All the lonely people...

For most of my conscious life I have been fascinated by the beauty of society's underbelly.  At first it was purely intuitive - preferring the blues to American Bandstand (although I spent a lot of time there, too) or Pearls Before Swine and Dave Von Ronk to the Association and the Four Seasons - but in time this quest became intentional.  There is something illuminating about the human experience when viewed from below and this attraction to things forgotten, discarded or rejected has become a constant in my spiritual formation.

My first recollection of this calling came sometimes in 1963 while I was reading a Life Magazine article about heroin addicts going cold turkey.  "What would drive a person to fill their veins with poison?" I wondered as only a 5th grader can. "What type of sorrow or sickness would inspire a living death?"  The photo montage of junkies in various poses both frightened and intrigued me so I kept reading and rereading that article for weeks.  Later came the Kennedy assassination - and watching the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV - as well as the ambush of Malcolm X in 1965 and I knew there was something hard, broken and important happening just below the surface of the American Dream, but I had no idea what it meant.  Like Bobby Dylan sang in 1965, "some thing's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"  
The music of Joni Mitchel was the second major clue for me: with beauty and tenderness, she told the stories of people who were wounded and cast away like used tissues.  What's more, the anguished subjects of her songs sounded a lot like the people of my world.  How many times did I listen to - and then perform - "I Had a King" or "Marcie?"  Later it became "For Free" and "River" as well as "Banquet" and "Lesson in Survival."  She was able to share with me a bitter sweet taste of what loneliness meant for my generation. In a parallel revelation, Mitchell's male counterpart, Bob Dylan gave shape and form to the fear and rage born of rejection - and I couldn't get enough of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Gates of Eden," "Just Like a Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna." Hell I must have performed "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" hundreds of times in my room or in little coffee houses.  The more I listened to these two artists, the more I trusted my obsession with the underside even if I didn't understand it. 
In time Mitchell and Dylan led me to Leonard Cohen as well as Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. For a straight, white kid from the suburbs, the music created by these artists was a safe way to saturate myself in the sounds of the walking wounded. And they tutored me well because when I heard George Harrison play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" the scales finally fell from my eyes: Eric Clapton's searing guitar solos were not simply the pyrotechnics of a guitar god, they were the cries of all the forgotten people of the world; and Harrison's vocal lament was not just his contribution to the Beatles' White Album, it was a prayer of solidarity with all the weary mothers, fathers and children of the earth run ragged by war and poverty.  Their art became holy communion for me.  

My awakening in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was clearly built upon the foundation laid by other artists.  It also became the key to unlocking my obsession:  the underside of life is what all people hold in common.  Rich and poor, white and black and brown and yellow, male and female, gay and straight all know something about suffering because like REM sang:  everybody hurts.  Not every one's pain is the same - sociologists speak of the relative depravity factor - but everyone is broken. Iraneus of the second century taught that our brokenness is how we learn what is true, just and beautiful and how we become more god-like.  Leonard Cohen put it more poetically: there's a crack, a crack, in everything.... that's how the light gets in.

I remember visually experiencing this truth the first time I drove into the city of Cleveland in 1984 for my first interview with a West Side urban congregation. I was smitten by the strange beauty of the abandoned steel plants.  Not only did they evoke the heroism and strength of the men and women who sacrificed their bodies for God and country during the great American industrial revolution, but given the right angle in the early twilight, they also became eerie urban sculptures of once honored but now forgotten idols.  Like the human beings who were once fed to these monsters to keep them running, now they too had been abandoned. Having served their function for a time, they had been tossed upon the dustbin of history like the gods of Greece or Babylon. 

But for me these forgotten buildings - as well as the people who once worked within them - were still weeping through the silence.  At least in my heart they became physical expressions of lament akin to the cry of Psalm 137 or even Ginsberg's "Howl."   
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows
* there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'

But how can we sing the Lord's song in this strange land?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
  hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
  cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
  wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall...

I see much the same truth in the art of Georges Roualt "whose artistic vision was so infused with spiritual depth that he was able, even through such seemingly secular subjects as prostitutes, clowns and judges, to impart a sense of the sacred and the religious dimension of human existence... Aside from his explicitly religious (paintings) Rouault was endlessly fascinated with three settings: the brothel, the circus and the courtroom.  Each offered an opportunity to reflect on the themes of sin, hypocrisy and judgment; and thus, in the pathos of the human condition to suggest a symbolic link with the passion of Christ."  (All the Saints, Robert Ellsberg)

I felt that yesterday walking around Times Square after leaving my daughter in Brooklyn:  so many people, so many faces, so much suffering.  There is joy, too - and that is a gift.  But all through the busyness, the colors and the sounds was a sadness that was palpable.  It felt like walking through "Eleanor Rigby."  Later, when I was at home and gone to bed, I read Jean Vanier's words:

Loneliness comes at any time. It comes in times of sickness or when friends are absent; it comes during sleepless nights when the heart is heavy, during times of failure at work or in relationships; it comes when we lose trust in ourselves and in others. In old age, loneliness can rise up and threaten to overwhelm us. At such times, life can lose its meaning and loneliness can feel like death. When people are physically well, performing creatively, successful in their lives, loneliness seems absent. But I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away.  Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart. (Becoming Human)

Listening to the sounds and wisdom from below, embracing and treasuring the shadow and the underside, standing in solidarity with our shared suffering has become one way of being faithful to God for me.  In 21st century America, it is one of the roads less travelled - but for me it has been a path filled with grace. It has helped me better love my own broken family.  It has given me the courage to share myself with others as they pursue freedom and safety.  It has even shown me how to love my own broken self.  In this I recall the way Anne Frank put it shortly before she was betrayed to the Nazis just after her 15th birthday:

In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart... I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right... in the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

Tonight we will share supper with my other daughter - a young woman who is a unique blessing - and then head out for a few days exploring the roots of Dianne's family on the North Shore of Boston. Today I give thanks to God for the whole of it - the sadness and the celebration, the healing and the wounds, the tears and the laughter - and I especially give thanks for being awakened to the sacred beauty of the underside.



Popular Posts