Sometimes I need to remind myself that I believe in the love of God. And sometimes when I need to do that, I listen to Gordon Lightfoot. I first heard Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in Mrs. Chaney’s junior high music class. Mrs. Chaney was an ex-hippie who brought her love of 1970’s music into the classroom and subsequently taught me to love it as well (thus preparing me for life with a man whose mother loved that music too, but died young).
It is quite literally impossible to overstate how much Mrs. Chaney’s 7th and 8th grade music classes formed me both musically and personally (and she probably never knew this; but neither did my 10th grade British Literature teacher – so music, art and literature teachers, take heart).
It was Mrs. Chaney who taught us that “religious music is always the best music” and who had us singing religious music at our public school concerts. It was Mrs. Chaney who, after we’d spent hours and hours practicing and performing choral music with her, played us her favorite 70’s songs, handed us the lyrics, and had us sing along.
It was from Mrs. Chaney that I first heard Don McLean’s “Vincent,” along with the radical idea that suicide only happens to people who suffer from mental illness. (That’s radical for a girl whose religious culture considered suicide to be an unforgiveable sin.) And it was in her classes that I began a lifelong love affair with the song and with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting, a painting scientists later determined was a true artistic rendering of the scientific principles of fluid mechanics.
It was with Mrs. Chaney that I sang the Holocaust remembrance song “I Believe in the Sun.” It was she who arranged for girl who knew sign language to sign during performance, moving the audience to tears (a phenomenon I didn’t understand at the time). And it was with her that I first heard “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I was immediately captured by its sound: the beautiful, haunting sound that’s woven into so many of our family’s favorite songs. The story stayed with me too, the tragic true story of a ship and crew lost to storm in the American Great Lakes.
Over the years I nearly forgot the song and the story, but one day I discovered how to google song lyrics and found it again. During one particularly sad season in my life, I purchased it. I still listen to it when I’m sad. I listen to it when I want to transport myself back to the simplicity of warm spring days in Mrs. Chaney’s music classes. And I listen to it when I want to remind myself why I believe in the love of God.
This is the way I do it. I listen to the entire tragedy, waiting for the 5th verse that asks, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” And I place myself in the shoes of the 29 men on board who knew they were going to die together, and then I place myself in the shoes of their families back on shore, who didn’t. And then I wonder “what if” along with the musician: what if this terrible thing hadn’t happened? And I swallow a lump in my throat and stay quiet for a bit.
The last time I did this, one of my children asked me where I first heard that song, and I told them the whole story the way I just told you. I told them: I listen to this song to remind myself why I believe in God’s love. I listen to it to remember that when bad things happen — and they do happen, all the time — when bad things happen, where is the love God? Is it still there? Or has it gone away?
It might be a personal loss or a tragedy back home or a tragedy here in my host country or somewhere else in the world. Truly, there’s so much tragedy to choose from. Regardless of the loss, I know I can listen to this song and somehow remember and believe that God’s love is still here and is still real. That God is still good and God is still love. I always cry at that point in the song, and I always remember that the love of God is really all I have to hold on to. I know that if I don’t keep my belief in the love of God, I would be lost. I would have nothing left.
So even when I don’t understand – and I mostly don’t understand – the love of God has not vanished. It is not buried at the bottom of the sea like so many ships. It is still present, in the midst of us. It still survives, though millennium of loss piles on millennium of loss. For me “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” gives voice to sadness but mysteriously brings me to a place of remembering God’s goodness. It helps me stand in the cruel face of tragedy, whether mine or someone else’s, and reminds me that no, God’s love has not gone away. Even though I can’t always see it or feel it, the love of God is still here among us.