I come from a place where tradition is everything. There are just certain things you do, and certain things you don’t because…well, that’s traditional. You eat seafood on Fridays and red beans on Mondays. You go to church on Sunday and watch football later that afternoon. You wash your car on Saturday afternoon so it can be lookin’ good when you go out to the club on Saturday night. Just certain things that mean you’re not a tourist, you a homie.
More than half of the city is based on the Catholic Church calendar. The Epiphany, January 6th, is the day the “…three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we travel afar.” Following yonder star. Coming to bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newly born Messiah in Bethlehem. But more importantly, it’s the start of the Mardi Gras season, the period of debauchery and revelry leading up to the start of Lent. Lent…the period of desert wandering and scarcity, deprivation, until…Pam Sunday…the Messiah brings forth the revolution and instills hope in the oppressed Israelites. As is the case with many revolutionaries, Jesus Christ becomes a political target, and is eventually murdered by the Romans in order to quell the social uprising. He is crucified on “Good” Friday, and then rises from the tomb three days later on Easter Sunday. Everything else then proceeds up to the traditional Christian assignation of December 25th as the celebration of Christ’s birth, and it begins again.
The Christmas tradition in my family was a big damned deal. My birthday is four days after Christmas, and I was particularly determined to have the holiday be mine. All. About. Me. Because I was the only grandchild until I was about 9, it was most definitely all about me. I am still wrestling with how and when that changed, the injustice of it, and where the hell did these little ankle biter cousins of mine come from? I am not sharing my grandmother with you little cretins!
When I was a kid, Christmas traditions included things like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. That was a really special thing, and I loved it especially because it was allowable for kids to be awake and wandering through adult gatherings in the middle of the night. The Mass event itself was usually pretty special – the one at St. Louis Cathedral is, to this day, standing room only and usually has a few celebrities in attendance.
When I was little, I remember midnight Mass still celebrated as High Mass, in Latin. I loved the formality and the ritual itself, although I was never totally in love (or understanding) with Catholic theology. It was the proverbial pomp and circumstance, the sheer gravity of the practice that was the same every year, and had been the same for thousands of years. I would imagine people from long, long ago doing the same thing and feel somewhat comforted by the longevity of the tradition.
After midnight Mass, we came back home and if it was cold we might have hot chocolate and maybe donuts. It wasn’t always cold (it’s Louisiana, it could be 80 degrees in December), but we always had food of some kind. My mother in particular had coffee…that was a staple of any meal or gathering or…whenever my mother happened to be in the kitchen. She was one of those people who could drink coffee and go to sleep an hour later. Go figure.
Anyway, by the time I was asleep on my feet and tired of waiting to hear Santa’s sleigh on the roof, I stumbled to put out a half-eaten cookie for the jolly fat man and went to sleep. A few hours later, it was up and at ’em and ripping open presents, smelling bacon cooking on the stove, pancakes and/or more donuts, maybe some eggs and fruit.
The best Christmases were when my grandmother and my great-aunts came to visit, and the house was full of the sound of women’s voices. It felt warm, and safe, and like things were the way they were supposed to be. Hearing the hum of my grandmother’s voice and my mother’s laughter into the night left no room for anxiety. I slept well, and woke up refreshed and ready for more, not expecting any bad things to happen.
Those holiday nights. When the normal routines of getting up and going to work, going to school, doing “necessary” things, were interrupted, I was always excited. The food was better, television was better, there was less fighting in the house, there was a buzz of hopeful expectation and excitement in the air. That felt so…right.
The year my grandmother died seemed to bring an end to those days of innocent celebration, when everyone seemed to be happy with each other, if only for a few hours on a single day. When you really felt like celebration was a real thing, and not just decorations or looking good.
My grandmother died in October of 1971, and by December things were still very depressing. We all missed her, in our own separate ways. My mother was quite literally losing her mind. I don’t think she got any support from my father, who in retrospect, was already involved in his affair. More importantly, he was dealing with his own pain, the pain of losing my grandmother, the pain of never knowing his own mother. The pain of being himself.
My mother got support from her sister, a bit at least. She got support from her aunts, my grandmother’s sisters, and the few friends she had. My father got support from his siblings a bit, and from whoever he fell in with out in the streets. I got support from…I don’t remember anybody in particular. I was drowning, and I didn’t know how to swim. But swim I did…flailing at the waters of grief and neglect and trying to figure out how to get to shore, any shore.
So, rituals and traditions are double-edged swords for me. Such incredibly good memories, filled with the awe of my childhood, when it seemed things couldn’t get any better. When it seemed that I was the center of peoples’ universe. When it seemed the universe was entirely benevolent and entirely welcoming. And then it wasn’t. Some of the rituals persisted, but they were never the same again.
My father’s father died in December of 1971, so the whole mystery and the wonder of December seemed to die on the vine that year. I’ve mentioned previously that I only memt my paternal grandfather a couple of times, and don’t remember a lot about him except that he didn’t seem like a happy, or fun, guy. Not mean, not scary, just…sad. It would take me a long, long time to understand sadness like that and be ushered into the long line of people in my family who also understood it.
I don’t know what my grandfather died from. My halting research of the past few years suggests that he may have been hit by a car, in Idaho of all places. I’m not sure of that, but I think I remember it being somewhat unexpected. I don’t remember talk of cancer or illness, as was the case with my maternal grandmother. Who knows, but 1971 left both my parents orphans, and that in turn left me the surviving adult at 11 in my household.
So rituals and traditions, in my immediate experience, held great comfort and wonder and joy, but also grief and obligation and foreboding. Over the years since, my mother and I forged new traditions for the “major” holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas. We’d go and eat at some big-time restaurant or hotel buffet, and that came to be something I looked forward to. That, unfortunately, died with her.
I still eat seafood on Fridays. I still think about red beans on Mondays, although can’t really make that happen here. The past few years I have been diligent about getting King Cake during Mardi Gras season. I still crave the wonder of a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, even though it has no theological relevance for me. But, I believe they believe, and the sense of serenity and reverence and peace has some meaning for me. Or at least some positive feeling. It still means something, has some attachment to community, something that is out of the ordinary.
My rituals in my later years have to do with things like food and coffee. Lately, I’ve been making coffee first thing every morning. One cannot have any degree of competency without at least some coffee. The stronger the better – weak coffee should be a crime. If you can see the bottom of the pot while brewing, it is not coffee. It is tea or brown water. Don’t bother, and don’t insult me with it. If you do, I am not responsible for my reaction or anything I might say.
I don’t really have any religious or spiritual rituals, although I do enjoy periodic meditation. I resist naming or labeling any of my practices, or cornering them into any degree of regularity. I figure if my oppositional defiance is here to stay, I am going to put it to good use and not succumb to the shoulds and shouldn’ts of things like my spiritual practice. I meditate whenever I feel compelled to do so, I reflect and contemplate whenever I feel the need.
In all seriousness, though, perhaps my biggest ritualistic behavior involves my recovery work, and my writing. 12-step meetings are a ritual of sorts, following the same format each time, and occurring at set and regular times. 24×7, 365 days a year. Weekends, holidays, sporting events included. I don’t mess with that – it’s a part of how I manage to get through the world, and I no longer question making intentional space for that.
Over the years, I have journaled. Always scribbling down my thoughts, feelings, observations…usually haphazardly, just catch as catch can. Fairly recently, though, I’ve become more intentional and more focused about not only journaling, but actually writing. I love words, I love the motion of getting a thought from somewhere inside me out onto a medium than can be transported outward. That sustains me, in some untoward fashion that I don’t need to understand.
Without making this writing more ritualistic, I don’t know how well I might have survived the past three years since my mother’s been gone. Not just her absence, but losing my job and coming to inhabit a different space in the universe, having a different relative position in the world. Not fame or fortune, certainly, but the relativity of where I stop and start and where everything else stops and starts. That’s not always been readily understood in my world.
So, this being Sunday, my inner Catholic is shouting that it must be time for Church somewhere…and I am ignoring that call to action. I’ll check out what my UU Fellowship is blathering about today and see if it’s of interest. If not, I’ll do a little more writing, and walk the dog, and maybe clean up a couple more feet of junk in this funky place. But, I am perfectly fine with trying to just … be. I don’t do all that well with that, always feeling that I need to be doing something. Anything. Whether it’s of any value or not, just…doing.
I am a child of the universe…a fluke, as Deteriorata reframed. I have no right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to me, the Universe is laughing behind my back. I LOVE that spoof on Desiderata. Sometimes we take things way too seriously.