Winter is the oldest season,
But quickly beneath the snow,
Seeds are stretching out and reaching,
Faithful as the morning glow.
Carry nothing, but what you must.
Lean in toward the Light.
Today is now, tomorrow beckons.
Lean in toward the Light.
Keep practicing resurrection.
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
Rising from the heart of our nation, central Indiana, comes the voice of Quaker singer-writer Carrie Newcomer in the form of a new album and a book of essays and poetry, collectively called: The Beautiful Not Yet.
That title—so filled with promise and a yearning for a better world—may seem to have an ironic twist to millions of Americans in mid-November 2016. Half of Americans are grieving the loss of a historic election; and the half that “won” are anxious about what comes next. Carrie’s voice and words are uniquely tuned to speak to all of us, since her life’s work is rooted in the same geographic breadbasket of the country that fueled the populist movement that has stunned the world. But let’s be clear: This column is not about politics. It’s an overview of what Carrie has produced—and said in an interview held before Election Day—and the healing power of her message at this uncharted turn in our history.
“Kindness, generosity, hospitality and compassion.” Any of our readers who already know Carrie Newcomer’s body of work will recognize those as her personal watchwords for approaching individuals and, for that matter, the whole world. Obviously, that motto is far from the rhetoric on both sides of America’s cultural divide in late 2016.
So, let’s turn to another major theme in Carrie’s work—a theme as old as Psalm 90, which ends with the prayer:
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
Thousands of years ago, the creator of Psalm 90—a singer-songwriter of that era—closed his hymn about the harsh, unexpected twists and turns of life with a simple plea to God that we all be permitted to do some useful daily work. This Psalm has been recited and prayed by millions of souls down through the millennia. Right now, these could be lines out of Carrie’s own poetry and music.
In all of her work, Carrie calls us to return on a daily basis to thankfulness for the miracles of everyday life, wherever we find ourselves in our daily work. One of her new songs begins:
A shovel is a prayer to the farmer’s foot,
When she steps down and the soft earth gives way.
A baby is a prayer when it’s finally asleep,
A whispered, “Amen,” at the end of a day.
In an essay, titled Miracle, Light and Considerable Magic, she writes:
The world is made of water and dust, ordinary physical things, but all of them are filled with miracle, Light and considerable magic. When I see the world with this frame, small things take on a luminous quality and daily actions become a sacrament. There is no need to wait for a miracle as proof—the miracle we need is already here.
Holy is the dish and drain,
The soap and sink and the cup and plate
And warm wool socks, and the cold white tile,
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm,
It’s all a part of a sacrament,
As holy as a day is spent.
TAKING HEART IN DREAMS OF FLYING
In our recent interview with Carrie, before Election Day, we discussed these timeless themes. Much like the creator of Psalm 90, Carrie’s music and her book both confront our fleeting mortality and the shocking twists and turns we all experience in life. In an essay titled Another Kind of Flying, she zeroes in on our culture’s denial of mortality. In several pages of prose, she invites us to take apart the individual moments in our life and appreciate that—for all the somber truth of mortality—we are always capable of discovering “moments of glorious flight.”
“Think about a waterfall,” Carrie said in our interview. “We know all about gravity, so looking at that waterfall, it may simply seem like water falling down. The question I raise in that essay is this: Can you see that waterfall as more than just water falling? Perhaps we are witnessing a different kind of flying. For a moment, those drops of water are in mid air.
“And, of course, I’m talking about mortality. If we fully grasp the idea that we are mortal—we’re all quickly falling like the waterfall or the words in Psalm 90—then we can begin to appreciate how every moment we are flying through this air is so precious. We live in that curious promise of very limited time on this earth. We need to ask: What does that mean in terms of the way we appreciate and shape each moment we have, each conversation, each interaction with others.”
One of the most powerful songs on the new album is Three Feet or So.
“I wanted to affirm the idea that we may not be able to change the whole world, but we can change what is three feet around us. We have enormous power to create positive change in the world in how we choose to live our daily lives,” Carrie said. “That’s such an important affirmation. All the things that have personally saved us throughout our lives—compassion, generosity, hospitality, kindness, good parenting and a sense of humor—those things don’t suddenly vanish from our lives because we’re living through a particularly brutal political season.
“These things are still here with us—at least within three feet or so, I say—and they’re completely accessible within us—and with the people immediately around us. I have been working a lot with Parker Palmer and he calls this ‘the news within.’ The idea is: We’re getting a lot of information from a thousand screens a day and that’s the news without. There’s another source, though, and that’s news from within. What we really need is still right here with us.”
LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK
Carrie’s new book and album also includes a moving meditation on ideas from Barbara Brown Taylor, especially Taylor’s memoir Learning to Walk in the Dark. Carrie’s song Help in Hard Times is almost an anthem summarizing the central theme of Taylor’s memoir. At one point, she sings:
Bruised and bewildered I am looking out the door,
Unsure of how to do what I’ve never done before.
But I am not alone, with my questions and my fears,
When the old moon is done, the new moon appears.
“I was very touched by Barbara Brown Taylor’s book,” Carrie said in our interview. “Parker Palmer and I were developing a music-and-spoken-word collaboration—and parts of this album and book are from that work we’ve been doing together. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is closely related to what we’ve been discussing so I included that idea and those questions. What do we do in the dark? What do we do in hard times? We can be afraid. We can spend way too much time focusing on the question: Why do hard times happen? Instead, I’m saying we should be asking: Who will help me heal the wound? How do I walk forward in this hard life?
A closely related song on the new album is called Sanctuary.
Will you be my refuge,
My haven in a storm,
Will you keep the embers warm,
When my fire’s all but gone?
“I asked Parker Palmer the question, ‘What does a person do when they’re personally or politically heartbroken?’ ” Carrie said in our interview. “And he told me: ‘Sometimes, the best thing to do is take sanctuary. There is time for positive action and doing good works in the world—and hopefully we do that daily—but there are times when we need to rest in the arms of sanctuary with an individual or with our community and draw on the love, the courage and the strength we can find there.”
TAPE THIS TO YOUR MIRROR!
Ultimately, the book accompanying this album is a book to tear apart. In his book, A Guide for Caregivers, Benjamin Pratt suggests carrying around slips of paper that can lift your spirits in tough times. He likes to tape those slips of paper places where you can’t escape them. Carrie Newcomer’s new book is perfect for tearing apart and posting bits and pieces all over the landscape of your life.
One of the best is a short poem, called Kindness.
Kindness is human size,
Honest and doable,
Softening even the hardest of days,
The country cousin to love,
And completely possible.
It takes out its earbuds
And listens to your story.
It gives up its seat on the bus
And hums in the kitchen,
Washing dishes when nobody asked it to.
And more often than not,
If I start with a little kindness
Love is usually following
Just a few steps behind
Nodding and smiling
“That’s the way it’s done.”
That’s the way it is done.”
Care to read more?
ORDER THE BOOK and ALBUM—Amazon may offer both, if you carefully navigate either the book or the CD page on Amazon. But here are the individual links. The book is available in paperback. The album is available in audio-CD, MP3 or streaming via Amazon.
VISIT CARRIE’S HOMEPAGE—At www.CarrieNewcomer.com you can learn about all of her other work, plus you can check on her public appearances.