One of the contradictions of my childhood was my mother's insistence on regular attendance of a Southern Baptist church. She was not a particularly Christian woman. She did not understand how to turn the other cheek or treat her neighbors as herself. She shoplifted regularly by hiding things under her enormous purses in the child seat of the cart and then transferring them to the bags once she'd left the building. Oh, she wouldn't ever admit to this if you asked her today. It's among the many things she's edited out over the years. And perhaps the truth, really, is that she edited herself into believing she was a good Christian mother and wife. I really don't know.
For a time, I ran far and fast from the supposed faith she never really possessed. Today I look back on that time with some fondness. I am not sure if I would say that it was worth the hours spent or the screaming fights about missing shoes and appropriate attire. I don't know that I could say that suicidal bouts of hiding in the closet from her wrath were exactly worth it, but there are things about a Baptist church itself that I do remember now that make me smile.
See, a southern Baptist church is a place where you spend at least as much time singing as you do on anything else. To this day I can sing all the words to a variety of hymns that I have not even heard since I was probably 11 years old. There is something beautiful about hymns. Many people miss it, but I believe that you can get lost in a certain sort of rhythmic spirituality in singing them, no matter what your faith or lack thereof. I certainly did.
I do not remember a single sermon in all those years. I know that our minister was excellent and I have never found one before or since that was as effective a story teller and speaker, but I cannot tell you a single thing he said in all those years of attendance. But the songs. The songs are still with me today. And their meaning stands clear in my mind. For me, it wasn't about the literal Hosannas or the drawn out Emanuels. It was about owning music for yourself. It was about accessing the divine though notes and rhythms. It didn't matter if you couldn't carry a tune. Hardly anyone in the room could. What mattered was the singing of it and the joy in lifting your voice in that way. Nothing else can fill you when you are lost in song, giving it your all for that moment.
When I was very young, I used to stand next to my mother and flinch at her voice. She had sort of a very loudly projected nasal whirr as part of every soprano part she tried to sing, and I used to just die of embarrassment at being near her. One day I started actually trying to sing along instead of just standing there with everyone of pretending to be part of the goings-on while holding a book of greater interest inside the hymnal. I started singing and following along. You don't have to be able to read music in a church. It's not something only accessible to those who have studied. It's something everyone does to the best of their capacity and the end result of so many voices is that most are flooded and rendered part of some vague middle ground that is much more pleasant than many of it's individual parts. There is singing just for the feeling of it and the joy it might bring ourselves or any deity at hand. I discovered I really liked it. And as part of that, the thoughts about my mother and her nasal whirr faded with me listening to my own voice instead.
It was a ritual. A repetition. Sound for sound's sake. It was a lesson that singing should happen because it happens and as it happens because it is about the act of singing as much as the end result. No, I will never be part of an Opera company. Sometimes I'm off pitch or in the wrong note for this verse of a song, but I don't generally care. I care that I get lost in the emotion and rhythm of the music itself through singing it. I care that there is joy in song and it is possible to let everything else go for a while during the singing of it. I sing as if no one were listening because I am busy listening to myself and the patterns in the universe at hand.
Not all things that came from the Baptist church were a positive lesson. Dancing was something done by oversexed fiends on their way to hell. The interesting thing was that they managed to convey this information without ever, in my memory actually saying anything directly about the subject. It was a truly strange phenomenon. It was like there was psychic information that you just sort of absorbed by being in their presence, without really meaning to. To this day I do not know if there were just subliminal messages played through the air vents or how on earth I came to understand this as a fundamental rule of Baptist churches.
I myself didn't ever feel really much a part of that church, and there were many of their rules that I never lived by beyond a vague emotional foreboding along the lines of the question "what if God really does care for some strange reason?" Dancing was one of them. In another example of the contradictions my mother lived with, she signed us all up for dance lessons. I never practiced and I was just never a sequins sort of girl, but there is still a small amount of tap dancing that I remember today. There were the usual batch of school sponsored dances, which were mostly, in my experience, a way to blow out your ear drums while comparing fashions. But somewhere along the way I started country line dancing. We would go on underage nights to country bars and dance halls. And the thing that was always clear from watching a hundred people line up to do the boot scoot boogie was that the ones that looked the best and were clearly having the most fun were the ones who, once they had the basic steps down, never looked back. They embellished as the stomped and stepped to the beat. They changed the local steps themselves because they looked so good that other people would start to follow their lead.
The whole thing was a lesson in the fact that you didn't have to be at the front of the line to be the leader. You didn't have the be serious to succeed. You did what felt good, and patterns rose and fell from the doing of it, but whatever else happened, you enjoyed the rhythm of it all. The key, the fundamental key was balancing your attempts to look good in a crowd with a healthy dose of forgetting the crowd was even there to begin with. Dance for yourself. You don't need lessons or special shoes to succeed in life. Jeans and your shit-kickers will do.
I’ve known a lot of people who have claimed to be living by the philosophy of living each moment as though it is your last. For most, I think it is an excuse to avoid the future or the responsibility in their actions.
I’ve always been troubled by the question of where the line is between enjoying the moment and harming yourself in the long term.
It is impossible to live every moment as though it is your last. There would never be reason to buy more toothpaste or wash your socks. But yet, there are things that you do not want to put off in the assumption that tomorrow will come. Things like following you oldest dream or telling a spouse that you love them rather than letting them storm off mad.
So where is the balance? I think the balance is in finding the enjoyment in the present that doesn’t severely tax the future. That and finding pleasure in the smaller joys rather than losing sight of them in quest for something bigger that may or may not ever be.
This was driven home to me a few weeks ago when we finally decided we had to put our dogs to sleep. Delilah had shoulder cancer and was no longer responding to the pain medication much. Sampson had abdominal cancer and had gone from 130 pounds to 80 pounds in the course of a few weeks.
We took them into a vet I’d never been to before, because they were close and relatively less expensive than a few others nearby. When we walked them into the room, the vet and his assistant took the time to love on both of them, rumple their heads and give them treats, enjoying the silliness that is a rotty-lab mix.
Both of them knew why we were there. They knew that these two dogs would not see tomorrow. There was no obligation on their part for further investment in them as living, playful creature. And yet, they took the extra time to give them goodies they would never even digest. They took the moment to provide them with joy as their immediate memory upon the end of their lives. They understood how important a moment of joy was, no matter what the future might hold.
We would all do well to remember their lesson. If it hurt nothing and brought joy, don’t put it off till tomorrow or deny its need today. That may be your last cookie. It may be the last time someone rumples your head, and you just may not recognize the language of death coming to call. Take that moment and enjoy it fully while letting hope for tomorrow live.
Sing. Eventually they’ll join in. Dance. Get lost in the moment without fearing taking the lead. Live. Balance today and tomorrow without overlooking the joy that any individual moment might bring.