Most of Harrison Lemke’s songs describe him standing at a window, looking out at crummy weather, until he is quite sure that God loves him. In the Bible, weather signifies God’s presence to his Creation, and for good reason: Wind and rain and snow are obvious reminders of the fact that you were born screaming into a cosmos that you did not create: one that impinges on you, sweeps you up, and freezes your snot, regardless of your career path or postmodern attempts at deconstructing the world to suit your deeply-felt sense of self. Many Christian nihilists (they sometimes call themselves “retirees”) move to Florida in an attempt to avoid confronting the givenness of Creation, of which weather is a sacramental sign. They say things like “I couldn’t take the winters”, buy condos and salmon-colored shirts, and settle into the Edenic temperate zone — that “ever-spring” which fascinated the Protestants of the seventeenth century as the unchanging climate proper to the unfallen Adam and Eve. That they are then hit with hurricanes seems poetically just — a kind of overdue library fine reminding them that, after all, this world is not our arrangement, it is a gift of God.
The reason human beings talk about the weather is because they want to talk about God, and God is most obviously present in the absurd givenness of the wind and the thunder which exceeds what we would have made ourselves. The mystery that we are, and we are here, and that all of this is happening, and that we really have nothing to do with the fact — it’s always worthy of comment. “Nice day we’re having” is an acceptable way of saying, “Neighbor, you and I exist under the weight of the same gift which we could not possibly have imagined for ourselves but can only contemplate as that which advents, arrives from without.”
But we are apt to honor only the worst weather as a sign of God’s presence. After all, he sends forth his lightnings and he hurls down hailstones like crumbs, the Bible says in some place psalmish. But this is a latent polytheism, in which God becomes the god of the big stuff, while the banal, the repetitive, and the mediocre become the provenance of another god who goes by the name Okay and Decent: a little glory be to Okay God who doth send forth the light drizzle and the slightly-increased humidity and from his storehouses produces the overcast mid-afternoon. God denied this dualism when he told Elijah that he was not in the hurricane, but in the gentle breeze.
Harrison Lemke is performing Elijah’s work with a tape-recorder, namely, the destruction of our idolatry of banality, which would give up the humdrum to a lesser demon. He stands at windows and contemplates the unremarkable, revealing it as a creature of an innocent, free and unfathomable God. As he called forth the prophets, God has raised up for himself folk-singers to notice and report on the drizzle that “haloes the lanterns on the promenade,” on the “leaf-light by the fence.” In this weird prophetic mode, Lemke follows in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot, who chose the non-season and the in-between time of “midwinter spring” where “Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers” to call us to prayer.
What does banality mean? Lemke gives a good answer in “Tired, Waiting”:
and the oil rainbows shine in the car park floodlights
and the engines sigh and the pavement listens all night
and the live-oaks shake like they’re dying when the sun gets up to leave
and the sky is thinly covered like a dusty tv screen
and i am tired of waiting for you.
If there is no God, just a world and a little grant money for scientists to list its mechanics, then it stands to reason that the weather of our world can be hierarchically arranged according to our preferences. Tornadoes are very bad; humidity is better but still bad; overcast days are unremarkable; bright, windy fall days are better, more romantic; and the thunderstorm is the sublimest bang of the bunch, so long as it doesn’t come to often. But if there is a God, then the overcast day must have significance in its very unremarkableness, because it comes from an intelligent Creator in love with his Creation, no more “ordinary” than a love-note taped to the fridge.
Lemke places the theological meaning of banality in Advent and Lent — in waiting. Seasons of preparation are paradoxical, for they are good and holy precisely in their not being the thing we want, fulfilling in being arranged and ordered towards a fulfilment that hasn’t arrived. If we’re not going anywhere besides death, than a gloomy day is just that — a relative point of meteorological suckiness compared to the weather that could have been. But if we live forever, then a gloomy day cannot subtract from our infinity. If “we’re going to heaven,” that is, if forever is good, than a gloomy day within this forever-good must itself be good.
This is the Christian logic of Lemke’s “Empty Days,” which ends in asking God to “illuminate my lines. / Make my sorrow a sign.” Boring weather is a sorrow that God makes into a sign. In the light of Christ’s salvation, it becomes a sign of the Church’s sojourn on earth, of the not-yet of the saeculum, of the turn of the temporal order towards God, of the slow conversion of the human heart. Being that which we would rather not have, crappy weather points to that which we long for, and this has its objective correlate in the adventure of our salvation, in the light of which all our miseries cease being net losses and become yearnings for redemption. When Paul says “now we see as in a mirror dimly” he may as well have been featured on a Lemke cassette: Now we stare out of a dirty window onto grey mid-winter, but, because we know spring is coming, this bleakness is transformed into a sign of future glory.
Lemke expresses this tenderly in a pair of songs in the middle of the album, each with a window looking out onto the weather. In “Upstairs Song”, the weather is a sign that this world is passing away:
we’re in the upstairs room after supper, all together, perfectly dark except for a chink of light from the door and the smeary tv glow and the one red eye of the nintendo on the floor. and i am lying on my grandparents’ king-size bed, eyes fastened on the skylight overhead — the bright music, the happy screaming, and a great black hole in the middle of the ceiling…
and the snow
we are gonna die
The snowflakes are memento moris, Lenten ashes; the wind brooding over the den of Nintendo-sponsored, earthly happiness is the angel of death, who sings sweetly that whatever we build and however we distract ourselves, we are born into a world that buffets us over and against all choosing. Even our most primordial will — the will to live — will be washed away by the weather. But in “Guest Room Song,” Christ, humanity’s great Guest, opens another window into the night:
it’s the dead of night
on the longest night
i went to the window,
saw nothing but snow
and a few pairs of headlights
moving gentle and slow, like
smoothing the white expanse
Lemke’s symbolism is powerful. Instead of the banal weather which reminds us of the death we would rather avoid, the snow becomes a sheet smoothed out by a mother — that is, a sheet which awaits the arrival of a child. The badness of cold becomes the holy impatience of Advent and Lent, a waiting cold, a ready freeze. It is with inspired reason that Lemke leaps from this fundamentally Marian image of the virgin mother, preparing the world for the Child, to a rendition of the Methodist hymn, O Blessed Assurance, in which Christ arrives:
i felt everything turning.
i felt everything lifted.
i turned it over and over,
i could not get over —
o blessed assurance,
Jesus is mine!
o blessed assurance,
all will be well,
Christ comes of Mary, and this is the “blessed assurance” that all will be well. The bad weather of our lives, our banalities and boredoms, our petty irritations and miseries — all of it receives new, objective significance when it is placed in relation to the fact that Jesus Christ offers us, and all our overcast days, redemption. In his arms, all lack becomes a not-yet. The next line of the hymn is “Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!” This is the meaning of gloom and gray as it appears in the Christian kingdom — sorrow itself becomes a foretaste of that great healing for which it yearns, banality becomes an anticipation of glory.
Lemke catholicizes the Methodist sentiment — or maybe, as is the case with many Methodist hymns, Lemke simply hears the catholicity that was already straining at its edges. For Lemke, a Catholic, the “blessed assurance” no longer takes place through the psychological certainty of the believer, but through the sacraments. The believer can say “Jesus is mine” with all assurance, not because he has unshakeable mental conviction of the fact, but because Jesus gives himself to us in the humdrum, banal, and unremarkable things of this world — the bread, wine, water, oil, and the “priest wav[ing] his blessing over us” in Lemke’s song “After Midnight Mass”. The ordinary has become God Himself without losing its ordinariness, as the grey drizzle becomes our hope of lasting Sun without ceasing to be drizzle, as God became Man without ceasing to be either God or Man. Mysteries of mysteries, it is not despite the appearance of bread that the Catholic believes that God is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, but because of it, for this is the very finger of God, to turn a broken world into an efficacious sign of his love.
The most daring part of Lemke’s album, Thy Tender Care, is his application of this sacramental transformation to outdated technology. If it is true that banality becomes a sign of anticipation, becomes an Advent and a Lent, then it is true down to the “drawer of old diskettes” and to “keyboard demo arabesque.” Lemke remembers his childhood in “Empty Days,” when he would
beg for candy
at the video store;
could holy God
dwell in flesh so tired and bored?
legend of zelda
in the unfinished basement,
something of heaven
sampled without replacement
If we were honest about our propensity to worship the God of the big stuff while carving out a God-free space for the mediocre, we would realize that the primary place of God’s displacement is in front of the screen. Who, after all, is so crazy as to invite holy God into his mindless scrolling? Lemke achieves a certain critical distance by looking back on the keyboards and video-games of a nineties childhood, but his thesis remains the same for streaming and time-wasting of our own era: holy God really does dwell in our technological flesh, whether we would have him or not. The use of the screen is not a banality which can claim for itself a separate kingdom from the Kingdom of Heaven. All of it matters, every stupid video. Just as banal weather becomes a lenten sign of waiting, so the boredom of the boy gazing on his avatar is territorialized by the meaning that Christ gives to all things — the video-game character becomes a sign of the resurrected body. What is the Christian meaning of the screen, precisely? I don’t know yet. But Chesterton once said that “that the suburbs ought to be either glorified by romance and religion or else destroyed by fire from heaven, or even by firebrands from the earth”. Lemke is working on glorifying overcast skies and old video games; whether romance and religion can temper and glorify the rest of our technological lives, before they are consumed by the fires of heaven, is the challenge placed before Catholic artists today.