Establishing Rituals: All the Nuts and Bolts without Going Nutty
“I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night….Also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frederick Handel).” Jack Kerouac as quoted in A Year of Writing Dangerously.
“If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.” Anne Lamott as quoted in Stitches.
In my first post of this series, Maintaining Discipline, I mentioned the role my father played in mentoring me. On Father’s Day, I snapped this picture of him.
He is reclining on the deck platform in front of my camper. Undaunted by torrential rains, he remains determined to help my husband complete the deck staircase by the end of the day.
I note the logo for the Ohio company he ran. He wears his Penn hat, a symbol of the doctorate of education he earned after “retirement.”
He removed his NFL players’ ring and his wedding ring for protection. Although he maintains several friendships with coaches and players in the NFL organization, the relationship of import is the one with my mother. Tenacious in spite of her rebuffs in grade school, he won her heart. They will be married forty-three years this August.
Just as he sets his mind to a goal and remains tenacious, he daily follows his life-long habits. Jack Kerouac may have gotten the idea of kneeling in prayer before writing from a movie about George Frederick Handel. But, throughout my childhood, I witnessed my father kneeling in prayer. So constant was this ritual at home that I know he continued it when he traveled. I am certain he continues this practice.
How do I know? The knee pads. They remind me of how my father’s work life began and how his own father provided for his family.
My grandfather died when my father was twenty-seven and when I was five. Yet, I remember those knotty, farm-worked hands. I still see the stitched scar on my grandfather’s knee from a nail piercing it. My grandfather’s earthly heart may have been weak, but there was nothing feeble about his spiritual one. He taught my father how to bend his knees at seven in the morning and at seven in the evening every day. We didn’t quite live up to that regimen when I was little, but we were taught to have our own personal bent in prayer and devotional readings.
Those knee pads remind me of the humility required for success. While struggling with the warp and knots of the pine boards, my dad says, “It’s because of us.” I know what he means. God made the world perfect, but sin caused the warp and knots of imperfection that daunt us. Even so, Dad shifts each board and fits them together until they mesh.
“How much do you put into a job?” he asks me.
“One hundred percent,” I say. “There’s no such thing as one-hundred-ten percent.”
“Correct,” he says.
Did I mention he used to be a math teacher, too?
What does all of this have to do with rituals? The examples of discipline, habits, and rituals I learned from my dad proved an outcome of success whatever the endeavor.
The Anne Lamott quotation above suggests there are some things that give us the right setting and mood to begin each day. When I read that, I was actually at my camper with my coffee in hand looking at a tree outside my window. But, I could have easily been at home at my grandmother’s secretary with my crab-apple tree in my periphery vision and my blue mug on a coaster nearby. I begin each day with reading a devotional, followed by inspirational quotes, and ending with poetry. Sometimes the three mesh together. I do all of this before I work on my novel and my poetry book. Why? It is my warm-up to the day’s marathon.
So, how to maintain ritual without becoming obsessive? Mix it up. Within the same time frame, holding the same mug of coffee, seeing the same crab-apple tree, I read and write in various ways. It keeps me limber, humble, and diligent even on cloudy days. I mix it up because I know getting into a too-rigid ritual can cause a rut.
I do the same thing with my house cleaning. I let my boys assist. No, they don’t always clean the bathrooms as well as I would. But, they know how to clean a bathroom. They know how to get down on their knees. They see devotional readings at the top of the daily reading schedules, too. They remind me to pray with them before bed.
It might look crazy to those watching from windows as my dad and my husband build a deck in a thunderstorm. They may not see, as I do, the wizened carpenter encouraging the reluctant apprentice. The end result is a solid platform on a firm foundation and a flight of stairs inviting others to enter. That is the crazy I want to live and write.