Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Wife Rule #64: I'm Runnin' On

I'm runnin' on
I'm runnin' on
I done left this world behind
I done crossed the separatin' line
And I left this worl', left this world behind


These are the lyrics to one of the many African American spirituals that I sang as a member of my church's signature choir. These toe-tapping tunes almost always elicit broad smiles and joyful energy from those who sing them. But underneath the simplicity of the words and the often repetitive melodic lines, most spirituals have a strong element of deep symbolism. Favorite images employed are escaping the bondage of Egypt and crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, or in the case of this song, the crossing of any boundary to freedom.

The often upbeat tempos and energetic melodies seem to belie the true undercurrent of these songs: they are an exercise in optimism from some of the most maltreated, abused members of humanity in the world's history. These spirituals are proof that even when mankind is shackled and chained, whipped and beaten, there remains in some the flame of hope.

Sometimes that hope merely centers in escaping into the welcome embrace of death. Even when faced with the inescapable suffering of a lifetime of forced servitude, there is always the prospect of happiness in the next life.

But there was more than just death to look forward to; for these brave, noble souls, God was not only the Just Judge who would eventually set them free; He was also a living, current, vibrant force in their lives--lives that by all rights should have been devoid of hope. God shines through in their music. As the slaves' simple testimonies of hope, endurance, and eventual triumph shine out of the utter darkness of man's inhumanity to man, the African American spiritual passes into the realm of sacred music.

I'm Runnin' On happens to be one of my all-time favorites: because of the message of hope; because of the almost excessive joy that exudes from every measure of the song; and especially because of the images it always conjured up in my mind.

You see, my wife's father was a runner. During the six years I knew him, he was a little heavyset, but very conscious of his health. Thus, he took to running. He had a collection of running shorts that always seemed just a little too short--you know the ones, similar to the tight little shorts that basketball players used to wear fifty years ago. When I think of Dad running it is always the image of his bright red, too-short running shorts, hugging his hips and revealing the white tops of his long, sturdy, tan legs, as he runs off into the distance. And when I sang I'm Runnin' On, I couldn't get the image of Dad out of my mind.

It seemed too appropriate. The first time I remember singing that particular spiritual was just a month or so after Dad's accident and death. There I was, dressed in a tux in the choir loft, lights dimmed and cameras rolling for our live weekly television and radio broadcast, and all I can see is Dad's white-topped legs, crowned by his bright red hip-huggers, jiggling and shaking as he ran off into the distance, toward freedom from the pains and trials of this world.

I couldn't help but smile. Big smile. Huge smile. Shiny white teeth. Probably one of those four-pointed stars of bright light gleaming off my pearly whites into the camera.

For me, this was healing. It was hope. The fog of shock, disappointment, and sadness brought on by Dad's death lifted, just for a few minutes. It was recognition that life goes on after this dreary world, running on into freedom and love and light brighter than anything we know here. I'm runnin' on. I done left this world behind.

Ever since then, when I sang or even thought about that song, Dad was always there, runnin' on with me.

During my last trip to my wife's childhood home, I took the opportunity to run the path that Dad often took while donning his hip-huggers. It starts at the house and passes the neighbors' homes and fields, full of hay and horses and farm implements in various states of repair. Then it turns east towards the Bottoms, a wide-open expanse of farm land, pastures, and marshy swamp overflows from the nearby lake, criss-crossed by seldom-traveled dirt roads.

After I pass the old barn where dogs like to congregate and bark furiously at me, after I leave behind the last residents of "the city" (grazing cattle and horses), I reach the Bottoms. For the next several miles, it's just me, the fields, the swamp grass, and the lightly-graveled dirt road ahead of me. A rather stark landscape, to be honest, but one possessing a subtle beauty that I could only see in recent years.

I hip-hop over a snake that has ventured out onto the road, grateful for the relative softness of dirt under my feet, and enjoy the sounds of water fowl coming from the bird refuge that borders this land. There are the ducks, mallards and canvasbacks; the grebes and gulls; occasional pelicans and cranes; and the common white-faced ibis, nesting in large numbers among the reeds. It takes a little concentration to notice, but wildlife abounds in this small slice of near-wilderness. I've crossed some type of line, a separatin' line, and left the busy world behind.

I think of my wife's Dad, running here in the wild, free expanse. I run today to honor him: a 4.8 mile tribute of swiftly-moving, pasty-white legs.

He's crossed into the next world, the first of our closest family to go there. And we're following behind, a bright flame of hope lit by the same faith in a better life to come that allowed the African American authors of the spirituals to survive. We share a kinship with them. Not that our suffering even remotely compares to theirs, but that we are all part of the same human family, all children of our Father in Heaven, all striving for the better life He promised was possible.

I'll meet you there someday, Dad. Until then, I'm runnin' on.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Beautiful.