Sunday, February 9, 2014

The South Wind

In spite of the fact that the cold of this winter seems to have etched itself into my bones, now that I can drive, I go all around in my own solipsistic, climate-controlled little realm, creating my own atmosphere with recorded music. Nonetheless, I have to be careful what I play, because there's a lot of music across genres that can make me cry, even bawl, which makes for unsafe driving. I had to pull over last week while listening to Sam Cooke singing "A Change is Gonna Come." 
But these past few days, I've been playing the same song over and over again as I drive: the eighteenth-century Irish song "The South Wind," sung by Jean Redpath, for which, sadly, there is no Youtube video, though this is a very nice instrumental rendition. 
The Jean Redpath version is on her album A Fine Song for Singing, and is accompanied by guitar, cello, and violin in a chamber-music-like setting. And it is transcendentally beautiful. The four parts evoke a conversation by turns charming, witty, and haunting, trading off the melody between them, with the violin in particular articulating a wide and subtle range of emotions. In the heart of a hard winter, hearing this song reconciles me to the possibility of a coming lightness, a kind of hope.
But I also hear the song, in these last few days, as a kind of accidental-but-apt encomium for the husband of a friend of mine who died suddenly last week. He was a beloved public school teacher, many of whose former students have said that he changed -- even saved -- their lives. His funeral was at an orthodox Jewish synagogue, and during it I found myself longing for the kind of warmth and community I've often noted among observant Jews, which seems so absent from Catholic life as I've known it (they have joy, mysticism, fellow-feeing, and an ethos of life in its fullness; and we have, it often seems, sourness, primness, division, and an ethos of life in its meanness. Why should this be? I've heard that it's the result of the Jansenism imported by the Irish clergy, and also that it's a Northern thing. But it's enough to make me sometimes feel like the Inuit seal-hunter who supposedly asked the missionary priest if he would go to hell if he didn't know about the truth of Christ. No, said the priest; the risk of hell was only for those who knew the truth, but chose to reject it. To which the hunter replied, Then why did you tell me?) 

Tonight I'm going to sit shiva with his family, including the adolescent daughter who has been an occasional voice student of mine. I've never been to a shiva before, but my understanding is that one goes to keep the mourners company, to be with them in their grief, to let them know that they are not alone (I wish we had a tradition like this!). I will bring them a platter of cookies, and also a copy of the Jean Redpath CD. The words of the song go, in part:

South wind of the gentle rain,
You banish winter weather,
Bring salmon to the pool again,
The bees among the heather.
If northward now you mean to blow
As you rustle soft above me,
Godspeed be with you as you go,
And a kiss for those that love me.

From south I come with velvet breeze;
My word all nature blesses;
I melt the snow and strew the leaves
With flowers and warm caresses.
I'll help you to dispel your woes,
With joy I'll take your greeting
And bear it to your loved Mayo
Upon my wings so fleeting.

I will pray that God will send solace to this family, and that, like the south wind, He will, some day in the future, coax the grief of this long winter slowly from their hearts.

1 comment:

Enbrethiliel said...


Maybe it's a loss of a sense of ethnicity among Catholics? Wakes are big family and community affairs in my "ethnic" parish, and mourners often come back 40 days after the death to pray together again. Of course, people don't have to look alike to feel like one family, though it does help to have a shared history that goes back a generation or two.

And I think there's a flipside to this breakdown in relationships which many of us seem to benefit from. I recall one really scandalised blogger saying that the reason a certain Catholic celebrity is able to make a lot of money despite a stinking past is that moving to a new archdiocese can let anyone start over with a clean slate. Did we really think that only sneaks in the hierarchy were moving people around to hide spotty histories? I'm not saying this is the main reason Catholics have been uprooting themselves in the last few decades, but we are much more mobile than we used to be. And liking it. And not really making the connection to the loss of community.