Ash Wednesday with Mary Chapin Carpenter

Ash Wednesday with Mary Chapin Carpenter

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.

In past years we’ve considered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and singer-songwriters Neil Young, Nick Drake, and John Prine.

This year I’d like to consider one of my most beloved albums from the 2000’s, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Ashes And Roses. The background to this remarkable song set was described in a 2012 NPR piece:

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.”

These are your instructions
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

16 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday with Mary Chapin Carpenter

  1. I call it “Holy Nincompoop Syndrome”.
    The idea that the more stupid, ignorant, and foolish you are, the more Godly and Spiritual you must be. (Invoke More-Spiritual-Than-Thou One-Upmanship…)

    With SCRIPTURE(TM) proof texts of course, rewordgitated like an MP3 playback.
    “Science falsely so-called…”
    “The wisdom of God is Foolishness to Man…” (so the opposite must also be true)


  2. How utterly beautiful!
    In a different sort of way, Judaism is a more practical and down to Earth religion than is Christianity.


  3. “When I die
    If you need to weep
    Cry for someone
    Walking the street beside you.
    You can love me most by letting
    Hands touch hands, and
    Souls touch souls.
    You can love me most by
    Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
    Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
    You can love me most by
    Letting me live in your eyes
    And not on your mind.
    And when you say
    Kaddish for me
    Remember what our
    Torah teaches,
    Love doesn’t die
    People do.
    So when all that’s left of me is love
    Give me away.”

    (Rabbi Allen Maller)


  4. Lent:
    a time for a more ‘intentional’ living

    in a different way from the norm

    to be defined and formed according to ‘need’, not ‘want’

    in order to help make sense of things at their most primal again

    lines from ‘A Litany’ by John Donne:
    ” … come
    And re-create me. . . . .
    that new-fashioned,
    I may rise up from death
    before I’m dead. “


  5. Oswald Chambers, a prince among Evangelicals, once wrote something to the effect that if a man boasted to him that he knew nothing outside the Scriptures, he was certain that man knew nothing inside them either.


  6. Tolkien reached into his Catholic faith from the time Adam sat down in the river that flowed out from Eden;
    but also into the myths of time-honored sagas and even more ancient tales whose origins are lost to us;
    and so, like Ariachne, Tolkien wove into his stories these gathered threads from that greater vastness of humanity’s oldest verbal howlings and keenings for deliverance from evil.

    So yes, Mule, Tolkien’s carefully woven tapestries do contain ‘a sturdy theodicy in there somewhere’ as his writings do resonate with a universal and timeless appeal

    Great quote from Tolkien, thanks


  7. From the Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien.
    There is a sturdy theodicy in there somewhere.

    Idunno, Mule.

    I keep hearing PastorRaulReesCalvaryChapelWestCovina (all one word):


  8. Thanks so much for this, Mike. Last night I felt a sharp pain over Joe’s death come upon me out of nowhere. This morning I have been struggling with grief and longing in a way I haven’t for months. This song helped me process this a bit.

    Use a tourniquet for pressure
    Let time do it’s healing
    Say prayers for good measure
    When you think you’ve lost all feeling
    Now walk into the guest room
    The last place he was sleeping
    See the outline on the pillow
    Smooth it without weeping


  9. Well thank you Chaplain Mike, this song is beautiful, and I’d never heard it before. I have to confess that my eyes welled up as I listened to it – unusual for me. Let’s just say that it brought back memories. Desperately poignant but nonetheless full of a subdued, necessary hope. Her volition is forward. Stones in the Road is one of my favourite albums by anyone and a prized part of my collection, but I must admit that I rather lost touch with MCC’s work since then. I think I need to remedy that and do some catching up.

    “And this is what Lent is about — facing and going through life’s realities rather than avoiding them.” Yes. Sometimes this feels impossible, but it isn’t. Impossible on our own strength though.


  10. Wow. Tough knowledge to come by. Musically straightforward and beautiful. Captures the feeling. I felt tears welling up.


  11. Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. For she is a healer of hurts, and turns pain to medicine and sorrow to wisdom.

    From the Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien.
    There is a sturdy theodicy in there somewhere.


  12. I too have never heard this song, it is well expressed. Thank you for putting the lyrics underneath as the thoughts expressed convey a profound truth that I think is universal. The music and voice is excellent for sure but the words are what makes it special. Everyone will face grief and loss in their life, how we handle it and keep on the good journey of our own life is a good lesson to learn, to store in our memory bank for when we need it or to fill a need that we may have even if time has passed.


  13. May we all have a holy Lent. I suspect this year we will learn knew things about dying to self, and just dying, and grief — I pray that we will be equipped with the wisdom and given the strength to learn and love in the face of these hard lessons and this harsh knowledge.

    I can’t hear the rain
    but I know that it’s raining
    beyond these thin walls


  14. the value of ‘hard-won wisdom’
    we can all identify, we who have journeyed/are journeying through grief’s domain

    “”Give sorrow words:
    the grief that does not speak Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
    (Wm. Shakespeare)

    one wonders if Shakespeare had read the ancient words of Aeschylus, these:
    “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

    there are many more human expressions of grief, but that it is a ‘journey’ through pain to some kind of ‘wisdom’ is a shared universal understanding that needs no translation among our human kind

    “A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.”

    a time for every season

    ashes to Easter


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