Notes from Un-Sovereignty

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you
Were young, you used to dress yourself and walk
Wherever you wanted, but when you’re old,
You will stretch out your hands, and another
Will dress you and carry you where you do
Not, in the very slightest, want to go.

So Christ said to Peter, then bid him go.
That goes for him, we reason, But not you.
It’s fine to call him out, but please don’t do
Anything to upset plans as we walk
Head-high, knee-deep, this path or another,
No thought of stumbling, falling as though old.

All things, once fresh, grow stale, pale, cheap and old
to youth, who only ever want to go.
Not for us, attending to another,
To listen, learn, to sort out me from you.
Patience is anathema. Why not walk
When told to sit? Why walk? Running will do.

It’s all well and good, doing what we do.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I’ll die when I’m old.
Until one day, hand in hand, we two walk,
Without a care for where all this might go.
My run inevitably stops for you;
One soul, beneath the weight of another.

But are we to carry one another
From strength to strength as lovers? Say “I do”;
Wait, spent, for the same words to come from you?
If we must, let us together grow old.
What you want, I give. Where you lead, I go.
Cradle to altar is not far to walk.

Back again, from altar to cradle walk
The two, from whose lives has come another,
Crying, You may not, now or ever, go
Where you want to go. Neither may you do
What you wish to do. I’m young, and you’re old.
Only on paper I belong to you!

To walk from dust to dust is what we do;
In this life or another, whether old
Or young, we go. I think I’ll go with you.

Photo: Path with Beeches, Reflection Riding Arboretum, Chattanooga, Tenn., November 2017.

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Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.

Something Else Matters Most: Music for an Anxious Age

“Just do your best. It’s the only way to keep that last bit of sanity. Maybe I don’t have to be good, but I can try to be at least a little better than I’ve been so far.”
~ The Avett Brothers, “When I Drink”

I dearly love music.

The ability to create (good) music remains a bit beyond my grasp, and so I’ve always admired the creations of others—preferably at a volume suitable to parse nuances of vocals and instrumentation. This fact is to the frequent chagrin of family, co-workers, and fellow vehicle passengers. Thank the Lord for headphones. My tastes, such as they are, range all over, leaping genres and centuries from one hour to the next. I have affinity for particular bands or composers (and even interpretations thereof) more so than broad, industry-determined categories. I own plenty of albums/songs from years of gathering (more than I have time to listen to regularly), but even that collection doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of preference with access to of Pandora, Spotify, and the maddening diaspora of choice.

It is probably not surprising then that I could not name a single “favorite” song or musician. Taste is a horrible thing to quantify. Still, if there has been a soundtrack to life of late, though, it has been the Avett Brothers.

Perhaps there is some deep, rumbling affection toward them from my North Carolina expat heart. Maybe it is their legendary engagement with fans throughout an always-full tour schedule. It could be their relentless creativity, as they reinvent themselves from album to album without losing their core dynamic. At bottom, though, I engage with Scott, Seth, Bob, Joe, et al., as poets as much as musicians.

Avetts

Photo © James Nix, Independent Tribune

The success of their recent albums comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening for a while (and if having Judd Apatow direct a documentary on your band isn’t the heights of popular culture, I’m not sure what is). Plenty of better critics than me have reviewed the Avett’s music and chronicled their rise to fame. I’ll even sidestep the question of taste. What interests me is not whether their music is good (though I’d fight anyone who says otherwise), but why it has risen to the heights of culture right now.

Why, in a culture obsessed with the new, do songs dealing with the pain and sorrow of the past chart right behind poseur pop stars and forgettable tween idols? Why, in a world where familial, social, and political bands have all but dissolved, does simple, honest music cut through the mess to draw people together? Something else matters most, and, try as we might, there is no escaping it. The Avetts are among a very few musicians who dive right into the spiritual/relational hunger of our anxious age.

The Avett Brothers’ style is hard to nail down. Ostensibly beginning as a bluegrass group, they simultaneously evoke Southern Rock, folk, emo, and even electronica. Somehow they manage to be both high-hipster and down-home country. They remind me most broadly, though, of 70s music.

I know that’s not a genre either, but the 1970s were a golden age of music. It was the mainstream glam pop of Elton John and David Bowie, but not just that. It was the arena rock of Boston, Kansas, or Journey, but not just that. It was the R&B, Funk, Disco, or Memphis Soul, but not just that. It wasn’t even just the zenith of soft-rock, with James Taylor, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg. The 1970s was all of this, humming in the background of a decade-long cultural trainwreck.

That trainwreck (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Cold War, coups & revolutions, stagflation, and general malaise) could’ve been precisely what made the music go. In a time of political, economic, and social dysfunction, we turn inward, searching for our lost stability in love, family, and faith. Enduring art always needs a little prodding from external discomfort—when the black hole yawns widest, the artist feels most alive.

Culturally, it seems that we are now living through a 70s redux (though 2016-17 has seemed a little more 1968 than any of us are comfortable with). Musically, then, it stands to reason that the explosion of soul-searching indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Head and the Heart, etc.) would be a natural result. It is the Avetts, though, who emerge as the second coming of all your 70s favorites, because they manage evoke them all.

Though there is something reassuringly familiar about each of their songs, they do not subsist on nostalgia. Each album manages to be fresh and new. Rather than spending all their reserves on their debut project, they work and mature, genuinely getting better with age. They are even getting more overtly religious, boldly incorporating biblical language and flouting the increasing pop-culture taboos against Christianity.

The vapidity of much of what passes for “Christian music” these days may be driving the rise of thoughtful voices in the rest of the industry just as much as it has led to the decline and fall of the Christian Contemporary labels. When the Avetts can earnestly lament depression, alcoholism, pornography and rejoice in the promise of friendship and redemption (all in one song!) with musical excellence, why bother creating a counterculture? Moreover, they’ve recently announced that a new recording project (a joint effort with Scott & Seth’s dad, Jim Avett) will be a gospel album.

So it’s here I’ll take my stand, proclaiming an undying love for this band. Taste? Sure, but some things matter even more. While the mainstream continues rushing away from truth and beauty, we need more and more to be reassured that the simpler themes of life, death, love, loss, joy, and pain still carry the day. People are looking for other things to live by, and the mournful hope proffered by the Avetts is pointing the way for many.

I went on the search for something real.
Traded what I know for how I feel.
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
The light broke in and brought me to my feet.

There’s no fortune at the end of the road that has no end.
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them.
There’s no falling back to sleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream.
Now I’m rested and I’m ready,
I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.

~ The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”

Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune

Game Theory

A board lies open upon the coffee table,
Twenty-four points, four dice, thirty shining chips.
Toe to toe across the field these five thousand years
Have sat friends and warriors, suffering through its fun.
Fiercest strategies on the line with each quick roll,
The wildest chances undone by other well-placed men.

In another’s eyes glow the wishes of all men,
Their fears and dreams laid at the altar and table.
We cast our lots, counting on the skill of our roll.
Time and chance shave down our purposes, bits and chips,
Husking us from the inside-out as though for fun.
Ambition, sin, spite work their chaos through the years.

Little bits of wasted time gather into years.
Energy poured into safely bringing home men,
‘Round the board again, again, just for fun.
Life, pique, and laughter unfold across the table,
No anguish outlasting the resetting of chips,
No happiness beyond the reach of one bad roll.

Clear heads seldom prevail when disappointments roll
Down troubled brows, breaking hearts and ruining years.
Carefully stockpiled wealth cashed out like poker chips,
Paid out in snippets to cadres of bluffing men
Peering from between stacked forms on a bank table.
Whoever said this game was supposed to be fun?

To call it mental exercise is to poke fun,
Serious analysis gets a big eye roll,
But there is value yet in this ancient table.
Passing time in contest bears the wisdom of years
Giving vent to the zeal of competitive men,
Spending their frustration crunching potato chips.

When joy depends on the work of silicon chips,
And every moment is given to hunting fun,
Perhaps we are all Eliot’s hollow, stuffed men.
In time, though, Peter (or someone) must call the roll.
The curtain drops on our eternally numbered years;
Six men and true carry us to one last table.

The dice may be loaded, still we cannot but roll.
Listen as the plans and paths of our striving years
Rattle down to His body, His blood, His table.