I was learning every word to Alexi Murdoch’s 2009 album Towards the Sun when I took the wrong exit somewhere between Austin and Louis Henna Boulevard. After thirteen hours in the car—peeling out of Nashville at 4 am, gliding through a misty Arkansas sunrise, stretching my hamstrings while my car gulped gasoline from a pump somewhere north of Sulpher Springs—after thirteen hours alone in a mostly moving vehicle, I was finally a mere thirty minutes from the house I grew up in. It was sure to be swathed in Christmas lights, and fresh greenery, and yarn and sweet smells. And I managed to take the wrong exit.
As I guessed at turns and followed the outline of the movie theater on Pecan Street, knowing at the very least which direction I was going while the sunset simmered outside my window, I discovered I could still find my way home even after years away and no GPS. It flooded me with tear-jerking relief, realizing I am never too far from where I started, nor too far too long, that I can’t return as if the distance was penetrable and passing all along.
The really sweet and startling thing, as the grand finale of Advent season makes plain, is that amidst our wandering and isolation and yearning for the home we were made for, home came to us.Janie Townsend
I’ve become something of an expert on getting unlost. Of course, I can boast in this skill only as much as I admit my penchant for misplacing myself to begin with. Finding your way back to somewhere is more a process of finding your way through than back, I’ve concluded, whether you’re navigating downtown traffic, salvaging after a relational storm or treading water amidst waves of grief, always on the lookout for whatever shore you were sucked from. Un-losing yourself and recovering a path forward calls for fluid amounts of patience and persistence, the ability to listen and pay attention to where you are, courage in spades or the size of a penny or any amount in between, and not least of all some measure of helplessness—because if you didn’t feel a bit helpless, you wouldn’t really be lost in the first place. It can feel profoundly lonely in process, but a standard piece of the experience is the lifting of other voices guiding us on our way, or the uncovering of those that have always been present, reinforcing our sense of direction as if in preparation for that crucial instant of lostness.
It strikes me as no coincidence that this moment of going from lost to unlost took place while Alexi Murdoch sang through my car stereo, and furthermore that the whole adventure took place during Advent season.
Murdoch’s album Towards the Sun glimmers with warming anticipation of winter’s end and feels like being one step from home yet millions of miles away. Song by song, it aches for a widespread wound to be stitched, for peace and rest below the surface of cloudy water. Perhaps most of all, it aches for a nearness surpassing all other fleeting intimacies.
In recent years, the whole of Advent season has felt very much the same way to me. Something shines in the air, a promise about to be fulfilled and tangible, but still magically invisible to us. Abundant feasting, divisions broken by togetherness, songs and familiar voices swelling in the air—things we were made to relish and long for are momentarily in our grasp, part of our earthly rhythm as well as our spiritual reality. And even so, there remains this hunger for a nearness so unbreakable that its embrace could reach into every cold place, thawing the dark corners of our world and our own hearts. We are so, so not alone, and yet we wait in the throes of our aloneness. Sweet jubilation and bitter yearning are never so mingled in me as they are during the weeks leading up to Christmas and the days surrounding Easter.
Towards the Sun came out in March of 2009, so there’s zero chance it was meant to be an Advent-related release. But if ever there was an accidental Advent album, this could be it. The opening song lyrically straddles the space between dusk and dawn, moving into isolation and the lightless hours of nighttime. “Some Day Soon” and “Through the Dark” breathe deep sighs, bearing the weight of hope that a Great Love is pursuing us all and writing our stories, yet confessing that this same weight leaves a soreness in our bones that can’t be massaged away. “Slow Revolution” is the crowning Advent track in my eyes—the song that most straightforwardly pleads for something or someone to come into our world and our lives, making blessings flow far as curses are found. It is also this song that, to me, cleaves closest to the truth that someone or something is coming to do just that.
My pleading is not always so straightforward, but it was last winter. I spent a good deal of my time choking down the belief that we are on our way to a beyond-happy ending, always ever becoming unlost. I drove home for Christmas eager to leave my pleading behind me, but with me it remained, a parched kind of loneliness and hope that a light really is coming into our dimly lit world. Feeling lost in more ways than one, I ended up on the wrong road and home found me anyway.
And perhaps that was the most truth-singing moment of the season for me—because the really sweet and startling thing, as the grand finale of Advent season makes plain, is that amidst our wandering and isolation and yearning for the home we were made for, home came to us. The nearness we crave to extinguish our loneliness, a place of being seen, of belonging to and with someone else—that home came as a human being we could see, smell, speak to, cling to. We were not so lost as we thought, because the God of the Universe became one of us and lived among us, laid eyes on us and spoke our names, wept over our demons and devilment and rubbed miracle mud into our eyes with his own fingertips.
I couldn’t have been surprise-met by home last December if I’d taken every right road, if my route had gone according to plan. I was only found by home because I needed to be found first, and arguably I was always on my way, only I became afraid and might have faltered when the way suddenly looked unfamiliar. But every wrong turn was just the turn that needed taking, and patience was key in seeing that truth revealed.
There’s a lyric in Alexi Murdoch’s “Slow Revolution” that lingered with me after I heard it during that thirteen-hour drive from Nashville to Texas, and it lingers with me still: “My voice is breaking out here in this wilderness.” I expect we all feel that way from time to time in this Second Advent, this watching and waiting. I imagine the breaking of our voices looks different for each of us, and that a broken or lost voice might feel not unlike the breaking or losing of oneself. As we move through a season of waiting for nearness to cut through isolation, for light to vanquish shadows and peace to hush turmoil, let us rest in whatever lostness we may find ourselves, and let us take heart: nearness, light and peace are coming to us—whether we’re right enough or faithful enough or “fill-in-the-blank” enough to unearth and attract them—they are coming to us. All we must do is keep on our way, paying attention to what’s around us, managing patience as best we can, reaching for one another as we walk and accepting that any day now, any second, we’ll feel a little less lost.
Equal parts children's fiction writer, musical theatre expert, and emo pop-punk music aficionado, Janie Townsend can always be found among good stories. Along with her unmistakable voice, she contributes a haunting yet playful narrative tone to The Orchardist's music in the form of meticulous vocal arrangements.