When Cassandra Jenkin’s released An Overview on Phenomenal Nature this time last year, I had spent nearly a year of my life contemplating nothing but the reality of death – death of my family and neighbors as a global pandemic raged unabated around us; death of my parents and in-laws as their ages began to show a bit more sharply during our time apart; and my own death as I healed in relative isolation from open heart surgery just a few months prior. Although the vaccines were slowly being released, and hope for tomorrow became more of a possibility, all that I could think was that we were entering back into a world in desperate need of confronting its own death. In this precarious state, an album as gentle and remarkable in its approach to death was truly a blessing.
During this same period, I spent a lot of time contemplating the work of French existentialist and phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel. While this practice had begun as a potential focus for my PhD research, it had morphed into a deeply spiritual exercise as I found his work speaking directly to so many of my anxieties. Central to Marcel’s philosophy is the nature of our relationship with death. Born quite dramatically from the passing of his mother at an early age as well as the time he spent delivering death notices for the Red Cross during World War I, a fair summation of Marcel’s work rests in a statement found in one of his numerous plays: “to love a being is to say: thou, thou wilt never die.”
Jenkins too wrote her album in response to death – the death of friend and bandleader David Berman. Just before the pandemic, and the night before they were to embark on tour together, Berman tragically took his own life – leaving behind a wake of grief that rippled throughout the music community. Although Berman’s death serves most obviously as the foundation of this record, it is clear that the experience of his passing recontextualized a great number of relationships in Jenkin’s life – with friends, family, and with her own existence.
At the heart of Marcel’s philosophy is the importance of relationship. Famously, this is found in his distinction between “having” a body and “being” one’s body. Marcel was deeply dissatisfied with philosophic explanations which attempted to catalogue instances within reality as if isolated objects, objects capable of being systematized and formulated in such a way as to simply “solve” the problem of reality.Marcel chose instead to constantly bring attention to the mysterious way in which all things are bound up with one another – just as we cannot conceive of our body as other than ourselves, so we cannot conceive of those with whom we share our life as anything but intrinsic to our being. In this way, Marcel understood that there was no problem to be solved but rather a mystery to enter into.
For Marcel, this revealed that the central characteristic of reality is that of relationship and that, from this foundation, we might come to understand that reality itself desires such connection. Marcel converted to Catholicism late in his life but, long before he considered this desire for relationship through the lens of Christ, he came to firmly believe that the fidelity with which we pledge ourselves to our relationships – to our friends and family, to our work or our art, to our own bodies, and to all that we love – reveals a lasting bond that reverberates throughout our being, even long after these relationships might dissipate from physical presence. They remain because of the promise made in love, a promise that reality answers in kind.
“I’m a three-legged dog, working with what I’ve got, and part of me will always be looking for what I’ve lost…”
Jenkins begins the record at a loss. With a soft croon she bemoans a phantom limb and invites the listener into the presence of her pain. But this softness portrays no weakness – this is not a record of simple melancholic meditation. Instead, it is one of patience and of resilience. More than just timing, I immediately connected this record with Marcel because of the way it treats the space opened up by grief, a space that no matter how empty it may seem only exists because of what still fills it, that only feels like a gap because of what we mistakenly think we cannot grasp. We remain held, however – beckoned by reality to admit that love always required more than physical presence.
We cannot fully know the other just as we cannot fully know ourselves – “the heart is devious above all things,” after all. There will always be a distance, an unknown element, a frustrating lack in our knowledge – it is not a void, however, but rather a place of possibility. For Marcel, fidelity is the key to answering this invitation towards relationship, towards reality. To truly pledge ourselves to another is to enter into life with them – a step only possible once we abandon the egotistical drive to derive something from the relationship that might uphold pre-conceived notions of existence. Instead, we make ourselves present to the other – whether a friend, a lover, or even a musical instrument – and in this presence lean fully into the possibilities of reality. As a result, these relationships change not only ourselves but the whole of our reality, remaining in reverberation through every subsequent encounter.
With the title “Michelangelo,” this song sings of sculpture. Although she talks about a missing leg, a struggle with sickness, the reality of death – Jenkins ultimately overcomes the negative by affirming her role as the sculptor, capable of change even when she doesn’t know how to cultivate growth within herself. It is a reminder that although these things change us, it is up to us how we encounter them and become with them. Marcel held that the nature of fidelity was inherently creative – it is an art, like the improvisation of music, a movement that ceaselessly opens itself to the mystery of the other. Jenkins likewise seems to acknowledge that grief can either be stifling or it can, in fact, be inviting.
“Baby, go get in the ocean. If you’re bruised or scraped or any kind of broken – the water, it cures everything…”
On the surface of the second track, “New Bikini,” there is a celebration of the primordial healing properties of water. At the heart, however, there lies a celebration of community – and the desire of those we love to lead us towards what might make us whole. The song’s gentle, easy sway like the tail ends of waves lapping against the shore is calming and deceptively simple, as saxophone and piano ascend and dissipate at the edge of each crest. It might seem to us that grief complicates all things, but the answer is found simply enough in the letting go – we just have to take the dive.
Two of the four verses speak of maternal love. The first of Jenkin’s friend who, guided by his mother, becomes a fisherman ostensibly to remain always near the source of healing she revealed to him. The second, Jenkin’s own, worries for her health from afar and offers the incentive of a new bikini to lead her out and to the water. Mothers cannot guide their children’s lives for them, but they can invite them as best they know how. The other two verses concern the love of friends – first of Jenkin’s, who offer their home on the beach as a place of healing after Berman’s passing and then of Jenkin, as a friend herself, who brings this wisdom to another in their time of need. Weaving in and out like water cascading through river stones, this wisdom is passed along within and throughout a community, onward and outward from wherever it might have originated.
There is nothing coercive in Marcel’s philosophy. Although he believes it to be normative, he remains careful never to claim beyond what experience has afforded him – ever mindful that fidelity to his project necessitates openness. As a playwright, Marcel was decidedly character driven, curious to explore the myriad ways in which we accept or deny the invitations of others towards love and towards a deeper sense of life. Fidelity cannot be demanded of another, just as we cannot simply throw one into the water and expect their problems to be solved. In our openness to another, we must only wait in the hope that our love is answered in kind, that we might in some small way provide what the other might need.
“He reminds me to leave room for grace…”
On standout track “Hard Drive,” Jenkins practices openness to another’s presence. Through half spoken word and half sung reflection, she recounts several instances in which others offer themselves to her. Here the source of the record’s title is revealed in a conversation with a well-meaning security guard who hopes to explain certain ontological mysteries (as well as the key to the first track – “sculpture is not formed from penetration…”). Next, seemingly at a metaphysical bookshop, a clerk offers additional details, sharing knowledge of various New Age spiritual concepts as chakras and the Ascended Masters, ultimately comparing the human mind to a computational hard drive. Jenkins is looking for answers, open to whatever might help her understand her grief. In times of loss almost anything that speaks confidently of eternity might bring comfort to the terribly mortal.
But, as potentially fruitful as these concepts are, it is the subtlety of the final two reflections that strikes me most. First, a short admission that a friend had recently taught her to drive at the age of 35, inquiring about her anxiety and cautioning her to always give herself grace at every turn. Second, the story of a friend who sees a weight hanging heavy over her and offers something of a prayer for release. In both, there is a decided gentleness in what they offer – inviting Jenkins to let go of control. As the song ends with the repetition of the prayer – 1, 2, 3…– the song invites the same of the listener, to ease in and surrender to the song’s steady driving rhythm.
For Marcel, grace possessed decidedly religious implications but, like the rest of his philosophy, was meant to be plainly obvious no matter what name you gave its source. For the Christian grace is a gratuitous gift, the unearned favor of the Divine to support the believer in their weakness. Marcel understood this gift to be a sort of light that existence offers us in our fidelity. This light, revealed through the love of another, alights within us the darkness that hides away strength, revealing to us all that we might need to carry on and carry forward. For Marcel, in ever inviting us into relationship, reality itself grants us the grace of possibility.
Further unpacked in the next song, the only track that might be taken for a romantic one, Jenkins sings of the desire to “fall into the arms of someone entirely strange to me” in order to behold the “panoply” of herself. Sometimes, it is only in the presence of a stranger that such grace might open up, that we might allow ourselves to be known unincumbered by all the ways in which we cordon off ourselves from our loved ones, anxious of how we are perceived. In the Bible, Paul speaks of us one day fully knowing one another as we are fully known – is this not the hope of heaven? Marcel seems to think so – that in our fidelity to one another we might abandon ourselves entirely to love, to knowing through the commitment we make to one another – to be truly available, truly present. Then, and only then, can we know and be known.
“You’re gone, you’re everywhere – the poetry is not lost on me, I’m left laughing in the street…”
On the fifth track, “Ambiguous Norway,” Jenkins endeavors to fully wrestle with Berman’s passing, recounting the experience of traveling to Norway for his funeral. Lingering on various mundane details such as picking out what to wear or the rain on the day of her arrival, the slow swell of the track emphasizes the delirious simplicity of space held by grief. There is a decidedly surreal nature to the lyrics here as she proceeds to speak of clouds becoming mountain ranges – calling to mind Berman’s own project Purple Mountains. As the song closes, we find her laughing to herself as she wanders the streets alone, feeling Berman’s presence everywhere – and feeling as though the universe itself might be in on the joke.
Marcel does not talk about synchronicity, but I wonder if his idea of ontological exigence might nonetheless be applicable here. Because of the length to which he allows himself to imagine the intersubjective nature of our relationship with existence, he holds that key element of fidelity resides in the recognition that there is in the heart of existence “a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.” Reality at all turns impresses itself upon us as an invitation into a deeper sense intersubjectivity that may result in stronger bonds of community and love. It is in this respect that he understands that those we love, with whom we have faithfully entered into relationship with, cannot truly die.
Marcel believes that to conceive of others as mere objects or things for whom deterioration of time presents a finality to their existence is to betray the very truth of their being. The truth of who we are and, ultimately what reality or the Divine is, is found in relationship. As such, no matter what happens to our material forms, through our commitment to one another, we remain. For Marcel, death was akin to the denial of relationship whereas fidelity, hope, and ultimately love are the insistence of the human spirit to embrace transcendence, to state emphatically that all things ultimately remain held. These relationships are not over – they still continue to invite us in.
Fidelity, whether to the one who stands before you or the one who has long passed, is to stand in “perpetual witness” to all that they are. It is an openness which remains as vitally creative whether their actions exist here and now or merely in recollection. It is the honoring of who they are and who you are in the continual presentation of yourselves. In grief, we should not despair because although we do not have access to all that they were, all that they were continues to commune with all that we are. As Jenkins laughs, I sense the truth of this idea – she may be alone, but Berman remains.
Without a single distinguishable word, the record’s final track ties up its various themes with remarkable ease. A harmonious cacophony of musical instruments, muffled voices, and the sporadic chirping of birds, “The Ramble” presents no simple answer to the crushing weight of loss or the salient specter of love’s ceaseless presence but, instead, continues to hold the space open as a sort of invitation. What more does this life offer us? We dress our experiences up with countless explanations, programs, and masks and yet for all the brilliant reflection they afford us, we will be asked again and to again to abandon them to the ramble of existence.
As a phenomenologist, Marcel never seeks to answer, only to invite as he himself feels the call of invitation – to probe and consider in the hopes of discerning how one might live a life more faithfully present to the others with whom we share it. Likewise, Jenkin’s album, in refusing to succumb to the potentially stifling experience of grief, invites the listener to instead consider the admixture of pain and beauty amidst the ethereality of children’s laughter and bird song. The world continues, as those we have loved walk besides us seen or unseen. If we listen faithfully, we too will hear the poetry.