Sunday, October 23, 2011

Symbols, signs, omens and stuff

. . . and it was Jane who spoke, she said "It's true, your cousin's not a Christian, but we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share and you find magic from your God and we find magic everywhere.
-Dar Williams

This entry started out as a look at the rituals people observe, be they catholic, protestant, pagan, or otherwise. As I look at the word “ritual” however, I see how extensive it can be. Much like Elvis, ritual is everywhere.

I have a client I see semi-regularly. She came in a while back and seemed determined to keep herself in a state of fear and misery while simultaneously questing for grounded-ness, connected-ness, and general happy-ness. She has complained to me of various maladies that are physical, emotional, and spiritual. If you’re thinking “No kidding Laura Ellen, you’re a massage therapist, that’s kinda what you do”, then you’re right. I began to wonder, though, how much do we reinforce our negative attitudes while searching for a more positive life? My client told me she has a regular therapist back home in Kansas, I am her regular therapist when she is in Denver, she has an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, and an herbalist. She told me she brought her spiritual guides in the room with her, she asked me to sage the room, she told me she was in dire need of either Cranial Sacral work or Reiki, she wishes she had brought her new crystals with her, she has been journaling, she feels her chakras are out of alignment and this is exacerbating her irritable bowel syndrome. Are you snickering? You shouldn’t be. We all do these things, it’s just that some of us use rosaries and liturgies and altars. Now, I want to let you know it is absolutely not ok for me to talk about clients and their issues outside of work. If you think you know who this is, I promise you, you don’t. I would NEVER name a client, nor would I ever discuss a client in a way that could reveal their identity. Furthermore, this writing is not about my client, this writing is about the different symbols we all need and how we may make fun of someone for choosing to use crystals, but then many of us feel the need to show up in a church, of which we are not active members, at least for Christmas or Easter . . . or light a menorah at Hanukkah and yet never honor Shabbat , or claim Paganism but have no idea what solstice is all about.

We tend to think of rituals as relating only to religion and spiritual derivations thereof. But as I look around me I see rituals expand into so many areas of our lives. People like to scoff at ritual and its frivolity, accusing such behavior as meaningless and worthless. But then, money is worthless too, it’s just paper. It’s not literally worth the amount it represents but, that’s what’s important, what it represents. The more zeros the better, the more of absolutely nothing printed behind a measly little number one, you’ve really got something . . . on paper. Move all those null sets in front of your measly little number one, and you’ve got my bank account. But it means something to us. Money, and what it represents, is important to us. Try to eat without it, you’ll be wishing on your crystals and rosaries and menorahs as well.

A ritual is indeed, initially, defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as a rite in a religion or spiritual practice. It is, secondarily, described as any regular practice that one follows. Coffee is a ritual. I do not drink caffeine and, believe me, the world is a better place for it. However, I absolutely love my morning coffee. I drink two cups of decaf every single day of my life. I get the coffee maker all set up the night before, a ritual, so that in the morning all I have to do it hit the mighty “on” button. It’s truly one of the most delightful moments of my day. Some mornings, while battling the urge to just roll over and sleep another three or four hours, a light comes on in my head and says to me “Laura Ellen, my love, coffee is ready to go. Just get up and hit the button. All will be well.” I love that light in my head. This morning ritual of coffee follows me everywhere, to any state, on any trip, camping or in a five star hotel, coffee is an integral part of my morning. I mention coffee very specifically because when people find out I drink decaf, only the feeble (of which there are many), will raise an eyebrow and numbly ask “what’s the point?” True coffee lovers never ask this, by the way. The point is this, aside from being warm and tasty, it’s comforting. Coffee makes the house smell good. Coffee is the signal to my synapses that’s it’s time to wake up and start firing. Coffee time is also quiet time. Coffee=morning ritual.

Walking your dog every morning when you could just as easily send his or her furry self out to the back yard is a ritual. Hugging your spouse after a long day of work is a ritual. Going on dates, watching fireworks on the 4th of July, sitting on Santa’s lap, putting a pulled tooth under your pillow for the tooth fairy, watching football every Sunday in the fall, are all ritual; our lives are fraught with, seemingly, meaningless ritual. But, much like cheap paper money, the perceived value of ritual means so much and adds to our lives. Freud wrote to his wife, Martha, the following:

Tables and chairs, beds, mirrors, a clock to remind the happy couple of the passage of time, an armchair for an hour’s pleasant daydreaming, carpets to help the housewife keep the floors clean, linen tied with pretty ribbons in the cupboard and dresses of the latest fashion and hats with artificial flowers, pictures on the wall, glasses for everyday and others for wine and festive occasions . . . are we to hang our heart on such little things? Yes, and without hesitation.

Yes, hang your hearts on such little things, they have unfathomed value.

I think in the more conservative world people are scared that having trinkets and shrines and crystals is the belief that these totems become actual deities rather than symbols connecting us to our higher self, our God; that some people pray to their sage sticks and eagle feathers as though these non living objects house the power of the universe. And yet, the dichotomy is that more conservative people rely even more heavily on their dogma. God forbid homosexuals get married or heterosexuals have a child out of the ritual of wedlock. Still, people have their beliefs and I shouldn’t really say anything crappy about it; but oh look, I did, and here’s my opportunity to delete it . . . annnnnnnnd the moment has passed. Look at Wilson in the movie “Castaway”. Tom Hanks really needed that ball. Did he ever lose his marbles to the point that he thought it was animate? I doubt it, but the need to connect is great, so he found a ball with a name on it and a connection was born. It kept him from going 100% batty. Remember how he screamed “Wilson” when the connection was broken, literally, in the water? It was anguish. Wilson represented some semblance of normalcy, of humanity, and gave him hope. Rituals give us hope.

I have a stuffed blue dog named Ol’ Blue because, duh, he’s blue, so I couldn’t very well name him Ol’ Yeller. Blue has just about no stuffing left in him and the years have worn his material hide quite thin. When I was little I believed he could fly. I would frequently tie string around his neck and twirl him about to prove my point. Ol’ Blue still sits in my room. Need I remind you I am approaching 48 years on this planet? Still, Ol’ Blue is out in my room, not shoved in a box or rotting a land fill. Ol’ Blue is a symbol in my life. He reminds me of a time when my life revolved around my mama and flying blue dogs and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches on soft white bread with the crusts cut off. Ol’ Blue has been with me my entire life. Ol’ Blue is a touchstone for me. He knows everything about me, and loves me still. He has lived with me in Texas and Oklahoma and California and Georgia and New York and my beloved Colorado. Having something tangible can help us mere mortals to feel connected to our sense of spirit. God doesn’t care if you see him in a church or while you’re snowboarding and I don’t think he cares if you find him in a rosary or roast beef sandwich or a no longer stuffed, stuffed dog. Additionally, given the many names he has I don’t believe he cares if you call him God or not; you can call him The Universe, The Great Beyond, He Who Is Super Awesome, or Chet if it suits you. Whatev’s, He’s flexi.

So let’s get back to my unnamed client. As I mentioned, despite all her rituals she seemed quite determined to tell herself she is sick and needs help . . . lots of help. There are those who poo poo all things spiritual as being cults and giving people crutches to lean on. I don’t agree with all religions being cults, but that’s ok, I’m not opposed to others thinking that. I certainly can see why religion and spirituality is accused of being a crutch; it is for some. Some people are determined to remain unhappy. Maybe this is their ritual, I don’t know. Still, saying spirituality is bad 100% of the time fosters the same level of ignorance as those who say religion is the only way to know God. God is everywhere. I’m certain he’s in my coffee and that’s why it’s so tasty. It’s worrisome though, to see this reinforcement of things negative built into things that are meant to be positive. Book stores are full of titles telling us how to get what we want, how to stop falling in love a crazy people, how to keep a balanced life, and so on. All these books focus and feed on people’s need, under the pretense of being positive. If you get everything you want, never love someone crazy, and have a totally balanced life then what have you learned in life and when, oh when, have you ever had any fun? For cryin’ out loud, go eat a corn dog and immediately after, ride a roller coaster, live a little.

Rituals, signs, omens, hearing just the right song on the radio at just the right time, these things speak to us. If I were to lose Ol’ Blue I would feel genuine anguish, just like Tom Hanks losing Wilson. I have many such totems, an old beat up jacket that belonged to my dad, mama’s recipe box, a letter from a friend who died, a stone from another friend, they all mean something to me. They all connect me in my heart to people I love and love is a divine feeling, it is our reminder there is something greater than us all that binds us all.

Without ritual what gives our life meaning? If we do not pray or love or hug or become emotionally attached to stuffed animals or drink coffee then what is there?

Enjoy it. Eat a corn dog and ride a roller coaster.

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