Well, I've been wanting to write this post for ages, but I really wanted to take my time with it. This post is about something very precious and important to me.
The church I went to growing up was boring. Dull, dull, dull. Don't get me wrong: I love it very much, and it will always feel like my home, but it was just impossible to get excited about singing those dirges from the 19th century. It was geared towards the older people, which made sense as there were loads of them, but for the kids... well, it failed to thrill us.
Which was why the Bandstand was so special.
That's what it was called, the Bandstand. It felt like a separate world. It happened in the summer, late on a Sunday night, and it was like nothing else I've ever experienced...
(I'm speaking, of course, with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia perched on my nose. That's often how it goes with things that end before you grow up. I'm almost glad it did; doubtless it would never have been the same if I'd gone there as a teenager, sulking and scowling my way through the hymns...)
This is how it would happen: our mother, not wanting us to get tired while we were there, would insist that we take a nap beforehand. Let me tell you, never in my life was it harder to sleep than on a beautiful summer day before the Bandstand. Mum would close the heavy yellowy-gold curtains of our bedroom, and there in the yellow-gold light, we'd try (and often fail) to sleep.
Then we'd go to a little park in a little town on a little island. The birds in the aviary would chirp and sing as we passed, walking towards the river. Bright lights would illuminate the stepping stones, the beautiful plants, and the magical, elusive little fish that flitted through the water.
Most of my siblings fell in that river at one point! when it was my turn, it was a consequence of a selfless act... one of about three I committed before the age of 12. Maybe that's why I remember it. My brother was sailing a little leaf-boat past the stepping stones, reaching out to catch it as it floated past, until (inevitably) he let it go beyond the reach of his little boy arms. So, me being on Big Sister duty, I stretched to catch it... and fell in. The lights made everything so strange and beautiful, and I swear that in that half a second I saw the bright orange fishes swimming around me.
We weren't allowed to stay on the stepping stones, or to climb the trees, or to play in the park for long, though. Because over by the bandstand structure itself, in front of a little raised and covered platform near the trees, a tiny congregation would gather in the fading light as the night grew colder, singing from a little booklet of hymns. A friendly man with a goatee played the keyboard from the platform, playing the songs that we rarely sang outside of this one special occasion. I often wondered how the people who were so stiff and formal in a building on Sunday mornings, could be so at peace in the breathtaking wonder of nature?
Three or four minutes away from those harmonies that rose above the enthusiastic midges, was a playpark - a magical place for us kids. We'd go there every time, pretend the roundabout was taking us to places that only existed in our imaginations. And the swings! When you got them high enough, right at the top of the arc, you could see over the hedge to the edge of the world, where the sun set over neverending ocean, and nothing else. Just sea and sky. For those brief seconds, I could rise above all the world and be so completely free.
Even if there was never a God, that would be enough.
I know these songs will mean nothing to you, but to me, they mean so much. If you want to hear them, and you've got Spotify - I've only managed to remember / track down these three - click this link:
This is a really long shot, but there was one song I remember the most. It was the one people would always be so eager to sing, another song that was unique to that time and that place - so much so that it's not online. Not anywhere. I've written what I remember of the lyrics below... if you can tell me anything about it, I'd be so grateful!
It's a new life, oh how He changed me
A new life, He rearranged me,
A new life, richer and fuller,
It's a wonderful, wonderful life!
Gone is the old life and gone are its chains,
Gone are the wrinkles and gone are the stains,
Gone is the darkness and gone is the night,
I have found Jesus, the truth and the life...
I went back once, years ago, and took these pictures. So although it wasn't the same - how could it be? - I at least have these reminders.