2020-10-01
Rosanne Cash
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Watch a a video meditation recorded for Beliefnet by Rosanne Cash.

Music from "Black Cadillac":
"God Is in the Roses"
"The World Unseen"
Rosanne Cash has been a singer-songwriter for 25 years, but her latest album, "Black Cadillac," might be her most intense and personal to date. The record mines the grief that Cash experienced after she lost three parents in two years--her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, and her father and stepmother, Johnny and June Carter Cash. "Each song is about a different place on the map of loss," she told Beliefnet during an interview in which she talked about her songwriting, her spiritual path, and how love survives death.

Do you see this album as a love letter or a farewell to your parents? 

No--it's not a tribute record, it's not a farewell, it's not a goodbye note. It's about what I discovered in the mourning process about my relationship to them, which I believe continues, about re-negotiating the terms of those relationships, because they're not over, although I'm the only one talking. And about the emptiness, the silence that comes when you're the only one talking. It's about an attempt to connect and find what survives death—the ancestral thread, and love.

You've said that for an adult child to lose her elderly parents is not a tragedy.

I just know that there is a line. Death is not reserved for the privileged few. We're all headed in that direction, so that if you experience a loss that's in the natural order of events, if you lose an elderly parent to illness, there's a blessing in that.  It could be the reverse, which is a tragedy, for a parent to lose a child.  It could be to accident, to violence, which is a tragedy. But to lose an elderly parent to illness, you can't call it a tragedy.

 

Is sorrow easier, then, than tragedy?

I don't know, because I can only talk about my own experience. I don't have a textbook of perfect loss in my head, and perfect grief, and what that should look like. I know that mine has been profound and life-changing. At the same time, I'm not a mother in Iraq who lost her 10-year-old child to a stray bomb. That's very different, and I am humbled by the difference.

 

You speak about these songs as if there was an inevitability to them; they sort of found you. Was there any time when you tried to hide from them?

No—some days, I was desperate to take what I was feeling to songwriting because I'm a very structured person to begin with. So to bring a sense of structure, and a rhyme scheme, and discipline, and a melody to these really overwhelming feelings was really useful to me. It also sharpened my skill as a writer because I knew I had to be careful not to topple over into self-indulgence, cheap sentiment. There were times that I thought, am I just doing it for myself?  Is this a record I'm just going to make for my living room? But even then, that was fleeting because I knew I wanted to put it out there. By definition, songs have to be shared. There has to be a listener for it to be a song.

 

How did you avoid the sentimentality that is so common in pop songs about death?

I'm kind of good at that anyway because I don't like songs that are really self-indulgent, or where the writer makes herself a victim, or that play on an audience's exposed emotions. I don't like that, I think it's cheap. So my sense of that just got really sharpened because my feelings were so huge that I had to be more careful not to just devolve into self-pity. Self-pity would have been the worst.

 

As a mourner as well as a songwriter?

No, I think as a mourner it's perfectly fine to feel sorry for yourself sometimes, but as a songwriter, it's a little bit icky.

You describe songs as "postcards from the future."  Where do you think they come from?

"Postcards from the future"

I think that when you're in that creative zone, you're tapping into the collective unconscious, and that there's a field there. I think that's the unified field, that creative vast unconsciousness full of beauty and love. And when you're in the zone, as a writer, as a painter, as a cook--any creative endeavor--you can draw on it. Sometimes I feel like the songs are already out there, and that I only get to write the ones that my skills have developed enough to be able to channel. So I want to be a better songwriter because I want to catch better songs. 

It's not that way with all of them. Some of them are just you, you've worked hard enough, you know how to do this, you can just pound something out, you can really polish it up. Some of them are infused with the radiance of truth, and those are the ones that I think come from that unified field, from God, from what I think of as God. That doesn't mean I'm extra special, by the way. That means everyone has access to it.

 How do you describe yourself spiritually or religiously?  

 

I'm not uncomfortable with "religious." Some people are uncomfortable with what my idea of "religious" is. I'm already getting letters and biblical tracts from people telling me how to become a Christian and how to keep myself from going to hell. And I want to say, how can I go to a place that only exists in your mind?

 

But I consider myself religious in the best sense of the word. I like being in a state of surrendering my will to something greater than myself, whether that's in writing or when I go to Buddhist meditation, or when I go to Episcopal church, which I do both of, actually. I pray every single day, and meditate every single day. So my spiritual life is as important to me as my creative life. At some points, the two merge. Not always, but at some points, they do. Actually, they're very similar. They might even be the same thing, I'm not sure yet.

What kind of music do you find the most spiritual? 

Bruce Springsteen can be deeply spiritual to me. Lou Reed's record "Magic and Loss" is profoundly spiritual. Annie Lennox's song "Why" is profoundly spiritual to me. It doesn't have to have context for me to find it spiritual, it doesn't have to be framed and labeled as being of God or of the spirit for me to find it spiritual. That word "spiritual" just means that it resonates with the spirit. And that could be anything—that could be art, music, it could be my 7-year-old son's paintings of Bionicles, because it comes straight from his little soul, and he loves it. It's all communion with God, isn't it?

 

How do you describe your parents' religion and spirituality?  What legacies did they leave you?

 

Her parents' spiritual legacies
I tend to see some of it in terms of metaphor. My mother was a strict Catholic, and she was absolutely devoted to her faith as a Catholic. And although I don't have much respect for the Catholic church, I have tremendous respect for my mother. When I was in Paris a couple of months ago, I went to the Catholic church in Paris just to honor her, to connect with her. But the way I see it is that my mother gave me my sense of structure. The Catholic church is very structured, it's very rule-bound. It has particular formulas, and things that you have to do. So just the sense of that structure, I got. I didn't take the content of it, but the structure in itself was incredibly useful to me, and I've kept that.

 

My father, on the other hand, was a Baptist--although I always said he was a mystic. His mysticism was framed by Southern Protestant religion, but he was an anomaly because he was very respectful of anyone's spiritual path, and very open to mystical experiences and to a sense of the mystic in religion. He was not earthbound by his religion. So I got that too, and for better or for worse, it led me to Buddhism. 

 

Was he supportive of your Buddhist practice?

 

Not really. That was hard for him. In fact, one day, he said, "Please don't become a Buddhist." But I don't think he had a real understanding of it. I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist anyway. I still go to Episcopal church a lot of times. I wouldn't define my religious sense. 

 

What do you think happens to us after we die?

 

The afterlife
I don't know. I've gone over a lot of different scenarios of what might happen after we die. Anything from, it's just lights-out, you're in the ground, it's over, no sense of consciousness whatsoever, to the opposite extreme, that we're in the dream world, and they're the ones who are awake. Lately I tend more towards that. I think that the physical plane is so dense that we can't perceive them—that we're just dense, our senses are too dense to perceive them, but that they exist in a higher vibration of some kind, where they don't need the body or the senses anymore, and there's love, and there's still learning, and growth of some kind. I hope that's true. I've had some experience that makes me think that they're around.

 

Before, you said that the relationship with your parents continues. Does that depend on the answer to the question, "Where are they now?"

 

No. In fact, even if I believed it was lights-out and it was just over, I would still think the relationship continued, because I've internalized them. When I was making Thanksgiving dinner, I was all about my mom. I was doing things like my mom would have done. I just felt her presence, I got out her cookbook, she was there. A couple of years ago, I went to hear Al Gore speak, I got in the taxi, and my dad's cologne was in the taxi. I had that scent in my nose through the whole speech, after the speech, so sometimes I do think that they are around. But like I said, even if there wasn't any feeling of that, the relationship would still continue. 

In your liner notes, you write, "there's no faith without doubt."  Do you also feel that there's no love, peace, any other good things, without doubt?  That we can't fully experience anything good in life without being aware of the alternative?

I think that is true. You can experience them, but they have a more narrow margin, and they're shallower until you experience the reverse. I just know that, in my own experience, my love was deepened after experiencing loss. And that my faith was strengthened after experiencing tremendous doubt, doubt to the point of a sense of annihilation. And that my patience was strengthened after going through these unsettling things where you can't bear one more second. I don't know if that's true for everyone. Maybe there are some people who are full of love, they don't need to know about doubt or death or loss or anger. I've never met anyone like that.

How does the experience of writing this album make you reflect on your own mortality?

Her own mortality
It's still happening. My mother died on my 50th birthday. If you ever want to get smacked upside the head with a sense of your own mortality, have a parent die on your birthday. That's been one of the most unsettling, lingering effects, in some ways more difficult to deal with than pure sorrow or pure sadness, this sense that there's nobody ahead of me. I am the wall protecting my children from their own mortality, so therefore my mortality is acutely present. I have a sense that I'll get past this phase I'm in right now where I feel like it's so present, that death is imminent, because I'm not old yet, and I know that it's all there because so many people died in such rapid succession. I'm trying to figure out how to integrate that sense of mortality into a graceful way to live in the present. It's hard.

Does it bother you if perfect strangers hear your songs about loss and mourning and feeling those feelings about your parents?

 

Others mourning
her parents

No, they won't. I think they'll be feeling those feelings about whomever they've lost. So I don't feel intruded on in that way. I feel intruded on when journalists I talk to just want to talk about the back story, just about the people who I lost because they're famous people, rather than what this work is about, which is the experience of loss itself. 

Do you have a favorite prayer that you would read for us?

 

Her favorite prayer
I keep this in my date-book. It's a poem that's so beautiful, I consider it a prayer. People sent me a lot of stuff, particularly after my dad died—a lot of self-help books, poetry, paintings, their own work, and everything. A lot of it was too much for me, and I couldn't read it all, or take it all in. This poem stuck with me, and I absolutely love it. It's by someone named Rabindranath Tagore, and it was written in 1912:

"Death, thy servant is at my door. He has crossed the unknown sea and brought the call to my home.


The night is dark, and my heart is fearful, yet I will take up the lamp, open my gates, and bow to him my welcome. It is thy messenger who stands at my door.


I will worship him, placing at his feet the treasure of my heart.


He will go back with his errand done, leaving a dark shadow on my mourning, and in my desolate home only my forlorn self will remain, as my last offering to thee.


In desperate hope I go and search for her, in all the corners of my room; I find her not.


My house is small, and what once is gone from it can never be regained.


But infinite is thy mansion, my Lord, and seeking her I have to come to thy door.


I stand under the golden canopy of thine evening sky, and I lift my eager eyes to thy face.


I have come to the brink of eternity, from which nothing can vanish—no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears. Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness, let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe."

The prayer I say every day without fail--I start my day with it--is, "I surrender my will to the will of the absolute.

"  Sometimes that's the only prayer you can make—you can't ask for anything, it's just, "I surrender."

What else can be a prayer—songs?


I have written above my desk—"When you sing, you pray twice."  Somebody told me that they knew this psychic who when he saw musical notes around a person, he knew they prayed a lot. I thought that was so great, like prayers go out as musical notes, and maybe vice versa.

   

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