The Deacon's Bench

This piece ran nearly a month ago on a little blog run by Tony Rossi, The Intersection, but it’s too good to pass up.

It’s a compelling and actually inspiring interview with singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea, who talks about her Catholic upbringing and her own faith journey through a lot of peaks and, lately, some very dark valleys:

Tony: On your album “Roses,” you recorded a song called “Till I Turn To You.” I like the song because it takes a brutally honest look at the difficulties of doing things God’s way instead of our own way. In particular, there’s the line, “I know others fall down on their knees for mercy / But you may have to hurt me before I see the light.” Which type of person are you – the one who falls down on their own to ask for mercy or the one who needs a little convincing?

Kathy: Oh, it’s pain. But you see my point of view today is that that pain is not caused by God. That pain is caused by me staying in my own will. And a lot of times I have to – because I’m a stubborn cuss – I have to do it my own way until it hurts bad enough that I am willing to try something else and I’m willing to let that help in. And to me, that’s the nature of sin. It’s not “I do bad.” It’s “I’m blind.” If I’m doing things my own way, sometimes even if it’s painful, that is the known experience. And when I let go of the known, that’s where the rubber meets the road about whether God is real or not real – about faith. Many times that feels like free-falling off a cliff and I will hold onto the painful thing until I have no choice because I want the comfort and predictability of that misery. But eventually it hurts so bad that I have no choice but to surrender. And that’s my cycle.

Tony: So even though you know it in your head, you still wind up having to go through it all the time anyway.

Kathy: Yeah, because the stuff of life comes at you from a different angle every time like the stuff with my dad and watching him physically deteriorate. But he was wide open about it and we had great talks about life and God and what it’s all about and what he learned. He just always squeezed out his wisdom like a tube of toothpaste as he walked towards his death. My mother completely checked out. Her mind broke because she could not bear the idea. They were two different kinds of anguish. So it comes at you different every time. You think, I went through that with him but this is a completely different experience.

Tony: Were you able to find any blessings during the time of your parents’ illnesses?

Kathy: Oh my God, so many of them. You know there was this moment with my mother that was the defining moment of that concept you just brought up. It was about a year before she died and I made a driving trip to visit some old college friends. And on the way I stopped at my Mom’s house. And as part of this, I had ordered a guitar for a friend of mine’s kid and so I had it sent to my mom’s house in West Virginia. When I got there, it arrived. I thought I better check it out to make sure it got shipped okay, that nothing got damaged. So we’re sitting on the porch and I tune the thing up and I hit a chord and my mother starts singing “Love at the Five and Dime” (Editor’s Note: one of Kathy’s first hit songs). My mother, you have to understand, was tone deaf and would never sing. And she starts singing it. And I wasn’t singing, I was just hitting the chord to see if the guitar worked! And the caregiver looked up and she said, “Oh that’s right. She gets restless around dinner every night because she feels she should be doing something so we bring her in the kitchen when we cook dinner and bring the little boom box in to play your greatest hits record every night and she sings along.” So I got that record out and went through the titles in order and my mom sang every song with me. And she couldn’t make a sentence at that point!

Tony: But she remembered all the lyrics?

Kathy: She remembered all the lyrics and sang with me. And you know even as late as this summer when she didn’t know who I was and she didn’t remember why she was supposed to know me, she could still sing all the verses of “You Are My Sunshine” to me. And that is a picture to me of how deeply seated music is for us and how important it is.

Tony: And that is a moment you’ll carry with you forever.

Kathy: Forever.

It’s a long and remarkably thoughtful interview, so be sure to read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.

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