Below are some interviews about

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







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).


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.”


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.


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.

by Susan Scott

News of the vision came on the eve of my high school graduation. All along there had been visions—it was enthralling, the boy’s likeness to young Joseph Smith—but this vision was different. The prophet Elijah had appeared, told the boy that he and I should marry. We were “meant to be” is what was said.

We related best, the boy and I, through long hand-written letters which I burned so my mother wouldn’t find them, but this one I jammed beneath the pillow. Thus saith Elijah … so this was a proposal? The message read more like a script for a Book of Mormon pageant, and I dared not question the pronouncement. Questioning would be a lack of faith. Yet if this were meant to be, why did I feel numb? What I felt was numb. This was not the fairy tale ending I’d envisioned.

I mean, running off together I could picture.

Susan at 18


Hitchhiking-for-Jesus I could picture.

What I could not picture was being someone’s wife.

I had fallen for the boy at church camp the summer that I turned 16, all lonely and hormonal, and he, in Mom’s words, on the prowl.

“Forget about that boy,” she said, rifling through no-name jeans at K-Mart. I had wanted Levi’s, but that was not to be. This was August, on the heels of camp. Here we go, I thought. There was always some informant, some nosy cook or counsellor who reported back to Mom.

“What boy?” I feigned indifference.

“Don’t play dumb with me. You know I mean that long-haired kook. I don’t like the look of him, he looks like he does drugs.”

“He does not do drugs,” I muttered, but not so as she’d hear it. You could not talk back and expect to be left standing.

“You are not to see him, that’s my point. He’s an instigator, that one.” Instigator was the former store detective’s word for the longhaired-slash-suspicious.

“His dad’s an elder,” I murmured. Descended from the missionary who’d baptized Dad’s people in the 1890s—another thrilling detail I kept to myself. Mom disliked mention of her in-laws’ spiritual advancement.

“I don’t care if he’s the Queen of Sheba. I wouldn’t trust that boy as far as I could throw him.” She went on to tell him so herself, at the Labour Day potluck at church, where he’d hitchhiked some forty miles to see me—hauled him off to the nursery, where a fist in his face drove home the message: Leave us alone, and don’t look back.

That sealed the attraction. I needed rescuing, and he was game to play the prince.

And a fair prince he was. Wispy blond hair brushed his collarbone. Wire-rim glasses and flannel shirts gave him the air of a working intellectual, someone who knew his way around a toolbox. A cross whittled out of some soft wood swung from a leather thong looped about his neck. He was restless, the kind of youth who masters the guitar—our very own Stephen Stills was the buzz at youth camp—and with a hint of arrogance that made him seem precocious. “Principled” he’d say, not put off by the establishment or overbearing mothers.

“Unjust rules were meant to be broken,” he wrote after being roughed up in the nursery. I fell for that, too, and for two years we met in secret, in the bush behind my dull suburban high school, where he’d woo me with yogurt or granola (I had never tasted either) along with news about the great wide world. “I just felt you needed this,” he’d say, and out of his backpack would tumble some cassette (Dylan, mostly) and high-minded reads to set me on the path to liberation. Thoreau and Emerson, Rilke, Castenada, Rolling Stone. Whatever rules Mom laid down for my “own good” could not compete with the high romance of cutting class to walk and talk and kiss in the little woodlot, exchanging ardent letters. I sighed a lot, and he consoled. “You’re not meant to live this way,” he’d say. He was right on that score. The more Mom called the principal or read my diary, the greater my righteous indignation. At the end of my senior year and the height of bad behaviour, she finally called in Dad, who weighed in with a solemn “Listen to your mother.” I tossed my long dark horsetail hair and smirked.

“That’s it,” Mom snapped. “I’ve had it, girl. I’m sending you to a psychologist.”

“Good,” I piped. Finally, an adult who might listen.

Sadly, the offer was rescinded. So there I was, about to graduate and face the heartbreaking choice of to marry or to burn and yes, the call to wed depressed me, but it just felt wrong to doubt the vision. Visions were a first class nod from the Holy Ghost, a sign of spiritual elevation. I was lucky just to have a boyfriend, let alone someone so evolved. To my discerning teenage brain, a wet dream misremembered eclipsed the still, small voice of common sense.

And there was fear—fear so rank I could smell it. Fear of making my way in the world, alone. A sullen, bookish girl was fit for what exactly? I had touched a boy, the sap was flowing. Dear God, I prayed, please send a sign.

My sign came sans Jesus or the prophets when the long-faced Rapunzel made her presence felt. Night after night, I lay tossing on my narrow bed while the spectre hovered by the window, toying with her ropey hair.

The sky in these reveries was starless. This starless state, I realized, was mine.

Deception had bought a little breathing space, but at a cost. I had lost the moral high ground. I had lost all clarity of thought.

The horizon that had lit up briefly with the hope of counterculture freedom had gone dark.

“Sister,” the sad Rapunzel shook her ghostly locks. Hers was a voice I recognized, the voice I took to heart.


Think: When have you betrayed yourself, denied what your gut said was crazy foolish? Think: What did you tell yourself to make it all okay?

I told myself that what I felt had no bearing on what was meant to be.


I had turned 18 right out of high school and by September the boy and I had fled, backpack and guitar in tow, to see our camp directors, Mike and Dar, in the religious commune they were founding in the Carolinas. The winsome Dar, mother of three, doubled as a nurse; her husband, Mike, a social worker, also served as an elder in the church. Our plan, such as it was, was for Mike to marry the boy and me. Come winter we’d be home again, awaiting another revelation.

Was the plan god-given? I assumed it was. We left Niagara Falls without explaining why the journey south—that is, without a word about eloping.

The owly lights of the old VW van bobbed on the wheezy climb up Piney Mountain. Dar reached back and squeezed my hand. “What a blessing you could join us,” she smiled. After lurching up the steep farm road that emptied into fields, Mike killed the engine and all at once, we tumbled out into the fragrant southern night, into moonlight pooling on three small sheds ringed by a stand of whistling softwoods. I spied a chicken coop and outhouse on either side of what looked like an overgrown shed. “Welcome to our humble cabin,” Dar undid the latch, and the stiff pine door slid open. We stepped into a small dark room with table, stove and dry sink. “Make yourself at home,” she nudged us up the stairs, towards cold wood stove, pullout couch and rocker. A ladder led to the little loft where the family slept. This room too was dark, save for moonlight stealing through a small square pane.

This was homesteading in tobacco country. No neighbours within shouting distance. No water, power or insulation. Just coons and fox and possum, which spooked the family dog, a big old yellow mutt that whined a lot. Cry Baby scuttled underfoot while we unpacked the van, and Mike carried dozing children off to bed.

“You know,” Dar shushed the dog, “we’re building our cabin using wood from an abandoned factory.” Cry Baby settled once her mistress lit the oil lamp, and light bloomed in the musty kitchen. Dar cocked her head. “We sure could use your help.”

“Of course,” I enthused, “that’s why we’re here.” Could the false note be detected?

“You’re not afraid of vultures, are you? They skulk about the place, but they’re curious is all.”

“So this is not your land?”

“No,” she said. “It’s a ways from here, you’ll see.”

What I saw that autumn was grit coupled with imagination. There were homey touches, yes—Dar’s merry cross-stitch brightening the barn board; waking up to fresh baked bread—but these were exceptions, up there with bacon and Velveeta sandwiches, or cornmeal griddle cakes lathered with peach jam. Weekly showers at the high school were the real treat, thanks to a laconic shop teacher by the name of Wes who smuggled us into the locker rooms on Friday nights. The kids—ages three, five and seven—bathed old-school back on the hill, in a washtub in the kitchen.

“It’s like camping,” their lanky dad would say. How long could they live in an old tobacco barn? Again, the boyish grin. “No more than a few years we hope.”

Hope was the watchword for this back-to-the-land living that charmed, inspired—unless you were put off by poverty and dirt, or bloody fox raids that enraged the hens, wings flapping in a mad show of indignation at the loss of another of their sisters.

I wish I could look back at that time on Piney Mountain and see myself wrangling chicken wire or kneading dough at daybreak, anything that would ease the many burdens of our hosts. What I see is a spectre ambling the slopes, contemplating turns of phrase—how Thoreau might have eulogized the brazen kudzu, the pokeweed’s bloody juices purpling the fingers—a pastime that distracted me from dreary chores like writing home to say Dear Mom and Dad, Just so you know, I’m getting married. For the life of me I could not speak up, I could not bring myself to say the simple truth, that I was shutting down. The depression that had dogged my sorry youth had not lifted, as I’d hoped. If anything, it had only deepened.

Once I turned 18, I caught a bus (in defiance) to Niagara Falls, and in a curious twist the boy’s family took me in, which turned out to be a godsend—news soon came that Mom had sold my bed. And that was that: I was launched, a dark Rapunzel, free to seize her independence, or to follow the fair prince. And since the latter had been foretold by an erstwhile prophet, I fell into the age-old habit of simply following a man. Following had led me here, to fields I wandered in a pre-nuptial haze, girl from the North country, long hair “all down her breast,” clueless what to do with my so-called life.

Dar, to her credit, tried to reach me. In return, I was maddeningly evasive. “What will you do when you go back to Canada?” (Sorry, I have no idea.) “What’s your heart telling you to do?” (Ditto.) “Did you want to buy a veil?” (Hmm, would it go with the granny gown scrunched up in my backpack?) In truth, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the wedding. But that was normal, right? Eloping casts a kind of spell. Travel casts another. I explained this was my first trip south, first sighting of hickory and hornbeam, first encounter with rhododendron-covered rocks and spillways. Magnolias were new to me. Sassafras was new. So was the sweet, sweet smell of dried tobacco. I’m lost, I laughed. That much was true. Smitten and confounded by the fog-wiped, painterly, impoverished and enchanted.


I came to at the wedding the first week of November, deep in R. J. Reynolds’s tobacco country, on a 30-acre parcel of spindly pine and oak brush that went by the name of Zion’s Depot.

You will not find that name on any map. Mike and Dar and the others who had bought the land in common had coined a name that did not suggest fanatics or an armoured compound, at least not to the like-minded souls flocking to the Tar Heel State, hoping for cheap land to buy and settle. And in that sense, other than Cry Baby in festive red bandanna, all eight wedding guests were older, seasoned versions of ourselves—dreamers, seekers, ersatz saints in the latter days of a hopeful era.

I’d first heard about Mike’s vision at that fateful church camp the summer that I turned 16, before news of it seeped north across the border and alarmed members of our sleepy congregation—people like my mother, who saw youth camp as a training ground for braless hippies.

“All this talk about a commune…” Mom clucked, hand on ample hip, presiding over a mess of sizzling onions. “That Mike’s an instigator.”

“Mom, read the Bible. Followers of Jesus held their goods in common.” I was preachy and obnoxious and I didn’t care. What I cared about was fleeing death-by-suburb.

“Don’t get smart with me. Communes are for you-know-what.”

I rolled my eyes, but not so as she’d notice. “Look, Mike’s an elder who’s doing what he thinks is right. Besides, you’ve never even met him.” I had just met Mike and the moon-faced Dar myself at the most amazing youth camp ever. Their van alone was proof that Jesus freaks could be real cool.

“I don’t go in for kooks,” Mom smirked. Cold potatoes hit the fry pan. “All this vision talk is nonsense.” The onions coiled and hissed.

Her attitude, as always, was unspeakably depressing. I thought of Emerson. To be great is to be misunderstood.

“Girl,” Mom shook her head. “If you go in for all that vision talk, you really are deluded.”

Deluded? Wow, I thought, who’s talking.

Living on the land, as I’d understood from all my reading—as I’d pictured it before setting foot in hard-scrabble Appalachia—would be hard, yes, a test of character that would purify the heart. Who could fail at this ennobling life if it were meant to be? Clearly Mike and Dar had been led to this death-wed mythic landscape for a reason.

And me? Why was I standing toe-to-toe with a groom I hardly spoke to under a twisty leafless oak on such a damn cold day?


You will not find the name Rapunzel in the scriptures, but she’s there just the same— anytime there is push-pull over woman. Eve was one such woman, and what was said to Eve? “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow.”

God didn’t speak to me directly, but shame drove the message home. I was a failure. Girl, you are such a disappointment.

My family never spoke of the elopement. One aunt didn’t speak to me for 20 years, she was so put off by my counterculture nonsense.

The in-laws took another tack. “What about a ring?” My mother-in-law would offer up a plain gold band—a family heirloom, which I moodily declined. (Wedding rings are so conventional.) “Any pictures?” (Oh no, we’d never pose for pictures.) Our sole memento, the Stokes County marriage certificate with its quaint cameo of two clasped hands, aroused plenty of suspicion, as did the fact that I soon took back my maiden name. That was a real head shaker. Even so, most people made an effort to adapt to our playing man and wife. My home church would even throw a shower, which I swore up and down I didn’t want, but the women I had known since childhood insisted on the age-old rite of passage. When I walked into the old church hall, I was met by every piece of Tupperware known to humankind.

“Well, what did you expect?” Mom sounded battle-weary. “They asked me what you needed and I told them.”

Mom and I made up in other ways as well, most times without a fight. All fights now were inside the marriage.

He grew sullen, I grew loud. It was an adjustment.

There were moments, though. On the bitter cold December morning we arrived back in Niagara Falls, when my father-in-law met our Greyhound bus with “Welcome home, children, how about some breakfast?” (our first hot meal in days) and we used the diner’s pay phone to call about an ad for an apartment in a storied nineteenth-century mansion up on Lundy’s Lane—a place we took sight unseen, because it was a sign—I was flooded with a fleeting sense of promise. A big old funky place filled with drug-dealing misfits could inspire just the pluck we’d need, to emulate our heroes in the Carolina outback.

Sure enough, hardship worked its magic, distracted us from the fact that two kids fresh out of high school could not find work. Finally, when winter fell full force inside and out, when the unheated apartment grew so cold that the clothes laid out stiffened like cadavers, we finally got inventive—tossed our jeans and socks and mitts into the oven, long enough to toast them and get us up and out the door: he, to the unemployment office every morning, and me to the in-laws before plodding to the library to look up universities, or plunder cookbooks, scouting recipes for Mormon bread.

Time passed and winter deepened. Niagara Falls is an icy haze in winter, and with the bitter damp comes an eerie pall that tricks the senses. Friends who stayed over complained of a presence in the living room where they’d camped out on the floor. A big old house like this has ghosts, they murmured over breakfast. No, no ghosts, I countered.

Haunted, though, is how I felt when evenings fell, and my spouse lay down his fair guitar to lace up his hiking boots. “Don’t wait up,” he’d say. “I’m headed to the Falls.” Some nights it was the Rapids, or the Whirlpool, wild places that had been ours not so long ago.

Hour after hour, stiffening on the mattress on the hard cold floor, I’d listen for the door to open, staring at the frosted window, worrying my hair, wondering Where the hell was this Elijah? If the Almighty had something grand in store, now would be the time to show it.

Sad to say, no figures made their presence felt.

What was felt was a towering sense of loss.

Loss filled the awkward silence in an awkward marriage, a union in which neither party could speak up or bring ourselves to say the truth—that we were neither favoured nor appointed. We were not pioneering. We were simply keeping time. This pre-ordained joining of a boy and girl—this was conforming.

We’d conformed to someone else’s vision of how to live our lives. We had fallen for the powerful, alluring—what was not yet love.

Then suddenly it’s morning, and once again we’re hopping about a frigid kitchen, pulling on our roasted socks and jeans, and, well, there’s a kind of joy in that—joy in pushing back against the odds of failing, for the odds are overwhelming that you will. For now, all you can do is bundle up and go your separate ways: he to look for work, and you, to the holy precincts of the book stacks by way of the in-laws, where maybe, just maybe, you will set aside your sorrow long enough to lend a hand, or do the unexpected. Admit to your affection for the great wide world.


Susan Scott is nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly.

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


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: