Beauty in Ordinary Days: Appreciating JJ Heller
“Oh, Mom! JJ Heller!” my two-year-old, Shiloh, exclaimed in the backseat as the song shuffled through the speakers. I didn’t know she was listening, much less processing and correctly identifying the singer-songwriter. I was proud, but it made sense. Heller has filled our house with daily anthems, lullabies, anxiety-soothing balms, and beautiful music these last two years.
Shiloh was born in early 2021, while the world was still plagued by uncertainty as COVID fears stretched on. We didn’t know if anyone would be able to greet her, so the privilege of my family being present to welcome my daughter home from the hospital was meaningful enough. My sisters came prepared, keyboard in tow. One sister held my tiny newborn while the other sang Heller’s “Hand to Hold.” This Christmas, we brought our son, Judah, home from the hospital. My sisters repeated the ritual, and it became a beloved tradition.
May you never lose the wonder in your soul May you always have a blanket for the cold May the living light inside you be the compass as you go May you always know you have my hand to hold.
Experiencing the newborn phase the second time makes me want to go back and offer grace to myself as I struggled through several first-time mom moments of crippling anxiety. Even now, I feel the thirst for grace as the floods of worries and inadequacies creep up. I type these thoughts out while sitting on the floor, caked in layers of spit-up, cooing nonsense babble, in the twenty-minute window where Shiloh naps and Judah is semi-content. Heller’s songs offer me the grace I struggle to give myself: “It feels like forever / But it’s gonna get better / Hold on.”
When I look back on certain seasons of my life, hindsight highlights ebenezers of artwork. Art marks time; it helps me characterize and see beyond immediate vantage points. In this physically demanding season, I don’t have time to linger slowly through my favorite museums. My emotional tolerance for great plot has tragically diminished. Reading and writing used to fuel my faith, but I’m so tired even when I’m gifted time to engage in these acts. Instead of feeling shame, I feel hope because the cornerstone in this season’s ebenezer is music, and Heller’s songs are a foundation in that pile of rocks.
Her songs are gentle reminders to pay attention. I sit on the porch with my babies and play “I spy.” I notice the sparkling beads of water that pool up on top of the grass blades. Shiloh’s learning colors, so I wonder what color to name that bit of shine. A pinecone falls from the tree across the street and rolls down the hill. I don’t have time to capture it in a poem, but I appreciate Shiloh’s laughter. And later, when I listen to Heller sing, “Every park bench is a pew / There’s a sanctuary everywhere that I go / When my eyes are open / I see you,” I remember the pinecone rolling down the street.
I’m glad JJ Heller’s music, like all good art, helps me in the sacred work of understanding, of believing, of glimpsing, of loving. Sarah Bramblett
I had never pondered the poetic truth that “All who live in love are Thine / Teach us how to love each other/ Lift us to the joy divine” until Shiloh requested Heller’s version of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” be played on repeat as we play with a bucket of water. Shiloh stomps on a sponge so she can see her footprints. Judah coos. I’ve heard it said before that children are sponges, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I saw how my mood can impact my four-month-old, until I heard Shiloh lift up a teacup and say, “Ah, delicious!” just like I often do. All who live in Love are Thine—stomping on the sponge, soaking up the water. Teach me how to love my children—a footprint. Let them soak in their belovedness. I might not utter long, thoughtful prayers these days. But as “Joyful, Joyful” plays, Shiloh is absorbing truth and I’m letting the Spirit intercede, through Heller’s voice.
Because we’re listening on repeat, these songs are becoming my voice, too. Before I had kids, I never sang. I loved music, but I doubted my voice. Shiloh strips me of my self-consciousness, and I sing for her, “You are poetry in motion and you want to dance with me.” I also catch myself singing when I’m alone, fighting ants for the crumbs scattered under the kitchen table, no music playing, “Big magic in the mundane / The big picture in a small frame / Everything is sacred when you take time to notice / Big love happens in the small moments.” These songs root in the heart; they speak to moments and lifetimes.
Shiloh asks to read “the light book,” Heller’s picture book Hand to Hold (she calls it the light book because of the little lamp with stars in the corner). We turn to the page with the photo album, the picture with the words, “Every day, you’re changing, sometimes I wish it wasn’t true. Hearts are made for giving, I’ve given mine to you.” I struggle to maintain an even, happy tone since Shiloh can’t yet understand why the beauty of growing up makes me want to cry. And if she asks her favorite question, “OOT (what) that, Mama?” I’m not sure I’d be able to explain the profound mystery. I’m glad JJ Heller’s music, like all good art, helps me in the sacred work of understanding, of believing, of glimpsing, of loving.