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.

Independent Feelings, Flexible Memory

Emotions are their own entity. I don’t believe that anyone can control them. Sure, if we’re “functioning members of society,” we’ve learned to control our reactions to emotions, but as for emotions themselves, one can only accept them, deny them, or distract from them. The latter of which can either further oppress the feelings or ironically provide enough space to accept them. I don’t mind riding out grief or anger; I don’t even mind the occasional moments of jealousy. However, there are two emotions that I will do practically anything to spit out as quickly as possible: guilt and the need to forgive.

Guilt can be a good tool…sometimes. It can help us make decisions: “Why do I feel guilty about not completing (fill in the blank)? Well then, maybe I should move forward with (fill in the blank).” However, most of the time, guilt is merely the favored tool of manipulators. It works as a quick poison, filling the body with a sick warmth. Often, guilt is used to persuade people (usually women) to forgive those who have harmed them. “But you’ve forgiven him right? If you haven’t, then you’re only hurting yourself.” That’s one way to add salt to a person’s wound. Anyway, what does forgiveness even mean, exactly? I’ve heard many definitions, none of them satisfying enough to mention. Guilting someone into “forgiving”  accomplishes nothing healthy. Usually, it just aggravates the person’s bad feelings, by requiring suppression, and perpetuates more guilt by contrasting their actual feelings with the cultural demand that we be “nice girls.” Guilt is only healthy if used as a quick and dirty tool. Use it to snake the drain and then forget about it immediately! 

Growing up, I often felt guilty about possessing objects. I worried that I had too many. My mother was a hoarder, and the physical disaster that surrounded me ignited a resistant response: I cleaned to the point of obsession. I recently found an old copy of Slab, which published my creative nonfiction piece “Order,” back in 2008. I had forgotten how much pain I had experienced in my 20s, regarding my physical surroundings and drive for perfection. As I read the essay, it felt strange to be reminded of old emotions. I felt as though I were reading about a close friend, rather than myself fifteen years ago. Over time, I have eased up on myself by entertaining the idea that my belongings did not need be in perfect order or in small quantity.

I still have a thing for cleaning and organizing, though. Over winter break, I binge-watched the Netflix show called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. It’s a series that follows Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and arguably the most delightful human on planet Earth) as she helps folks reduce clutter and organize. What is unique about Marie Kondo’s method is that, instead of feeling guilty about the clutter and focusing on eliminating it, one focuses on keeping only the objects that “spark joy” (or have a practical function). 

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I like this attitude toward belongings. Marie Kondo says that you should thank items before you give them away or throw them out. I like that method, too; although, I admit I still sometimes enjoy rage-cleaning, the kind of de-cluttering method that involves interrogation: “What are you still doing in my closet? You remind me an unpleasant time, don’t you?” Slams item into garbage bin. After all, I think if we are to believe that items have life in them, then we must admit that some objects are ornery. Yet at other times, it’s not the item’s fault. For instance, when a perfectly good song reminds you of a failed romance, sometimes, you just have to say goodbye. 

Deep de-cluttering tends to wipe me out, and I believe it’s because memories easily weigh me down. I’m never quite sure what to think of memory, either. There’s the imprint of the moment, lodged in my brain. Then, there’s the frame of mind I was in at the time of the past moment, and my memory of that frame of mind, in my present mind. Just to complicate matters, there’s my current frame of mind, remembering the moment and the frame of mind I occupied during the past moment. Adding to these complexities is the fact that people often misremember or conflate moments and even people. I remember (or do I?) hearing a detective on television describe the memory of a crime as a penny, sinking into a body of water. She said that she wants to speak to  witnesses before anyone can “create waves,” which influence what ideas attach to the memory, causing it to morph into inaccuracy. 

penny

My wife enjoys the podcast called, Mortified, which features adults reading their teenage journals aloud to an audience. It’s funny to hear silly and shallow narratives coming out of the mouths of cognizant 30-somethings. I listened to a couple episodes and decided to dig up my old journals. (I’ve been keeping them since I was 13.) I was surprised to read, among the obligatory teenage dreaminess and misunderstandings, that I actually had some pretty legitimate and well-thought out concerns about life and family.  

On the other hand, I was leafing through an old photo album recently and saw myself at 21, standing next to a stupid boy that I was completely batty about and whom I had endowed with an unreasonable level of faith (and faithfulness). I felt the urge to swat at the photo, move my old, young self away from that bozo. 

I think the lesson of memory’s vagaries is not to worry about the past. Even pleasant memories seem to tug a bit at my energy levels. Almost always, I prefer my current self to my past self anyway, which I suppose is fortunate. Often, I’m either not sure what I remember, or I’m not sure that, if I went back in time and witnessed it all over again, I’d remember it in the same context, and if the context is different than the original memory, doesn’t that mean that the memory is different and, ultimately, the  moment itself? 

For today’s poem, I have included James Tate’s “Long-Term Memory,” which I remember him reading, years ago, when he visited Southern Miss!

(Here is a link to him reading the poem at the Key West Literary Seminar.)

And after the poem, one of my favorite Alabama Shakes song, “I Ain’t the Same”!

Long-Term Memory

I was sitting in the park feeding pigeons
when a man came over to me and scrutinized my
face right up close. “There’s a statue of you
over there,” he said. “You should be dead. What
did you do to deserve a statue?” “I’ve never seen
a statue of me,” I said. “There can’t be a statue 
of me. I’ve never done anything to deserve a
statue. And I’m definitely not dead.” “Well,
go look for yourself. It’s you alright, there’s 
no mistaking that,” he said. I got up and walked
over where it was. It was me alright. I looked
like I was gazing off into the distance, or the
future, like those statues of pioneers. It didn’t 
have my name on it or anything, but it was me.
A lady came up to me and said, “You’re looking at
your own statue. Isn’t that against the law, or 
something?” “It should be,” I said, “but this is
my first offense. Maybe they’ll let me off light.”
“It’s against nature, too,” she said, “and bad
manners, I think.” “I couldn’t agree with you
more,” I said. “I’m walking away right now, sorry.”
I went back to my bench. The man was sitting there.
“Maybe you’re a war hero. Maybe you died in the
war,” he said. “Never been a soldier,” I said.
“Maybe you founded this town three hundred years
ago,” he said. “Well, if I did, I don’t remember
it now,” I said. “That’s a long time ago,” he
said, “you coulda forgot.” I went back to feeding
the pigeons. Oh, yes, founding the town. It was 
coming back to me now. It was on a Wednesday.
A light rain, my horse slowed…

from James Tate’s return to the city of white donkeys
Harper Collins Publisher, 2004