Mother of God by Patty Griffin
Mother of God
I told myself that I’d write about “Mother of God” because we have tickets to see Patty Griffin (and the Avett Brothers, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Richard Shindell, etc.) at the Appel Farm Festival this Saturday (thanks to Paddy and Jamie for the tickets). Truth be told, this song’s been running round my mind for many months. Griffin’s singing and the ethereal, yet muscular longing of the music persists in memory and functions like the pebble in the oyster agitating its way to something beautiful. The song sounds less like a performance and more a woman talking aloud, as if hearing her own words will help her find some peace and understanding. Far from a mere pop song or simple singer-songwriter confessional, “Mother of God” struggles to understand family and faith, life and purpose, and it avoids easy answers. The song evolves into a type of prayer, an offering of hope in the face of near certain futility.
Griffin builds the song around two women: a mother and the titular Mother of God. The singer/narrator, perhaps the eldest boy in the family or perhaps another sibling, is the third character in a kind of familial trinity, three separate, yet unified characters. Points of view fluctuate, the three main characters conflate and, though we follow a certain story and timeline, in many ways, the song views the same women and same relationship from different viewpoint. It is a song as cubist painting.
The song opens with the stark, heavy chords of a piano, the music signaling serious matters lie ahead. Then we hear Griffin’s solitary, resonant voice. The opening verse tells of the first mother in a small vignette with skillfully chosen words that convey the richness of a life and a family.
All you kids get out the back door
I’ve never seen her this bad before
She took all her favorite things down from the window
And broke ’em all over her clean floor
It’s Saturday at the mansion
The oldest boy walks with a slouch
The young ones are wild in back of the house
And she gave up and went back to sleep on the couch
With a few brief strokes, we see the mother as a depressive and understand the all too many implications. She’s exploding, taking her “favorite things” and shattering them on the “clean floor.” Of course, the floor is clean for the depressive fights so hard to keep up appearance, to hide the fear and desperation. Griffin doesn’t trivialize the moment with a description of figurines or tchotchkes nor the cliché of broken plates; no, these are “favorite things,” ceramics and glass and, metaphorically, her own children crashing on the floor. We do not behold Julie Andrews brightly singing about favorite things that can bring joy, these favorites thing smash hope. The episode wipes out the mother. She has no energy for the fight, no will to get up and play the role of mother. Instead, she surrenders to sleep on the couch.
Meanwhile, we watch the narrator – or is it the “eldest boy”? – react to the smashing of things by shepherding the young ones out to the back yard. He directs them to safety – imagine bare feet and little hands needing protection from the smithereens of favorite things. As the mother struggles with the clean floor to maintain appearances, so he does the same. No need for the young ones to see their mother in such a state; he enforces a kind of collective denial.
What could he tell his siblings anyway? What sense can he make of the depressive’s rage and silent retreat to the couch? No wonder he “walks with a slouch,” his burden and life wearing him down. The younger ones, without the guidance, discipline and love of the mother simply go wild.
The second verse moves to a memory of the narrator/singer as a young girl connecting to the second mother, the Mother of God.
When I was little I’d stare at her picture
And talk to the mother of God
I swear sometimes I’d see her lips move
Like she was trying to say something to me
This mother is not flesh and blood, but a perfected, idealized icon. The singer/narrator can load any virtues or meaning she wants into the photo. As if wishing can make dreams come true, the singer/narrator imagines the lips of the picture moving, as if their perfect mother will speak as the narrator’s his own mother cannot.
Maybe the first mother and the Mother of God are one in the same. Maybe the narrator stares at a picture of her mother before the madness set in. Maybe the mother tries to speak, but like so many depressives, cannot find the words, cannot find the energy to take the initiative, so she collapses into silence. We are left with the singer/narrator waiting to hear what the mother can never say. What does the child need to hear that the mother cannot say? Can it be anything other than, “I love you.”
We slide to the third verse and in four deft lines, we move from the narrator’s teenage years to old age.
When I was eighteen I moved to Florida,
Like everyone sick of the cold does,
And I waited on old people waiting to die
I waited on them until I was
The singer/narrator flees the cold, referring to both the weather and the emotional life of the home. After years of waiting for the mother to speak, perhaps to say, “I love you,” the daughter gives up and sets off to seek sunshine, warmth and maybe a connection. Instead, she winds up serving “old people” and we cannot miss the irony that she leaves behind her own mother to wait on other people’s parents. She waits on them and they wait on death (“old people waiting to die”). She’s fled her home full of the mystery that was her mother, a world that she could not understand and wound up in a world devoid of meaning, a world where there is nothing to understand.
In a touch of brilliant songsmithing, the last line of the verse takes the singer/narrator from age eighteen to old age when she too is waiting to die. Imagine the eighteen year old, leaving home with the whole live ahead of her (as Amy Correia put it, “Like a platter before a king”) and then it’s gone, slipped past her.
The last two verses find us alone with the singer/narrator in her old age in her home.
So I’m wearing my footsteps into this floor
One day I won’t live here anymore
Someone will wonder who lived here before
And went on their way
I live too many miles from the ocean
And I’m getting older and odd
I get up every morning with a black cup of coffee
And I talk to the mother of God
She’s walking the floor fretting and maybe now she is the depressive, living inside her head and unable to act, another merging of characters. She walks her floors, wearing herself out, but she won’t leave any trace when she’s gone. She seeks solace in the thought that some future tenant (we’re all only renting, only passing by) will wonder who had previously walked those floors.
I think of my own mother’s home, the family home for nearly forty years. My mother passed away the day after Christmas and we recently sold the home. We spent weeks going through a life’s worth of possessions, and everywhere we looked, everything we touched, memories sprung forth as if every objected was spring-loaded with moments from our lives. Yet almost all of those items went into the dumpster, a few sold off at a garage sale where people wondered if they’d pay 50 cents for a tray I saw at so many parties. In the finale days before the sale, I walked the barren rooms and could not help but remember when I’d done the same nearly forty years earlier, an empty house that waited for us to fill it with life. On that last day, I walked those same empty rooms knowing that the physical memories would vanish when I closed the door for the last time and they would only live on in the mind of my brothers, sister and I and would pass forever when we passed. I also knew that a new family would throw open those doors and find a house waiting for them to make their mark.
In this song, the singer/narrator drinks her coffee and paces the floor taking stock of her life (Like Prufrock, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”). Her feet make no mark; she’s too far from the ocean, too far from the waters of renewal, think Baptism and Springsteen singing, we’re “going to drive to the sea and wash these sins from our hands.” She sees herself in the unadorned lights – “older and odd” – and she “talks to the Mother of God.” It remains a one-sided conversation.
The last line of that verse works on so many levels. She’s talking and praying to the memory of the icon, the Mother of God, who remains the substitute mother staring back, forever on the verge of moving her lips. Or maybe she’s talking to her own mother again, trying to explain, trying to understand, hoping that her mother, could finally speak, could finally say what she need to hear for all these years. Or maybe, the singer/narrator is talking to herself, alone in the kitchen hands wrapped around her coffee mug, speaking to the only one who will hear, the only one who will listen.
We hear the chorus for the third and final time.
Something as simple as boys and girls
Gets tossed all around and then lost in the world
Something as hard as a prayer on your back
Can wait a long time for an answer
The girls and boys harken back to the first verse, shunted out the back door, wild and lost in the world. The way that Griffin sings the line also suggests that the converse is true; that it’s the boys and girls who pushed the mother over the edge till she was “lost in the world.” Imagine the depressive mother – maybe all mothers – whose children bring such joys, yet also bring stress and sadness. Only some mothers, those cursed with depression, succumb to the stress and lose the joy.
In what seems like a very Catholic song – full of faith, guilt and reverence for the Mother of God – the prayer in the chorus asserts a hope that an answer will come, that the mother will speak. Yet the prayer becomes a burden, a desire the singer/narrator must maintain no matter her frustration. To surrender the hope would be to abandon her mother (both her actual mother and the Mother of God), so she keeps lugging around the hope. The prayer requires a long time for an answer, though we never know how long. Perhaps the prayer becomes a form of self-flagellation (“something as hard as a prayer on the back”), a hope with which the singer/narrator whips herself, to remind herself of her obligation to her mothers.
During the first four minutes of the song – which runs to just over seven minutes – we listen to the piano and Griffin’s bare voice. We hear the verses and the chorus repeats three times. At the four minute point, the song changes. Griffin has followed the story as far as her words will take her, but she hasn’t reached the end, has not found understanding or peace. Now violins and a cello join the piano to express the yearning and futility, the sadness and hope. Griffin still sings, but the lines come off more as cries, not a fully formed verse or image. She almost sings, “Maybe…it’s alright,” speaking to herself or maybe the mothers, the words forming an improvised prayer. “Maybe we won’t fight any more,” she sings as a wish and an offering, if only her mother will believe. “Maybe love is waiting at the end of every room.” Is she talking to herself as she paces the apartment? Whom is she expecting to see? Her mother? A vision of the Mother of God? Her voice trails off. “I don’t know/I don’t know.” Perhaps this is the penitent’s loss of hope, the loss of faith; perhaps this is the voice of the depressive who cannot act, cannot connect.
The last line, barely a whisper, offers the faintest glimmer of hope. “But maybe, maybe it’s alright/maybe it’s alright.” Is it an act of faith to believe when all reason says that believe is foolish or is it an act of madness?
In the end, Griffin’s words fail her; they take her as far as they can, but not all the way. We are left with the pull of the cello, the straining violins and a few piano notes that climb the scale, a little lighter, a little brighter, perhaps that is the sound of faith or love itself. It is the essence of the song – the inviolate combination of lyrics and music – that allows the song to reach that last note. I write fiction and only have words; when the words fail me, I am left with nothing. Griffin follows her words as far as they will take her and then there’s the music to express what the words will not or cannot. The music conveys the ineffable.
Patty Griffin is an artist of great range and strength. Check out her website for more information. You can find several interviews with her on YouTube including here, here and here with Rachel Maddow. Here are some performances you can find on the web
As usual, you can find some insightful reading on Patty Griffin at No Depression.