I remember the first time I listened to Jeff Buckley’s Grace, I was a sophomore in college and only a seemingly short summer removed from the worst break up I’d ever gone through. It was, coincidentally, the first dissolution of the first real relationship I’d been in to that point, so, ya know, take that with a grain of salt.
But I’d basically wound my way to Jeff Buckley through two avenues: his legendary cover of the Leonard Cohen classic, Hallelujah (a cover so brilliant one might call his version, like Hendrix’s All Along the Watch Tower, the supreme version), and with The Last Goodbye being part of the Cameron Crowe-Tom Cruise film, Vanilla Sky. The story of his life - scion to one of the great folk musicians, meteoric rise among musicians, untimely death on the cusp of true stardom - is easy to romanticize. His work on Grace, even easier to fall for as a hard luck romantic.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of this classic album - and, coincidentally, the 5th anniversary of my wedding day - and I’m thinking a lot about grace. Especially in the after glow of the news that fan favorite and clubhouse big brother (or terror, if you’re to ask Rhian Brewster after that hip hop quiz video) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain extending his contract with Liverpool Football Club.
The ecosystem around sports romanticizes athletes. From the way we consume hours of highlights packages to the way media pundits and writers try to fit elegant phrasing to describe those same highlights, we build a mythos around the feats that these athletes perform.
And that same mythologizing is underpinned by the awe instilled in us as we observe these incredible acts. Which bleeds into the way we view these athletes as walking on a plane slightly raised from the rest of us. Not gods, but not mere mortals either.
It’s why we take the losses of careers or the news of serious injuries to athletes so hard: they are the bridge to the impossible and when they go down, well, we all feel our mortality a little bit more. I am reminded of A.E. Housman’s classic poem because it is rooted in the way we look, gauzily, at the existence of great athletes: something like a modern Hercules among us all.
Watching Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain go down injured at the end of the 2017-2018 season - at a time when he’d established himself as a central cog to the great Liverpool project - is an example of that: it was wrenching to see him injured at a time when his abilities seemed in full bloom. Watching him rehab and recover on the sidelines as this team turned in one of the most special seasons in recent Liverpool memory were happy memories tinged with the melancholy of not having him be on the pitch to support the team.
But now, the Ox is back.
Grace as a concept speaks to receiving things that are maybe a bit unearned. Good fortune. A blessing. A mercy.
It’s tough to look at AOC’s rehab and the effort he’s clearly put in getting back to playing shape and think that his return is somehow unearned. And I’m not going to call it that at all.
But I think the grace in this circumstance is two-pronged. First, there’s certainly a bit of fortune - a bit of grace - in knowing that the injury wasn’t a career-ender. That while the layoff would be long and difficult, he would likely see the pitch again.
The second is that having Ox back in the fold is such a grace. His presence in the clubhouse and influence over the entire group is clear. He’s beloved. He’s a mentor. He’s, even at the tender age of 26, a veteran presence whose leadership is valued. He is important to the state of the team.
So, yes, Ox’s return and, significantly, his contract extension, is a grace. To the club and to the fans.
Writing these ETB’s has been, admittedly, a bit more laborious than even in the immediate past. There are reasons for that: I’ve picked up a couple more slots a week, I’ve been going through a rather stressful period at work, and the world is, well, terrible and obviously trying to kill me.
Totally cool and not at all fascist, racist nation we’re living in rn. https://t.co/g61mUONFH5— AJ Joven thinks borders are a racist construct. (@aj_joven) August 23, 2019
But the grace in today is knowing that, sometimes, good things still do happen for the people we care about. I’ll be going home this evening and enjoying a quiet night with my family before throwing on a little bit of Netflix’s Wu Assassins to close today’s celebrations with my wife. AOC’s hard work has been rewarded with a new contract. And Liverpool fandom can sleep easy before tomorrow’s match knowing that the team is taking care of its players, one contract extension at a time.
There’s a lot of grace in all of that.