Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.

Posted on August 18, 2012, in Art, Death, Faith, Family, Family, Gospel music, Grief, Hope, Hymns, Memory, Music, music therapy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. My favorite hymn is “In the Garden”….I come to the garden alone. Brings up lots of emotions whenever I hear it.

  2. Awwww. You got your links mixed up….The Last Freight Train isn’t there. You linked the one from Baylor 2 times. And I really wanted to hear The Last Freight Train.

  3. Thank you, Gary.

  4. Yay! You fixed it. I like your Last Freight Train. Kudos on the instrumentals. My interpretation of your song::I’ve had many last freight trains in my life; parents and grandparents; and most of them didn’t stay around near long enough. BTW, In The Garden is probably my favorite hymn…I come to the garden alone. My interpretation:: I came into the world alone and I’m going out alone. Maybe that’s just my childhood spin on it. It always strikes an emotional chord in me whenever I hear it…if I’m in the mood, a few tears usually fall.

    • For my friends and readers, I aim to please! Glad you liked it.

      As far as interpretation, songs can have multiple meanings. I like your angle on it. From a “history of the hymn” perspective, Austin Miles originally wrote it in a dark basement in New Jersey, with no windows and no view of any garden except, perhaps, his imagination. He envisioned the scene in the gospel of John, chapter 20, when Mary went to the Garden on Easter Sunday, brokenhearted and full of grief, only to find the Risen Lord.

      So in a way, your experience of the song is “right on.” The “aloneness” of life is very powerful truth, as is the conviction that “Someone” is with us!

      Blessing

  5. As usual, just the right words appear when needed.
    My great nephew Tanner, lost his best friend in a car accident this week. Tanner turns 20 tomorrow. It’s been very difficult for him and as a consequence for me as I searched for the right words of solace. He is a dear sweet boy experiencing his first bout of grief.
    He loves music and he loves God. I sent you’re words along to him. I know they showed up here NOT by coincidence.
    Thank you my friend.

    • Joni, these are the mysteries of life where, for me, God is at work–just out of reach of our conscious minds, nudging us to offer something with no recipient listed. We drop it into the cosmic mailbox and lo and behold, it’s destination appears. Always humbling. Thanks.

  6. Oh yeah.. In the Garden my favorite hymn too. What else could it be for an old loner like me?

  7. I’m sort of a loner too. I never thought about it in those terms. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of In The Garden.

    And I can picture the man writing the song in a basement…probably all alone.. Thanks for the history lesson. And thanks for reminding me of some good old times and some good old gospel music.

  8. Your best yet Gary, reading your blog each week is such a blessing. We love you, Coke & Libby, Your musical friends.

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