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Hymns for the Druggie Party Kids

How God Showed Up Everywhere I Least Expected When I Needed Him Most

Published on:
February 11, 2019
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4 min.
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A string around her finger
to remember all the nights that we got over

He gave me Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady on a freezing day in January. I was aches-and-exhaustion sick, and he brought it over with my favorite take-out soup. By then we were no longer dating, but sometimes we still played those parts. I have to try so hard not to fall in love. I have to concentrate when we kiss. 

“Remember that day last fall I wanted to give you a CD but couldn’t find it?” 

Listen to it all in one sitting. Don’t do anything but listen, except maybe read the lyrics. Just listen.

I remembered. Our before. Now in our after, he gave me these instructions: “Listen to it all in one sitting. Don’t do anything but listen, except maybe read the lyrics. Just listen.” It was his favorite CD. 

I have always been lazy about the music I listen to. I mostly accept what comes my way, a mix of top forty and whatever I’ve picked up from my social circle. When I scan the music that has mattered to me, it’s mostly come from men in my life—foundations of folk and classic rock laid by my father and two older brothers, then built on by men I have gone to school with, gone to church with, worked with, and most of all men I have dated and maybe loved. I can trace the additions of beloved bands or songs into my iTunes library in conjunction with so many notches on my lipstick case. 

A few months before he gave me the CD, several events had knocked me so far down I was almost out. It seemed to happen within a matter of days, as though my deepest fears and insecurities had been scheming for just the right moment to strike. A friend hospitalized for his own depression, an unrelentingly toxic co-worker, an unforeseen break-up. The bottom dropped out of the equilibrium I’d labored so hard to build, and I found myself trapped in the room where all my monsters lived. 

I wasn’t okay. A few people knew, a few guessed. But it’s not so hard to fake a smile, and most people don’t notice when your eyes don’t match the upturned corners of your mouth. I disappeared into myself, slowly backing away from loved ones. From life.  

I wasn’t okay. A few people knew, a few guessed.

The boy who gave me the CD knew. His struggles are as heavy as anyone I’ve known, and I listened more to understand him than anything else. I expected I wouldn’t much care for it. 

It took two weeks to find an unrushed hour, a quiet Sunday morning. I can’t remember ever listening to a CD like this—all the way through for the first time, intentional and focused. A furrowed brow as I tried to catch all the biblical allusions and cultural references rushing past, a knowing smile when I caught one that was particularly clever. It’s a story album, a particularly crashing and cacophonous retelling of that old story of running away and coming home. 

It felt like mine somehow, though few of the druggie-party-kid details matched mine. I followed along in the liner notes, marking a single line with a star: Father what do you prescribe? For a real soft girl whose had some real hard times? 

I listened, I felt a flash of brightness, and that could have been it. But even in those first moments I felt like maybe this CD could be a herald of reversal, of reaching the first rung on the ladder out of the room with my monsters. I had just a glimpse of belief that things could be different, could feel different. Today she finally came back. Walk on back. 

Then the coincidences began. Or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Or something else. Pretty sure I’ve heard this one before. 

Then the coincidences began.

I went to church that morning and the sermon was on the Prodigal Son, that world-weary wastrel who comes home to his father’s joyful embrace. I scrawled in my journal, “This morning was sacred. And a gentle reminder of how girls and boys who are broken and confused, full of mistakes and looking everywhere or anywhere for solace, can come home. And rest.” 

Next I discovered that two guys from work are enormous The Hold Steady fans, who in fact have burrowed their way into the band’s inner circle. One has been following them around the country for over a decade, and when I told him I’d like to take a “deep dive” into the band, he looked at me like I’ve gifted him a puppy. He shared a beautifully crafted The Hold Steady Spotify playlist with me and snuck me into a Craig Finn solo show, snagging the setlist for me like I was the guest of honor. 

Strangest of all, I realized I have nearly the same tattoo as the album’s Prodigal Son character, Holly. She has one that reads, “Damn right I’ll rise again.” My only tattoo, inked on the ribs under my heart after I climbed out of the last bout of darkness, is the Latin word resurgam—I shall rise again. 

I listened to this CD on repeat for weeks and expanded to the rest of The Hold Steady repertoire. I couldn’t shut up about this twelve-year-old CD from some indie band most of my friends had never heard of. It was such a good feeling. This music felt buoyant and expectant and honest. It felt like hope could be true. Certain songs, they get scratched into our souls.  

I listened to this CD on repeat for weeks and expanded to the rest of The Hold Steady repertoire.

I remembered what it felt like to want to be alive. For several months before that freezing January day I hadn’t been able to find that. It took me several months more to find the old equilibrium and undoubtedly those times will come again. Lost in fog and love and faithless fear. 

But it was a turning point. Music can feel like its own religion rather than as a means to express or encounter religions truth. Most of us have experienced a concert as worship, rock anthems as praise songs, hands raised and shining faces, hearts lifted up in wonder and awe and sheer joy. Doesn’t it feel real now? And doesn’t it feel true? And can I trust my emotions in this moment to lead me to higher ground or will the spell break when the last chord resounds? 

More and more I am convinced that the only way we make it through this miserable life is to repeat these choruses ad infinitum, to carry the burden of hope and belief for one another. Oh God how little we know our power to submerge or uplift another’s soul. I have been so weary of life. But this isn’t about my sadness. This is about how a twelve-year-old CD can lift you out of the miry bog. Yeah, damn right she’ll rise again. 

Brenda Kay Zylstra
Born and bred in the Dutch Calvinist hinterlands of Chicago, Brenda Kay Zylstra is a recent transplant to metro Atlanta and (related) recently wed. She holds two MAs from the University of Chicago in public policy and international relations. She is a prolific letter-writer, a better-than-average baker, and a little bit of a diva when it comes to singing in church. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.

Cover photo by Mohammad Metri.

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