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All That’s Fair: Elvis Presley Blues

“You must have the humility to work out your own salvation in a darkness where you are absolutely alone … And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the man, or artist, that God intended you to be.” - Thomas Merton

When I was young, my father was sick much of the time. At the ripe old age of 39, when I was 11, he died. A few days ago I turned 39. It’s a surreal benchmark to achieve… to look in the mirror and put myself in his shoes… facing his own impermanence, his fear of what’s to come, his worry over those he’s leaving behind, and wonderings over what his short life has meant… I know he was a good man, a good father, and husband, and those are encouraging facts, but sometimes I wish I had a window into his secret thoughts.

All of us have similar “mirror” moments of doubt and indecision. And we will be able to resonate with those that others have experienced. We all will go through seasons where we long for answers we can’t know and we wonder about our life’s outcome. I’m writing this on Good Friday. Jesus, just before he died, was in the garden. He was praying, weeping, begging for the next horror to be taken off his plate. He was in a darkness where he was absolutely alone, modeling a more heroic humility than had ever before been displayed on the earth. He was tired. He wanted out. He wanted to peer behind the veil. That must have been an awful and lonely moment.

I can relate to that snapshot. I feel it too, on a much less cosmic scale of course. I’m entering into territory that is utterly uncharted for me. I have no model for what’s to come, and I don’t even have stories of dad to look up to past the age of 39. I look in the mirror like dad did… I pray in darkness as Jesus did… I want to understand what magic might have been bestowed on me if dad were still here. But I can’t know that. It’s behind the veil.

Gillian Welch, a superbly brilliant alt-country songwriter, wrote a tune called Elvis Presley Blues where she parses out her own mirror moment. She imagines Elvis on the night he died. What must have been going through his mind? She wonders that he must have been looking back at his own early start, his climb to fame. He was electric and larger than life, forever shaking the music scene. And then he looked at himself in the present moment. He was alone, he was tired, and wishing he were someone else. Someone who had done what they came to do, and could simply lay down and die. Like John Henry after he raced the machine and won. Or Jesus for that matter… and then he says to himself “bless my soul what’s wrong with me?”

Elvis, Jesus, John Henry, Gillian Welch, and my dad are all very different individuals. And the outcomes of their stories are all very different, or still being told. But the common picture that this song so brilliantly paints connects us to the truth that we cannot be fully human while neglecting these moments of self-evaluation. They are like lightning bolts from heaven, calling us to be more fully ourselves, and nobody else. It is on us to listen to these promptings, and to follow where they lead. Hopefully they pull us toward a more integrated second half of life, where wisdom replaces youthful recklessness, and contentment attends the last years we spend on this earth. I pray for you all and myself as well: May we not get stuck in cycles of regret, longing to know what we can’t know while we face ourselves in the mirror. Instead I pray that we take advantage of the view, and reorient our hearts toward gratefulness. For we have everything we need. We all are the men and women that God created on purpose, and our lives are no accident.

Elvis Presley Blues

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
Just a country boy that combed his hair
And put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air
And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby
Like you never seen

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
How he took it all out of black and white
Grabbed his wand in the other hand and he held on tight
And he shook it like a hurricane
He shook it like to make it break
And he shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
He was all alone in a long decline
Thinking how happy John Henry was
that he fell down and died
When he shook it and he rang like silver
He shook it and he shined like gold
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby
Well bless my soul

He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby
Well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?