Personal Change :: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

(The images at the top of this blog are of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the wonderful Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window and one of the reading rooms.)

Many transformative songs arose from the 1960’s social change movement. One of the more powerful poets is Joni Mitchell, whose deceptively simply lyrics carry powerful messages.

My favorite Mitchell is “Big Yellow Taxi”, with its famous line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The catchy little tune and clever lyrics hide a riptide undertow of ecology and conservationism. (Yes, I love trees. You might call me a tree hugger. The bark’s a little rough, though.)

“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally than “Big Yellow Taxi.”. And the song reminds us that personal change is necessary before social change can occur. Mitchell pulls a Shakespearean Ages of Man with her song, reducing the 7 Ages to 3.

Here is Judy Collins with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, from 1976:

Lyrics are here.

Remember the 4 Requirements of Song? Clear Communication. Heart-felt Message. Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.

The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong Imagery

Stanza I = Clouds

Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our imaginings). The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning days.

Of course, big puffy clouds herald rain (and snow in winter), metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s illusions”. Years beyond our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.

Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded experience of our maturity. The line hints at how we went wrong:  we didn’t truly understand what we wanted, what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.

When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t understand the devotion necessary to achieve it.

Stanza 2 = HEA Love

Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing interferes.

Unfortunately, life interferes. The once-upon-a-time “fairy tale” of happily-ever-after love rarely lasts. The glowing first rush of attraction is not sustainable. Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush attracts a couple. Compatibility keeps the love re-charged; devotion helps it endure life’s slings and arrows.

This persona never gets past the demise of that fairy tale rush. She gives two pieces of advice. The first is a light-hearted mutual parting: “leave `em laughing when you go.” The second is for broken hearts: “If you care, don’t let them know.”

Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that are difficult to knock down. The persona says that love is a “give and take”. Is that a mutual exchange? Or does one give while the other takes? When she laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships never worked.

Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes

How do we go forward with these emotional barricades constructed from the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?

Mitchell suggests “tears and fears and feeling proud / to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”. Yet then our hearts are damaged again. After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain. We try “dreams and schemes and circus crowds” only to have our glorious plans fall apart. After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals. We don’t give up; we just turn aside.

And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out? Have they not faced the same difficulties?

Or did they never dream? Have they contented themselves with life’s first offerings? When that failed, maybe they shrugged and moved on.

So now they “shake their heads” when the persona won’t give up on her dream. Now they say that she’s out of step, that she’s the one who “changed”.

Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream

Mitchell shrugs off those judgements. She just wants a balanced “win and lose” life. After all, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

See, that’s Mitchell’s truth: don’t drift. Happiness and heartaches will occur. Don’t try to understand them. We can never understand the magical mystery of life and its illusions. Just live.

Writing “Both Sides Now”

Mitchell’s structure is three stanzas and one refrain. The refrain, though, changes slightly with each repetition. These slight changes are called incremental repetition.

The cleverness comes with the way each change matches its particular stanza. The first change occurs when the white puffy clouds of childhood transition to the young adult’s “love” and then the maturing adult’s “life”. The changes reinforce the focus of each stage of life, three stages for three wishes.

In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two clever rhetorical devices:  the polysyndeton and anaphora.

A polysyndeton is using more conjunctions than would normally occur. The purpose is to slow down the progression of the line. In Mitchell’s poem, the polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza, just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem to stretch out.

  • Stanza I] “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”
  • II] “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”
  • III] “Tears and fears and feeling proud . . . .”

An anaphora is a phrase repeated at the beginning of a sentence or a stanza.

  • Mitchell’s first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each stanza, in the second line with “I’ve looked”. The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.
  • Her second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”. Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.

Summing It Up

“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in William Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Simple rhetorical devices keep each stanza powerful.

Childhood, youth, and adult. In each stage we have our dreams and disappointments. Mitchell reminds us that life will perform a balancing act. She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both sides. We gain when we accept the balance.

Reality keeps us balanced. Illusions keep us going.

Coming Up

We begin our look at occasional poetry in May. Occasional poetry is written to celebrate or commemorate a specific person or event. In May, our occasion is to celebrate mothers while in June our fathers will be the focus. That takes us to July and the occasion of Independence!

In examining these poems, we’ll discover how to write an occasional poem.

By the time we finish, you’ll have what you need for that awkward moment at Thanksgiving when people ask what you’ve been doing with your writing. You can read them a poem for Thanksgiving—or Christmas—or Advent—or Halloween—or Labor Day. Or volunteer in your local community to write an inspirational poem. Every month has one major occasion, and many months have several. November, for example, has Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving and Advent and Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Basically, though, remember the 4 requirements of song, and you’ll do well.

On the 25th of April is Carole King’s “Tapestry”, a look at a riddling allegory. Then, after the occasional poems for moms and pops and freedom!, we’ll offer up another allegory.

Through the heat-heavy days of summer we’ll look at the classic rock “Hotel California”. The Eagles will have landed.

More: Bright Tuesday

Easter Tuesday is Bright Tuesday.

In this day of contemporary music and blended worship services, with guitars and drums accompanying the pianos and organs, the staid traditional services that I once bemoaned seem foreign.

When we regularly sing music from Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman with updates to standard hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Just As I Am”, the dry old services of my past seem more than outdated. Those old services now are strange.

In the Dark Ages, I once volunteered to play the piano for my church (a chore that I thought would only last a few months). I tried to add new music for the piano solos before service and the offertory: new arrangements of old hymns and old praise songs that my plain church had never sung.

Favorites were “Flee as a Bird to your Mountain” here (an old Broadman hymn that my church never sang) ~

and “God So Loved the World” here ~

After all, the new arrangements were in music books from the local Christian store. And the old praise songs were from the back of the Broadman hymnal.

I ran through a lot of songs in the few years that I served as pianist.

One of the songs in constant rotation, primarily because it was less than a minute, was something that is often called the “Glory Be” but is actually called “Gloria Patri”.

Glory be to the Father / And to the Son / And to the Holy Ghost

As it was in the beginning / Is now and ever shall be / World without end.

Amen. Amen.

YouTube Video

Isn’t it lovely?  Praise and contemplation, wish and hope, in simple three lines packed with glory.

There. I promised today’s blog would be short. And sweet.

More :: Bright Monday

Easter begins with Sunrise—the tomb open and empty, the faithful women first to see, first to receive the good news, 1st to spread the good news, and the glorious joy continued far, far beyond Bright Monday.

This week should be the most celebrated time in the church, yet it is often the more neglected than any other time of the church.

Fasting and grief are over; feast and joy return. Christ is Risen!  Christ is Lord of All!

Vincent Van Gogh's version of a bright sun
a bright sun, this by Van Gogh. Did he need More?

Easter Monday

The week after Easter is known as Easter Week (the week before Easter is Holy Week). Monday can be called Easter Monday or Bright Monday.

I prefer Bright Monday, for Christ’s resurrection brought radiant and wondrous light to the world.

In the Germanic-based languages (of which English is the most widespread), the word Easter comes from a pagan goddess of dawning, brightening, springtime. Latin-based languages and Greek call this most important day Pascha, for the Passion of Christ, or Resurrection Sunday. The Eastern churches, the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, says Bright Week.

The joyful spirit of Easter which continues on Bright Monday will remain in the church until Ascension, 40 days after the Resurrection. This is Pentecost. (Read Matthew 28: 8-15)

More on my Faith Journey

When I began my search for More about Christianity–more than I had encountered growing up in my plain church–one of the first things I encountered was The Apostle’s Creed.

If you grew up with the Apostle’s Creed, it probably never affected you as much as it affected me. I hope it did. And I hope it does. I hope it will do so for all the rest of the days of your life.

In my plain church, the only holy-based texts that we learned were John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Occasionally we learned more, such as John 14:1-6.

The Apostles’ Creed woke me up to more. Hearing this Creed spoken from heart by everyone around me:  that was powerful.

That changed my path. I walked beyond the plain barren and into the rooted flowering of the ancient church brought into the modern day.

More Background on the Creed

The first written documentation of the Apostles’ Creed, kept carefully by the Roman Catholic Church, is a letter from 390 AD. The Creed may have existed earlier; it certainly reached its final written form by the late 700s.

Before the Creed was an earlier and shorter version, now called the Old Roman Symbol. One of the early Church leaders, Irenaeus called it a rule of faith. Irenaeus died in 202.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, / and in Christ Jesus, His only son our Lord, / Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, / Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried, / On the third day rose again from the dead, / ascended into Heaven, / sits at the right hand of God the Father, / whence He will come to judge the Living and the Dead; / and in the Holy Spirit, / and in the Church, / the remission of sins, / the resurrection of the flesh (the life everlasting).

Tradition claims that each one of the original apostles contributed a part of the Roman Symbol. In dealing with various heresies, the Roman Symbol gradually changed into the Apostles’ Creed that we know today.

The fact that the Creed does not appear in a document until 390 AD means nothing to me. When a congregation is primarily un-lettered (as it would have been in antiquity and the Middle Ages), when memory is more important than documents (which can be forged and which not everyone can read and check for accuracy), a common saying that everyone knows is much more important.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord;

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost;

Born of the Virgin Mary;

Suffered under Pontius Pilate;

Was crucified, dead and buried;

He descended into Hell;

The third day He rose again from the dead.

He ascended into Heaven,

And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,

The holy catholic church,

The communion of saints,

The forgiveness of sins

The resurrection of the body,

And the life everlasting. Amen.

More Questions on the Creed?

Here are some things you might not understand and have questions about. This is what I’ve learned over the years.

“The Holy Ghost” ::  Some churches say “Holy Spirit”. “Ghost” is an old hold-over in the English language; it means “spirit”.

“He descended into Hell” :: Some churches now omit this line. I don’t. I believe that Christ spent his Holy Saturday in a harrowing of hell, rescuing from Hell those who believed in Him who had died before Him.

1 Peter 3:19-20 states that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits. Spirits can only be imprisoned in a supernatural environment. The only two supernatural environments that I know are Heaven and Hell. I don’t think any soul in Heaven considers that a prison.

“The quick and the dead” ::  “Quick” is another old hold-over in the English language. “Quick” means living. Christ will judge the living and the dead at his Second Coming, when this world ends.

“The holy catholic church” ::  Saying the Apostles’ Creed does not mean a person is swearing allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Just like ghost and quick, catholic has a special meaning of universal. While we have many religions that are connected to Christianity, we all have a universal belief in Christ Jesus as our Savior through His grace.

In Ephesians 4:5, Paul writes that we Christians have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  Christ is our Lord. Our faith is in Him. We are baptized through Him as a public declaration of our faith.

This phrase, by the way, is the reason that I think the religion I grew up in avoided the Apostles’ Creed like the plague. (And that’s not a cliché; that’s truth.)

“The resurrection of the body” ::  At Christ’s Second Coming, the “dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)

More Belief in the Creed

Is there any part of the Creed that you do not believe? Every part has a direct connection to the Bible.

Are you like Thomas Jefferson with his Bible, picking and choosing the parts you like and don’t like? Cutting out whole sections and pasting new pages together?

Should we be like Thomas Jefferson?

Or should we take the whole Bible, using it as our guide?  Even the uncomfortable parts that are there to help us grow?

The Creed helps us understand our faith.

It reminds us of the great tenet of God’s love. For what other reason would Christ have sacrificed Himself?  For what other reason would we have the communion of saints?  And for what other reason does He forgive us of our sins?

How to Remember the Creed

Start with God.

Then Jesus.

Then eight parts about His life and death and afterlife. Notice the sequence.

Then six beliefs we have about our faith. The third part of the Trinity, two on the community, and three things we are most grateful for.

Learn each part, then put them all together.

Tomorrow is Bright Tuesday.

As you continue through your resurrected year, make a point of learning the Apostles’ Creed. By the next Bright Monday, you should know it “by heart”, especially if you take every part “to heart”.

Join us tomorrow for a look at the “Gloria Patri”, a little song that packs power.

If you hesitate to learn the Apostles’ Creed because you haven’t officially memorized in years and it’s sooooo looooonnnngggg, I will first tell you that you memorize songs on the radio all the time. Then I will tell you that the “Gloria Patri” is a good starter for memorization.

Hopefully, Bright Tuesday’s blog will be short. (Bright Monday started to be short. Oh well.)

More: Black Saturday

It’s Black Saturday, the vigil before Easter’s Resurrection.

for Black Saturday, image of blackened altar, from Pinterest
image of a Blackened Altar, from Pinterest

The key to this Saturday?  The church is bare, the altar blackened, all hope entombed with Christ.

After the Crucifixion, the black veil is removed from the altar cross, for Christ is brought down from the 300-pound cross that the Sanhedrin and the Romans intended to be His failure.

They didn’t know the key, though.

The Crucifixion and the Tomb are the beginning of His triumph.

Christ holds three keys:  the key to Heaven (Matthew 16:19) and the keys to Hell and Death (Revelation 1:18). On Black Saturday, Christ descended into Hell in what is often called “Harrowing of Hell”.

These three keys were going to be my topic.

After all, Christ’s descent into Hell for the Harrowing is often removed from modern versions of the Apostle’s Creed.

That little phrase “He descended into Hell” belongs there, right before “He ascended into Heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the Quick and the Dead.”

And that’s a scary painting. Here’s Michelangelo’s “Final Judgment” of Christ, separating those on the Heavenly path from those who will descend eternally to Hell.

Image close-up from the Sistene Chapel by Michelangelo, known as the Final Judgment.
“Depart from Me, you workers of Iniquity. I never knew you.” a Truly Black Saturday for many.

But at last evening’s Good Friday service, I heard something I have never heard before.

I want to share it.

The Story of God

This is ten minutes. A very important ten minutes.

Listen to this. It is the key to this entire week and the celebration of all next week, the Bright Week shining with Christ’s Resurrection and great gift to us.

Go. Share the story. Tell everyone of God’s great love for us. After all He does for us, we reject Him in countless ways that we don’t even notice.

But here’s the Key: he will never leave us nor forsake us. (from Hebrews 13:5)

Christ holds the Keys: of Hell, of Death, and to Heaven. Christ offered freely: “Not my will but thine be done.” (Luke 22:42) How often I wish to say that but my foolish earthly pride chains me?