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.

Belong

Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.

In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other  commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lt. Uruha.

I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together? 

It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.

Flat Earth

I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly flails in the face of chronic alienation. Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is the worst one.

Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”

old ad

Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.  

Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.

In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/cult-classics-irina-shayk-joan-smalls#8

Samhain and The Art of Being Weird

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday for two reasons: costumes and the fact that it in no way involves my family. Back when I used to go home for the holidays, I lamented November 1st as I packed away my wigs or wings and ate the last of the pumpkin seeds. Soon, I knew, would come the descent into family conflict and inevitable loneliness. However, I felt much better once I simply stopped going “home” for the holidays. I began enjoying Friendsgivings, Christmas potlucks, even holidays I spent alone. One of my favorite Christmas days was during the first year of my Ph.D. program in Mississippi. I spent the day merrily hanging pictures in my new apartment, eating stuffing out of a mug (sorry, Southern Californians call it “stuffing”), and watching movies on my comfy futon. I didn’t even mind the gloomy winter weather.

During the last few years, I’ve paid more attention to seasonal changes and my physical environment. I moved to Birmingham, AL in 2014, and although I now live in the middle of the city, I find myself surrounded by more wildlife than I ever experienced in the rural town of Northport, AL. I have enjoyed the turn of each season and walking around my yard to see what has bloomed, or in the winter, what has hidden itself away till spring.

After studying the seasons and the nature around me, for a couple years, I recently felt inspired to read about Pagan holidays, which very much revolve around seasons and, more to the point, farming. In addition to farming rituals, such as canning what one will need for winter, celebrating Samhain involves honoring one’s ancestors on October 31st. It is believed that the “veil between worlds” is thinner on that day, and therefore, it is easier to hear messages from the beyond. This holiday is rather internal: remembering the past and preparing for the scarcity of winter.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it was like to live off the land. Most of us don’t need to can food (nor would most of us even know how) because we can drive to a grocery store that supplies nearly all types of food year-round. As for ancestors, I originally liked the idea of observing a day that honors them. However, as the 31st grew near, I felt a stressful gloom. I decided, finally, that I have enough trouble with my corporeal family. I honestly don’t even want to know what my ancestors think of me.

So, Samhain came and went. I dressed as Mother Nature for Halloween and my wife as a woodland creature. We went with some of our neighbors to take their kids trick or treating. I love the street we live on. It feels like the good kind of familial, a healthy family that knows one another but gives them space to be who they are and grow, as they will.

I think part of the problem with ancestors is that they’re not here, moving forward with us in the same way. As in winter, they’re living the part of the cycle that’s invisible to us. Perhaps their spirits are still here, but we can’t hear them anymore than we can see the green grass, hibernating until warmer weather. For instance, my grandmother and I were very close. She died when I was in my late twenties, several years before I started dating women. In my mind, our relationship remains where it physically ended. I never disappointed her by marrying a woman, and I know that, at least when she was alive in the flesh, she would have been disappointed. There is so much about my grandmother that I love. She taught me how to crochet. We read poetry together. Most importantly, she knew how to make me laugh, especially when I was overwhelmed with the grief of home life.

Who knows? Maybe she would have evolved with the times. Maybe not. It makes me feel a little weird sometimes, having two relationships with the same person—one in my memory and one that I currently cannot prove I’m having. The latter I experience when I feel my grandmother’s presence or the delight I used to know when I visited her Hollywood apartment or when a hummingbird flies so close to me that I can see the glint of its feathers.

However, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t feel weird, especially when it comes to family. The School of Life recently released a good video that explains one reason that everybody feels weird and disconnected from others. (To watch, click here.) They hypothesize that, because no one ever fully reveals themselves, people think they are the only ones who feel or think “weird things.”

That most people feel weirder than others is perhaps the weirdest part of weirdness, especially when family, friends, and society do everything they can to trim us down to what can be considered “normal” (by weirdos). And, back to Paganism, as much as nature helps ease my own feelings of disconnect, I see no evidence that societies of old did much better in connecting, loving, and honoring one another. Maybe that’s why it is easier to honor the dead: they are no longer around to disagree or to disrupt the image you’ve assigned them, be it benevolent or otherwise.

I don’t really know if there’s an art to being weird, but there certainly is art about weirdness. Today, I will leave you with two poems. The first is Lucille Clifton’s “i was born with twelve fingers.” The second is a poem that probably everyone can relate to: Philip Larkins’ “This Be the Verse.”

Blessed be, y’all!

Click here to listen to “i was born with twelve fingers”

Click here to listen to “This Be the Verse”