1. Dolly Parton, “Wildflowers”
When I was growing up my parents had records. My dad loved country music—old country like Kris Kristofferson. When he got the 1987 Trio album that featured Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, I was mesmerized. Three bold and beautiful women singers? I was in.
I listened to this album over and over and would often stare at the women on the cover. They seemed so chic and stylish—a country subculture I was so curious about. I pulled out the pink sheath that held the record and would read the lyrics while singing along with Dolly, Linda and Emmylou. I’d nod and smile during songs that felt animated as if I were performing in front of a crowd. I may or may not have held an air mic to my lips. But “Wildflowers” got me with Dolly’s sweet way of singing an unashamed song. I like to blame Dolly for my streak of bad behavior because after all, “When a flower grows wild, it can always survive. Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”
2. The Beatles, “Blackbird”
Picture this: It is 1991 and the end of summer in Minnesota—the heat makes the chickens bathe in the sandy yard, the sunflowers bend their necks and look at the soil, the pools dull with blades of grass from the mower. I’m 12 and my brother is 15. He has grown his silky straight hair long. He emerges from the basement where he and his five neighborhood friends have been jamming the entire summer. They’re removing the flowerpots and ladder back chairs from the front porch and setting up their amps—running chords, testing mics. Neighbors are gathering in our front yard— with lawn chairs and can cozies. My brother and the guys play and rock and I realize I have the coolest brother and that I love The Beatles. My brother and his friends play all the best songs—and The Beatles produced mostly all the best songs ever written—and the set is long and no one wants it to end and eventually everyone’s dancing—despite the heat.
“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” I heard it then in the front yard and I hear it today as a reminder that I can do hard things. I can accept my brokenness and learn how to be amazing in spite of it—or because of it. And now that my teenager daughter occasionally plays this on her classical guitar for church prelude I hear it as the hymn that it has been for me all these years.
3. Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Edelweiss”
The Sound of Music was the first VHS tape my family bought when we got a VCR when I was in high school. It was a two-box set which seemed extra extravagant. When you sit down to enjoy The Sound of Music, it is a huge commitment of time and I never feel like it is wasted. I love musicals. Love them. And “Edelweiss” is so heartbreaking in this film.
Early in the movie the captain sings it to his children and the Baroness notices Maria falling in love with the Captain (and how could she not?). And then at the end, when they’re leaving and the family gathers the entire crowd to sing with them—well, my heart could burst. It was the last song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and it is one that I used to sing over and over to my babies when they were new and awake in the middle of the night. It can soothe a little one to sleep with its lilting, melancholy chorus, “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow—bloom and grow forever.”
4. U2, “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
This was my 2002 anthem. I was living in the basement of my sister’s church. Pregnant. Single. Kind of a wreck in a lot of ways.
I had finally gotten a job at a car dealership, which involved passing out free Krispy Kreme donuts and cans of Pepsi to people getting their car serviced. Each night, one of the car salesmen would walk me to my car to make sure I got in safe and then I’d drive slowly back to the dark, lonely church—my home. But on the car ride back I’d play this song. Loud. I’d cry and cry and sing and sing.
And when this line comes, it splits my heart all over again even today: “And if the night runs over. And if the day won’t last. And if your way should falter. Along the stony pass. It’s just a moment…this time will pass.” Because back then my night had run way over and the path I was walking was filled with stones and only stones. And when Bono urged me to remember that all the heartache and the shame and the fear would pass, well, he was right.
5. Tchaikovsky, “Act 11 No. 14 Pas de Deux”
If I had to listen to only one genre of music until the end of time it would be classical. Nothing brings me such a surge in my heart as when I listen to Tchaikovsky. The entire Nutcracker Ballet is profound and often I’ll listen to the entire suite while I work. Having trained as a ballerina for the first half of my life, there is no better way to get to know me than to ask me about being a ballerina.
I probably fell in love with The Nutcracker Suite when I was 10. My ballet instructor would gather us around her TV each Christmas to watch Rudolf Nureyev dance the Pas de Deux. We would still be in our tights and leotards and we’d fantasize about partnering with Nureyev—his powerful legs and beautiful arms. It is the Pas de Deux music that unravels me—the way the strings begin so subtly and pull your heart into a dance. Then in comes the arc of the flutes followed by the deep horns that linger in the background until it is almost too much to bear. There is a little relief and then my heart is utterly destroyed with its beauty and it feels like it is okay to die.
When I blast it in the car before I drop off my son at preschool in the mornings we both sit in silence after the final triumphant note. It is like a holiness that can’t have words follow it. I always cry at the end. The cymbals with the piccolo twirling is heaven right here. The timpani’s final crest is genius.
6. Coldplay, “Fix You”
I have written a novel. When people ask me what it is about, I want them to listen to this song and hear this, “When you lose something you can’t replace. When you love someone, but it goes to waste. Could it be worse?” My novel takes place in Turkey, because when I was there in 2008 I experienced yakamoz—which is Turkish for phosphoresce–and I’ve not been the same Claire since. The entirety of the book is, in essence, a conversation I’ll never have, but it stemmed from one of my last nights there when it was a moonless night and I was swimming in the inky Mediterranean Sea. I discovered I was surrounded by little bits of light—my body was outlined with little silvery lanterns and I didn’t ever want to leave—not the sea, not the yakamoz, not the country.
But I haven’t been back and don’t know if I ever will, so I wrote this story that seems to echo what Chris Martin sings in this song: “Lights will guide you home. And ignite your bones. And I will try to fix you.”
7. Band of Horses, “No One’s Gonna Love You”
I can be sappy sentimental sometimes—know this about me. This is one of the first songs my husband, Darren, introduced to me when we met in 2009. I played it incessantly. And then because we were mature or intense or romantic we took a month off of communicating with each other to discern on our own if together was what God wanted for us. The first of the 30 days I was good and felt superior. The second day and the subsequent days was a weird kind of fasting from someone I really really liked a whole lot and I wanted the waiting to be over. And yet…the waiting was kind of exciting.
My daughter went off to the Mennonite Church USA convention that summer with friends and while she was gone and Darren and I were on our break, I adopted a rescue dog. I drove from Minneapolis to Des Moines, to pick up an Airedale Terrier who was surrendered by her first family because they traveled too much and she got zero attention and lots of food. She was overweight and lonesome. In the four-hour drive home she sat in the backseat, staring longingly out the back window at the ribbon of highway separating her from the only people she knew. Meanwhile I played this song on repeat 66 times in a row. Poor dog. “No one’s gonna love you more than I do.” I sang out the lyrics to Darren and to Velvet because I knew it would be true for both.
8. OneRepublic, “Good Life”
This song was all over the radio the year I was pregnant with my son, Harold, in 2011. And I had my moments of being excited to have another baby and being terrified. Babies are wonderful and exhausting and awesome and all day, everyday kind of people. I went in waves of being stoked about having a baby to being downright uninterested in the whole thing. Maybe that sounds crass or out-of-touch with the miracle of human life, but I have a feeling there are more mamas who have felt this way than let on. It didn’t feel super great to walk around with a big round middle and indifference so I would pump myself up with this song for my baby. I didn’t know if I was having a boy or a girl, but I could sing and dance around my living room repeating to myself and my Little Wonder that, “This could really be a good life. A good, good, life.”
9. Bruno Mars, “Count On Me”
In 2014, my father-in-law died. David DeBerg was this tender soul wrapped up in a tough outer shell—a man whom I loved. He was so committed to his farm and was an especially hardworking person—maybe even a workaholic. He had huge hands, thick fingers and a ferocious grip, but when he held his first grandson, Harold, those huge unstoppable hands became the secure resting place for Harold’s soft newborn head. My husband and I were among the few people with David when he breathed his last breath at Mayo Clinic and we often remark about how powerful and tender it is to be with someone when their life is complete. It is heartbreaking and beautiful. Darren has a version of his father’s hands and took a picture of his hands next to his dad’s before we said our final goodbyes and walked out of the hospital in a daze.
We miss David so much and the waves of grief, though they don’t come as frequently as before, have us sad for all the ways our children will miss out on that good man—and how he won’t get to see them become the people our world needs. For his funeral our daughter, Gloria, learned to play and sing, “Count on Me.” Her sweet voice and her perfect playing for her grandpa…well…what can I say but that everyone was crying in that church. David died too soon. Gloria’s voice was too loving. “And if you ever forget how much you really mean to me…everyday I will remind you.” (The version on my Spotify playlist is really not the best. You just have to hear Gloria’s sweet little voice singing while she plays her guitar, so here is the link to her singing “Count on Me.”)
10. Phosphorescent, “Song for Zula”
The ultimate chill song for me right now. When Darren learned about the impetus behind my novel, he sent me this Phosphorescent song. It is that heartbeat backbeat that travels with me and the haunting way the singer-songwriter, Matthew Houck, takes me on a poetic tour of what love is at times—how it draws us in and can hurt us.
I guess they tap me awake at night sometimes—these lyrics: “Some say love is a burning thing that makes a fiery ring. Oh but I know love as a fading thing—just as fickle as a feather in a stream…”
Here’s my Spotify Playlist. Enjoy.