Traditions: Peering Through the Lens of Nostalgia

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There are a couple of late November moments that fill me with so much nostalgia and sentimentality I get chills. One is hearing the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture to The Nutcracker for the first time in the long Nut season. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the ballet, nor the score, with the exception a couple of noteworthy moments (Act I Scene II’s Snow pas de deux, and the chorus which happens later in the same, and possibly Act II’s Mother Ginger variation, which makes me want to jump up and dance).

But for years my mom and I danced together in Memphis Ballet’s Nutcracker, and there are so many, many intense memories inextricably bound up in that galvanizing experience it is impossible not to be nostalgic about it, to wit: the year I was feverish with flu and sipped Sprite backstage to try not to vomit on my wool felt costume; the morning mom and I were on our way to the theatre in downtown Memphis to dance in one of many performances mounted for the Memphis City Schools, delayed by an impossibly long train at a railroad crossing, arriving at the theater just in the nick of time; the red circles painted on my cheeks when I was a soldier in Act I that took days to finally fade; my dad’s irritation with the company’s Soviet-style Russian director who possessed not one smidgen of shame about scheduling late-night rehearsals for young children with even younger siblings in tow; but also the pantheon of Really Famous principals and soloists Mr. Balanchine routinely sent down to us from New York City Ballet each year because of the same Russian director’s connections with him; and on, and on, and on.

Call it total Nutcracker immersion: it stakes its claim to you, heart and soul, and there is no escaping that for the rest of your life.

The other thing to give me chills happens on Thanksgiving morning and goes like this: Five, Four, Three, Two, One—Let’s have a parade!

It surely does the same to many thousands of others, too. What I recall about that annual moment in bygone years was special time with my dad, who made sure I was in front of the telly with hot cocoa in hand to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family tradition I introduced to my own young child when I became a parent.

Life sometimes gets in the way of traditions. I know mom was there some Thanksgiving mornings for the parade, too, almost certainly. But I also remember at least one Thanksgiving when we were already in the theatre in rehearsals for Nut by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. We probably watched the parade in the morning, but there was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year because of hours spent later in the day and into the evening at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis.

The first two years I lived in Vermont I did not have cable and therefore did not have the chance to see the parade at all. Last year I was at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s on Thanksgiving morning, but as fate would have it, high winds that ripped through the Berkshires the night before took out the cable signal. No parade.

But this year! This year, I turned it on and watched the first hour of it while HCB finalized preparations of the mountains of food we would soon pack into the car before heading to his mom’s. I got the requisite chills, as always. And dad and I had already exchanged texts to make sure each of us was poised to watch it.

My own son, on the other hand, thought better of it and decided to sleep in. So much for continuing a cherished family tradition.

Really, there is not much to cherish anymore about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Decades ago it had already given itself over to the far-reaching “commercialism” that now defines the holiday season, bumper to bumper. Christmas starts before Halloween, big box stores begin to trumpet their door-busting sales soon thereafter, and every place you go, it seems, starts piping in Christmas music at about the same time.

The truth is, I no longer really care much about the parade, particularly since adverts began disrupting the flow of things many, many years ago. I do love the very beginning moments of it, in the same way I love the Miniature Overture. I love seeing the excitement on the faces of the littles in the crowd. I will always love the excerpts from Broadway shows, even if the casts lip-sync them. (And I must say the opening of this year’s parade in particular was brilliant, with the Latin beat of the new Gloria Estefan-themed show On Your Feet! engaging everybody in the crowd, including some of the other performers. If that did not make you want to jump up and dance, then there is absolutely no hope for you.)

The rest I can (mainly) do without. More and more these days I do not even recognize the names of the featured performers. And busy Thanksgiving Day plans seem always to tear me away from enjoying the high school marching bands, all those pimply uniformed kids who doubtless are so excited to visit the Big Apple, even if they are in their “prime suffering years,” as Frank’s character insisted in Little Miss Sunshine.

Once I even suggested to my Uncle Stan, who lived most of his adult life in neighboring Queens, that I come for a visit and we go see the parade. Ever the sarcastic queen himself, he waved it off and said, Save your money: you’ll spend your entire morning shivering while you stare into a horse’s ass—literally. I always loved that peremptory honesty about my Uncle Stan, as much as I loved him.

In the end, it is not the traditions, it seems, but the memories that the shadows of those traditions somehow evoke, year after year. Roles change and life does indeed insinuate itself in the best of our intentions.

Advent is a big tradition that begins today on the liturgical calendar, and is observed right up to Christmas. The word itself means “coming;” for me, it was once all about anticipation, expectation, and preparation, back when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. It is a tradition that nowadays is mainly trampled in our eagerness to bust down the doors for holiday sales while we shop along to the strains of popular Christmas carols.

But there is also a tradition of beautiful Advent hymnody, at least in the Episcopal church, whence comes my sensibilities about such things. 2015 has felt rushed, Thanksgiving felt rushed, holiday shopping will also feel rushed, and probably some of my gifts will reach loved ones a little late. This year I plan to gift myself a bit of Advent reflection in the face of Nutcrackers and Santas, and the strains of Christmas carols that began before Halloween. I treasure the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as the next guy; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it makes me wistful. It is still too soon, even for that bit of nostalgia.

I leave you to enjoy this lush, contemporary instrumental version of my favorite Advent hymn, whatever your faith tradition. Its ancient opening words—O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel—seem so timely, and nostalgic.

 

The Episcopal Church Welcomes [Some Of] You

Disclaimer:  Episcopalian friends, Episcopal school friends, brutally honest sentiments herein are not aimed at you specifically.  Keep reading.

I am a “cradle” Episcopalian, as we say.  I attended Episcopal schools during several of my formative years, and for what I gained there I am thankful.  My ex and I had a huge role in founding an Episcopal school that sits on a sprawling campus and from which our young ‘un was expelled three weeks shy of the end of fourth grade with little explanation from the head of school.  True story. After our church family peremptorily dismissed us about a decade ago (a wart on our family’s timeline tied to our Episcopal school debacle) I resolved to quit the church forever; what had been home was now sullied, and I felt like an interloper.

When your child’s scholastic aptitude does not fit the Episcopal School paradigm, the paradigm that serves mainly elite, high-achieving kids and their families (we could expand this discussion to include lots of independent schools), there is actually a term for what happens next:  you are counseled out.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Like they care about what happens to you afterwards.

When you no longer fit into the crowd at the church you have attended for more than a decade you are simply snubbed and made to feel unwelcome.  I think the expression for this is, piss off, thanks be to God.  Here is how it works:  invitations to social functions (with direct ties to the church or not) evaporate; you are “accidentally” removed from the church mailing list; your child is no longer invited to birthday parties or play dates with kids he has known since they were all in diapers; and the priest’s wife is cool to you when you bump into her at the grocery store (and that is a generous characterization).

Yeah, that really makes you want to go to church.

After my lengthy Episcopal Church furlough I bravely visited a small Episcopal church in my neighborhood here in Vermont a year ago.  The people seemed kind (in that reserved New England way), although I never had the chance to really get to know many of them.  I liked the priest a lot–probably more than any other priest in my church experience, save one–and I felt spiritually nourished, at least as much as I ever feel spiritually nourished in a church setting.  I have no idea how those people might have reacted to our family had they been the communicants in our home church environment, and it is pointless to speculate.  In my new Vermont neighborhood there is no Episcopal church, and that is that; going to church now means a long commute.  I don’t have the constitution for that on snowbound Sunday mornings.

This all has no bearing on my feelings about Episcopal liturgy:  that has exactly nothing to do with the people involved in that awful chapter of exclusion.  I will always love the poetry and cadence of the church liturgy, always.  But I confess that I freaked out a little when Handsome Chef Boyfriend announced that the two of us had been invited to a wedding, in an Episcopal church, the wedding of a good friend who also happened to be an Episcopal priest, and who was being wed in his own Episcopal parish.

There was no way I would turn down an opportunity to meet more of the people who define HCB’s life and community and about whom I have heard so much for over a year now.  And there was also the bit about the rare chance to spend the entire weekend together.

This is the second marriage for each of them and as such the ceremony was appropriately stripped of the pomp and circumstance of most weddings. What impressed me most was the overwhelming support this priest was shown by the church community where he had been rector before–HCB’s community–and who made the effort to be there that morning.  And there was the comfort of that familiar liturgy, and communion, and the closeness of my sweetheart sitting next to me in the pew.  (And because he is HCB, there was also sotto voce levity, including comments about the communion wafers needing more seasoning.)

I leave you with a William Henry Channing poem that the wedding couple used as a responsorial in their ceremony and which resonated with me so much, where I am now in my life.  Peace be with you, as they say.

To live content with small means;

To seek elegance rather than luxury, refinement rather than fashion;

To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;

To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;

To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart;

To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.

In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.

This is my symphony.