Rituals for Meaning: Community Bliss or Groupthink Tyranny?

My wife and I are fairly nerdy. Often we spend our days off reading together and reading to each other. She recently read to me an article called, “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both,” by Nellie Bowles, which discusses how working from home through Zoom (among other contemporary culture shifts) has supposedly created a need for group rituals in the workplace. In the article, Ezra Bookman (founder of Ritualist) poses the question “‘How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?’” Ritualist’s Instagram account suggests “‘A ritual for purchasing your domain name’” and “’A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.’” 

Later in the article, Bowles claims that she is “hungry for ritual….If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.”

Four people fist-bumping above a work station/desk.

Now, because Postmodernism and contemporary society have conspired to kill satire, and because I sometimes cannot differentiate between my wife’s sarcasm and her charming southern accent, I finally interrupted and asked: “Is this a joke?” “No,” she replied, “it’s from The New York Times.”

I won’t get into the fact that, for Gen Xers, a “good” job meant that you could afford some of what you wanted and weren’t coming home in tears every night. I won’t get into it because I’m not completely sure it’s wrong to expect more out of life and work, and I’d be hypocritical to suggest otherwise since I gave up a corporate job (that often had me in tears at night) to earn a Ph.D. in poetry and live happily lower-middle class ever after. 

I do require meaning in my work for happiness, and I’m glad that I picked writing and teaching. However, the idea of sniffing cloves together with my colleagues gives me the creeps. I feel certain that they, too, would share in my discomfort. It also seems forced, and in fact, Bowles even mentions that “many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5,” not to mention the problem with asking “workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.” I’ll skip over my cringe at the term “soul-based” (whatever the hell that means) and just reiterate that in this sense, I am old fashioned: I believe work is work and spirituality is private.

Still, there is a place for shared rituals. In March, just as my university shut down, due to COVID-19, my mother passed away. I had not spoken to her since I had moved to Alabama in 2008. It’s a decision that I still don’t regret because I made it out of the desire to thrive and not out of anger. My mother experienced many problems in life that prevented her from living well and maintaining healthy relationships. 

When I first found out she died, I didn’t know what to do with her ashes. I had no experience planning death ceremonies, and the additional obstacle of pandemic travel restriction meant that her ashes sat on my shoe shelf for four months. We ended up taking the ashes to some woods that belong to friends of ours,  who also run Wild Ground, a “creative project dedicated to the cultivation of sacred spaces, joyful connections, intentional living, and earth healing.” 

I wrote a eulogy and picked a poem for my wife to read, and together we made a space for the ceremony we created. I don’t want to discuss details of the ritual, which brings me back to my leanings toward privacy around such matters, but I will say that my friends were very good at listening to how I wanted to honor my mother and finding ways to make meaning through ritual.

In some ways, rituals can express creativity and healing. Perhaps the best shared rituals are, ironically, spontaneous. Although I had put thought into the scattering of my mother’s ashes, and had written, prepared, and packed important items that I wanted to include, we mostly created the ritual on the spot. It was not prescribed by an institution. No one needed permission to invent or to improvise. The ritual was uninhibited.

Trees in forest with

Alternatively, though, rituals can sometimes morph into formal, rigid expectations. I’ve often thought that my mother would have been happier if she had been born later. Contemporary times could have provided her an easier path to live the life I think she would have preferred. I picture her skipping marriage and children. I think she would have enjoyed boyfriends or lovers or maybe even a partner she didn’t have to live with. Maybe she’d have chosen a career that would have never crossed her mind as possible, as a woman in the 1970s. Maybe she would have been a writer.

I chose not to have children and didn’t even marry until my forties. These decisions provided me with the time and energy to live the life I had dreamed up since childhood. I was not the little girl who played with dolls. Oh, I had some, but even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my “play” was to leave the “kids” at home with “Dad,” so I could go to work. That was my fun. Sure, as a young adult, I still experienced aggression from people who condemned me for not marrying and having children, but at least I didn’t need a man to co-sign my apartment lease.

Black and white photo of young woman in 1970s, on phone at work desk.

I’ve never been one to romanticize the past, nor do I begrudge my mother for the possibility that another life would have made her happier. Unfortunately, the tyranny of cultural demands lead her to the rituals of “traditional” family. Society convinced her that marrying young and staying home with kids equaled fulfillment, even though she  clearly found no pleasure in either. 

I suppose what bothers me about Bowles’ article is the thought of a person’s workplace (already greedily absorbing employees’ personal lives through their smart phones) would seek to maneuver itself even deeper by invading the spiritual realm. 

Life’s situations always provide two sides: the simple and the complicated. If attentive, one can always locate both. Bigotry is simple: it’s cruel; don’t do it. Bigotry is complicated: it comprises the very root of our culture in ways so normalized that many can’t even see it, even sometimes those who directly experience it. But while working to dismantle the sicknesses of our world, one might consider the simple ritual of paying attention to day-to-day life. One need not work at creating meaning for such simplicities. There is no need to analyze, daily, what activities count as “soul-based” as though our consciousness checks out every time we forget to mindfully eat our cereal. It’s usually enough to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about the actions we’re performing. I feel that if my mother had had enough support to do the latter, she might have thrown caution to the wind, remained in her single-woman Hollywood flat, and discovered her own path to fulfillment.

Photo of my mother in the 70s,
Janice Weiland 1950-2020

I leave you today with the poem I chose for my mother’s ash-scattering ceremony.

The Laughing Heart
By Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness.
be on the watch. 
the gods will offer you
chances.
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
sometimes.
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will 
be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have
it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in 
you.

The Details of Quarantine

There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.

Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.

Red-orange flower opening

As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings. 

Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings. 

Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches? 

city intersection at night in fast-motion

I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.

huge Earth marble between two tall buildings, with people looking up at it
Sebastian Errazuriz’s rendering of blu Marble, which is to be showcased at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13, 2019.

Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.

I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.

Tuesday, June 4, 1991 

By Billy Collins

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too,
alert at their miniature machines taking down every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.

This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room with
its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

 

Featured Photo

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “blu Marble”