Back to the Basics of Love

Lent is kind of scary. Not like Halloween scary since there aren’t ghosts, at least not the kinds of ghosts that wear sheets and yell “Boo!” Maybe it’s because nobody’s hollering that Lent is kind of frightening. The only other sound is skeletons rattling in the closet and it’s time for spring cleaning. Do we really want to see the mess we have made? Obviously not, given the fact that we shoved it into the darkness with the pants that will never, ever fit again but we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of.

So the first step is opening the door and letting all that stuff fall out if it is going to fall (wouldn’t that be helpful?) It’s a risk, and there might be tears and fears, as Both Sides Now suggests. But it’s the same risk as saying “I love you” right out loud. I’m not sure you can do the one without the other. This version of the song comes from the movie CODA and is kind of the emotional payoff of the film, so go watch it. As iconic as Joni Mitchell’s original is, thinking of this version in the context of the movie doesn’t fail to get me teary.

Still, being vulnerable is hard and the temptation is to retreat, to say “too much information” and never speak of the good hard thing again. I wonder if that isn’t what drove Jesus into the desert after his dad said he was beloved, not so much to escape from his feelings but to sit with them for a minute (and not eat those Oreos that the devil kept offering). He must have had to focus on what all of this work was for. Certainly it was not the four car garage that Waylon sings about in Luckenbach, Texas. Luckenbach is in the middle of nowhere, the wilderness if you will, out in the Hill Country. Its long-time owner and mayor, Hondo Crouch, used to say, “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.” When we are hungover from having opened up ourselves, it’s a good reminder to get back to the basics. The point is love.

Romantic love for sure, but also that loving bond between friends. There is a mystery about lifelong friendships. How does that happen? The stress of two (or three) lives pulling on the ties that bind seem certain to break them at some point. Even if they don’t — and the bonds between Nanci Griffith and her friend see to hold in There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret) — there are bound to be hurts, slights, and gaps. The wonder of Nanci Griffith for me has always been her ability to hold the hurts and the hope together in the same song.

Not all bonds hold together though. Sometimes they rupture through no fault of our own. Sometimes we break them. Alanis Morrisette gives voice to the question that seems to inevitably rise in that situation: am I ok? That I Would Be Good might be an intercession for wholeness, for holding together as things fall apart, but it might also be a prayer that, despite what has happened or what we have done, we might still have the chance to be something other than the worst of ourselves.

There is, perhaps, a little less hope and a little more hurt in Racing in the Streets. Townes Van Zandt’s voice brings a particular rawness to Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics in this version that is, for me, a Reese’s Cup of two great talents that sound great together. I’m not sure that it will outsell the original Reesee’s, however, given the tangled tensions that form around a thing which once brought people together and now seems to be grinding both of them into the pavement.

At least Gordo knows who’s to blame in Early Morning Rain. The liquor tasted good and the women all were were fast, but taking flight into the ethereal realms of the divine, much less getting a good meal and a warm bed, are off the table. You can’t jump the train to Jordan any more than you can a plane to Ontario. Cold, wet grass is not even a close approximate to fields of barley, much less Fields of Gold. The delicate, clear voice of Eva Cassidy was not widely known before she died of cancer in 1996. Since then, her fame has spread on the strength of the recordings she left behind, like this one that captures both the wistfulness of lost summers and the expectant hope of future harvest. As one who has broken his share of promises, I hope she’s right.

Part of that hope comes from the possibility that nothing is lost or wasted. Neil Young’s Helpless is a reflection on how our memories of a place, the ones we call good and the ones we call bad, are parts of our story. Who we were there and what we did there is an essential part of who we are now, and if we are grateful for the now, we might feel helpless to explain the grace that got us here.

Yes, there are forces bigger than us. I trust in that force that can bend our narratives toward healing, but I also can’t deny the forces that exploit, demean, and dehumanize. Bill Withers could have sung the Slab Fork, West Virginia phone book and made me want to dance, but he also would have made me consider my life choices. Same with Harlem, where he captures the effects of greed and corruption — even in the church — as well as the humanity of the people who live there. Being honest about who we are is a collective enterprise every bit as much as it is an individual one.

What do you do with a whole group of people who know, or at least suspect, that the great flood is coming and can’t really do a whit about it? Jackson Browne sings to our higher intentions in Before The Deluge. We are all doing the best we can until the light that lies within us reaches the sky. Some of us might even make it onto the ark. Except for John Prine though, but don’t worry about him. He’s found Sweet Revenge in the fact that not everything is broken yet. Not all of our friends are dead or in jail.

So in the end we find ourselves in some kind of hillbilly Pietà, Leaning On The Everlasting Arms. The Louvin Brothers are singing about Jesus, not Mary, but the strength is the same. Ira and Charlie did some leaning in their days. If they didn’t invent the High Lonesome Sound, they are the ones who spread it throughout country music, and like all good country musicians, they sang about heaven so much because they lived through hell. Ira was especially notorious for drinking and womanizing. His third wife shot him, multiple times, defending herself against his raging temper. But when Ira and Charlie’s voices combined in an ethereal combination termed “blood harmony” because it seems only to be achieved by siblings, the effect was like transubstantiation according to one critic.

Maybe that is what scares us most about Lent, the possibility that we might be transformed. Not that we always like who and what we are, but at least we know what this is. If we open up those dark places, God only knows what we’ll find and how we’ll be different. The invitation of Lent, on the other hand, is that God does know, and what God know is that not only will we be good, we are already.