Community


Today as I was heading out to lunch, I saw the most beautiful thing. Across the street from where I work is a large-ish, block like apartment building with a green lawn stretching down a hill in front. They haven’t mowed the grass in a while, so it’s tall, and thick with puffy, white clover blossoms. Toddling through the grass and clover was the most wonderful baby, maybe a year and a half old, with white-blond dandelion puff hair and a pacifier firmly fixed in her mouth. Just behind was her mother, who was kneeling in the tall grass, plaiting the long clover stems together to make a garland. As I waited to turn the corner, she rose to her feet and headed toward her daughter, holding what she’d made. I saw that it was a wreath of clover, just the right size to put on the little girl’s head. Just then I made my turn, so I didn’t see any more, but the image was so lovely: the mother and daughter together in the clear, golden sunshine, the quiet love between them, and the light outlining both of them against the green grass. Beautiful.

It seems like a very long time ago that I used to make clover garlands too. I was in southern Louisiana at the time, my second year with NET, a traveling youth ministry team. It was spring there, and the grass was thick and lush with the biggest clover blossoms I’d ever seen. I love their sweet, grassy scent, and would pick huge handfuls of them every chance I got. Most of the grass hadn’t been mowed yet, so the stems were long and sturdy, perfect for braiding. I don’t know how many garlands I made. I left them behind at host families, at the foot of saints’ statues, and hung them from the seatbelt supports in the team van. One time I got my whole small group on a retreat into it, and we returned from our time away wearing necklaces and bracelets and thick anklets of clover. I wrapped the dried wreaths in paper, and took them home with me. For a long time I kept them in my drawers with my clothes. I still run across them sometimes – odd little paper packets folded up around dried memories.

Memories can be mixed blessings. You don’t get to pick and choose what you remember. Associated with the clover wreaths isn’t just the hot Louisiana sunshine on my arms, the taste of cherry limeades at Sonic, the total security of having my NET Team around me. At the same time it’s also inextricably tied to the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a second year of NET, the fight I had with one of the guys on my team right before my birthday, the way the whole world went surreal when one of the girls on our team got sick and had to leave us for a while. But there’s also the memory of sitting at a picnic table in the shade on the side of a bayou, feeling the breeze against my skin as I looked around the table at the people I loved, the memory of walking arm and arm through a Wal-Mart parking lot with Isabelle, belting out “L Is For…“, and the taste of Zapp’s Cajun Dill potato chips on my tongue. I can’t have one part without the other. I guess I’ll keep it all.

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So I had a birthday last week.  In the swing dancing community it’s a tradition that when a dancer has a birthday you give them a Birthday Jam.  This is a kind of exhibition dance in which the birthday girl starts out dancing with one guy in the center of a large circle of the other dancers.  As the song plays, the other guys present take turns stealing her.  If it’s a birthday boy, then the girls take turns stealing him.  I, in particular, always seem to have very interesting birthday jams.  They’re good fun, and can be the source of a lot of hilarity and/or showing off.  Showy steals, flashy moves – who knows what will show up?

This year my family showed up.  Well, half of them (I am one of eleven siblings).  It was Dad, Larry, Michelle, Heather, Lisa, and Gabe.  Liv was the Mastermind who got everyone there.  This was a big deal.  My family has never come out to see me dance.  When I was in my first competition, Liv came to cheer me on, but my family didn’t even ask me how I’d done.  Just the week before I’d been whining about this.  Trey’s family came all the way from Maine to watch him dance.  My family couldn’t go across town?

And then they showed up at the regular Wednesday night dance.  I had no idea, not the shadow of a suspicion, nothing.  I had dropped the swing club kids off early for the lesson (it was Shim Sham, which I already know how to do), and gone to chill at Barnes & Noble until the dance would start.  Of course I got caught in a book, so I was late to the dance.  I walked in, and there they were.  I was utterly flabbergasted.  It was awesome.  What made it even more awesome is that both Dad and Gabe jumped in during my birthday jam.  Gabe did a little swing dancing a few years back, so he sortof knew what he was doing, but my Dad had absolutely no clue.  He was so cute.  His idea of dancing was bouncing very energetically opposite me.  I thought, “Well, ok.” and turned it into a kicky-Charleston sort of thing.  Then he ran out of breath (my Dad bears a striking resemblance to Santa Clause, complete with white beard and rosy cheeks) and called for someone to rescue him.  It was so much fun.

With all this love, I don’t mind being another year older.

Recently I was catching up on some posts on danceprimer.com, and I found the following quote in Amber’s interview with Jojo Jackson:

“I would consider my recent teaching partner, Dax Hock, to be one of the best mentors I’ve had in my career. Not only from the vast amount of knowledge he shared on and off the dance floor, but for his exceptional level of public interaction at every workshop weekend. On any given night, he will invariably be seen dancing with every single follow in the room, and if the energy starts to drop, he will boost everyone’s spirits with an all-inclusive group dance or jam session.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Sam, one of the first guys I ever danced with. He was the president of the swing club at the Other Big University in town, where I had my second ever swing dancing lesson. He asked me to dance as soon as the lesson was over, the first time I’d been asked to dance by A Guy I Didn’t Know. (The entire song he chanted, “Triple step, triple step, rock step,” and let me say, it wasn’t for his benefit.) Over the course of the evening he danced almost every dance, not sitting down until he’d danced with every girl there. He did this every night, every time he was at a dance. New dancers struggle with insecurity, wondering whether, if you go to the dance, anyone will actually dance with you. Knowing that if Sam was there I would have at least one good dance was a little anchor I could cling to, making it much easier to keep dancing through my insecurities and fears until I had a chance to improve.

Sam’s help didn’t stop there. He cared about my progress as a dancer, and encouraged me to be better. I still remember the first time he took me off to the side of a dance and told me we were going to work on this thing called “frame.” When I was terrified of being dipped, he worked with me, dipping me again and again until I started to relax a little. Other teachers have taught me more, but he was the first to care about me as a dancer.

Sam was a good lead, but more importantly, he was a good Leader. The fact that he danced with every girl at the dance is a little thing, but it made a huge difference in the club. I can remember watching a new follow leave the floor after dancing with him, looking flushed and happy, and immediately grab another new dancer, dragging him onto the floor for the next dance. His energy was infectious, and the dance floor was rarely empty. He traveled to neighboring school’s dances, and took us with him. He pushed us to move beyond the university club into our city’s swing scene. Several of the better dancers in our local scene got their start in that swing club. It was great while it lasted. Then he graduated, his successor wasn’t nearly of Sam’s caliber, and things fell apart.

It’s been a long time since I danced with Sam (the last time I laid eyes on him was when I dj’d his wedding reception), but he is still my gold standard of what a lead should be. It’s not just strength, clarity and precision, musicality and playfulness – although Sam had those in spades. It’s something more. It’s having an attitude of service, an understanding of what it takes to build up a swing community, and a willingness to do what that requires. It’s being willing to dance with the new follows so they can actually learn how to dance. It’s caring about other dancers. My ideal lead isn’t just a leader, he knows how to serve.

Once upon a time, in a blogoverse far, far a way, I had another blog. It was my starter blog, that first taste of blogging crack that created the blogging jones I live with today. In the beginning I thought it would be a fun way to keep in touch with the girls from the junior high small group I led at my parish youth group. Then I publicized it to my friends in far off places, and it started to take on a life of its own. One day a young man suddenly showed up in the comments section. His name was Andy, and he seemed a nice enough guy. He shared an interest in C.S. Lewis, and seemed to have a similar offbeat sense of humor. We commented back and forth, getting a little flirtatious at times. It never really went anywhere. We came close to meeting each other in person once or twice, but never quite made it happen. Things petered out, and I almost forgot he existed.

In the meantime, I started wanting a somewhat different blogging experience. My previous blogging service was regrettably teeny-bopper-ish. Plus, I had too many close acquaintances reading it – people I saw regularly, but with whom I wasn’t close enough that I really wanted them knowing too much. I started self-censoring a lot, and feeling the pressure to be cute! and perky! all the time! And then, what if I wanted to blog about a guy? No way was I going to do that on my old blog except in the most oblique fashion. After all, even if the guy himself wasn’t reading the blog, I knew for sure that people who knew him and would be able to readily identify him were definitely reading it. It all got to be a lot, and so I started this blog, the blog no one knows I have, the grown-up blog on which I write about grown-up things and also crushes. (Contradiction? What contradiction?)

So… back to the story about Andy. A few months ago he found me on facebook, and we became friends there. We chatted a little, but then things dropped again, and I was happy to let them go. Then I decided to have a party, a nice, quiet party for my Catholic young adult friends. I created an event on facebook, and when it came time to invite people, I threw him in for good measure.

He accepted the invitation.

It was surreal, like some postmodern piece of fiction in which the characters come to life and start arguing with the author. This guy… actually existed? As in, the real world? Lived, breathed, walked around, and was coming to my party? How… odd. And then, why was he coming? Sure, we’d read each others blogs for a couple of years, but that didn’t mean we really knew each other. What did he want? I didn’t think he was romantically interested – I hadn’t gotten a flirtatious vibe from him in a long, long time. It was almost as if Bingley from Pride & Prejudice had announced he was coming to my party. If it had been Darcy, there would have been swooning and frenzied preparations to ensure that everything was picture perfect. But… Bingley? I wasn’t frazzled or nervous, just puzzled.

The party was last night, and about fifteen minutes in, he walked through the door. A slight, reasonably attractive young man, just like his facebook pictures. He was shyer than I had expected, but very nice. He laughed at my jokes, and helped carry things. He seemed to have a good time, hanging out with lots of different people. He didn’t pay me much particular attention, though he seemed to generally drift to the part of the downstairs where I was. He stayed until close to the end, and said he had a good time. My sister was encouraging him to come to our Catholic young adult group, and I seconded the invitation. I hadn’t thought to invite him before since he’s pretty Methodist, and we’re pretty Catholic. But maybe he would like it after all.

I just don’t quite know what to make of it.

People who read my blog are actually real?

Today I went to my Parish Credit Union to cash a check. It’s a tiny credit union, tucked away in a corner of the basement of what used to be my parish grade school (now the common grade school for three inner-city Catholic parishes, of which my parish is one). It’s only open three afternoons a week, and is accessed by going through an unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps on the back of the school. There is no sign, no posted hours, no advertising. You only know that it is open because when you try the doorknob it is unlocked. I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was in third grade. The ladies who run it, a gang of almost-geriatric matriarchs who could run the world if they ever cared to try, have known me since my family moved to the area when I was five. When I went in, I didn’t bother to bring my bag or wallet in with me. I presented the check I wanted cashed, the woman behind the counter asked me my account number, had me sign on the dotted line, and handed over the money. Just like that, with inquiries after my family’s health, and telling me how good it is to see me again.

On the way out, I passed another Matriarch of the Parish, Mrs. Richardson. She smiled and asked how I was. I replied politely, and it seemed that was it. Then she stopped and asked me how was Lisa, where was she now? I said that she had made it safely to Nairobi, where hopefully she would be able to make arrangements to come home soon. She smiled and nodded, and said she was praying. We parted, but as I walked away, I was shaken. You see, Mrs. Richardson’s sister is Sr. Dorothy Stang, the Sister of Notre Dame who was martyred in Brazil in 2005. She was gunned down on a forest road by hired killers in the pay of rich landowners who didn’t like her work with poor farmers. Her death stunned her family, and our parish. Mrs. Richardson’s sister went into a dangerous situation and never came back. Now she was asking me about my sister, who is in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, however, my sister will come back.

Most of the time I take for granted the kind of community I live in. Even though I usually attend Mass elsewhere, I’m still part of the parish I grew up in. My family is embedded deep in the web of relationships. Because of the strength of that community, I can walk into the credit union and cash a check without ever having to produce any ID, a situation most people haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every person I encountered knew who I was, knew who my family is, and cared about us. This is partly because we’re an unusual family, but it’s because they’re unusual too. We are a parish that gives birth to martyrs and missionaries and free spirits. We are a parish that cares about God and about each other. We are a parish that trusts and prays for one another.

This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.