Saturday, March 22, 2008

Innocence, on a Mission

I’ve just finished most of the work on a new essay I am going to try to find a home for in print called ‘Hope on the Wing: Encounters with The Innocence Mission’. An excerpt from the essay appears below, which provides an idea of what I am trying to do - discuss The Innocence Mission’s music via a number of ‘encounters’ I’ve had with it in my life.

I queried some magazines about whether they would publish it, and have some received some level of interest from two journals. We’ll see what happens. I think the essay is among my best work in nonfiction so far, and I’ve certainly had a positive experience writing about this musical trio from Lancaster, PA. I’ve been working on the piece for about 5 weeks or so now. It is almost entirely done, but for one important missing ingredient, and that ingredient is a literary first for me.

I mentioned that the group is from Lancaster. If you know me, you know this is where my mother and father live, only about an hour and change away from my own home. Now, The Innocence Mission’s work has been important to me for many years, as my essay indicates – long before I knew they were local. But it happens that several years ago, the nucleus of the group, husband and wife Don and Karen Peris (guitarist and singer/writer, respectively), began to attend the same church my parents go to. Over time, since my mother and father are very involved in the parish, they got to know the Perises, who also have two young children.

I had mentioned off and on to my mother over the years that I truly admired their music. For those who don’t know them, they are one of the best-named bands in the world; their music is highly counter-cultural and, I think, very important. Anyway, I never had the idea of actually writing about them until the encounter described in the excerpt below. After this occurred, I spoke to my mom, who sent an email to Karen Peris, asking her if I could talk to them.

Since then I have been exchanging emails with Peris, who is in the process of answering my questions. I hope to use some of her words in the final essay. It is a big thrill for me, since it is the first time I have ever been able to actually engage in direct correspondence with an artist I wanted to write about. I will also mention here that Karen Peris has been extremely friendly and generous in this exchange. ‘I am really touched by what you say and by your interest in writing about the songs,’ she wrote to me. This has only made the experience even more gratifying.

My thanks go to Karen and Don Peris for their inspiring music and for their kindness and grace. My own ‘mission’ now is to write the best piece I possibly can and get it out there for readers to see.

And now, on to the excerpt.

It was a crisp but cold Saturday morning, following a difficult overnight in my household. By this time, I had become the father of two little girls, and my wife was again pregnant with our first son. Ours is a loving family, but on this occasion my wife and I were both under a great deal of stress for a variety of reasons. There had been frank discussion, a quantity of tears, and some spilling over of tension into dealings with our daughters. That morning, I headed off to the second of my two jobs hanging on the precipice of despair, even while I understood that it was imperative for me not to languish there, or fall over.

When I started the car, the CD player, which I had left on, kicked back in. In my distracted state, it took me a few minutes to realize what was playing. It was We Walked In Song, The Innocence Mission’s most recent release – specifically the opening track, “The Brotherhood of Man”. My mother, who had met Karen and Don Peris though St. Mary’s Parish, had purchased some copies of the CD from them, and gave two of them to my twin brother and I as Father’s Day presents months before. The CD turned out to be a most fortuitous gift; it would seem that some mothers never lose their ability to supply their own with what is needed.

While I struggled with the unhappy sensation of being overwhelmed by the trials of adult life, the first two verses of the song, which describe rather placid encounters between Karen Peris and genial strangers, filtered slowly into my brain. Without my realizing it, the simple beauty of Peris’ observations, married to her husband’s silken electric guitar performance, began to work on me.

Then came a breakthrough moment, perhaps arriving in an interval between black thoughts. I heard Peris sing the following words near the song’s conclusion, as though I had never heard them before:

I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.

It finally occurred to me what was happening here, that in turning this song into a kind of dialogue with Jesus, Peris had evoked an image of what the early Greek Christians called the Parousia, the second coming. But more importantly, she had, in the space of just seventeen words, thrown all the challenges of this world and this life into relief. She had reminded me of just Who God is, as opposed to who I am with all of my problems.

Peris, who has elsewhere written about her concerns with being properly understood, couldn’t be clearer here. The confidence of these lines reminded me that the same God who has numbered the hairs on our head (Luke 12:7) holds us forever in His hands and knows our hearts. It didn’t bring me completely out of my mood, and it certainly did nothing to move me towards overcoming the stark realities I was facing. But on that cold day, this experience of the power of song offered me comfort, and helped to lift, at least to some degree, the dark veil that was covering my head.

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