Favorite Songs, pt. 2: “The Calvary Cross” by Richard Thompson

Island Records, 1974

Island Records, 1974

I’m  at my office late today, for no other reason than I’m too exhausted to drive home. I’ve missed several deadlines, including the one for this post. I forgot to eat today…breakfast, lunch, all of it. I don’t remember where I parked my car. I’m terrified to look in the mirror. I don’t know what to do.

I’m listening to Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. I’ve always loved this album, but I never thought I would need it. Its ten songs are about the impossibility of perfection, something I struggle to accept for myself. One of the singers wants perfect truth. Another wants perfect love. One just wants to be left alone. But these people never find what they’re looking for. Instead, they must learn that you can never run far enough away. Crossing the border doesn’t mean you are safe. There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow.

If you are someone who believes perfection is impossible, then I envy you. The voices in these songs envy you, too. It’s not that I don’t understand failure; I do. But I believe in perfection. The same way some people believe in absolute truth, or the way children believe in Santa Claus. I can remember when perfection seemed easy. When I was three years-old, I could match my socks with my shirt and be perfect. When I was in college, I could earn good grades and be perfect. I still want to be able to do x or y or z and be perfect. But perfection is no longer so easy. It has a greater, more complex definition—the perfect career, the perfect relationship…

This morning, I dreamed the perfect day. My commute would be easy, no traffic, no delays. I would get to my office by seven. I would drink another cup of coffee. I would go over my lesson plans one more time. In class, my students would be awake. They would be interested, engaged. They would laugh at my jokes, and we would have a meaningful discussion about language, or argument, or whatever. I would eat something green: spinach, arugula, broccoli. I would finish all of my planning and grading and paperwork by the end of my office hours. I would go home early, drink a beer, read a book.

Every morning, I dream these perfect days knowing they won’t exist. I just can’t let go of the idea.

But today, I think perfection might actually be impossible. I don’t know if I can have the perfect career, the perfect relationship, perfect salads, perfect conversations… I’m beginning to see that perfection is a childish desire. It prevents me from making priorities, vital priorities. I need to know that I can’t do everything.

Last week, I attended a new faculty orientation where a hundred or so instructors shared their concerns for the upcoming semester: How do we stop our students from using iWatches during exams? How close does the deceased relative need to be to the student in order for the absence to be excused? I listened to these concerns, tried to understand their importance, but I only became more overwhelmed with my own selfish concerns. How will I make time to write this semester? If I continue to teach first year writing courses, will I always struggle with my own writing? Can I be a poet and a teacher? Am I cut out for this?

I never want to admit that some things might not be possible, that I might not be able to do everything that I want to do. But, in the last year, I have had more dreams and moments of inspiration about how to teach C.H. Knoblauch’s “Literacy and the Politics of Education” or how to get students to analyze instead of summarize than I’ve had about my own writing. And I’m tired of hearing the same vague advice: it’ll be hard. You’ll get used to this. Squeeze it in when you can. As I write this, one of my colleagues is running through the halls in a blue jogging suit… Is this how we are supposed to function? Does it have to be hard? And, if things must be difficult, do they ever get better? Will I adjust? How will I adjust?


On the second track of this album, Richard Thompson sings the following verse:

I was under The Calvary Cross,

When the pale-faced lady, she said to me

I’ve watched you with my one green eye,

And I’ll hurt you until you need me.


I don’t know what this song is about. It could be about spirituality, religion, Jesus Christ… a muse, a lover…. In interviews, Thompson has said that these explanations are as good as any, but even he cannot articulate its meaning. As I listen to this song now, specifically these opening lines, I can only see it as a song about writing, about being a poet. The pale-faced lady…she is poetry. Her green eye, her anger, her jealousy, her claws, her light…it’s all poetry, vying for my attention, my time, my trust.

I love my job. I love teaching students. But when I come home in the evenings, I feel as if every ounce of my creative energy is spent. I’ve written lesson plans and assignment sheets, found a helpful way to explain commas to Johnny. I’ve graded fifteen essays. But I haven’t written a poem.



You can make believe on your tin whistle.

You can be my broom boy.

Scrub me until I shine in the dark,

and I’ll be your light until doomsday.


 The offer here seems irresistible: to be the broom boy, to make believe on a tin whistle. It’s poetry saying, Work for me, Kristin; Give your attention to me, Kristin. I know can’t make poetry my day job. Not now, anyway. But I need it to be a priority.

Richard Thompson was about my age, 25 or 26, when he wrote “The Calvary Cross” and the other songs on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. This must be the age when we begin to understand our limitations are humans…the age when we learn how to make priorities.

Everything you do, everything you do, you do for me, Thompson sings in the song’s refrain. This is the pale-faced lady speaking again.

At the time this song was written, Richard Thompson was a renowned young guitar prodigy; he had received a great deal of critical acclaim. But he wasn’t selling records. He couldn’t pay his rent, feed his family, or even afford to make music. If “The Calvary Cross” is about making music everything, then I admire him for that. It feels like a brave thing to do.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Ever tried. Ever failed….

  • Justine King says:

    I understand your need for perfection but rather than give up the dream I think you should look at things differently and decide to view things as perfect, perfect as they are. Life is so fleeting and it is a gift. As pat and cliche as that sounds, it really is true. Stop being so hard on yourself because essentially the need to be great is all about ego and will never be fulfilled. We all need to stop aspiring to the perfect life (comparing and coming up short) and realise what we have and the complexity and mystery of it- which is perfection. Living life to the fullest isn’t about achievement, making your mark, or crossing things off your bucket list, it’s about living in the present and appreciating EVERYTHING, the small, the prosaic, as well as the “big” events. BTW I’m not religious. Nevertheless I think The Calvary Cross is about some sort of spiritual enlightenment

  • Justine King says:

    Oh and by the way have you heard Peter Laughner’s version of Calvary Cross- it is raw and fantastic (and how I originally discovered the song)

  • Will says:

    I was blessed with suffering early, and learned to reject ideas of perfection, from the nuns, from my father, from the world. I got average grades in school, and as a teen I first listened to the dark soulful songs of Richard and Linda Thompson, and fairport convention. Those songs stuck in my soul, and sat with me in my suffering, and I felt less alone, less afraid. I learned to find solace in nature, and became inwardly preoccupied, listening to my heart as I withdrew from the eyes of the other. I found my rhythm in the ballads of lost love and abandonment that Richard Thompson’s songs reflected. The Calvary Cross speaks to that part of me which knows the futility of playing both sides of the line…thanks for articulating this sentiment so thoughtfully

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