Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Finding the Core: Rituals of Celebration or What I Did On My Vacation

(The Bride and Groom, Rehearsal Dinner, Halloween Night)

I had a wonderful October, as I've mentioned before. There have been visits with new friends, time with family, walks in beautiful places, train rides, romping with dogs, bonding with cats, some great meals, and maybe just a bit of drinking. The weather has frequently been stunningly beautiful, showcasing the later-than-usual Autumn colors in New York, Virginia, Cape Cod, Indiana, and points in between. All this alone would be enough to make me very grateful for the past month, but it hasn't been all. Two events rose to the level of ritual, reconfirming some important things for me.
(A Ritual Waits)
I am still enough of a Quaker to be very wary of rituals, for reasons I won't go into here. I've been trying to write this entry for a week now, having started at least five different times, and one of the things that keeps getting in the way is I try to explain too much, on too many topics. Maybe later I'll write about what the early Quakers thought of ritual, and how that still shapes my view, then I might write another entry about how my Quaker side is often at odds with my Pagan Celt side who -surprise- LOVES ritual, pomp, color, noise, music, dancing, earthiness, theatre, occasions, celebrations, yada yada yada... but this week has proven to me that trying to put all my thoughts into this single, solitary post wasn't going to work. This is especially true since my thoughts on ALL these issues are vague at best. What's say we see if I can express myself adequately on just a couple of thoughts, 'kay?
(I and some classmates watch Amy Poelher rapping as Sarah Palin on SNL. Photo courtesy of Stacy Kagiwada. That's why it's in focus.)
The second week of October I attended my twentieth college reunion. I'd attended -and enjoyed- my tenth and fifteenth reunions, but to be honest I had viewed this one with more trepidation. Much as I joke about having a mid-life crisis, I think in many ways that's exactly what I've been experiencing (ugh, how cliché), and anticipating the reunion brought some of that to a head for me. I feared going back and having nothing to show, hell, nothing to SAY about the last five years of my life. I dreaded the question "what are you up to these days?" Again, I'll spare you all the thoughts that hypothetical question elicited, let's just acknowledge that I had the fears, but did attend, and I'm glad I did.
Like most rituals in our society these days, reunions don't come with a lot of ready-made traditions, but maybe that's just as well. It means we're responsible for choosing what activities seem most appropriate, in short deciding for ourselves and our communities what this ritual is supposed to commemorate. The school had plenty planned for all the classes, then the planning board for class of '88 scheduled several more. Often my favorite part was just running into people and sitting down to talk. The best event though was the big dinner Saturday night. After the meal, each person was given an opportunity to say what he or she had gotten from the experience of Earlham.
Whoo boy, did this process run the risk embarrassment and/or tedium. I think there were well over fifty members of our class in attendance, did we REALLY want everyone to talk about such a broad topic? The fact is though, I never found myself wishing someone would sit down and shut up. (If anyone felt that way about me, at least I was brief.) I suspect the years of 18-22 are formative ones for most people, no matter where they find themselves at that point. Nonetheless there was a sense from most people in the room that we had been given a special gift by our college experience. There were many buzzwords flying about shaped by our particular institution -diversity, peace, consensus, to name a few - but what moved me was how real, specific, and grounded people's comments were with these terms. People talked about the ideals they took away with them, and how those ideals shaped and continue to shape their life choices. This was an articulate group, and one made up of people doing interesting, admirable things, whether that be in the work they do, the relationships they build, the children they raise, the communities they seek out, or all of the above. There was plenty of reminiscing, as one would expect at a reunion, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many people talked about feeling not just nostalgic, but rejuvenated by the weekend. Many of us felt a sense of tapping back into some fundamental values, of returning to a well-spring, taking a good long drink, and returning to our present lives recommitted to living our ideals. Perhaps because of our years, I also think there was a greater awareness of how hard that can be, how little progress we may see, how small or ineffectual our efforts may seem... yet they're still worth doing. They still matter.
I have written here before about how I have no patience with cynicism. Despair I get. Pessimism even makes sense to me, though I try not to succumb to it. Cynicism though, that's really just despair or pessimism turned into an excuse to give up, masked by a pose of superiority. One stops pursuing one's ideals, and tries to turn it into evidence that one is smarter than everyone else. Coming from a place as idealistically driven as Earlham College, I've seen a lot of what I call 'naíve idealists' come out into the world, only to become deeply cynical. These folks have very poor understandings of the obstacles they're up against, simplistic views of both problems and solutions... and often inflated beliefs that they will single-handedly change the world. Some of my classmates spoke wryly and eloquently about having been such people right after graduation, before they came to recognize that while things weren't going to be as easy as they originally thought, the ideals were still sound and worth committing to. Many of them also mentioned having a greater appreciation for the idealistic efforts of their professors, now that they understood the effort involved.
I'm talking in such generalities, and my point is, this weekend was filled with many people talking about specifics in a way I found inspiring. I was reminded that it's worthy to seek work that is both socially responsible and personally satisfying, and while money is a fine thing, it's not a replacement for either quality. I was reminded of how strong bonds can be, despite long years of separation or geographical distance. I was reminded of what a luxury it is to be able to share intellectual, emotional, political, artistic and spiritual concerns with a single person, or even an entire ROOM full of people. I don't mean we all agreed on every issue, but we all agreed that each topic is valuable, and entwined with all the others. I am lucky; I do still have this in my daily life, with a handful of people. I even have it with my family members. But it was still refreshing to share it with that many people that night.
So that was the reunion. I'm still not really communicating my thoughts very well, but let's move on.
This past weekend I attended the wedding of my friends Jeff and Megan, in their home state of Virginia. While I have all sorts of questions and reservations about the institution of marriage, long time readers of this here blog know I was VERY excited about and supportive of this particular wedding. I've been friends with Jeff for just over seven years, Megan for slightly less time, so at this wedding I was very much one of the new kids. Most of the guests were family members or high school friends; I suspect most people in the room had known one or both of these crazy, fabulous kids for at least fifteen years. What was fun about that for me was realizing that the qualities I had fallen in love with in the two of them were the same things that had drawn their older friends. Maybe I wasn't around for enough of the reminiscences to hear anything surprising (I know Megan's father heard some fifteen year old stories that caused him to tell her at the rehearsal dinner that she was grounded), but what I heard about each of them squared nicely with the person I know. I feel my sense of each person's core was confirmed by his or her friends. Naturally this also meant I connected with some new people too; if you value the same qualities in a person, you're likely to find things to value in each other.
But while there was obviously a certain amount of looking back this weekend, the real purpose was to forge and celebrate a new bond. That's what I was there for, in any case, and Jeff's blog entry tells me he felt similarly. Marriage is such a weird phenomenon in that it is a public celebration of what is, in many ways, a very private bond. Or maybe what is so tricky about it as an institution, especially these days, is the fact that each couple establishes for itself what the bond is to be, how it affects their lives, how it shapes their choices, how it manifests in their community. This is the first wedding I've attended since my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. I also attended it with the sense that Proposition 8 in California was going to pass (I knew the other state bills would). Obviously this meant I had a lot of thoughts on the issue, and once again, I'm not articulating them very well. The bottom line is, though, I went to this celebration with no reservations whatsoever. I knew that Jeff and Megan had asked themselves and each other why this was a good step, and I knew that any unconscious, knee-jerk, societally conditioned response had been carefully examined, answered or discarded as their consciences dictated. I was excited about the occasion, honored at being asked to participate, and happy to be part of a new community forged by it. I may never see most of those people again, and I'm sure I'll never again be with all of them at once, but that doesn't change the fact that in coming together to witness this bond, we helped create something new, something that will change two people, and with any luck, each of us as well.
Hm. As I read back through this, I realize part of the reason I've had such trouble writing this entry is because I'm tackling some big, grand concepts, and feeling like everything I say is rather hackneyed or saccharine. Committing to social justice, meaningful work, community, family, nature, all this boils down to that most over-used, degraded of words, Love. I want to use that word, knowing that doing so fails to communicate the very specific, quirky, muscular vigor of it as I experienced it this past month. The moments I experienced this feeling were often small. I saw a dear friend holding the child she has dreamed of for over twenty years. I listened to another friend talk about challenging a colleague's homophobia, and how that led to a deep friendship and shared commitment to civil rights. I took lousy photograph after lousy photograph of good people. I listened to classmate (now an accomplished poet and college professor) remember hearing one of his professors read A Child's Christmas in Wales, and how this led to an epiphany regarding the power of words. I bonded with strangers using timeless traditions like dancing, eating, and drinking. I held hands with classmates and reveled in the resonant power of shared silence.
Love, at its most primal, feels both ubiquitous and brand new. There was a lot of that for me, this month.
Okay, still not quite getting it, but more than any other entry I can remember, I've felt like this one HAD to be written in some fashion, before I could move on. It's odd for me to feel blocked concerning the blog. Generally I have felt quite free to babble to my heart's content, and trust that anyone uninterested could click on something better. Maybe this is the first olive out of the jar, as I speculated at top. For now though, I'll leave it here.
(Photo courtesy of Dan Heflin. Yup, this one is in focus too. Shut up.)


Jeff Wills said...

I wish you still more of that very specific, quirky, muscularly vigorous love, Patrick. In both the idealistic and dirty senses. Thank you for being there, and being affected by it. We love you, very much.

Greg said...

How happy it made me to come home from work to discover that you had gotten your blog bottle uncorked and came up with another beautiful and thoughtful post. I like the way you worked through your thoughts here.

Was it a surprise that it should all come down to that one much-discussed, oft-maligned central concept? Maybe not. They say all you need is love.

(Oh, nice pictures, too - what a handsome couple! No landscapes or train pics, tho? So sad...)

Java said...

You may not be quite satisfied with how you expressed yourself in this post. However, you raised some grand ideals that encourage deep thought. So what you say and how you said it may be secondary to what we read and how we respond to it.

Birdie said...

The power of your thoughts is evident, even as you struggle to put them to words. Your distillation puts it beautifully and poignantly: it comes down to love. You have recognized what many people realize only as they face the final curtain.

I think it's time for another trip to the Cape, this time to get some private tutoring on photography. Take your camera; we want pictures.

Butch said...

I think you captured your thoughts and revealing them in your entry quite well. Never once, does it bog down.

Being an atheist, I still enjoy the ritual of the catholic mass and pagan rituals. Rituals keep us from forgeting and the more elementals involved, the better, in my opinion.

(I couldn't have a bonfire due to rain this year's Samhain but I did throw some bones into the woodstove fire with my new year's wishes.) Bonfire comes from Bone-fire from the Irish, of course. I saved the ashes and will spread them around our yard come Spring.

Eric said...

You are a beautiful person.

Ben said...

You worry too much about being ineloquent, I think. It's a great post & sounds like some great, even watershed, moments in month #10. Let's get caught up soon!