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  • Tim Mathis

Sufjan Stevens didn't read my book, but his stepdad liked it.

My first book only had a couple hundred readers. One of them, randomly, was my favorite musician's father.

This is the second of 2 stories about things that happened surrounding the release of I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation in its original form, a decade ago. I haven't previously shared either of these stories publicly, but I think they're interesting.

It's a strange fact that, although the original I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation only had a couple hundred readers, one of them was Sufjan Stevens' stepdad.

To a greater or lesser degree, I've always been a music person, but when I was going through the process of deciding that I was leaving my faith, it was a lifeline. That's cliche phrasing, but it's true. When you're suffering in secret, feeling like you can't talk about what you going through openly, art can be the thing that helps you remember that you're not actually alone in the world. My most important coping skills while I was leaving involved 1) running, to replace whatever stress chemicals cause negative emotions with the positive ones produced by physical activity, 2) listening to music, or 3) running while I was listening to music to magnify the effects of both drugs.

My favorite secret cathartic release at the time was Frank Turner's Glory Hallelujah for reasons that will make sense if you hear it.

Aside from that song though, during that time I was listening to a lot of music by a couple of artists that I'd originally discovered a decade earlier when I was a young evangelical, whose faith trajectories had roughly tracked with my own. David Bazan, who'd been the lead singer for the band Pedro the Lion released an album called Curse Your Branches that was in fact his own public announcement about losing faith. It must've been the album I listened to the most in 2010, and the song Bearing Witness got me every time.

I was also listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens. While his music had always been more ambiguously faith-related, it also frequently focused on exactly the types of issues that were driving me out of religion - sexuality, America, suffering and questions about why people do terrible things. Deep stuff. He released the album Age of Adz, during the time when I was posting I Hope I Was Wrong in a series of blog posts for the first time, and for me it was in constant rotation alongside Curse Your Branches.

In a weird coincidence - or a demonstration that the world isn't actually that big of a place - I had a two degrees of separation connection with both Sufjan and Dave Bazan, via a friend in Seattle who I'd worked with in a bottle distribution warehouse just after I moved to town.

When we worked together, I was on a misguided quest to become an Episcopal priest, but my friend had been developing a career as a musician and was working on a lot of interesting local projects. Bazan himself was a Seattle local, and my friend had worked with him throughout his career - including on Curse Your Branches. Around the time that the album came out, my friend got married, so Angel and I ended up at a reception table with Bazan and his family. I was too awkward to engage in anything but small talk (and anyway bringing up religion with someone you just met at a wedding is a pretty significant party foul), but I had a brief personal brush with an artist who would shortly after give me the courage to publicly admit that I'd lost faith.

The same friend, by a series of other connections, worked with Sufjan shortly after, when he was invited to play with him on the Age of Adz tour. This is where this story gets a little bit weird and unexpected, at least for me.

A few months after I published I Hope I Was Wrong on Amazon, I got a random message request on Facebook from someone named Lowell Brams, who said that he'd noticed an unusual coincidence. We had a mutual friend in Seattle - my friend the musician - and both had connections to Camden - my tiny hometown in Preble County, Ohio. I initially wondered if it might be a spammer, but it felt more like the kind of friendly random contact you might get from a distant relative or acquaintance who was filling an afternoon on the internet back in the innocent days before Facebook was primarily for fighting. I bit, and asked him about those connections. He introduced himself, and told me that my friend had stayed at his house when he was on tour with his stepson, Sufjan. He then said that he himself had been raised for part of his childhood in Preble County, and had good memories of Camden. We talked a bit about those connections, and I told him that I'd just released a book that was in large part about my upbringing there. I sent him a link - he read it and we had a nice exchange about Preble County, religion, and life. He was kind and encouraging, and after a few messages we exchanged pleasantries and went our separate ways.

I of course geeked out on the peripheral brush with fame, as well as the strange coincidence that I had this random connection with an artist I was listening to constantly at the time - both personally and by way of Preble County, Ohio. I did a bit of digging, and Lowell was also the founder of Asthmatic Kitty Records, which releases Sufjan's music, along with a lot of other interesting independent artists. A few years after our exchange, Sufjan released Carrie and Lowell, a brilliant album about his grief around his mother's death, and her relationship with Lowell, who'd played a large part in raising him. Last year, Sufjan and Lowell released an instrumental album together called Aporia. In the end, I'm glad I didn't brush his message off as spam.

Of all of the new connections I made after releasing I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation the first time around, this was definitely the most memorable, roundabout, and unexpected. It was a small interaction, but it was a gift to establish a relationship to an artist whose work was important to me through a difficult period of life. Because Lowell took the time to read my story, it gave me the sense that, at some cosmic level, my own dumb little piece of art is intermingling with Sufjan's and with his own, which is a cool outcome of a decision to release a bit of my own story into the world.

If you want to buy it, the new version of I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation is for sale here.

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I won't hassle you with ads on this site, but I will ask you to check out my books. You might like them, and I get a little endorphin hit with every purchase that makes me want to keep writing. Everybody wins.

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