Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Do it twice and it becomes tradition

I don't enjoy ritual as much as the average person (or the average person who registers in my everyday awareness ... I can't speak for distant cultures, etc.). This is not to say that I don't engage in ritualistic (repetitive, structured) behaviors, but that I don't file them under the warm & fuzzy rubric of "ritual" so much as "habit." "Habit" feels more neutral to me, whereas "ritual" seems quasi religious or spiritual even in its negative contexts (e.g. ritualistic killings). ("Spiritual" is another word that gets my goat.)

There are things I enjoy on a habitual level, but as soon as people get excited about them as rituals (or should I say qua rituals) I tend to lose interest. As a dumb example, I used to like to watch Mickey's Christmas Carol, the only version I really care for, every year around Christmas. For a few years in a row, I didn't get around to it until Christmas Eve and the rest of my family, also fans, watched it with me. Then it somehow became a ritual, without anyone, you know, asking me. Suddenly it was like, "Oh boy, it's Christmas Eve! We have to watch Mickey's Christmas Carol! It's a tradition!" And poof, appeal gone. It started to feel obligatory and extrinsically imposed, i.e., "not organic."

In fact, pretty much everything I wrote above applies to "tradition" as well. Tradition is even warmer and fuzzier for the average American than ritual I'd guess. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and weddings are especially ripe for ritualized traditionalism. And most of it (sorry) bores me. I think it has something to do with the fact that since I hit 25 or so, the years stream by at a fairly blurry clip, such that even events that only occur once per year do not feel special anymore. When I was a little kid, it always felt like Christmas would never, ever come. Now, my last five Christmases feel basically the same. All the rituals and traditions don't help me distinguish shit temporally. I'd prefer to be able to say, "Oh yeah, that was the year we flocked the tree and roasted a goose instead of a turkey." Or whatever. In general, things that happened last year seem about as far back in my past as things that happened three or four years ago. Do you eventually reach a point where you can't remember which decade something occurred in? God. Anyway, boredom is a ruling emotion, if you can call it that, in my life; boredom avoidance is one my chief decision-making heuristics, etc.

Or take weddings. If I were ever going to get married, which at this juncture holds little to no draw for me, I wouldn't give any kind of shit about the age-old wedding traditions like "something borrowed, something blue blah blah." Just ... who cares? But weddings are so prepackaged I wouldn't even know how to escape all the "rituals" (read: cliches). I'd rather elope. (Or just not get married.)

I think for a ritual/tradition to feel exciting or special at this point, it would have to only happen every seven or twenty years or something, Halley's comet-type stuff.

"Is it just me?"


I really like this little "notice" on Jessica Smith's blog:
I’ve decided to write single poems for single readers such that writing is publication and the reader I appeal to is the one precise reader who receives the poem. This is partly practical: I don’t have the time or money to write many poems or make multiple copies. It’s partly on curmudgeonly principle: there are too many poems in the world, floundering around looking for the right reader, trying to appeal to large audiences in hopes of catching that single sensitive soul (a tuna net for a dolphin). And it’s partly that I am satisfied writing one poem for one person. A poem is always a valentine, it is always about love [...] A poem has to be an open letter because the writer and reader will die, are mortal, must appeal to others to remember their love.
I remember once Jessica referred to herself as "beautiful" on her blog, rather off-handedly, maybe as part of a list of reasons why people react poorly to her? It kind of blew my mind. Not in a "How dare she!" kind of way. It was so matter-of-fact it didn't even come off as vain. I was just impressed that she would have the balls to use that word in self-reference, instead of a more qualified qualifier like "attractive." She is, anyway, self-evidently beautiful.


  1. I like traditions...they're comforting. I guess I don't have high expectations for them, so they don't disappoint me. I find holidays basically pleasant, no more no less. It's nice to have at least something to touch base with at various points throughout the year since I'm aimless enough as it is. It feels good to go with the flow and join in with what the majority is doing. It helps with the loneliness thing.

    I watched that Mickey's Christmas Carol too, every year until maybe puberty. That along with Rudolph, Frosty, (was there a Peanuts one?...), maybe one or two others I'm forgetting, all on the same worn-out VHS tape...

  2. I have complicated feelings about traditions. Certainly though I relate to your feelings of disinterest, or dissatisfaction with the traditional er, traditions I grew up with--especially ones related to marriage and family.

    I enjoy creating my own habits and rituals--but it is a trick to keep them from becoming obligations. Sometimes not observing ritual can feel like an obligation, too. I think of habit as structural--the physical patterns we develop influence our mental and emotional ones (duh and vice versa). I like a few habitual touch points in my life to riff off of as I attempt to avoid boredom, loneliness, isolation, despair, and outright hostility.

    My sense of time has always been off, but it's become especially off since I moved to California. I still feel like I lived in DC last year. But no, that was three years ago. Merde.

  3. Matt: I understand why you or anyone would enjoy traditions, while at the same time not sharing in the enjoyment. Does that make sense? If anything I'm surprised I don't enjoy them more. Also, I have a bunch of old VHS tapes I don't know what to do with ... I never watch them but can't bear to throw them away.

    Lorraine: I too fall into daily routines and among other purposes routines and habits just make life easier since you're not having to make constant decisions about what to do next. But I get pleasure out of breaking those routines or having them broken for me (like if we run out of coffee, or whatever), so I have to figure out a new way to deal with the next ten minutes ... it's the buzz of very mild adversity.

  4. I watch The Muppet Family Christmas every year, sort of. Maybe we should go to Bermuda next Christmas? It'd be difficult to forget that, well, depending on how many dark 'n stormies we consume. I hear it's easy to fly there from Boston...

  5. A dark 'n' stormy xmas sounds kind of great ... but my mom will probably gasp when she reads that mere suggestion ...