I have vivid memories of church. Church happened 3 times a week for me when I was a youngster. My Pa was the assistant pastor. He led the congregation in song before the message was given by the Preacher. My Dad is a showman, a regular circus performer who took his skills to church. I remember his rowdy acts I witnessed as a child: squatting tables loaded with men, handstanding on ladders, tiptoeing across the backs of seats. Smiles spread and songs erupted and laughter rolled like thunder. He doesn’t just lead songs, he dances and hops and jumps from the pulpit to the floor. He is 80-something and still does this stuff. Age has affected the height of his forays but his enthusiasm never wains. God is proud, I’m sure.
There was one song my old man would sing when I was real little, it was called Thanks to Calvary. During the part of the song where he refers to his son, I would trundle down the aisle and my Pa would pick me up. I remember looking out at the people as they shouted their “Amens!” When he was done singing, he’d kiss me and whisper me back to Mama. Back at my seat, Mom smiled and winked and beamed. Cory, my sparkly-eyed little brother, didn’t know it then but he was next in line to be the little boy walking to Dad while the piano played and the hallelujahs rained down like leaves in the fall.
Sometimes, not always, if I started to get too sleepy during the long-winded sermons, my Ma would shovel me under the pew (Pews are what they call the long, uncomfortable benches in a church. I don’t know why they’re called that, but I’ve always thought it was maybe because so many different rear-ends parked there through the years.) and let me sleep. Under the pew was a whole different world. From down there I would look out at the hundreds of ankles rising up from Sunday shoes, some jittering, some akimbo, some still as stones. Big fat ankles in strange, shimmering panty hose corralled by floral dresses. Tiny baby feet, hanging. Stories were told through that forest of feet. The knobby ankles dressed in old man socks swimming in over-sized shoes that were nudged up against an oxygen bottle with the weird, clear tube that ran to the upper world and into the wrinkled nose of one of the adults. Teenage sweethearts using the cover of church to explore forbidden thoughts, their legs touching, searching. It was all something that no grown-up could see or know, but it was a lively drama for me. Sometimes I would pluck a bright colored blob of gum from the bottom of the pew and test it for lingering flavor, there were hundreds to choose. I was scolded never to do this, but I did on some occasions, depending on the level of temptation. I don’t chew gum anymore, I doubled up back then and I reckon that’s aplenty.
After church, there was much to do. Certain old fellas carried candy and I was careful to work the scene. Mr. Garcia always had butterscotch. Mr. Meachom had jolly ranchers. Now and then I got snatched up by some of the older teenage boys who would try and get me to spin some fantastic yarn about a monster that was real and living in one of the dark, upper hallways of the church. I remember being carried down long, unlit passages while the boys laughed at my earnestness over where the monsters lived. I gave instructions like the lead explorer on a desperate mission to discover something conjured from the wildest recesses of my mind. Finally, my Ma would round me up and we would pile into the old 69 Dodge campervan. No seatbelts back then, instead we fought to sit on the hump in the center. Up high where the road ran directly under your feet and the world was on a conveyer belt.
I don’t go and sit with congregations anymore. I don’t walk the aisle to have someone help me work through my sins. I do, however, have a church. I go where the big cedars sway with the ponderosas against whatever the sky is brewing. The aisles are full of curling ferns and meandering vines. I do daily baptisms where the red-backed crawdads patrol the creek bed, where the trout slip in and out of existence. My mind is full of the colors of the world. It’s good to empty out and allow the heart some relief from our contrivances.
I use my mind to remember. I use it to make little creations, drawings and essays and stories. I use it to build bridges between my heart and other hearts. I use it to tell my sweetheart how I love her. I use my mind to help comfort my dear ones that are sad or sick or afraid. I’m training and learning to be aware of the wild world and Her magic. I’m feeling heartbeats and breathing with intent. I’ve been here for almost a half-century and Life continues to produce mysteries and wonders in lovely succession. I know for certain that hate and bitterness reduce connection and inhibit the ability to understand and yet I see so much of it. I’m appalled by our acceptance of it! So much value in lovingkindness. It’s pretty cool to think that I have the choice to be a strong, aware, loving human being.
I can hear my Dad singing to the folks who are listening. His song is clear and he’s dancing and smiling and clapping his hands above and below. His cowboy boots are polished and he’s hopping down now in a crouch. The people are all smiling and slightly embarrassed at the antics of my old man. But now his head is back and his heart shows and his voice rises in that tenor that is sweet to hear. Now some tears from the eyes of the audience because my Dad is real and kind and full of love. My Father is religious, I am not…but love is good all around. There is room for us all if our hearts and minds create the space.