Janna Barber

Janna Barber is the kind of girl who sometimes spills potato soup in her lap, and it's not always funny. She is a poet, a writer, and a part-time preschool teacher, currently at work on her first memoir. Janna has lived in the same split-level house in east Tennessee, with her husband and three children, for five whole years! That's the longest she's ever lived in any one house, and she can't help but feel that her nomadic minister parents, whom she loves dearly, are partly to blame. Janna is proud to be a guest contributor for The Rabbit Room and the only contributor to her personal blog Rainbow Dull, on which she posts whenever her inconsistent, non-regimented schedule called life allows.

With Eyes Closed

My daughter spins in circles, stands arabesque, and attempts a small Jeté across the living room floor in her favorite faded rainbow dress. Ballet class is her inspiration, but watching her I think perhaps it is Dance that was first inspired by a little girl just like her. She tells us one day she’ll be able to twirl like a real ballerina . . . with her eyes closed.

We laugh and I tell her, “Honey, no they don’t.” But today I remembered, dancing alone in that very same living room, it is better when your eyes are closed. That’s when the dirty walls, unfolded laundry, and well-worn carpet disappear. Freedom dances in through the open window and raised blinds shake off their former importance.

Photo by Maggie Stein

It no longer matters who is watching, the way it did when I was growing up in a small town Baptist preacher’s home (who cares now if I am seen shaking my groove thing?), but for too many years of my life, it did. To be fair, there were times when we thought no one was looking, and Momma would turn up Elvis on the oldies station, and my sister would grab the small crystal owl from the display shelf for a microphone while I danced before a mirrored audience. Come Sunday morning, however, we donned our frilly dresses and patent leather shoes, braided our hair, and sat like model citizens on the front row.

Dancing had absolutely no place in church, and I’m pretty sure I will never get over that. By the time I was in high school, a couple of praise choruses had made their way into our services, and you might catch a few people clapping along. But emotion was reserved for the penitent during altar call, and even then you couldn’t let yourself get too carried away. Five verses of “Just as I Am” was about all the emotion any of us could handle on a Sunday evening.

Now, twenty years later, I attend a church whose band plays loudly and some in the audience even raise their hands as they move with the music, but I struggle to relax and let go. There are still many times when the most natural, real responses in me do not seem appropriate, so I bend them back in place. And I’ve been wondering lately, is this what it means, for me anyway, to “grieve the Holy Spirit?”

A few years ago, my husband and I went to see the band Over the Rhine at the Bijou in downtown Knoxville. We had returned the day before from a trip to Maryland for my cousin’s wedding. We were tired and scattered, but my mother-in-law came through as a last minute babysitter and away we went. It was a muggy evening, but as we walked up the hill from the parking garage, I remember feeling cooled from the breeze. In fact, I remarked to John that this time of year, this time of night, dampness was usually a relief, and here I was in holey jeans and a thin T-shirt with a chill. Why do I remember that detail? I’m not really sure. Is it important? Perhaps not, but the thing it reminds me of is how aware I was, of everything; how heightened my senses were.

I’d been listening to The Trumpet Child album non-stop the week before and the day of the concert, and “I’m on a Roll” was running around my temporal lobe with glee. I even toyed with the idea of purchasing a pair of black flamenco shoes just for the occasion. In my head, I pictured it: me all decked out, flowers in my hair, dancing alongside all the other girls gathered beneath stage front right. We were smiling, rolling our hips from side to side, and clapping — all delighted to share in some tangible warmth. Sadly, the concert did not completely live up to this happy vision.

I think it had something to do with the building. The Bijou, while a lovely venue, paled in comparison to the Tennessee Theatre we’d been to the year before for a Wilco concert. Then again, maybe it was the crowd that was different. College beer drinkers had swayed in the wooden aisles of the Tennessee Theatre and here at the Bijou, older academic types sat rigid on their cushioned seats.

For at least three days following the concert, Karin Bergquist’s voice rang out in my head, and I contemplated writing a song-by-song review of the show. I so wanted to write a good story for Karin and her husband Linford Detweiler. One that might salvage the night from the cold crowd and clueless patrons, a story to wash the dirt off their tired feet and keep them going, clean and strong, as they finished out the rest of their tour. The band deserved a good tale, not because of how they were received, but because of how they had given. It was the gift of authentic, live music, and that vulnerable gift led me to dance.

It was the beginning of the second song when this little white Baptist girl hopped up from her seat to find a deserted place in the wings of the mezzanine, so she could groove without blocking anyone else’s view. I slipped off my flip flops, and began to sway. Barefooted, slow falling waves moved me. My toes pressed diminishing circles into the worn red carpet. I closed my eyes, snapped my fingers, and mouthed the words I loved. So what if the theater felt more empty than full? So what if the performers gave off a slightly overworked and greatly underpaid vibe? What mattered to me was the dancing. Yes, I was completely alone and obtrusive, and maybe I wasn’t even any good, but I danced. And in my mind, we were all in heaven.

Not the kind you see in Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercials either. My heaven is a hardwood floor in an open country kitchen. Wind rustling light colored curtains as dusk falls, miles of nature looking through the open windows of a wraparound porch as friends and instruments make music together. Singing and dancing, long into the night; we live a pastoral life together and nothing separates the performer from the listener but space.

My dancing lasts exactly three songs, before the real world returned to me and I thought it best to rejoin my seated husband, my date. After the concert he teased me about slow moving melodies not really being the kind of songs you dance to. My answer to him was, “How can I not dance when Karin testifies that she wants to learn to love, without fear?”

“Did you just say testify?” he asked me.

Yes. I guess I did.

I’ve heard Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy, say that a good concert is what church should feel like — when people in the crowd set aside their individuality for a time and experience what it’s like to be part of something much, much larger. I have been in church services like that, but they are pretty rare. Maybe it’s the result of all that non-dancing tradition. Maybe it’s because we spend too much time with our eyes open, checking out the people around us, wondering if they’re also checking us out.

I don’t tell this story in hopes of fixing everything about worship services or rock concerts. (They’re not meant to be perfect anyway — just real and shared.) The secret I want to tell you is this: we can’t keep complaining about how much the perfume costs and still expect the tears to clean the dirt off our feet. The point is not what we give, but how. Whether we’re members or musicians, performers or even simple concert goers, the gift is in the bowing down, and the letting go. It’s in the looking up and the paying attention, the crying and the dancing. And if you have to close your eyes to really move, go ahead, you won’t miss anything you need to see.