Several streams will be flowing into this essay. It starts with the title of a song by the Brazilian composer and poet Antonio Carlos Jobim, who contributed to the emergence of bossa nova and the fusion of Latin popular music with American jazz. When I mentioned to Kim Cockcroft that on the third Sunday this month, ‘Poetry as Prayer Practice’ will focus on the words to this song, Kim urged me to write about it here.
The whole Lenten season and its culmination in Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter have usually been too much for me. In the past I wasn’t willing and able to open my heart and experience, beyond a superficial level, the season’s profound meaning. Recently, I’ve felt a gradual change. Letting go of beliefs that I once thought were obligatory but found impossible, I am finding a deeper truth in experience that I used to think was without spiritual significance.
I’ve developed a sense of urgency about my life, feeling sometimes that “It’s now or never.” Lent and Easter will come around again, but this time could be crucial. Being part of a small group reading and discussing Marcus Borg’s book, Days of Awe and Wonder, has been inspirational. With no loss of spiritual seriousness, Borg turns away from the edifice of beliefs that I had always thought were central to the definition of a Christian life. Belief in a body of doctrines, he says, may be the foundation of Christianity in history, but faith – your personal faith – is something different: a way of being in the world, a journey, a mystical awakening, the sum of memorable moments and many seasons.
“The Waters of March” is a song I have known for many seasons, from the version recorded by Susannah McCorkle in 1993. My wife loved it too, and that deepens the song’s significance for me.
A stick a stone it’s the end of the road,
It’s feeling alone it’s the weight of your load.
It’s a sliver of glass, it is life, it’s the sun,
It is night, it is death, it’s a knife, it’s a gun.
The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush,
The knot in the wood, the song of the thrush.
Those first three couplets (there are more than fifteen in the song) don’t provide the song’s melody, but you can catch the rhythm, and maybe find a pulse in the stream of images. The song presents its images at a fast clip, the way a river runs in springtime; the singer’s voice must be bright and precise. Unpredictably, some images are dark, threatening; the upbeat mood carries an undertone of sadness.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of March,
It’s the promise of Spring, it’s the joy in your heart.
A foot, the ground, the flesh, the bone,
The beat of the road, a slingshot stone.
How do you make sense of your life, and of the life around you: the light and dark, the sweet and tart fragments, the past and present and unknown future? Piece by piece, feel its fullness as much as you can. Lent, I learned recently, gets its name from the length of its forty days, each a little more than the one before: that’s ‘the promise of Spring,’ and the song is telling us that some of ‘the joy in your heart’ comes from ‘the flesh, the bone,… a slingshot stone’. So many distinct images, often at odds with each other, linked by the beat and the melody: things all add up, but they remain separate, the road goes on, the river never ends.
You can find Susannah McCorkle’s version of the song easily on YouTube as well as below. Singing partly in Portuguese with a bright and lilting voice, she made the song her own, and in cabaret performances she often used it as an encore. My appreciation of Ms. McCorkle’s singing is deepened by an awareness that she struggled for years against bouts of depression. I would also recommend a video that shows the composer recording the song in a duet with Elis Regina: the interplay of their voices is magical. (Search ‘Aguas de Marco Tom Jobim Elis Regina.’)