Saturday, July 9, 2011

In Praise of Ritual

If you are oppressed, wake up about
Four in the morning; most places
You can usually be free some of the time
    If you wake up before other people.

William Stafford, from "Freedom"

When I say to my wife "variety is overrated" and she rolls her eyes at me as she searches her library of cookbooks for a new recipe, that's a telling snapshot of one of the differences in our personalities and one of the great ways we balance each other. I like routine, and while I admire spontaneity, it doesn't come easy to me. I'm also aware that one man's ritual is another's OCD.

I'm a morning person, by necessity and temperament; bike commuting forty-five minutes to school and showering in time to be in my classroom by 8 A.M. means my days start early. I suppose I could sleep until the last moment, throw on some clothes, grab a pop-tart and roll out (for that matter I could do what nearly everyone else does, stay up late watching crap on TV, buy a second car, and drive to work every day). I prefer my ritual.

For nine months of the year, Monday thru Friday, I wake at 5:20, eat a breakfast of organic steel-cut oats, toast, tea, and grapefruit juice. I take my time with this part - it's a ritual, after all - since it's the only time of the day that I'm present and awake and the house is quiet, so I read as I eat. I find this short time is a good time to read short things. For instance, while the bible is a big book, it's easy to read 3-4 chapters a day over breakfast, and get through it in a year. I've done that a couple times and probably will again, but I'll need a new translation to keep it fresh. Recently I've been starting each day with poetry. Several years a go I picked up a copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry from a free pile left behind by a retiring art teacher colleague. As a recovering English Major, I'm plenty familiar with all things Norton, but I also realized that with the exception of smatterings of Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, and a couple others, modern poetry was an unfilled gap in my education, so I started reading. Three years, 1500 pages, and countless footnotes later, the gap is filled. I enjoy poetry, and looked forward to this ritual; one could do a lot worse than starting each day with oats, good poetry, and a ten-mile bike ride. I'd often think about a poem or run a couple lines in my head like a mantra as I turned the pedals. Usually I didn't, but still found the poems often set the tone for the day. Some poets were hard plowing - like reading Leviticus/Numbers/Deuteronomy in the bible. I know Ezra Pound is a giant of The Canon, but when the explanatory footnotes take up more page space than the text, you know you're in deep waters and you start looking for shore (ie, who's next?) Others, like Hopkins or Snyder, were pure delight, and their poems were the ones that stayed with me all day.

Finishing the anthology probably puts me in some obscure and exclusive group that numbers less than a dozen fools who read The Whole Thing including introduction, author profiles, and all the footnotes. I tell my own students life is too short to read bad books. This was not a bad book, and a ritual I'm glad I did. Next hole to fill: War and Peace?

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