November 26, 2020

Lent with Mary Chapin Carpenter (4)

Lent with Mary Chapin Carpenter (4)

Each year, on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, I focus attention on a singer-songwriter or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find echoes of the Lenten journey.

This year, we devote ourselves to listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s superb intensely personal album from 2012, Ashes And Roses, which describes her own journey “from night into day,” as she processed a life-threatening illness, a divorce, and the death of her father. Grief became her constant companion in that season of her life, and the songs that sprang from her sad experience are insightful and moving.

Grief can annihilate our magical thinking. That is the point of one of the album’s finest meditations: “The Swords We Carry.” The superficial nature of many of our “beliefs” gets laid bare. The “swords” we’ve used to guard ourselves whenever reality threatened us prove useless when it finally breaks through and overwhelms us. We learn the lament, the cry of those whose easy faith is confronted by pain never before imagined. Anfechtung leaves us speechless, defenseless, lost.

Back when I believed in luck
And stones and crosses
I’d put a coin found on the street
Towards cosmic losses
And passing graveyards in a car
Tracing every falling star
Luck was never very far from childhood causes

And pennies kissed with wishes arced into the fountains
And time was said to heal all pain
And hope move mountains
And all that could befall a heart
Or break this perfect life apart
The swords we carried could not do a thing about them
Away I am going, away I am gone…

Ghosts and angels are but memories and visions
And revenants are out there taking up positions
But back when I believed in you
You’d raise the sun and set the moon
How could I help but love you holy as religion
Away you are going, away you are gone…

But back when I believed in luck and words as spoken
I found a lie could break and split the world clean open
And grief became my company
Pain so deep I could not breathe
All betrayal is like dying in slow motion

Is it luck that makes us shout or makes us whisper?
Is it luck that makes us wise or turns us bitter?
With our maps that point true north
With our vows we sally forth
The swords we carried can’t protect us from each other
Away we are going, away we are gone…

Comments

  1. How lovely and poignant. Everybody feels it but not everybody can express it. And how can you improve on a beautiful voice and a finger-picked acoustic guitar?

  2. Just fabulous! So lyrically smooth. She seems to be saying (But back when I believed in you
    You’d raise the sun and set the moon) that she lost her belief in God through this terrible grief. I hope that has mellowed in the ensuing years and she sees a little light in that thick darkness.

    • –> “I hope that has mellowed in the ensuing years and she sees a little light in that thick darkness.”

      Chris, as a fellow creative type, I think you’ll agree that it is precisely in writing and singing a song like this that helps a person see the light in the thick darkness. My guess is that crafting this tune helped MCC in the midst of her grief, providing some catharsis.

      • Yes! I’m writing a song right now from Job’s perspective which is not flattering shall we say. One song is not the last word.

    • ChrisS–it occurred to me as well that this sounds like a “loss of faith in God” song. And yet, in other places, she seems to be referencing human relationships, maybe her divorce? I found this lyric gut-wrenching:

      And all that could befall a heart
      Or break this perfect life apart

      Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional? Regardless, the song is beautifully melancholy and brutally honest.

  3. –> “Grief can annihilate our magical thinking.”

    That line made me think of Joan Didion’s fine book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” A must-read.

  4. Oh my. What a wonderful set of words for something I could find nothing to express (and then an avalanche that became a novel).

    The swords we carried could not do a thing about them

    Truth. But perhaps even worse is that one of those swords was that of community and love for fellow Christians. Faced with a non-standard loss that didn’t fit their expectations, they held the tighter to their swords and decamped in search of something to fight with them. The solitude, loss of community, compounded the loss, deepened the darkness.

    It was very clear that whatever I thought love was, it was not. Somewhere here in the ruins, perhaps, a little of the real thing grows.

    • anonymous says

      what comes through the fire, is real

      nothing shallow can make the long journey, no pretense can survive