Friday, August 13, 2010

we keep our confessions long, but when we pray we keep it short

There is no experience quite like a concert. Live music does something to a person. Tuesday night I to the Ottobar in Baltimore to see (one of) my favorite band(s) mewithoutYou (and got the added benefit of hearing Buried Beds and Murder by Death open). Always after going to a good concert, I feel more whole--- not whole in the sense of complete, but whole in the sense that implies some kind of healing has taken place. Art does that.

Now my friends often comment that the art I like is horribly depressing, and this is certainly true. mewithoutYou's early work especially is most certainly not happy (though their latest album is decidedly more uplifting). I think I am drawn to the sadness because there is realness to it that is not found in much popular culture entertainment. The sadness is just part of what it means to live in this world post-Holocaust, post Vietnam. We need to break out of the apathy of this culture in which we live, and good art--- particularly that which confronts us with our own brokenness--- can help us do that. When I was younger, I used to want to be a politician because I wanted to change things, but as I got older I realized it wasn't the politicians who make change. It is artists who are the prophets of change, who can galvanize people to move. So even when the images described by music, poems, paintings are horribly depressing there is a healing to real art, I think, because of the truth within it.

Here is an example of what I mean. Samuel Bak is a prolific painter and a survivor of the Holocaust. He has worked on a series of paintings based on the picture of the Warsaw ghetto boy (check out this article [PDF] about it). When you look at these images, you don't feel warm and fuzzy inside the way you might looking at entertainment. That isn't healing. But Bak's work gives voice to the horror that is genocide in a way that touches me deeply. He reveals our brokenness and forces us to face it. Now Bak is not an artist who suggests solutions to our brokenness but his art does hold us accountable to the horrors that we have committed. Healing cannot happen without this accountability because it is the beginning of the path to reconciliation.

mewithoutYou has touched me in a similar way on this path to reconciliation. Even since my friend David introduced me to them, I was relieved to find religious art that was not shallow the way praise music (which is not art) is, but that dipped into doubt, into the struggle of being human. This is intensified live, even in the happy songs from it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright!. Though I love singing in church, even good old hymns full of bad theology, I can never just raise my hands in worship the way I did when mewithoutYou played.

Messes of Men*

"I do not exist," we faithfully insist,
sailing in our separate ships and from each tiny caravel---
tiring of trying, there's a necessary dying,
like the horseshoe crab in its proper season sheds its shell

such distance from our friends,
like a scratch across the lens,
made everything look wrong from anywhere we stood
and our paper blew away before we'd left the bay
so half-blind we wrote these songs on sheets of salty wood
caught me making eyes at the other boatman's wives
and heard me laughing louder at the jokes told by their daughters
I'd set my course for land, but you well understand
it takes a steady hand to navigate adulterous waters

the propeller's spinning blades held acquaintance with the waves
as there's mistakes I've made no rowing could outrun
the cloth low on the mast like to I say I got no past
but I'm nonetheless the librarian and secretary's son
with tarnish on my brass and mildew on my glass
I'd never want someone so crass as to want someone like me
but a few leagues off the shore, I bit a flashing lure,
and I assure you, it was not what I expected it to be!

I still tastes its kiss, that dull hook in my lip
is a memory as useless as a rod without a reel.
to an anchor-ever-dropped-seasick-yet-still-docked
captain spotted napping with his first mate at the wheel
floating forgetfully along, with no need to be strong,
we keep our confessions long, but when we pray we keep it short
I drank a thimble full of fire and I'm not ever coming back
Oh, my G-d!

"I do not exist," we faithfully insist
while watching sink the heavy ship with everything we knew
if ever you come near, I'll hold up high a mirror
Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as You

I felt more whole, even among all the sweaty, tattooed people crammed into the Ottobar. Because there is a truth to the words, to the way Rickie Mazzotta, framed up there on stage by a kind of sweat halo as David says, throws his whole body into drumming to the way Aaron Weiss bends awkwardly over the microphone...I can feel it. The last song, "In a Sweater Poorly Knit," people emptied the floor to get up on the stage until the stage was full, everyone singing “I do not exist, I do not exist, only You exist." It's a healing that helps you wake up, even if it's only for a few minutes, from a world where so many of us feel alone, feel guilty for doubting, feel powerless. Art is healing in the way it can help knit us--- an individual us, yes, but ultimately a collective us) back together. It's like we drank a thimble full of fire and we're not ever going back.


*Didn't find many good live versions of this song (too many shaky videos with bad sound), but this is a pretty awesome performance!

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