Monday, May 24, 2010


Two points that I wish to make about ceremony:

Do not pooh-pooh the importance of ceremony. On Saturday, I participated in commencement exercises, a.k.a. graduation, a.k.a. the walk. I have to say, participating in such a ritual makes me appreciate it all the more. There are too few occasions (I think) in our modern American lives where we engage directly and overtly in symbols. The contemporary criticism made of ritual being so much hocus pocus - so what? Does it truly make us more clear eyed and less mystified not to engage in ritual? Or based on what I observe in college students, it seems to me that they know even less about symbols, even when they are being enacted (even preyed) upon by symbolism. Looking to classic ethnographies, I suggest that the Trobrianders and the Nuer, with all their rituals and symbols, seem to have been more aware of and articulate about their realities.

Grown-ups need to start acting and dressing like grown-ups. There am I, in my archaic robes. It would not do simply to "dress up": All aspects of the ceremony, including the robes, call attention to the rituals and symbols. That is the point of commencement exercises. So, what is with the parents and siblings and other relatives or friends of graduates attending the ceremony in baggy jeans or shorts (even cut-offs) and XXXL t-shirts with questionable language printed on them - and blowing those annoying air horns? Why not bring in the Number One foam fingers, too? Certainly graduation is an occasion for celebration, but is the Super Bowl the only model that we have for a larger, community-based observation? Apparently, it is.

I also wish to add that the families of color - the phenotypically black, Latino, or Asian-looking families - looked notably good: Fathers in suits and ties with polished shoes, brothers showered and shaved and wearing pressed shirts and slacks, mothers and sisters in flowered dresses and high heels. To be fair, most of the families, white and otherwise, seemed to be dressed for the occasion, but it was striking to me which families were not. Half-joking, I said to StraightMan: "See, this is why your race is on its way down and out in America." To which StraightMan responded that in fact, being able to appear in such a slovenly manner at commencement exercises is a sign that white privilege is as strong as ever.

StraightMan also wonders whether or not the lack of ceremony and knowing how to act and dress for formal occasions might not be linked to church-going or not-going. Church was, and is, one of the domains of everyday life in which Americans engaged in rituals and symbols and ceremony. The Super Bowl, it seems, cannot fill the void on its own.

On a not entirely related, but also not entirely unrelated point:

The last time that I visited my parents, I came home with a box of books saved from my childhood, including Johanna Spyri's Heidi, which I remember finding just fascinating. Like other books that I loved from my childhood - the Little House books, Little Women, and so on - I always became quite interested in the houses and the preparation of food. In Heidi, I especially found fascinating the descriptions of goat's milk and golden toasted cheese, bread, and sausage.

This time around, reading aloud to Beanie in the evenings, I became struck with how much God there is in the story. I am teaching Beanie that many, even most, other people in the world believe in God, and that this is an important belief for them that she does not need to share, but that she wants to understand and respect, in part because because many people whom she loves, like her grandparents, go to church.

I am starting to think also that it is important for Beanie to learn "about" God because without understanding what and why and how people believe, Beanie might not be able to develop fully a connection and a compassion for other people - for whom God is important - also to appreciate what it means to be awed and humbled and inspired. Which, a non-believer I am, I feel that I have glimpsed in other people's ideas and practices of faith.

Rituals, symbols, ceremony. Not to be pooh-poohed.

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