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Good Letters

man-with-microphoneFor most of the week it has been raining.

On Pascha we raised our candles—Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!—and ate our lamb, sprawled out with friends drinking wine and eating sweet spicy tsoureki bread for hours, and fell early and exhausted into bed, the rain still thudding outside.

Rain has been falling slantways against the side of the house, newly-green tree limbs undulating against the slate gray sky. And for a lot of this Resurrection Week I have been out in it, driving around in my car and crying at stoplights to a “mix CD” my husband burned for me of what we’ve been calling “depressed music.”

Am I depressed? No. It’s just that these songs are so beautiful.

One in particular that I have been listening to over and over again is “Go or Go Ahead” by Rufus Wainwright. (You can find it on YouTube.) I vaguely knew a couple of things about Wainwright: he was the son of singers Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, he had performed a series of all-Judy Garland concerts. But I didn’t really become more familiar with him until my husband’s band ( started covering “Go or Go Ahead,” and I was transfixed.

The song is about Wainwright’s former addiction to crystal methamphetamine and the grief and alienation that addiction induces. The song begins:

Thank you for this bitter knowledge
Guardian angels who left me stranded
It was worth it, feeling abandoned
Makes one hardened but what has happened to love

But rather than a gritty account of suffering, the song is gorgeous—with Wainwright’s voice rising and falling over lush instrumentation that alternately evokes Alex Chilton and Big Star from the Third/Sister Lovers era ( Like “Stroke It Noel” and “For You”) and “Letdown” on Radiohead’s OK Computer. (I have to thank a random Web poster for that one.)

It makes me wonder, How do we know beauty without suffering? And is there something about suffering that is inherently beautiful? These questions cut to the core of what I’ve been thinking these last weeks about Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, where an affluent life in a golf-course suburb is about the worst thing that can happen to one (more about this later), and which, too, touches upon issues of addiction and the blindness it enables.

Wainwright’s song, I think, echoes the emotion expressed in these lines from poet Rainier Maria Rilke’s Tenth Duino Elegy—the revelation that the time of suffering is the time of most growth:

That some day, emerging at last from the terrifying vision
I may burst into jubilant praise to assenting angels!
That of the clear-struck keys of the heart not one may fail
to sound because of a loose, doubtful or broken string!
That my streaming countenance may make me more resplendent
That my humble weeping change into blossoms.
Oh, how will you then, nights of suffering, be remembered
with love. Why did I not kneel more fervently, disconsolate
sisters, more bendingly kneel to receive you, more loosely
surrender myself to your loosened hair? We, squanderers of
gazing beyond them to judge the end of their duration.
They are only our winter’s foliage, our sombre evergreen,
one of the seasons of our interior year, -not only season,
but place, settlement, camp, soil and dwelling.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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