“And you know it’s time to go
through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning to a light that’s in the distance”
A Sort of Homecoming. U2
In my last post I reminisced about a favourite high school English teacher who had recently passed away. At the end of the post I mentioned how his funeral was coming up but that I had a work commitment that prevented me from attending. Well, that evening I broke the news of Mr. Pauls’ death to my wife (she knew him a bit from the days we attended that church before we were married) and she strongly encouraged me to reconsider going to the service. Another pillar of that faith community had passed away in September, and I was unable to attend his funeral and I regretted it afterwards, and my wife reminded me of that.
So, after thinking about it some more, and looking at my options, I decided to rearrange my Wednesday schedule, get someone to cover for me at my work meeting, and prepare to head back, physically and emotionally, to somewhere familiar and yet now quite foreign: my home church.
Or I should say, my home church growing up. Since getting married and moving across town over a decade ago, we’ve joined a new faith community (I guess you can call it that. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the right term) which feels more like home for us, with all of its dysfunction and uncertainty and hand-wringing, than our old church now does. In fact, the last time my wife and I were actually physically in our old church was on our wedding day, believe it or not. That was almost 12 years ago. It wasn’t like we made a conscious decision about not going back. It wasn’t like we said to the church, “thank you so much for nurturing us all those years, for loving us and cheering us on and weeping with us and inspiring us, but we’re now done with you, k bye.” It just happened. We moved across town, we were within walking distance of a new church, we thought we’d check it out, before we knew it I was in the choir and met some people and we were in. It seems cold, I know. And maybe it WAS a little cold, but sometimes you need to have a clean break. It does seem a bit strange, looking back, that we never had a reason or a chance to go back. No major funerals (until now), no weddings, no dinner theatres or fowl suppers, no concerts. Ah well, what do we say around here? Onward.
And yet there’s something about your childhood memories that somehow have a way of seeping into your bones and staying there, latent, until something like a death brings them up to the surface again. I shared a couple of stories about Mr. Pauls in my last post, but that was really just scratching the surface. So many more have bubbled up in the last couple of days. Some of them aren’t really even stories, in the traditional sense of the word. They are more like sketches, or brief images or sounds. Remembering the glint in his eye, or his laugh, for example. Sometimes the stories get jumbled. I remember one that I was PRETTY SURE involved my friend Ed, but as I remember it, I don’t think he could have been there. Maybe it happened and then I told Ed about it after and he liked it. I’ll have to ask him about it. Anyway, I think it must have happened after church one Sunday. Mr. Pauls’ grandson was being baptized and after the service there was a crowd of mostly ladies around the mother and infant, fawning over him, taking turns holding him. The centre of attention. A few feet away, standing by himself and quietly observing the scene was Mr. Pauls. I stood next to him for a bit and he turned to me and said, “Boy, that kid sure has a shock coming to him!” and we both burst out laughing at the sentiment. Classic Mr. Pauls. Here we were at his grandson’s christening, and he couldn’t help but think about “the human condition” and the “suffering and cruelty” of the world that his child would have to eventually have to endure. This sketch doesn’t put Mr. Pauls in a particularly good light, but hopefully it gives you a tiny sense of what he was like and why I loved him so much. Another thing he used to say, and which I’ve taken to heart over the years, is that it is better to be a pessimist instead of an optimist because you’ll always be slightly impressed that things sort of work out. My wife hates this idea (typical optimist!) but I’ve found it has served me well over the years, and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed life any less because of it, in fact I’ve enjoyed things much more. I’m rarely disappointed. A snatch of poetry just came to mind that echoes this sentiment. I’m sure we studied it with Mr. Pauls.
“Therefore since the world has still,
much good, but much less good than ill.
And while the sun and moon endure,
Luck’s a chance but trouble’s sure.
I’d face it as a wise man would,
and train for ill and not for good.”
That just came from some part of my brain that hasn’t been tapped in almost a quarter century, people! (I did just do a google search to get the poet’s name, A.E. Housman, but I had the quotation correct, word for word. I guess I’m still a bit of a show-off. How can you guys STAND me?)
So later on today I’ll head back to my childhood church, to remember a childhood hero, and visit with childhood acquaintances, church family long forgotten, and high school classmates. We never did get to gather 20 years later, as Mr. Pauls had jokingly suggested in grade 12, after we had lived life, to discuss the themes and ideas in the poems we were reading. But it’s been more than 20 years now, and we’ve all been out there, making our way the best we can, we’ve had our hearts broken, probably broken one or two ourselves. I never did punch anyone, but I did tell a family member to “Go Fuck Themselves” once and I’ve never regretted it.
So rather than gather one last time in that second floor English classroom, a classroom that no longer exists: (our high school was torn down a couple of years ago to make condos), we’ll be gathering at my childhood church to remember and honour a man who I initially feared, but who I eventually came to respect and even love. I wonder what ever happened to all those black and white author photos that hanged so precariously on top of Mr. Pauls’ chalkboard? I never attended our high school reunion a few years ago. I made a flippant remark to a classmate who asked if I was going: “Well I still see everyone I care to see from high school, so what’s the point?” but that wasn’t exactly true was it?
In many ways, this afternoon will be in itself A Sort of Homecoming.