On Lunch and Ritual

I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, and after the usual pleasantries, after the how-are-yous and relating significant events since we last met, our conversation turned to ideas and things we like to think about when we have the time and space: philosophy, language, culture.

I found myself, this morning, before I had lunch, thinking about rituals. As someone who strives to be creative, I have rituals that I perform to set myself in such a creative mindset. My rituals have to do with making coffee, opening up my draft, then walking around a bit–moving–so my mind engages on whatever my problem was yesterday when I stopped. And, I always stop at a problem.

I have the same ritual as I drive to work: I leave the radio off until I get to the highway, winding the few side streets, frozen at a stoplight. Since I consider myself part of the Christian tradition I recite the Lord’s prayer, silently, at the stoplight. Before that I showered and ate breakfast, reading while my girls watched television or played, another ritual. And even at lunch we entered into an old ritual, asking about each other’s lives in the span since we’d last talked, preparing the conversation for wherever it would go.

Later, at lunch, we talked about religion and ritual. People in our circle talk about how religion is relationship, and I know this has been helpful for many people. Religion, of course, has been a terribly destructive force at times, and continues to be in some people’s lives today. But, religion, at its best, is an embrace of rituals: corporate rituals that center and focus the participants, that remind us of our broken humanity and our need for something beyond ourselves. We all need this, whether we’re atheist or fundamentalist: we need rituals to prepare ourselves for connection. The individualism and assumed free-form of relationships does not focus us in the same way. It does not connect us so tightly with the suffering, wandering, hopeful people around us, and it negates the rituals inherent in any relationship. This is why thousands of conversations across our culture had the same arc as mine today. We performed the ritual of relating events as a springboard for connection.

The ritual was connection, and it provided for more.

It’s crucial that we note these rituals. As someone who longs to speak and write meaning into the world, I enter into ritual in order to enhance my creativity, not to stifle it. I make coffee and pay attention to its smell and earthiness to awake my senses; I move, oddly enough, to awake my mind and let it wander. This is why walking or showering or pulling weeds have always been a creator’s friend: we need mindless movement to see what’s really in our minds. These are rituals that, rightly viewed, connect us with what is around us, within us.

I call these rituals because it wraps these mundane events with meaning, because to the creator no event is meaningless. Perhaps–perhaps–to the human no event is meaningless, even if it is an event that signifies the absurdity of life. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

We could say the same about the well-lived life: all requires our attention. And our rituals, if performed rightly, increase and stir that all-important attention.

 

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On Seeing

Across the table, my brother asked about a study he had read on creativity. The study asserted that people aren’t necessarily more or less “creative” in terms of their output; they are “creative” in terms of what they see. “Creative people,” he said, “see the world differently.”

At the time, we were taking turns hitting golf balls with my dad and another friend, and it was my turn. I nodded and said Sure before swinging robot-like at some golf balls. It was not a new thought: one of my professors always insisted that writing is about seeing, that while we walk about in our daily lives we must train our eyes to see. This is part of the reason cliché is so hated by writers. It is unoriginal. It is seeing as someone else tells you to see.

Flannery O’Connor said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” This gaze of the writer—it is not a utilitarian gaze to tell more stories or poems, it is a gaze that seeks to find meaning for the object. I forgot my lunch this morning and waited in line during the lunch rush later on, and merely watched. A woman, her phone on the table, touched it delicately with one finger while a five-year old girl sat across from her. Two men in business clothes sat at another table, one leaning in and the other with his chair turned parallel with the wall, his legs crossed, like he was lounging on a Saturday afternoon. Two girls in front of me ordered enough food for half the restaurant, like they had been kicked out of the house but had a parent’s credit card. I played on my phone, surreptitiously watching it with the guise of doing something else. No one wants someone staring at them.

This is creating: seeing. It is assigning meaning to that which is around us. This can lead to the megalomania that some writers have, because the world is created as they internalize it; the world receives meaning based on what meaning they assign it. Unless, of course, the world already contains meaning and it is the writer’s job to dust it off and hold it up again, to let the sunlight color its facets.

Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes:

Michael Goldman wrote in a poem, “When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write / She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.” What made me look up at that roadside tree?

The Muse: listen to that frustrating and insistent and un-utilitarian voice that stops you, and makes you look at ants crawling on the ground with a two-year old, the way the evening sun irradiates the cottonwood across the street, the young tattooed man sitting beside you in traffic, the soles of your shoes. See. See. See.