Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sunday ritual

Someone asked me about church, and "Well, what DO you do on Sundays, then?" the other day. This is what my answer ended up being.

In Apache Junction, throughout my formative years, I attended Mass every Sunday morning with my father and sister.

When it was time to sing, few besides the church choir participated. Indeed, the song selection seemed to be designed to prevent anyone without an extensive memory, and who had not faithfully learned nearly every song, from singing. Unfortunately, this did nothing to prevent us from singing.

My father was quite derisive of what he saw as an exclusionary attitude: "It looks like it's time for the CHOIR to sing," he'd say in the most disapproving, loud, projecting voice in existence. And then the choir, our friends in the pew in front of us, and we would sing. This was fine, obviously, for the choir. It was fine for my father's best friend, who was in possession of about half of his musical ear and devotion, but was approximately five million times better at singing. It was even fine for my sister and me, who would sing as well as we could, but still quietly enough to maintain some shred of dignity.

My dad, however, was quite unconcerned with dignity -- his or anyone else's. His talking voice -- deep, but not overly so; rising and falling in pitch unexpectedly; immensely carrying; animated -- was perfect for talking. It was ideal for telling funny stories, keeping a class full of sixth graders in rapt attention, coaching, emceeing the school talent show. Unfortunately, it was not ideal for singing hymns, and he didn't have a singing voice. He used this exact voice for singing, just sort of drawing out words here and there, bellowing them out.

My dad had excellent musical training and knowledge. He knew precisely how long to hold each note, how to open one's mouth for projection, how to read music. But the guy could not sing.

This did not stop him. What we ended up standing beside was a booming, six-and-a-half-foot-tall, extremely proud noise source that the entire assembly could hear quite distinctly. He would open his mouth approximately four feet wide, and seemed to especially belt out those first few or last few words of each verse during which the rest of the congregation had the good sense to trail off. Some songs elicited especially enthusiastic singing, and none more so than "Angels We Have Heard on High." The lyrics said (as I frequently reminded him) to draw out the refrain: "Glooo ... ooooor ... ooooor ... ooooria." He, however, insisted on enunciating each "O," with an added "H," which turned him into a booming, six-and-a-half-foot-tall, extremely proud, maniacal Santa Claus. And while I'm sure it only looked like this:

...which is quite embarrassing enough, it felt like this:

He was impervious to embarrassment, which I guess was OK, because my sister and I felt enough embarrassment for him, ourselves, and everyone who might attend Mass or even pass through the church that month.

Also, the sermons could be boring. I mean really spectacularly boring. I assume they occasionally had some nugget of a lesson to offer a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old, but we had long since tuned them out to the extent that we were unable to glean anything at all from them. Instead, we found ways to pass the time before the sermon wrapped up and we heard the telltale rustling of hymnals that told us it was time for the choir and my dad to sing again.

It was challenging, because we were not allowed to look like we were doing anything other than listening attentively. We were not allowed to write, draw pictures, read anything other than that day's missalette passages, fidget, talk to each other, or really even look at each other. (My dad usually sat between us.) So we found mental diversions. I knew exactly how many acoustic tiles there were to each length of the ceiling, and which ones looked mysteriously soggy. I knew how many steps led up to the altar, the exact designs on every robe the priest wore, just about everything about every altar boy and which ones could be counted upon to look like they were about to faint, and how many chairs fit in the old-person section of the church. I would compose poetry in my head, I would mentally recite poetry -- I was able to get about ten stanzas into The Raven and could recite the whole of "Jabberwocky" and Casey at the Bat -- and I remember spending several weeks one year, after I had learned rudimentary genetics in sixth grade, working out all the possible combinations of parental genetic contributions each person in Mass could have received at conception, based on their hair colors. I had to abandon the game once snowbird season began, as I was pretty sure "neon orange," "glowing blue-white," and "bald" were not the hair situations with which these folks were born.

There was more. The chairs made this pssssssht farting noise if you sat too roughly, but we nearly always got in trouble for making them do it, even the two times it was unintentional. The church was stifling year-round; since in the summer, it was an oven; and in the winter, there were about eight trillion people at each Mass. We'd stay longer than just about anyone else, watching everyone leave as my dad and his friend (also a teacher) held an impromptu school meeting. We got dragged to his mobile-trailer classroom on the way home every Sunday, and sat in the car, arguing and calculating how much, exactly, of the food in the car we could eat without his noticing (three slices of bread, one cookie, or any candy he'd forgotten).

I'm being facetious, but not much. He really was embarrassing. It really was boring. But here's the thing: I'd give anything, really just about anything in the world, to be sitting in the car after Mass with my sister and a dozen stinky basketballs, waiting for my dad to come out of his classroom so he could crank up the car radio and screech along to the Beach Boys on the way home. It was our Sunday ritual.

Now I'm the parent, but I don't embarrass my son at church. I don't do the "at church" part, that is. The "embarrass" part is coming along nicely.

We still have our Sunday ritual. The details are different. The car accompaniment is usually audio books, not Beach Boys. The destination is the Arboretum. But our devotion is the same, and like my childhood, we put our own spin on things.

When we come across something particularly photogenic but low to the ground or otherwise at an inconvenient angle, most passers-by do exactly that -- pass it by. Even some of my photographer friends make a few attempts at capturing it, but are sensible, reasonably cultured humans who would rather not sprawl on their bellies in the dirt/stick their asses in the air/lie in the middle of a clearing in front of anyone who might happen by. Not me. And while it looks about like this:

My son sees it like this:

I'm not sure if my devotion to the ritual has deepened, or if I'm worryingly close to losing all sense of dignity, or both. But I have to believe he'll look back on this, mostly, with a fond smile. It's our routine.

Besides, as foolish as I look, the dork bar has been set pretty high.

See you at the Arboretum Sunday. I'll be the one lying in the dirt beside the tarantula and the mortified eight-year-old.


I decided to do a separate post, devoted to our Arboretum adventures, next. In the meantime, share some of your rituals.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


It's our fourth anniversary. According to Google and People Who Know Such Things, that makes it our fruit and flowers anniversary. I'm not sure we'll pull it off, even though it's just about the only one whose symbols are exactly the same things we might get anyway. My husband and I are the least rebellious people in the world, but we just don't do tradition. I think that part of our brains is missing.

Four years ago today, my husband and I got married outdoors. I walked through the winding walkway at a school amphitheater, which isn't really traditional but made a gorgeous aisle. Our pictures were taken by my sister's then-boyfriend (now husband), who was a great sport about taking the shots and and even better sport about me bossing him around about taking the shots. (We did end up with a disproportionally large amount of shots of my sister, but that was pretty cute.) Again, not terribly traditional, but they all had the kind of perfect imperfection you get with being comfortable around the camera. Before the ceremony, I came downstairs to find my ex-boyfriend's father ironing my wedding dress in the kitchen.

Nothing was traditional about the wedding, really, other than the general structure of it and the vows (the preacher had repeatedly scorned people "who think they're being all funny with their vows," so we figured we'd better not). My brother gave me away in the rehearsal, and my mom filled in at the wedding. My son was "married" to us during the ceremony as well. During various parts of the wedding, the musical flow was maintained only by shooting death glares to a rather clueless friend on a boombox, who was mostly clueless because Aaron and I had only that morning decided on the music.

My point is, we don't really do tradition. We don't avoid it, really, we just don't seem to get it. But the thing is, we're not what anyone would consider unconventional. We're boring.

I sometimes start telling parts of it with something like "It's a long story..." The ex-boyfriend's dad in my kitchen. My son in the ceremony. The school setting. Something else I just started typing, then figured it's someone else's deal and I'd better not tell the whole world, but it's a "long story" story, trust me. But truly? The stories are just odd, not really long or complicated. It's just the way it is. At least most couples who don't do tradition are exciting or exotic. We don't even hold to that tradition.

I've known Aaron since we were eleven. We were best friends for a summer, and he tried to flirt with me, though I didn't speak boy back then.

Then, we fell out of touch several years. We met again. I dated his best friend. Then Aaron and I dated, for four or five years. (See what I mean? I don't know even how long it was. I never kept track of our "dating anniversary.") We were engaged. Then we weren't.

I lived life. Made some good decisions, and a bunch of not-so-good ones. Worked with Aaron's mom, which was pretty darn awkward. I had a kid.

He dated my sister. I dated his best friend (the same one) again. I don't really remember the timing on all of that, but later, we just started being together all the time, and it was pretty nice. My son loved him, and I guess I figured out I did too. Finally on New Year's Eve in a parking lot, we admitted we were dating. My mom already knew. She was quite smug about it.

And then, four years ago, we married. Now we're really happy.

That's really the whole story. I've always wondered why it never feels quite as adventurous to me as people seem to think it must have been. Like I'm leaving out some hugely tumultuous time of wild indiscretion, hi-jinks, and hard-learned lessons. We have adventure stories along the way, but Our Story is really pretty boring, if unconventional.

We have fun talking about how he melodramatically pawned the first engagement ring (angrily fist-squashed into an oval), how he "dated both sisters" (a sure-fire way to gross out my brother), or how my growing illegitimate pregnancy alarmed the church ladies, but we never seem to get beyond that. We're not particularly good at avoiding it, but we're Teflon-coated or something when it comes to drama. It happens to us, but never seems to define us.

I sometimes think something's wrong with us -- shouldn't we have at least the occasional emotional-rage-turned-sweet-passion? He responds to this contention as though I've asked shouldn't we have the occasional unnecessary amputation, so I've quit voicing the concern. I think I've even quit feeling it. It's not really about settling for comfort over excitement. Really feeling comfortable with someone, enough to be wholly oneself. Freedom. Security. Release. Isn't that what people are really after when they're doing all the exciting stuff? Drunken philosophizing, spectacularly bad relationships, elaborately planned adventures that turn sour. It's all done in pursuit of the prize I already have.

I'm the most boring rebel in the world. I married the runner up.

I'm pretty damn lucky.