Around the bends in the road, in and out of the light that permeated what we used to refer to as the umbrella of trees, Bryce and I rode in silence together.  Would I have appreciated this moment more if I knew  his life would come to an end before we could spend another summer together?

I don’t think so.

To be alone with me
You went up on a tree

I’ve never known a man who loved me.

This morning I read a Sufjan Stevens interview in which he talks about his new album, The Age of Adz, and about God.  I was less interested in hearing about his less mellow, heavily experimental new songs but the end of the interview held my attention, especially Stevens’ definition of the Church. When Jeremy Allen of The Quietus quite honestly admits his own troubles with “Protestant Guilt,”  fear of hell, fear of Chritianity, Stevens’ response enlightens:

Sufjan Stevens by The Quietus

“The church is an institution and it’s incredibly corrupt obviously, but that’s because it’s full of dysfunctional people and people who are hurt and battered and abused. It’s very normal in any institution to have that kind of level of dysfunction. That’s unfortunate. I find it very difficult, I find church culture very difficult you know; I think a lot of churches now are just fundamentally flawed. But that’s true for any institution you know, that’s true for education, universities and it’s definitely true for corporations because of greed, and I think part of faith is having to be reconciled with a flawed community. But the principles, I don’t think the principles have changed. They can get skewed and they can get abused and dogma can reign supreme, but I think the fundamentals, it’s really just about love. Loving God and loving your neighbour and giving up everything for God. The principles of that, the basis of that is very pure and life changing.”


And when Allen suggests that “the Church” wasn’t always about the building but more about the people:

“I mean it’s weird. What’s the basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right? It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbours and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically God offering himself up to you as nutrition. Haha, that’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, that’s the basis of your faith. You know, God is supplying a kind of refreshment and food for a meal. Everything else is just accessories and it’s vital of course, baptism and marriage, and there’s always the sacraments and praying and the Holy Spirit and all this stuff but really fundamentally it’s just about a meal.”

And later, about the mystery of faith, I almost cried.  Thank you, Sufjan Stevens!

“It’s the most important thing to me really but it’s also really important I don’t get too caught up in it. There’s a necessity for casualness, you know, because I think fear and anxiety are not elements in faith. And I think doubt is important and questioning and all that. I think there’s been too much made from fear and condemnation to manipulate people. I think that’s an atrocity really.”

I know my brother knew the song was about Jesus, but I’m so glad I didn’t ask.  I was always preaching to him, always reminding him to pay attention to right and wrong.  But he knew.  He just never got so caught up in faith that he let fear and anxiety touch him, as it has me.  He embodied the “casualness” that Stevens describes, along with a little doubt and questioning that comes with growing up.  But he had faith. And in the silence of moments passed together, he taught me lessons that only now begin to surface.

I’d swim across lake Michigan. I’d sell my shoes. I’d give my body to be back again. In the rest of the room. To be alone with you.


Filed under Bryce, Cool Characters, Home, Inspiration, Kentucky, Unconventional Wisdom

12 responses to “A visit from my brother — through Sufjan and music

  1. Thanks for the wonderful visual of you and Bryce. Very touching. And what a deep and thought provoking witness by Sufjan Stevens! I think that he just be my new hero. Gotta go now and listen to the song now…Have a blessed day.

  2. maryanita

    Your blog on Bryce gave me chills and tears…. You have a deep heart and within that depth lies the mysteries of life. Life and death. Bryce is with you.

    Keep writing… live to the fullest and be joyful. I love you.

  3. Jenny

    So glad you shared this…I really appreciated both the memory of your brother – the fragile moment of connection that you can’t actually bring into the conversation or it ruins the mutual understanding that you’ve kind of stumbled across – and the Sufjan’s Stevens thread. I would probably never have come across that interview otherwise but I think it articulated a lot of things about what I think about faith and religion that I couldn’t have said on my own. Very “real” and very sincere =)
    Hope to see you soon for a visit!

  4. Hello Emily. You don’t know me, but I grew up with your Aunt Caroline and your mom. Caroline was my best friend from 4th grade all the way thru high school.

    She told me about your blog a few months ago and unfortunately I lost the link. Then I saw this on FB via her page.

    This post is stunning. Full of Grace. I wish I’d known Bryce. It was because of his passing that Caroline and I reconnected after far too long.

    He has touched hearts of people he never knew.

    Like me.

    I hope to meet you one day. For now, I’m happy to meet you thru your words. Another wonderful writer in the family!

    Thank you for this lovely gift.

  5. Yes…and there are certain magical moments…when you realize that you are One, and in these moments that words cannot even touch, there is no separation, no fear, no anxiety, and no death…We are One, in levels that we cannot just understand with our limited minds, but only get the spells…
    It is not about rules it is all about conciousness…of love.

  6. Donna Gouveia

    Emily: Those we can no longer hold in our arms are always with us through beautiful memories they leave with us. We don’t know this when these memories are being made, we only find out when we reflect on the loved one we lost. It is one year ago today my mom died and through your writing of this beautiful tribute to Bryce you made we think of my Mom. Many thanks, dear friend. Be happy and safe.

    • Thank you so much, Donna! Your comment brought tears to my eyes, not only because of the truth of your words, but also because of the fact that they reminded me of how much Sarah helped me through the tough time right after Bryce’s death and how I tried to help her when your Mom died. Living close to Sarah was one of the best gifts of Holy Cross. I am so grateful for both her and your friendship. Thank you for reading and keeping me in you thoughts. Hugs to you from France!

  7. Judy

    Saw this via Caroline’s FB post and had to read it because I lost my brother almost two years ago. We are still connected through music. “Photograph” by Nickelback was one of his favorites and so rightfully him and I know he would have liked “If Today Were Your Last Day.” I never heard of Sufjan, but will listen now. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Lisa Menard

    Hiya Emily!
    1st–Love the picture of you and Bryce! Here’s my idea of the word Bubbles over your heads: Emily:
    “I just ADORE my lil brother” Bryce: (with that mischieveous grin) “As soon as this picture is taken I am going to tackle Emily into the snow…” HEHE!!

    Thank you for sharing that picture with us!!

    2nd–Your memories are so very precious–just that vignette of the two of you silently driving under the umbrella trees, listening to tunes together…I am with you guys just for a second and smiling…

    3rd–Sufjan Stevens discussing the “meal” of Christ meant alot to me. I was getting ready for my 5th round of chemo and dreading it, as the 4th round was a little rough. I had this little talk with God as I just wasn’t up for it and the Holy Spirit prompted me to give dear Ted Luckett a call–Deacon Ted brought me the Body of Christ to my chemo room and shared that meal with me! Let me tell you, Jesus was no match for chemo (liquid Satan) as that treatment was so much easier than the last one!
    Once again, Emily…Thanks again for sharing with us!! Sending lots of love and prayers over the pond to you! Please stay safe! love you.

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