For a few brief months, Lake Haiyaha in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park burned an arctic blue, made green and glowing by glacial flour. The sediment, finer than sand, results from rock slides and turns the water milky turquoise. Above Lake Haiyaha, at 10,000 feet, lies Chaos Canyon — a steep mountainside gully created by ancient glaciers — which last summer was pummeled by rainstorms. Chaos churned its rocky belly and unleashed a rockslide, pouring glacial flour into the lake.
A mountain lake, full of the color of collapse: alarming and temporary and brilliant. There is a certain sorrow and destruction that makes things an otherworldly blue in the Rockies, like the blue of trees that die from pine beetles. Beetle eggs and fungus burrow deep into a tree, cutting off its water and nutrients, discoloring the wood and staining it steel blue. A tree’s stumps and rings tell of its sickness and death — beetle kill blue.
I think of these blue things in the mountains, and I think of sadness and resilience. I think of another blue thing also carved by years of sorrow and hardship, a sound that carries heartache and longing: bluegrass music. To me it sounds like the mountains.
“Born in the mountains,” sings banjoist Ola Belle Reed, her voice bold and gritty in her song “I’ve Endured.” “I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long can one endure? I’ve worked for the rich, I’ve lived with the poor. I’ve seen many a heartache, there’ll be many more.”
Roscoe Holcomb, a Kentucky banjoist from the early 1900s, sings “Across the Rocky Mountain, I walked for miles and miles,” his voice cracking with asthma and emphysema, the results of his years working in coal mines for 15 cents an hour. He sings Depression-era songs, sounds of lament laced with resilience and protest.
During our community prayer the other night at The Fireplace, the intentional community where I live, my partner Greg and I played and sang “Hard times come again no more,” an old-time bluegrass song from the mid-1800s, on guitar and mandolin. “Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,” the song goes. “Hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door, oh, hard times, come again no more.”
We sang this, of course, with the backdrop of the war in Israel and Palestine, the resulting horrific humanitarian crisis in Gaza, migrants sleeping at police stations throughout Chicago and many personal heartaches of our community’s suffering friends and family.
It felt, somehow, like a sense of solidarity across time to sing “Hard times,” a song people in this country have been singing through devastating circumstances and economic hardship and illness for decades. Sometimes it just needs to be a simple and clear plea from the weary: Hard times, please come again no more. God, please be with us, where are you?
I’ve felt a collective experience of mourning and lament among people I know, a forever-state of discomfort with how the world operates, implicating ourselves that this is not how the world should be. What can I do to end the violence or make any kind of difference? As Dorothy Day’s granddaughter Martha Hennessey recently said, it feels that “our whole world is built on the skeletons of others.”
Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness …
the sound of wailing …
teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament.
In this part of Jeremiah, God’s people are in exile. The landscapes around them, maybe, remind them of this, the lonely mountains and fields. I think of the women, their sound of wailing, their singing lament. The bones of their children, the horrors of war. How long, how long, how long. How blue, how blue, how blue.
An old Hasidic tale, retold by Martin Buber in “Tales of the Hasidim,” goes like this: A Hasid was traveling to a town called Mezbizh and was “forced to interrupt his journey for something or other. When the stars rose, he was still a good way from the town and, to his great grief, had to pray alone in the open field.” When he arrived in the town, the Baal Shem (Jewish mystic and healer) “received him with particular happiness and cordiality. ‘Your praying,’ he said, ‘lifted up all the prayers which were lying stored in that field.’”
There is something about playing old time music, to being connected to the hard times of the past, that also helps me be present to the ones in the present, to mourn with my voice and chest and belly. To lament with God and to God, to sing these prayers that are lying stored in the cells of my body from all the people I come from — all the people I love and care about — even for all the people I don’t know. Grief is like this: complicated and heavy, a heart all sorrow and spring. A world stained blue but seen, remembered.
A high lonesome psalm. The sound of forever being met by God’s mercy that says, the hard times may come, but look, all these prayers are under your feet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassidy Klein is a writer and journalist based in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, to study journalism and philosophy. She previously worked at L’Arche Chicago and Sojourners magazine. Cassidy lives in an intentional community called The Fireplace and is editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic magazine. Find more of her work at cassidyrklein.weebly.com.