What I Got When I Embraced Mortification (and Hanson)

It’s September 2017. Birmingham Alabama, Iron City music hall. My first Hanson show. I am wearing a loose dress, birkenstocks, and a BACKPACK. I haven’t been able to eat my dinner. I have to pee, but I am not leaving my spot because I don’t want to miss their entrance. I am about to be in the same room with three men I purposely avoided for 20 years and I’m about as filled-up with feelings as it is possible to be. 

For anyone who hasn’t read the whole post from 2015, here’s the short version: in 1997 I learned about Isaac (16), Taylor(14), and Zac(11) on VH1 while babysitting.  I was 15. I instantly developed a devastating private obsession with them – and a heavy-duty crush on Taylor – that made me wonder if I was actually going crazy. Sometime in 98 or 99, I threw away their first album, “Middle Of Nowhere,” when I couldn’t take it anymore. I made it seem like I did it because everyone in youth group was throwing away their Nine Inch Nails albums and such. The truth was much more embarrassing. For almost 20 years, I was not able to see a picture of them without getting back that old crazy feeling. 

But in 2015 I’d had enough. We had just moved to Michigan, I’d had my third baby two weeks after moving in an emergency situation that left me bone weary and fearing I would no longer be able to have children. We’d left our community of 15 years and come to a place where we knew no one. We had few friends. My weight was the highest and my confidence the lowest it’s ever been. There was nothing left to lose. So I got out the old YouTube and I starting searching.

Not A One-Hit Wonder

For the uninitiated, it may appear that Hanson was a one-hit wonder. If you’re old enough, you may remember the ubiquity of “Mmmbop” in 1997. This was before the internet. For a month, I spent every night in my parents room listening to the “top 9 at 9” on U93 South Bend on their clock radio because I knew “Mmmbop” would be the number one song, but I didn’t want anyone to know I was listening to it. That song will always give me a visceral recall of dusk and crickets and loneliness.

After a second hit single, “Where’s The Love,” that year, and another single from their second record – released in 1999 – “This Time Around,” (which I don’t remember ever hearing on the radio), they disappeared from public view other than an odd press release in People magazine or an appearance on TV, as far as I knew. I still thought about them often enough, wondering what they were doing. It wasn’t quite the frenzy of prayer I subjected myself to around 97, trying to stave off insanity, but of course if Taylor came to mind I had to pray like my sanity depended on it. I will never forget where I was (foot doctor’s office on Summer break from college) when I caught the tiny thumbnail announcement on the back of a “People” that Taylor had gotten married to a girl named Natalie Bryant. I had known it was coming sooner or later; I’d just assumed I would have more time!! He was only 19. (I have come to have such respect for the Hanson wives, by the way, what little we get to know of them. Natalie is an inspiration in her own right).

One friend told me they were still touring and writing new music and that his friend had just seen them at the House Of Blues in Chicago. My sister knew a girl who had written a research paper about their experience in the music industry. They were traveling around to colleges with this documentary they’d made called “Strong Enough To Break.” 

Hanson Deep Dive

Can I just pause here and say that, if for no other reason (but there are PLENTY), the brothers Hanson are worth investigating because they are total outliers. If you can open your mind to this – and I think you should – they are an embodiment of the idea that, as John Taylor Gatto says

“…genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”

They come from a family of 7 kids, they were homeschooled, they started playing together as a band when they were 11, 9, and 6 and they stuck with it for 5 years (which, for a kid is like eternity). They did some very ballsy things like cornering a music executive at South By Southwest to ask if they could sing for him. I always think, who is this mysterious Mrs. Hanson and can I meet her someday? For the three of them to have this vision, she had to have it too.

They started their own website in the late 90’s – an actual ISP – which they kept when music executives told them they didn’t need it. It proved to be – as with many technological advances they either helped pioneer or adopted early – one of the ways they kept their career afloat when the music industry turned against them. 

When their record label got bought by another company, and that company refused to promote their second album very well and told them their careers were over, they took their earnings and started their own record label. I don’t have all the details about this by heart, but when they finally ended up putting out their third album, “Underneath” (five years and hundreds of songs later), it was something like the highest selling independent record that year. They’ve built several businesses, events, and non-profit organizations, and continued writing and doing live shows all over the world at a breakneck pace. 

That’s all peripheral, though. Their real genius is in songwriting. You might know them from Mmmbop (which they wrote as little children I might add), but the rest of their work speaks for itself. And there is a TON of it. In my opinion, you should give it a listen and let it speak to you.  

Back To My First Concert

So anyway, in 2017, I sort of expect that when they hit the stage it’ll be like when I did the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Which was, probably when I was 13, at a homeschool skating party in LaPorte, Indiana. Shelley Foster had been chatting with this new boy; a good-looking, self-possessed kid a bit older than me who had shown up at our monthly event where no new boys ever came. I truly must have been goaded at her or I must have responded to an inner dare because I ordinarily would never have openly approached a cute teenaged boy without an intermediary. It’s the only time I can remember having done so. 

I was ill. 

Like, seriously. I felt like I was going to throw up.

(Funny aside here. One of the things I did in preparation for the Hanson show in 2017 was to buy the official Hanson biography from 1997 on eBay. One of the best parts of this book is when Taylor is describing how it is sometimes difficult to talk to the girls who come to their shows because they’re screaming so much you can’t ask them any questions. I still laugh out loud at the image of Taylor kindly trying to talk to a girl who is literally screaming in his face.)

At that homeschool skating party, I experienced – in the midst of my terror – a wild exhilaration for having mustered my courage. Oh my gosh. Teenaged boys…amiright? Only to be dashed back to earth to find out it was his younger brother being homeschooled and did I want to meet him? But still. I did it.

And now, here I am at Iron City, and not much has changed except one husband, 3 children, 20 years and 50 lbs., waiting to feel annihilated. And then suddenly they’re there onstage, and the crowd is roaring, and I just…I don’t know. I forget myself. In a good way. I know right away I should’ve done it years ago. There isn’t a single nanosecond from the time they walk onstage until they belt out the last notes of “Rockin’ Robin” acapella that I’m not enthralled. I sing, clap, jump and pump my fist in the air, and I have NEVER been that kind of person. 

Words cannot describe the light, sparkling character of that show. It was like a wide open sky, a big effervescent bubble of joy expanding upward and out into the night, pulling my heart right along with it. It was a “swift sunrise over a far green country.” For two hours, I got to put myself aside while they took over and it was the truest rest I’ve had in a very long time.

Walking Into Embarassment

I guess this is the thing loving Hanson, and yes even having a crush on Taylor, has done for me: I have been invited to walk into embarrassment and find I could survive it. It continues to be the perfect foil to my envy-stricken self. Was it ever “cool” to be a die-hard Hanson fan? Not the way I do it (come on…a BACKPACK?). I was never a screamer, or a stalker, but all the rest of it that’s true of their other fans is true of me too. Was it ever “cool” to be one of the screaming girl horde? On the contrary, I couldn’t even look at a Hanson poster much less put one on my wall in my embarrassment. How cool is it now, when I’m almost 40? Zero. Negative cool. 

Here’s the thing about embarrassment that I just learned: it can be the cover for evil. I just read this book “People Of The Lie, The Hope For Healing Human Evil,” by M. Scott Peck. According to Peck, the foundation for a healthy psyche is summed up in this quotation of St. Therese of Lisieux: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.” I would expand that definition to say “for other people” as well. According to Peck, the opposite is also true. What evil does is hide from the world, and from itself. It can’t bear the light of truth or reason.

I found it helpful to read his observations on evil, because it’s not something you can easily pinpoint in yourself or in someone else. Most evil isn’t flashy, it’s mundane and boring. You know how when you’re around some people you feel easily confused about why they are so off-putting because nothing about them seems like it should bother you? You have an aversion to them, but you are convinced that everything is your problem? Or when you’re unable to reconcile in a fight with another person because they just can’t or won’t see things from your point of view, and if they would just understand you they’d realize you didn’t do anything wrong? 

Yeah, that’s evil. I know, because I just did it yesterday to Henry. In the car. On the way to church.

Flannery O’Connor, puts this idea in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” So often, we cling to the appearance of “being good,” to acting good and being good at things, because we can’t bear to see ourselves as we really are. We go to God or to church or to social justice, etc. (or all of the above) because we are trying to get as far away from our own badness as we can. It’s often the true misfits of this world who understand this first. Hence, the beatitudes.

I had never really thought about what it meant that I was too embarrassed to be the screaming girl or to admit that I had a crush on Taylor. But I think I finally got something right because of the light and life that has come into my life when I decided to be mortified. I could have gone on the way I was, trying to ignore him, and them, but I miraculously didn’t. Maybe it’s never going to feel “good.” Being willing to be displeasing to myself, and to see reality the way it is is a necessary part of becoming more human. Sometimes a hard-won triumph feels kind of shitty. 

This thing with Hanson isn’t the thing that has ruled my life (contrary to how I make it sound), but it has become kind of a catalyst. Once I went back to that point where I had refused to be embarrassed and admitted I was just like those “other” girls who were totally obsessed with this guy, I realized I had some grieving to do, which was in itself also embarrassing. But it was like cleaning out a bunch of rooms that were stuffed with junk. I still do grieve over it sometimes: that time in my life, the things I’ll never have, the person I didn’t become, circumstances beyond my control. But that one little turning – that facing the truth that Taylor is a real person and I wanted his attention but would never have it, and pressing through the embarrassment to admit it to myself (and now the internet) – has made all the difference. The more firmly I keep it turned, the more light I let into those rooms. 

You’ll never believe this, but it was Tolkien who helped me understand what was happening to me in this passage from The Fellowship Of The Ring. When the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien – the realm of the Elf-Queen Galadriel – Gimli the dwarf has had an experience of beauty that left him grief-stricken. He’s seen Galadriel and Lothlorien and he’ll never be the same.

“Gimli wept openly.

“I have looked the last upon that which was fairest,’ he said to Legolas his companion. “Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.” He put his hand to his breast.

“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!”

“Nay!” said Legolas. “Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Gloin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlorien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.”

“Maybe,” said Gimli; “and I think you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires…”

Image by @cnngptrai

What Happened After

Facing my fear and grief freed me to really see Taylor (and Isaac, and Zac) – not just idolize him – and to hear their music and be changed by it. There was work being done that I wasn’t doing at that concert. I only brought myself there, and that was hard enough. I never expected any kind of resolution. I expected to feel something like indifference or arrogance, I’m ashamed to admit. You know how you can tell when someone is performing disdainfully? It’s not a nice feeling. I expected to feel something like that, but it was the opposite. It was all generosity and humility and joy. I don’t know how they do it. It’s probably about who they are as people. I started out admiring them as boys and nothing I’ve ever heard them say or heard about them doing has changed that. My admiration for them has only grown. 

We crazy, female Hanson fans say it all the time: their music has gotten me through some very low points. It is uniquely inspiring. And I really mean that. I don’t get inspired that way or feel that kind of optimism easily. They are relentlessly kind, and humble. They are relentless, period. They embody the best things about manhood. They are a force for good that I would have missed;  that I did miss for a long time. I wouldn’t be able to say this about many other public figures. They should be as big as U2, and we wish for their sake that they were, but it doesn’t truly matter. They are always working, always hoping for the best, always grateful for what they have, always trying to impart hope and joy and meaning to those who are listening. 

In these dark days, I can imagine what a difficult job that must be and I’m even more grateful. 

When you become a fanclub member, you get access to all kinds of cool stuff. They do a lot for their fans. One of the things they do is throw a big party to celebrate “Hanson Day” in Tulsa (May 6th was declared Hanson Day by Oklahoma’s then-governor Frank Keating), and you can only get tickets if you are a member. I have never been, but it’s full of special workshops, game nights, concerts and more. I was watching some footage of a big announcement on Hanson Day a few months ago. They were announcing more tours (since canceled because of COVID) and more studio albums. It’s been several years since their last studio album, “Anthem.” (don’t let that fool you. They’re constantly writing new songs). The new album, scheduled for release in 2021 (if 2021 even happens), is called “Against The World.” I was struck by something Taylor said during that announcement.

(I know none of you care, but I know I’m harping on Taylor a lot. I just need ya’ll to know that I think they’re all amazing and talented. And I love them all like the big brothers I never had. They all say and write and sing things that inspire me and give me hope.)

Here’s what he said: “it’s not just us *pointing to himself and his brothers* against the world, it’s us *pointing to himself and the audience* against the world.” I thought, how beautiful is that? He could be saying the first thing and we would all accept it. But he’s taking his talent, beauty, and power and throwing in his lot with us – arguably misfits. He’s saying he’s on our side and he’s sticking with us. If that’s not an emulation of Christ, I don’t know what is. 

I’m just so grateful.

Here are the lyrics to a new Hanson song that was written and released this Spring/Summer on their Members only EP “Continental Breakfast In Bed,” (which is currently sitting on top of my Bose). I wanted to share it because it perfectly expresses how I feel in the world right now. How so many of us feel. You can hear some of it on their YouTube channel, but I think you should just become a member so you can own it, and see what you’re missing.

It’s called “All I Know.” 

I hear my shoulders beg for rest

I can feel my beating heart pounding inside my chest

and I fear the future, so I hold it tight

turn my ear to listen, but I can’t hear a word tonight

So I try

and fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end is coming soon

But with all I know

all I know

is not enough

I have kept my secrets

but I’ve told few lies

anyone can see the man that hides behind these eyes

Like an unknown question in an unseen light

too many reasons

hang over me tonight

But I try

and I fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end will find me soon

with all I know

all I know

is not enough

It’s not enough

I’ve had enough

I’m tired of this kind of living

It’s not enough

something is bound to give in soon

I’ve had enough

I’m tired of this kind of living

‘Cause all I know is not enough

I’m done with living

in the past

where anything I’ve done that’s good I doubt will ever last

well, I’ve earned my reasons, anyone can tell

but I’d be gladly parted of them for a chance to finish well

So I try

and I fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end will be here soon

with all I know

all I know

with all I know

and all I know

is not enough

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