Paradise Waiting: The Power to Comfort
By Wendy McDowell
“[S]torytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. . . .”
—Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885–1963” in Men in Dark Times
Before the COVID-19 crisis escalated in the United States, I’d already put some thought into how I might introduce the Spring/Summer 2020 Bulletin. It struck me that most of the essays are meditations on power, so I started shorthanding it “the power issue.” All kinds of power are explored here—personal, spiritual, political, and institutional power—and though they address disparate contexts (spanning history and geography), the pieces speak to one another in poignant ways.
Kevin Madigan’s incisive take on power struggles at the Vatican and Mark I. Pinsky’s far-reaching account of Paula White’s rise to the White House involve leaders in the highest offices, but other authors introduce us to people without position or wealth who draw power from their respective faith traditions to persevere in struggles for justice. Kalpana Jain shares the remarkable story of Nirpreet Kaur, a Sikh widow who spent decades fighting for justice for family members killed during the 1984 violence in India. Julia Lieblich profiles the Venerable Chao-Hwei Shih, a Buddhist nun who was instrumental in Taiwan becoming the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage. And Davíd Carrasco holds up Juan Diego, the indigenous man whose 1531 vision of a dark-skinned Maria of Guadalupe continues to deliver spiritual power for Mexican and Latinx believers today. This story resonates through the ages, Carrasco writes, because it reminds us that “divine love has to beg to be let in—and it appears in the form of a woman of color to a man of the lowest social standing whose life is saturated . . . with sacred illumination.”
Other pieces focus on the excesses and victims of corrupt power: the Shoah and its witnesses in Paula Vogel’s Indecent, reviewed by Robert Israel; tortured and executed martyrs in ancient Rome, examined by Karen L. King; and rural U.S. communities staring into the abyss as they lose their populations and local schools, discussed by Brad Roth.
Personal narratives pry open contested places, those spaces where external and internal powers intersect, as in Denton Loving’s “Letter to J.,” in which the speaker encounters an old schoolmate who is now an addict “sprouted in the ash” of the coalfields. “How did we let this happen?” this poem asks of us all. Charles M. Stang and Jill R. Gaulding grapple with pressing existential concerns: With which beliefs and practices do we choose to sojourn on this earth, to find a “fragile freedom”? Their essays model how to stay with our struggles through ruptures, uncertainty, and loss, and how, as Gaulding puts it, to “say Amen to it all.”
That’s what I planned to say, but the day I sat down to write a first draft, I found out that the mother of one of my son’s classmates was diagnosed with the virus. Right after, I heard that the beloved songwriter John Prine had died from coronavirus complications.1 I stared at my screen for hours and couldn’t write anything. All I wanted to do was cry in my pajamas while listening to my favorite John Prine songs.
I’ve since decided this is as legitimate a way to cope as any others. With all the advice circulating about how to juggle work while homeschooling children, how to make Zoom meetings effective, and where to find toilet paper, it seems to me there has been too little about how we are supposed to grieve.2 So permit me to end with a brief reflection on why Prine is an American treasure, and how art like his might help us to mourn.
John Prine is a musician’s musician. Bob Dylan is quoted in recent obituaries as saying “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” but the way I’d put it is that his lyrics make you laugh, cry, and think—all at the same time.3 His song “Paradise,” recorded in 1971, tells a complex story in four succinct but eloquent stanzas.4 It is a perfect distillation of memory (both personal and historical), yearning, and grief. He wrote it for his father, and you can feel his affection, though the only clue is in the refrain:
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away5
“Paradise” refers to Paradise, Kentucky, the “backwards old town” the songwriter’s parents were from, and the first two verses describe fond memories of visiting there as a child. The second (and most poetic) pictures their travels “right down the Green River / to the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill / Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols / But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”
It’s a simple, innocent scene . . . and yet not (note the prison and snakes!). There is a foreboding sense that Paradise already contains the seeds of its fall. In the third verse, it comes: Prine reveals what happened to Paradise when “the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel” to strip mine the area (they “tortured the timber” and “dug for their coal till the land was forsaken”). The final line is vintage Prine: “Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”
The song’s last verse has comforted me through past losses of family members and friends, and it served that purpose again this week:
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am
It’s hymn-like, but the specificity of place helps us to envision a tangible heaven—we can fill in our own favorite places.
Art like this opens up space to mourn because it allows for the full scope of humanity, from the most violent, brutal destruction humans visit upon each other and the land, to the fullest love, loyalty, and longing we can hold. “Paradise” contains equal parts terror and beauty, addresses mortality head on, and does it all with a wry sense of humor.
In this time, not only are we mourning loved ones dying before their time from a dangerous virus, but we are sitting with a sick feeling that the suffering we are witnessing has social as well as biological causes. As Karen King suggests in this issue, when the vulnerability and wounding of the human body are on full display, we have much to learn from those who draw our attention to the fact that “the whole social order . . . is in serious malady” and who tell us “the truth we may most need to hear, . . . the reality of compassion.”6
For those of us who appreciated him, John Prine spoke with clear-eyed truth and deep-hearted compassion.7 He was more pessimistic about the human condition than the stereotypical folkie, expressing anger, disgust, and despair in some songs. He wouldn’t have shied away from calling out this hell we are living through (a hell that now includes losing him), as he called out the hell of ghost towns left behind by strip mining.
Still, he assures us, paradise is waiting, just five miles away. Compassionate storytelling and art can help us glimpse it—if from a distance—and their lasting spiritual power can help comfort all who mourn.
- Losses of beloved artists are already compounding, including the jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr. and Terrence McNally, “the bard of American theater.”
- There are exceptions, and I want to express gratitude to the religious leaders, therapists, and meditation leaders, including HDS faculty and alumni, who have stepped up to help us negotiate the tough stuff during this time. Likewise, the bravery, dedication, and competence of health care workers and front-line workers are an inspiration and source of strength. One piece I appreciated has a tie to this issue. After reading Pinsky’s article in which he quotes Duke religion scholar Kate Bowler extensively, I encourage you to read a recent interview with Bowler by Elizabeth Dias, “How to Live in the Face of Fear: Lessons from a Cancer Survivor” (New York Times, April 5, 2020).
- For crying, listen to “Sam Stone” and “Souvenirs”; for laughing, “Dear Abby” and “Don’t Bury Me”; for thinking, “Bruised Orange” and “Lake Marie.” Most of these songs can be heard in John Prine’s 2010 performance at the Newport Folk Festival available on NPR music.
- Andrew Bird put it this way in his tribute to John Prine: “No one could say so much in so few words.”
- Though “Paradise” is among his best known songs, apparently Prine almost didn’t record it because he didn’t think anybody would be able to pronounce ‘Muhlenberg’! Though many recordings and performances of “Paradise” are available, my favorite is this yard performance with John Burns.
- King’s essay feels especially relevant now, as do the other voices in this issue who have survived terror, violence, and the deaths of loved ones.
- If you don’t know John Prine, or if this isn’t the kind of music you enjoy, no worries—I invite you to draw on your own sources of music, art, poetry, and prose that comfort you.
Wendy McDowell is editor in chief of the Bulletin.