The Space Between: The House of the Rising Sun — The Memory of a Song

Staff_McDermott, TomOne of my favorite bible verses is Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This Sunday, in eleven:eleven, we’re going to look at the questions — ultimate questions, and pesky little questions that grow up to be ultimate . . .

So I have a question for you (and I’ll be honest — it’s kind of a cumbersome question, but I’ll ask it anyway).

How do we know what we know about something is what there is wholly to be known, when our memories and our experiences and the people with whom we surround ourselves are always filtering what we know, and how we know, at any moment? To put it another way, can we say this as a kind of true-ism — we do not know what we do not know?

This “truism” became very clear to me, once again, when I recently ran into a former friend from elementary and middle school. I hadn’t seen Jimmy since that time and, truth be told, hadn’t really expected our paths to ever cross again. We’d really gone separate ways — we’d both gone off the deep end so to speak (but in very opposite directions!). I think I’d made up my mind that all we had left between us were some bad memories and “close calls” with serious trouble.

But Linda and I were eating at a busy, noisy restaurant a few days back when I heard someone say, “Thomas? Is that you, Thomas McDermott?”

Now, there would be only two reasons I could think of someone using the more formal presentation of my name: it was either some government official (as in, “It says here your name is Thomas McDermott. Are you or aren’t you Thomas McDermott?”). Or it had to be someone from my elementary and middle school years. While I had no real reason to suspect it was the former, I nonetheless spun around in a panic and discovered it was Jimmy.

memories-1I was surprised, to say the least, and a little uncomfortable at first. Some of those bad memories quickly surfaced. But I invited him to join us and, after getting past all the awkward “how much can we really say about all the time and living that’s passed between us since our last ‘close call’” subject matter, Jimmy laughed and threw out, “Hey, you remember that time we did ‘House of the Rising Sun’ for the Stripling Middle School talent show?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, not really sure of that ‘time’. “We had a band, right? ‘Thumper’ was the drummer?” (We had nick names, and not very creative ones at that — I remembered I was “Pitch”, cause I didn’t always hit the right note). “And what was the bassist’s name?”

“Yeah, I don’t remember either. Why is it so hard to remember bassists’ names?” Jimmy added. We both laughed (though I want to assure Mike and Jeff and Aden, our 11:11 bassists, I won’t forget their names!).

Then he said, “But the Talent Show was the year before we had a band — just you and me, on acoustic guitars. We got 2nd place, Man! We thought we’d be retired rock stars by now!”

Clearly he remembered more than I had up to that moment. But his smile and laughter opened a floodgate of memories that reframed what I thought I had remembered about some of my past, as well as the beliefs those experiences had formed for me in the present.

Jimmy reminded me that that talent show in 7th Grade wasn’t the first time we’d played “House of the Rising Sun.”

Four years earlier, we attended a Saturday matinee performance of the Fort Worth Opera with a few Cub Scout and school buddies. I know, you’re thinking, “What is a group of 3rd Grade boys doing attending an opera when shouldn’t they be outside playing ball or bicycling or playing in the street instead?” I can assure you we wished we had been. Suffice it to say that my grandmother was a professional opera singer, and one of the two founders of the Fort Worth Opera Association, so I was there several Saturdays out of the year.

To keep ourselves entertained at the opera that day, we slid notes back and forth along the floor to the Camp Fire Girls two rows in front of us. My friend, Jimmy, got lucky and one of the girls, Vicky, gave him a phone number.

We went home drunk with anticipation and confusion, “What do you do with a girl’s phone number?”

THe AnimalsSo, my brother Michael, our friend Mike, and Jimmy and I, cleverly formed a rock band (such as it was — one torn snare drum, a maraca, my plastic electric guitar, and a ukulele); And for the next few weeks, we called Vicky, offering her samplings of our original and cover music – our biggest hit being “House of the Rising Sun” (the version recorded in ’64 by The Animals). I think Vicky knew who we were from the start (we certainly weren’t The Animals). But she played along with the gag and we laughed as we sang a song about mothers telling their children to behave or end up in a house where the sun always rises (which never really made sense to us; and we certainly forgot to listen to our mothers 5 years later!)

But those memories prompted more that I’d forgotten. In 9th Grade, Jimmy and I parted ways. I got involved with a Baptist Church and got saved.

I laughed when I told Jimmy that evening that our youth group sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun” (which offered a curious, if not ironic, interpretive twist to the whole matter). And suddenly it was as if there never was a “House . . . ” as such; though now there certainly were clear, dire consequences of “biblical proportion” for making the wrong choices.

“At the University of Texas,” I continued, “I joined an evangelical Christian organization, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and formed an impromptu bluegrass band. We stood on Guadalupe Street in front of the Varsity Bookstore with an upright bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, singing Bluegrass versions of old hymns and original songs about heaven and hell, and encouraging people to ‘get saved’ and to come to our bible studies!”

“One afternoon, though, a shirtless guy in tattered jeans, clearly older than us and probably living on the streets, interrupted us in the middle of our singing with his beat up electric guitar (sans amplifier) and started singing in such a plaintiff, pained tone, that it stopped us short — ‘There is . . . a house… in New Orleans . . .  they call . . . the Ri . . . sing Sun!’ And just like that, the song became something else for me entirely.”

memoriesJimmy added, “Yeah, I can see that. Kind of opens up your eyes to things.”

I smiled, “Yeah, really. That song wasn’t even in our repertoire, but we all knew it for whatever reason and joined in with just harmonies. It wasn’t like we’d ever been to that ‘House’, or could understand the blues at – not even like we knew what we were talking about anymore. It was more like we were all witnessing for the first time the real pain and sadness of someone who was there now. It really changed how I saw things after that.”

And Jimmy, engaged and attentive and smiling, as I’d forgotten he always could be, said, “That’s crazy! Funny how a song can run through your life like that!”

So, I’m gratefully thinking back about my chance encounter with Jimmy the other day and now looking forward to future conversations. But here’s a theory. They say, “Time heals all wounds”. But maybe it’s more about just remembering to be like a child wherever we are.

Memories have a funny way of encoding the way we see things — they can either insulate us from, or break us open to, a larger sense of wonder and God’s presence in unexpected places. But being childlike seems to me to be less about those static memories we hold onto and more about engaging our curiosity and presence and play wherever we find ourselves — even playing with our memories and what we think we know.

And I’m thinking that that curious openness to God in all our moments is something of what it may mean to begin to be childlike enough to enter the kingdom.






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