Monday, May 23, 2016

Pomp and potties

May is a trying month for introverts, as the better weather it brings means both sunscreen and socialness are required. This past weekend was a busy one that included a trail race, a wedding, and a graduation. The trail race I’ll get to later; first, the wedding, which was only one of a number of nuptial-related events going on in recent months for me and people I know. The last wedding I went to before this one had been your classic non-church wedding and reception. There were the slow walks down the aisle and back, the online-ordained friend acting as officiant, the champagne toasts, the bouquet-and-garter tossings, the bride-and-groom dance, the bride-and-dad dance, the groom-and-mom dance, and the Electric Slide. One more thing, too: it was a hell of a lot of fun. Just because I myself am not going that route with my wedding doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the necessity of ritual. In other words, sometimes you just have to get in a circle and spell out “Y-M-C-A” with your arms.

The wedding this weekend, between two of my ESL students, was quite different: “churchy,” a colleague in attendance whispered to me as we seated ourselves in a pew and surveyed the program. That said, it was still not your usual hymn-and-scripture ceremony, as the groom is getting his PhD in music at the university here and it was as much an organ, piano, and choir concert as a wedding. It also had a distinctly international flavor, with 1 Corinthians 13 read in Japanese, a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Maori, a little Latin thrown in here and there, and the affirmations of the marriage given as both “I do” and “hai”. I studied Japanese a couple lifetimes ago and have since forgotten just about all of it other than words like “futtoboru” (football) and “terebi” (television), but I still recognized the ending of the Corinthians scripture quite plainly even before it was read again in English: The greatest of these is love.

I’m not religious, but I appreciate good writing, and it’s understandable why this verse is read so often at weddings. If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, I am nothing. Poetic and profound indeed, and yet at the same time I’ve always had mixed feelings about these words. I couldn’t help but imagine some single young person there among the pews—maybe that moon-faced lady in the back, who for a long time would have been me—thinking great, I have no one to love, I’m nothing, I’m going to die alone, thanks Jesus. I realize the verse isn’t talking about mere hearts-and-flowers love, of course, but these words are read at weddings, and it always struck me as sounding just a little smug in that context. Indeed, there’s a faint smugness that imbues weddings, even if unintentionally: Yay, look at us, we are loved, we in our beautiful clothes in this opulent setting, even if it’s a prepackaged opulence that countless others have employed. I know what a perverse and mean-spirited thing that is to think, and I certainly shouldn’t be thinking it now that I’m about to undertake a similar celebration of my own. But this is me we’re talking about. Even if I eschew mean-spiritedness, you’ve got to allow me perversity.

In that church I had the same sensation I’ve had in numerous situations—almost daily, at times—throughout my life: the feeling of standing outside peering into a window watching other people do things I’m not a part of, not sure I even want or need to be a part of, ever the outsider. I looked at the dramatic images in the stained-glass windows, I heard the commanding chords of the organ, I listened to the impassioned sermon by the pastor, and I could easily understand the draw. I could understand it, yes, but I wasn’t part of it in the same way as those who knew they belonged there. 

This feeling was even stronger at the graduation. The fiancĂ©‘s youngest daughter has just finished high school at a private Catholic school in town, so we shuffled into the gym to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” (played with a vaguely oom-pah-ish flavor by the band, for some reason) and watch the kids, gowned and mortarboarded, as they filed in, looking way too young to be facing a world where a reality TV show host might lead the nation. If the wedding was churchy, the graduation was mass-ive. There were only 79 members of the graduating class—about a fifth what mine had been—so I’d foolishly thought commencement would breeze by. I forgot about the Catholic part. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to mass, and I’d forgotten all the appropriate standing and sitting and responding. (When did they change “and also with you” to “and with your spirit”? That’s how long it’s been.) It was a couple hours later when the principal of the school finally, almost as an afterthought, congratulated the Class of 2016, who filed out of the gym into blazing sunlight, blinking and looking momentarily, appropriately, dazed.

And then there was the race. People who don’t run are often appalled when they find out how much registration fees are for races, and they think they’re being clever when they say “pay me that money and I’ll cheer you on while you run around the block a hundred times!” Um, kind of not the same? Not the same at all, in fact, because the runners actually did pay me, in a manner of speaking, so I could cheer them on—and so I could organize the thing. This was my debut as race director; a good friend and I were responsible for all aspects of the 5-mile trail run, and let me tell you it is a lot more than cheering. I had about twenty-seven mini heart attacks before the event. Would there be thunderstorms? Would anyone get lost? Would we run out of water, shirts, or food? What if the chip timing system failed? What if someone got injured? For the love of God, where are those Porta Potties we ordered? (Laugh if you like, but you simply can not have a race if people have nowhere to poop and pee beforehand.) As it turned out, there was no need for myocardial infarction; the sun came out to shine on the gleaming blue Porta Potties, the runners ran, I cheered, awards were given, all went well.

Most people, even those who prize their independence, need to belong to something larger than themselves in some way, at least a little. I run for the enjoyment of it, yet every so often I need my running to be “official” somehow by following a plan leading up to an event all of which is suffused with ritual—special foods, special clothing, special music (i.e., “Born to Run,” the “Pomp and Circumstance” of racing). Likewise, I’m getting married pretty much for the same reason: the enjoyment of it, of experiencing the rest of my life with another person. It’s our thing, and it’s personal. But even I, in my self-imposed outsider status, have elected to commemorate the personal with a ceremony of sorts. It’s what you do from time to time if you’re part of humanity—because you do have to remember this, that you are a part of it, whether you’re the one making sure it all comes together or you’re just sitting off to the side watching or both, at different times in a life of constant change, occasionally paused for a prayer, a dance, or a dash to the finish line.