Sunday, June 12, 2011


I never learned to square dance but I suppose that I have spent my whole life simply trying to square dance with the church.  Something my visionary parents did naturally.

I suppose I have always known that my parents lived in two parallel worlds – One of communion and hymn singing and the other filled with twirling petticoats and circle driven dancing – held together by the common tradition of potluck dinners. So much so that when we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the fellowship hall of their church, the room was filled with as many square dancers as church members.
            Every Friday night, at the old YWCA, my younger brother and I would sit and watch my parent’s allemande left, circle up and Do-si-do with a group of people they called the “Dudes and Dolls.”  Then on Sunday morning, with the same regularity, we would gather with another group of people that seemed just as strange in that we sat in pews, used words like invocation and drank grape juice out of little cups.  I learned a few things about the church while watching my parents square dance and on occasion I believe that when the sunlight would stream through the stained-glass window just right my parents could be seen doing an Allemande left with a visitor or circling up in the kitchen to help make that Easter breakfast just perfect for visitors and members alike. 
            It was not as hokey as it sounds.  It was more like watching two people apply their faith as they interacted with their square dance friends and in turn, allowed their learning’s and experiences with those colorfully dressed square dancers to influence how they lived as members of Davis Street Christian Church.  My parents would never talk about themselves as prophets or visionaries but that is exactly what they were. I pray that the story I tell captures enough of those moments to help you see why!
            Sometimes when I was brave enough I would climb the steps to the suspended walking track above the gymnasium, dangle my legs over the edge and watch this group of people who called themselves the “Dudes and Dolls” move about the floor.  It was like watching a huge kaleidoscope as squares turned into circles and circles into stars and then back again.  The caller would shout out rhythmic commands that mostly corresponded to the beat of the music and in an imperfect unified expression the western dressed men and fluffy skirted women would move about the floor and create intricate patterns.  Even then these patterns, seen from above, seem to suggest a deeper meaning than the sounds of laughing and boot stomping would lead the average observer to comprehend.
            Though I can’t remember most of their names now, I still see them in my mind, circling up together and returning home, bowing to their corner then to their partner.  I can see them in their different sizes, shapes, personalities and occupations.  The group of people that came together every Friday night at the YWCA seemed to come from every social class and walk of life.  That would have been enough of a life lesson to see that mixture and interaction of teachers, electricians, farmers, doctors, barbers, and one guy I think was a rodeo clown. However, it wasn’t just that they were willing to come together in those unique outfits, it was the way they treated each other when they were together.
            My father has always been one of my greatest teachers but because of life’s circumstances and unwritten social expectations he never went beyond the 9th grade in his education.  My mother finally got her GED many years after learning to square dance.  In most places I was taught early the subtle and not so subtle markings of our families place on the social ladder of value.  But in all those Friday nights, watching and learning from my high perch of that walking track I never saw or heard my parents being talked to or ignored because of what they did or where they lived.  I don’t remember there being any written code or covenant that was signed by the members to force everyone to respect each other.  There was not an oath that they all swore to uphold that made them treat others as if each and every one of them had an invaluable piece of the puzzle or a voice that if lost would decrease the strength of the “Dudes and Dolls.”  I don’t know how they were in the regular world, I don’t know how each of them treated others at their work places or at their churches, I just know that while they were together as the “Dudes and Dolls” every voice mattered. 
            My parents would forever deny that they brought me to those square dances every Friday night to teach me a lesson that would affect the way I see the world and the way I see the church.  Actually they probably brought me along because they could not afford a babysitter.  Just the same, I tell you this story because the lesson stuck.
            The only other place I learned this lesson was sitting in pews listening to Rev. Cecil Simonton talk about how the church – the Body of Christ – is like an actual body in that every part, every voice, every person is needed and not one of us can say to the other, “I do not need you.”

            The thing about stories of life and particularly the stories I reassemble involving my parents is that though, as a storyteller, I often what there to be some easily understood point.  However, my parents’ life was more complex and messy than any simple story can capture in a few paragraphs.  I’m sure that if this short story became a novel there would be many other invaluable images and lessons that square dancers could share to make the church a little better and in the same way a few things the church might be able to share with those “Dudes and Dolls.”  I’m also just as confident that the square dancers I grew up watching were far from perfect people and my life in the church has allowed me to see the many flaws that exist with us church people.  And this really gets at what the real reason I have always believed my parents were prophets.
            In a world in which we are trained to find our group, bond with our people, and stick to our side of town my parents accidentally walked a different path.  During a time when dancing was not even allowed in the church, let alone have anything to say to contribute to church life, my parents naturally created a prophetic vision where “bowing to your partner and your corner” are words that Jesus himself might have spoken. 
This idea that farmers might have something to say to economists or youth might have wisdom to share with adults, or tax collectors might have a key lesson to share with some well educated Pharisees or even that a fluffy skirted square dancer might hold deep prophetic wisdom for the way a church should treat each other is becoming popular again.  I can’t say that my parents started the Internet, or Facebook or even that they were the first people to suggest that every person has a gift to be share for the benefit of the whole body.  However, what I can say is that my parent’s did live in two parallel worlds and at their 50th anniversary, sitting around tables in that church fellowship hall there were square dancers talking to church members.

I never learned to square dance but I suppose that I have spent my whole life simply trying to square dance with the church.  Something my visionary parents did naturally.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Neighborhood Memories

Memories are a wonderful thing because eventually those who helped make those memories will be gone. For me many who made up the framework of my childhood have already died but I still imagine myself standing on our deck surveying the area remembering them just as they were then in my childhood. This time, as I stand there, I remember a man named Paul. He was my childhood best friend’s father. He died recently of a heart attack while fishing and left me with this story to write.

Another piece of who I am is gone but I still remember. I see him working in his garage, trying to finish his son’s soapbox derby car. He moved so slowly, even then, but I guess what I remember most is that he did eventually finish. Good-bye Paul. . . . I will remember.

In my mind there is a time, no more like a place, where the memories of my childhood appear more real to me than events that I now experience. Sometimes, when I sit alone in my thoughts, my mind turns inward to that place of childhood memories where I find myself searching for a gentler time full of only two things, innocence and curiosity.
      When I revisit this time and place I always begin on the deck of our old house surveying the area like I did when I was young. As I stand there, I hear again the distant hum of cars crossing what we called the "Highway bridge." This bridge still lingers on the edge of my childhood imagination because it existed just beyond what I understood to be our neighborhood. I guess, that when I think about it I could always hear the hum of cars crossing that bridge, even when I played my hardest game of kickball. It was always there in the background calling me to see that there was more to the world than our little neighborhood and it still calls to me now.
However, now that hum calls to me from the deepest crevices of my mind to remember a place I know as my childhood neighborhood and at least for a moment I see that bridge through the eyes of a seven year old boy wondering where that bridge might lead.
I suppose if I am honest with my memory, I must admit that I never could see that bridge very well from our house for in between me and the bridge, with its branches outstretched, was a huge Fir tree. I miss that tree so much, not only for what it prevented me from seeing but for what it has never let me forget.
You see, as it swayed back and forth in the wind during the days of my youth it allowed me only glimpses of that bridge; a bridge that I would one day cross so many times that my curiosity for it quickly faded into common redundancy. Yet, at the same time it's ever green branches have continued to be one of the first images I see when I remember the people that helped make up my childhood.
This tree had roots in Mrs. Yoder's yard, but for me then, and even more now, it was a symbol of everything our neighborhood was supposed to be. Its branches reached out to all who could see it and only the length of its branches limited its care for those who might need comfort from the heat of the sun. I used to think that if I ever got lost I could always find my way home by simply looking upward and no matter where I was I would surely see the top of its branches waving at me; showing me how to find home again. It is the image of that tree waving its branches and the continuous hum of that bridge that calls to me once again, to come home to a place and people I knew a long time ago, even if it is only in a story.
Just to the left of that tree, and often hidden from my sight as well, was the McNaulty's house. The father of this household was a preacher of some sort and his children were either just older than me or several years younger. Consequently, I rarely spent time there. Though dad and I often hunted for night crawlers in their back yard, a memory for another story or two.
To the right of the tree was the only house in the neighborhood that does not have a family name attached to its memory. This was because it was empty most of my childhood. From time to time a new family would move in and then, within a few years they would move on to other places around the world, I suppose. Just the same, the yard of that house, was ideal for our daily kickball tournaments and so we played there often.
      The Harod's lived next to that house and behind them, yet another house hidden from my view. This house belonged to the Copeland's. During my youth I always had a crush on their youngest daughter whose name was Mary, though I could never bring myself to tell her so. There are many reasons why I never told her of my interest in her but one of the reasons lived in a doghouse just outside their back door. All my friends and I had seen its enormous fangs on the few occasions when we ventured too close.
This alone obviously prevented many of us from visiting very often. However, in a perfect neighborhood, I suppose I wouldn't have memories of these kinds of details but our neighborhood was not perfect and these memories of that house and Mary's family haunt me still to this day.
Now, all of these names are probably meaningless to everyone but myself and maybe others who lived in that neighborhood. Just the same, however, those names have been imprinted into the crevices of my mind like the Bortz's who always made sure I had a cool glass of lemonade while I mowed their yard; or George Gladson our token hermit who had old TV equipment stored in his dungeon-like basement. And dare I should forget the scariest couple on the block; the Basket's who were rumored to have had bloodstains all over their walls. It wasn't until after they moved out of the neighborhood later in my childhood, that I was to learn that the so-called blood was really just red paint splattered on one wall. Still, I never did learn why someone would splatter their wall with paint in that way.
But of all my neighbors the one name that I remember most vividly is that of my childhood best friend; Albert Songer. I cannot remember life before him. Although, now as the years move on, my memory of the things we did together grow vague and imprecise. Yet even these vague memories deserve to be preserved in a story like this one because he was not only my best friend then, but he was my first friend in this world.
In the beginning of our friendship there was just the two of us.
Our whole world was created by the things we did together. We even formed a club to save the world (or at least the neighborhood) from the evils we had seen embraced by our older siblings. We took turns being president and even held meetings to plan our strategy. But in our naiveté we never calculated for the only thing that could defeat us in our task; we grew up. Just the same, not all was lost with our maturity for I still remember the reason for that club and I still remember our friendship. In many ways, the things we did together so many years ago continue to influence the paths of life that we have each chosen.
I learned to ride a bike at about the same time he did. In fact, when we were very young there was very little that we did not do together. We played hide and seek, built igloos, and we often talked about life and what we would become together. We would play "cars" on the wall next to his house. We made lots of toy roads during those days. However, in that game of "cars" that we played, his house was never far from mine. But that was then and our lives continued on.
He was a year older than me and graduated to the Junior High a year prior to me. Things beyond what words can describe changed during that year. It was that year, I believe, when our childhood ended and with it our friendship based on childhood things.
I don't remember much about him after that except an occasional talk about how our neighborhood was changing. We never again considered each other our best friend.
We began to move down different roads of life and soon we had both graduated from high school. He married early but it did not work out and I heard he asked for a divorce a year later. The last I knew, he had entered the military and had returned home to our neighborhood long enough to marry again. This time to another neighbor of ours named Michelle.
I have since moved away from our neighborhood to go to college and then on to seminary. I live in Kentucky now and I learned recently that he lives in Virginia. The roads to our houses are not close like they were in our childhood game of "cars" or even in that neighborhood of ours. Yet, still, he will always be my childhood best friend. Only the loss of my memory can take that away.