Each year, on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, I focus attention on a singer-songwriter or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find echoes of the Lenten journey.
Over the last few years, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s life has been drastically transformed. In 2007, she suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, her marriage ended soon after and, in the fall of 2011, her father died.
After those experiences, she tells NPR’s Neal Conan, grief became a companion — but also a guide, a presence that dictated her outlook on life. The Grammy-winning artist channeled those emotions into her latest album, Ashes and Roses.
Back then, as MCC herself talked about her life experience and how it shaped this record, she talked about the value of “hard-won wisdom.”
What would we be if we didn’t learn from where we’ve been? And I think the more effort you spend pushing things away so that you don’t have to feel them, see them, experience them, the more exhausted you become. And it’s just inevitable that your arms go down and you have to go through them. And so that’s what I think of as what’s happened here with this record.
And this is what Lent is about — facing and going through life’s realities rather than avoiding them.
She also described the fact that the album has a “narrative arc,” moving from profound grief through all the things we do to process and deal with it, moving into new territories and relationships that reveal breaks in the relentless clouds and hopelessness. Like spring itself in the northern hemisphere, there is movement from cold and chaos, from gray, frozen, and fallow to burgeoning warmth, color, fertility, life.
But today is Ash Wednesday — earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So the song from Ashes and Roses we share on this day is from early on the album. After the opening piece, Transcendental Reunion, which emphasizes our common humanity journeying together through life’s uncertainties, Mary Chapin Carpenter exquisitely describes the experience of early grief: facing the tasks of releasing the past before we can move forward again. This is the song, “What to Keep and What to Throw Away.”
When you become reclusive
When old friends say they miss you
When sleep becomes elusive
Fill up every journal
Empty every shoebox
Burn the lists and letters
Sweep out all the old thoughts
Shake off all the covers
Throw every window open
Stand here in your bare feet
Welcome in the morning
These are your instructions
When grace has left you stranded
When you are lost and wounded
Bleeding and abandoned