Dance, Then, Wherever You May Be

Sunday at our church happened to be a celebration service of and for and about children. As we walked in the door, each child was handed a colorful pinwheel and a small, white bottle of bubbles, the kind distributed at wedding receptions. Olivia’s friend Iliana was with us, her first time ever to attend church, after they had enjoyed a sleepover at our house the night before.

We selected our seats in the front row of one section and almost immediately the girls were whisked away to join in the procession of clergy, lay helpers, choir, and children. Once the service began and the children were seated in the choir loft, I began to enjoy the solitude of sitting alone in the crowd, and began admiring the colorful stained glass windows, the intricate carvings in the wooden columns around the Nave, and the spectacular origami bird and rainbow mobile that hangs from the highest point of the ceiling, probably 30 feet down, until it almost touches the alter. These are wanderings I seldom get to enjoy, as I am constantly vigilant in keeping the five-year-old Olivia mostly quiet and entertained. I listened to the opening readings and greetings and thought of the beauty and warmth in the promise of the autumn day before us. Suddenly I heard the clomp, clomping of hard shoes on wood floor and looked up to see Olivia barreling toward me, her navy blue dress billowing around her bony knees. She was smiling as she met my eyes, and before I could gesture her to slow down, she had already lunged onto my lap. Serenity abated. Silence suspended.

I whispered to her, “Is something the matter? What happened?” thinking of the few tiffs she and her seven-year-old friend had encountered in the past many hours together.

“Nothing,” she enthused in a staged whisper. “I just missed you.” She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed hard. I smiled into her neck, the motherly part of me quieting, my own prim-and-proper upbringing in my father’s church neatly tucked and folded back away in the upstairs closet of my mind where it is perhaps best kept.

When the rest of the children rejoined their parents, Iliana found us, and sat beside Olivia. A moment later, a woman knelt before Iliana and asked if she would help carry a pitcher of wine to the alter prior to communion, as something was wrong with the cart. Iliana had no idea what the woman was talking about – this was a new vocabulary list for her, though her eagerness to help was palpable. She stood right up. The woman, friendly, encouraged her back down into her seat and said, “Not now. At communion.” I leaned over and assured her that I would cue her when it was time to go to the back and help. Olivia was plainly miffed at being overlooked for such an important job. The look she gave me is usually reserved for the answer of “no” to her ice cream requests after dinner, or my instruction to turn off Arthur on PBS before the episode has actually ended.

Because it was a celebration of children, many children and teens took part in the service. This was a blessing on many levels, as it kept the squirm factor down considerably in our row there in the front. Somehow listening to a segment of the book of Hebrews is easier when a young voice is mouthing the words; at least it appeared to be to my young companions.

Soon enough though, I found it necessary to switch seats with Olivia. They were fighting over which bottle of bubbles was heavier, whose pinwheel blew faster, etc. I was growing exhausted and we hadn’t even exchanged the peace greetings yet. Next the hugs and palm presses and kisses to face began. Olivia, once shy at this ritual, was hamming it up for the benefit of Iliana who, also an only child far from extended family, has perhaps never been the recipient of so much affection, and certainly not from strangers. Olivia made her way down our row, and then focused on the row behind us, including the visitors from a parish in Ohio. She has always been an outgoing and friendly child, color and age and ability-blind. She would simply hop up on a chair to hug the older women who couldn’t bend to her level. She finished the ceremonial kiss by jumping onto me and wrapping her legs about my waist. This is a child not used to comporting herself in a dress. I’ve begun to learn the blessings of leotards since we started attending St. Marks on Palm Sunday.

As the offering portion of the service began, I hastily wrote out a check to St. Mark’s and then asked Olivia (the left out) if she’d like to put it in the basket. She practically snatched the folded paper from my hand. Then I remembered the baby food sitting in a plastic bag at my feet, a ritual dear to Olivia as she imagines the dignitaries of St. Marks stopping on sidewalks to proffer her box of Gerber rice cereal to a homeless woman holding a small, hungry child. I had carefully selected two large and two small nonperishable foods that morning, leaving no room for skirmishes at the alter. The two little girls stepped forward to offer their food into the baskets. Just then the offering basket came to me. But my check was gone. I searched my seat, Olivia’s seat, the floor, the air return beneath the floor, my purse, my pockets, my checkbook, all for naught. No check. It was torn from the book, carefully recorded in the check register, even balanced (okay, so it was only twenty dollars), but it was gone. When Olivia and Iliana returned, I asked my daughter if she still had my check. She did her own body search and looked as baffled by the loss of it as I. The contingency from Ohio was by then thoroughly enjoying themselves, seated one row behind us. Maybe my check deposited itself into the box of baby cereal.

I leaned over and whispered into Iliana’s ear that she should now walk to the back to carry the wine pitcher. As soon as she stood and took a step, Olivia fell in line behind her. Amazing how quickly that child can move if her movement isn’t predicated on, “Olivia, please go clean up your room” or “It’s time to shut down the computer, Olivia.” I turned to look over my shoulder at the acolytes and children, my own included, carrying part and parcel of the communion up to the alter. As she passed my seat, Olivia flashed a proud and gloating grin at me. I read her mind. “See Mama, I am big enough to carry things.” Of course, she then stood next to both rectors, at the alter, and took the opportunity to introduce them to her friend Iliana, explaining as only Olivia can do that this was Iliana, her friend from school, and “can you believe this? Iliana has NEVER been to church before until today and we bringed her with us.”

Scurrying back to their seats, Olivia asked me to switch with her again so that she could explain the communion to Iliana. This she proceeded to do. “They will give you a piece of bread, but they’ll call it the body. Then in a minute they’ll come around with grape juice or apple juice and you get to drink it. It’s really fun. They’ll call that the blood, but I’ve tried it and it’s really only juice.”

Since we were seated in the front row, we were in the first group to go to the alter to be served communion. There was some confusion about the cups, though, and I was still holding my bread to dip while everyone else, save Iliana, had been served. After a moment of scrambling, the grape juice bearer returned to our part of the circle, allowing me to dip my bread, Iliana and then Olivia to drink from the cup. Just then, before we were told to go in peace, Olivia looked up at the attractive woman next to her and boasted, “I got to drink from the cup TWICE!”

I was truly thankful that I was not seated around anyone I actually knew. And that it was not a week my parents were visiting Washington. Nevermind the fact that St. Marks is circular and therefore obscurity was hardly possible. My closet door creaked open again, “How am I going to keep these girls quiet?”

When we returned to our seats, the congregation had started to sing, “Lord of the Dance.” It returned me to Young Life, guitar strumming days and though I’d been losing my voice all weekend, I sang out loud and clear, just an octave below all of the other women in attendance. Olivia was as pleased with the melody and happiness of the song as she was that I actually knew the words. She listened intently. When we got to the chorus of, “Dance, then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said He. And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be. And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said He” Olivia spontaneously sprang to her feet and started dancing. She twirled and tried to pirouette, though bless her heart, she’s never had more than a birthday party dance lesson. But she danced from her soul, because the song said to dance. The purity of delight on her face was magical. I had no thought of pulling her in or asking her to stop. Like the Ohio group around me, I found myself delighting in her as I had earlier in the intricate mobile hanging above the alter, reflecting the sunlight. Here she was, sweet, divested of all inhibition, celebrating the music and the happy faces around her, celebrating her part in the mystery of life.

I could feel Iliana start to twitch and she told me she was going back up for more bread. This I squelched. Just then, another woman knelt before her and swept Iliana into her arms. The woman had just been dismissed from the communion circle, and she said Iliana’s name with great affection. “What are YOU doing here?” she wondered, explaining to me that she lives right next door to Iliana’s family. Iliana explained where she’d been the night before, at our house. Once more, I could sense Olivia’s jealousy. She would ask me later, after Iliana had gone home, “Mama, why did everybody think Iliana was so special today?”

“Well,” I suggested. “Maybe God wanted Iliana to have an especially wonderful, fun time at church today, just in case she ever needs or wants to go again at some point in her life.”

“I guess so,” Olivia allowed.

The communion ritual was far from over, as long lines of people stood in every aisle, and my short seatmates were growing weary once more. Olivia opened her bubbles and to my horror, started blowing them toward the group gathered to accept the feast. Before I could confiscate them, Iliana had joined her. Soon the bubbles were floating up to and popping on the backs and hair of unsuspecting supplicants. I could feel my facial temperature rise, and seeing that, a woman seated a few seats away opened her bubbles and started joyfully blowing into the small wand. The woman beside her joined in as well. Soon, there were hundreds of bubbles and as the communers turned to leave the alter, they smiled, finding themselves adorned in celebration.

Several hours later, or maybe it was just 45 minutes or so, the service ended and I walked the children down to their respective Sunday school classes. I slowly walked back to the Nave to join with the other adults in coffee and the sermon seminar, enjoying the feeling of newfound freedom. I rolled my shoulders in circles. Took a few deep breaths. Approaching my seat, coffee in hand, the second bubble blower adult in my row introduced herself and said to me, “I just love your daughter. She brings joy to every room in such a lighthearted yet intense way. She is a delight.”

Just then, taking my seat, I installed a latch on the closet of my mind. In my father’s church the women, let alone the children, didn’t get to participate unless it was to organize the church potlucks or count the offering money after the service at the long tables outside the kitchen, or to launder the baptismal robes after dad had immersed a new believer. I longed to pass an offering plate, or do something more than fill the communion cups with Welch’s pure grape juice. Mom only bought the concentrate for us at home. As I grew older, I was allowed to play the piano in church and to sing in various choirs. But I got the clear message in church and the affiliated school that boys were better, and I hated that message but had no tools with which to refute or reject it.

Olivia does not see that world. At St. Mark’s, after she went downstairs, the sermon was delivered by a 17-year-old girl! And every Sunday she sees the women and the men sharing the tasks of reading, praying, speaking, serving, preaching, and greeting one another and her. She is a bright hope in my too-often darkened world of broken dreams and spoiled promises. She dances when the world sits. She laughs hard when the world is perched in silence, rigidly showing no expression. She sings when I cannot hear the music.

Copyright 2001