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?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In Praise Of Unnecessary Errands

The edge of the world
is just across the threshold
the unknown that close

When I was 18 and working as a cook at Old faithful Lodge in Yellowstone Park, I once rode my bike  - a red Montgomery Wards 10-speed - to the town of West Yellowstone for a burger and a milkshake. That was 62 miles round trip, and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain coming back. I was so tired after the climb past Firehole Cascades that I pulled over at a riverside picnic spot and took a nap on a table. But it was a really good burger, and probably one of the most memorably scenic rides of my life.

This last Tuesday I rode 25 miles round trip to buy the new Gillian Welch CD (which I highly recommend, btw). It's not that I needed to ride 25 miles to get it; I could have given my money to the faceless BigAppleiTunesStoreCorporation without leaving my seat. Or I could have done what I normally do and take a short ride in support of my Local Independent Record Store. But I had a gift card from my mom and no pressing business, so I went for a ride. I got some fresh air, saw some good scenery, explored a new trail, supported some artists who I think make the world a better place, and came home with two really fine collections of music (I also picked up Pat Metheny's new CD, What's It All AboutBonus points - name the 60's song he covers that contains the title line, the actor who starred in the original version of the movie, and the actor who starred in the recent remake.)

I don't much like driving, and despise having to run errands by car. But running unnecessary errands by bike, like picking up some great new music, or finding out if the pour-over coffee at Coava really is better than french press (I think it is), or checking out the new food cart pod on the Springwater Trail - those kinds of errands feel more like a blessing, like something that makes my day richer. I am thankful for unnecessary errands that get me out the door and into the world, and that add to my community rather than subtract from it.

Read, Ride, Repeat.