A Glorious Love Letter

Whenever someone asks how long my wife Charlotte and I have been married, which happens a lot around our anniversary (June 16), I inevitably say something like “16 glorious years.” Truth be told, not all those years could be labeled “glorious.” Some were somewhat less than that.

This year, we complete year 17. When someone asks, and I provide my typical answer, at least that part “17 glorious years” will be accurate. But “glorious” … no. Now, I will say that the last ten or so have been getting closer. As God has peeled away selfishness and other crud that stood in the way of real intimacy, our marriage has become more and better than I could have ever imagined. The process has been hard, but so, so worth it.

Part of this ongoing growth of intimacy, of course, is how well we know each other. Sometimes, it’s quite annoying. I get tired of how right she is about how I can’t hold a conversation and drive at the same time. I wish she’d stop being right every once in a while. Truly though, how we know each other is an immense blessing. She knows when I’m not quite right. I know when she is, dare I say, a tinge irritable. And we know what each other needs when we’re in those spots.

I could provide many examples of how beautiful this marriage is and how intimately we know each other, but I’ll focus here on one… one that is directly related to Tomme Suab. Quite a few years ago, I was in love (I still am, really) with Over the Rhine’s Goodbye off the Roaring Lambs compilation album. If you would have asked me why, I couldn’t have told you. After all, as a child, I was taught “good music” was what was predictable and safe. Understanding the nature of music, or art overall, was never a high priority for me or for those around me.

Some time ago, Charlotte and I were discussing that particular song and she said, “I know why you like that song.” Now, this would also make sense, because Charlotte has an extensive musical background, formal education included. She mentioned something about a “step-wise” movement in the song and explained what that meant. Afterward, from time to time, she would help me understand why I was drawn to certain styles, artists, or songs.

Eventually, she made a pivotal statement which amounted to something like “you don’t listen to music the same way most people do.” She was telling me I wasn’t a casual music fan. That little statement was an epiphany for me. It started me on a journey in which I began to engage with local art and independent musicians, with her cheering me on. It led me down a path in which I became drawn to the fringe, the unpredictable, the non-mainstream. More to the point, it led me to the realization that music impacts me deeply, on an emotional level. It was the root of what has become this blog, these weekly playlists, my involvement with Blugold Radio (soon to be Verge 99.9), and even in other civic activities and efforts promoting the arts.

None of this would have ever happened had it not been for my bride. It is just one illustration of how, aside from my God, she’s the best part of me. She has my heart and to say I’m thankful for her would be a gross understatement.

I love you, Charlotte. May these songs, in some small way, remind you of that truth. 17 songs for 17 years. Like those 17 years, this playlist isn’t perfect (or glorious), but it’s pretty damned good.



TS10: Not That Great

This week’s playlist is named after the LASKA song included here by the same title. The song makes me smile, because I can relate to some of the sentiment in it.

Look at me and know, that I am not that great.

You love me because you’re blind to my mistakes.

While these words seem to speak to a deep-seated insecurity, they also speak to a truth. We’re all messed up. We are just “not that great.” And it’s okay, especially when we all embrace our “not that great-ness”.

It’s those broken pieces in us, the parts that make us not so great, that remind us of how much we need help, how much we need healing. In some small way, I hope this week’s TS10 leads you and me toward a new level of wholeness and peace, even though we’re “not that great.”



TS10: Sometimes

I fell in love with King’s X back in 1991. I loved their gut-level honesty and creativity. One of their early songs, Sometimes, is included in this week’s TS10. I love the tension is the song. I can relate to it. Stuck in the give and take of already/not yet. Hope deferred. Conflict in the pursuit of peace.

Those kinds of tensions are familiar to the TS10 and this week’s edition is no different. Take a listen and feel the tension. Maybe engaging in it will unlock some healing and/or freedom for you.



TS10: Lampstands

(Excerpts from Revelation 2-3)

To the angel of the church in…

I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


TS10: Tiny Little Sparks

Image from Bri Murphy’s website

The talented Bri Murphy released Things We’d Rather Not Say, her first full-length album, last week and it is pretty gorgeous. Her Tiny Little Sparks anchors this week’s eclectic TS10. Take a listen!


TS10: Allergens and Flonase

I spent most of the day sitting in my comfy chair in my office, with my laptop and an open window. I love working from home and having that warm breeze floating through the room. That recliner, that window, that room… it’s kind of my happy place.

As the afternoon wore on, my eyes started hurting a bit. I could feel them getting puffy and itchy. I knew what the irritant was (seasonal allergies), but I was slow to get up grab the Flonase. For a moment, for some reason, I tried to deny the effect the allergens were having on me.

Wouldn’t you know it… once I got up from my once happy place and took the Flonase, everything was better. I was almost immediately relieved.

I don’t know where you are right now. If you are feeling “under it,” and need some relief, I hope this little playlist helps you find it. Maybe you’re a little too cozy in your “happy place,” and what you really need is an irritant, something to wake you from an intellectual or emotional slumber. Wherever you need to go emotionally, I hope, in some way, these ten songs will help you get there.




This Is (Really) America

My boy is currently having a playdate with his best buddy. The two boys are sprawled out on the floor, making up stories with Lego mini-figures. The cuteness is almost overwhelming. Just two friends having fun, whittling the afternoon way, with no care in the world. I am taken by their cuteness and their innocence. There’s something so entirely pure and beautiful about what’s happening on the floor in front of me.

As I watch the boys play, I have a clear line of sight to my son, who has been growing his hair out now for several months. He’s keeping it short around the sides and back, and then letting it grow up top. So much hair! It’s adorable, honestly, although it’s making this almost nine-year-old look a few years older than that. Not sure I like that…

His decision to grow his hair out was inspired by the blockbuster Marvel movie, Black Panther. He was, like me, enthralled by the antagonist of the story, Erik Killmonger. After watching Michael B. Jordan’s outstanding portrayal and witnessing how incredibly cut the guy is, I think Joshua and I both wish we looked like him. Joshua’s got a much better shot at making that happen. And, he began letting his hair grow out toward that exact end. He wanted braids or dreads that would look like those Killmonger sported in the movie.

Over these last few months, we’ve been getting his haircuts at a barbershop where they know how to cut African hair. I think there’s still a part of him that wants the Killmonger look, but I also think he’s been enjoying growing this huge mass of hair on top of his head, like a big, textured box-top. And, it’s adorable. So, now I have this super-cute third grader running around with the same kind of hairstyle I see on young men and teen boys who are also from African heritage. Amid growing up in mighty white Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I think it’s comforting for him to see older guys who look like him and also happen to have a similar hairstyle.

Just recently, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, when I saw another young man with Joshua’s do. It was a still picture of a young man named Anthony Wall being pinned to the outside window/wall of a Waffle House by a police officer. I saw the headline associated with the photo; something about an older brother who had taken his sister to the prom. To be honest, I skipped by it quickly.

Why? It’s simple. That young man looked like my Joshua. In that moment, I was seeing my boy being pinned against a wall and choked by a police officer. I looked away and quickly skipped by that image. I didn’t want to think about that. It wasn’t that long ago that young Jordan Edwards was shot dead in the back of a car by another police officer. His story broke my heart. I could see my son in Jordan’s innocent smile. And it hurt.

Even though I didn’t want to linger in those thoughts, especially envisioning my son in the place of that young man at the Waffle House, I saw that image again on my feed and this time I chose to engage. That’s probably because I remembered Jordan Edwards. And I remembered why I need to care about this. I remembered I was wired to care about this. I remembered that I would be disobeying my God if I ignored this.

This second image wasn’t a still, it was a video. I watched the police officer forcing Anthony up against that wall. The officer looked to be at least twice the size of the young man. I could not see Anthony resisting in any way. I see the officer violently pressing his forearm into Anthony’s chest and throat area. For no apparent reason, I see the office then lift the young man off the ground and slam him down on the pavement, followed by the officer leaning on him, holding him down, and maintaining his intimidation.

It made me sick. What the hell was going on there? There are those who will say we don’t have all the context. Honestly, I don’t know what happened before this moment. Don’t care, actually. From the video, there is no apparent reason why the officer had to be so violent, why he was choking Wall, why he slammed him to the ground like he did.

As I write these words now, I can feel my blood beginning to simmer. I’m angry. I’m angry at the injustice and excuse-making. And, I’m sad for Anthony Wall and his sister. I’m sad for every young black man who is perceived as a threat for no legitimate reason. I’m sad for my son, who will no doubt be seen as such a threat before too long by some backward-thinking person. Who knows? Maybe he’ll fall asleep in the commons area of his college dorm. Maybe he’ll walk onto a country club golf course (of which he’s actually a member). Maybe he’ll be in his backyard doing nothing. Maybe he’ll just want to have a waffle.

To all my white, right-leaning friends who want to find a way to defend this officer, or the golf course employee, or the police who shot Stephon Clark 22 times while he wielded his deadly cellphone, I don’t want to hear it. Especially to my Christian friends who are more concerned about what Anthony Wall may have done to “deserve” the treatment he received from that officer, keep it to yourself. I can see nothing of Jesus in such thinking. So, don’t bring that here, please. It’s time for us to see things for what they are, and not just through the lenses of our personal experience in our little safe, white, Christian bubbles.

A few months ago, I had coffee with a good friend who shared with me a quote he’d come upon previously. I don’t remember the exact verbiage, but it amounted to something like this: “The artists are now our prophets.” Okay, so I will never say that Justin Vernon or Bono carry the same weight as Jeremiah or Isaiah. But, I think there’s truth there.

One great example of this artistic prophecy is the recently released video from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). The video was released on May 8th, but I’ll admit that it took me a couple of days before I wanted to watch it, mostly because I knew it would make me uncomfortable. You know, that discomfort I really need to feel. I eventually decided to engage, and I was changed.

I am still processing the meaning of the song and the imagery in the video. However, I feel like I can already say that it is one of the most important pieces of art I’ve ever seen or heard. The song is called This Is America and it is a poignant commentary on many societal issues, such as racism and gun violence. I will likely write more about this masterpiece later, but there’s one central theme I see in there that pertains to what’s happening to these black men and boys and my (our) response to these injustices: it is very easy to just keep living life while others around us are going through hell. The video is below (warning: it is pretty graphic).

Notice what happens throughout the video, not just what’s happening right in front of the camera, but what’s happening in the background as well. A man is executed. One of the four horsemen rides in the background. Riots break out. Someone gets thrown off a balcony. A choir is massacred. And what’s happening throughout all of this? Glover and those with him dance. They have moments of clarity about what’s happening around them, some of which they cause, but they are easily distracted back into the dance.

The lyrics, at one point, speaks of “shaking the frame.” The imagery there is of the frame of reality being shaken so we are distracted from what’s really going on. We hear of students being slaughtered at a school in Florida and we are forget a day later. We see images of a young man being powerslammed to the sidewalk and we turn away, not letting ourselves be affected. We read about a young white man sending bombs to the homes of people of color in Texas and we don’t bat an eye. We hear about another young white man bringing a rifle into a different Waffle House for the express purpose of killing black people, and we just go about our day-to-day as if this is normal.

It is not normal, friends. It is not okay. We need to stop victimizing white perpetrators. We need to stop justifying police brutality. We need to stop grasping at straws to understand how Stephon Clark, Anthony Wall, Jordan Edwards, Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin somehow deserved what they got. We need to look at the pictures of those who have been killed or traumatized because of their pigmentation. We need to get real honest with ourselves. I need to get real honest with myself.

White friends, please hear me, we gotta stop acting like there is no race issue in America. We gotta stop pretending that all men are actually considered “equal” in our society. We gotta stop avoiding the voices and stories of black communities. By acting, pretending, and avoiding, we are saying one of two things. We are either calling them liars, or we are telling them they don’t matter as much as we do. Those are the only two options, friends.

Whether or not we want to own it or believe it, the stories of Clark, Martin, Wall, Edwards, Castile, and so many more are real. This is America, friends. And until we stand up, own that truth, and start having meaningful conversations about how to facilitate healing, freedom, and justice in our land, we are simply allowing more black people to be oppressed, slaughtered, and/or traumatized. This is America.

I cannot turn my head. I cannot ignore. I cannot pretend. I cannot, because that would not resonate with the life God has built me to live. A Christian ignoring these injustices is not aligned with the Jesus who came to set captives free, raise the dead, and preach good news to the poor. So, engaging in this is obedience for me, and I would argue, for anyone in America who professes to follow Jesus.

But, personally, I go right back to the boy playing with Legos on my office floor. He has already faced racism from other kids. And as he gets older, he will face more. I don’t want him to be the next Anthony Wall, Stephon Clark, or Jordan Edwards. So, I will fight. And, I ask you to do the same.


TS10: Tempered Celebration

Okay, I admit, I gotta calm down a little bit. This warm air in western Wisconsin is a bit intoxicating right now. I almost wondered it it was ever going to come. Such warmth had me wanting to build a really happy, partyish playlist this week. But, that’s not really what we do, per se. So, there’s some celebration in here, for sure, but there’s also the normal spectrum of emotion. Take a listen and enjoy (or cry, you know, whatever…).



TS10: Mood

A while back, my boy became obsessed with mood rings. I didn’t really understand it. Some other kid from school may have turned him on to them. However this fascination originated, he was not going to be content until he got his mood ring.

Well, he ended up with three different mood rings, all of them either lost or broken. That’s okay, though, because my man wears his mood like an overcoat. It is evident. I don’t need a phony ring to try to discern it.

This week’s TS10 is full of mood, I think. And the mood shifts from song to song, sometimes continuing a specific strain of mood while launching into some other mood simultaneously. Not sure what kind of mood you’re in right now, but if you’re like me, your moods can shift and pulse in different directions just like this playlist.


Artist Focus

Pagnia Xiong: From Tragedy and Conflict Comes Hope and Healing

Sometimes, beauty arises in the midst of devastation. In the 1970s, many from the Hmong people group, originally living in Laos, began to immigrate to the United States, escaping a war-ravaged southeast Asia. Many of these folks suffered horrors very few of us can relate to. All of them were separated from virtually everything familiar, many times including their families. The story of how Hmong folks first came to the U.S. is beyond sad. And yet, in the middle of such tragedy, there was a new story beginning to develop.

The coming together of cultures can be stressful and it inevitably stirs conflict, conflict between representatives of two diverse cultures, as well as an inner conflict within the heart and mind of the immigrant coming to a brand new place, with a new language, and dramatically different cultural norms. Conflict is difficult, no way around it. However, as is the case with any conflict, the result can be truly beautiful. This dynamic is on full display in the music of Hmong American artist Pagnia Xiong, who was raised right here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Pagnia has quite a following, with over 20,000 followers on Facebook and a very engaged fan base here in the States and in Europe. However, there’s a pretty good chance that, unless you are a Hmong American living in the upper Midwest, you have no idea who she is. Neither did the person who is writing this post (in fact, the only reason I became aware of her was through a friend who happens to be her cousin).

How is it that I could be unaware of a locally rooted musician with such a following? I tend to stay aware of such things. I mean, yes, she writes and performs music in Hmong, but I’m into various cultural expressions, especially when it comes to music. I’ve listened to plenty of non-English speaking artists over the years. How did I miss this? How did I miss her? Pagnia sees a couple of reasons:

Professionally, I didn’t record music until I was studying at the University of WI-Madison. My debut album was released in St. Paul, MN, the city with the largest Hmong population. That also meant most of my performances were in the bigger cities, as my listeners were there. Personally though, I’m still a bit shy about performing for non-Hmong listeners. I graduated from North High School, but most of my former classmates, if they recognized me today, would not have ever guessed that I would become a professional singer. So, it’s not your fault!

Okay, so that makes sense, right? And the reason I wasn’t aware of Pagnia Xiong wasn’t nearly as nefarious as I was making it out to be (I had thoughts of racism, ethnocentricity, and the like). Truly, I didn’t know about her music for very practical reasons: she wasn’t here when she started recording and she is hesitant to perform in front of non-Hmong listeners. Totally makes sense.

So then I also wondered about why I don’t know of any other Hmong artists with local roots, with the notable exception of SloSlyLove, who has garnered quite a following himself and played at the second Eaux Claires festival in 2016. I asked Pagnia about this as well, and her answer was profoundly enlightening:

Truthfully, I don’t know any other Hmong musician who is actively creating and performing music in the Chippewa Valley (aside from SloSlyLove). The Hmong community in the Chippewa Valley is still small enough to the point that everyone knows everyone. Meaning that if a cousin knew of a Hmong music artist who was creating and performing locally, I would know exactly who s/he is as well. Word would get around quickly.

And then she provided some sorely needed historical context:

…the Hmong community is still a young and growing community. As war refugees, the first wave of Hmong families to arrive in Eau Claire occurred only 43 years ago. That means that the first generation of Hmong Americans are currently in their 20s and 30s and are likely the breadwinners of their family. That being said, I believe my parents’ generation raised their first-generation Hmong American children for one main goal: to survive. Imagine having at least 1-2 immediate family members no longer alive due to the war. Survival would be of the utmost importance. 

Being a music artist doesn’t translate to survival for my parents and their generation who fled their war-torn country. Music isn’t surviving; it’s thriving, and you can’t get there unless you believe you’ve survived. I believe that’s part of the reason why in a Hmong community as young and small as Eau Claire, hearing one or two local Hmong music artists actively creating and performing sounds about right to me.

It’s important to take a moment, pause, and think about these words. This story. The trauma experienced by the Hmong American community is immense. Their collective loss and grief is larger than I can personally understand. Who has time to create when you’re only objective, by necessity, is survival?

And herein lies the potential beauty of conflict. No, there was nothing beautiful about the horrific experiences of Hmong families in southeast Asia 40+ years ago. But there is certainly beauty in what is growing out of that tragic soil. The infusion of Hmong culture in the life of the Chippewa Valley and the Twin Cities has added vitality and richness to these communities. Even though the struggle of these resilient people to learn the balance between maintaining their cultural identity and navigating life in the American Midwest is very real, that struggle is creating something beautiful. And a great expression of that beauty is the music and influence of Pagnia Xiong.

Why is that the case? Well, it’s not just because she is talented. She is that, but there’s more. First of all, her music is not quite the music her parents listened to, and it represents the development of something new.

My parents’ choice of music (was) mainly Thai/Lao-influenced music recorded by Hmong singers. However, I was very drawn to the Hmong American contemporary artists at the time who weren’t singing my parents’ type of music. Cua Yaj and Zuag Vaj, both from California, were the very first Hmong American singers that I connected with as a young listener and singer. Their ballads were the songs of my singing competition days. I think that’s why my strength lies in vocal ballads.

And then there were other influences as well…

I grew up listening to I-94 and Z100 on the radio, mostly late at night. Sunday nights were my favorite, because my older sister would leave the radio on all night for Sunday Night Love Songs. Some of the reigning voices of that time were Selena, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. They were my private vocal teachers, and really inspired me to be the singer that I am today.

Pagnia and her music represent a wonderful fusion of cultures, the product of an ongoing synthesis between east and west. She sings in her family’s heart language, but she sings in her own heart’s style. She honors her connection to family, to the past, to her roots, all the while forging her own voice, embracing the now, and building new roots. It’s the combination of two cultures, two styles, coming together to make something new, the picture of someone embracing who she is and living it out fully.

I would imagine that the “sweet spot” for any artist is when they are able to do just that and have it resonate deeply with their listeners. There is something special, even holy I think, which occurs when someone’s creation speaks to someone else on a deep level. When it stirs them. When it changes the way they think, feel, or believe. Pagnia has forged this kind of connection between her music and her audience. She inspires her listeners, and this is not by chance.

I believe that when you’ve been through something – good or bad – that can help others, find a way to share it and teach it. Being a first-generation Hmong American female comes with a lot of challenges and expectations from elders and the community. In my latest album, “Plhis Suab,” I highlight some of the challenges I face because of my identity and it showcases my desire to inspire anyone who hears my music toward self-love and self-empowerment. I think we all have challenges, battles that we fight every day that most people don’t know about. So I hope that by sharing the good and the bad in my life, I’m able to help others heal and have hope at the same time.

So often, I don’t realize that there are young Hmong women around the world who listen to my music, follow me on social media, and are quietly observing who I am and what I’m doing. Especially after my second album with the song, “Txoj Phuam Txoom Suab,” a heartbreaking song about a Hmong female getting married and leaving her biological family, I don’t take what I mean to my listeners lightly. I do my best to share my most authentic self… I’m at point in my life where I’d rather be authentic to help someone than to be artificial and gain a ‘Like.’ So through my work, I genuinely hope the message of self-love and self-empowerment comes through and resonates with my listeners — that in this lifetime, they intentionally choose to be their truest and best selves. They deserve that. We deserve that.

I’ve only recently gotten to know Pagnia, and I still don’t know her well. But I’ve listened to her music and I’ve read her emails. I’ve seen what she posts on Facebook. And, I’ve been inspired by what I have experienced from her. My limited exposure to this dynamic person pales in comparison to how she impacts others, others who understand and can feel her lyrics at a heart level, who likely have experienced a similar family history, and who probably struggle with the same cultural synthesis Pagnia faces every day.

So, it’s a shame more non-Hmong-speaking folks don’t know who she is just yet. My sense is that Pagnia has much to offer the rest of us as well. We can all be challenged by her story, encouraged by her resilience, and inspired by her bold determination to live out who she truly is. And we can all embrace her message… that in the middle of unspeakable heartache, there is healing and hope.