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.