My family has traditionally traveled a couple times a year to be with my mother’s family, just north of Pittsburgh. Our gathering place was originally my grandparents’ home: several acres of magnificent rural land that is still so vivid to me now. My mother had four siblings, and in addition to my own four siblings and me, one of my aunts also had five kids who were close to us in age. These cousins have often felt like a second set of siblings. We all ran amok all over that land, but my main partners-in-crime were Shane and an older female cousin ours. Shane was never afraid to get dirty or wet, and Samara and I would at least follow, if not embrace, his lead.
In my youth, when I wasn’t in school or playing sports or with one of our extended families, I was usually in church. My mother had been raised Lutheran, while my father came from a Catholic background. They met and married in their thirties after working together at a faith-based teen rehabilitation center in Colorado. A recovering hippie in the 1970s, my dad, especially, had stumbled upon and identified strongly with the Jesus Movement. Dad became what I like to call a drive-by evangelist. What I mean is, he can’t drive away from the tollbooth without telling the worker, “Jesus loves you!” No amount of discouragement from my siblings or me has ever persuaded him that this isn’t a helpful practice. When I have pressed him about things like that, I was apt to hear something about “sowing seeds.”
When I was in the fifth grade, our D.A.R.E. officer – you know, the “just say no to drugs” guy? – used to play basketball with my friends and me at recess. Jim, we’ll call him, was probably in his thirties. Playing with Jim was far beyond his job description, and of course it gave us all a huge thrill to have an adult paying attention to us. One time, though, when he was demonstrating his moves on the court, his cigarettes and can of dip fell out of his pocket.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have told the story of bullying a classmate who had the last laugh in the end. But like many people, I’ve been on both ends of bullying. In early grade school, I had a “best friend” at school who I’ll call Andy. Lest I ever forgot that fact, Andy instructed me to repeat my allegiance to him every day on the playground. Out-loud and for his sake, I would say “We’re best friends forever.” And we were best friends (so long as I did everything he told me to do).
A few years ago, when I was having a particularly rough time, a friend of mine — who has often seemed more like a guide — spoke to me in a parable. Come to think of it, he didn’t actually tell me the parable; he simply suggested that I might benefit from tracking down and reading some of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I set out to find the book at a library. Upon finding the book, I glanced through it until I found the part during which one of the book’s main characters — a boy named Eustace — wandered off from his siblings. Alone, he encountered a dying dragon. He got a thrill out of seeing how close he could get to the dragon, even touching it. He had, after all, “read only the wrong books.” As such, he drank from the dragon’s pool of water; he played with the dragon’s treasure, and he tried on the dragon’s jewelry. Eventually, he fell asleep in the dragon’s cave.