Carrie Newcomer, a musical light-bearer, is a Quaker singer-songwriter who has inspired listeners throughout her career. Her latest release, Until Now (Available Light Records), offers an salve of spiritual renewal. In the past few years we have been through difficult terrain politically and culturally; Newcomer’s music is like dipping our hands in a baptismal font.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have held onto the language that we are in a liminal space, or what mystics call a threshold. A movement between eras. A liminal season is a bit uncomfortable: Our old patterns no longer fit, but what is emerging is still unfolding. Thus, the need for compassion is even greater during this era. It is perhaps no coincidence that I found compassion in what Newcomer said to me: “There is a lot in this album about being in process of compassion. For others and for ourselves.”
In these songs, and her companion poetry book, Newcomer puts words to what it is like for us to live in this in-between space. She sings of the resilience of the human spirit with depth of soulful care and easily moves into a playful humor as she sings about her dog. I resonate with the description on Newcomer’s website: She helps us “notice what went unnoticed. And then [redeem] those bits and pieces by making something new.”
She describes this time as a “great unraveling.” “Yet, with great disruption comes a possibility for change. We can’t just be healed; we must be transformed.”
Newcomer moves between pastoral and prophetic with gentleness, maturity, and playfulness. In my Zoom interview with her late last fall, we talked about the balance of naming what is broken while also pointing not just to healing, but transformation. Through her music and writing, Newcomer encourages us to move forward with curiosity into the mysteries unfolding ahead.
Much of Until Now is inspired by Newcomer’s ongoing work with bestselling author and spiritual teacher Parker J. Palmer. They created the multi-faceted project, “The Growing Edge,” to inspire and inform our processes of transformation. It features an interactive website, conversations, retreats, and a podcast with interviews with poets, musicians, activists, and other spiritual teachers of our times. Spirituality and Health Magazine called Newcomer and Palmer “Two of the 10 most influential spiritual teachers for the next 20 years.” The Boston Globe called her a “prairie mystic,” which one hears in the folksy spiritual truths Newcomer sings.
I’ve recognized the liminal space of our politics and pandemic at a cognitive level, but it is artists like Carrie Newcomer who help me spiritually connect with this time of upheaval in deeper and more compassionate ways. Newcomer has helped me realize that the growing edge of our spiritual development is where the magic happens. She cites the late theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman as one of her spiritual influences and features his poetry on The Growing Edge website: “All around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge!”
Her song, “Like Molly Brown,” grew out of a passing comment that Palmer made about her after she watched countless videos on how to livestream from a home studio. Palmer texted her and said, “You’re like Molly Brown.” Confused by his comment she texted “What?” He replied “You just keep rowing.”
Molly Brown, of course, was known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” for her efforts to save passengers in the sinking of the Titanic. The song has a bright, folksy sound. Newcomer sings of trailblazing women such as Rosa Parks and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who history remembers for not giving up.
In the last year, there has been a lot of conversation in Christian spaces about “deconstruction,” the process of engaging doubts and questions of religion and spiritual traditions — another threshold space. For many people, the old way of religion doesn’t speak to them anymore. I was struck by the track on Newcomers’s album, “I Will Sing a New Song.” I listened to this song as a pastor caring for people in spiritual transition and I listened to this song as someone who isn’t quite sure how to navigate these trying days. I found hope and resolve in the lyrics:
I don’t know how
No, I don’t know how,
I’ve never done this before.
At least not until now.
She acknowledges how difficult it is to shed old layers. And after naming the difficulties, she brings in pastoral hope:
I will sing a new song.
The old one’s carried me this far and for so long,
But it’s time to walk on,
Lifting up my voice and heart with a new song.
During our interview, Newcomer said, “I need to be able to step into a new song and I don’t know what the next step will bring, but I want to be in that conversation with others and myself.” Many of us are searching for a new song these days — in our faith or politics or religion or career. We might not know what that song sounds like yet, but we will find the melody as we sing.
Newcomer’s music was a bright spot of spiritual strength and artistry from this past year that will lead us into 2022. As many of us are tired, working for justice and joy in our everyday lives, Newcomer’s music and poetry is a trusted guide for us as we continue to grow as individuals and a society. As I make my own preparations for this year, I am listening to “The Handing Over Time.” She sings:
Here we are, here I am
Here we stand in the handing over time
All that shines, all that rusts
In the light and borrowed dust
It all comes ‘round and ‘round again
Indeed, here we are. We have seen bright spots of human hope and we have seen shadows of the worst of humankind. Here we stand in a liminal space, yet again, as we make way for whatever this year brings. Newcomer’s album tills the soil for new growth to take root in our lives as individuals and a society.
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