Down the River

down the riverDown the river, we pray for one another.
Down the river, we hold on to our dreams.
Down the river, hard times make us stronger to get by,
And leave this world behind down the river.
Malcolm Holcombe

Current events have me feeling a little like a character in a Dickens novel, surrounded by tragedy and injustice while those who have the capacity to help seem like nothing more than unfeeling caricatures of leadership and strength. From global terrorism and oppression to presidential candidates’ buffoonery, from irresponsible journalism to a religious debate over non-religious coffee cups, I am overwhelmed with the amount of strife at every turn. I wish I had the answers, but of course, I do not.
This weekend, however, I think I got a glimpse of some things that could lead us to the answers. Or maybe they’re just things that can provide respite for a time as we attempt to navigate this chaotic maze of negativity in which we find ourselves. I’ll share it here, and you can take what you need from it.

I went to a wedding.

The bride has been my friend since first grade. In nearly 50 years we have witnessed lots of ups and downs as one would expect. The greatest “down” of all was when she lost her husband to a lengthy, terminal illness. It was the cruelest kind of disease, the kind that ravages the mind and leaves a lingering, failing body. Watching her provide care and advocate for her husband was one of those situations that makes you say things like, “I don’t know how she does it,” or “I could never do that.”
She did do it. She did it well and for a long, long time. Anyone would have understood if she had emerged on the other side tired or bitter or just ready to focus on herself. But after her husband passed away, her heart remained open, as it has always been, to new possibilities, new love, new life.

On Saturday she married again. It was a small wedding as weddings go, but it was grand in many ways. Her three grandsons walked her down the aisle and gave her away. Her granddaughter stood with her in the wedding party. The weather was grand, sunny and warm, on an incredible Texas autumn day. We were reminded, in the words of the apostle Paul, that while many things we value are temporary, three remain: faith, hope, and love. A grand idea for troubled times.

And then I went to a concert.

It wasn’t a big venue event, but a house concert in the home of a friend. Malcolm Holcombe was the artist. I had seen him several times before and heard him, recorded, long before that. Malcolm is a force of nature, someone you must see to truly experience. He is both childlike and ancient, his conversation moving in a direct path from juice to Anita Bryant to black and white TV (“as it should be,” he says) to matters philosophical.

Malcolm plays guitar with his entire body from his furrowed brow to his tapping, stomping feet. His chair moves back and forth like a rocker on the back porch. It is not a rocking chair, but a simple metal folding chair that he balances first on front legs then on back. For much of his time on stage, he is balancing on two chair legs and one of his own, the other three on the way up or on the way down. On the rare occasion that the chair is fully grounded, he is sideways in it, and soon the rocking begins again. He is a teacher’s nightmare, but an audience’s delight.

Holcombe’s rasp suggests years of smoking and drinking, maybe whiskey, maybe sand. Tonight however, he drinks coffee and pineapple juice. His stories and songs make me nostalgic for places and things I have never known. He stares, trancelike, into the audience during an instrumental piece, and I know he has gone somewhere else for a moment. He returns, and eventually ends his show with words that, despite his colorful language, can only be described as a benediction. I feel like I have been to church. Or down the river.

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