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Listen to This, Listen to That: Spiritual Experience

by Dan Froid

In “Spiritual Experience,” Episode 13 of Air Schooner, Jericho Brown reads from his essay “The Possibility of God.” He discusses his fraught religious history and his reason for writing: “I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming what the living dead are for me. I exist because I was impossible for someone else to be before me.” Listening to Brown, I can’t help but think of Judee Sill, whose mystical longing expresses a kind of diffracted prayer.

Brown also discusses with Stacey Waite their experiences of growing up gay in the church. The episode starts with different takes on spirituality in poetry by Yehuda Amichai, T.S. Eliot, and Denise Levertov, before moving into Brown’s powerful reading. In addition, Marilyn Nelson muses on whom poets write for, and she considers the nature of inspiration in her poem “Cautious Wishing.” This episode is full of beauty—listen to it here.

This week’s song permits me to indulge further my fondness for ‘70s music: it’s “Crayon Angels,” by Judee Sill, no doubt the greatest weirdo mystic since St. Teresa. (That’s a compliment of the highest order.) Listen to it on YouTube: it’s odd, isn’t it? Sill’s plain, unmusical voice seems suited to her simple, slightly off-kilter lyrics—but this isn’t typical folk music, which becomes clear after a close listen. Judee Sill could be the patron saint of loners and losers. More than unusual, “Crayon Angels” articulates a quiet, plaintive desire to leave wherever she is and go somewhere else: to get out:

Crayon Angel songs
Are slightly out of tune
But I’m sure I’m not to blame
Nothing’s happened but I think it will soon
So I sit here waiting for God
And a train to the astral plane

Sill juxtaposes signs that something’s wrong—songs are out of tune, her “mystic roses” have died—with images of herself, waiting: she’s just sitting there.

I love so much the way, toward the end, she sings, “Holy visions disappeared from my view / But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams / I wonder what it means.” It’s something about how she stretches and distorts that word, laughslay-uffs. It’s the tension between the sadness lurking throughout this song and the way she playfully pronounces the lyric, between her feeling both distraught and hopeful. You could think of another tension: Jericho Brown’s, and others’ growing up gay in the church. He notes that, in spite of his convictions, “I usually find an excuse not to go [to church], because I’m afraid that someone behind the pulpit will attempt to erase or degrade my existence.” The tension between erasure and exposure; between a sense of utter dread—the possibility of alienation, for the quick, and of damnation for the dead—that settles uneasily near a desire for the spiritual. You’ve got a sign that something’s wrong—the songs sound out of tune—but it’s no fault of your own, all you’ve got is desire, desire and hope for, if not love in this world, then love and peace, too, perhaps—is it too much to ask?—in the next. You sit and have a good think and wait, in anticipation and in, yes, of course, faith.

In faith: Whenever I think about faith, I must refer, always, to the illuminating work of Annie Dillard. In Holy the Firm, Dillard describes one “god of today” so: “He rises, new and surrounding: he is everything that is, wholly here and emptied—flung, and flowing, sowing, unseen, and flown.” Perhaps “Crayon Angels” gets at the desire for this sort of day, this sort of god: to be open, to be opened, and to open oneself—to sit “hoping for truth / And a ride to the other side.”