This day will start without me, no matter how much I resist its measured plodding forward. It will take me by the scruff of my neck and drag me bumping and staggering along behind—a lazy child pulled along by the ear by an inexorable father.
I know I’m in danger when weeks become days and digits crowd my imagination. And when I read in fits and snatches the works of local masters—failing them. I know then I am approaching Solomon’s lament of encompassing futility.
Two days ago, through the tall windows of a Starbucks, I watched scattered pedestrians move through the blizzard, watched how they made progress in the snow only by leaning forward ahead of their steps. It wasn’t the physicality of this picture that bothered me.
I turned to away to watch the snow drift and bank against a naked cotoneaster hedge. And at the corner of the building on a windswept square of concrete I saw an eddy of snow spiral and lift itself into a small column, a micro-twister. It begged to assert itself further, but in a few seconds it fell back and collapsed and vanished around the corner.
But the swirling stayed with me. I held it within and would have moved with it. But at that moment I was stopped by an incongruity. A hymn over the Bose speakers above, a bluegrass arrangement of ‘I’ll Fly Away’, and I found myself in a flume of ambiguous memories.
‘I’ll Fly’ Away is a hymn I sang in Chapel with guitar and gusto, leading homeless men and women in the chorus, some singing with rapturous verve, most waiting patiently, some not, for their tea and sandwiches.
It’s a mixed melody for me now. I resist it’s platonic, dualistic escapism. Its view of as earth as a prison remedied by celestial flight. It’s a song that has unconsciously encouraged ignorance and irresponsibility toward people caught in poverty and oppression. The poor, having their reward in "that land where joy will never end," frees me from lifting a hand. And it justifies neglect of a polluted earth. And here, in this place, this antithesis of indigence, when I hear it, it is all wrong.
But when I exhale I can accept it. I can receive it as a song legitimately sung by the poor and imprisoned. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ can be, and has been, an option of consolation and comfort to those who are suffering. I know this only because I have talked to hurting homeless people and they tell me this.
And so, like most things in this world, the truth of this song depends on who is singing. Ambiguities fall away only in learning love and mercy; beyond this, the grey must stay.
As for the grey progress of this day, I will take it in small collapsible eddies, in deferring my judgements, and in the smile from a barista who jokingly tells me she’s missed me. I will reset my mind and hope to be pulled along into its possibilities, even by my ear if need be.