No, not this one. A mythical one. A seasonal one. A Buffy one.
Back in another era, December of 2018 to be exact, we were enjoying the last lingering days of the year with our neighbors and got to talking about favorite TV shows. One of our neighbors, an incredibly busy, serious-minded person with a high-pressure, high-skill job, a degree from a top college and notoriously little free time, unabashedly shared that his favorite series – ever – was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’d watched it all the way through many times. And Angel. And if someone really wanted to understand the inner workings of his soul, they’d be well served to also watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Now Adam and I are Grade A Nerds. (He’s playing RPGs online at this very moment. I’m livetweeting inspirational quotes from “The Return of the King”.) But we were in college and young marrieds without cable when Buffy came out, and we mostly just … missed it. I’d never seen a single episode. (I don’t actually watch a ton of tv most of the time.) But in the brief slack of time that happens so rarely, we told our neighbor that we’d watch Buffy if he’d watch it with us. It was the sort of thing you say a thousand times, but never happens. It sounded like fun! There’s no way we’d actually make time to do it, right?
Then next night, we got together, and watched the first two episodes of Buffy.
And then we did it again.
It took us almost 18 months, but we watched every single one of the 350 episodes of Buffy & Angel, finishing the very last apocalypse only a few days before our real lives took a Sunnydale turn to surreality. It was fantastic. Despised characters became favorites. Favorite characters got complicated. People died – sometimes multiple times. Makeup artists earned their keep. And the writing was mostly superb (I’m looking at you Angel season four and much of Buffy season seven). In the middle years of life, so much can seem to run together and become undifferentiated: work, commuting, the needs of the family, the service to community, the exhaustion at the end of the day. (It seems almost quaint now!) But this antediluvian (antepandemiun?) period in my life will be almost most differentiated by this: the four of us on a couch, watching a master storyteller spin a web.
Ritual has an interesting place in the culture I find myself living in. Rituals, especially shared rituals, are falling aside in this era of individualism. What are our remaining shared rituals? I find myself thinking “Well, there’s Sweet Caroline in the 8th inning…” Many of our oldest, time honored rituals seem to be evolving past recognition (weddings used to be a religious service) or falling away altogether. I myself didn’t watch fireworks this 4th of July, and have eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a Denny’s.
When starting a family, especially when far from your own family, one is confronted with the question of what rituals you’ll create. Will you open presents on Christmas Eve? When do you put up the tree? There are other rituals which simply arise through repetition – like when you realize you’ve thrown a last-minute New Year’s Eve party every year for the last three years. And then there are the rituals that are some sort of strange hybrid, like making up your own holidays and investing them with energy, love and meaning until they become as rich and real to you as any holiday that lives on a pre-printed calendar. (Also, it turns out you can now print your own calendars…)
One tradition that I loved from my family of birth, which I had trouble carrying over to my family in Massachusetts, was the Christmas Tree. Living in the land where Christmas trees grow, we’d always go to Jim Hale’s and tromp around the fields getting increasingly cranky and objecting to each other’s selections of tree. (The fight was actually an acknowledged part of the ritual.) Then we’d get a tree that was too tall and struggle to get it home and into the house. Mom would hide in the kitchen “making cookies” while we wrestled the lights onto the timber, cut about two feet off the bottom with a chainsaw, and argue about the best order of cutting the bindings. Then we’d all gather together and hang the ornaments while listening to Roger Whittaker’s iconic Christmas album. It was always a stressful day, but somehow what began in tumult – with broken icy ground underfoot – ended peacefully, eating warm cookies and debating whether Darcy the Dragon was an ironic anti-capitalist morality play in the warm light of our own Christmas tree. (Assuming no one was still on the roof putting the cut-off top of the tree on top of the ridgeline to at least make it look right from the outside.)
I tried to pull as much of this as possible into my home, but my husband does not love hanging lights (so I can’t disappear to make cookies). There are no cantankerous octagenarians selling Christmas trees around here. And our ceiling is now and always has been a mere 8 feet tall. So over time I’ve learned to change the tradition to match our reality. This year, I decided also to give up my hope of recreating what I thought it should be, and lean into what it was at that moment. So maybe I didn’t have all four of us hanging ornaments and talking about their history and what they meant to us. Maybe I wasn’t making cookies (but Grey was). Maybe I would just do the parts that were important to me, and my family would join me if it was also important to them.
The tree got up in record time, and it was much less stressful than usual. But my husband commented afterwards that although he’d never really loved the ritual of adorning the tree, somehow not being in the scrum of snowflake hanging had hollowed out a little bit of the festive feeling he got looking at the tree. As he and I tread through our fifth decade (and third decade together), we begin to understand more about ourselves. A ritual may not need to be fun or enjoyable to be meaningful.
On the flip side, the last year or two I’ve really wanted to pull the Advent Wreath into our own practice of the holiday. I find it hilarious that in a society so willing to create any Christmas crap you can think of (Santa toilet paper? Zombie gingerbread men ornaments?), it’s actually hard to find something that’s a huge part of the religious practice of Christmas. I looked for years for a home advent wreath that would accept thick pillar candles that could burn the season through. I finally found a five-stand candle holder, and discovered Ikea sells advent candles. Woooo!
But you can’t just go light an advent calendar, willy nilly. It needs, well, a ritual. So over the last year or two a small family ritual has quietly evolved. This year, I’ve been particularly enjoying it. We gather as a family in front of the tree, and we talk a little about the theme of this particular week in Advent. Last week was hope. This week was peace. We dwell a brief moment on those, and what they mean in our lives. Then there’s a small reading. Last weekend was the Magnificat. Today, I asked Grey to read The Peace of Wild Things. We light the candle. (Thane likes that part.) We sing a hymn. (I like that part best.) Last week was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (traditional for Advent communion Sunday). This week, I chose “O Come Emmanuel”. And then we are done and return to our evening, the growing line of light fighting against the waning of the sun. It is brief and beautiful.
What are some of your precious rituals? Have you successfully ported rituals from one generation to another? Which ones did you create with intent? Which ones evolved from repetition? Which have you lost forever, and how do you mourn them? What do you wish you had a ritual for – to make deeper and richer?
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Here are the infallible Flynn Family Camping Traditions:
1) Stop on the way up at the Toys’r’Us (sadly likely last time) & Starbucks in Portsmouth
2) Late lunch at Miss Wakefield. One time, we forgot Grey’s old Kindle there on Labor Day weekend. They had it waiting for us Memorial Day Weekend the next year.
3) Camping at either White Lake, Covered Bridge or Waterville Valley campgrounds
4) Soccer at Almost There tavern. 100% of the time, Gerd will be there. If it’s slow, he’ll do magic tricks.
5) Dinner at Hart’s Turkey Farm. Order the poutine. Poutine is always a great choice.
This long weekend contained all of those ingredients. It was Waterville Valley, this time. In a rare moment of discretion and wisdom, I checked Google Maps to get a route from Miss Wakefield’s to Waterville Valley. Sure, it’s tempting to run the Kancamagus just for fun, but it’s also nice to get to your campsite before dark. Google directed me on a route I hadn’t taken before, likely some rural way cutting up Rt 25 (home to one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done in dense fog) up through byways to 49. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
At first the route was captivating and charming in that old New England way with stately old houses, scenic fallen stone walls, beautiful vistas and ancient orchards. Then it started getting really rustic. Then it stopped being paved. At one point, bouncing along a rutted dirt road which had been one lane for at least the last two miles, tires tipping over the top of a hill whose other side I could not see, I began laughing hysterically with joy. THIS WAS A REAL ROAD (and it wasn’t my fault we were on it). I have gone years and years without getting to drive a real road in a completely inappropriate vehicle! I skirted massive holes, went over granite boulders, edged along with bare inches between my wheel and a dropoff and generally had a blast. There was that one minor issue, when whining in the back seat about hitting their heads on the top of the car made me slow down a bit and then I didn’t have enough momentum to make it up the hill. For a while, I didn’t quite have leverage to make it back down, either. Eventually I got myself straightened out. Of course, that’s when we saw the first other vehicle in half an hour. It was too narrow for him to pass me, and I needed a moment to figure out how I could move my vehicle aside before making another attempt at the hill – gazing at the ruts my previous attempt had made.
I pulled out my finest “Mountain Mom”. “Sorry, I’ll move aside. I need to plan my attack for the hill better. Google Maps didn’t mention this.” The gentleman in his ginormous 4×4 pickup turned white, “What, you’re on The Sandwich Notch Road by surprise! (He shuddered.) You don’t have four wheel drive, only all wheel drive?” We discussed routes for a moment in a swirling vortex of mosquitos. We agreed that my best bet was to take the outside corner. He said he’d drive it for me (“I drive this road all the time”) but… “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for damaging your vehicle.” I pulled my car, laden with bicycles, tents, NERF guns and terrified children out of the way. I didn’t mention that I don’t have all wheel drive either – I only have front wheel drive. Crappy front wheel drive. He passed me. My chicken family told me they’d meet me when I got to the top. I pulled back, gunned it, and made it to the top no problem. Eventually they walked back up to me.
Adam says I’m not allowed to ever drive that road again, unless I have a four wheel drive. Meanie! We totally didn’t die. Man was that fun.
It ended up raining less than expected this weekend, which is not to say it didn’t rain. It just didn’t rain *much*. Adam got to do a lot of rope and tarp-tying, which surprisingly makes him very happy. The boys went swimming in the river. Grey and I did some geocaching. We played a Cthulu game. There was laser tag and Nerf gun wars. The campfire was going pretty much non-stop.
Our middle night in, with freshening winds rising up the valley along the Mad River, Adam and I were just getting ready for bed when we heard this iconic creaking, breaking and crashing sounds. Very clearly a tree had just fallen, very nearby. We listened for screaming – none. We went to where we heard it and were assured everyone was fine. One person said, “It wasn’t as bad as it sounded.” When I went back in the light of day, I had to beg to differ. I didn’t take pictures of their camp site, but this was only a few feet from tents, tarps and cars where a whole family was staying.
This was especially alarming to me since there was an already splintered pine tree very nearly overhanging our tent. This widowmaker was very stably caught in the Y of a very lithe and healthy looking birch tree – I couldn’t see how it could come free. But it creaked alarmingly in the winds. I would claim I couldn’t sleep soundly with it up there, but that would be an out and out lie. I think I might have been the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my life lying on that air mattress on Sunday morning.
The boys were remarkably helpful this time. I kept having flashbacks to camping when they were like 18 months old and 4 and I had conniptions every single night trying to get them to sleep. But now they could start fires, they did the chores we asked (from carrying firewood to water to fetching – anything!) They were cheerful and helpful and kind and… they went to bed when they decided they were tired. It was amazing. I never dreamed this day would really come, but it did. All those years of effort have really paid off! Now to get them to like hiking…