This is a post about failure. When we started this project, I knew such a post was coming; and probably sooner rather than later, given the wildly improbable hope that was our projected December “schedule.” I’m guessing December is not a fantastic time for anyone to take on a consuming new commitment, but it’s an especially tricky time for our two-professor family. Here at the Perry-Mize residence, baby Jesus arrives hot on the heels of finals week, or more accurately, hot on the heels of the week after finals week. ’Tis the season of late-night grading and all-day meetings, punctuated by the occasional confrontation with a disgruntled student who, now that the semester is over, wants to discuss “what I can do to improve my grade.” That these two weeks (finals and after finals) are preceded by the weeks on either side of Thanksgiving does not help one bit. These are the weeks when everything and everyone falls apart (senior theses, study groups, engagements, you name it) and also when our parental presence/assistance is required at all manner of seasonal concerts, recitals, playoffs, and parties. It’s a circus.
Adding priest-in-training to the mix has taken our family juggling act to a whole new level. Imagine “just this side of impossible,” add one or two medium-sized surprises per week, and you’ve got a fairly accurate impression of our lives from Thanksgiving to Epiphany—and that’s an ordinary holiday season, which this one wasn’t. This year, I was also preparing for canonicals, a three-day ordeal of written and oral examinations smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
So it’s not like we didn’t know what we were signing on for when we agreed to keep the feasts and fasts. We knew we were in for some serious failure. In fact, it was part of the plan. “That’s the whole point,” Britt kept saying, when I would fall to kvetching about just how doomed we were to screw things up before we’d barely even begun, “if it were easy to do this without living in a monastery, you wouldn’t have a story.”
I suppose. But I would prefer a slightly more flattering role, if you please. I would like to be less seat-of-my pants, less obviously stretched, and a good deal sweeter and more spiritual. And yes, I know in my head that becoming someone other than myself is not what this or any other spiritual practice is supposed to be about. Still, it’s been hard letting go of the story as I had pictured it in my head, especially since “letting go” is precisely what our story has been about so far.
Here’s a list of the things I have had to let go of between Advent and Epiphany:
1) High standards. We’re averaging about a feast a week around here, and as I’ve mentioned, we also have a few other things to do. There is always time to celebrate, but we can’t be throwing a parade every saint’s day. Instead, we’re learning the power of marking time. An ordinary supper is less ordinary eaten in someone’s honor. Candles make almost any space or time feel sacred. So do blessings. Holy need not always equal hard.
2) Doing everything myself. One of my dreams for Advent was holding a weekly Advent supper. Instead, we attended one held by a lovely family in our church. Can I tell you what magic it was to drive to their beautiful house in the country once a week, sit down, and be served? I had similarly ambitious plans for Christmas, but when I showed up at the church flustered on Christmas Eve, my mentor stepped in to do the liturgy so I could focus on my sermon. Once again, magic.
3) Entertaining. This one’s a biggie. I love having people over (or so I say) but I cannot seem to do it without turning into a horrible person. Not once in all the years I’ve had a place of my own have I ever made it through my mental list of THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE in order for my home to be worthy of guests. So infamous am I for the resulting drill sergeant routine that Ruby once innocently asked me, “Did something terrible happen to you in your childhood that made you afraid of company?” If we want our friends to feast with us, I’ve got to lay this burden down. For the duration of our project, I’ve given up entertaining for what Jack King calls “scruffy hospitality.” As he so eloquently puts it, “Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.” Turns out, the same principle holds true for feasting.
We experienced this phenomenon first hand on Twelfth Night, or rather Fifteenth Night, since our party was a few days late due to my exams. This party is an annual tradition for us. We invite over a few neighbors for dinner and an impromptu Epiphany pageant, courtesy of the children. Traditionally, “dinner” has meant something cooked by me and served on real plates in the dining room, while “impromptu” has meant an advance trip to Michael’s for fun props. Neither of those things happened this year. I cleaned the bathrooms and lit some candles. Ruby scrounged up bathrobes and other Wiseman-appropriate paraphernalia. Britt (and this took real bravery, given my drill-sergeant reputation) swung by HEB on the way home from work and bought everything we needed for an instant feast: from chips to sandwich fixings to red and green paper plates. Five minutes to go-time I was a mess: “I cannot believe it has come to this,” I was thinking, as I hurriedly ripped opened all the packages and scrambled to cut up some tomatoes before the doorbell rang.
And then it happened. The Sawyers arrived with snowballs in a cooler. Sarah came bearing brownies. Somebody started passing out drinks. Nobody seemed to mind the sandwiches or the paper plates. When it came time for the Epiphany play, our priest welcomed in the three Wisewomen and showed them how to mark our house with a traditional Epiphany blessing. They journeyed to our living room, where Herod/Britt tore up the scenery wearing an old tree skirt and a pink leopard print bathrobe (thanks Elaina!) and then on to the front room, where John made his third and final star-turn as baby Jesus. After it was all over, we all trooped out into the front yard for snowballs. Magic.
Or maybe grace. I think one of the things I’m learning from all this letting go is the powerful link in my own life between the sacred and secular senses of that word. I have always wanted to be more graceful and gracious; and I have done everything I could to become so except get out of the way. It’s high time I practice what I preach. This whole feast/fast thing is so ridiculously impossible that I really have no choice except to throw up my hands and pray for a little “unmerited divine assistance,” grace, magic, call it what you will. The story so far is that it comes. This isn’t going like I had planned, and that is indeed the whole point.