'Tis the season of winter holidays, and much as I enjoy them, they weigh
on my mind. I do like the
festivities, the change in schedule, the chance to see people I don't usually get to see. I've learned pretty
well how to protect myself from the noise and general chaos of the season. And I appreciate the contrast
of December's busyness with January's quiet.
So-o-o-o. What's My Problem? My problem is that a
big part of my mind is not altogether rational
-- I call it my Stone Age mind -- and I want my holiday rituals to mean more than they do. For example,
on New Year's Eve, it's not really enough to throw confetti and smooch at midnight. Nope, I also need to
go off to a special spot and make a special promise to myself, one that I know I will keep. Lesser
promises belong to lesser venues.
The rituals that concern me and that I can't seem to locate are the
really powerful ones that comfort
me when I'm in over my head or that talk to me compellingly about the real points of things. We all
know the questions: How do we say the final goodbye to loved ones? To ourselves? To parts of
ourselves? How do we find the courage to carry on when we're sunk in despair? How do we give thanks
for the things that sustain us and bring us joy? And where do babies really come from? I'm not so sure
we actually can come to terms with these questions; but there is something very satisfying about having
rituals to house them in, that we share with each other.
I've noticed that I have Stone Age impulses that come from nowhere and
whomp me on the head. On
hearing devastating news (say, the Gulf War has started), I've discovered that I have no choice but to pray
-- that's the only word I can think of to describe it. Whatever moves me, it's a whole lot bigger than I am.
And I've had the sensation in moments of great frustration, of being -- almost physically -- cradled and
soothed by a loving, maternal force that feels distinctly like the perfect Jewish grandmother. Now, I've
never had a Jewish grandmother, perfect or otherwise. So where does this come from?
Something we moderns have lost along with our traditional, organized
religions are the rituals that
made something comprehensible from things that were basically incomprehensible, and gave us a line to
an awesome power on the other side -- of something. We even had deities to keep us company, tell us
who we were, and remind us how to behave. I'm not saying that this is the perfect road to Truth for
everybody, but it has to be very satisfying to a Stone Age mind.
I grew up in a house where every holiday season was the same -- same
people, same food, same
rituals -- and I took great pleasure in the predictability and sequence of events. Holidays were out of the
ordinary, theatrical -- yet the religious and quasi-relilgious rituals carried on year after year, allowing
space inside for some kind of magic to arise. And what is magic other than a way to that other side?
Even when I got older and holidays became treasured occasions to sleep late, I still appreciated having
times set aside to not be ordinary. Even if they'd lost their unearthly properties, they had been carved out
of the calendar and couldn't be completely usurped. Parts of ourselves need to be protected from other
parts of oursellves.
I figure there are two ways out of this dilemma. One is to be
deeply ensconced within a particular
religious tradition; but what if the traditions we already know don't fit, and we can't speak the languages
of the others? The other way is to form, as is possible with many other things, one's own little pocket of
resistance. I know someone who, every birthday, religiously, goes off by himself into the hills to think
specifically about where he's been and where he wants to go. I think he has the right idea. He has set
aside an auspicious day to connect to something really important. I suspect this takes some discipline,
since there is nothing and nobody else to carry him along. For me, I tend to put off important thinking until
I am forced into it -- and I want company.
So-o-o-o -- as grateful as I am to live in the era I do,
with its relative freedom from oppression and
want, I think in some ways I was born after my time. And where does that leave me?