I was out running yesterday…by which I mean I was run-walking in obedience to the couch to half marathon plan I downloaded the other week. I am highly annoyed by the patience it requires, but I’ve learned the hard way that for my particular body, upping my exercise too quickly always ends up in disappointing calls to my cousin the orthopedic surgeon (“Yes, Elise, that’s a stress fracture…Yes, Elise, you need to go to a doctor because you either tore your calf muscle or your Achilles tendon…Yeah, cuz, that’s a really common injury WHEN YOU’RE OLD.”)
It was a strangely time-lapped workout, because I was listening to Babel on my shuffle, Mumford & Sons’ 2012 album, and thinking about the fact that I’m attending their Indy concert tomorrow, using the tickets Chris had given me for Christmas this year, and I was pulled back to another time and place when those songs rang in my ears almost daily.
I’d not purchased any music other than used Wee Sing albums for years. It felt like an unacceptable indulgence while I was staying home with the kids.
Then the cancer, and the first year of it, and then the re-explosion before the restaging scans at the end of 2012. We were in the strangest, numbest, most weirdly liminal space, Chris spending days in the hospital for salvage chemo, Christmas happening around us but not really feeling real, the children far away in Indiana, packing and preparing for a four-month stay in Charleston for the bone marrow transplant. Some generous person gave us a Barnes & Noble gift card, and I went with a list from Chris to pick up books for him.
On the way out, I saw a display with copies of the album. Many of my close Christian artsy friends had raved about it, and I had a quick internal struggle about the expense, but in what felt at the time like a profound and reckless act of self-indulgence, I grabbed a copy and added it to the pile.
And so it was that during the transplant time, I was running, running, running to try to stay sane, and the only album on my mp3 player was Babel.
I can’t find a way to systematize this reflection. And so I won’t try. I’ll just say this: There were so many moments along those runs. Moments when all that was shattering in me found hopeful expression in lyrics and music that were big and broad enough to hold the pieces. Because for all of us, when we encounter the moments that would require us to expand, we have a choice: close our eyes and retreat further, or be reborn without our masks.
The second option is much bloodier and more frightening.
But it is also, like birth, the only path to growth.
This album, the fruit of whatever truth-facing, art-creating life was being lived by Marcus, Ben, Winston, and Ted, held me along the road. The lyrics came to mean things to me that I know they didn’t mean to the band…but in the end, that’s the capacity truthful art bears, the capacity to hold and shape and give voice to stories that weren’t originally intended by its creators.
Cause I know my weakness, know my voice, and I believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is fast, but I’ll be born without a mask
Now I’ll be bold as well as strong and use my head alongside my heart
So tame my flesh, and fix my eyes: a tethered mind freed from the lies
I’ll kneel down, wait for now
I’ll kneel down, know my ground
Love the one you hold, and I will be your gold
To have and to hold – a lover of the light
And I still believe – though there’s cracks, you’ll see
When I’m on my knees I still believe
And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found
If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe
I’ll walk slow – I’ll walk slow
Take my hand, help me on my way
Hold me fast – hold me fast; cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I will learn – I will learn to love the skies I’m under
Keep the earth below my feet – for all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I’ve been
Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn
Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste as it keeps my heart and soul in its place
I will love with urgency but not with haste
I went to see the Mumford & Sons concert in Simpsonville, SC, in September of 2013. I went brittle and edgy and tired, with a beautiful friend to whom I poured out my soul as we drove on small twisted highways. Worship had been perfunctory for over a year…I kept showing up, and knowing tiredly that God was there, but unable to sense God’s presence.
On that grass, sweating with thousands of other people, I danced and sang and felt these songs that had accompanied me through the crucible carry me. And they sang “I Will Wait,” which is not even my favorite song, but as I sang
Raise my hands – paint my spirit gold
Bow my head – feel my heart slow
I will wait for you
I threw back my head and closed my eyes and raised my hands and God’s Spirit filled me, all tender fire and peace and love, and I was given strength for endurance, for the walking, for the continuing.
So thanks, Gentlemen of the Road. Because as I look back, I don’t think I could have done it without you.