mourning

Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.

 

Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

The Possibility of Heaven

A YEAR BEFORE her death from ovarian cancer, my 78-year-old mother finally started losing weight. She gave up fatty foods and sweets and went to herbalists who sold her pills that were supposed to regulate her digestion. In addition to all this, she was seeing her primary physician every three months.

The weight flying off seemed like a reward for her good behavior. The only downside was that my mother, who now weighed less than me, was burping all the time, as if there was thunder trapped inside her ever-shrinking body.

At Christmas time, I invited her to come spend the holidays with me and my family in Miami. At first she said no. Her birthday was three days after Christmas and she wanted to spend it at her home in New York.

She changed her mind right before Christmas, and she cooked us a wonderful Christmas dinner, and we took her to one of our favorite Haitian restaurants for her birthday. At her birthday dinner, my two daughters performed a birthday dance for her in the middle of the restaurant, and my usually reserved mother laughed and clapped with joy, a kind of joy we would rarely see again in the months that followed.

I took my mother to see my primary physician right after New Year’s. I could see an alarmed look on the doctor’s face as soon as she touched my mother’s stomach, which in spite of her weight loss was twice its usual size. The doctor, who is also a friend, asked me to touch my mother’s distended belly, and the spot where her fingers led me felt like a well-polished rock. She immediately started writing down a list of tests my mother would need.

Each test led to another, more-complicated test, and slowly both Mom and I realized that we were not on a quest to disprove something bad but on an expedition to identify how bad it was.

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Wearing Black in Advent

Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy Man wearing black holds a gift. I

Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy Man wearing black holds a gift. Image courtesy leolintang/shutterstock.com.

On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.

This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.

But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.

The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.

 

'We Will Never Forget You'

ANYTIME A PUBLIC figure dies, there are spontaneous vigils, piles of flowers and stuffed toys heaped at the star’s home or in a town square. But these outpourings of public grief aren’t reserved only for the rich and famous. In communities across the country, everyday people hold vigils when a child is abducted or a family murdered in a senselessly random act of violence. Sometimes a prayer is murmured. Often, it’s an opportunity for neighbors to mourn their shared loss.

Getting the message right in public grieving and memorializing hardly demands immense wealth or high-minded, thoughtful analysis. I’m heartened by impromptu candlelight vigils in the rain and messy memorials, because grief isn’t organized or tidy. On vacation in Hawaii last summer, boogie boards jammed in the sand as makeshift headstones seemed to line the Big Island’s Puna Coast, glittering stones and leis assembled at the base of each monument. “Sail away,” one paddleboard inscription read. Beside it, a laminated sheet of photos was tacked to a palm tree. On some of the more menacing lava rock cliffs, where it was clear more than a few had perished trying to catch a deadly wave, entire burial grounds with a dozen granite headstones were lined up, matching benches facing the row of markers.

While those cenotaphs, like the white crosses along desert highways and at urban intersections, could be troubling (so much sadness out in the open), we become more empathetic when we’re forced to slow down, reminded of our mortality and how loss—or even just the threat of impermanence—permeates most of our lives.

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A Time to Mourn

Crosses gathered for mourning. Photo courtesy Konstantin Yolshin/shutterstock.co

Crosses gathered for mourning. Photo courtesy Konstantin Yolshin/shutterstock.com

This morning I began preparing for a trip to Canada. I pulled out my grey North Park University hoodie to pack for the colder nights. Last year, a few days after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, North Park sponsored a justice conference. I wore that hoodie during my talk.

In retrospect, it feels like an empty gesture — an attempt to empathize with an experience that I, as a Korean-American, could never fully understand. In light of the Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been stunned into silence. I’m reeling from a deep disappointment in the American justice system and maybe even more distraught by the response of many in the white evangelical community that wants to argue the minutia of the law rather than trying to understand our brothers and sisters who are expressing a deep sense of lament.

The tragedy of Trayvon Martin requires an ongoing lament, which may be why it has been so difficult for evangelicals to engage on this issue.

President Obama, Mourner in Chief

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

President Obama bows his head at the West memorial service held at Baylor University April 25. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Five men who know what it means to be president of the United States shared a stage in University Park, Texas. Then the incumbent among them flew to Waco, to mourn 11 first-responders, killed in a fertilizer plant explosion in the small town of West, Texas.

All presidents try to rewrite history to burnish their brief place in it. And in his new presidential library, George W. Bush will have his turn.

Barack Obama’s legacy is still a work in progress, though even sympathetic commentators are seeing him now, in his fifth year, as too slow to act, too cerebral to brawl, and too little respected by his political enemies.

In one role, however, Obama has excelled: “Mourner in Chief” — not one of his constitutional duties but oddly important.

Heaven's Heart

As a fiction writer, I tend to think of God as a novelist writing this epic story wherein every bureaucrat, cicada, and horsehead nebula could accurately be described as the main character. As a novelist, it's God's job to bring all things together toward a happy (or at least satisfying) end, but that doesn't mean that we the characters are mere puppets.

Novelists who write about their craft often speak of characters taking on "a life of their own" and thereby taking the novel to different places than the author intended to visit.

So this "soul" that we speak of — this part of our selves that isn't grounded in physical being but is spiritual (whatever that means) that we expect or hope will live on after our mortal coils shuffle off — what if it's simply God's memory of us? What if the afterlife takes place in God's heart?

If God's memory were like human memory, that too would feel like a cheat, but I suspect that God's memories are not dissimilar to God's prose. In other words, as real as spiders. As real as continents.

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