Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grief Work in the Basement Garden 2: Songs for the Journey

I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs:  “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.”  That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch.  In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years.  Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need.  You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.

There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list.  Maybe it will, maybe not.  But I do like to hear about songs others have liked.  So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.”  You probably have some great additions to this.

  • Peter Rowan, Legacy   “Father, Mother”   This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled.  A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers.  It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
  • Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters  “God Believes in You”
  • Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow    “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.”  Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
  • Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
  • Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin  “Borken Places”  I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago.  After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.

    Ashley Cleveland’s “Broken Places” is one of my favorites

    Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg.   is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places

Chained to the past, chained to the fear  
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races

I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes

  • Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic.  Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
  • Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor.  I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old  Nebraska farmer.  The song speaks for itself.  Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas.  CLICK TO LISTEN
  • Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around.  “Hurt.”  I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made.  It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song.  The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem   “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano.  Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father.  I listened to it again and again in the 1980s.  “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me.  Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
  • Rosanne Cash   Black Cadillac   This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.”  When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father.  Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”  Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died.  It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song.  It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs.  It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!).  You can listen to it all over YouTube.  It continues to speak to those who grieve.
  • Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute.  Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville.  It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999.  Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died.  My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…

     I’ve been walking in my sleep
     Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
     Where the years went, I can’t say
     I just turned around and they’ve gone away
 
     I’ve been sifting through the layers
     Of dusty books and faded papers
     They tell a story I used to know
     And it was one that happened so long ago
 
      It’s gone away in yesterday
      And I find myself on the mountainside
      Where the rivers change direction
      Across the great divide
 
     The finest hour that I have seen
     Is the one that comes between
     The edge of night and the break of day
     It’s when the darkness rolls away

  • Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns?  They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others.  Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds.  Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance.  My other favorites (only a few!):

“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance”  I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip.  I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Amazing Grace”
“Shall We Gather At the River”

Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.

Say Hello to Porky for Me…

In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days.   It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel.  When I was a student, I

Miss Jenkins, in my 1973 annual, in her style shamelessly stolen by Flannery O’Connor and Lauren Winner

heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others.  I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers.  Now it was at hand.

I sent biographical info about me ahead of time.  The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives.  Here is what I wrote:

As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary.  Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins.  You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team.  Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby.  The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!

My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking.  I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever.  We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.

Mother and Child. Miss Jenkins was always coming by.

Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us.  We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something  else.  Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful.  It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva.  More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am.  I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.

My teachers changed my life.  Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience.  She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.

Henrietta loved her subject.  She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages.  “By heart” was an apt discussion.  When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.

Unidentified close friend of Miss Jenkins

But she was more.  Henrietta was our neighbor.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month.  A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her.  She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her.  She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer).  And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.

Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety.  He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks  were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible.  Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it.  She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion.  Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class.  “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!”  Every day they happily walked down the street together.

We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years.  She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor.  Our first real neighbor as a couple.  The best.  And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her.  Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss.  He was buried in the backyard of her  home, a different house from the one we knew.  We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack.  No doubt.

Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more.  I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.

But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either.  Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions.  She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.”  She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.

So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time.  We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night.  We sat in the parlor where we courted.  And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.

* * * * * * * * *

My chapel fantasy?  It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way.   Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper.  It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.

Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven.   My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book.  Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone.  I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby.  Life doesn’t stop.  Neither does death.

People who love you even leave eventually.   There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably.  It seems untouched, not altered by time.  A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us.  How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes.  But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,

            ‘Tis in my memory lock’d,         

            And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins.  Thank you for the keys.

Distant cousin of Porky