Yesterday night, my darlin' surprised me with a trip to the far north of Vermont, to see Mavis Staples. That's right: Mavis. In the Northeast Kingdom. None of the musicians could quite believe it, either. Joan Osborne, opening the concert, asked, Now, how do you say it? St. JohnsBERRY? or St. JOHNSbury? The crowd tried answering Lyndon Center, but no dice. And Mavis herself was like, It's good to be up here in… I was about to say Lyndon Johnson, y'all! Wherever we are, we're glad to see you! That doesn't happen on tour in Memphis. Still, a bunch of people up here in the far reaches of the Northlands banded together, raised some money, asked for stiff ticket prices, and bam! There's Mavis, in a golden tour bus, coming to sing to us.
You can see in this performance of Why Am I Treated So Bad from a couple of years ago what it's like now when Mavis sings. She's got pains in her knee, in her lungs & her feet. It's hard, because Mavis is not going to settle for fluting out some little song. She's connected to a whole enormous universe of voice, requiring every ounce of her strength. Her performance has a quality of awkward miracle amidst struggle. A huff on the inhaler, then another. A dropped lyric line and a grimace of disappointment. The band rallies around Mavis, she rallies within herself, and then she's got the whole power of Will the Circle Be Unbroken moving through her solid old body, for herself as for us all .
Seeing Mavis sing through and into suffering, I'm reminded sideways of the opioid drug epidemic & its ravages on some segments of the population. One of the things I've learned from offering mindfulness practices at monthly shared appointments for fibromyalgia patients is that opioid pain medications can permanently interfere with the body's ability to process pain. So: you had some pain you felt you shouldn't have, you took oxycodone for a while to suppress that pain, and now you have a body whose ability to feel anything other than pain is seriously compromised. That is, to put it mildly, very bad news.
Mavis' prescription for moaning in Why Am I Treated So Bad offers a different possibility. You've got pain? Moan about it, and the Devil can't hear what you're saying. Of course you've got pain. Everyone has pain. That's what connects us, and gives us the courage to appear before one another, scarred and ragged, whole and brave.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.