Friday, August 8, 2008

Ritual vs. Routine

Stories about pets are like stories about illness: of supreme importance to the storyteller, mildly interesting to those who love that person, and pretty much a complete bore for everyone else. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but only a bit. So if you don't love me, you may want to skip this post.

I won't go into great detail here other than to say that our 18-year-old cat, Jojo, is having a bad year. We'd been treating his suspected brain tumor (the only way to prove it was to have a CT scan—wildly expensive and dangerous for an older cat) with steroids, which only treat the symptoms—it won't make the tumor go away but he's able to live somewhat normally. Then yesterday, he had a series of short, violent seizures; the doctors are monitoring him now to see if they can treat this with medication... and we'll know more later today or tomorrow, it appears.

Of course, I wanted to report this bit of news which is of supreme importance to me and Catherine. But it was a relatively small aspect to this story that prompted this post and it's title. Catherine and I are not morning people; Jojo is. He's always been enthusiastic about meals, especially breakfast, and once the sun is up, he's a pest until one of us gets up to feed him—almost always me. This morning, I woke up before the alarm went off and I suppose the absence of that other alarm had me wide awake. So I got up and began doing the things I normally do each day... always aware that I was doing them differently: there's no black cat in the dark to avoid; I made coffee but didn't need to do anything with cat food; there's no cat litter on the floor to be swept up.

Routines are, to me, ways of doing mindless tasks: they allow us to do necessary but relatively unimportant things without thinking about doing them. They're things we do only for ourselves, really. I rarely vary the tasks or the order in which I do them because breaking the routine means forgetting something; and if I do break it, for the most part, it affects no one except me.

Rituals, by comparison, are communication. We establish them not only to help us remember (although that is part of it), but as a means of communicating or communing with something or someone. In religious ceremonies, we're not merely worshiping a higher power, we're seeking a dialogue, which is why prayer figures so prominently in them. What I do in the morning is more ritual in that it's a dialogue with the cat: he wants to be fed right away but I know that if I don't make the coffee first, my moving around in the kitchen will disrupt his eating (he's afraid of being stepped on and he's got good reason to be—our NYC kitchen is tiny). We do the same thing every day—not mindlessly, but always in response to each other.

When I was taking directing classes in college, whoever was teaching would usually bring up the idea of incorporating ritual into theater. It's possible I wasn't paying very close attention (in fact, it's pretty likely) or perhaps they didn't do a very good job of explaining it (also pretty likely), but I always thought they meant researching Eastern traditions and religions and incorporating those rituals into my theater. I've seen plenty of excellent productions that have done that—Julie Taymor's stage work and Mabou Mines' An Epidog immediately spring to mind—but I've never been inspired to work that way.

This morning, the absence of a dialogue just sent my mind racing. I'm not sure what it means, really; most likely, it's just a kind of recognition that I probably should have had 20 years ago if I'd been a better student. But it's definitely got me thinking about the projects I'm working on differently, especially the master class Ralph, Catherine and I are teaching this fall. I guess more than anything, I feel like I'm putting together a new (for me) idea of ritual and the role it may play in my art.

1 comment:

Caroline said...

That's a really interesting post, Barry. The part about ritual is especially interesting. I wont go on a diatribe - or I'll try not to - but etiquette is just ritual, as well. I don't think I come from a particulalry stuffy family but there are certain rules that you follow and I find that when I visit my in-laws none of the same 'rules' are observed. They think of etiquette as 'stuffy' and 'outdated' but it's really for everyone's comfort. if you behave in the same way in certain situations - as in, have the same rituals - then everyone knows what to expect and it eliminates awkwardness. Sigh.

Anyway. I so hear you on the routine, too. Jeff thinks I have OCD but if I don't do things a certain way, I'll forget something. Whenever we are late for something he stares at me and follows me around the apartment and offers to 'help' - I always ask to be left along to just finish what I'm doing. The past 2 times we have gone a away, the first time I forgot underwear. Yup, I wore the same undies all weekend. Luckily we were at the beach so I was in a swimsuit half the time. And the second time I forgot my toiletry bag. No toothbrush, no contact lens case or solution, no hairbrush, no deoderant, nuthin'. I HATE forgetting things.

Very observant and well put!