November Sings the Blues

By Catherine Woodiwiss 11-24-2014
Bare branches in the rain. Image courtesy PunctRo/shutterstock.com
Bare branches in the rain. Image courtesy PunctRo/shutterstock.com

After everything, it was the lonely branch trapped in a vase and stretching its arms against the grimy window above a grey parking lot that reminded me about hope.

I was more or less confined indoors, a strange blessing in the latter days of November, when every step into the chill and the dark leaches joy and laughter from the body right down into the soil of the earth and out the other side. Late November is Vitamin D season. The dregs of the year threaten to swamp the spirit, clinging to each rough edge of the soul, and frequent shots of sunshine and warm coziness are needed just to keep the deep at bay. Each shadow left in the wake of autumn’s receding glory whispers, “Not yet.” And, “Not anymore.”

But enshrined there in a glass jar, plucked from its resting place with absolutely nothing beautiful to recommend it but its brown barrenness, I suddenly saw what the branch was doing. Even after death, it was calmly running interference on my restlessness, drawing me to its quiet none-ness while the tree of origin got busy hibernating. Life was happening, but in secret — folding inward to incubate new hopes and lives and vitalities, far away from damaging elements until the new bits were strong enough to emerge.

Have you ever seen hope splashed across a November? The seasonal metaphors are familiar, of course — fields must lie fallow for a time, winter must come before spring. But have you known it — the sudden quickening, the leaves blowing before your feet as though shot through with an electric current of Incredible Secret, the taut ground waiting with barely suppressed glee to deliver the joke?

“Soon,” the earth teases. And, for those lucky enough to hear it, a giant grin spreads across the face.

I looked again. It was back to being a branch.

-

“The thing about blues music,” says the jazz pianist from San Antonio, “is that it tells the same story as gospel music. It just stops sooner.

“Look at this part. Blues would stop after this first line. ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?’ That’s it. My soul is cast down. But gospel says, ‘The story’s not done yet.’”

I’m in Texas with others to talk and write and think about vocation. It’s been a year since the branch’s revelation, and this weekend’s charge is to meditate on Psalms 42 and 43 in relation to our spiritual life. But it’s too cold to do much of any of that. There are icicles here, and I didn’t bring gloves.

I read the whole couplet.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in the Lord for I shall yet praise Him, my salvation and my God.”

It’s interesting what context can do. When I first encountered this passage I’d considered it too solid — a linear directive, generally out of joint with my pea-plant soul. I’d forgotten that it was poetry. And poetry, unlike prescription, provides you a slim edge of truth on which you can hang your own dreams and fears. The best poems are slippery — wistful longings we fumble to grab hold of, and love all the more for the failed trying. Incidentally, a lot like the icicles here in the canyon. And this poem’s got edge.

The refrain — “Hope in the Lord, for I shall yet praise Him” — echoes three times throughout the psalm. It dances into another position with each repetition — now seeping with nostalgia for brighter days, now self-berating, and finally, praying a vulnerable hope. Each one sings the “Not yet” blues.

-

Gospel music is an extension of the blues, according to the artists. And that means the blues share DNA with gospel. And the best blues certainly has humor — a blues wink is like a dose of Vitamin D in November.

Playing through a long riff, the pianist tickles the notes with a grin on his face, and my toes begin to curl. I can feel the tingle on the back of my neck, now in my gut, spreading through my veins. I start to grin. There’s something about that twinkle. Listen. How can you keep from dancing?

As a writer, I often work at a story until I can see the hope. Not a dollop of cheer-cream — I am not an optimist in any genuine sense of the word. But stories that stop at accusation, pain, and failure are simply incomplete. I want to tell a whole-r story, and that means writing it out — or waiting it out, which is sometimes the same thing — until the glimmers of hope appear.

Yet in life, too often I’ve been taught or urged to detour the blues entirely and drive right to gospel. It’s certainly much safer that way. If others don’t interrupt us mid-display of grief, our own brains usually do.

“Why are you cast—“

“Hope in the Lord! Hope! Are you hoping? Are you? You need to, you know. Do it! Hope.”

So it is good to be reminded that liturgical prayers hold the darkness and the light together. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalm says. Lament — much like faith —is deeply ambivalent. To sing this couplet is to call out both light and darkness in the same breath. We hope but we don’t know why, the psalmist and I say together. We can’t hope, except to hope that we will someday.

It’s almost like salvation, to quote that other psalmist Leonard Cohen. And it’s almost like the blues.

Next week the liturgical church celebrates Advent — the crown jewel of liminal spirituality. Advent is the thinnest place of Christian ritual, where material Today touches fingertips with spiritual Tomorrow. It looks forward while standing still, gently holding the embers of our souls, watching with hope for divine light and grace to set them aflame. Advent is gospel, singing, “The real story is yet to come.” Advent is the Now and the Not Yet.

But this week is for the Not Anymore. Today is for the blues. I grin with the others and tap my feet to the pianist’s flying hands, mourning with a rhythmic joy all that used to be and all that never quite was, what never should have been and what won’t ever be again. We laugh over the blues we each are living. Our words mix with the joyful sorrowful notes, and for a few chilly moments we’re here together in the deep. It’s almost like salvation. It might even be hope.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Find her on Twitter at @chwoodiwiss.

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