Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Hold on the Light Will Come

Hi friends!

One quick note: I updated my goodreads widget so check it out to see what I've been reading!

Now to business.

I recently read Michael McLean's book, Hold On, the Light Will Come, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed. I suppose it was because I had my hopes all up and that rarely leads to a good reading experience. You'd think I'd know better by now.

McLean and I go way back. Fifteen years in fact. I remember getting a tape of his for Christmas when I was eleven (I think it was the only tape I ever owned; I got cd's after that) and my dad was in the bishopric of a student ward. I was doing community theater by that point and was gone a lot. Anyway, I came home from play practice one Monday night to a house full of college students and my parents nowhere in sight. I mean, the place was packed. It was a Family Home Evening group and since we lived in Utah there were probably forty giddy co-eds kicking it in our house. They were in the kitchen, the living room, the backyard, everywhere. So I did what any tweenaged girl would do. I panicked. I locked myself in my bedroom (which I was sharing with my older sister) and turned on the tunes. Michael McLean's "You're Not Alone" came pouring out of the speakers on my little boombox and soothed me. I rewound it and listened to it over and over until my sister finally came in and asked me what the heck I was doing and didn't I want refreshments?

As an older teen I liked listening to his music and I would sometimes put lines up on my wall (I wallpapered my room in quotations from music, poetry, and books), but even then I knew they didn't make whole lot of sense. Emotionally they were satisfying but artistically they left something to be desired. (His song about anger, "If it's not love, simply let it go", is a perfect is example. Since when is anger like an innocent, injured bird? Only if that bird is an angry goose and you're the last picnicker and you're all out of bread crumbs.) Nevertheless, I still looked forward to our family's annual attendance of The Forgotten Carols concert at USU and even the cheesy hand holding and singing at the end.

I eventually got too sophisticated for Michael McLean and forgot him completely until my sister mentioned the fact that he was depressed. She said she'd read about it in one of his books and she liked what he had said. My heart thrilled a little. What? Another depressed Mormon? One who's open about? One who used his art to help fix it? Maybe, just maybe, Michael McLean had a few more thoughts worth hearing. So I read the book.

Here's what he said about depression:
I know life's hard and things are tough . . . I know how dark it can feel . . . why do you think I'm waiting in line for antidepressants? But when i hear a story in a song, and someone overcomes something, or finds a way to hold on or learns how to let go or discovers something that alters the way they view their life, I want to celebrate it[. . .]I want to know that somewhere inside of me I'm capable of feeling hope" (p. 3).

And that was it. The rest of the book is just as cheesy and campy as his music. At first I took it personally that he glossed over all the struggles and I wondered if Deseret Book had pressured him keep the depression talk to a minimum. And maybe they did. Maybe I should just be happy that he owned up the fact that he's depressed and on antidepressants. Besides Marie Osmond, who also sings campy music (coincidentally? hmm. . .), McLean is one of the few Mormons who owns up to mood disorder struggles and needing help.

But I wanted more. I still want to know if he has suicidal thoughts or violent visions. Has he ever been so depressed he couldn't feel the Spirit? How does his wife live with it? How has it affected his children? How could he hear the music through the crazy? Really, I wanted to know if he was like me and if had any survival tips. This book didn't answer any of those questions.

It's funny to me, though, that I can't let Michael McLean go. I still have his autograph tucked away in one of my journals somewhere. Seriously. I actually waited in line at a book store so that he could sign a bright green sticky note for me.(My only thought at the time: "Man! He's old!") A lot of the time, when I'm really frustrated and overwhelmed random lyrics will come to me. "Which part is mine? And, God, which part is yours? Could you tell me one more time? I'm never quite sure?" is like a muzak-ghost some days. Or even, "like an awkward dancer on a crowded floor, I'll learn to dance once more, someday." And, of course, "You're not alone." My brain still pulls that out as a reminder sometimes.

Despite my general frustration with his music, there is one song of his that I have always loved. "Gentle" really meant a lot to me as a high schooler and I still think it has some merit. Here's my favorite part (for all the lyrics click here):

Life can hard, but we need not be
so hard on ourselves, if we will see…

Like the shepherd leads his flock with gentle commands.
With his gentle voice that only hearts understand.
One thing we can know for certain, He has borne the awful burdens
So we can be gentle with ourselves.

Still gets me. Every time. I guess I shouldn't write him off after all.


Kelly said...

I am somewhat conflicted about Michael McLean as well. As a musician, I feel his music is on par with some pop music -- same basic chords, songs sound the same. I find him dangerous in that his music is highly emotionally charged -- and people can confuse that emotion with the Holy Ghost. To feel something deeply is NOT necessarily to feel the Spirit.

But yes, as a youth his songs really meant something to me, especially "You're Not Alone", "Together Forever" and "Hold On."
There are truths in his songs that touched me as a teenager that I still cling to.

I believe Michael McLean is doing a great job in his life's mission. His music is simple -- it reaches especially to the young among us, and to those of us who are feeling troubled or sorrowful. And I think he has the power to do that precisely because of his depression -- because he has felt a depth of sorrow, anger, frustration, a reaching for the Lord, that is so evident in his music. And he is able to reach people who have been there -- who are there now -- and give them hope and comfort.

For that, I applaud him. But as a musician looking for great art, I am somewhat disappointed. I wish his music were more inventive, clever, and interesting. I wish his lyrics were less cheesy and emotional, more poetic. But I suspect if I got my wish, his music would be less powerful and influential than it is.

And so I pause and wonder why...

Am I just looking beyond the mark?

Charlotte said...

Thanks for the review Laura! I think for me, I've never had quite the same Michael-love that you did and so my expectations weren't as high. I think that seen from today's vantage point he's a bit of a museum piece but back when he first started he was the only one even broaching some of these topics and I while I don't really listen to his music anymore I still appreciate the impact he had on me then.

PS> I do think this shows a significant need for more and better LDS literature on depression. Written by you, I daresay:)

Maria said...

I appreciate your review. I found it after googling Micheal McLean and depression. It is disappointing that he didn't go into detail about his depression and how he and his family deal with it. Reading books about real people's experiences and thoughts during depression really helped me while I was muddling through some pretty intense PPD. I was hoping this book may help my husband, who has (untreated) depression. He has a similar 'history' with Micheal McLean as you do. If the book is mostly about looking on the bright side, though, I think my husband may just throw it out the window. Literally.
Do you really think depression is not talked about much in the Mormon community? It seems to me that whenever or where ever I bring it up, others have experiences to share. I guess I am the one that brings it up alot, though. Maybe I'm the resident, "talk to her if you wanna talk about depression" chick in our ward and among my friends. I dunno. I've just never really felt 'hushed' or 'shamed' about dealing with depression. Sometimes pitied, which bugs the heck outta me, but that's another topic.
I'm excited to explore your blog. Open communication about depression is so helpful, I think! It has been for me, at least. I hope someday it will be for my husband. Do you have any resource suggestions for dealing with a loved one who does not feel especially hopeful (ok, he's completely hopeless) or open to treatment? Now I'm thinking about it, I wonder if his resistance may come from some culturally instilled queasiness about owning up to mental illness. He was raised in Utah. He's always giving me a hard time about stereotyping 'Utah Mormons' and I try really hard not to do it, but sometimes it's just really clear that culture, not faith, is playing in some situations. So maybe that statement about Mormons not being open about depression holds more water than I originally believed.

Laura said...


Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

To answer your question, I do think that mental illness and mood disorders are getting a lot easier to talk about and deal with in Mormon culture. There have been plenty of articles in the Ensign, and American culture at large seems to be gaining understanding.

I think for individuals, though, it's still hard. For a lot of people talking about depression in an academic manner or as something that happens to someone else isn't hard, but owning up to it when you already feel trashed and asking for help when everything inside you is telling you that you are completely worthless and unlovable is an extremely difficult task. I can't speak for your husband, but I imagine it is a whole different ball game when you are a man. Emotional rules are different for them--or at least a lot of men feel that way.

I don't have any real advice except that prayer and patience can work miracles. I applaud you for being willing to work with him and loving him along the way!

Maria said...

Thanks for the reminder about what it's like to be in the middle of depression. You're right--it IS really hard to convince yourself to ask for help when you feel like no one under the sun would ever help someone as (insert self-deprecating name) as you. I think that will help me as I try to be patient, yet persistent with my husband.