A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

St. John's star

 

 

 

Quiet Season

This weekend I have been reminded of the beauty and peace to be found in quiet. In dialing back and dialing down from the hype and the shouting and the constant bombardment of, well, almost everything these days.

A good friend joined us for a lovely and simple Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by the view of the creek and wildlife outside our Ocean Pines home. We are at the stage in our lives where holidays don’t always involve complicated meals planned and prepped for days for a crowd around a dining room table laden with china and crystal glassware. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy hosting meals like that, but I’ve discovered  turkey tastes just as good eaten from Corningware plates using unmatched kitchen silverware.

Assateague pony (2)Ocean City, minus the crazed summer vacationers, gratefully sets aside all the trappings of a resort and reverts back to its charming small-town self. Walking the pathways and beaches of the nearly deserted Assateague Island looking for ponies feels far more productive than rushing to spend money on more stuff we don’t need. Sitting in a nearly empty theater watching Tom Hanks work his magic in the movie about the life of Mr. Rogers was a profound testimonial to the power of gentleness and remaining quiet, of taking the time to listen and really hear what others are saying. There is a scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers asks the troubled man with him to “close your eyes for a full minute and think about all the people whose love brought you into being.” I suspect everyone in the theater did the same thing.

st Paul's by the sea (2)On Sunday, we attended our home-away-from-home church a block from the boardwalk. It is a small church with a dwindling congregation and yet there is always a moving and powerful message from the rector and a warm welcome from the parishioners who know us as “the singers.” I am grateful to be part of a denomination which cherishes the quiet anticipation of Advent instead of rushing headlong into Christmas. Our sanctuaries are unadorned with greenery until that final Sunday before Christmas, and we sing beautiful Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. I love my over-the-top Christmas trees and the excitement of the season as much as anyone, and yet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of expectation, of saving the best for last.

We’ve been coming to the beach at Thanksgiving for years. When we were both teaching, it was a brief respite from the crazy schedule of concerts and school obligations that filled our Decembers. The days when we decorated Christmas trees late at night and tried to cram in pre-internet shopping whenever we could. Our lives are considerably less frenzied now and yet, perhaps more than ever, given the social and political climate in which we live, I need to watch the ducks floating by on Manklin Creek while a heron soars into the sky on its majestic wings. To see the rough-coated ponies of Assateague meandering down the road, stopping to nibble some grass, flicking their tails in the late afternoon sunlight. To hear the eternal sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore as a hardy and brave surfer emerges from the icy cold water in his wetsuit. To curl up on the sofa and read the stories of Wendell Berry for the first time.

Tomorrow, we go home to rehearsals and appointments and getting the Christmas tree and stressing about everything we read and hear on the news. We go back to texts and emails and to-do lists. In the midst of this over-commercialized time of year, in the midst of angry words coming at us from all directions, in the midst of unrealistic expectations of Hallmark-movie-perfect holidays, I remind myself to hold fast to quiet season at the beach—to the beauty of nature undisturbed and being still long enough to hear the voices around us.

Assateague ocean

She Who Must Be Obeyed

She sits there in the middle of the kitchen island, resplendent in her trendy stainless-steel garments. She is the Queen, without whom no one is fed, and she expects to be treated with adulation and reverence or else she’ll turn on you at a moment’s notice. Like her mother before her, she is demanding and requires high maintenance at the most inopportune times.

“Put in a downdraft oven,” they told us when we built our home in the late 90’s. “Such a clean look with no more ugly vent hoods,” they said, but no one mentioned the feeble ventilation that would leave our upstairs bedroom smelling of sautéed garlic and onions. For days.

This one comes by it honestly. Her mother was a Jenn-Air, an appliance family known for its crankiness, and she demanded constant attention from the day she arrived. “I want a new motherboard, I want a new fan, I want another motherboard, I want a new control panel, and you will recut the damn granite before I go back in that slot to cook Christmas dinner.” Three months later she sighed and said, “That’s it. I’m done. Find someone else to slog away in this hell hole.”

The appliance gurus told us we had only two options because they’re not making  many downdraft ovens anymore. (Duh…I wonder why?)  The coronation of Queen Kitchenaid required the granite to be cut yet again to meet her just slightly different dimensions. “Here’s what I expect,” she told us upon arrival. “I will take as long as I want to preheat and if you complain, I will take even longer. My skin is delicate, so don’t you dare splatter me with that dreadful acidic tomato sauce or nick me with one of those horrid cast iron pots you insist on using or I will be scarred for life. My burners have two options—scorching high or non-existent. I don’t believe in a slow simmer. You will cut a new hole in the floor to align my fan with the vent because I don’t have the same plumbing as my mother, thank God. And as far as cleaning, I require a spa-like water bath for several hours and then I want to see you on your hands and knees with a scrunge. Mom put up with that abusive high-heat cleaning business, but I will have no parts of that. We’re now environmentally correct, you know.”

The other appliances, sigh and roll their eyes. They are ever faithful servants, working without the slightest complaint since 1997. They’re not fancy, still clad in their black plastic coats, trendy at the time. The dishwasher has a dial instead of digital controls and can be rather noisy but never asks for anything. The frig is equally loyal, partly because he knows that when he dies, there will be no unit now available to fit in his space. They feel sorry for us because of having to deal with the Queen.

We’ve had about four years of peaceful coexistence. I tend to her as she wishes to the best of my ability. But recently, I’ve been hearing pre-heating complaints. An odd screech here and there and then it disappears. Ah, just like that strange noise in the car—turn up the radio so you don’t hear it. Perhaps something’s loose, I tell myself. If it was anything major, it wouldn’t go away, right? Until this afternoon when the occasional screech turned into a full on she’s-going-to-blow-Captain Kirk-rattle which didn’t stop until I turned off the oven. Of course, her timing is perfect—right before bake sale and holiday cooking season.

Google informed me that it was probably some kind of bearing in one of the fans that had worked loose or broken. Are you kidding me? After barely four years of playing by all her rules, she pulls this kind of crap? I gave her a time out to think about her choices for a few minutes and then hit the preheat button again, bracing for a return of that horrible grating noise. This time she complied, and grudgingly allowed me to finish my baking project. “OK,” she said, “Since you already have the chocolate melted, you may finish for today, but nothing else. I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately, and I think I need to see a specialist, preferably soon. Or else you can just forget about Thanksgiving.”

The Road to Paradise

This fall, the Strasburg Railroad’s Facebook page has been filled with pictures of the Norfolk and Western’s locomotive 611. This glorious engine, in service in the 1950’s and the last of its kind, has been in temporary residence at Strasburg for several weeks and has generated much excitement among rail-fans along with some truly spectacular photography. If my Dad were alive, he would have been camped there for the duration. Seeing the almost daily posts brought back fond memories of my years working at Strasburg.

My father was obsessed with trains, so when I was looking for a summer job in college (one stint as a restaurant dishwasher was enough) he got me a job at Strasburg. I started as the “information desk girl” handing out brochures and giving directions to tourists in those pre-Google maps days, but eventually became the railroad’s first female ticket agent. I learned to sell tickets efficiently, count money, and deal with people on vacation. I loved it all and stayed for twenty years.

Harry Myers SburgIn those days, most of our transactions were in cash. If I worked the late shift, I often walked to my car carrying bags containing five-figure amounts of money which I dropped off at the night depository at the bank on the square. One of my co-workers, a crusty old codger named Harry Myers, would always sit on his front stoop in the evening, smoking a cigarette, waiting for my car to go by so he knew I had gotten the money safely to the bank. Of course, Harry was also famous for telling little boys who anxiously rushed to the ticket window in search of the bathroom, “Here, kid, put a rubber band around it.”

Many of my co-workers were teachers and other professionals, some of whom came from miles away, just to work around steam trains on the weekend. We called ourselves the most highly educated minimum wage work force in Lancaster County. Although I did not share my father’s passion for trains, I could appreciate it. At one time, the lockbox holding the change bags for the weekend was located in a hidden corner of the engine house. Walking in there in the early morning quiet and hearing the locomotive that had been running the day before gradually cooling down was almost like being around a live creature resting in its stall, a gentle giant made of steel and powered by a heart of coal.

Gregg, Bill, SburgThe men I worked with were characters. One of them frequently told kids fascinated by the fly-encrusted strips hanging in the station that that’s what was used to make shoo-fly pies. A gentleman who worked as a brakeman well into his 90’s, would come off the train, and with a deadpan expression say, “You know, it’s snowing hard down in Paradise.” One of the conductors would linger by the ticket window and glance at people’s wallets and driver’s licenses as they paid. Then he’d get them on the train and “guess” their name and where they were from. Occasionally after a customer had left the window, one of my fellow ticket agents would sniff the air with a pained look on his face, shake his head in disgust and say, “Campers.”

After my dad retired, he volunteered at the State Railroad Museum across the street.  He would come over to the grill for lunch and always stopped by the ticket window just to say hello, or if we were swamped, he’d bring me food. He loved that we were both working together around steam trains.

 

 

These days I’m sure very little cash changes hands since most tickets are probably purchased online.  A new generation of train crew, ticket agents, and administrative staff keeps the trains running on time. But the wooden station is still there as I suspect are the pot-bellied stove and hanging fly strips. The same locomotives that were in service when I was there are still making those daily 45-minute round trips because no digital experience can ever replicate the wide-eyed wonder of a small child staring up at a locomotive for the first time. No amusement park thrill ride can touch scrambling up the coach steps clutching your grandpa’s hand, plopping down on the velvet seats and sticking your head out the window, breathing in the coal smoke and listening for the sound of the whistle on the road to Paradise.

Me on Strasburg train

 

 

 

Touching the Liberty Bell

A former teaching colleague posted a picture on Facebook recently that simply took my breath away. I am not reproducing it here, although I did share it on my Facebook page. My friend was chaperoning a group of middle schoolers on a trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the students was blind and also had significant hearing impairment. The park ranger lifted the ropes around the Liberty Bell, so the young man could touch it, while he explained its meaning and history away from the noise of the crowded hall. My friend said it was a moving and powerful moment in a day filled with the general chaos of taking young adolescents who are too cool for their clothes on a field trip.

What the ranger did was beyond kindness. He broke the rules for all the right reasons. This picture symbolized the good in us; it represented what I always believed we are called to be as citizens of this country and as decent human beings.

When I started this blog, I was determined to stay out of politics, religion, and other inflammatory topics. There is way, way too much of that on social media, and I didn’t need to go there to flex my writing muscles. But I am in utter disbelief at what we are allowing to happen. I am not talking about specific issues—our country has had bitter political disagreements for its entire history. The fact that we have the freedom to argue and disagree with each other is part of why we’ve survived for as long as we have.

But we are now deep into uncharted territory and quite frankly, I’m frightened. Lies are being told and laws are being broken with few, if any, repercussions, and we seem to have become blithely accepting of that. For the life of me, I cannot understand how our leaders can continue to condone and rationalize behavior that is not only illegal but downright evil all in the name of retaining power. Those people who say this is how Hitler got the job done have a valid point. And just when I think it can’t get any worse—OK, so this time a line’s been crossed and they’re going to have to do something—it does, and the voices of support roar ever louder.

What would happen if we all stepped away from the chaos and shouting for a few minutes, slipped past the ropes of our individual agendas and placed our hands on the Liberty Bell to remind us of who we are, how we got here and where we’re going?

 

 

Southern Snapshot

We just returned from a pleasure trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful town filled with stunning architecture, history, and restaurants with some of the best chefs on the East Coast. We enjoyed it all—from our charming hotel in the historic district to the incredible food to walking the sacred grounds of history. Nothing on our screens can ever replace travel and being there in person.

We took the first ferry of the day to Fort Sumter so we could see the flag-raising. A group of students, probably early high school age, were on the boat with us. They quieted as they lined up on either side of the flag, carefully unfolding it according to the ranger’s directions. Another student pulled the ropes to raise it into the stiff breeze blowing over the harbor. The students represented many different races and nationalities and seeing their hands working together on the flag in that particular place at this particular time in history gave me at least a whisper of hope.

We took a day trip to Beaufort because I wanted to visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Pat Conroy was writing creative nonfiction in the form of popular novels long before it was recognized as a genre, and Beaufort is the place he called home. The quintessential southern town, Beaufort is filled with stately mansions, waterfront cottages and streets lined with live oaks dripping with moss. Scenes from  The Big Chill, Forest Gump, and Conroy’s own Prince of Tides were all filmed here.  (Barbra Streisand was stopped by the local police who did not recognize her when she sped down the highway in the white Mustang from Prince of Tides, without a driver’s license or registration.)

Beaufort scene

When we arrived, we asked two gentlemen lounging in hammocks with a case of Coors between them, if they knew anything about the Pat Conroy tours advertised online. One of them said, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill.  Lemme’ see if I have his number.” Bill re-arranged his day so he could take us on the tour. He couldn’t have been more gracious and knowledgeable and incorporated scenes from the movies on a screen in his van with what we were seeing outside the windows. He took us to Pat Conroy’s grave which is in a Gullah cemetery. Conroy spent a year teaching the Gullah children on Daufuskie Island (the basis for his book, The Water is Wide) and felt a deep connection to its people. Conroy is the only white person buried in that cemetery, and according to Bill, the decision by the church council to allow it was not unanimous. The grave itself is covered with pine cones and all kinds of random items—pens and pencils because he wrote all his books by hand, flowers, shells, and buttons and even a few miniature bottles of Jack Daniels.

Conroy grave

When you visit this part of the country, race is the elephant in the room. As you listen to the stories, you realize how much of our country’s growth and prosperity was built on the backs of slaves. I kept wondering if the tour narratives have evolved over the years. Everything is explained in accurate, but carefully chosen language. Nowhere did we see a confederate flag, even in the  trinket stalls of the City Market. And has that changed even more since the terrible shooting in 2015?

I felt almost uncomfortable with the deferential service offered by the African American men and women who served us breakfast in the hotel each morning.  Do the women who weave sweet-grass baskets in the markets and along the roadside do it out of pride for their heritage or because it’s an incredible money-maker with the tourists? Probably a little of both, I suppose. I couldn’t help but see the irony as a black security guard stood outside the museum with “Daughters of the Confederacy” inscribed in the archway above the door.

One of our last visits was to Boone Hall Plantation, located a few miles outside Charleston. (More irony – the cotton dock of the plantation, where slaves were once unloaded, is now an upscale event venue where the actress Blake Lively was married.) In front of one of the slave cabins, a gifted black actress and singer gave a presentation on the Gullah culture. She interwove her narrative with spirituals and reflections on the life of the slaves on that plantation. At the end she said the Lord’s Prayer in the Gullah dialect and then sang about how beautiful all of the faces seated in front of her were. I didn’t understand all of her words, but I didn’t need to, because she looked every single one of us in the eye as she kept singing over and over, “…and you, and you and you.”

slave-quarters-1499121__480

 

The Oldest People in the Water

That would be my husband and me. We’re in the ocean alongside the kids on boogie boards, the teenagers hot dogging way out in the breakers, and the young parents steering toddlers around  the shallows at the edge of the beach. I still love to get in the ocean. I am cautious, especially with a reconstructed back, and stay close to shore, but I am not too old to enjoy being immersed in the water and feeling the shifting sand under my feet. I like the sticky clean-ness of salt against my skin. I like waiting and watching for the next wave, even if it means an occasional head-over-heels toss into the surf. I like how the ocean decides how much of you is going to get wet when an unexpected wave washes over the part of you that’s still dry and warm.

We are reaching the age when some of us tend to stay on the beach and out of the water. I refuse to do that until I absolutely must. If my body says, “OK, let’s go,” I’m in. I’m not yet ready to succumb to fear, at least not at the beach. There’s enough to be legitimately afraid of in this world over which we have no control, but I’m not ready to give up some of the things I love because of what might happen. I refuse to live my life based on what-ifs.

I’m reminded of the meme that occasionally spins by on my Facebook feed—something about life is short, go ahead and eat the cake. I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the finger-wagging or the latest article about what food or activity is going to kill us next. Danger lurks in the plastic water bottle or the deli meat or the hamburger cooked rare, and that may be at least partially true, but I’m sorry, no health risk warrants a pizza crust made from cauliflower crumbs. Preying on our fears, especially as we age, has spawned an entire industry. Don’t eat this, don’t drink that, what if I fall, what if this or that happens, I better not risk it, or I better buy this product to prevent it from happening.

I am well aware that I don’t have the same physical capabilities I did twenty years ago. I think I usually make sensible choices based on that knowledge, but I’m not going to limit myself if it means missing out on the good stuff. So, yeah, I’m going to swim those laps in the pool even though every year it takes a little longer. I’m going to enjoy every bite of the occasional indulgent dessert despite my slowing metabolism and only eat pizza with a real crust, carbs be damned. I’m going to risk sending my essays off to publications that will probably shoot them right into the slush pile, because once in a while, there will be an acceptance which will feel amazing. And I’m going to keep swimming in the ocean, letting the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea remind me how wonderful it is to be alive.