I picked up Bil Lepp’s new book, Muddling Through: Perspectives on Parenting at the National Storytelling Festival a few weeks ago. It’s pretty accurate to tag Bil as a liar. As a professional storyteller with a penchant for tall tales, he cut his teeth on tall tales at the West Virginia Liars Contest – something he has won multiple times. He’s also an ordained minister, not that I’m saying ministers are liars, mind you.
This book is a departure – it’s peppered with his trademark humorous prose but features real messages about parenting for both adults and kids. I think what’s so cool about it is how he can see things through a child’s eyes, and actually bring it all to life for readers, which is a talent and a blessing, if you ask me.
So I’m reading Muddling Through and I hit the chapterette (they’re small) where Bil talks about his very own personal Christmas Eve tradition. If you’ve been to a Christmas Eve Candlelight service, you’re probably familiar with the little white candle that everyone gets. The object, of course, is to not manhandle the candle but to place it carefully next to you on the pew until the end of the service when the lights go off. Then, and only then, do you carefully grasp the candle just beneath the little white paper guard and wait for the person on the left to offer his flaming candle so you can light your little white candle and pass it along to the person on the right (I guess it could be vice versa). It’s awesome to watch the light spread from one end of the congregation to the other, cutting through the darkness – representative of the light entering the world at Christmas time.
Once every candle is burning brightly (and every drop of wax is causing the women’s auxiliary to grimace – they paid for the carpeting, after all), the first ethereal strains of Silent Night wend their way around the room. Talk about goose bumps! And then, when it’s done, you gently blow out the candle and go home to either wait impatiently for Santa’s visit or to step in and take on Santa’s duties, depending a bit on your age and the makeup of your household.
In Bil’s version, he explains how, at a young, tender age he began trying to grasp the candle and hold it tight, willing his body heat to make the wax malleable and transforming the candle from linear to circular. Apparently he always wound up with broken, chunky candles that elicited sniffs of disdain from the person sitting next to him. He has now passed that objective on to his own children. And … well, I’m stopping here. You’ve got to read the book to see what happens.
Church can be a funny place. I wasn’t much for church growing up, and honestly, the term heathen comes to mind. It probably goes back to the time my sister skipped merrily home from church one sunny day … without me. There I was, alone in a dark, foreboding, empty church building. Now, she’ll tell you that some adult was there with me trying to help determine who I was and where I belonged, but don’t listen to her. I’m almost certain I was absolutely and terrorizingly alone. (Yeah, I know that’s not a real word.)
Anyway, four blocks later she tripped into the kitchen, mom looked up from her place in front of the stove, raised her eyebrows and asked, “where’s Jenny?”
Man, I wish I could’ve been there to see Susie’s reaction. I’d like to think a flash of panic lit her face (although I suspect it might have been preceded by a momentary flicker of satisfaction at the prospect of having a bedroom all to herself). From here, my memory’s a bit fuzzy, due no doubt to the abject terror I experienced, but I really don’t remember who came back to get me – mom or Susie or both. I do know that I pretty much put both of my stubborn feet down when it came to going to church after that. Time passed – college, grad school, real life – and I found myself lured into joining with the local Presbyterians, where I sang in the choir and planned all kinds of events and got all involved in the governance of the church and all that hoohah.
Churches just love traditions, and this one was no exception. We always sang a brief benediction at the end of Sunday service. For a long time it varied according to the season, and that was just fine with me. Then 9/11 hit. That’s when the church started programming Let There Be Peace on Earth. Every. Single. Sunday.
Now, I mean no disrespect. I like that song, really I do, but anything that’s repeated ad nauseam eventually gets old. Once the enormity of that horrific event began to fade – as it was bound to do and as it HAD to do – well, I have to admit I got a little bored. For those of us with a quirky sense of humor and very few filters to stop our pranks, programming something for years and years is perhaps also a little dangerous.
Singing on pitch means not sinking –going flat – and not rising – going sharp. When you sing on pitch it sounds nice. It’s harmonious. It’s what the composer heard in his head. It’s simply correct. I’m pretty good at it, and in most cases I work hard to be sure I sing well.
But I’d had about all I could take of this particular song. So I raised the bar on “interesting” by simply hitting the final note about a quarter step flat—oh, such a nice dissonance! I’d hold it until someone started to twitch in a way that let me know it was time to tune it back up. If they actually turned around, all they’d see would be me turned around as if I, too, had noticed something rotten in the back of the sanctuary. By then, of course, I’d have corrected the pitch. Honestly, I’m not sure I could actually sing that song today and stay on pitch at the end … it pretty much became second nature to bend it and revel in the tension. Plus it felt ornery, and I do love ornery.
I’m not, as they say, “churched” these days, but I have to admit that I sometimes miss the fun in fellowship – mostly the off-kilter fun. Bil’s tale of bending the Christmas candle brought that all rushing back. He bent candles, I bent pitches. Some may arch an eyebrow and harrumph that life is serious business. Well, I don’t reckon I hold that opinion. Yes, life is meant to be well lived, but it should also be fun. A quirky sense of humor is just about No. 1 on my “what I value most of all” list.
This year, I may try to find a Christmas Eve candlelight service where I can try my hand at bending a candle into a perfect circle. If all I can manage is to craft a broken, chunked up, barely working lump of wax, well, that’s OK. I’ll just sing the last note of the last song a little off kilter. I live for that look of disdain on the face of the pew sitter beside me.