What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
On her brilliant 1992 pop record 99.9F, Suzanne Vega sings of a Sunday in Liverpool when everything was almost quiet. Almost.
Except for the boy in the belfry —
He’s throwing himself down from the top of the tower,
Like a hunchback in heaven
He’s ringing the bells in the church for the last half an hour,
And he sounds like he’s missing something
Or someone that he knows that he can’t have now.
Since the day the record dropped, I have loved that chorus.
I had slipped away from my fellow students during a study tour in Europe, picked up the CD at a Strasbourg music shop, and walked down to the bank of the Rhine River. While morning fog roiled all around and hushed the whole scene, I put on my headphones. Somehow, the startling details of Vega’s Liverpool scenario — the clamor of a church bell, the suggestion of a lonely soul sending the sound of his heartbreak out into the world from the point in the church closest to the sky — they seemed to be as applicable to foggy Strasbourg as anywhere.
When I think of feelings that are common for me, loneliness is not one of them—I am gratefully blessed with friendships and a marriage of two decades. So why did I get choked up when I heard this song? Why do I still, when I sing along?
There is something about the suggestiveness of “In Liverpool.” This isn’t just a song about a boy missing a girl, or a girl missing a boy. I mean, it might be. But there is significance to the location, to the implications of a cry from a cathedral. The absence of further explanation suggests that something mysterious is happening here, something words are insufficient to trace. Everyone has these experiences: joys and sadnesses that defy precise description. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need poetry. We wouldn’t need music. We wouldn’t need art.The more an artist acknowledges and expresses the brokenness we know in this life, the more meaningful her praises of beauty and declarations of hope become.
These lines, though, this melody, this voice — they set something to resonating within me: memories of heartbreak, notions of desires that I’ve tried to ignore, that are unlikely to be satisfied in this broken world. Something in me understands, answers, joins hands with this character, and says “Hello, yes — I feel the same.”
Vega concludes her speculation about the boy in the belfry with a confession:
And he sounds like he’s missing something
Or someone that he knows that he can’t have now.
And if he isn’t… I certainly am.
Whatever this singer hears on that otherwise quiet Liverpool day (it may actually just be a traditional church bell ringing), it has startled her into a realization of a fathomless longing.
And in sharing it, she has produced the same effect in me.
This kind of thing happens to me all the time when I listen to The Innocence Mission. During my morning commute in the dark, I am listening to Hello I Feel the Same, the band’s brand new record. I’ve only heard it twice, and I’ve already felt tears sting my eyes for reasons I can’t explain. With this record, The Innocence Mission — Don and Karen Peris and bass player Mike Bitts — continue their 30-year-long journey through territories of moods and mysteries rarely explored or expressed by other musicians.
How to describe what they do so uniquely? How can Karen, with her uniquely sunny voice, give me such a strong sense of both confident hope and fathomless sadness at the same time? Her lyrics, like sculptures made of paper-thin panes of glass, are just substantial enough to be suggestive, but slight enough to keep us from holding on tightly to any specific interpretation. It’s not that she’s being deliberately cryptic; it’s that the emotions and questions she’s voicing are difficult to relay. Thus — and this is especially true of this new record — her performances sound like whispered confessions of struggle, or assurances of love, to an intimate friend.
In the opening track, Peris sings of noticing a girl who sometimes feels invisible, and she offers sentiments of empathy and encouragement: “Hang on, hang on, hang on, I wave again / Hello, hello, hello, I feel the same.”
Colors play an important part throughout the album, as if they are beacons of spring’s promise in the dead of winter. In this first track, for instance, she says to the girl,
Yes to the color green,
and the field of clouds,
and the thousand birds,
and the lifting out.
In the album’s closer, meanwhile, green becomes a language that lifts the spirit, flaring up in two inspiring events:
The color green was sent to me in four beat measures
of fields and their walkers in cardigan sweaters,
with the lavender sky that was just beginning to
rain down into the music.
This is how it was sent, in and out of weather.
The color green was sent to me in waves, and lifted
me up three stories. I could see the day gifted
with a million gifts. And tomorrow in the car
things may turn around, I have to watch out.
This is how it was sent, in a sudden visit.
These lyrics have the ring of lived experience, but they are recorded with such spaciousness and restraint that I could not tell you exactly what the story that inspired them must have been. Instead, I catch glimpses — glimpses of what might have been, glimpses of my own experiences, glimpses of states of faith and doubt and joy and despair that I have known.
I am feeling this commonality most intensely right now from a song called “When the One Flowered Suitcase.” It begins like this:
When the one flowered suitcase declares winter over,
plans, whether realized or not, do their best.
And we have got to keep on.
We meant to start here. A new year,
in Finland, with cloud banks slanting down.
We thought that it mattered — it did not,
like no money, and we’ve got to keep on,
and carry each other through these forests,
through these long buildings, up every stair flight.
Let’s say we are tired
from getting our hopes up again,
again, let’s say we are tired.
Again, I’m uncertain, but it sounds to me like a venture to begin again, to strive, to make something happen, has failed. The singer is discouraged about how things have turned out; she is struggling to pick up and move on.
I know that feeling. I’ve invested years and resources in writing endeavors, hoping to answer what I’ve taken to be a vocational call. I’ve assumed that eventually a door will open, that I will step into a season where my writing is my work, rather than what I do in leftover moments after taking care of somebody else’s business. I’ve believed that someday my wife and I will live at a more human pace and be finished with climbing these long “stair flights.” Sometimes it’s hard to see so much hard work amount to what seems, at times, like so little.
But then the song turns, and this is the recurring refrain:
Yes, it’s alright, yes, it’s alright I hear you.
Yes, it’s alright, yes, it’s alright I’m near you.
Yes, it’s alright, yes, it’s alright I’m with you.
It’s what I want to say to the singer. It’s what her song is saying to me. It’s what the Spirit is saying to us both. We are not alone in our darknesses.
Peris’s poems need to be heard in the sweetness and sadness of her vocals, which are as distinctly beautiful as ever. And her husband’s guitars, shining with the Innocence Mission’s signature tones — sun flares, honey drips — make these lyrics positively prismatic. She is singing her way up into the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.
Lyrics about hope and comfort and the promises of God are so prevalent, so primary, so routine in Christian music that they feel like cheap sentiments, tired mantras, easy answers. They’re sentimental. They make believers feel good for their familiarity. We like to hear what we agree with, what comes easily, what lacks any complication or challenge. But the ultimate effect of such sing-alongs tends to be slight and fleeting, their influence insubstantial, for they do not acknowledge or reckon with the persistent reality of this present darkness, of the discouragements and fears and horrors that make us all acquainted with despair.
The more an artist acknowledges and expresses the brokenness we know in this life, the more meaningful her praises of beauty and declarations of hope become.
The inspiration of The Innocence Mission’s music is powerful for me because Karen Peris sings about hope like someone deeply acquainted with private struggle, suffering, grief, and a kind of spiritual loneliness that cannot be completely relieved in this fractured world.
And if she isn’t, I certainly am.
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