Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Perfect Ceremony

It’s no secret that one of things I contributed to my school was the creation, development, hosting of a unique calendar of school celebrations. I was never alone in that, always in company with other teachers (and kids) who suggested ideas, adjustments, new twists and turns. But I was the one who “owned” it, who initiated, oversaw and reflected them. I was the one who cared about it the most. Which left others free to care about the things they cared about that also uplifted the school community. 

Though I did it because I loved it and I was good at it (those two are related) and it gave me great pleasure to know it gave kids pleasure and leant character to the school, at several times over the past 45 years I asked whether I could have an official title. I didn’t ask for more money (but might have accepted some—after all, it was hours and hours of work) or time off from classes. I simply thought the role should be formally acknowledged and that I would have some officially sanctified power in that position. 

And so, I was finally granted the title. Master of  Ceremonies. Three days before my final day after 45 years. Oh well.

Perhaps I’ve said this before, but in these final days, I’ve had the weird sensation of missing someone like me to organize my own farewell. And seeing that no one else seemed to be stepping up, that’s exactly what I did. In fact, four of them of different lengths, some just words, some words and songs, some words, songs, stories and a slide show. I knew I needed some sense of appropriate closure and though there may be a live party someday—a day increasingly receding into the future—I also knew that the moment was now, that certain ceremonies are not interchangeable days on a calendar. And then I began to think about the principles of ceremony, the purpose, the guidelines for one that feels satisfying and successful. And I came up with some basic rules that I’ve never quite set down in print. Some apply to all ceremonies, some to the large life moments—weddings, retirements, funerals.

1) A ceremony is work of art. 

Whether a tradition is one year old or centuries, it must always be re-imagined and renewed and re-thought and sometimes changed and adjusted according to the circumstance. Like a good jazz solo, never the same twice.

And so I gave four different farewell speeches, one to the alumni, one to the parent body, one to the kids and one to the staff. Each one had a different slant—generic would not work. Each required the same kind of artistic choices of choosing which slide, which song, which story, in what order, etc.

2) All times should be present—past, present and future. 

In my farewells, I spent time looking backwards at where I came from, looked forward to what’s next and looked inward to this present moment, feeling the full weight of balancing bridging these two worlds.

3) To honor the individual is to refresh, rejuvenate, restore the community. 

The act of celebration passes through the one or two people to remind and include all those participating. A marriage renews all vows made or yet to be made, a retirement helps all who witnessed the life to pass through their own remembrances, a funeral is as much a healing step for those left behind as it is a send-off to the other world for the departed. 

At the end of showing my various slides, the tears from the people in those slides meant we all went back and relived the extraordinary privilege of having shared this life together. 

4) The bitter and the sweet should mingle. 

 In these big life moments, loss and gain are equally present. The parents giving over a child, the child joining a future with another. A schoolteacher closes the door behind him, a new teacher walks through the opening door.  The earthlings bid farewell, the angels hold out their arms in welcome. Saudade, as the Brazilians say—the bitter and the sweet joined together. When that sense of loss, the presence of mortality is felt, that’s when the tears flow. Such ceremonies without tears are just pot-luck dinners. 

5) Praise and grief walk arm in arm.

This is the time to publicly praise, to call out the character of the person, to reveal his or her Soul-force. To properly praise, you must also feel the grief (see above). As Martin Prechtel says: 

The beauty is that this moment we’re all together at this place and there’s a grief in that that makes the magic of the praise very real, because the stakes are extremely high.…You gotta love the thing you lost, just like you gotta love the thing you got. When you’re grieving for the thing you got, it’s praise. And when you’re praising for the thing you lost, it’s grief.

Praise is poetry because it is insulting to casually toss out the clichés of “You’re awesome! Amazing! Incredible!.” You need a blend of stories and unique images and honesty and humor. At the end, the person should feel seen, feel known, feel welcomed, feel valued and specifically so, for what they’ve done, what they’ve said, how they’ve lived. Here’s a little primer of praise:

1, This is what I will always remember about you.
2. This is why it mattered to me.
3. This is how I/we were changed by your presence.
4. This is how it enriched the world.

1. This is what I hoped to do. This is what I did.
2.  This is why I cared about it.
3. This is what it meant to me.
4. This is what you (all) mean to me.

Soon after writing all of this, I discovered that my colleagues James and Sofia had indeed prepared the kind of appreciation I was hungry for. Hungry not for adoration, but simply to hear said out loud what I think happened, but didn’t hear said out loud by the 50 plus colleagues at my online farewell yesterday. (Nor put into the chat). I opened a Flipgrid link James and Sofia sent and there were 25 two-minute testimonies from the Interns the three of us worked with over the past six years. And in those two minutes, 25 times over, each in their own unique and eloquent way (including songs and raps) were the qualities of meaningful praise. Out came the tears, out came the bitter and the sweet, in came an artful rendering of past, present and future dancing together. 

It was the perfect farewell ceremony. 

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