Why Endangered Species Need Saints

by Sarah Pike

Link to the original. This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 7 August 2019.

With some of my students, I bent down to fill a cup and drink from Saint Gobnait’s holy well in the woods near Ballyvourney, a small town in southern Ireland. We had approached the site by passing through a metal arch with the inscription, “Holy Well,” nearly hidden on the side of a one-lane road. Our path continued into the woods to a spring encased in rocks, a holy well under a tree festooned with rosaries, ribbons, and pieces of cloth (known as a “rag tree” where offerings and petitions are made). On a field trip exploring religious history in County Cork, Eileen, our local guide, had brought us into the woods to see sites associated with Saint Gobnait, the patron saint of bees and bee-keepers, who is said to have settled in Ballyvourney in the sixth century C.E. and was known for her healing powers and “her” bees.

There are thousands of holy wells in Ireland and they often serve as sites of traditional ecological knowledge where the presence of powerful beings and spiritual experience is deeply felt and where miraculous healings take place. They suggest possible models for how we might engage with the more-than-human world. In an era of mass extinction, bees, frogs, wolves, oak trees, and other threatened species need patron saints, and our devastated landscapes could benefit from holy wells.

“Patron” comes from the Latin patronus, meaning protector, advocate, defender. Some say the earth and its species do not need paternalistic humans to “save nature”—such hubris we humans have. But the literature about patron saints like Gobnait tells of their collaboration with the nonhuman world they have promised to protect. In Irish lore, bees come to Gobnait’s aid and she to theirs. Stories recount how she used honey in her healing practices and rallied bees to chase away cattle thieves and other intruders in her community. In these accounts, Gobnait, her faithful, and the bees enjoy interdependent relationships. As religious studies scholar Robert Orsi argues in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Themreligion is “a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures together.” The reciprocal relationships at Gobnait’s shrine allow for collaboration between humans, the nonhuman natural world, and supernatural figures in and beyond the landscape, constituting a kind of accidental ecological knowledge.

Anthropologist Celeste Ray, who has compiled a database of local stories about wells in Ireland, describes holy wells as sites of traditional ecological knowledge. These wells often have trees associated with them and may be in wooded areas, in which bio-diverse ecosystems thrive because of the relationship between saints, devotees, and wells. Without the protection of wells, these sacred places might have been lost to monoculture tree plantations or herds of sheep. Messing with wells, paving them over, or cutting down surrounding trees are reputed to have catastrophic results for the humans responsible. Such accidental ecological knowledge might be shaped into more intentional efforts to preserve and protect fragile eco-systems around sacred sites.

Holy wells are the object of devotion but they are also subjects and act on the world, just as their patron saints do. In local stories, holy wells have agency and are portrayed in ways that echo contemporary scholarly discussions of what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter.” Like the communities they are associated with, wells were “converted” by Christian missionaries, who often established churches near wells where people were already gathering for pre-Christian rites. Holy wells long served as pilgrimage destinations and were included in the pre-Christian harvest festival of Lughnasad, named after the god Lugh.

Although wells were appropriated by Christianity, they also resist human plans. In an account collected by Amanda Clarke on her site “Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry,” a well in County Cork became offended when a woman washed her clothes in it. The well dried up and reappeared at another site. Trees associated with holy wells can also cause trouble if not treated properly. A traditional story tells of a family that went out to cut down a tree growing over a well. They looked up and saw that their house seemed to be on fire but when they got to the house, it was fine. This happened twice more, and the third time they set out to destroy the tree, their house burned to the ground.

Sacred relationships between wells, patron saints, and worshippers have changed over time as religious contexts change. Wells are part of cultural shifts, adapting to different worldviews and holding within them accumulated meanings from pre-Christian paganism, medieval Christianity, and “post-Catholic” Ireland. It is too simple to say Gobnait is a Christian saint. Sites linked to her may also be associated with pre-Christian meanings and practices. Eileen, our field trip guide, explained that many people visit the well whether or not they “believe.” Although she voiced skepticism about how the holy waters “worked,” Eileen told us of miraculous cures and her own encounter with a ghostly presence at the spring. Something was happening there, she suggested, without the need to explain exactly what it was.

Even if we knew nothing about Gobnait and her bees, the material culture of the well demonstrates the power it has had. Devotees who visit the well invest the objects they leave there with thanks and wishes. Figures of the Virgin Mary stand next to crystals and stones, coins are scattered on the rocky bottom of the well, and both Catholic rosaries and colored ribbons are tied on the tree. Things left at the spring negotiate relationships and facilitate healing and luck. They might express Catholic identity, or not.

Beekeepers—Catholic, pagan, and non-religious—have re-discovered Saint Gobnait, whose followers faded in the nineteenth century, when Irish Catholic devotional life was forced indoors by the Vatican, which saw Irish pilgrimages and festivals as irreverent and anarchic. In medieval Ireland, bees, honey, wax, pollen, and beekeepers were important. A set of ancient laws called the Bechbretha (“bee-judgements”) included various terms for bee swarms, guidelines for punishing the theft of hives and honey, and instructions about how to decide ownership of a swarm of bees and how much honey a beekeeper should offer to neighbors.

More than ever, we need a new set of bee-judgments (and wolf-judgments, oak-judgments, etc.). They offer the possibility of connecting with a sacred ecological history and of creating new relationships with saints like Gobnait. One need not believe, as Gobnait likely did, that the soul leaves the body as a bee or butterfly. Bees can be respected and protected for other reasons. The marginalized knowledge associated with holy wells and their patron saints might serve us well today in bringing healing, miraculous or otherwise, to landscapes that have been disenchanted, their riches plundered rather than protected. Perhaps patron saints are one small way to address our local and global ecological problems such as the health of watersheds and bees.


Sarah M. Pike, Ph.D., is Professor of Comparative Religion and Chair of the Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities at California State University, Chico. She has written numerous articles and book chapters on contemporary Paganism, ritual, the New Age movement, the primitive skills movement, the Burning Man festival, spiritual dance, memorializing; environmental activism, and youth culture. Her most recent book is For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (University of California Press, 2017)an ethnographic study of radical environmental and animal rights activism, ritual, and youth culture.

More on holy wells in Ireland.

What Color is Ecology?

I’m interviewing my daughter. She’s seven, her top front teeth have been snatched by a fairy, and this is a Big Questions video, a tradition our family has carried on for twenty-five years.

I ask what kind of person she is, prompting her with a few options. I tease her by asking if she is a green person. “No,” she says, “I’m a light-skinned, pinkish white person.”

She enjoys the play, so I tease her again, “Are you a smart person or a dumb person?” She answers in no uncertain terms.

Then I ask what other kinds of people there are. She looks puzzled at first. Never one to dodge or to say she doesn’t know, she begins inventing a list.

We still say black. We still say white. But we don’t say red, and we don’t say yellow. Sometimes we capitalize Black. If we capitalize White, we declare that we are standing on the right, the far right.

We don’t say “light sorta pinkish white.” We don’t say, “black bordering on tan,” or “brown bordering on white,” or “yellowish gold,” or “reddish brown,” or one of the many options we gloss over by saying “people of color.”

What? There are people of color and white people? That’s it?

We’re not color blind. We’re color deprived.

I’ve been wondering about the color of ecology. Does it have a color? Green, I suppose, but that’s the color of Martians, farts too. Surely ecology, like physics, economics, or history is colorless. Right? Maybe these supposed universals are transparent? Is transparent a color?

I was taken aback recently when someone told me that black people don’t attend ecology gatherings, because ecology is a white thing.

True, the way we white people do ecology could make it a white thing.

But if the sea rises and Manhattan sinks into post-holocaust mud, which part would sink first? Lower Manhattan where Wall Street is? Or upper Manhattan where Harlem is?

People of various shades talk past each other, but on rare occasions they also confer, collaborate, and joke. “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, is a sadly funny piece in Orion magazine by Drew Lanham, a black birdwatcher:

1. Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder. Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival. Yes, you’re wearing a name tag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.

2. Carry your binoculars — and three forms of identification — at all times. You’ll need the binoculars to pick that tufted duck out of the flock of scaup and ring-necks. You’ll need the photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the flashlight-toting security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.

3. Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.

4. Nocturnal birding is a no-no. Yeah, so you’re chasing that once-in-a-lifetime rare owl from Outer Mongolia that’s blowing up your twitter alert. You’re a black man sneaking around in the nether regions of a suburban park — at dusk, with a spotting scope. Guess what? You’re going to have some prolonged conversations with the authorities. Even if you look like Forest Whitaker — especially if you look like Forest Whitaker.

5. Black birds — any black birds — are your birds. The often-overlooked blackbirds, family Icteridae, are declining across the board. Then there are the other birds that just happen to be black — crows and their kin are among the smartest things with feathers and wings. They’re largely ignored because of their ubiquity and often persecuted because of stereotype and misunderstanding. Sounds like profiling to me.

6. The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing — camo or otherwise — is incognegroYou are a rare bird, easy to see but invisible just the same. Until you snap off the identification of some confusing fall warbler by chip note as it flies overhead at midnight, or a juvie molting shorebird in heavy fog, you will just be a token.

7. Want to see the jaws of blue-blooded birders drop faster than a northern gannet into a shoal of shad? Tell them John James Audubon, the patron saint of American ornithology, had some black blood coursing through his veins. Old JJ’s mom was likely part Haitian. Hey, if we can claim Tiger Woods . . .

8. Use what’s left of your black-president momentum on the largely liberal birder crowd to step to the front of the spotting-scope line to view that wayward smew that wandered into U.S. waters from Eurasia. Tell them you’re down with Barack, and they’ll move even more to the left to let you look at the doomed duck. After all, you stand about as much of a chance of seeing a smew again as you do of seeing another black president.

9. You’re an endangered species — extinction looms. You know all the black birders like siblings and can count them on two hands. You’re afraid to have lunch with them all because a single catastrophe could wipe the species from the face of the earth. There’s talk and posturing about diversifying the hobby, but the money is not where the mouths are. People buy binoculars that would fund the economy of a small Caribbean island — where, coincidentally, lots of neotropical migratory birds winter, and where local people of color might contribute to their conservation if more birders cared about more than counting birds.

Here he is Drew on video:

Black people are, in fact, attending to the state of the planet, just as they attend to the state of their families, neighborhoods, or nations.

Here is a very moving Ted Talk by Majora Carter called “Greening the Ghetto” (also see her African American Scientists, Environmentalists and Activists You Should Know): 

It may be true that black people avoid white ecology, but it is also true that black people are ecologically active. If white people connected climate justice with social justice, black and white ecologies might be closer together.

Behind black and white ecologies often lie indigenous ecologies, on which much environmental thinking and action depend (or ought to depend). Listen to Winona LaDuke talk about “seed slavery:”

And John Mohawk talking about indigenous knowledge regarding the earth:

Here in “Kiss the Earth” Emigdio Ballon is talking to seeds at Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico (see also “Seeds Are Alive,” an interview).

Ecology and the state of the planet are breaking into political discourse in the form of The Green New Deal (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and The New Consensus (Demond Drummer):

Bioneers: A Revolution from the Heart of Nature, is a good resource for interracial, crosscultural, international discussions of ecology.

Trudeau in Blackface

Snippets from a dialogue about Trudeau, blackface, brownface:

Steve: Just wondering what you thought of the Trudeau affair [wearing blackface]? I was disturbed by what he did, the age he did it at and where he did it. It laid open so much of what is in all of us. What bothers me the most was that the conversation about our prejudices and stereotypes, having been laid open at such a public level, was so quickly dropped. He asked for forgiveness, it was largely granted, and then the news cycle moved on. Why was forgiveness granted so quickly? Why? Because we are all guilty of the same crimes. Why weren’t the core issues challenged and committees set up to explore them. Not just in Justin but in us. How can we promote ourselves to the world as this wonderful multicultural, enlightened nation when we can’t even explore the hidden prejudices that make that not very true. The moment seems to have been lost. I wonder also if the news cycle has made us all a bit attention deficit disordered? 

Ron: I no longer watch the news on TV. I only read the news. I feel less jerked around that way. Yes, Justin asked for forgiveness, but media do not grant forgiveness. Black people do, or don’t. Actually, he was imitating Aladdin, right? So brown people. But you’re right, seems to me that Canadians forgive more readily and easily than Americans do. Slavery helped build this country, especially southern Ontario, the part you live in, also in Nova Scotia. But slavery in Canada is not what it was (and is) in the US. The Civil War is still going on the States.Trump just announced that impeachment could lead to a civil war. Should there be public discussions about racism in Canada? For sure. Usually these discussion only happen during Black History month, and usually only among Black people. We white people need to face and talk about our racism. I wrote “The Backsides of White Souls” to provoke this kind of discussion. Did that happen? Not really, not in Canada, not in the US.

A good article about the issue, “Brownface, Blackface, and About Face.”


From a letter written by Kevin Bott, founder of Rites4Return:

“As I dug into the literature, and then into the literature on rites of passage — from van Gennep to Eliade to Turner to… well… you — I knew that I possessed, in both practical skill and spiritual/emotional calling, the tools to create something real. And so in 2009, together with five formerly incarcerated men, I developed a 12-week program that culminated in a one-time-only threshold crossing witnessed by about 100 invited guests comprised of family members, loved ones, parole officers, case workers, and others. It was one of the most moving and powerful things I’ve ever been involved in. And the men who participated, with whom I am still close, continue to affirm the fact that it was, indeed, a transformative event in their lives. Many of their discoveries, in fact, happened in the moment of the rite of passage—unexpected insights and realizations that they were totally unprepared for. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that passages from your book Deeply Into the Bone figured prominently in the readings the men undertook to better understand rites of passage. The phrase, “finishing the unfinished business,” which you used to talk about the hungry ghosts that seek the completion of one’s life passages, was, for more than one person, the phrase that made the whole thing make sense to them. We called the project, Ritual4Return. “

Below is a video telling the story:

Talking with Plants

I’ve just returned from Union Theological Seminary in New York, where I was working with Claudio Carvales, a professor of worship, and his students in a course called Creating Rituals in Community: The Work of Mourning The Earth.

Together they design rituals in class, then enact them publicly in James Chapel. Recently, they confessed to plants. A Union Seminary communications officer posted a photo and tweet about the ritual that evoked a Twitterstorm. Many editorials and reports were written, all of them without any firsthand knowledge of the event or from seeing the video of the entire ritual.

In class they were reading an article I wrote, “Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy: An Incantatory Riff for a Global Medicine Show.”

Meanwhile, Claudio has now posted a response with an article in Sojourners on YouTube:

The week after the Twitterstorm about the ritual of talking to plants, there was another ecologically oriented ritual in James Chapel. Participants were invited to plant seeds, actually bulbs, in the quadrangle.

I chose to plant mine in a place where it would have the least chance to grow, “up against the wall” (we used to chant that phrase in the 60s). This was a plywood construction wall, painted green, probably so we’d imagine it as ecological. The wall now protects the new high rise that Union Seminary is building. The building will use half the quadrangle, barely enough room for a small Dutch tulip garden.

Come, crocus, come. Come in the spring, upstage the wall.

I’m still pondering seeds and remember the parable:

Jesus told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one: “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand” (Matthew 13).

Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy Show

An Incantatory Riff for a Global Medicine

Prior to publication, this was a script for oral performance. Publication required the decorum, the civilizing influence, of those speed bumps we call paragraph breaks. Even though the original script was not written as poetry, it looked more or less like poetry on the page. It looked that way to assist the eye in keeping up with a mouth fondling words in an incantatory way. The performance was preceded by the showing of a scene from “The Music Man,” a 1961 film in which Robert Preston plays the huckster, Professor Harold Hill. He conjures up parental fear that the young men of River City, Iowa, are going to hell in a handbasket unless they stop playing pool and join the big brass street band that he proposes to lead despite his abysmal musical ignorance. 


A young woman asks poet, environmentalist, Buddhist Gary Snyder:1 “If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?” 

 “ . . .Excellent question,” replies Snyder, “directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals’ side. The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So,” continues Snyder, “we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically, we dance for them. A song for your supper. Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy.”2

This line is the Torah fragment around which I build a fence, the plenary axis I circumambulate. When I first read it, I scribbled questions in the margin: What? Animals care about performances? What kind of performances? Currency? Performance has cash value? Deep world? What’s that—a place below this one? And, what do you mean, gift economy? This is a dog‐eat‐dog, country‐eat‐country global economy. 

Daily newspapers and popular books are riddled with eco‐factoids:  

  1. We are extinguishing ten thousand species each year.3 
  2. We are destroying the rain forests, earth’s most luxuriant life system, at the rate of one acre per second.4 
  3. So few farmers are there now that the U.S. Census Bureau has quit counting them as a category.
  4. Humans have destroyed enough species that it will require a full 10 million years for the planet to recover—twenty times as long as humans have already existed.

Chant a few eco-factoids a sufficient number of times and either you begin to pace, or you become strangely calm. Either you levitate into an apocalyptic frenzy, or you drop down into a surprising stillness. 

A few centuries ago we graduated from homicide, patricide, matricide, and suicide, to genocide. Now, we’re on to bigger deeds: ecocide and biocide. To destroy a life, even a bevy of lives, is one thing; but to destroy entire species, the genetic templates, the utter seeds of life is quite another. This life‐on‐earth arrangement is likely a rare, if not a one‐shot, deal, but we, our very selves, have become the gravest danger to this tumbling, swirling, teeming entanglement we call life. 

Ecocide is slower than homicide but surer, because it is total and irrevocable. War between nations is dramatic and destructive, but industrial waste, lacking the drama, is as deadly. The game of eco‐eightball may look benign (because there’s always some warranty promising to repair any damage with a technocratic fix), but techno‐fixes are patches on a crumbling dam. So we are in dire need of some foolish vision, some brassy, instrument‐free band to keep the old boys club occupied, away from the lakes and bays and nesting grounds. 

 The soiled state of the global nest is just as evident in the fate of ritual as it is in the blitz of eco-factoids. Our choreography, naturally, apes our cosmology. A few years ago, my family and I were invited to an outdoor service. Ecology was in the air and the pastor smelled it. It was time this particular Christian tribe risk a little sunburn on the pale forehead. So the congregation moved all the chairs outdoors, leaving their sacred, suburban canopy empty for that particular Lord’s Day. 

It was an awkward spectacle, clerical robes blowing up thigh high, bulletins flying, chairs tipping this way and that on the uneven slope, adults squinting in the sun, and kids, invited into action by fresh‐cut grass, romping and rolling . . . . 

Despite the claims of the sermon, everything about that performance (except the oatmeal molasses brown bread from the hand of the pastor’s mother) was a testimony to alienation from the environment, to the utter unsuitability of this liturgy to this place. The pastor held an ecologically respectable view of the universe, and she did distribute her mother’s homemade oatmeal molasses brown bread instead of paper-thin wafers, but this liturgical celebration dishonored the dirt upon which it was done. 

The state of the world nest is reflected in the failure of the old “services” to service that nest. Liturgies around the world have been caught in the act of doing disservice to the planet. Ritual disservice to the planet—ponder that. 


You wouldn’t expect it, would you, for performance to be anybody’s answer to the question: How can we save River‐City‐Bay‐Town‐Mountain‐Village from death by conspicuous over‐consumption? Unless, of course, we are required to entrance the plants and animals with our song and dance. 

The question of planetary survival is a conundrum, a koan. A koan is not just a cute riddle, a brainteaser for Buddhists. A koan is a bottleneck‐in‐being, a belly full to meditate upon for the duration. The incantation, “Performance is currency,” implies a koan‐like question: What action, rightly performed, can save the planet? This koan of planetary performance, let us call it, when it is properly contemplated, should burn like a jalapeño in the belly of the soul. 

If you are among the quick‐witted, you may think you already have the answer, and it is: “There is no such action.” But if this is your reply, you are too quick for your own damned good. A koan, it’s true, is an impossible question, but, as a dutiful disciple of the earth, you must answer it, not evade it. In fact, you not only must answer correctly (for your heartbeat and breath cycle depend upon it), you must embody your reply. The reply can’t be evasive or merely verbal. If your reply is that there is no answer at all, or that there is no gesture performative, ritualistic, or otherwise that could possibly save the planet, then the master, the lord of the beasts, sends you back to square one to meditate on the koan of planetary performance. 

As long as performance is confined to performance halls, performance is no answer to the problem of saving the planet from toxicity and species evacuation. The best that aesthetic art can do is to mime the problem. 

The same is true of religious religion and scientistic science. The problem lies in the sectoring and the scissoring. In the sectored‐and scissored‐up world, performance is one thing, religion, another. Performance is entertaining and religion, serious; performance is pretend and religion, real. Performance is fictive and subjunctive, shot through with as‐ifs, while religion is believed—absolutely and without question. 

But Gary Snyder, our testy teacher whose aphorism I am shamelessly and publicly milking, assumes no such divisive dualism. He keeps performance together with religion; singing to the fish together with saying grace. In the deep world, ritual enactment and theatrical performance are not enemies; they are cousins, kissin’ cousins. 

So what kind of performance could possibly gain the attention of the creatures and thereby save the world? If you consider the world from the animals’ point of view, the answer is obvious: Performances in which the performers are animals, human and otherwise. Coyotes and baboons are as narcissistic as we are. Why, they’ll trade their skins to witness good singing and dancing. Performances are currency only if they are deep‐world performances, and they are deep‐world performances only if their metaphors are embodied—radically, to the bone, to the quick. 

To dance the peacock or play the snake, you must become the peacock, be the snake. A deep‐world performance is one in which performers are so drastically identified with the objects of their performance that there is no difference, even though everybody knows animals and humans are different. 

Such a world can be frightening. Why, when your very lawn or your beloved garden—object of costly love and chemical affection—rises up against you, subjecting you to tough, inquisitorial questions, well, what can you do but tremble? 

Fearing the magic that always arrives on the heels of drastically embodied metaphors, people are tempted to resist the call to right ritualizing by setting performance and ritual in opposition. 

Ritual is religious, traditional, unchanging, and purged, by god, of magic. Accordingly, performance is irreligious, experimental, theatrical, and, shame upon its head, fad‐driven. 

But the congregation of earth creatures has no use for squeaky‐clean, safe religion and just as little use for aestheticized entertainment purged of harmony, humility, and prayer. Neither earns the applause of butterflies and milkweed.  


Another surprise: Ecology activists, especially poetic Buddhist ones, don’t talk much about money. But consider this: Currency is any medium of exchange, the stuff which, though worthless in itself, we work for, buy with, die for. Currency: paper that stands for gold or silver which in turn stands for food and shelter and air and water. Currency: the symbolic stuff with which we buy our way out (or in). 

When sneaky Snyder teases us into believing that performance is currency, he isn’t talking about box office revenues, or the sort of performance the governments have in mind when they declare that grants to universities will hereinafter be dependent upon multiple performance indicators. He’s saying performances themselves are currency. The performances, not the money, are what earn the attention, the grace, and the forgiveness of the animals and plants and spirits, the council of all beings. 

 The reigning view is that science and technology, allied with industry and commerce, can mint the currency with which to buy our way out of the ecological mess. But, of course, the ecological mess is bigger than science, because scientists (like the rest of us) are smaller than the universe. Earth contains science and scientists, not the other way around. 

The world’s planners and managers like to construe the state of the planet as a problem with a solution. But solutions are discrete and specific, whereas the eco‐crisis is systemic and pervasive; it implicates the whole, not just some part such as the sludge in the Great Lakes, the air over Mexico City, or salmon who refuse to run West Coast streams in British Columbia. So a planet‐saving performance requires the participation of the entire council of creatures, not just some special class like scientists or priests or band leaders or professors or artists or even humans. 

There is no ecological problem—except earthly extinction, which is to say, problem solving is the wrong model. We will never know enough in time to solve the earth’s human “problem.” To echo Yeats, we can embody truth but we cannot know it. A problem assumes a problem solver who stands apart from the problem. A problem concerns some thing in or on the earth. A crisis concerns the fate of the earth. 

The difficulty, then, is not with this trombone or that violin but with the whole damn concert, in fact, with the music that underscores it. There is only one concert playing on stage‐earth, and we have no choice but to play together. So, by all means, let there be scientists and technicians in Mr. Music Man’s big brass save‐the‐planet band, but also call the bricklayers, boom operators, old cranks, young crickets, and master tinkers. 

Some scientists fret that so many non‐scientists are showing up on an already overcrowded stage. Other scientists welcome the tinkers. On the one hand, the talk becomes fuzzier. On the other, the arrival of ritual‐makers and musicians, parading Fundies and be‐caped witches, game animals and domestic vegetables makes the medicine show a lot more entertaining as the music, the squawking, and the metaphors begin to flap and fly. The currency‐confusion is godawful. What’s the medium of exchange—formulas and equations? Or musical scores and incantations? 

When religious people arrive at the ecological market where planetary salvation is up for auction, they usually arrive with a wallet full of moral currency. They typically tender ethics, statements about what ought to be, hoping to stem the tide of what is. The currency of religion, as well as religious studies, is not rules of scientific procedure or musical scales but canons of belief and codes of behavior. 

A series of conferences was held at Harvard. Out of them emerged the Forum on Religion and Ecology 7 and several volumes on the environmental contributions of the multinational religions. A remarkable feature is how much attention the volumes pay to beliefs, myths, ethics, and worldviews and how little they attend to ritual and other kinds of performance. The Forum’s brochure describes its mission as that of “highlighting the important roles religious traditions play in constructing moral frameworks and orienting narratives regarding human interactions with the environment.” Even though the brochure mentions ritual practices, it rapidly drops the topic to return to the theme of a “distinctive ethics of respect for nature.”8

The framers of the Earth Charter are ethically preoccupied too. They speak of their carefully hammered out ethical principles as “soft law.” They hope nations and other human groups will give these principles teeth by transforming them into “hard law,” the kind you are fined for violating. 

For sure, ethical reformulations and new laws are required to protect the planet. And we could do worse than subscribe to the sonorous principles of The Earth Charter:

  1. Do not do to the environment of others what you do not want done to your environment. 
  2. Respect Earth and all life. Earth, each life form, and all living beings possess intrinsic value . . . . 
  3. Share equitably the benefits of natural resources . . . . 
  4. Treat all creatures with compassion . . . . 9

The Earth Charter is a generically religious document. “Earth” is capitalized, and the principles echo those of several faith traditions. Charter principles are lofty and worthy, but can they create the realities they aspire to? Probably not. That’s why the framers of the Charter hope to inspire legislation, “hard law.” 

I’m in concert with the aims of the Forum on Religion and Ecology and of the Earth Charter, but what strikes me about these and other examples of religiously attuned environmental activism is the recurrent, liberal‐Protestant‐sounding assumption that the obvious way to proceed is by formulating ethical principles and then putting them into action by challenging political institutions. 

The strategy is necessary but insufficient, because moral principles and new legislation don’t—by themselves, disembodied—change attitudes. Attitudes and worldviews are related; each conditions the other. Attitudes are not merely emotional, or worldviews merely intellectual. Each conspires with the other in determining how we act, what we perform, and therefore how we behave. 

Deep World 

Performance is currency in the deep world . . . What is this “deep world”? Surely not some place below the ground, or some supernatural envelope surrounding ordinary reality, not even the human unconscious (which we in the psychologized West imagine as deep within the psyche). 

 We in the sectored‐and‐scissored West are habituated to dividing things into warring camps: shallow world/deep world, this world/the other world. The philosophical label for this particular form of deviance is dualism. Our dualistic tendencies lure us into setting part against whole, part against part. Dualism is not the mere making of distinctions but the setting of them in hierarchical and antagonistic relation to one another and then assuming that one of the two parties is not necessary while the other is. 

Dualism lives in the marrow and blood; it’s taken root in languages and brains. But Earth is declaring dualism taboo. Earth people are recognizing that the survival value of a scissored‐and‐sectored cosmology is diminishing at an ever‐increasing rate. We have stumbled over the obvious: The ankle bone is connected to the shinbone is connected to the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone is connected to the planet Jupiter is connected to the crawling things beneath the sod is connected to the price of Canadian lake water exported to Japan. 

So we’re pausing to take stock. We’re asking: What’s the cost of stashing science in labs, art in galleries, education in universities, government in parliament buildings, and religion in temples?  

Answer: The cost is the rarification of religion, the preciousness of the arts, the bureaucratization of government, and the reign of technocratic scientism throughout the land. 

If there is to be an enduring deep world, some superseamstress somewhere must find a needle capable of stitching together the swatches. 

The deep world, then, is not the opposite of the shallow, or this, world. Rather, it is—now you may choose your metaphor—the center of the six directions, the kingdom of God which is among you, nirvana which is no place other than samsara. In short, the deep world is the planet, whole cloth, earth’s space and history, all of a piece. The deep world is this very world on occasions performative, when creeping, crawling critters and tenacious, clinging weeds join things vegetative, hopping, and contemplative to sing and talk and dance and eat together with the beclothed, us humans. That’s deep. 

The deep world, because it is an imagined, performed cosmos, is momentary and occasional, but it is also metaphorically and utterly real, as real as anybody’s smokestack or weed whacker. The deep world is fed on things sprouting in the dark root cellar of the human animal’s imagination. 

Participants in international religion and ecology discussions sometimes recognize that more than ethical principles and just laws are needed, that deep‐world transformation is necessary. One religious studies scholar declares, “As a Buddhist, I would emphasize that inner personal transformation is most basic.”10 For her, consciousness is the deepest, or most fundamental, layer. The logic seems to be: A change in consciousness eventuates in an explicit ethic, which in turn inspires ecologically sensitive laws, which in turn bring about collective and institutional compliance, thus transforming the planet into a just and sustainable environment. 

 But spiritual change alone makes no more sense than legal change alone. It is as profoundly counter‐ecological to posit consciousness or spirit as basic as it is to claim that law or matter or production is basic. Neither survives for long without the other. 

 The urgent task, then, is not in deciding which is deepest, spirituality or politics, religion or theater, but learning how to nurture such an attitude of interconnectedness that we are no longer the aliens on the earth. We human creatures have always tended to levitate off the planet. By thinking, emoting, imagining, calculating, and inventing, we rarefy ourselves into the ether, fancying that we are not food. But if we cannot learn to be food, our species will become a dead‐end branch on the evolutionary tree. So the question is how to ground ourselves, admit that we are food, and become the animals we are.  

Gift Economy 

Performance is currency in the gift economy. A gift economy is a ritual economy, a performative means of exchange in a stitched‐together, bricolage world. A gift economy is related to the economy, but it’s not identical with it. A gift economy has a certain holy foolishness to it. In the economy, gifting would seem an unlikely answer to the “problem” of ecological disaster. The economy is supposed to be sufficiently rational that, having conducted a calculation of risks and benefits, one can cash into it. The gift economy, however, originates with a giveaway, a proffering of gratitude magnanimous, of play excessive and impractical. 

To the council of all beings, bodied and disembodied, masked and unmasked, the gift economy makes a certain ridiculous‐hilarious‐utterly-essential sense, and it assumes the necessity of loss, even of deliberate and celebrated loss, of sacrifice, of giving up what you’d rather keep. 

 The economy would never countenance offering African beer to ancestors already in the ground, spilling the blood of perfectly edible Haitian chickens, yielding up only begotten sons, giving away first fruits, or promulgating a jubilee cancellation of third world debt. 

In a gift economy, the animals are willing to trade their very skins and feathers for a song and dance. So the people‐dancers and the people‐singers must condescend to trade their skins and their masks for those of animals or plants or water or clouds. 

What the creatures have to lose in the gift economy is their lives. What the people have to lose is their false sense of themselves as superior. 

 Deep‐world performance transpires any place where a gift economy, even temporarily, undermines–or better, suffuses—“the” economy. But what kind of performance is appropriate to a gift economy? It’s easy enough to say: Do the dog. Wiggle the worm. Howl the jackal. Admit to being fodder or cabbage or bran. 

 Ritually speaking, we are not only what we eat, but also what we sing, proclaim, dance, chant, drum. If I am what I sing, what will singing this song make of me? If I am what I dance, what will doing this dance make of me? These are gift‐economy, ritual, questions. 

The peanuts in the gallery only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, plants. The snaky creatures of the orchestra pit only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, animals. The earth only cares if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, earthlings. 

If we can’t earn either the respectful silence of carrots or the applause of vultures, we won’t survive the third millennium. Like all performers, we are radically dependent upon our audience. So drastic is our dependence upon the council of creatures that they are the real auditors of earth’s books. They are the true congregation, the real tribe, the original extended family. And the kind of performance they require is ritualistic. The only kind of performance capable of saving the planet is the kind worms applaud with their peculiar sort of silence, the sort to which geese respond with bawdy squawking and clacking (silence and racket being earth’s main gestures of approval). 

Planetarily significant performances transpire in times and places where the deep‐gift economy is actualized, because these are the only spaces where geese and worms and bears and bugs are welcome as congregants. 

Snipes and turtles and other creatures rooted or bipedal are utterly fascinated with human performances in which they themselves appear, and they can only appear when ritualizing humans sacrifice their sniveling little dignities in order to don skins that the creatures sacrifice. 

 Just as the pool‐playing boys of River City, Iowa, need a big brass band to stem their lapse into delinquency, so we ought to dress in the plumage of deforested pines, make offerings of Erie water, and meditate beneath the bridges of the Don Valley Parkway. 

Too grandiose? Too full of bilgewater and balderdash? Well, okay, for the likes of us who’ve made it to the twenty‐first century, it may be that ritual is possible only in a ludic‐ironic‐metaphoric, clowny‐subjunctive‐disjunctive fiddledeedee mode. But embraced‐to‐the‐point‐of‐embodiment, metaphoric‐ironic ritualizing, however perverse and silly, is a way in. 

The deep world is stitched of metaphors, and if you cut them loose from one another and yourself, you skin the world, peel it like an onion. No net of metaphor, no earth. No earth, no place for an audience to stand. No place, no performance. No performance, no performers. No performers, no students of performances entertaining and efficacious. 

 We are engaged in a global conflict over metaphor. The mere‐metaphor school is content, thank you, to leave metaphor a mere turn of phrase; these folks aren’t about to chant their metaphors, much less inhabit them. The deep‐and‐drastic school, on the other hand, insists that metaphor is not empty talk, that world metaphors should be practiced, so convincingly embodied, that even alpha male apes can’t be sure if those strutting on the stage are animals, or men, dressed up like animals, so convincingly performed that even the muses can’t decide whether those are goddesses or women gussied up like birds. 

 Ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat). In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor. A cosmos is not merely an empty everywhere. It is an everywhere as perceived from somewhere, a universe as construed from a locale. A cosmos is a topocosm, a universe in this place, an oriented, “cosmosized” place, a this‐place which is also an every‐where. 

 Each cosmos has its characteristic lilt: If your universe is a womb, your rites go rotund; they moan, slip, and slide. If your universe is an orderly, law‐abiding, clocklike place looked after by a kindly watchmaker who prefers really, really big grandfather clocks, your rites will run regular as clockwork, be performed as if ritual were, by definition, repetitive, orderly, stately, vertical, and by the book. 

Cosmologies are as important for what they tell ritualists not to perform as for what they tell them to perform. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world many of us inhabit, we are not ritually supposed to sweat, stay up all night, sleep in the sanctum, enter trance, or let wild sounds escape the throat. 

Otherwise, the critters might arrive in droves, and mama earth might heave her big buttocks smack into the middle of our decorous assemblies. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world, entranced, drum‐driven bouncing, and trembling buttocks are out. So is just sitting, eyes down as if quieted belly buttons and round cushions matter. 

All rites, even the holiest of liturgies, express time‐bound values and space‐bound peculiarities. They are suffused by the same spiritual and intellectual pollution that we all breathe in order to stay alive. Even so, ritual systems are not free of the obligation to serve the ground we walk on, the water we drink, the air we breathe. 

With rites we have served gods; now, with rites let us serve the ground, the air and water, the frogs and rutabaga, even our cranky ancestors buried book‐in‐hand in six feet of clay. 

What might it look like to turn book‐serving liturgies into earth‐serving ones? In Thailand, where the rate of deforestation is exceptionally high, monks have begun ordaining trees. By ordaining these upstanding ones, the monks inspire bulldozer drivers to stop, chainsaw cutters to balk, and developers to reconsider. Thai “ecology monks” are crossing the line that has traditionally kept them from political involvement. Would you cut down a seventy‐year‐old, fifty‐foot tree‐priest in his prime? 

Clear-cutting in Thailand had become so extensive that monks began preaching about the suffering of trees and land. In order to sanctify forests so wildlife and plant life would be protected, the monks began hammering old Buddhist rites into new activist ceremonies. 

 In the 1970s, after his ordination, Phrakhru Pitak began to notice the deforestation around his home and the consequent damage to watersheds and local economies. He began to preach against the destruction but found that the villagers, even those who believed him, went home from temple services only to continue clearing the land. Moral admonition was not enough. So in 1991 he ordained a tree, wrapping it in monk’s robes. To down an ordained tree would be to kill a sentient being and incur religious demerit. 

At first, the monk led people in sprinkling holy water on the trees. Later, he upped the ante by requiring village leaders to drink holy water in front of a statue of Buddha by a tree. This way, community leaders ritually enacted their identification with the tree, and thereby pledged themselves to its protection. Sometimes, posted on an ordained tree would be a sign saying, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life, one’s rebirth, or the nation.”11 Sincere Buddhists don’t want to tamper with their rebirth. 

This improvised ritualizing is now attracting upstanding citizens. As a result, the Thai debate is no longer purely political but also moral and religious. The metaphoric act of ordaining trees has made it so. If trees have Buddha nature, to saw one down is to slice yourself in half. Now, it costs moral and religious capital to lay low the ancestor‐teacher trees. 

The so‐called world religions claim to have a repository of wisdom that can help save the planet from ecological destruction. But the large‐scale, multinational faiths have been slow to mobilize, and they are typically saddled with environmentally hostile or indifferent myths, ethics, and rites. 

 Religious leaders are now scouring the scriptures in search of images capable of inspiring ecologically responsible behavior. The big religions are defending their traditions against attacks that blame them for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land. 

The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. The truth is that none of the large‐scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion. The non‐local religions are in no better shape than the multinational corporations. Because so much pollutes the spiritual environment, cleaning it up is every bit as urgent and challenging as cleaning up the physical environment. 

The ecological question can be posed politically, biologically, economically, legally. I have put it ritually by asking, What gesture can save the planet? You, of course, know this is a silly question, a trap. You’re educated, smart enough to know that by calling the question a koan, I’m either sidestepping or teasing you. I am trading on what I surmise about readers, that you are devotees of the well‐posed question. There is nothing finer in the reading‐and‐writing life than a question that requires a koanic response, a disciplined, passionate identification with the question. 

So again I put it to you: What gesture, rightly performed, might be so compelling that the creatures would be entertained and thus, the planet saved? We can put it in other, more local ways: What does the south shore of Lake Erie ask of men on Tuesdays? Women on Thursdays? Why is the Rio Grande weeping? Where on Highway 7 should the northbound tundra swans land during rush hour? 

I’m sure you have your own environmental koans, conundrums in need of direct action but also of divination and contemplation. Just remember that the point is not to turn cute phrases or to moralize but to identify yourself bodily and attitudinally with the questions. Otherwise, the grackles and sparrows won’t give a rip about our celebrations, liturgies, meditations, and performances. 

A koanic attitude practiced ritually helps participants divine a way of acting that resonates with the world. Ritually, people don’t dance merely to exercise limbs, impress ticket‐buying audiences, or even to illustrate sacredly held beliefs. People who dance in a sacred manner do so to discover ways of inhabiting a place. (This is what we call the noetic power of a rite.) If we ritualize only to confirm what we already know, our ritualizing is in a state of decay. 

So here’s the pitch. Here’s what I’m trying to sell you on instead of a brass band: Just as there is an emerging global culture over-top local cultures, and civil religion alongside denominational religion, so there are emerging global ritual gestures boiling up under the liturgies of specific religious traditions. The Olympic Games are the grandest example. So a global earth rite parallel to a global ethic in the Earth Charter is not an impossibility (even though the notion is as ridiculous as that of a salvific street band whose leader is a musical ignoramus). 

A few decades ago we’d have thought it ridiculous to consider drafting universal, ethical declarations. We’d read enough history and anthropology to know that different societies have different values and differing ways of doing things. We’d have said that only a powerful act of coercion could bring about a global ethic. But a global ethic is now on the horizon. Maybe it will require another millennium for every nation to sign on, and such an ethic will not be framed without compromise, but there is a surprising consensus in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, why not an earth‐embracing, earth‐encircling rite?  

If that’s too grandiose and you worry about a globalized rite for the same reasons you’ve become suspicious about globalization and multinational corporations, then ritualize in your own back yard. Literally. Physically. Bodily. 

For now, imagine just a single gesture or posture that might become the seed of a rite. Make it one worth doing, or holding, over and over. This is ritual, so again, again, and again. Even when no one is watching: again. 

What is the shape and duration of your gesture? What’s the basis of your posture? Sacred texts are too tendentious a basis, so what else might a gesture to the creatures be based on? In what posture would we not scare them away, would they not fear to creep up on us?  

The universe is curved, they say, just closed enough to maintain cohesion, just open enough for transformation and creativity. So why not a curvaceous gesture based on the shape you imagine the universe to have? 

Now, this brass‐band‐foolish gesture not only has to make the monkeys laugh loud enough that the hyenas and dingos come to see what’s up, it must be a practice that helps people root themselves in the planet like old trees worthy of ordination. It should be a gesture so simple and profound that, even if it doesn’t attract the hordes or save the planet, you’d keep doing it anyway, hoping to hear cabbage heads chuckle and frogs titter, because performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy. 

So . . . What are you imagining? Bowing like a Muslim at prayer (but sneaking in a ground kiss)? Standing, Navajo‐like, thrusting your child high so the rising sun can see? Circumambulating a tree in your back yard until a circular path is worn deeply into the ground? Washing each of your neighbors’ feet each time they enter your front door? Maybe you are curled up, your head in Big Mama’s lap. Or maybe you are handing a clear glass of water, without spilling a drop, hand over hand over hand down the serpentine miles of a river’s course. Perhaps you are prone, lying on the warm desert sand, your arms spreadeagled so that from on high, a god’s eye or cloud would spy only a tiny swatch on the landscape. 

A sustainable gesture to the creatures is possible only by a dialectical dance. So grab your partner and all go round. Leap locally to the left. Leap globally to the right, all at the very same, very curvaceous time. This is a riprap romp, a locally global medicine show. 

If exercising your imagination this way makes you feel foolish, a little like you’re pretending to be the leader of the band when you never went to music school, a little suspicious that ritual gestures and postures are as useless as, what? a roll of waxed toilet paper, well, you can relieve yourself of this self‐conscious foolishness by chanting. 

By now, surely, you know the words . . . 


Originally published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 9.1: 149-164.



  1. My thanks to Gary Snyder for his generous encouragement and support and for not wincing at being riprapped off. This presentation was performed several times: first at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada; then at “Between Nature,” a conference on ecology and performance at Lancaster University in England; and at an annual meeting of the Eastern International Region of the American Academy of Religion at Ithaca College in New York. Financial support for this research included a grant from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 
  2. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 75. 
  3. Paul Erlich cited in Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 247. 
  4. Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 246. 
  5. Wes Jackson, ʺBecoming Native to This Place,ʺ in People, Land, and Community: Collected E. F. Schumacher Society Lectures, ed. Hildegarde Hannum (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 158. 
  6. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Study Jolts Views on Recovery from Extinctions, 2000. Available at‐environ‐wildlife.html. 
  7. Forum on Religion and Ecology Web site: 
  8. Harvard’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life sponsors an environmental ethics and public policy program. Like the Forum, the Center places its emphasis almost exclusively on ethics, policy, and justice issues.  The Boston Research Center for the 1st Century sponsors consultations on the Earth Charter and publishes a series of books on war, peace, and the earth. In a presentation entitled “The Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,” sociologist Elise Boulding, one of the key participant, offers a formal definition of “peace culture,” which she takes to be essential for generating a transformation of consciousness that will permit planetary survival. “Peace culture,” she says, “is a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and institutional patterns that lead people to live nurturantly with one another and with the earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials. That mosaic,” she says, “enables humans to deal creatively with their differences and to share their resources.” From Elise Boulding, ʺThe Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,ʺ in Womenʹs Views on the Earth Charter, ed. Helen Casey and Amy Morgante (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1997), 32. 
  9. Earth Charter Web site: 
  10. Rita Gross, ʺPersonal Transformation and the Earth Charter,ʺ in Buddhist Perspectives on the Earth Charter (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1977), 54. 
  11. Darlington, ʺThe Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand.ʺ 

Disarming Boys

Originally published in The Canopy Review 01 (2019): 10-26. Excerpts read at the Langston Hughes House, Harlem, September 23, 2019.

World War II rages as my parents rivet B-24 bombers at Consolidated Aircraft. Home from the graveyard shift, Dad’s teaching me to box. Knees knocked, I’m punching back.

Later, he’s equipped me with a toy pistol, its holster drooping to my knee.

Home from her swing-shift, Mom models my friend Nancy and me into permed and lipsticked girls, then poses me on my trike. Nancy and I whirl in newspaper hula skirts. Our bodies soar, down to the San Diego beach. Then, half way to Japan, we’re in Hawaii, where kids in grass skirts hula to ukulele music.

Each night we Americans pull the shades so Japanese bomber pilots can’t see our lights and drop bombs through our windows.


I’m eight. The war is history. Our family has returned home from “Egypt,” California, where people lose their souls. Mom says people are friendlier here in the Southwest. We’re dirt farmers, losing our land to the drought that’s scorching the high plains of eastern New Mexico.

Man-making is now a joint parental project. They pose me in patched blue jeans and deck me out in a black denim jacket and a felt cowboy hat. I drip with sweat. The stampede string cinches so tightly under my chin that the black hat twists right. Later, when I understand color-coding, I switch to white. I’m posing heroic in front of the Kodak Brownie in Mom’s hands, ready to whisper in a low cowboy voice, “Gotchya.” The right pistol drills a hole through your gut. The other one veers left, mortally wounding a buddy or a girlfriend. The kid is still learning to shoot straight.

Below the picture, Mom pens, “Wild Bill Hickok.” In movies, Wild Bill turns his pearl pistol butts forward towards you, the enemy. When he draws, his hands slice a dramatic X across his belt buckle, then “bang-bang.” Two bullets and you bite the dust.

Even without guns, belts and buckles are badges of authority. Mom says Dad’s dad used to beat him with a chain. My dad’s a notch gentler. He whips me with a belt. After a severe beating, I lie bawling across the bed. When I peek up, guilt is spreading like measles across his face. He’s gone too far and knows it.

Decades before The Christmas Story becomes a classic seasonal movie, I ask Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Dear Santa, I want a rapid lever action. No single shot. No reaching into your pocket for a single BB. And, Dear Santa, I want loads of BBs in cardboard tubes. I love the clickety-click sound they make as they trickle down the tube.

Santa delivered—not quite a Daisy lever action, but a pump, where BBs line up in a row like grade school kids. If you live in a drought, you learn to weather short pay.


I’m twelve. Dad and I are strolling down Main Street after a buzz cut at Wood’s barbershop. Before he dusts the back of my scalped neck with talc, Mr. Woods presses a dime into my palm. I can put it in the bank across the street, but there’s a cowboy movie down Main. Strolling toward the Lyceum, Dad shows me circular chunks blown out of the wall of the old Citizens Bank, “They used to have gun fights here on Clovis streets.”

“You could carry a gun on the street like Roy Rogers?” I ask.

“Yeah, still can, as long as people can see it.”

The answer surprises me, “Wouldn’t that scare people?”

“Sure, that’s the point.”

“You mean, scare people off so there won’t be a gun fight?”


The rationale makes perfect Christian kid sense: use weapons to keep the peace.

“What if you hide your gun?”

“If you don’t have permit, you’ll be arrested.”

“You need a permit to hide a gun?”


“Why? Isn’t that cowardly? Wouldn’t that make you slow on the draw?”

I pepper my parents with questions.


Little boys long for real guns. Longing for the real is just the beginning. Real guns kill cottontails and sparrows. Asked, why kill, I retort a grown-up answer, “Sport.” Even your gentle mom or sucky little brother, who refuses to shoot sparrows or bunnies, buys into the sporting explanation.

Like water pistols, BB guns are for kids. When I come of age—for a boy in New Mexico that’s twelve or thirteen—I am ravenous for arms: a .22 rifle for sport, a shotgun for quail, a 30-30 for deer. Three guns and you are a proper man, poor maybe, but still a man. If you can show off more firearms of a higher caliber behind the glass doors of an oak cabinet, you are indeed a wealthy white man.

In junior high, I add a fourth to my list: a .45 Colt Peacemaker. I have not outgrown the eight-year-old fantasy of owning a cowboy gun. I want to draw faster than Dee Woolem, the national fast-draw champion. If I can beat his time, I’d be a real cowboy, not the kind who sweats and swats flies while driving cattle up the Goodnight Trail, but the bigger-than-life kind in movies. The kind that never draws first but always wins.

Since I can’t afford an ivory-handled six-shooter, I buy a sleek .22 Ruger semi-automatic pistol and learn to fast-draw, hitting tin cans tossed in the air. But fast-drawing with an automatic resembling a German Luger fails to make me into a righteous cowboy with his left hand flying over the hammer. Instead, I’m a German soldier, on the wrong side. Within a year I sell the pistol.


Dad teaches safety. Although he’s on the other side now, his voice whispers in my ear. A day before deer season, I slip my rifle out of the closet, wipe it down, point it toward the curbside mailbox perched like a hawk on a post. I click off the safety and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Instead of a click, there is a deafening roar.

From Hillcrest Park across the street play-noises pierce the air. What if I killed someone?

Murder. Jail. I’m only fifteen.

I can’t stand. I lie on the floor panting and sweating. The screaming of playing kids thickens the air.

Unable to stand and witness the damage, I keep listening. After what seems like an hour, probably five minutes, I go check. There is a 30-30 hole in the screen. I wait a few minutes before opening it. Knees wobbling, I tiptoe to the mailbox. There’s a bullet hole in the back side, one in the front too. Dad will notice. Maybe there’s another in the park, a hole in a body. Blood. I stare across Sycamore Street. No dead bodies. No police cars. No ambulances. Not yet.

I go back inside, lie on the floor again. Dad will soon walk through the door. My belly is tumbling, about to toss its cookies, when he walks through the door, “Dad . . .”

After I tell the story, he looks me hard in the face, man to man. I’m shaking. To my utter surprise, he thanks me for speaking the truth and refrains from telling me what I already know: guns are always loaded.


Despite my lapse in judgment, Dad lets me join him and the uncles. We wagon-train to Corona in pick-ups stacked high with homemade campers. Once ours was red, but the sun has bleached it bloomer pink. These bedroom-rigs tower above the cab, bucking air, transforming gas-guzzlers into gas-hogs.

At night we perch on logs around juniper campfires, gobbling down bologna sandwiches, pork ‘n beans, Fritos, Dr. Peppers, and vieenees (Mom’s name for canned Vienna sausages). The men smoke and urge us kids not to. A couple of uncles sneak into the woods for a beer. Meanwhile, Dad is complaining about idiots who stay up all night drinking, “When deer season opens tomorrow, those morons will crawl out of their tents, shooting at every sound. The problem is, the deer know. They hear the first shot of the season and begin racing. Watch which way their noses are pointing, toward the game reserve—no guns there. The deer know.”

It’s ritual preparation: showing off firearms, eating bad food, boasting about deer killed, sneaking off into the bushes to “deposit wolf bait” (dump a load).

A handsome Marine uncle, newly married into the family, arrives in a convertible. His wife is my favorite aunt, so instantly he’s my favorite uncle.  I ask, “Can I hunt with Buddy, huh? He’s just back from Korea.” Dad nods, he knows. I keep nagging, “He has an M1 rifle and knows what he’s doing. Dad?”

Less than sure, Dad agrees to let me hunt with Uncle Buddy. Deep into the woods, he teaches me a song that dads shouldn’t hear, “This is my rifle [he points at the M1 on his shoulder], this is my gun [points at his dick]. This is for fighting; this is for fun.”

He and I have been barging through the bushes for a few hours when shots ring out. Wood chips are flying around us. Buddy grabs me, shoves my head down behind a log. The firing continues for a few seconds, then a faint click in the distance. Empty. The racket stops and Buddy, head still tucked, rolls onto his back and shouts furiously, “Hey, you dumb shits, we’re people down here, not deer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” All we hear is the retreating sound of crunching twigs.

Up and hunting again, Buddy and I rehearse the story to tell at camp. We have the tale down pat as the sun begins to set. Then Buddy confesses, “I think we’re lost.”

I don’t say aloud what I learned in Scouts, “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands in the dark.”

Blackness is creeping in when we hear horns and gunshots in the distance. Dad and the uncles are searching. We fire into the air, then bushwhack toward the sounds. There they are. Dad hugs me off my feet, then steps back, glares at Buddy, sizing him up and down.

Buddy coaxes me to save our other story for the next night.


Another year, another hunting trip. It’s noon. We’re gathered into an arroyo, gobbling mayo-slathered white-bread sandwiches. Sprawled between my cousin and me are two dozing uncles. An octagon-barrel Winchester lies across my lap as I gaze into the woods. A half-hidden doe is studying us. I glance at my drowsy cousin. So as not to alert him or the deer, I slowly raise my rifle and fire.

My cousin jumps, grabs his rifle, and fires too. “I got it, I got it,” he yells.

“Nope,” Dad says, “she was already down.” Buddy agrees.

The other uncles hatch a compromise: “They both got it.”

Furiously, I whirl around to glare at stupid adult faces.

Back home, the aunts hear, “Together, both cousins got their first deer.”

Dad tells Mom what actually happened. Her smile cheers me up, but I remain pissed at my Texas cousin. One Christmas, when we were kids, he got two pistols with white handles. I got only one and had to wait until next Christmas for a second, with dirty brown handles. Poor me, I’m the poor New Mexico cousin.

But I shot the damned deer.


The next hunting season I carry a .35 Remington and am about to ask if I can hunt with Uncle Bill. I admire his expensive rifles topped with scopes. Imagine your big buck under a magnifying glass.

But Dad asks, “Hunt with me today?”

As we hike away from camp, he mutters, “Bill walks like a maniac. He’s noisy, strides fast, twenty miles a day, and returns to camp without a deer.” Then Dad pauses and says, “Let’s try something.”

We find a tree. “Stand by it and be quiet. I’ll head out, then circle back toward you. Maybe I’ll drive a big buck right past you.”

I squat in the bushes that huddle around a thick pine tree. I wait and wait. Half an hour, still nothing. Then a faint sound. Twigs snapping. Dad’s coming back?

I’ve had been taught religiously, “See what you shoot.” I click off the safety but don’t let my finger stray to the trigger. I point the rifle toward the sound.

Don’t shoot your dad.

I wait. More silence.

Again, twigs are breaking.

A buck is weaving through the scrub oak. He ambles, stops, looks, then repeats the pattern. I’m waiting for the next pause when he begins to run. I swing the sight just past his nose and squeeze. He falls. I wait, then fire another round. No chasing after blood trails.

I sneak toward the downed deer, keeping my distance until I’m certain he’s dead. I stare at the crumpled body in the grass, find a long stick to poke him. Dead. I count the points, eight. One brown eye is still open asking why. No dad, no uncles, just this deer and I, alone in the woods, contemplating life and death.

Now what? I pull the Old Timer hunting knife out of its sheath. Dad taught me to cut off the musk bags quickly so the meat wouldn’t taste wild. The bags aren’t really bags, more like fuzzy shaving brushes. I use a leaf to grab the patches on the rear legs and slice around them. Foul-smelling buck scent floods my nostrils, so I bury the stinky stuff under rocks.

I cut the deer’s throat. Blood spills onto the ground. I open the deer’s rear legs, slit him full-length. Guts spill onto the ground.

Then, more twigs. A human gait?

Dad lopes in yelling, “I heard a shot. Wow, you got him! He ran right by you, huh? Don’t cut those guts. That’s shit in there, you know.”

“Dad, I’m seventeen. I know where shit comes from.” He pauses. I say, “I have some rope but no pulley.”

“Me neither,” he says.

We’re gutting on the horizontal when an uncle arrives carrying block and tackle. Up goes the deer, head down so the blood can drain.

Not being Native Americans, we have neither a dance of celebration nor a prayer of apology, so we indulge in poor white Protestant back-slapping.

The next day we tie the buck to the fender of our pickup, stopping at way too many gas stations on the way to Clovis. I’m happy to have Dad brag for me, but I’m eager for Mom to marvel at the antlers and admire our meat-getting prowess.


Pappy, Mom’s dad, owns a semi-automatic shotgun in the days when the rest of us could afford only single-shots or double-barrels. When he clicks the trigger rapidly, you might think he’s shooting an automatic. But who brings home the quail? Not me, for sure, but not Pappy either. The boom-click-boom excites him, us too, but the bobwhites keep flying through the hail of shot. Some of the uncles, equipped with simpler shotguns, are more effective at toting home a canvas bag full of fowl, feathers, and lead.

Occasionally, we’d encounter a brood on the ground, the chicks clustered around the mother. Once I was about to blast them to kingdom come, but I was stopped. A shotgun, the men said, would hammer blood-soaked meat and feathers into the dirt. The birds would be torn to shreds, and the chicks would be unrecognizable. Nobody thought such shooting was sportsmanlike, so this scene was unanimously censored. Real men don’t kill families.

Even as a teen I thought automatics were a cheat. When I earned my first and only NRA marksmanship medal at Scout camp, we were taught that one bullet does it. Today’s NRA, in servitude to gun companies, wants you to collect assault weapons. A single click and you hose the enemy with a wash of bullets.

I didn’t think of hunting as murder, but twice I murdered animals.

Bow and arrow in hand, I stroll through Hillcrest Park toward the archery range at the back of the lion’s cage at the Clovis zoo. A crow is cawing from the top of a scraggly elm. Knowing I’ll miss, I whip up my bow and let the arrow fly. The crow, pierced through its breast, bounces from branch to branch to the ground. I’m shocked, guilty. You can’t eat crow.

Before deer season, I carry a refurbished .30 caliber Springfield to Running Water Draw. A rabbit waddles across the path. I don’t think. Instead, I aim and fire. The rabbit collapses. As I get closer, I see it’s a jenny, not a jack. I’m shooting hollow-points. When they hit, they spread rather than pierce. Dead baby rabbits are writhing in the dirt. Shamefaced, I resolve never to shoot females, only males. Real men don’t kill girls, much less pregnant ones.


Drained by drought, our family loses the farm and is forced to move to town, where I become fair game for bullies. In the sixth grade, pummeled and crying, I retreat home. I’m telling Mom what just happened when the neighborhood band of bad boys strides down the middle of Sycamore Street.

Sounding too much like Dad, Mom insists, “You have to fight, Ronnie, or this will go on forever.” She pushes me out the door and locks it behind me.

Under the brutal weight of a dual parental commission, I fight. I’m about to lose when Mom, her kindness having caught up with her, storms out the front door crying to stop the fight.

One bully, now shuffling away, mutters, “Ah, Little Suck gets his ass saved by Mommie. How cute.”

I’d never live it down.


Having just returned from church camp, dating a new girl, we stroll hand-in-hand across the Clovis High campus.

A loud male voice shatters our enamored gaze, “Hey, asshole!”

It’s Bart. He’d beaten my nether regions to a pulp when I entered high school last September. “Initiation,” he sneers, as he and half a dozen others line up to see if they can break oak paddles over my buddy and me.

I ignore his taunts.

“Hey, Greasy Grimes, motherfucker, I am talking to you.” I start to turn in Bart’s direction, but Marlene tugs at my elbow and we turn a corner around the library.

That afternoon Dad arms me with a lead-filled rubber hose, then sends me to consult with Ozzie Fulgham, chief of police. He recommends that I carry a shotgun in the car. His only caution, “Let Bart open the door first, then pull the trigger. I’ll come pick up his remains off the street.”

I spend the night in fear and shame, praying, swearing, crying.

By the next morning I have a plan.

Bart is surrounded by shit stompers and football players. His sneers are louder and more aggressive than last time. He reissues his unholy invitation, “Hey, you miserable son of a bitch, why don’t you come over here and let me shove this fist up your ass? Motherfucker!”

I’ve coached Marlene. She lets go of my hand and heads to the dining hall. I turn and stride toward Bart.

David and Goliath. High Noon.

“What did you just say?” I ask with uncharacteristic bravado. The group tightens around us.

This is a huddle. I am a football.

“You heard me, shithead,” he says.

“Yeah, I guess I did.” He outweighs me by sixty pounds. He’s six-two; I’m five-six. He’s a tanned country boy; I’m now a pale townie. He loads hay; I toss newspapers into people’s yards.

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a Gideon New Testament. “See this?” I say. Someone gasps. “This is a Bible. You ought to read it.” I shove it toward the horns on his belt buckle.

He leaps back. The Word of God is radioactive.

“You goddamned son of a bitch,” he screams, his voice rising to girlish heights. “I ought to kill you!”

“Love your neighbor,” I retort, my confidence soaring. “Read the Good Book; it’ll save your soul.”

I have his balls in a vice.

Bart’s eyes are wide, streaked red. As I turn to walk away, an astonished hubbub arises among the guys. Bart’s venomous stream pelts my back.

Later, when I retell the story, I’ll spice it with a verse from St. Paul, “For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”


A year passes. Bart avoids me.

Late one afternoon I return from quail hunting with Pappy’s semi-automatic shotgun. It’s propped up—where else—against the shotgun seat, its barrel aimed at the floor. I decide to drag Main. After a loop, Bart pulls his pickup beside me, gunning its eight cylinders so the dual-chrome-stacks howl. I’m driving Dad’s turquoise station wagon, a suburban embarrassment with a quiet muffler. We stop at a red light. Bart opens his door, starts to get out. I push the shotgun barrel out the window toward his face. He gets back in, slams the door, shouting fucker as he drives away.

The borrowed shotgun was happenstance, not a plan. But suppose I’d followed Chief Fulgham’s advice. I’d have gotten off with a self-defense plea, but who would I be now? A righteous killer.

After this encounter I felt like a coward, so as a graduate student, I start martial arts training. For years, when I returned to Clovis, I hoped Bart would find me, alone, without Pappy’s shotgun.


I inherited Dad’s deer rifle, a .300 Savage, but I leave it in the care of a Texas-dwelling brother. Thirty years later I’ve not reclaimed it.

Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sell my treasured .22 Browning. Its receiver is etched; every curve is right. I touch this object of beauty gently, as if it were a new car worthy of hand-waxing. I can dismantle it into two pieces and stash them in my suitcase, but it would feel like a breach of decorum to carry a gun-infested suitcase into my new country.

The .22 is an icon, with a history, so getting rid of it is a sacrifice. I was a senior in high school when I saw an ad for a coyote call. When it arrived in the mail, I ripped open the package, stuck the thing in my mouth and blew. The sound surprised me—didn’t sound like a coyote, so I read the instructions. This thing makes the sound of a rabbit in distress, not a coyote. Dumbass.

One morning I grab the .22 and head for the sandhills beyond Portales. By the time I wiggle through barbed wire, it’s almost noon. I’m hungry, so I settle into the shady, soft side of a dune. Unbeliever, I half-heartedly blow the coyote call, then stuff my mouth with a big bite of fried bologna sandwich. I’m almost asleep when I hear a sound at the top of the hill behind me. I’m twisting toward it as a coyote leaps over me, landing just below my feet, too close to shoot. He’s as scared as I am, so he turns on me. I smash the wooden stock of the Browning across his back. He limps off into the sagebrush while I check to see if I’ve pissed myself.

Years later, I repair the Browning .22 as you would a child’s beloved rag doll, then sell it before crossing the northern border.


As a kid, I associated guns with courage because brave cowboys deployed them against Indians who threatened to rape your wife or burn your kids. I was in my twenties before it dawned on me that cowboys armed with rifles, peeking through the spokes of wagon wheels, seemed cowardly. Those Indians on the screen, they’re going to count coup on you or die. Almost naked, they’re coming at you bareback. Closer by the second, they’re letting arrows fly off charging horses.

After the movie, as you stumble, from the cinematic cavern, into the bright light of a New Mexico day, ask yourself: In this scene, who is brave? who is skilled? who is riddled with fear?

We white boys are.

At thirty-five, I did what Dad did, taught my son, no taller than my belt, to shoot. At twelve he died of a rare bone-marrow disease. Well-armed, he journeyed to the Great Beyond.

Guns rarely protect you from the forces that will actually take your life.

Today most of my Texas Panhandle relatives are licensed for concealed-carry. Stats don’t matter. It’s the American way; gun-toting is an article of faith. Dad armed my sister soon after she graduated from New Mexico State. She was a traveling court reporter. He bought her a pistol for the glove compartment. When I asked him why, he said, “She’s my only daughter, and she’s traveling up there.”

“Up where?” I asked.

“Taos, Raton, Mora County, places with lots of . . . you know, violence.”

Dad is speaking in code. He means places with a high proportion of Hispanics. Around Clovis, when whites killed whites, the news died out quickly. When Hispanics or blacks killed whites or each other, laws and assumptions were endlessly debated. The key assumption: their killings are worse than ours.


After the massacres at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopan Church, then at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I ask my brothers about their experience with guns. One brother, four years younger, says he’d been deer hunting twice. One year he missed a standing deer three times. Later Dad and he discovered that the front sight had slid almost out of its groove. The next year he got a deer. Today he punches holes in paper human silhouettes at a firing range and carries a gun in the glove compartment, but his favorite story is about refusing to use his pistol by talking down two gun-toters instead.

My other brother, eight years younger than I, says his experience with guns was short. “I shot a rabbit. Our cousins said it wasn’t dead, so I had to shoot it again, close up. That was the end of my hunting career—no desire to shoot bunnies or Bambi.” He too fires at paper, for sport.

Since the election of Trump, my sister and I can only make peace by walking circles around religion, politics, race and guns.

I ask my youngest brother if he was jealous of my hunting trips.

“Are you kidding,” he says, “I was relieved.”

Both brothers talk about “hunting” trips with Dad and his friend Gibb after they retired. The brothers wouldn’t buy a license or carry a rifle. The old guys would ritualistically buy licenses and carry rifles, but Dad said he didn’t care whether he got a deer. By then he was middle-class and didn’t need the meat, so the pressure to hunt and shoot eased up through the birth-order and slackened with Dad’s increased age.

“What’s the point?” I ask.

One brother says, “Nature hike.”

The other says, “Fellowship.”

I tease him about giving a Baptist answer.

“No, I actually heard him use that word.”

“Male bonding,” my other brother says.

“So,” I ask, “guns don’t really matter for male bonding?”

“No,” we all agree.


As a kid I didn’t think of guns as weapons. They were farmers’ tools for killing rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, a hunter’s way of feeding the family. If you are poor and your family in need of food, killing deer isn’t sport; it’s survival. Growing up though, I learned that guns can become weapons. Weapons imply enemies. In old cowboy movies the enemy is scruffy and ugly, wears a black hat. In old war movies, the enemy speaks another language, doesn’t look like you, lives overseas. Today, movies, TV and computer games wrap their tentacles around our imaginations, teaching us that the enemy is across a border, desperate to breech our walls. You need an arsenal for self-defense. Worse still, the enemy is an internal scapegoat to whom we assign the tasks of stealing our white male identities, raping our women, abusing our kids. Ours, it’s all ours. You need spies.

Some families hope to make homes, churches, schools and cars safe by stashing pistols in nightstands, purses and glove compartments. If Americans decide to take the further step of arming teachers and wearing pistols to churches, surely, we should tell parents and kids the truth: This is a war in which we shoot ourselves.

For me, disarming has been a long process, beginning with a bullet hole in a mailbox and a shotgun aimed through a car window at a bully’s face. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and moving to Canada prompted me to put down arms. Now the election of Trump, NRA money-bullying, the murders of native and black people, white domestic terrorism, gang-shootings on streets, the killings of worshippers, concert-goers, feminists, gays, and kids—all reinforce my commitment to end a love affair with guns.

Gun violence bedevils our friends and relatives to the south. Now, homing north of the world’s longest border, my Canadian family feels safer; comparative statistics comfort us. But, like every plague, this one leaps national boundaries. In 2018 the rate of gun violence in Toronto jumped 200%. Shootouts are happening in safe neighborhoods where our kids live, on streets we stroll as a family.

Our adult-kids grew up disarmed and multicultural. When I tell them coming-of-age-with-guns stories, my son Bryn teases me with a question, “And replace that bad gun habit with what good habit?” He whips out a harmonica, “How about a 10-holer (or should I say, 10-gauge)?”

He gives me a quick lesson at the end of Canadian winter. We muse and laugh at our grand revelation: Men can bond while playing out their manhood on 10-holers and bicycles.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if the young teach us to play. And we can learn to play only by disarming.

Reading Gestures

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. raise their hands to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

If you read gestures, as ritual studies folks tend to do, this is a provocative photo.

In reading sacred texts a religious studies scholar wants to be doing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis. “Exegesis” means “to read out of.” “Eisegesis” means “to read into.” A believer, unlike the scholar, is engaged in eisegesis.

To read the political gestures in the photo is eisegetical:

Bernie: Damn it, listen to me. I reach forward, not backward. I’m balding from wisdom.

Joe: Before God in heaven, I tell you. I am an upright man. My hand is desk-steady.

Elizabeth: My hand and my brain are connected. Shorter than a man but brighter. Please, teacher, my turn.

It’s fun to play the game. Get 3 friends. Ask each to write down 3 meanings for each candidate’s gestures and postures. Compare. Argue. Vote, not on the basis of each candidate’s explicit ideology but on the basis of your gut, gesture-informed feeling.

The internet is full of guides for reading and using what we used to call “body language.” Here’s an example from MindTools and another from VeryWellMind.

I’m not a believer in the “this gesture means that” school of thought. For one thing, too much depends on context. For another, gestures are easily taught, learned, then performed.

When I watched this debate, I quickly tuned out hair (dyed, permed), clothing (chosen to send a message), arms (too choreographed) and eyes (too busy reading teleprompters and pretending to “see” the audience) and went for mouths as the most revealing: how they twisted and turned, whether sound came from the middle or sides, how they opened and closed.

As the debate wore on, I lost focus. I was watching everything, which, of course, is more than humans can do. By end I had “a feel” for ways to cast my vote.

Eisegetical? Sure.

A Big Question for voters: Should I vote on the basis of (1) Ideology: explicit, verbally articulated policy? (2) Identity: female/male, black/white, gay/straight, old/young, rich/poor? (3) Intuition: a “feel” informed by postures, gestures, and tones of voice? (4) Strategy: I feel this way, but will vote that way?

Liturgical Supinity, Liturgical Erectitude

On the Embodiment of Liturgical Authority

This article was published quite some time ago, in 1993. Buried in an important but obscure journal, Studia Liturgica,  it was rarely read. After the recent papal council on clergy sexual abuse, debates about gender, celibacy, and the priesthood are emerging in the media. It seemed the right time to make this essay available again.

A central theme in ritual studies, at least as practiced in the field of religious studies, is embodiment.[1] When embodiment is given a position of theoretical primacy, posture and gesture emerge as crucial considerations in the interpretation of a rite. Posture and gesture, though micro-units in a ritual enactment or ritual tradition, assume considerable importance, because they encode both intended and unintended meanings—meanings “transmitted” as well as meanings “given off.” We use the term “posture” in two ways. On the one hand, it refers to one’s physical posture (as in, “That child has poor posture”). On the other, when we speak of “political posturing,” the phrase refers to one’s ideological commitments and ways of displaying them. A posture is not only one’s manner of physical comportment (how one parks the body, so to speak) but also one’s attitude—one’s manner or style in the world. “Attitude” denotes the spiritual counterpart of posture, though even this term has both psychological and physiological connotations. We speak of “mental attitudes” but also of the attitude, or tilt, of a sail boat. A mental or spiritual attitude is indicated by our tilt or cant—that is, the way we sit, walk, or move. The terms “attitude” and “posture,” then, refer to the same thing except that “attitude” emphasizes the psychological and spiritual dimensions, while “posture” connotes the physiological and ideological dimensions.

In liturgies participants assume postures that both reflect and cultivate attitudes. When deeply embodied, these attitudes become determinative metaphors that permeate the intellectual, social, and spiritual lives of those who practice them. Here, I want to consider two liturgical postures and their corresponding implications for our understanding of ritual authority, the topic of this symposium. I am being both playful and polemical when I dub them “erectitude” and “supinity.”

Liturgical erectitude is a style typified by poise and verticality. When we embody it, we stand up straight; we process with a noble simplicity. We rise above our surroundings with a quiet and confident dignity—the fruit of age, tradition, and reflection.

Liturgical supinity, on the other hand, is characterized by its flexibility and its closeness to the ground. Supine, the spine hugs the earth. Supine, we are integrated with our surroundings. We are attuned to them, but our openness leaves us in danger of violation.

Described in this general and abstract manner neither posture is particular to a specific person, gender, or tradition. Buddhists may assume either or both attitudes. So may Jews or Christians, though a given tradition may cultivate one of the attitudes more deeply than the other. All of us can probably imagine persons who more obviously typify either erectitude or supinity, and we may suppose that one is more characteristic than the other of a specified gender, but in theory no person, gender, or tradition “owns” either posture.

However, my reflections on the two attitudes did not arise in the abstract, so, lest these characterizations seem disembodied in the very moment that I propose to discuss embodiment, I will situate them more concretely. Recently, two queries regarding ritual authority arrived at my desk. The first came in the proposal for this symposium, which bears the title, “Reclaiming Our Rites,” and which originally bore the subtitle “Reasserting Ritual’s Authority in a Pluralistic, Privatized Culture.” This proposal embodies the posture that I am calling liturgical erectitude, so I will spend most of my energies considering it.

The proposal asks specific questions and assigns me the task of addressing them from the point of view of ritual studies. I was given the tentative title (and implicit question): “What ‘ritualizing’ can teach ‘rites’ and ‘liturgies.’” My job description implicitly calls these terms into question by framing them with quotation marks, and yet it elevates “ritualizing” (which I suspect is associated with my own writing) to authoritative status by assuming that it has something to “teach” rites and liturgies (which, I assume, is associated largely with Christian, perhaps even Roman Catholic, liturgy).

The synopsis of the symposium contains these two paragraphs:

The liturgy is no longer seen as an established pattern of invariable words, music and gestures, but as a freely improvised service that varies enormously from parish to parish—or from Mass to Mass within the same parish. While such innovation may showcase the skills of some parish members (e.g., the presiding priest, the musicians), it also risks subverting the larger community’s participation in the ritual action. For a primary purpose of ritual is surely to enable to the participation of everyone by creating a pattern of familiar, repeated actions that can be “done by heart,” without artifice of self-conscious display.

This rather widespread disregard for the integrity and authority of ritual…is a principal reason why the Center for Pastoral Liturgy has chosen to host this symposium on the problem of ritual’s declining authority in both church and society. It is not so much that our churches—or our cultures—lack rituals, but that these rituals lack authority. Unlike those of archaic peoples, our rituals (whether those of the rock concert, the football stadium, or the church) seem quite improvisatory and provisional. We often “make them up” at will, without invoking ancestral precedent or tradition, and we just as often discard them in favor of “new and improved rites.”[2]

The second query, which I will use to illustrate the posture of liturgical supinity, arrived in the form of a phone call from a woman I had not met and whom I will call “Renata.” She is, let us say, from Tucson. Renata wanted some advice about an initiation rite that she was constructing for half a dozen girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen. She had roughly the month of August during which to construct the rite, prepare the girls and their mothers, and perform the ceremony. She had been reading books on women and ritual having to do with menstruation, female body imagery, “croning,” and other such matters of ceremonial importance to contemporary North American women, and she wanted my reactions to the scenario for the ceremony. Clearly an intelligent and articulate woman with considerable initiative, she had made phone calls to adults actively involved in creative forms of initiating adolescents into adulthood. Unfortunately, they were all men. Even though she knew many ritualizing women, she could find no groups of women who were designing rites for groups of girls.

In talking with me she was obviously not escaping her dilemma, so I put her in touch with the only local woman I knew who had any experience with initiating girls. For the duration of our first conversation I mostly asked questions, for example, What was the sequence of actions? Her plan, still in very provisional form, was to have several discussion meetings in town. After that she, the girls, and their mothers would go on a brief retreat to the mountains, where they would “die” by entering a darkened sweat lodge and then “rise” into womanhood by coming out into the light. This was to be the central ritual act. All the other gestures would be tributaries to this paradigmatic ritual act.

I asked more questions: What was her goal?

To initiate the girls into adulthood.

Who would effect this transition?

She would, assisted by the girls’ mothers.

What had been the role of the mothers so far—were they actively involved in the planning?

No, not really.

Was she a mother of one of the girls?


Was this initiation authorized by the church in which the discussions would occur?


These two queries were the sources of the two polarized voices I heard as I began to reflect on the question of ritual authority. When I was feeling playful and a bit perverse, I sometimes reduced each inquiry to a single question. The question for this symposium became: How can a massive, centuries-old, multi-national religious institution maintain its ritual authority among highly pluralistic, materialistic, individualistic, mobile parishioners living in a racist, militaristic, deeply psychologized society? And I rendered Renata’s inquiry this way: How can a young adult woman with few degrees, no children, no formal religious sanction, and no “grandmothers” successfully initiate half a dozen girls in the four weeks that compose the month of August?

Despite my hyperbolic reframing of the essential questions, I take both queries with equal seriousness. I probably do what the symposium organizers suspected I would do, since, in describing my task, they posed this question, “To what degree—and in what ways—does the field of ritual studies (with its habit of ‘phenomenological levelling,’ its penchant for taking the Tennessee snakehandler’s ritual as seriously as the bishop’s solemn ministrations) challenge the (Christian) liturgist’s affection for norms, paradigms and ‘privileged moments’ of history?”

The question of religious authority is a classical Western one, and it has traditionally been framed in ways that are not only culture-specific but androcentric. I am not referring only to the obvious historic exclusion of women from positions of liturgical authority, but to the inscription of masculine postures and attitudes in liturgical practice and theology. For instance, I cannot imagine Renata’s being the least interested in a liturgy whose symbols and gestures (as described by the symposium organizers) are “hearty” and “robust.” Not only would she question whether the liturgy is, in fact, hearty and robust, she would probably hear in both adjectives an old-boys’-club rhetoric that fails to grasp the tenor of her aspirations. Heartiness and robustness are among the virtues of liturgical erectitude. In the current North American cultural situation, they are expressions of an androcentric liturgy. Even more directly to the point, I cannot imagine Renata’s agreeing with the claim that when a “liturgical order” is enacted, those who engage in it indicate—to themselves and to others—that they accept whatever is encoded in the canons of the liturgy they are performing. In short, they acceded to the liturgical rite’s authority, an authority that yet remains independent of those participate in it.[3]

For what gives liturgical rites their authoritativeness is not, ultimately, the participants’ approval or fidelity. What makes the liturgy socially and morally binding is not the participants’ private, prayerful sentiments (however worthy these may be), but the visible, explicit, public act of acceptance itself.[4]

These two statements seem to me a fundamental premise and undergirding value of this conference. It is the tip of an iceberg, a flag signaling a view that is gaining momentum in the wake of post-Vatican II disenchantment and the waning authority of traditional Euroamerican masculinity. It is a very Catholic view (though, of course, there are other Catholic views), and it is set squarely against the individualistic “habits of the heart” (that Robert Bellah was probably invited to this conference to criticize). I am intrigued by the fact that the claim is buttressed not by arguments from scripture or Catholic theologians but by anthropological theory, especially that of Roy Rappaport. My objection is not to the use of anthropological theory as such but to the uncritical appropriation and reactionary use of it. Rappaport’s work seems to me fundamentally descriptive and analytical in intent; whereas, this use of it is undeniably normative. The logic seems to be: “Ritual is like this, therefore liturgy must be like that.” Rappaport says ritual insulates “public orders from private vagaries,” thus, the proposal for this symposium concludes that the liturgy is inherently superior to personal prayer, popular devotions, and made-up rites.[5]

I am sympathetic with the insistence that Christian liturgy ought to assume a critical, prophetic posture toward middle-class American popular culture. Certain aspects of American culture certainly deserve sustained spiritual critique, and liturgical enactments have on historic occasion provided an effective platform from which to launch such an attack: “…The Liturgy of the Christian assembly stubbornly resists the manipulations of both politics and civil religion.”[6] No doubt, it sometimes does. However, no doubt, it sometimes does not. My claim that it sometimes does not is central to a deep disagreement with the aim of this symposium: “reclaiming our rites” understood as a reassertion of liturgical authority. Who are numbered among the “our?” Christians, clearly. Catholics, clearly. But how can women, who have been systematically denied liturgical authority, be counted among those privileged with inclusion in the first person plural? Women can hardly be imagined as wanting to reclaim what they have not had. So I confess that, whatever the intentions of the title of this symposium, I cannot help hearing in such words a nostalgia for pre-Vatican II days when the liturgy was the liturgy and lay people knew their place. Neither can I help hearing it as a parallel to complaints by men that their authority in families and jobs has been eroded by women, particularly feminists. Perhaps it is the “re-“ in “reclaiming” and “reassertion” that conjures such connotations. In any case, I first coined the term “liturgical erectitude” after I read the symposium proposal, because in the current cultural and ecclesiastical climate liturgical authority is largely and obviously masculine.

Many who assume the posture of liturgical erectitude are busy appropriating a host of allied theological and anthropological notions, for instance, tradition. Liturgical erectitude maintains a proper relation to tradition:

Understood correctly, tradition is a word denoting those aspects of a group’s social compact which have managed to survive the traumas of history because they work in maintaining the social group as a whole. It is by this compact that the group coheres and is thus able to survive. Because of this, the social compact—however it is stated or left unstated—is the result of the entire group and its deliberative processes. Responsibility lies with the group itself and cannot be appealed to anyone’s private “revelation,” nor ought it to be taken from the group and handed over to anyone less than the total body politic.

Thus differing from mere custom and convention, tradition frees from the tyranny of the present: it also protects against aggression by the compulsively articulate, as well as against opportunism by unchecked authority.[7]

I hear such claims as aspirations rather than descriptions, so I would have to shift into the subjunctive in order to affirm them: “Oh, if liturgical tradition were consistent in delivering us from the tyranny of the present! Oh, if it were only true that liturgical tradition represented the total body politic? Don’t we all wish we could be sure that structures which have enabled us to survive would continue to do so!”

If we couple unquestioning trust of liturgical tradition with this symposium’s statements about ritual authority, Renata’s kind of ritualizing is reduced to caricature and made a symbol of the “tyranny of the present.” As a middle-class woman she becomes an example of embourgeoisement.[8] She is taken to be an instance of “private ritual vagaries.”[9] If one adds to this multi-layered critique a definition of ritual that takes it to be “…the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not encoded by the performers,” Renata’s ritualizing is not only caricatured and devalued but defined out of existence, a situation all too familiar to women and one that I find both morally and theoretically intolerable.[10]

Though it may hope to claim anthropological support, a liturgical theology which holds that a rite’s authority transcends its ambient culture and the social relationships on which it is based is not likely to receive much support from anthropologists themselves. Such a theology probably derives from buttressing theological images and ideas, such as that of a god who transcends the land. This god, of course, is metaphorically male. This “god of the gaps” (to appropriate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-worn term) will be increasingly relegated to the edges of the cosmos, not so much because he is male but because he is fundamentally removed and essentially unrelated. My prediction is that in North America a ritual authority that is not grounded in the social relationships on which it depends will suffer the same fate as the god of the gaps, and not at the hands of feminists alone. Renata, along with many other women and a growing number of men, would insist that the authority (if they would even use such a term) of ritual is dependent on—in fact, ought to grow organically out of—those who participate in it. This view is not without its difficulties, but it a cogent option.

Another feature of liturgical erectitude is what we might call “liturgiocentrism,” by which I mean theological ideologies that treat “the” liturgy as both the single center of the ritual tradition in which it is embedded and as the norm for judging its ambient culture. Several assumptions and axioms are regularly associated with liturgiocentric theologies and obviously present in the proposal for this symposium: (1) that “public orders,” such as the liturgy, are by their very nature superior to personal or private ones; (2) that Christian liturgy is somehow above its ambient culture (called in the proposal for this symposium, “the social contract”); (3) that Christian liturgy is “invariable”;[11] (4) that ritual invariance (if there were such a thing) guarantees the authority of the liturgy.

The fact that Christian liturgy has a history at all means that it is variable, changing, fluid. Even if it is a stream that flows more slowly than all others, it nevertheless changes, and its changes are often consonant with other cultural and historical changes. Though a liturgy may criticize and judge social structures, it also reflects them. In short, the liturgy is a cultural process, itself in need of constant reformation and revision. The liturgy, like persons, can err. It can and does embody oppressive structures. If in aspiration it has overcome racism and nationalism, it has not in fact. And it has not overcome sexism even in aspiration, except on rare occasion. The liturgy is not, at least in moral terms, superior to some of the private, invented rites celebrated in homes, convents, forests, and urban work places. Some of these kinds of ritualizing judge the liturgy. Renata’s attempt to initiate six girls into the mysteries of menstruation and womanhood, flawed though it may be, judges the baptismal rites of a church in which there are no huts, no nests to which women may have repose in order to bleed, write theology, weave, or draft resolutions. Nothing guarantees that “Liturgy is what underwrites [that is, is the standard for] the social contract.”[12] Sometimes the social contract functions as a standard for evaluating liturgy. One ought only to decide which underwrites which after observing actual instances of liturgy/culture interaction. One ought not assume, for theological or other reasons, the priority of public liturgy since it has at times in its history proved itself culture- and gender-bound. It has proved itself faithless for the same reason that any rite does: because it does not transcend the people who engage in its performance.

If my language seems too strong and too theological, then let us at least admit that the process of ritual revision, in which many, if not all, religious groups engage, implies the necessity of ritual criticism and the possibility of ritual infelicity. And let us recognize that, even though liturgy sometimes earns the right to be the “model for” a culture, it is also a “model of”[13] culture, and thus it participates in the foibles, injustices, and contradictions of culture.

In 1990 Helen Ebaugh delivered a presidential address called, “The Revitalization Movement in the Catholic Church: The Institutional Dilemma of Power.”[14] Her address is about the dilemma of hierarchical authority precipitated by Vatican II. Though the article says little about ritual, some of its conclusions are germane to our consideration of ritual authority. Ebaugh’s argument is that personalized religious individualism was one of the results of Vatican II, this “revitalization movement.”[15] Far from setting Catholic liturgy with its collective sensibility against or above American cultural individualism, she sees the church and its liturgy as one of the sources of that individualism. The relationship is not antithetical but circular; there is no pure or simple division between liturgy and culture, religion and society. In Ebaugh’s view “selective Catholicism” (picking and choosing which aspects of Catholicism one will participate in) is another result of Vatican II. I mention Ebaugh’s argument because we are so used to hearing accounts that blame these qualities on American culture rather than the church.[16] I do not intend simply to reverse the causal sequence by blaming the church rather than the culture but rather to argue against any dualistic understanding of liturgy and culture.

Vatican II left largely untouched the gender arrangements that underwrite Roman liturgy. Insofar as the church has begun to challenge such arrangements, it has, by and large, followed the lead of culturally informed critics. Joan Laird, for instance, has mounted a powerful critique of the gender arrangements presupposed by most traditional ritual systems, among which we must count Roman Catholic liturgy as well as much that remains of Protestant and Jewish liturgy. She argues that these arrangements “leave men free to design rituals of authority that define themselves as superior, as special, and as separate,” and “because men can be separate, they can be ‘sacred.’”[17] Thus, she concludes that, “since rites of passage are important facilitators in the definition of self in relation to society, there is clearly a need for women to reclaim, redesign, or create anew rituals that will facilitate life transitions and allow more meaningful and clear incorporation of both familial and public roles.”[18]

I believe Laird’s conclusion is essentially correct. I see no way to refute the core of feminist critique of ritual authority and no reason to obstruct women’s attempt to claim (or re-claim, if they ever had control of) their rites. In fact, liturgy, liturgical theology, and ritual theory, ought to be put in the service of this critique rather than having to be the repeated objects of it. There is a tacit but fundamental conflict between the project to “reclaim our rites,” the stated aim of this symposium, and the feminist attempt to reclaim ritual, so let us not pretend this is not a power struggle.

So far I have not engaged in critique of the assumptions about authority implicit in the ritualizing represented by Renata. If she were in attendance at this symposium, I would do so, but its presuppositions exclude her. If I were addressing, say, a New Age convention in Boulder, Colorado, at which she might be present, I would challenge at the least following problematic assumptions: (1) that personal insight and private passion, such as one finds in contemporary Anglo-American ritual groups, are by their very nature more authentic than public liturgical orders; (2) that women’s concerns, merely because they are rooted in women’s bodies, (or men’s concerns merely because they are rooted in men’s bodies) are universal and timeless—the same now as in ages past and in other cultures; and (3) that ritual creativity or authenticity displaces the need for ritual authority in the more public or conventional sense; (4) that all ancient or Native American symbols are available for mining by the White middle class for use in its ritualizing. I will not argue each of these points here. My aim is simply to illustrate that I am not uncritical of contemporary ritualizing and its assumptions about authority.

In Christian history the usual sources of authorization for anything, liturgy included, have been the Bible, tradition, and the hierarchy (pastoral as well as papal and gender-based ones as well as ecclesiastical ones). But I have not yet tackled directly the evasive theoretical question: What is ritual authority? There are multiple candidates for an answer to it. Ritual authority might be, for example, whatever

  • is endorsed (by the gods, elders, officiants, or other kinds of participants);
  • is traditional (usually done, done for generations);
  • is performed according to the rules (contained in sacred and/or liturgical texts);
  • functions (that is, fits the social context) or works (to achieve explicit goals);
  • is just (according to moral criteria).

Distinguishing kinds or levels of authority at least would enable us to notice that the symposium organizers emphasize #1 and #2 (what is endorsed and traditional), whereas Renata is more interested in #4 (what functions or works), and feminist critiques of mainline liturgy often question its moral authority (#5). Such emphases are, of course, not mutually exclusive, so there is no necessary or logical conflict between the three positions (that of established liturgiology, that of feminist liturgical theology, and that of private ritualizing outside the ecclesiastical context). The very complexity of ritual precludes any simple answer to the question, What is ritual authority? But we will do much talking past each other if we do not distinguish at least among these sorts of authority. Furthermore, there are different kinds of ritual, and these probably entail different sorts of ritual authority.

The notion of ritual authority conceals at least two, circularly related questions. The first is this: What authorizes ritual? by which is meant, Where does it come from, how does it arise, who warrants it? The stated intention of this symposium seems to emphasize this aspect of current liturgical difficulties in North America. The organizers appear interested in fostering a liturgy that has public, not merely private, validity and that arises out of time-tested, ecclesiastically grounded tradition. The second question is this: What does ritual authorize? by which is meant, What does it do, achieve, or enable? Renata is primarily interested in this question. She wants to construct a rite that will, in fact, enable girls to become women. A serious problem, as I see it, is the divorce between these questions that ought to be dialectically related. If we make the mistake of focusing entirely on the first one (what ritual authorizes), treating ritual solely as a pragmatic tool, we are tempted to ransack the world’s ritual traditions for symbolic goods, much as we once plundered the globe for spices and gold. If we over-emphasize the second one (what authorizes ritual), treating liturgy solely as a paradigm or norm (with authority over participants and culture), we attribute to it a false, heteronomous transcendence removed from criticism but also from relevance and cultural roots. So in my view those who practice liturgical supinity (a posture emphasizing attunement to cultural currents and ecological realities) as a way of fostering ritual creativity need to attend to ritual traditions, especially their own. Those who defend liturgical erectitude (a posture emphasizing public accountability and traditional integrity) as a way of consolidating ritual authority need to attend to ritual generation, especially that of women and other groups marginalized by mainline liturgical activity.

I am calling, then, for a reframing of the question of ritual authority. Since the notion of authority is so contaminated with androcentrism, I prefer to change the terms of reference altogether. We might, for instance, speak of “felicitous” and “infelicitous” rather than authorized (or authoritative) and unauthorized (or “unauthoritative”) ritual.[19] This strategy does not get rid of the authority question, but it does put it in a larger context. We need to know how and in what respects liturgies lapse into infelicity. Are, for example, non-feminist liturgies and baptisms guilty of “glossing,” that is, of using ritual procedures to cover up social problems? Do they commit ritual “violations,” actions that are effective but demeaning?

If my budding glossary of ritual infelicities seems cumbersome, there are others in the making. William Seth Adams, for instance, criticizes Episcopalian baptism on two accounts: its ritual incongruence and its ritual incoherence. Both of his judgments are made on the basis of observations and descriptions of that rite’s handling of ritual space and action.[20]

The temptation in trying to develop a vocabulary of ritual infelicity is that it could degenerate into mere academic name-calling. If so, it would, of course, be useless. But if it forced us to be more precise in identifying the level on which criticism of a liturgical rite is being levied, it might actually help the antagonists engage one another more fully and fairly. What worries me is the lack of sustained and direct public debate between male theologians who want to reassert liturgical authority and feminist ones who are marginalized by symposia such as this one because they might challenge or undermine it. What little debate there is, is far too circumlocutious and private.

Whether my terms are the best ones or not, the implication I want to press is this: liturgy’s felicitousness does not arise from ecclesiastical, biblical, conciliar, or traditional warrant alone but also on the basis of a rite’s ability to meet fundamental human need. Liturgy is as essentially cultural as it is religious. Consequently, it ought to be subjected not just to theological criticism but to ritual, ethical, and others sorts of criticism that proceed on anthropological, ecological, and psychological grounds.

If we were to be successful in reframing the question of ritual authority, our view of initiation, for example, might be different. The symposium organizers wrote in their letter to me, “…Rites without norms—or rites that are homogenized into a kind of ‘generic’ condition through over-identification with cross-cultural models (as may have happened when Christians rushed to identify ‘baptism’ with ‘an initiation rite‘)—have a hard time maintaining any authoritativeness.” Here the general question of ritual authority is focused specifically on baptism.

In my view the attempt to reimagine baptism as an initiation rite has been a largely felicitous step in baptismal history, and the church ought to go further with this experiment, not retrench on it. From the point of view of liturgical erectitude, however, the step is an infelicitous one, making baptism too generic, too cultural. A cross-cultural perspective, however, has helped provide a critical edge for assessing liturgy.

For example, Marjorie Procter-Smith in her critique of Christian baptism lays out several criteria for judging rites: the centrality of women’s bodies, naming the sources of oppression, baptism’s connectedness with the everyday, dependence on relationships among women, and ritual empowerment.[21] These are dependent in part on cross-cultural research mediated through feminist theological scholarship. Procter-Smith is, at least indirectly, indebted to the notion of initiation or some equivalent, culturally-grounded idea. Her sources are not only theological or narrowly Christian but broadly cultural, even cross-cultural. Initiation understood as a bodily, social, and political phenomenon is a product of cross-cultural research. Some of the grounds for liturgical critique, such as those launched by feminist and Marxist critics of so-called “gender ritual,” have their roots outside Christian theology.[22] They have been more attuned to ritual infelicities, especially the abuse of ritual authority, than most liturgical theologies have. Both feminist ritualizing (like that of Renata) and feminist liturgical rites (like those proposed by Procter-Smith) are more consistently open to, and dependent upon, cross-cultural research, because they do not construe the authority of ritual as derivative from either its distinctiveness or its exclusivity.

Whatever may be lost by considering baptism an initiation rite, the gain has been considerable. If Christian baptism seems to lose its uniqueness, and therefore authority, by being assimilated to a cross-cultural model, it gains connectedness, not only with women but with other cultures and classes and with human ordinariness. I am not suggesting that some generic initiation rite is necessarily less sexist or more humane than Christian baptism. And I am not arguing for the moral or ritual superiority of other kinds of initiation, but for the value of continuing to imagine baptism pluralistically, as just one (not “the”) version of human initiatory activity. Christian baptism, I believe, is more, not less felicitous, if it remains permeable to cross-culturally informed initiation rites—if those who conduct and theologize about baptism do so in the light of non-Christian as well as Christian data.

I do not mean to imply that liturgical theologians need “authoritative” “correction” from anthropologists and historians of religion who work on rites of passage, but rather that mutual critique and collaborative reimagining of ritual processes should be our aim. We in the humanities and social sciences need critique as surely as liturgical theologians need ours. For example, a recurrent assumption of rites of passage theorists is that rites of passage have their proper home in pre-industrial cultures. Victor Turner represents a widespread anthropological view when he says, “Rites de Passage are found in all societies but tend to reach their maximal expression in small-scale, relatively stable and cyclical societies, where change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and recurrences rather than with technological innovations.”[23] Is this claim true? No anthropologist that I know has presented data that demonstrates that it is the case. Perhaps the problem is rather a failure of the theoretical imagination—this time among secular academics rather than liturgists or liturgiologists. If baptism is, in fact, an initiation rite, is it not evidence that rites of passage continue in industrial cultures? Is not Christian baptism an example of a kind of initiation that continues, recast and reimagined, into industrial and postmodern society? I do not claim that the example of Christian baptism disproves Turner’s assumption, only that it makes it questionable.

I am currently struggling with the history of rites of passage theory, which is indebted largely to van Gennep and Turner. Turner’s theory of ritual is constructed around the cornerstone of liminality, the second phase in the rites of passage model. But rites of passage theorizing from van Gennep (its originator) to Turner (in whom it culminates) is determined mainly by one kind of rite of passage, namely, initiation; initiation has been regarded as the paradigm for the other rites of passage such as those surrounding birth, marriage, and death.[24] In turn, the examples of initiation are, in almost every instance those of male initiation. So ritual theory itself is not immune from the kinds of critique I have levelled at liturgical theology, because the theorizing itself is contaminated by androcentrism and colonialism.

But so what? What difference does such a conclusion make? It makes little if we imagine that theory has no life beyond the halls of academe. However, I know people who design initiations in three phases—separation, transition, incorporation—the classical threefold pattern formulated by van Gennep. I know feminists ritualizers who set out deliberately to foment liminality, a notion borrowed from Turner, who borrowed it from van Gennep, who borrowed it from…. Ritual theory itself is currently inspiring and permeating North American ritual practices, both ecclesiastical and self-generated. Whether or not van Gennep and Turner would have approved of such a use of their ideas, they (like Jung and Eliade), nevertheless, have fed the initiatory fantasies that have been with us since at least the origins of romance in the Middle Ages and the revival of romanticism in the nineteenth century.

I do not want to privilege ritual studies, religious studies, anthropology, or any other discipline, making it some new arbiter in the clash between ecclesiastical liturgiology and private ritualizing. Each of these is in need of critique. However, liturgical theologians need to stop uncritically appropriating and start questioning their anthropological (largely White male) authorities[25] and begin listening to their female ritual critics.[26] The opening of liturgy and liturgical theology to the cross-cultural resources provided by anthropology and religious studies, though not without its problems, is nevertheless essential to the felicitous functioning of a liturgy that must negotiate its position in what we all hope is a decreasingly androcentric and increasingly pluralistic world. It is also essential for debunking liturgical or theological claims to a false transcendence over culture. When culture is construed as the bipolar opposite of a male-engendered and male-controlled liturgy, it necessarily becomes the overcrowded home of women and “others.”

So, what am I actually recommending? I hope for continued, strengthened moral and cultural pressure on Christian liturgies in the direction of a more collaborative, less hierarchical, less androcentric sensibility for handling ritual power. I would like to see a sustained reconsideration of certain key notions—among them: authority, power, order, and tradition. The view of tradition, for example, that identifies its authority with rule-like order or maintains that tradition stands above culture should not be regarded as sacrosanct. There are other ways to understand tradition. It is time we admit that the reigning definitions of such notions are themselves both andro- and ethnocentric and thus in need of theological critique. When I hear calls for liturgical order and pleas for enhanced ritual authority, I cannot help thinking of Huntington and Metcalf’s compelling interpretation of Bara funerals. For these Madagascar islanders death is “an overdose of order,” thus funerals are necessary injections of chaos to revitalize and rebalance the socially generated cosmos.[27]

The Christian liturgical imagination can no longer afford the luxury of reasserting ritual authority on the basis of rules assumed to be unchanging and universal. Participants can begin to create the conditions for nurturing the liturgical imagination by refusing to reassert the authority of liturgy (or ritual theory) over those who participate in it, for the simple reason that many of us who exercise such authority are White middle-class, middle-aged Euroamerican males, who present keynote addresses at symposia like this one. If such a divestment of ritual authority means that one can no longer do the liturgy “by heart” and “without artifice” (two aspirations specified in the symposium proposal) so be it. Let us learn to ritualize our self-consciousness and our lack of authority.

In my view the feminist critique and environmental crisis require of us men who hold various kinds of ritual authority that we drop our preoccupation with ritual authorization so that we have the energy to follow the leads of others who know more than we about ritual generation. The former is typical of the posture of liturgical erectitude; the latter, of liturgical supinity. The difference between the two emphases is that the authority question (at least as posed for this gathering) starts at the top (the head) rather than the bottom (the roots). The question we should be asking, then, is not what stands above ritual to authorize it, but what lies below it. The best position from which to answer the question is supine. So if I were forced to answer the question, What constitutes ritual authority, without arguing against the question itself, I would have to say something like this: Ritual has (or ought to have) authority only insofar as it is rooted in, generated by, and answerable to its infrastructures—bodily, cultural, ecological, spiritual.

I might have approached the topic of ritual authority in a variety of ways, for example, theoretically or practically, theologically or social scientifically. I have done so ritologically, thereby assuming a position between these two sets of alternatives. My aim in doing so, however, has not been to pretend that I am neutral or to escape critique. I am not neutral, and I am well aware of the dangers of assuming mediating positions in disputes where dividing lines are deeply inscribed. In the present circumstances my own position is largely that of an advocate of the virtues of liturgical supinity (even though I know I have argued for it with considerable erectitude). I am not recommending it for women, who have known the posture for generations, but for men occupying positions of power and authority. From a supine position, into which many women have been forced both literally and metaphorically (but which I as a man have been able to imagine that I can assume by choice) one has to “overcome from underneath,” to borrow a Taoist phrase. One has to employ cultural and religious refuse, that is, the symbols our culture would prefer to bury or forget, recycling and transforming them into tools useful for the liberation of a captive liturgy.

Before I conclude, I must confess to a trick I have been playing. The image of a “supine liturgy” is not my invention. It belongs Aidan Kavanagh, from whom I have pilfered it.[28] I have inverted it, using it in ways quite contrary to his original intentions. Liturgical supinity is not a posture to which he aspires but rather one he fears and deplores. He uses the phrase to characterize the plight of a liturgy that capitulates to middle-class American culture. To quote him, “Liturgy is not [I think he means, “ought not be”] adapted to culture, but culture to the liturgy.”[29]

When I first encountered the image, it stopped me flat and stole my breath. It provoked an imagined a scenario: Liturgy was lying on its back, its spine following the curvature of the ground. It was, if you will, in missionary position. I imagined (my imagination being more perverse than Kavanagh’s) a very tall, very threatening, not very trustworthy Mr. Culture. He was standing over Supine Liturgy, whose gender I leave to your imagination.

This scenario is one Kavanagh rejects. He would have us reverse the polarities, so I inverted the imagery and ran out another scenario: Now, Liturgy is vertical, male, and standing erect; liturgical authority walks tall. Culture, now obviously female, is supine and vulnerable. To be lying on one’s back is dangerous, not to mention bad liturgical style. It is an invitation to abuse.

I do not like either scenario; I mistrust them both. By teasing out the images of erectitude and supinity, I am not suggesting that liturgical issues are really sexual ones. Instead, I am using the sexual images as metaphors for understanding the relations between liturgy and culture. I do mean, however, to imply that gender issues (as distinct from sexual issues) are more fully determinative of both liturgical practice and liturgical theology than most White male theologians readily recognize or openly admit.[30] I am also arguing that the middle class culture before which liturgy is not supposed to be supine includes some of the most articulate, critical, and creative women in the church. Thus, I question both the wisdom and morality of a liturgy-vs.-culture model. I am defending liturgical supinity not because I believe that the church ought to lie prostrate before culture, but because I believe the supine position best symbolizes what men presently prefer to ignore. Men, largely Euroamerican males, have been the inventors of most Christian liturgical traditions, so I believe that we should practice the posture we have assigned women as a way of educating ourselves ritually. We ought not pretend that the Renatas of our time merely invent their rites, while assuming that ours were “somehow given” to us.

American culture can be rapacious. We all know this. I certainly do not want to be seduced, much less raped, by a rapacious American culture. I am wary of it. But I am just as wary of canonized posturing and liturgical displays of the feathers of erectitude. I do not believe that a more prophetic liturgy needs to assume the form of liturgical erectitude or remain impervious to the supine virtues. I believe that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is much in need of liturgical supinity. A more supine liturgy, which I am espousing for White, Euroamerican men, would, of course, be perpetually endangered, a rare species. It would be a liturgy whose authority consists of the act (at once both real and ritualistic) of divesting itself of power. We men who organize and speak at conferences such as this need to meditate upon—or within—the vision of a supine liturgy, one that teases the spines of its practitioners into parallel alignment to, and contact with, the earth.

I conclude, then, by commending the metaphor of supinity to you. If you choose to embody and practice it, it will stretch muscles you did not know you have. And you may be sure that you will be sore the day after.



[1]. This chapter is the revised form of a lecture delivered in 1992 at the University of Notre Dame for a conference entitled “Reclaiming Our Rites.” In 1993 the paper was discussed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy. It was first published in Studia Liturgica (23 [1993]: 51-69). I am deeply indebted to Mary Collins, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Lynn Ross-Bryant, S. L. Scott, and Janet Walton for their reflections, critique, and encouragement in writing the original paper.

[2]. The version printed in the actual program differs slightly from this one.

[3]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 181.

[4]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 182.

[5]. For an alternative theological view of liturgy that emphasizes its public nature but attempts to overcome this tendency to accord it privileged status see Jennings, “Liturgy” and “Sacrament.”

[6]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 180.

[7]. Kavanagh, Baptism, 146.

[8]. The term is used by Aidan Kavanagh in Studia Liturgica (20.1 [1990]: 102) and quoted by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 180.

[9]. The term was originally Roy Rappaport’s (Ecology, 197). It is used by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 182.

[10]. Rappaport, Ecology, 175. In my Ritual Criticism (9-14) I have argued against such exclusion by definition.

[11]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 183.

[12]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 184.

[13]. The terms belong to Geertz, (The Interpretation of Culture).

[14]. Ebaugh, “Revitalization.”

[15]. The idea is borrowed from anthropologist Anthony Wallace.

[16]. This rhetorical strategy parallels the strategy of the 1992 Republican convention in the United States, namely, blaming all moral ills on “the culture” while maintaining that “America” (the country) is unblemished. I am indebted to S.L. Scott for pointing out this parallel.

[17]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 337.

[18]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 338.

      [19]. See my Ritual Criticism (chapter 9) for more on ritual infelicity.

[20]. Adams, “Decoding.”

[21]. Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite.

[22]. See, for example, Paige and Paige, Reproductive Ritual.

[23]. Turner, Forest, 93.

[24]. Adams (“De-coding,” 332), who advocates a “baptismal paradigm,” ought to take this bias in rites of passage theory into account, since he makes explicit use of the theory.

[25]. Such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Roy Rappaport.

[26]. Such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Janet Walton, Mary Collins, Katheleen Hughes, and the many unknown Renatas.

[27]. Huntington and Metcalf, Celebrations of Death.

[28]. Kavanagh, Elements, 56.

[29]. Kavanagh, Elements, 55. This statement is softened considerably by one that follows: “…The liturgical assembly is normally always in the business of absorbing cultural elements into itself in a rich diversity of ways and over long periods of time” (57). Clearly, Kavanagh is aware that the liturgy/culture relation is not a one-way street.

[30]. The usual distinction is that sexuality is biologically given, whereas gender is socially constructed.

Rit Bits: An Unconventional Look at Ritual

A CBC interview about secular and personal ritual.

Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers

Readings at Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto by authors in Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers, edited by Susan Scott.

Reimagining guns

Partnering with Irian Fast-Sittler, a blacksmith, to transform a shotgun into a rosebush, Ron Grimes makes a case for reimagining weapons by using popular images to show that the current wave of gun violence is both a religious and imaginative crisis.

For a shorter version, focused on the blacksmithing-artistic process, see “MaidenForge.”

Responses to “The backsides of white souls”

Below are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls.”

There’s nothing like a story told by the Keeper of the House of the Dead!–You cut through life’s rawness and seduce the reader into realizing there’s a moment in each paragraph where they can think to themselves, “I know what he’s talking about.”  You are out there with one leg flailing through the ethereal fields and one foot sunk deep in the stink of the feedlots.
     My father had one of those huge black leather King James versions and my mother never took a sip of  alcohol her whole life. You and I both know a thing or two about growing up with white racism in the 40s, 50s and 60s in the midwest. I was drenched in racism, growing up on the Kansas plains, as both of my parents hated the Mexicans who worked in the slaughter houses an hour south of our white town, as well as black people, who never even ventured into our community of wheat farmers. And they didn’t ever talk about Native Americans as real citizens, even though my dad hunted for arrow heads on the farm lands around  our county and collected Indian artifacts. I finally found out, in my 50s, that my beloved piano teacher for over 10 years was a full-blood Native American, but my parents hid it from me while growing up.  When I would ask about her dark skin, my mother would explain, “Well, you know, she spends a lot of time out in her gardens.” I guessed she meant it was a pretty good suntan.
     At least you had enough courage to go back at Thanksgiving to face your family members and touch on the ludicrous political climate/crisis of our country.  As for me, I haven’t spoken to my nieces and nephew in Kansas, all Trump voters, for over a year. They’re all that’s left of my Kansas family. I finally decided it was energy wasted–but still feeling “the quicksand of unfinished business.”
     I hesitate to plan my burial plot details. Once I thought I would have my ashes buried by some kind of stone in my family plot in the Kansas  cemetery, next to the marker for my first child, where her hair was buried.  Now I just think it’s best to fling those ashes out into the Poudre River flowing through a canyon 10 miles from my home, and let them follow the curve of nature as long as possible.
     With no illusions, I know we are in an ecological time of Death. Yet offering sacred rituals to the earth and staying connected to magic and mysticism in a corn-and-potatoes way with my medicine gift of art, keeps me hoping and singing on.  Some kind of savage grace . . . .

If you needed years and 26 drafts to process and eventually produce your piece, I can imagine that Black readers will also have to process the essay for a very long time in order to be at the same time truthful to their deep-down feelings, while taking into consideration the very honest and respectful way you handled the issues, while keeping yourself in the picture. It is a very good piece but impossible to dismiss the horrifying facts it is about. Trying not to be offensive to you and having to face the negative feelings is a real challenge. But you know all that… An Australian Aboriginal reader wrote to me, “A good read about a brave and decent bloke, but a disturbing feeling lingered with me. The KKK, ugghhhh.” It’s interesting to see how much you and Susan had to re-attune yourselves. Now that you have written with her, perhaps a similar dialogue would be possible with Black writers. Might be risky for sure.

I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.

I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative.  This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____  said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.

This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.

Thank you for sharing this. Interesting, really well written, and disturbing in places. That heartbreaking image of the man who just wanted a drink.

Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.

In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing.  In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true!  As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017.  There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.

I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.”  I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues.  I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion.  I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.”  Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side.  It would be difficult.  Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking.  AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish.  No easy task.  I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.

Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.

I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”

CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.

A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.

Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.

So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.

Thank you so much for sending this essay along. What a story! A compelling read.

Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university.  I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you  … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.

Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break.  The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had.  I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.”  There  was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.

I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.

I’m glad you were able to get those demons exposed, out in the world.

Many resonances here with my own childhood on the border between Friona and Clovis, and complicated ancestors who settled that area in the early 1900s with roots in the church and racism. Can’t say that I’ve ever been to Munday. But spent lots of time in Clovis enjoying chile rellenos.

I read your piece in Canadian Notes & Queries and really liked it – though “like” isn’t quite the right word for the subject matter.

A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it.  I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.)  I found your essay most interesting.  The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too!  Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.

This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.”  I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here.  Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment.  You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.”   These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones.  Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada.  As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy.  Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy.  Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it.  A minority know it and work against it.  But no one, whatever their color, is free of it.  Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few.  The currents of culture and history run very strong.  I guess that’s what your essay is about.

Thanks so much for the article.  It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.

There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like,  “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…

I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.”  Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep….  Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin!  I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.

I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.

Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members.  I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority.   However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.

Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…

On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.

I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him.  I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.

Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done.  I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead.   But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like?  Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you.  You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece.  And that’s to the good.

I find the essay inspiring, comforting and sad. Sad because of the chasm it opens to the readers’ face and the melancholic longing to transcend it, knowing transcending is impossible.  Comforting, because your essay does not conclude to chasm but keeps alive the longing. Someday the chasm might be transcendable, although probably not by us. The longing is a thread, a runway, a beckoning for a generation to come. I find the essay inspiring, I felt it makes sense to word your emotions and carry your thoughts. They have become digital paper planes across the divide. You ask questions, your sister prays. You might not get back your planes in plain paper, they arrive transmuted in a different shape, out of a strangely similar longing. You have transcended the gulf that divides you and your family by taking up your pen. The wide gulf is still there, but you have painted a picture that holds everyone together.That is the magic of writing. Thank you for that.

Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future.  I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.

The backsides of white souls

The backsides of white souls

Ronald L. Grimes

Black History month starts on February 1, so I am re-posting this essay from its original publication in Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ).

A selection of films for Black History Month: National Film Board of Canada.

For background on the writing of this essay see “Sleeping with the Author” from The New Quarterly.

Image: Daniel Donaldson

I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk”

Presence dreams slice open my sleep. The night hangs heavy as an intruder lurks over the bed. The Presence is so haunting and deadly that it jolts me awake, sometimes howling.

As a teenager growing up in New Mexico, I hung an Old Timer hunting knife on the bedpost. Although I used its curved blade to skin a deer then, it can’t protect me now from the Presence.

In the mountains outside Corona, I carried a cranky antique Springfield rifle bought with paperboy’s wages at the army-surplus store. I steel-wooled and re-blued the barrel and magazine, then carved a stock from a hardwood blank. My uncles admired the handiwork and cheered my incipient manhood for bagging a buck.

Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sold the rifle, but for years the Old Timer, dozing in its leather scabbard, dangled from the bedpost collecting dust. One evening after Trump’s election, I desperately wanted to shout over the world’s longest, wall-free international border, “I’m so glad I live here, not there!” Instead, I locked the knife into an attic treasure box, a wooden soy sauce crate lugged home from an alley in Toronto’s Chinatown.

Recently, a new nightly series has emerged: House-of-the-Dead dreams. These dead are ghost-story frightening, not terrifying like the Presence. The multi-storey house rambles to the top of a hill then burrows into a warren beneath it. Below ground, the dwarf-like dead keep the boiler room running but scurry out of sight when I appear. Like them, I work to keep the House of the Dead alive. It’s raining. I worry the place will collapse. I search the attic for leaks, tiptoeing so as not to disturb the ghosts, some of whom float vertically, others horizontally. They utter sounds. I reply in a language I can speak but don’t understand.


Grandma and Pappy’s house has a basement, a rare architectural feature in Clovis. I sneak into it, cutting through spider webs and stepping on centipedes. Pappy approves, Grandma doesn’t, even though she owns a stylish black dress with spiderwebs sprawled across it.

Leaving their home one afternoon, I spot a thick layer of dust on the concrete coping atop the bricks of the front porch. I crane back to see if Grandma is watching. She isn’t, so I finger “KKK” into the dust, then bike home.

Mom meets me at the door. “Did you write KKK on your grandma’s front porch?”


“Did you?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”

“Do you know what it means?”

“No, I heard it and liked the sound.” I lilt, “Ku Klux Klan, Ku Klux Klan” hoping she’ll sing along.

She doesn’t.

“Come in,” she says.

We spend the next half hour at the kitchen table, where she instructs me about the Klan. “Members,” she says, “carry weapons, wear dunce caps, and perform secret ceremonies. They hang Negroes from trees and say ‘nigger.’ The KKK looks down on colored people. And you should know they’re God’s children, just like you and me.”

Mom is the only white person I know who says “colored” or “Negro.” She reminds me that at age three I had pointed to a black couple, asking, “Nigger? Nigger?” Now I am ten. She is determined that the N-word should never again come out of my mouth. KKK shouldn’t come out of it either.

“Don’t ever say that word, and apologize to your grandmother,” she said at the end of our talk.

I assume Grandma is outraged by my being complicit with such an un-Christian group, so I yield to Mom’s demands.


During my high school years, I study the Bible with Grandma. Compared with my siblings and cousins, I am studious and devoutly fundamentalist. Grandma chose me for this instruction, knowing that God himself had. Mom’s mom is articulate, sure of herself, the smartest woman I know, so I readily consent to her tutelage. A black, leather-bound King James Version spread across her lap, she dominates my religious life until I leave for college at eighteen.

Grandma loves the Bible. She’s fond of sweets and bacon fat. “Fat’s not good for you,” she says with a girlish grin, “but I love the taste.” She smacks her lips, playing up the minor gluttony in a mock-confession across a can of Log Cabin syrup at the kitchen table, where we are discussing Bible verses over pancakes and bacon. I ask her advice, “Do you think I should drink coffee or tea?” I want to live a pure, Methodist life, no bodily encounters before marriage and nary a taste of alcohol. Coffee and tea are debatable.

Llano Estacado

When Grandma becomes president of the New Mexico Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she badgers her kids and grandkids into signing cards pledging they will abstain from spirits—the wet, not the ghostly, kind. Curry County is her territory to “dry” out. That goal now seems ironic, since we lived on the llano estacado, a region so lacking in water, trees, and landmarks that Spanish conquistadors drove stakes into the ground so they could find their way back to Mexico. Thanks to Grandma’s activism, my Clovis High classmates have to drive forty-five minutes to Taiban, in “wet” De Baca County, for booze.

Grandma’s WCTU white ribbon

Grandma stands by most WCTU abstentions: alcohol, tobacco, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, prostitution, gambling, pornography, immodest dress, and drugs. Like many temperance activists, she keeps her distance from Catholics, Jews, communists, and black people. She believes in keeping Christ in Christmas, the reading and display of scripture in public places, and defending blue laws that prevent paid leisure activities like going to movies on Sundays. However, she also believes women should vote and make their voices heard publicly. And despite being a fundamentalist, she would argue down the apostle Paul, who insisted that women should remain silent in church. Whereas Pappy sleeps through worship, she dominates Trinity Methodist Church. The WCTU white ribbon symbolizes purity, but far from being acquiescent, these women couple purity with activism. Their motto: “agitate, educate, legislate.”

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the United States and one of the first to send professional lobbyists to Washington, DC. Sometimes called “the White Ribbon army,” WCTU women carried a pure white flag. Its members pledged allegiance to the “Temperance flag, emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits; the white flag that surrenders to nothing but purity and truth, and to none but God, whose temples we are.”

In Grandma’s world, what you are against defines you as a Christian just as much as what you are for. I carry in the back pocket of my Lees—we can’t afford Levi’s—a John Birch Society pamphlet printed in red ink. It lists communist movie stars whose films we faithful should boycott. The comedian Lucille Ball is among the traitorous. She is, after all, married to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban musician, and we all know it’s a slippery slope from Catholicism to communism.


In 1966, after Pappy’s death, Grandma authors a book called The Truth Seekers as Mary Sargent Williams, highlighting her ancestry by replacing her middle name, Arlevia, with her maiden name, Sargent. The book’s epigraph is from John 8:12, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The first sentence of this, her only book, rings with self-assurance, “Every statement of mine in this book is true….” Its hundred pages, a sermon laced with Bible verses, are to be her legacy. All her kids and grandkids, as well as members of the Truth Seekers, the Sunday school class she teaches at Trinity, are expected to read the book and live by it.

New Mexico’s ex-governor Andrew W. Hockenhull writes an enthusiastic blurb for the self-published volume. She and Hockenhull are mutual admirers—his woodwork graces her living room. In the years we study the Bible together, as her face bends over the holy book, my eye drifts to the curvaceously layered cherry and maple of the lathe-turned lamps he’d made for her.

In The Truth Seekers, Grandma tells the story of travelling to Atlanta as a WCTU delegate. Her imagination being steeped in biblical imagery, a trip east from the drought-ridden high plains to the home of her ancestors, lush with magnolias and pines, surely makes her think of Eden. While in the city, she visits the Cyclorama, a large diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, where she finds the name of her great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier. She’s thrilled at the sacrifice her ancestors made for their country. It would not have occurred to her that slavery had already sacrificed a large portion of the population or that, by seceding, the Confederacy risked sacrificing the entire country.

Confederates on both sides of my family made their way from Georgia or the Carolinas, through Tennessee, then to Texas and New Mexico. Confederates on both sides of the bloodline—I stagger under the ancestral weight of their presence.

Between 1966 and 1968, when Grandma is giving away copies of The Truth Seekers, I drop two sacred flags, American and Christian. By leading mixed black and white study groups in Atlanta and by marching the streets of New York to oppose the war in Vietnam, I indulge in forms of activism that render me unpatriotic, not just to Grandma but to Dad and other church members. I carry The Truth Seekers on a bus from New Mexico to New York City, then flip through the pages, and throw it away. Years later, after Trump’s election, I borrow a copy from my sister, hoping to understand the entanglement of religion and racism in our roots.

In 1972, after a two-day, sleep-deprived bus ride from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Clovis, I slip into Grandma’s room behind a cluster of aunts and uncles. A stroke has robbed her of speech. Curled into the bed, her skin is a translucent bag barely able to contain her bones. Her sunken eyes peer through black circles. Her oldest son, not one to display emotions, is praying, then wailing. When Grandma sees me, she turns her face to the wall. The deathbed scene terrifies me. I am now an intruder, an unwanted presence, lacking the courage to push through the circle to touch her hand as she prepares to enter the House of the Dead. That, not the flag-dropping, was a shameful failure.


I weigh my grandmotherly heritage. The Grandma of my memory is really, really old. Now, I am older than she ever was. I am her senior, but she is my ancestor.


Compared to Grandma’s lay-preacher flamboyance, Mom is spiritually shy, discreet about religion, politics, and sex. But at age eight, when I ask how babies are made, she gets two dolls and shows me; she answers my barrage of questions without batting an eye.

No matter the degree of your devotion, adolescence ramps up rebelliousness, so Mom devises a strategy for dealing with her question-asking, talkback son. She invites me to the kitchen table. If I’m lucky, there’ll be devil’s food cake, if unlucky, angel food. Then she tenders the offer, “Let’s exchange compliments.” I know the ritual—first the compliments, then the criticisms.

Years later, Mom becomes the only Anglo teaching at La Casita, a racially mixed school near the smelly stockyards, some of which are owned by her father. White racism in Clovis focuses more on Hispanics than blacks. Mom struggles, not very successfully, to learn Spanish. Even so, Hispanic and black women sometimes visit our home for coffee, cake, and discussions about teaching strategies, a scene I never witness at Grandma’s.

Mom dies in 1985; Dad, two years later. After his death, while cleaning out drawers and closets, we siblings and spouses discover terse accounts of dreams that marked her last days, when she was struggling with breast cancer that metastasized to her lungs. In one dream she is jerky, “meat hung up to dry.” Before her death she confessed to having upsetting dreams but wouldn’t talk about them. Now, after Dad’s death, we discover her cryptic notes about them on the backs of old Citizens Bank checks.

Shortly before she dies, Mom calls my sister into the bedroom, shuts the door, and hands her a tattered Life magazine subscription envelope.

A few years later my sister gives the envelope to me.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Why are you giving it to me?”

“Mom gave it to me. She said not to show it to you, but she’s been gone for a while, so I thought maybe you’d know what to do with it.”

William O. and Cassie Sargent, Mary Arlevia, far left.

Later I open the envelope. Its top has been cleanly slit by a letter opener. Inside is a booklet. Folded into the booklet is a carbon-copy resolution dated 1924, Munday, Texas. The letter expresses “heartfelt sympathy” to William Osborne Sargent for the death of his wife, Grandma’s mom. William O. was a respected farmer and Sunday school superintendent in Munday’s only Methodist Church. One paragraph reads, “Resolved further: that in the loss of our noble Sister, the husband has lost a loving Companion, her children, a kind, patient and affectionate Mother and the Community, a noble Citizen, which loss to all is irreparable.”

The resolution, signed in black ink by two women, a Ford and a Campbell, testifies that one copy has been “spread upon” the minutes and another sent to the Munday Times.

Hubert Thorpe Williams and Mary Arlevia Williams

William O. had moved from Cherokee County, Georgia to Texas, where he married Cassie Griffith. The firstborn of their twelve children was named Charles Wesley after the hymn-writing brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The sixth child was Mary Arlevia, my grandmother.

At sixteen, she married Hubert Thorpe Williams and moved west to New Mexico, where they obeyed God’s command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” They bought cheap land from the government and dominated it. Pappy fished. My uncles hunted. Together, Pappy and Grandma brought forth from their loins seven offspring, who in turn spawned myriads of cousins. We poor Methodist cousins lived in sand-blown eastern New Mexico. Our wealthier Baptist cousins lived back across the staunchly upright line that severs the west Texas panhandle from the high plains of New Mexico.

After rereading the consolation offered to my great-grandfather Sargent, I trip across a declaration that escaped my eye on first reading: “Mrs. W.O. Sargent was a worthy member and beloved Klanswoman.”

The line is a sledgehammer swung into the side of my head.

Harriet Tubman

I spent much of the sixties engaged in civil-rights activities and now live in Canada, 128 km. west of St. Catharines, where Harriet Tubman helped build the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario. Here, many slaves, following the Underground Railroad, entered Canada. Although slavery ended in Canada in 1834, in 1850 the US passed the Fugitive Slave Act, also known as the Bloodhound Law, since it compelled citizens and officials to return escaped slaves to their owners.

Holding the Kloran, my hands shake. Also called the White Book, it is a ritual manual. The condolence letter, typed on onionskin paper, has been tucked inside for safekeeping. On the book’s cover is a white knight on a rearing white horse. Were it not for the pointy hat and crudely punctured curtain mask that makes his face resemble a Halloween pumpkin, he might look heroic.

Trying to weather the shock of touching a taboo object, I open the well-worn handbook and read aloud to the books and masks in my study, “The Kloran is ‘THE book’ of the Invisible Empire, and is therefore a sacred book with our citizens and its contents MUST be rigidly safeguarded and its teachings honestly respected. The book or any part of it MUST not be kept or carried where any person of the ‘alien’ world may chance to become acquainted with its sacred contents as such … No innovation will be tolerated, and no frivolity or ‘horse-play’ must be allowed during any ceremony.”

On another page, “Constitutional law was stripped by profane hands of its virtuous vestments of civilized sovereignty of four thousand years in the making, and was mocked by polluted political pirates in legislative assemblies; and by the diabolical enactments of these assemblies the hands on the dial of the clock of civilization in the tower of human progress were turned back thousands of years.”

The Kloran is fundamentalist not only about the Bible but about itself. It wants its readers to believe it is sacred: a direct descendant of the American Constitution, which is a direct descendant of the Bible, which came directly from God 4,000 years ago. It claims mere politicians—likely scholars too—have desecrated the Bible, the American Constitution, and the Kloran with horseplay and criticism, thereby turning back the progress of white American civilization.

On another page, among the “qualifying interrogatories” is the question, “Are you a native born white, Gentile citizen? Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?”

The manual and letter riddle my soul and rattle my brain. Why did Mom have them? Why give them to my sister? Why not to show them to me? Who had given Mom the package? Grandma probably, but where had she gotten them? From her mother? More likely from her father, to whom the letter was addressed. Was he a KKK member too? Probably. But why had Grandma, then Mom, then my sister kept this stuff? Why was the booklet so worn? The Life envelope was a disguise, protecting the manual from prying eyes, but whose? Mine, for sure, but who else’s? In the 1920s and ’30s, women moved readily between the Women of the Ku Klux Klan and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Had Grandma continued, or escaped, her mother’s legacy by joining the WCTU?


I have a truckload of questions for my ancestors, but the dead speak a language we mortals don’t understand—even if we can mumble a few words while dreaming in the House of the Dead.

My sister thought I would know what to do with the manual. I should; I study ritual. Each year I intend to do more research, but each year I sequester the shameful booklet and letter back into their Life envelope and stuff the bundle into the locked “treasure” box below Grandma’s Bible and the Old Timer hunting knife.

When I enter the House of the Dead, what ritual will my family invent to sacrifice these fraught objects?


I am a teenager, still living in Clovis. Grandma is explaining why the Bible, and therefore God, wants to keep the races separate. Like Mom, I am becoming an integrationist, although we don’t use the term. I listen dutifully as Grandma amplifies her biblical exegesis with an exposition, a story about a large black man who appears at their house back in Munday, “I see him coming down the lane. He stands there at the gate. He is huge. His presence is terrifying. I look at him through the screen door, and I know exactly what he has in mind.”

The story ends there, dangling. I listen and blink, not knowing what’s in her mind, or his.


Now it dawns on me what Grandma’s story is about. The Kloran, along with other KKK publications, considers it the solemn duty of white men to protect the virtue—the virginity—of white women from black men. Grandma had been taught well. She knew what was in the mind of the field hand, and she feared it. She couldn’t imagine that the visitor at the gate might have come from the cotton fields for a glass of water.


The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 at Pulaski, Tennessee, by six young Confederate soldiers. John Lester, one of the Klan’s founding members, claimed its rituals were based on those of Kuklos Adelphon, a North Carolina college fraternity. The original KKK was a secret fraternity that performed blackface satire, indulged in racial mockery, and performed awkward ceremonies in a stilted imitation of King James English. Between 1871 and 1882, this first wave of the Klan died out, suppressed by governmental and military intervention.

The Klan’s second wave was improvised a few days after D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nationfirst played in Atlanta. The filmmaker was the son of a Confederate veteran, and Birth of a Nation was the first film ever shown in the White House.

At midnight, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1915, a Methodist minister named William J. Simmons dubbed himself Imperial Wizard of the renewed Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He and thirty-four others set fire to a cross on Stone Mountain, twenty miles from Atlanta, where they took the oath of allegiance to the Invisible Empire. The next year, they published the edition of the Kloran that now lies open on my desk.

Between 1912 and 1972, on Stone Mountain’s north face, massive equestrian figures were carved of three southern icons: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.


In Decatur, an Atlanta suburb half an hour west of Stone Mountain, sits a white Plantation Plain Style home belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Cobb, an old but stately couple. I never presume to call him Cully or her, Lois. To my untutored New Mexican eye, their house is a mansion, even though it was long ago severed from its original 87-acre plantation. Access to the property is through large gates framed by an imposing white wooden fence. A bronze plaque hangs on the gates: “Be ye coming or be ye going, be ye soon or be ye late, be ye sure to shut this gate.” It is the mid-1960s, and I have been awarded a graduate scholarship to Emory University that includes residence in the garage apartment at the back of the Cobb house.

I make my way into civil rights in Atlanta without knowing my ancestors had migrated west from just north of the city. I organize a Bible-study group for black and white teenagers and later discover my name is being circulated on a blacklist of theology students involved in civil-rights activities. Church officials tell me not to ask the North Georgia Methodist Conference to ordain me as a Methodist minister.

Hearing about my growing involvement in civil rights, the Cobbs offer friendly advice: “You don’t want to cross a purebred Tennessee walking horse with a mere workhorse.” The couple declare their love for Mattie, the black maid who cooks and cleans their home. At Christmas, the Cobbs deliver money and presents to black Baptist churches, “to help keep those churches alive.” They also know that maintaining the churches discourages African Americans from arriving at the front door of Peachtree Baptist Church, which the Cobbs attend.


Not long ago, another House-of-the-Dead dream troubles my sleep. Several waves of young people begin moving into the Cobbs’ dilapidated old mansion. They are making messes, stealing each other’s food. Tensions are rising. Rain is sloshing on the roof. I hear a crash inside one wall. I pull aside a piece of crumbling plaster, and a load of rubble spills onto the floor. I say to my wife, “I’ll get Mr. Cobb. He owns the house and will know what to do.” Instead, I run upstairs to close the windows. Rain is blowing in. If Mr.  Cobb sees the open windows, he’ll know I’m not taking care of the house.

The Cobbs have long since departed and the mansion has fallen into disrepair, but I dream about their crumbling house in Canada, having carried a carpetbag of unfinished business across the border.

The air north of the border is better, but not pure. White nationalism lurks in Canada’s past and, some say, organizes while we sleep. In the 1920s, Saskatchewan boasted 40,000 Klan members who announced their presence with public cross-burnings. In Ontario, the Klan held large rallies in Smithville, Kingston, and London. Ku Klux Kanada was anti-French, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant. It failed to take root in Ontario because many of its goals were already pursued by the Orange Lodge. Both organizations aimed to preserve the Britishness, and therefore the whiteness, of Canada. Currently, La Meute—the “wolf pack”—an anti-Islam group, claims 40,000 members in Quebec. Although the number is probably exaggerated, hate crimes in Canada have been increasing since 2012.


In recent years my siblings have been reversing decades of westward migration by following money and jobs back to Texas—once a Confederate, now a Republican, state. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, one of my brothers told me some of his Texas buddies were buying guns. I asked why. He said they were anticipating a race war. Eight years in the White House brought no war, but white racism pumps up fear and hatred so poisonous that nothing Obama proposed would ever be supported by Republicans. We don’t call this behaviour racism, but it is. Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.

In 2015, Dylann Roof desecrated a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina by murdering nine worshippers at Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. Photos of him posed with a Confederate battle flag were displayed on his website.

By 2016 Donald Trump is running for president, endorsed by David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. In 2017, after white racists descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, Duke publicly thanks Trump for his honesty and courage. Membership in the Klan is growing. “Make America Great,” is shot through with the same assumptions: make it white, protect it with guns and fill it with believers who look and sound like us.

Upon Trump’s inauguration the world convulses and realigns. I slog again through The Birth of a Nation. I re-read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of White Folk,” Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. I discover Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son, and wonder what I could say to my own son and daughter about our family, about America, about the world?

I retrieve the Kloran and letter and tell them as much of the story as I can piece together. Surely this Trump-inspired, third revival of the Klan will inspire white people like us to ponder race, our own. By telling this story in public, I am prying open family closets. If we love our ancestors, let us feed them questions that will set their bones to rattling.


A month before the 2016 election, I propose to my American siblings that we meet in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for American Thanksgiving. We last gathered in 2010. I ask my brothers on the phone how they are going to vote. One, reluctantly, for Hillary; the other, reluctantly, for Trump. After procrastinating, I put the question to my sister.

“Not for Hillary, I can tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like her.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t like her.”

“Your brothers don’t like her either, but one will vote for her, the other against her … So maybe you won’t vote?”

“I’ll vote all right—just not for Hillary.”

“I doubt there will be a third, viable candidate, so that just leaves…You would vote for Trump?”

“If that’s my only option. He’s anti-abortion. Hillary isn’t.”

“There’s only issue one issue you care about?”

“That’s all that matters.”

After the November 8 election, I suggest to my brothers and sister that we exchange online articles and cartoons, hoping an external focus will prevent us from chewing each other up. My sister won’t enter the discussion. She has heard from my brothers that I am angry. They don’t like my comparing our upcoming Thanksgiving meal to that of a pre-Civil War family gathered at the table. They seem to think I want to start a civil war rather than avert one.

Grimes siblings, early 1950s

Misgivings aside, my brothers come to Santa Fe. On Thanksgiving morning we three sit at Denny’s, the only place open, to talk about national and family troubles over eggs and waffles. My younger brother rehearses his reasons for voting for Trump. I just listen. My other brother, who claims he and I have never argued, says he was surprised at my anger during an earlier Skype call. I explain, yet again, that I am not mad at him. I am mad at everybody—Republicans, Democrats, myself—hell, the whole world for witnessing the pornographic scene of America going down in shame.

We discuss a dangerous old family argument. The story isn’t easy to tell or hear, since the result is a deafening silence in the family: Dad and I agree never, ever again to talk about race, politics, or religion.

Our conversation is tense, but it ends with a round of apologies and an air of exhilaration as we begin to plan a Thanksgiving feast of margaritas and chiles rellenos at Rancho de Chimayó. We leave Denny’s slapping each other’s backs and declaring, “I love you, brother.”

Between the election and Thanksgiving, my sister insists she won’t talk about politics, race, or religion in Santa Fe—not her Tea Party politics, not her End-Time Handmaiden religion. She doesn’t want to defend her beliefs or hear about mine. We agree that she can sit silently; she can avoid or leave any discussion. “My beliefs are strong,” she declares several times. “All I want is for the family to be happy at Thanksgiving.” I say I see no problem with her Texas family arriving happy and my Canadian family arriving in mourning. What are families for?

My sister might have guessed I’d arrive with troublesome questions: How could any Christian—conservative or liberal—support Trump’s vitriolic hatred? How are we to mourn the loss of America’s moral credibility? But I swallow the questions and try a diplomatic move. “Hey, when we come down for Thanksgiving, what would you think about getting together and driving over to Munday, Texas? Do you know where that is?”

“Sure, it’s not too far from Lubbock, east maybe. What would we do there?”

“I don’t know. Have a brother-sister talk, like we used to. Trade Grandma stories. Visit our great-grandparents’ grave. Consider our roots.”

In the end, my sister digs in, refusing to come to Santa Fe for Thanksgiving. She confirms her decision by consulting a woman who walks and talks with Jesus and has visions of Grandma weeping in heaven over my soul, so the refusal is final. Since then, phone calls have stopped, and emails dried up.

We haven’t yet survived Santa Fe. And we may never get to Munday. My sister prays; I question. Yet prayer has not saved us, nor has the truth made us free.

Like the nation, my siblings and I are up to our necks in the quicksand of unfinished business. We failed to gather the whole family. We failed to elect a worthy president. We failed to open the doors of the House of the Dead to question our ancestors. We failed to pay our debts for the land our ancestors took and the bodies they devastated.


If our family were ever to gather around our great-grandparents’ graves in Munday, Texas, I’d want to tell the myth of the town’s origins:

In the beginning, there are two villages separated by a thousand yards. Some say the split is the result of a feud about building the first church. One day a new Methodist minister arrives on the scene of this great divide. Using his considerable homiletical skill, he inspires townspeople to use skids, cables, and thresher engines to drag the buildings of West Munday to East Munday. In the end, the citizens founded a happy, unified town—with a cotton gin.

I’d have to bite my tongue to keep from asking who picked the cotton.

Questioning “MaidenForge”

MaidenForge” is now public. In February we will present both the sculpture and film in a nearby Mennonite Church. We’re brainstorming prompts, questions we might ask or that people might ask us.

  1. What is “Gun Shy?” If you described it to a friend, you’d call it a _________.
  2. What do you see? …if you stand back at a distance? …if you get close?
  3. What do you want to touch? Not touch? What are its textures?
  4. If “Gun Shy” were given to you, what would you do with it?
  5. Does a piece of art ever change anything?
  6. Does “GunShy” simply fetishize, idolize, or mystify guns?
  7. What message will you take away from “GunShy?” Does that match what Irian says the sculpture means?
  8. Would changing the context of display change “GunShy’s” meaning? For instance, on display at a gun show, might the sculpture be seen as pro-gun?
  9. Why should rural people care about gun violence? Isn’t that an urban problem? How can rural dwellers engage with this issue?
  10.  Does it matter than the owner of this shotgun was a Mennonite who used it for hunting? Would “GunShy” be more effective if a handgun had been used instead?
  11.  How does the film shape, or change, your experience of “Gun Shy?”
  12. Were you carried by the story?
  13.  How does the music in the film affect you? Did its rhythms or intensity add to (or detract from) your experience?
  14.  What’s left out of the film?
  15.  What needs more explanation?
  16.  What was your initial impression of “Gun Shy?” Has it changed?
  17.  What alternative title might you give this piece?
  18.  What thoughts, feelings, or memories are triggered by “Gun Shy” (the piece) or “MaidenForge” (the film)?
  19.  Imagine that you wanted to make something to encourage disarming, what might it be? A song? A poem? A quilt? A story? A painting? A sculpture? A piece of music? A tool? Something else? What’s it made of? What would you call it?
  20.  Who else should see the sculpture or the film?

Questions we might ask you:

  1. Why are the two of you working together?
  2. How much time and materials were invested by both of you in this project? Was it worth the cost?
  3. How has this project changed your thinking about the issue?
  4. How has this project affected your family and friends?
  5. Since we’re members of a peace tradition, you’re preaching to the choir, right? So, what should we do from here? How can we help?


An interpretation of Bryn’s soundtrack for “MaidenForge” by Cailleah Scott-Grimes:

It’s worth comparing “MaidenForge” to “Thak Sword Forging,” both made in Floradale’s blacksmith shop. Then try an experiment. Don’t watch the video. Just listen to the two musical scores. Then put into words your feelings about each piece of music.

An interpretation of Bryn’s soundtrack


When I first published The Craft of Ritual Studies, my son, as a joke, counted the number of questions in the book.

I was a curious kid who became an academic, so I’ve made a virtue out of what many consider a vice, asking way too many questions. Now that question-asking has become a “thing,” I have to step back and take a second look. 

My wife and I complain about people who don’t ask questions. You tell a story. It reminds them of something, so they tell another. Story-chains are fine, but we wish people would sometimes ask us perceptive questions.

Below are question-sets written by others.

Great Questions

by StoryCorps

© 2003-2017 StoryCorps, Inc.

Here are some of our suggestions for getting a good conversation going. We encourage you to use the ones you like and to come up with your own. This list is in no particular order. Choose one of the categories below, or scroll through and read them all.


  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When in life have you felt most alone?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
  • If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
  • For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?


  • If you could interview anyone from your life living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
  • What is your first memory of me?
  • Was there a time when you didn’t like me?
  • What makes us such good friends?
  • How would you describe me? How would you describe yourself?
  • Where will we be in 10 years? 20 years?
  • Do you think we’ll ever lose touch with each other?
  • Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to tell me but haven’t?


  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
  • What was my mom/dad like growing up?
  • Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
  • Was she/he well-behaved?
  • What is the worst thing she/he ever did?
  • What were your parents like?
  • What were your grandparents like?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Are you proud of me?


  • When did you first find out that you’d be a parent? How did you feel?
  • Can you describe the moment when you saw your child for the first time?
  • How has being a parent changed you?
  • What are your dreams for your children?
  • Do you remember when your last child left home for good?
  • Do you have any favorite stories about your kids?


  • Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
  • How did you choose my name?
  • What was I like as a baby? As a young child?
  • Do you remember any of the songs you used to sing to me? Can you sing them now?
  • What were my siblings like?
  • What were the hardest moments you had when I was growing up?
  • If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?
  • What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?
  • What are your dreams for me?
  • How did you meet mom/dad?
  • Are you proud of me?


  • When and where were you born?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was it like?
  • Who were your parents?
  • What were your parents like?
  • How was your relationship with your parents?
  • Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
  • Do you have any siblings? What were they like growing up?
  • What did you look like?
  • How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
  • What is your best memory of childhood? Worst?
  • Did you have a nickname? How’d you get it?
  • Who were your best friends? What were they like?
  • How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?
  • What did you think your life would be like when you were older?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?


  • Did you enjoy school?
  • What kind of student were you?
  • What would you do for fun?
  • How would your classmates remember you?
  • Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?
  • What are your best memories of grade school/high school/college/graduate school? Worst memories?
  • Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them.
  • Do you have any favorite stories from school?


  • When and why did you decide to become a teacher?
  • Tell me about your first day as a teacher.
  • How is teaching different from how you imagined it to be?
  • Tell me about a time when teaching made you feel hopeful.
  • What are the most challenging and/or funniest moments you’ve experienced in the classroom?
  • How would you like your students to remember you?
  • Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? What did you learn about teaching from them?
  • Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself in your first year of teaching?


  • Do you have a love of your life?
  • When did you first fall in love?
  • Can you tell me about your first kiss?
  • What was your first serious relationship?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight?
  • Do you ever think about previous lovers?
  • What lessons have you learned from your relationships?


  • How did you meet your husband/wife?
  • How did you know he/she was “the one”?
  • How did you propose?
  • What were the best times? The most difficult times?
  • Did you ever think of getting divorced?
  • Did you ever get divorced? Can you tell me about it?
  • What advice do you have for young couples?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?


  • What do you do for a living?
  • Tell me about how you got into your line of work.
  • Do you like your job?
  • What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you?
  • If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  • Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?


  • Can you tell me about your religious beliefs/spiritual beliefs? What is your religion?
  • Have you experienced any miracles?
  • What was the most profound spiritual moment of your life?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Do you believe in the after-life? What do you think it will be like?
  • When you meet God, what do you want to say to Him?


  • Can you tell me about your illness?
  • Do you think about dying? Are you scared?
  • How do you imagine your death?
  • Do you believe in an after-life?
  • Do you regret anything?
  • Do you look at your life differently now than before you were diagnosed?
  • Do you have any last wishes?
  • If you were to give advice to me or my children, or even children to come in our family, what would it be?
  • What have you learned from life? The most important things?
  • Has this illness changed you? What have you learned?
  • How do you want to be remembered?


  • What is your ethnic background?
  • Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?
  • Have you ever been there? What was that experience like?
  • What traditions have been passed down in your family?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • What are the classic family stories? Jokes? Songs?


  • When were you drafted or when did you enlist?
  • What do you remember about the day you enlisted?
  • How did you tell your family and friends that you were joining the military? Are there any conversations that stand out from that time?
  • If you enlisted, what were some of the reasons that you joined the military? How did you choose your branch of service?
  • How did you imagine military life before you joined? How did your perceptions change after serving?
  • What was basic training like?
  • Can you describe a funny moment from boot camp?
  • What are some of the things you remember about adapting to military life?
  • Where did you serve during the war?
  • If you deployed overseas, how did you tell your loved ones you were being deployed?
  • How did you stay in touch with family and friends back home?
  • What are some things you remember most about your deployment?
  • If you saw multiple deployments, how did they differ from each other? How did you change?
  • Can you describe how you felt coming home from combat?
  • Was there anything you especially missed about civilian life?
  • Is there someone you served with that you remember fondly? Can you tell me about him/her?
  • What are some fun things you and your friends did together while you were deployed?
  • Did any of your military friends play pranks on each other? Can you describe a funny one?
  • Did you ever get caught breaking any rules? Did you ever get away with something you weren’t supposed to do?
  • Did you ever learn something about a fellow service member that surprised you?
  • When did you leave the military? What was that process like?
  • What were your first few months out of the service like?
  • Was there anything or anyone that helped you during the transition from military to civilian life?
  • Do you have advice for others transitioning out of the military?
  • How do you think your time in the military affected you?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What are some of your hopes for the future?
  • What phrase or word will never be the same now that you served?
  • When you were first discharged, what are some things about civilians that were difficult for you to deal with?
  • Is there anything you wish civilians understood about military service?
  • What are some habits you developed in the service that you like? What are some that you dislike?
  • What are some things you miss about being in the service? What are some you are glad to have left behind?
  • What has been difficult to communicate to family and friends about your military service?
  • Do you have advice for other military couples?
  • If you have children, what do you want them to know about your military service?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What was your relationship to _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Tell me about _______.
  • Remembering the Fallen: What did _______ look like?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What is one of your favorite memories of _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: How did you find out about _______’s death?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What has helped you most in your grief?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Do you have any traditions to honor _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Do you have any funny stories about the two of you together?


  • What was your relationship to _____?
  • Tell me about _____.
  • What is your first memory of _____?
  • What is your best memory of _____?
  • What is your most vivid memory of _____?
  • What did _____ mean to you?
  • Are you comfortable/ can you talk about _____’s death? How did _____ die?
  • What has been the hardest thing about losing _____?
  • What would you ask _____ if _____ were here today?
  • What do you miss most about _____?
  • How do you think _____ would want to be remembered?
  • Can you talk about the biggest obstacles _____ overcame in life?
  • Was there anything you and _____ disagreed about, fought over, or experienced some conflict around?
  • What about _____ makes you smile?
  • What was your relationship like?
  • What did _____ look like?
  • Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?
  • Do you have any stories you want to share about _____?
  • What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?
  • Is there something about _____ that you think no one else knows?
  • How are you different now than you were before you lost _____?
  • What is the image of _____ that persists?
  • Do you have any traditions to honor _____?
  • What has helped you the most in your grief?
  • What are the hardest times?

Our stories tell us who we are

Steve Otto

Originally published in The Healing Heart Communities

Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C. 2003

This list can be revised and expanded to meet the cultural and age differences of the specific audiences. Making the list appropriate to the group will be pivotal to the success of your program. The best stories are those that happened to each of us! Remember when you used to walk three miles to school . . . Uphill both ways . . . With snowdrifts over your head? . . . Barefoot . . . ? Well, sometimes our memories are better that way. Let’s go back in our memories and pick up some of those stories of events that made us what we are today.

  • Did you use outdoor privies?
  • Did your house have central heating?
  • On what kind of stove did your mother cook?
  • Did you always have electricity? What happened when you got it?
  • What other things do you remember about your home?
  1. FOOD
  • What was your favourite food? Why?
  • What was your least favourite food? Why? Did you have to eat it anyway?
  • Do you remember any special meal? Birthday, holiday, special day?
  • Where did you eat meals? Did all the family eat together?
  • Did you keep your food in a refrigerator, icebox, cellar?
  • Were you sick a lot? What happened?
  • Do you remember having your tonsils out?
  • Did you have a favorite doctor? Did he make house calls?
  • Did you or a sibling almost die? What happened?
  • What drugs did you take?
  • Did your parents make home remedies for you?
  • Can you remember a time you got sick at a very inconvenient moment?
  • Do you remember your first car? How much did it cost?
  • How much was gas? How long did the tires last?
  • Did you ever take a long trip?
  • Did your car have a heater? Air conditioner?
  • Do you remember learning to drive? The first time you took the car out by yourself?
  • Did you ever have an accident that you didn’t tell your folks about?
  • If you didn’t have a car, how did you get around? What did you do?
  • Can you remember a trip that you would NOT want to take again?
  • What kind of people were your parents?
  • How many children were in your family?
  • Did you play jokes on each other?
  • Did you have responsibilities at home?
  • What were some of the happy times you had?
  • What was the saddest time?
  • Did you do things together?
  • Did you fight with your siblings?
  • Do you remember something you did that you never told your parents? Did they find out?
  • Can you remember a time you got in trouble for something you had already been told not to


  • What did you do for entertainment?
  • Did kicks in your neighborhood play Kick the Can or Hide and Seek?
  • Do you remember the days of radio? Did you have a crystal set? What programs do you remember?
  • Did you play cards? Dominoes? What else?
  • Was going to the movies a big event?
  • Did you ever get caught sneaking into a movie or event?
  • The day the stock market crashed?
  • On V-J day?
  • When the Korean War began?
  • The day Kennedy was shot?
  • The day the first man landed on the moon?
  • Your birthday? Did you have a cake?
  • Christmas? Hanukkah?
  • What presents did you get? Did you ever have a holiday or birthday where you didn’t get anything, or thought you wouldn’t?
  • Did you celebrate any other religious or seasonal holidays?
  • Do you remember your favourite toy?
  • When did you get your first bicycle?
  • Were your toys handmade?
  • Do you remember losing something special?
  • What was your favourite gift?
  • What did you wear?
  • When did you realize that clothes were “important”?
  • Did you have a favourite outfit?
  • How much did clothes cost?
  • Did you stand in the shoe store and x-ray your feet?
  • When was your first date?
  • Did anything funny happen?
  • Do you remember your first kiss?
  • Did you marry him/her?
  • Can you remember the names of high school dates? What happened to them?
  • What did you on dates?
  • Where did you go?
  • Do you remember the marriage proposal? Who proposed?
  • What happened at your wedding?
  • Where did you go on you honeymoon? Did anything funny or bad happen?
  • What were the hardest times during you marriage?
  • What things do (did) you like best about your spouse? Least?
  • Where did you live when you got married? What did you eat?
  • What was your first job? How much did it pay? What did you do?
  • What was your first full-time job? Would you do it again?
  • Tell about your boss. What kind of person was he/she? Do you think that your boss was as good/bad now as you did then?
  • Did you change jobs? Why?
  • Did you ever have to work hard physically? Were you ever hurt on the job? What happened?
  • Do you remember the time when you got locked out when you needed to be somewhere?
  • Do you remember when your first impression of someone turned out to be completely wrong?
  • Do you remember when you learned something from your children?
  • Do you remember a time when you were lied to or tricked?
  • Do you remember a time when you almost won, but not quite?
  • Did you enlist or were you drafted? Why? What service?
  • Do you remember experiences of basic training or boot camp?
  • Was this your first time away from home?
  • Do you remember your First Seargent, etc?
  • What was your barracks like?
  • Were you shipped out to go overseas? Where did you go? How did you go?
  • Were you in battle? Tell about the experience. Were you afraid?
  • Did you lose friends? How did you cope with the experience?
  • Were you married at the time? What did your wife/husband do?
  • If you were left at home, what did you do? Letters, jobs, children?
  • In retrospect, was this good for you? What did you learn?

Questioning Artists

I often interview artists about their stories, practices, and values. Here’s a question-set use.

  1. What’s your story as an artist? What drew you to your art? What are the big turns in the story?
  2. Who are your primary artistic relationships, influences, compatriots, or mentors?
  3. Where are you in your arts career (emerging, established, mid-career, etc.)?
  4. What is your art? What do you name or describe it? How do you think of your art (e.g., as a calling? as a hobby? as a profession, as a part-time job)?
  5. In your view, what is creativity? What is art?
  6. Give me a nuts-and-bolts description of what you do as an artist. Describe a specific day, hour, task, project, or interaction . Describe typical day, hour, task, project, or interaction.
  7. Describe one space in which you work (either because you want to or have to). Take an exterior perspective and picture yourself in that space. Describe what you see/hear.
    1. Take an interior perspective; describe what you feel, see, think, hear.
  8. If you had to summarize or epitomize your artistic identity in 2-3 actual or imagined photos or images, what would they look like?
  9. As an artist, what feelings, attitudes, and values do you cultivate? Not cultivate, avoid, or reject?
  10. What things or objects are most necessary to your artistic practice? What do you do with them? Where are they? Why are they important?
  11. What rhythms (hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) shape your artistic practice?
  12. Is your art framed by, or embedded in a ritual, practice, or routine? How do you sustain your art? In what ways does it sustain you? Fail to sustain you?
  13. What’s your artistic process? What are the “products” that come from it? How do you think of the relationship between artistic processes and products?
  14. How social or solitary are you as an artist?
  15. When you talk about your art, what words and phrases recur?
  16. What is your art not? What does it say “no” to? What is it “against?”
  17. Characterize the ups and downs of your life as an artist.
  18. Which of your works of art are you most proud of? Why? Least proud of? Why?
  19. Locate yourself in the arts community? What is your “tribe?” How big is your “pond,” and how big or small a fish are you in it? To whom is your art important?
  20. Do you ever flatline, plateau, or become blocked or burned out as an artist? Describe one of your failures.
  21. How do you recover? What are the difficulties in bouncing back?
  22. What are your limitations or constraints as an artist?
  23. Do you teach your art? What’s your teaching style? In your experience, what’s the relationship between teaching and learning in your art?
  24. Do you value art for its own sake? For the sake of what it can do or achieve? Are you an activist or a contemplative? What does your art do for others, for society? How efficacious is your art? What can your art not do?
  25. What’s the relationship between your art and your life?
  26. How do your family and living situation influence your art?
  27. Do you have any images or stories of artistic aging, decline, or death? How do you imagine the “dying of the light” in your artistic clan? When a dancer/singer/etc. ages, gets sick, or becomes deeply compromised, what happens?
  28. What question that you’ve not been asked would you like to be asked? Feel free to revise any of these questions to make them more appropriate to you.


I’ve written “Disarming Boys,” an essay to be published in 2019. It’s a story about growing up with guns, then giving them up.

While doing research on boys, girls, gender, and violence I ran across two videos. View them back to back, and a provocative discussion emerges:

In “Interview with a Toddler,” La Guardia Cross, a father interviewing his daughter, is smart, funny, compassionate, and self-critical.

After watching “Homeschoolf Kids Who Shoot To Kill,” ask yourself, “In Derrick Grace II ‘s circumstances, what would I do?”

If you aren’t pummeled to the ground, now read


Big questions without religion

Teaching Children To Ask The Big Questions Without Religion

Interviews about ritual

Below are some interviews about

  • rites of passage
  • do-it-yourself ritual
  • ritual and science.







How Is a Ritual Like a Dutch Bike?

When I first began teaching in the Netherlands, I marveled at the herds of Dutch bikes that swarmed the streets. Exiting Velorama, Nijmegen’s tightly packed little bike museum, I jokingly said to a colleague, “The Dutch imagination is profoundly ‘bicyciular.’” Each time I was back in Nijmegen, I had to walk past a bike shop. I would stop and press my nose to the window. Shouldn’t a man, now ensconced upon a Dutch chair of ritual studies, ride a fine Dutch bike? The high prices of those hardy, brilliantly engineered machines only intensified my lust. Dutch bikes are sexy, but not in the cheesy way that Harley Davidson motorcycles are made to appear sexy by draping a babe across the rear fender. Until recently, no one in North America thought Dutch bikes were sexy. They are so heavy. Their rear ends (their booties) are too big and their tires, skinny. Their chains are not tantalizingly exposed to public view. And you perch on the saddle, upright, exposing little that is interesting from behind.

I was proud to be magnificently alone in my appreciation of the beauty of Dutch bikes. As far as I knew, no one else in Canada or the U.S. was lusting after them. Then suddenly everything changed. Dutch bikes have now become a fashion accessory for American males. The phrase “Dutch-inspired”[1] is selling not only bikes in Seattle, Brooklyn, and Toronto but men’s clothing in New York.[2] So now I am a little embarrassed to be casting such a fashionable item as the privileged symbol for this article. I’ve begun to worry that, should I ever own a good Dutch bike, I might have to adopt a classier dress code.

I could argue that a rite is a structure, placing myself in the august company of Claude Levi-Strauss. Or I could claim that it is dynamic, casting myself as a fellow traveler of Heidelberg’s Dynamics of Ritual project.[3] But probably because I was teaching ritual studies in the Flat Land of the Bike, an odd sentence lodged like a thorn in my brain: “A rite is like a good Dutch bike: If it is broken, it’s worth fixing.” The sentence may seem flippant, but it would not go away.

I made the mistake of telling some doctoral students about my not-so-secret desire for a fine Dutch bike. Later they invited me on a country ride and loaned me a “true” (not a “fine”) Dutch bike: only one gear, a fender needing to be wired on, and its paint fading. The experience tempted me to modify the sentence in my head, “A rite is like a ‘true’ Dutch bike, so it probably needs fixing.”

Before I begin the Quixotic task of comparing rites with bikes, some context: I have spent much time and energy working to demonstrate that ritual activities can be both creative and critical, and therefore, that theorizing about them should be as well. Creativity and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If ritual creativity is weak, ritual criticism will be too. If ritual criticism is muted, ritual creativity will suffer. I’ve also argued that rites are practical; they do important cultural, physical, moral, and intellectual work. Rituals should be as shapely as a good Dutch bike and as useful as a monkey wrench in the hands of a plumber.

When I first began studying ritual, I asked how ritual practices shape, or fail to shape, people’s attitudes, values, and decisions. I wanted to know how ritually enhanced images and practices shaped their views of the world. Currently, however, I have taken one step back and am asking theoretical and methodological questions: How do scholarly practices—applying for grants, conducting research, applying theories, and writing books—generate the scholarly world we call “ritual studies?” Where do theories of ritual come from? What do they really accomplish, or fail to accomplish?

Barry Stephenson and I built Ritual Studies Dot Com, a Web site for international, interdisciplinary discussion.[4] We had to choose an image for the home page and could have taken the easy way by merely putting up a picture of a ritual, but we decided to be suggestive rather than literal. We used two images—both a bit of a tease. One suggested that ritual is processual, flowing. However, this image was of Laurel Creek in winter, so the water was frozen.[5] It leaves viewers with a question: Is ritual flowing or fixed?

The second one playfully and critically asks viewers: If you think ritual is a structure, how about this kind? The photo showes the rear end of a Chinese restaurant, one that has, over the years, been patched in mismatched ways. Each image says something about how scholars might conceive ritual. There are other, contending models. The images are invitations to a friendly argument, a debate.

When I first began work on The Craft of Ritual Studies,[6] I thought of ritual-using and theory-using as two distinctly different activities. Later, I changed my mind, having found that scholars, like ritualists, inescapably wield metaphors, analogies, and images. I began to see that figures of speech and visual images are as essential to theory-making as they are to ritual-making. The theorist’s question isn’t only, “What convincing words can we use to describe ritual?” but also, “How should we imagine ritual?”

Theory-construction isn’t only about crafting words into credible statements, but also about images, visual as well as verbal. Even in the sciences, not to mention the social sciences and humanities, images and diagrams buttress verbal theory-construction. Theorizing, then, is an audio-visual production; we not only speak and write theories, we also visualize them. So I began hunting for the images that now litter this article.

I began plowing through theoretical writings, trying to understand not only the terms and concepts but the images that lie beneath them.

For instance, if we are going to speak of a ritual as a structure, what kind? What does it look like?

A set of interlocking stones?

A hierarchically arranged pyramid?

If a ritual is a system, is it like

a subway system?

a nervous system?

a solar system?

If a ritual is a dynamic process, how does it work? What does it look like?

A circular set of feedback loops?

A river’s course?

The aerodynamics of a speeding automobile?

If a ritual is deep or layered, how many layers are there,

and what are their names?

How does one know which layers are superficial and which ones, deep?

If a ritual exercises power,

what kind of power?

where and how is it generated?

how is it transferred, through what kinds of lines?

If ritual is embodied power,

in whom is it embodied?

how is it embodied?

in muscles? in minds? in hearts?

If a ritual has dimensions, what are they?

Which ones matter most?

Which ratios between dimensions are the most determinative of ritual efficacy?

If ritual is a language constructed of symbols,

and they mean things in the ways that words mean them,

what “language” does ritual speak?

Who can “speak ritual” and who cannot?

If ritual is constructed of elements how many are there and what are their names?

If ritual has building blocks, what are their shapes, and of what are they made?

If riiuals have a backstage area and a front of house, how do we know when we’ve entered the one zone and exited the other? Where’s the curtain?

If a rite of passage transports a person across a threshold,

how shall we envision such betwixt and between zones.

To what extent are they actually spatial?

You could object that no one takes such terms literally, that in scholarly discourse these are abstractions not figures of speech. However, all analogies are meant to “hold,” that is, be literal in some ways but not in others. My attempt to visualize or literalize a metaphor, is a way of learning more about how it works in a theory. Images do matter, because they shape and reflect attitudes, so the more explicit we become about them, the more effective we can be in both constructing and criticizing theories of ritual. It is fair to ask of any theoretically deployed image, analogy, or metaphor: In what respects does it hold, and in what respects does it not?

I began digging metaphors, images, and analogies out of abstract theoretical prose, because, in reading scholarly works on ritual, I was too often uncertain when, or even whether, I was reading theory. In ritual studies rarely does anyone say, “I am now writing a theory, and here it is.” So readers are left to ferret out the theory, and, worse, to guess at the methods implied by that theory. How does one distinguish between an ethnographic description of a single ritual performance and a generalized description of a ritual, or between a formal definition and a generalizing statement? I discovered that others, graduate students and professors alike, were often having the same difficulty knowing which parts of a book are theoretical. Eventually, I drafted a guide for reading articles theoretically and methodologically. Even though it is only a question set, it implies a tight connection between theorizing, imagining, and writing.

Before I return to evangelizing in favor of Dutch bikes, we should make an elementary distinction between analogy and metaphor. For a dad to boast about his son, “Paul is like a lion,” is an analogy, a mere comparison, but when Paul’s classmate Heather screams, “Paul, you are a stupid skunk,” that is a metaphor, although not a very strong one, because we know Paul is not really a skunk but a mere boy who has been teasing Heather. She probably means either, “I don’t like you, Paul” or more maybe, “You smell bad, like a skunk.” Weak metaphors are easily reducible to analogies, and analogies are easily explained as comparisons that hinge on one or two similarities.

A metaphor is a stronger kind of symbol, because it equates the “vehicle” (the symbol that points) with its “tenor” (that to which it points). A metaphor is also more complex, not merely x = y, but also x ≠ y. A metaphor simultaneously and paradoxically posits both identity and dis-identity.

The most rooted, or radical, metaphors are those that resist translation or reduction. If a ceremonially authorized person dresses up in robes and hands you a piece of bread while saying, “This is my body,” that is radically metaphoric, especially if you’re a Catholic, because the priest is declaring both: “This is bread; this is not bread.”

We can lose sight of metaphors, and they can become weak. “Head of the table” and “foot of the table” are rarely recognized as metaphors until someone comments on them or shows us an image that reactivates them. Where is the “head of a table?” Where is the “foot” of a table. Not usually on the “leg” of a table.

However, if your society expects you sit at the foot of the table, and lower body parts are associated with the sinister left hand, you are in a metaphorically reinforced position of subservience. The metaphor has force.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, two American philosophers, show how entire worldviews and value systems are encoded in the adjectives “right” and “left” or innocent prepositions such as “up” or “down.”[7] Determinative metaphors are not mere cute turns of phrase or single images. Rather, they form clusters, systems, or webs, and they do so not only in ordinary social life but also in the rarified atmosphere of ritual theory. Because invisible metaphors embedded in theories can be even more determinative than visible ones, it is important to locate and reflect on them.

One of the most pernicious and widespread metaphors in ritual theory is that of “structure.” Jan Snoek says, “most ritual behavior is more formally stylized, structured, and standardized than most common behavior.”[8] Eugene d’Aquili defines ritual behavior as “a subset of formalized behavior that involves two or more individuals in active and reciprocal communication and that is structured….”[9] Catherine Bell treats ritualization less as a noun than as a verb. Even so, for her, ritual is “the strategic production of expedient schemes that structure an environment….”[10]

“Structure,” whether used as a verb or noun, may not sound to your ear like a metaphor, but it is. Even though none of these theorists would actually claim that ritual is unchanging, the architectural metaphor, “structure,” connotes something solid, reinforcing the widespread assumption that rituals are comparatively stable, that they don’t change, or change very little.

Since the mid-1960s, to counteract static theories rooted in static metaphors like “structure,” we have learned to speak of ritual as “dynamic.” Now rituals compete with racy sports cars and motivational public speakers. Ritual is no longer stodgy and unchanging but dynamic (it changes) and transformative (it changes things). But this idea too rides the back of a metaphor, since, literally speaking, the term “dynamics” refers to that branch of mechanics which studies motion and equilibrium. In speaking of ritual as “dynamic,” we are transposing the notion of driving forces from physics and hydraulics to psychology and politics, where the sources of action are really motivations rather than physical causes. In other words, if the notion of “ritual dynamics” leads us to imagine rites as causes or effects rather than as motivated actions, we have been seduced by the hidden metaphor.

A variant of dynamics is hydraulics, the branch of science that studies liquids in motion. Sigmund Freud made extensive use of hydraulic metaphors. Libido was liquid-like energy welling up from the unconscious, exerting upward “pressure,” like water heated in a boiler system. For Freud, catharsis was a kind of “emptying,” and cathexis, a kind of “filling.” Sublimation amounted to “channeling.”

Hydraulic metaphors helped 19th century thinkers get beyond the notion of information as discreet units. These metaphors enabled people to embrace the idea of continuous flow. But the metaphors carried other implications, and they were often unrecognized. For instance, communication came to be imagined as flowing through “lines,” and those “pipelines” could get “clogged.” Consequently, neurotics required therapists for the same reason that toilets require plumbers, to help clean out the grunge.

To nuance and complicate the hydraulic model by imagining “multi-channels,” does not get beyond the root hydraulic metaphor of a liquid flowing through a pipe or through several discreet channels. We bump up against the limits of the metaphor when try to imagine multiple voices “flowing” through a single telephone wire.

There are plenty of other concepts that are used like abstractions but which hide analogies or metaphors that can lead their users into absorbing attitudes conditioned by the images that lie beneath. Think, for instance, about Emile Durkheim’s notion of ritual “solidarity.” Don’t just think it, try to feel it, sense it. What does the idea or feeling of solidarity do for your understanding of ritual? In my imagination ritual solidarity is hardwood, oak, safe and supportive. Or consider Durkheim’s claim that rituals are characterized by “collective effervescence.” The images makes you want to rise up, like bubbles in a drink. I can’t contemplate the image-idea of collective effervescence for long without feeling Jamaican ginger beer bubbling up in my throat.

I am not trying to convince you that you should buy into my preferred metaphors instead of someone else’s, just to recognize that theorizing is not only about cobbling together verbal abstractions.Theorizing is also a way of imagining, consequently different from, but similar to, imagining in the arts.

Theorizing is not only imaginative, it is also strategic, thus similar to advertising. To theorize is to make a pitch, mount an argument for choosing this over that. The choice of key metaphors is not merely arbitrary, nor is it innocently aesthetic, a matter of turning phrases or deploying attractive images. It is culturally and historically conditioned, and it expresses strongly, if not sacredly, held values. Theorizing, however much it appears to mask or play down passion, is passionate to the point of being evangelical. Most of the theorists I know, regardless of how they write, will fight to defend their theories. So do not be fooled by the desiccated prose that too many theorists proffer.

By now, you are probably wondering what happened to that promised Dutch bike (the “fine,” idealized one, or the “true” one owned by a doctoral student’s boyfriend). I have latched onto the analogy, “A rite is like a bike” partly because no one is fooled by it. It is a mere analogy, not an invisible, determinative metaphor. It has no pretentions to power. Thinking of a rite as bike-like is modest—not very sexy—because everyone knows a rite is not a bike. You immediately understand that you could select other analogous objects: airplanes, computers, dresses, saxophones, or Chinese bikes. No one thinks a bike is a rite in the same way people do when they talk about rites as structures or rites as dynamic.

A rite as bike-like seems far-fetched, but I could make the connection more obvious by selecting certain kinds of bikes, this one, for instance, which tows a coffin on wheels.[11] A bike used as a ritual tool makes the bike-rite connection clear. Once you see the photo, the link is obvious.

It’s worth playing out some of the possible answers to the question, How is a rite like a Dutch bike? One answer is: For both a rite and bike, you can produce a parts list, and parts lists are handy. Try putting on a wedding or funeral without a list, and you are courting disaster. Try shooting a rite with no idea of its components and you’ll leave something out.

A rite is like a bike insofar as the whole can be factored into parts or the parts cobbled together into a whole. I call these “elements,” because they are primary, but you could call them something else, micro-structures, or more plainly, “the nuts and bolts of ritual.” Thinking this way has a certain plumber-like utility to it, but we shouldn’t let the analogy fool us. Adding elements—ritual objects to ritual spaces to ritual actors—doesn’t produce a ritual any more than a bucket of nuts, bolts, sprockets, and spokes equals a bicycle.

Unless you repair your own bike or you are a bike mechanic, you would not know how to assemble a bike out of a bunch of parts. An exploded diagram would get you one step closer, because it helps you conceive the spatial relations properly. Let’s say that you do, in fact, succeed in assembling a bike out of a bucketful of parts, there are at least two other problems: You must learn how to balance a bike, that is, to ride it, and you must know the rules of the road and understand biking culture. If don’t, getting “doored” is a distinct possibility.

So there is more to a bike (not to mention, a ritual) than just a bunch of static parts. Bikes and rites have a statics, evident in frame ratios, tubing, and joints, but also a dynamics. Riders need to know not only what the components are but also how they go together; how they work; how to use a bike physically; and how to use it socially and legally. In other words, to theorize them properly, we must put action into the picture, and then frame the picture in a cultural context.

So, a rite is bike-like insofar as it has “parts,” but how far can we go with the analogy? Imagine playing a game in which the winning side is the one that comes up with the most ways in which a rite is like a bike:

  • A rite is a like a bike; each can be schematized as a parts list or exploded diagram.
  • A rite is a like a bike; each can be fixed if broken. (Some would contest this claim.)
  • A rite is a like a bike; each will transport you from here to there.
  • A rite is like a bike; it can carry a heavy load.

Mechanical metaphors are useful insofar as they capture the material, tool-like aspects of ritual and because they help us grasp part-whole relations. However, because we are critically minded scholars, we’d should play the opposite game by running out the counterargument:

  • A rite is not like a bike; a rite disappears immediately after it is performed.
  • A rite is not like a bike; a rite cannot be invented or tossed in the junk yard.
  • A rite is not like a “true” Dutch bike; rites are always well oiled. (Is this true?)
  • A rite is not like a bike; rites don’t rust.

You get the general point, I hope: Not only that critical thought can be playlike, and that play is a form critical thinking but that metaphors and analogies have consequences and limits; we can only “ride” them so far.

Then what? We get off and proceed without benefit of analogy and metaphor? I think not. I doubt that is even possible. Then, we shift to another metaphor in the way scientists have to shift between particle theory and wave theory. The mechanical analogy of the bike can help us understand part/whole relations, movement through space, and some of the material aspects of ritual, but it does not, for instance, help us much with progression through time.

A rite unfolds through time. Noting this fact, some opt for a narrative metaphor: A ritual is, or is like, a story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. This is a popular idea because it makes ritual seem synchronous with myth or biography, two kinds of narrative. Fine, then we should test it by trying to create a plotline or storyboard for the ritual that we are studying. How well does that work? Does a rite really follow a plot-like course?

Or are the phases of a rite more like the rotating of a kaleidoscope than a turn in a plot? Do the actions of the ritual start at point A and go to point B like a story, or do they just go round and round a center? How far can you ride on the narrative metaphor?

When I have to give up my bike because the mechanistic metaphor has gone as far as it can, I turn to performance. My particular academic tribe venerates dramatistic metaphors.[12] Because actions, including ritual actions, are shaped by human perspectives and intentions, not merely driven by forces and powers, dramatism and the resources of performance studies can do theoretical work that bikes and mechanistic metaphors cannot. Dramatistic theories suggest that movement and change occur through the interactions and decisions of human characters, that things are not “driven” forward in the way bikes and trucks are but in the way a plot is.

Whereas the bike analogy compares ritual to something distant (a mechanical object), the drama metaphor compares ritual with something quite close, namely theater. The strength of dramatistic metaphors (or performance approaches, if you prefer) is that they compare one kind of strongly bounded human activity with another kind of strongly bounded activity. When we compare ritual with theatre, it’s like comparing apples with oranges rather than apples with Volkswagens. The kinship between ritual and drama is so strong that some of my compatriots would argue that ritual is (not merely, is like) dramatic. I don’t, because there are significant differences. One difference is that the roles and actions of plays are typically framed as “not real, make-believe,” whereas in rites, the roles and actions are framed as “believed” or at least “accepted.” Another difference is that, plays have audiences, whereas rituals have congregations or tribes or communities. Audiences are not, or not for very long, communities; rather, they are consumer groups. Having paid admission, they sit side by side for a couple of hours, but they do not feel obligated to look out for each other’s welfare after the performance is over.

I conclude by considering briefly a third metaphor (not a bike, not a performance): a web, a nexus of interconnectedness that rituals are supposed to facilitate. Neither mechanistic models nor dramatistic ones quite capture the networking nature of ritual traditions. Although in plays characters interact and are thus interconnected, dramatistic models are homocentric, human-centered, so we need something more “ecological,” such that a change in one part ripples through another and finally through the whole system. A web is suggestive of systemic interconnection, reminding us that, although we may be talking about a ritual, this ritual may be embedded in a ritual system, which is embedded in a cultural system, which is embedded in a global, or even interplanetary, system.

Systems metaphors keep returning in different guises, not only the 19th century hydraulic variant but mid-twentieth century cybernetics and more recently in cognitive science, computer-modeling, and complex systems theory.

Imagining ritual as a form of web-making, helps us reconceive ritual interconnectivity and boundaries, of the relations between rites and their contexts—social, economic, and environmental. Webs not only can connect, they can also entrap.

A web creates segmented boundaries, but they are permeable. If rituals are weblike, they do not have walls but membranes. If rituals have boundaries, and they are not like stone walls but like membranes, how do rituals select what can, and cannot, pass through? Or maybe you don’t think that things, values, “pass through?” Fine. Then maybe there are “carriers,” like bees. People who “carry” values from inside a ritual to the environment outside the ritual.

In any case, if we begin to reflect on ritual as weblike, we may wish to draw upon images of the WWW with nodes connected by hubs. Computer hubs connected by communication lines resemble the human nervous system, which utilizes a set of nodes connected by axons.

Currently, there is great interest in complex systems modeling that would enable us to connect various kinds of systems: nervous systems, computer systems, economic systems, and ecosystems with ritual systems. Both the Santa Fe Institute and the New England Complex Systems Institute foster complex system modeling. If you examine this example from the New England Complex Systems Institute, you can see that many of the metaphors and analogies that we have discussed are combined in this model: levels, hierarchy, dynamics, plotlike directionality, and recursive circularity.

Few ritual studies scholars have paid attention to complex systems modeling. The most explicit complex system theorizing is carried out by theologian-philosopher Mark Taylor in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.[13] Anthropologist Roy Rapport in Religion in the Making and other works approaches an ecological model.[14] Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, using cognitive psychological modes, in Bringing Ritual to Mind could, but haven’t yet, moved in this direction.[15]

Once we humans model a single system and then do the same with another, we begin trying to imagine a meta-system that contains all the others. Soon we are conceiving a series of nested, interacting systems. A very attractive but undeveloped idea is that of fractals. A fractal is a micro-geometrical structure which, when repeated with slight variation, accounts for a macro-structure.

The Sierpenski Triangle is an example; the big triangle is made of smaller triangles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller triangles. In a fractal, the pattern appears to be the same regardless of the level of magnification. The branches of a tree replicate the pattern of the entire tree. A stalk of broccoli consists of hundreds of repetitions of each floret.

The strength and weakness of all modeling is simplification. You try to explain the most complicated things by identifying the fewest number of simple things out of which they are constructed. The temptation, then is to leap, to stitch together the entire universe, the macrocosm, by imagining it as a repetition, reiteration, or reflection of something much smaller.

There is something almost hypnotic about seeing how the coast of Norway as photographed from space seems be a fractal of a microscopic photo of a capillary in a blood vessel.

Fractals, used as models, sit on a precipice where science meets art and mysticism.

I am not so much recommending fractals as trying to illustrate the range of metaphors and models on which one might draw in trying to theorize ritual.

By now, your head is probably spinning, and you can begin to sense the Faustian temptations of theoretical modeling. I have taken you on an intellectual roller coaster ride. First, we are riding around on hardy Dutch bikes. Then, we are romping across the fronts and backs of stages full of players. And now I am tangling you up in a knot of weblike systems.

Lest we become unnerved by this little tour of the ritual theory universe, let us “return” to biking imagery. Comforting, isn’t it? A theoretical model should be as practical, reliable, and, dare I say it, imaginative as a well made bakfiets, don’t you think? Or do you? If the bakfiets is a little too old fashioned for your tastes, then how about a Conference Bike? Made in Holland, where else? Who else but an American living in the Netherlands, Eric Staller would design a bike that combines the practical mechanism of bikes and the weblikenss of the human brain and the fractal universe? You can even imagine the sociodrama that would set up if members of your work team or family were to spend 8 hours pedaling this to Leiden. You can buy this expensive machine, a model of ritual solidarity, either as “Conference Bike” (to attract Dutch buyers) or as “Love Bike” (the American version). You can bike in any direction, provided the seven peddling, effervescent conference-goers, or lovers, ride it cooperatively.

Maybe you have had enough of this bike and web play, and you just want to know where all this get us regarding ritual theory. Fair enough, I’ll summarize the argument line:

  • Western theories of ritual are constructed largely out of words.
  • Sometimes these theories are grounded on actual rites, but more often, they are based on the words of other theories.
  • Beneath theoretical verbalizations are images, analogies, and metaphors.
  • Because theorizing is imagination-driven, it is as artistic as it is scientific.
  • Underlying metaphors are not mere illustrations but either generative forces, creating new insights, or inhibitive blockers, obstructing insight.
  • Unrecognized, they can be either irrelevant or profoundly determinative.
  • Because of these dangers, sustained criticism of theories is essential to the construction of new theories.
  • In the humanities and social sciences, a crucial form of theory criticism is that of exposing the assumptions buried in determinative metaphors.
  • Although theoretical critique can dislodge such images, it is not possible to circumvent them altogether.
  • For a model of ritual to be adequate, it must enable one either to build or explain rituals by taking into account their
    1. static elements, using, e.g., mechanical models
    2. internal dynamics, using, e.g., narrative / dramatic models
    3. interactions with their contexts, using, e.g., complex systems (cybernetic, ecological, cognitive) models

Any theory that fails to account for all three, regardless of the metaphors it uses, cannot produce an adequate model for ritual studies research.

Why would anyone want to model ritual? Probably, if all is going well with a ritual, participants would not want to model it at all, but if things are going badly, then they may be forced to create a model. If your ritual is broken, or if there is an important occasion with no ritual means of marking it, then having a blueprint is helpful. If you are a scholar, you want to model ritual because, among other things, scholars build theories.

I end with a counter-argument and a question. The devil, if given his dues, would put this question to my argument: What do you do about mixed metaphors? Let’s say that you write this sentence in an essay, “Milking the workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them.” When your teacher writes “mixed metaphor,” in the margin, this is a criticism. First the manager is a milker of cows, then he is a dog? Your teacher is saying, “Choose one or the other but not both.” Mixing two metaphors in the same sentence makes it sound ridiculous. So how many metaphors can a theory tolerate? Should there be only one? If more than one, how many?

That’s my killer question. Now, here’s yours: What’s your most frequently deployed theory of ritual, and what images, analogies, or metaphors inform it? If your model for understanding ritual is not a Dutch bike, what is it?


Bell, Catherine M. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

d’Aquili, Eugene G. , Charles D.  Laughlin, and John McManus. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.

Grimes, Ronald L. The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford Ritual Studies Series.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction.  London: Routledge, 2002.

Snoek, Jan. “Defining ‘Rituals’.” In Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts, edited by Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg. 3-14. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Turner, Victor Witter. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Symbol, Myth, and Ritual.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.


[1]. Bowery Lane Bicycles in New York City manufactures such bikes.

[2]. See, for instance, the online magazine, Por Homme,‑codes‑the‑dutch‑bicycle/#more‑7799

[3]. For more information on the project:

[4]. It is no longer live.

[5]. Photo by Robert W. Harwood,

[6]. Ronald L. Grimes, The craft of ritual studies, Oxford Ritual Studies Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). The book borrows some of the argument, but none of the illustrations, from this presentation.

[7]. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[8]. Jan Snoek, “Defining ‘rituals,’” in Theorizing rituals: issues, topics, approaches, concepts, ed. Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 13.

[9]. Eugene G.  d’Aquili, Charles D.  Laughlin, and John McManus, The spectrum of ritual: a biogenetic structural analysis  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). 29.

[10]. Catherine M. Bell, Ritual theory, ritual practice  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 140.

[11]. Photo courtesy of Meike Heessels.

[12]. See, for example: Victor Witter Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Symbol, Myth, and Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); Richard Schechner, Performance studies: an introduction  (London: Routledge, 2002); Erving Goffman, Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967).

[13]. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[14]. Roy A.  Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[15]. Robert N. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, Bringing ritual to mind: psychological foundations of cultural forms  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

How little questions become bigger questions?

RadioLab is an exciting, quick-cut, question-asking podcast. Supposedly, it’s about science, but over the years, the questions keep growing. Little questions evolve into big questions if you are dogged in pursuing them as Jad and Robert, the two hosts, are. In “Bigger Little Questions” a kid asks why Earth is called “Earth.” Another question is whether space junk could accumulateuntil it kills, or strands, us. Big Questions indeed.


One of the most interesting dialogues in “Bigger Little Questions” is about fat. The discussion starts with a report about fatbergs, huge globules of fat that clog the London sewer system.A fatberg can weigh as much as 130 tons, 11 double-decker English buses, says The Guardian. Gross, for sure, but what’s the big question? How to dissolve it? How to prevent it? For Londoners maybe, but there is a persistent Dutch guy who is obsessed with fatbergs, wants to build one, but more than that, he wants to know where fat comes from. How did it enter the universe, and what good is it? To pursue the question he and colleagues build a purer fatberg than the British one. Partly it is a science experiment, and partly, an art installation. By the end of the “Bigger Little” discussion, it dawns on you that fat is the essential container for human life. Without it, we wouldn’t be.

Holocaust remembrance


Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.

The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:

“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.

“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”

If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.

When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?

In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?

And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.

That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.

What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.

We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.

I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.

Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what  we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”


Truth be told

“Truth Be Told,” ice sculpture by Nora Ligorano & Marshall Reese

After my last post about the pope’s view of truth, fake news and lies, my son Bryn, born and bred on Big Questions, played the devil and wrote:

BSG: ​Are you suggesting that no mortal human can ever speak or know ‘the truth’? That we’re all just guessing? What if one of our guesses is ‘the truth’, and God has a little checklist with all the Big Questions & answers, and whoever guesses one right gets rewarded in (or punished) in some manner?

Or what about scientific facts: water boils at 100 degrees. Isn’t that ‘a truth’ that was discovered and is now professed by humans?

RLG: You are raising two questions, one about God, the other about truth. If God, in fact, has a list of questions and answers, none of us can see it. I wouldn’t believe anyone who claims to have taken a peek at it.

Pascal argued that humans should wager in favor of God. If He exists and we don’t join up, we’re in trouble. So, for ass/soul-covering purposes, it’s best to bet on God. But what kind of a god does that imply? A heavenly father who rewards guessing, betting, and ass-covering? My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was fairer and more compassionate than that.

I’m not really saying there is no truth, only that no one, including clergy, politicians, or scientists, has a monopoly on it. I’m also saying that every uttered truth comes from a perspective. In quantum theory, this is called the observer effect. The observer changes–at least somewhat–the observed. I’m certain this effect is true about social interactions, social truths, but quantum theory holds that it is also true of physical interactions.

Water only boils at 100 degrees if you participate in the social convention called the metric system. If you live in a Fahrenheit country, water boils at 180 degrees. Right?


As I await Bryn’s reply, The Daily Beast reports on an art show containing a 3000-pound ice sculpture by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese for an international Art Action Day. The sculpture, “TRUTH BE TOLD,” has, unfortunately, melted already, along with other ice sculptures: “DEMOCRACY,” “THE FUTURE,” “MIDDLE CLASS,” and “THE AMERICAN DREAM.”



Which news is the devil’s news?

Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake, 1808

On January 24, 2018, Pope Francis released a statement about fake news. It’s worth reading even if you are not a Francis fan.

As you would expect, it’s a homily (for Protestants, a sermon). His use of the story of Eden’s serpent is engaging. Francis equates the serpent with the Devil. (I would not.) Anyway, Mr. Serpent-Devil tempts Eve (never Adam) by giving her fake news, telling her a lie. The lie’s effectiveness consists in it’s sounding like a Big Truth, the one God is hiding from Eve and Adam, for their own good, of course. If you are in the know, the Big Truth is: You can live forever. And the Devil can put you in the know. Here, he says, have a bite.

Tradition says the instrument of truth was an apple. More likely it was a fig. Today it’s a tweet.

Francis pleads for honest and true dialogue coupled with honest, dig-deep journalism written by reporters who care about people:

“I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace.  By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

Who could argue with this? Journalism, the pope declares, is a mission. I’m sure for him “mission” is a term of elevation, like “calling,” not like the missions of missionaries, whom some journalists would regard as agents of religious imperialism.

The truth, the pope says, is not only true facts but also the life that proceeds from them. And the guarantor of truth is God. You expected that, right? Fair enough; the pope is a Christian.

But here’s the problem: Men and women of God, from the pope down through the hierarchy, are not gods. In theory, they know they are human spokespersons. In theory, they know they get things wrong. Like us, like the snake, they too lie, are misinformed, or are self-deceived. The problem is that there is no way to get the pure, simple truth straight from God, the guarantor of truth. Always there is an evangelist or pope or priest or pastor or rabbi or imam speaking for God. And their speaking for often becomes speaking as: Listen to what I am saying as if God were talking through me.

I love the talking through metaphor. Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist. His puppets are funny and controversial. Watch Dunham on YouTube and meet his friends, Walter, a crabby old white racist, or Ahmed, a skeleton who wants to blow everything up. Jeff literally talks through, or talks as, each character. We viewers don’t know how much Walter or Ahmed speaks for Jeff, the performer-animator on stage. Jeff can always sidestep by declaring to his manikin: I didn’t say that; you said that. A viewer can never know “the truth,” so the truth cannot make us free. Rather the multiple truths issuing from the mouths of puppets make us laugh. We in the audience are always spinning among perspectives–never quite getting at THE truth–and laughing at ourselves when we can’t.

The problem is not only that the Devil is a ventriloquist, presumably speaking God’s truth, it is that clergy too are ventriloquists. What they say may be truthful or not, biased or not. They may convey true news but they also may convey fake news.

Recently, the pope formally apologized to Chileans for sexual abuse in the church. A good first step. But, as Francis was leaving, he snarled back at a journalist, “There is not one shred of proof against him [a bishop accused of molesting children]. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

Chilean courts have found otherwise. So pick your devil: the journalist and courts versus the pope defending his own. In Chile confidence in the church has dropped from 80% in 1997 to less than 40% in 2017. The papal visit might have helped stem the tide of distrust, but the pope’s accusation of calumny undermined his credibility, leaving us in the audience spinning, trying to figure out who is the serpent and who is the spokesperson for God.

Unfortunately, the joke isn’t remotely funny.

We croak?

Want to be reminded fives times a day that you’re gonna croak?

We Croak will do that for you.

Presumably based on an old Bhutanese saying about the secret of happiness, the app sends you wise sayings or poetry or a line to remind you that you should contemplate death at least five times daily.

A spiritual protein diet.

If the app promised to kill at least five pieces of email in my inbox, I’d sign up.

If five times a day isn’t enough, there are t-shirts. That way you can forget your own death (unless you read your own t-shirts upside down or backwards in the mirror). This way your friends and colleagues can contemplate their becroakment in the mirror of your t-shirt.

In “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die” (Atlantic) Bianca Bosker writes:

I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.

A thousand mindfulness apps? How mindful is that?

Probably more mindful than 76 times a day.

When the celebrant dies, you what?

During holidays, you could call the labor “just cooking” or “just cleaning” or even “just fretting.” But if the family gathers, laughs, argues, reconnects, and remembers what it often forgets, maybe you should call the work something else.

Whoever engineers, or designs, the event is a celebrant, a ritual-maker. Describe the job this way, to remind yourself of its importance.

But then, what if the ritual-maker dies?

You do what?

Listen to the whole story:

For even more of the story and pictures, click here.

You want it darker?

It’s easy, I suppose, to get romantic or religious as you age. It’s harder to get honest about yourself, your failures, and your aspirations. Leonard Cohen is about as straight-forward as you can get.

I beg Leonard’s pardon for putting him to work in the service of democracy:

Galisteo Cemetery

A slide show of the Old Galisteo Cemetery, Santa Fe County, New Mexico


What’s the glue?

Big questions aren’t anyone’s area of specialization. Some might claim they are experts in the Big, but they aren’t. Religious leaders sometimes make such claims, but ask a question or two, and you’ll soon hit a qualifier, something like “according to my tradition.”

A few weeks ago night I was lost on the UCLA campus and asked a group of guys how to find the faculty guest house. The students live and work here, but they didn’t know. But the guys were quick. Two whipped out their cell phones. “What’s the name again?” Soon they had the answer, “Down that street, then on the left.” They didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, but they knew how to know.

The next morning I had a discussion with a broadminded acoustical engineer who studies sonic resonances and collaborates with an art historian trying to understand how sacred sounds bounce around the insides of some church buildings, creating something participants are likely to interpret as the voices of angels. (It helps if you are contemplating holy images on the walls or altar screens). I asked the engineer whether his university (not UCLA) had a program in visual anthropology. He didn’t know. Then he joked, “You know how engineers are, we just hole up in Engineering and ignore the rest.” In response to another ignoramus question from me, he said, “That’s not really my area specialization.” He was being modest. Another time he gave the same answer, and I thought, ah, this time he’s dodging.

I had to ask myself: When am I being humble, and when am I dodging?

Logarithmic illustration of observable universe by Pablo Carlos Budassi

Doctors, lawyers, scholars, not to mention cab drivers, cleaning staff, and cooks specialize: I’m a urologist, I’m a dessert chef. We all specialize. Sometimes our job descriptions say so. Parts of the brain and body also specialize. Humans need specialization for survival. We can’t attend to everything, so the brain selects sensory data on the basis of its physiology and what it’s learned before.

But what about the glue—the stuff that connects brain parts or cities or departments of medicine? Big questions are about the connective tissue, the whatever that holds the whole kit and caboodle together. Maybe there is no “whatever,” no “kit,” no “caboodle.” Fine, how do the parts cohere? Gravity? Electronic attraction? God? What’s the glue? If “glue” makes the universe sound stuck, but we know that the universe is moving, fine, what’s the “dynamic force?”

You’re asking me? I don’t know. That’s not my area of specialization.

Three places I never went to when I was alive

“Three Places I Never Went” by Paul Antick, who is a founding member of the Terror and the Tour research group and co-editor of Liminalities’ Terror and the Tour special issue. His recent contributions include, “Bhopal to Bridgehampton: schema for a disaster tourism event,” in the Journal of Visual Culture. Antick is Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Roehampton, London.You can find some notes about the video here.

Think of Antick’s videography as slow food. It’s the work of a photographer. You will need to practice meditation to watch this remarkable video.

Mining words

Robert Fullerton, an ex-shipyard welder in Glasgow, says, “Imagine going down into the dirt to find a word that you’re going to elevate up into poetry. That’s mining for me.” Drawing inspiration from the sparks, he imagines them as “wee possibilities or wee ideas,” Fullerton began crafting poems while working at the shipyard. He discovered that his dark, solitary days provided the “perfect thinking laboratory” for mining words.

Directed by Callum Rice for the Scottish Documentary Institute.

Why build your house on sand?

In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible).

The rock is an important biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off the name by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition.” As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change. They are rocks.

The Dutch, however, are learning to build on sand using a Sand Motor, (the NPR story).

Unlike rock and its descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. You have to ask, What would Jesus do? Well, he’d want you to treat his planet well, and he was a creative storyteller, so what else, adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the cracks widened, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house. It fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”

On spiritual yearning in the west


Vine Deloria Jr. (March 26, 1933 – November 13, 2005) was a Hunkpapa Lakota scholar, author, historian, and activist. For samples of his writings see Spirit and Reason: The Vine Delolria, Jr. ReaderThese two interviews are some of his most thoughtful and critical reflections on spirituality and native people.

Follow this link for an article I wrote while discussing Native American religions with Vine at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Big questions

When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations.

Actually, their conversations upstage adult conversations.

Nearing 30 can the “kids” do better now?

We all get smarter as we grow up, right?

A daughter’s song

Everybody dies, and lots of people immigrate. But few Muslims marry Jews, and Mohawks rarely cross the river to conduct Condolence ceremonies among non-natives. Why? “A Daughter’s Song” doesn’t quite answer the question, but it captures what happens when such events coincide.

Three months after the death of Myriam Azoulay, Mohawks, invited by artists affiliated with Native-Immigrant (a Montreal arts project directed by Carolina Echeverria), offered a Condolence Ceremony for family and friends. This film braids together the ritual and a walk with Stephane, Myriam’s husband, who is accompanied by his daughter and mother-in-law.

For a more documentary-style presentation see A Mohawk Condolence and A Native Immigrant Condolence.

For an interview with Francis Boots and Philip Deering see Mohawk Ritual and Education.

For an article about the event go to Bridging Rituals.


The day the clock stopped

Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”

This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.

Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.

Another experimental video that combines text and image: I Have Feathers Enough, and Toys Too.

What about ritual and religion?

When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.

We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.

Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.

There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious)  or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”

I’d define the words this way:

Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet

Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment

Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central

Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial


Making it up as we go

In 2012, Cailleah imagined I might die while she was in Japan. She worried that I would never know what she could become, so we improvised a ritual with her in Toronto and I in Waterloo. Then, she made this film. I didn’t croak (although I almost did in 2013). We’re both still going, making it up as we go. Soon we will make a follow-up film to this one.

How to ride an iron horse?

I’ve been riding the Iron Horse Trail for years. In 1997 Kitchener-Waterloo drizzled a ribbon of asphalt over an old rail bed connecting the twin cities. Since then, we fine, upstanding citizens have been practicing–ambling, walking, riding, jogging.  I say “practicing” because for some of us this is lifelong learning, and because some of us aren’t especially adept at it. So practice it is.

Some mornings I grumble at the thought that the trail calls. Should a trail “call?” It has friends enough. The neighbors are out there walking, biking, jogging, slicked out in sweats or pooping their pets. Others of us, early or late in life, trot out our iron horses: bikes, wheelchairs, strollers.

trotify-horse-bike-silhouetteI bike. When people ask why, I say “to stay alive, why else?” I mean it. Secretly, I’m lazy. One of my Dutch students initiated the Walk of Wisdom, a circular pilgrimage around Nijmegen. It’s 136 km. I’d never make it. That’s why you have enterprising students students: so they will walk the walk you could only talk.

Unlike the trail up Boulder Creek Canyon, the K-W Iron Horse Trail is flat, reminding me of the terrain around Nijmegen. (Ah, for one of those fine Dutch bikes, which I still can’t afford!) The flatness of the Iron Horse is, I suppose, easy on aging hearts and muscles, but flatness also provokes anxiety. I grew up in the high dry, dusty plains of eastern New Mexico, and I’m not fan of flatitude. In western Canada, they call these level expanses prairies. As a kid, I imagined prairies were places for prayer. Places where people asked God to help them escape to the mountains. Mountains and coasts are holy. The great continental mid-section is safe.

An iron horse is a train. If  you’re not too young, you know this already.

“Horsing around.” Did you use that phrase as a synonym for “play?”

“Ironing:” what we used to do to our clothes before stay-pressed and no-iron were invented.

“Ironing your horse:” nailing shoes on it. By pounding them through an iron shoe and then through the horse’s “nails,” you render the poor beast roadworthy. In the process, of course, you damage the hooves. Take your pick: asphalt damage or nail damage.

I imagine animating the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail. Raising it from the flatlands of the urban imagination.

I revel, conjuring an evening of processing and parading, of candle lanterns and steampunk horses, of kids inventing new kinds of horses.

Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez

Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez

War Horse by Larry Agnello,

War Horse by Larry Agnello,

I went to an Iron Horse Trail town meeting and could find no compatriots. I wanted to reimagine the trail, conjure its spirits, fill it with masked processions, have funeral processions down it, dance down up, have a yearly contest to build an Iron Horse Trail horse. But most participants wanted to enhance safety, make the trail wider, and post courtesy instructions.

Within a few months the trail was widened to accommodate Catalyst137, “The World’s Largest Internet of Things Manufacturing Space. I love technology, even the technology of machine horses. But, damn, I wish we would stock the trail with imaginary creatures. This ain’t Silicone Valley, although the city mothers and fathers wish it were.

Why build your house on sand?

In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible (NIV).

The rock is a key biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off it by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition. As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change; they too are rocks.

In a project called Building with Nature the Dutch, however, are learning to build houses on sand using a Sand Motor:

Unlike rock and its synthetic descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. What would Jesus do? He was a creative storyteller, so what else? Adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”

The problem with theologies and theories of religion that use rocks as models is that they are based on a false premise, that invariant institutions and rituals can orient you in a flowing, changing universe. As surely as the hour hand on a clock moves, religions evolve; they are “edited.” There is no such thing as stasis, not for clock hands, not for rocks, and not for liturgies (even “divine” ones). There is no unchanging ground either inside religion or outside it. All is flow, all is flux; there are only differing rates of change. The tectonic plates of the earth move by subduction; they shift and float. Not only is the universe variant and imperfect, so are the religions and rituals by which people negotiate it and orient to it.

How shall we commemorate lives unjustly cut short?

When you have the time and freedom to circle the deep, that’s glorious. When you don’t have either the time or the freedom–when you’re draped over the edge by another hand–that’s dreadful. When someone else cuts your life short by lynching, angry questions burn the air. The Equal Justice Initiative is building the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, near the site of a slave auction block. (Montgomery has 59 sites commemorating the Confederacy.) The memorial will include a lynching museum to commemorate the 4000 racial lynchings that happened in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II (1877-1950).


The Community Remembrance Project of the EJI is collecting soil samples from lynching sites and will incorporate them into the museum.


An historical view of the origins of lynching culture:

How shall we question our big questions?

This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.


Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.


Ron: Am I going to die?

Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.

Ron: Okay, when will I die?

Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.

Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.

Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?

Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?

Don: Maybe you have a better question.

Ron: Like, How will I die?

Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?

Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?

Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?

Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.

Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.

Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.

Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?

Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.

Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?

Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?

Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?

Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?

Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?

Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.

Don: Is that really true?

Ron: Pretty close.

Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?

Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!

Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.

Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.

Don: (laughs)

Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?

Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.

Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.

Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?

Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”

Don: I thought you were joking.

Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.

Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!

Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.

Don: Future stuff again (wrong-answer buzzer).

Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.

Don: While you’re still alive, right?

Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.

Don: A what?

Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.

Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.

Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?

Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?

Ron: Right.

Don: How do you propose to do that?

Ron: Imagine. How else?

Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?

Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.

Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?

Ron: No, none of that.

Don: At peace?

Ron: No peace. No war.

Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?

Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”

Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.

Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.

Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.

Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?

Don: (presses wrong-answer button) Now you did it.

Ron: Did what?

Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.

Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.

Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.

Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.

Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.

Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.

Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.

Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.

Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.

Ron: But would I care?

Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.

Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…

Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.

Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?

Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.


Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.

Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.

So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.

At the crossroads

Turning 25, musician Bryn Scott-Grimes visits Robert Johnson’s grave site. Later, he visits the crossroads where Johnson, the story goes, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical mastery.

Sleeping with the author

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterly


“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957


Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor


Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:


Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.


Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.

How shall we say no?

Susan, Bryn, and I attended the Women’s March, 2016, in Toronto. Cailleah had to work.

There were 60,000 of us who said an across-the-border no to Donald Trump.

Is democracy lost? We hope not.

If so, Leonard Cohen says it’s coming soon.
Doesn’t he?
Is it coming?
or coming back?
or, having left, returning?


Where Is here?

A colleague in New York City used to teach a course called “Hinduism Here.” A brilliant idea! Students walk out the door of Barnard College, Columbia. They look up and down Broadway and ask, “Where are the Hindus.” They start where they are, not in India.

Northrop Frye, famous literary theorist from that “other” university down the highway, wrote, “It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question ‘Who am I?’ than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?'” Now that I am here, I too wonder. The trouble is I have been here over 40 years and I still don’t know. Is “here” Canada? Ontario? Waterloo, my home address? And here, where I live, is it the bedroom, where…. or the study, where I work? Or the dining room, where the family gathers when the nest refills? Or is my “true” home where I’ll live when I “go.” And where on earth is that?

NO-JUNK-MAIL-Recently, I’ve been trying inhabit this place, but how do you do that? Some do it by joining CORE, the local neighborhood activist group. Some join City Council. None of those is my way. I tend to be apolitical until Big Causes arise, but what’s a big cause? What isn’t? Always there are people knocking on your door announcing that theirs is the real big cause. I say no to all door-knocking and phone-ringing causes. Later, I may give or join, but I don’t want to reinforce the habit of disrupting suppertime, so I say NO in big print.

A big spiritual problem: how to say yes to here.

How shall we make music of that?

My kids are too old to give assignments, but I hired Bryn as an assistant to carry out two assignments. In the first I asked him to read Irving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and make a short film about everyday ritualization.

How he convinced his mom to be the star of O Mother, Where Art Thou I will never know. She still talks about the video and says how much she enjoyed the process of making it. Since she’s camera-shy (maybe even camera-hostile), that’s quite a feat. Even as I write this, she is ensconced in her writing ritual with a coffee to her left and scone crumbs to the right.


For the second assignment I hired Bryn as a research assistant to help me do video work on Prague’s Velvet Carnival. Since he’s a musician, I asked him to do something with the music of the festival. Instead of writing about it, he composed a song:



Bury me where?

I have retired five times. Now I’m blogging about the little things to which life and death appear to be tethered. Some call Big Questions “religious;” others, “spiritual.” Both terms are troublesome, so I try to avoid them. I don’t believe in blogs any more than I believe in what most people call religion. Too many blogs are off the top of the head. Here I hope to ruminate rather than spew. I have nothing to lose or gain, not tenure (I was once a professor of religious studies), not a salary, not entries on my CV. I am now a Professor of Nothing. Entries in your resume won’t get you to heaven (even if you believe in such a place). As a professor, I wrote lots of questions, often in green ink, in the margins of student papers. “Oh, you got the Grimes-green-ink treatment.” My kids used to say that I like the word “query.” I do. A query is a big question persistently circumambulated. You circle the question because it bird-dogs you, inspires you, or drives you around the bend. So you walk it down, into the ground.

skeleton on bike b&wAs a kid sitting in a sandbox on the high plains of New Mexico, I talked to a craggy, stunted Mr. Peartree, and it (or the sandbox) endowed me with thorny questions and a quirky imagination. Now, as an old guy riding a bike with a well oiled chain, I’m still rolling down the Iron Horse Trail in Kitchener-Waterloo. It connects with the Trans-Canada Trail, supposedly the longest in the world when it’s finished.

In 1974 I crossed the border from the Homeland, the God-blessed United States of America. I was not a draft dodger, although I would have been if my lottery number had been called. Now I carry two passports.

I became a religious studies professor because I’ve long enjoyed stalking the the big questions and the metaphors that make up the universe. I study ritual because I am attracted to it, repulsed by it, and don’t understand it. This is the home page of a blog about little things that link to big things. It’s about home, the place where I live, even though I’m not very good at living here.

Where is here? Ideally, home is always right here: this page, the place where you are sitting or standing right now. That’s straight Zen (which I practiced for 20 years). That’s how I’d like to live. But I don’t. Really, home is too often back there or over there. You left it, or you’re not quite there yet. Where is home? That is a big question, often one with no single or easy answer. I hesitate to label this my “home” page, because, as a matter of fact, I have another. But that is just a glorified CV, nothing more. I don’t live there. I hope that’s not all of me.

Many of us have other homes or homelands. Some of us have nothing we’d call home. Too many of us have no homes except streets and parks or bus stations–if you’re willing to call those places home. For 40 years I’ve lived here in Waterloo, Ontario, which is joined at the hip with Kitchener. But K-W still doesn’t feel like home even though the kids were born on the living room floor, and dead or handmade things inhabit the depths of the yard. Not feeling at home isn’t the fault of neighbors or city councils. It’s my own problem, although I’m not the only one who has it. Kitchener used to be called Berlin, but it changed its name since, during World War II, it couldn’t sell shoes stamped “Made in Berlin.” And Waterloo, well, Napoleon met his in Belgium. I seem to be meeting mine here.

In the basement there are still old cardboard boxes from previous moves, as if one day my wife and I are going to pack up and pedal toward the Rocky Mountains. Surely, you too are about to leave for somewhere. If not, what’s wrong with you?

Do I want to be buried here in K-W? I sometimes ask Susan, my wife, knows the question is rhetorical. We both know the answer: Not on your life! O bury me not in Mount Hope Cemetery (although we enjoy biking through it). First there’s the question of burial (death is not a question), then there’s the question of how the postmortem deed will be accomplished, by fire or dirt-and-worm. I don’t want my ashes scattered in the Region of Waterloo, where I’m most likely to die, any more than I want them scattered outside Clovis, New Mexico, where I grew up. So where is home? Where should they put me when it’s time?

Maybe scatter me at Grimes Corner, which is near Madrid, half a hour from Santa Fe on the back road to Albuquerque.

I have to ask myself, in the interests of economy if nothing else: Why not along the Iron Horse Trail, which is just a few blocks away. I ride or walk it almost daily. When someone inquires why I do it, I reply, “Why else, to stay alive.” At first, my quip was ironic. Now it’s not.

bakfiets-nijlandIf this community would wake up the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail, fine, I’d be willing to exit from here. Assure me that my remains (and yours too, if you like) can be biked in procession down the Iron Horse Trail in a Dutch bakfeits, with big masks dancing around, and I’ll consent to cross over from this very place.