Performing rituals, particularly harmless and generally unimportant ones, has the power to assure us of life’s continuity. When we repeat them, with barely a thought about what we’re doing, they connect for us the past and the present. We confirm the significance of the past with our acknowledgment of it.
Regarding harmless rituals, Elaine and I have one we steadfastly observe when we order Chinese take-out. I have no idea when or why it started. Those eagerly anticipated dishes combined with our addiction to dinner-table banter have, over the years, assured its survival. Before digging into the Moo Shu and the Lo Mein, we acknowledge the presence those crunchy modernistic little sculptures called fortune cookies. We place them away from the main courses as visible reminders that following the meal, we’ll extract from them tiny pieces of paper whose symbolic language and our interpretation thereof can provide veiled insights into the world we navigate and help us assess the paths we follow. Of course, sometimes the nugget of wisdom is so abstract it’s beyond our intellectual reach, but we never reach into those cookies without some hope for enhanced wisdom.
Traditionally, before opening them, we settle on a theme these musings would hopefully enlighten us about. Themes have been varied, concentrating, for example, on seeking guidance about making the most of an approaching new year. One little gem counseled, “…do not neglect the glimmering sea…,” meaning for us that regardless of inevitable negativity we encounter, we should not overlook beauty customarily taken for granted, beauty available simply for the looking. Sometimes, the theme centered on something more mundane, like participation in an impending professional conference. Then, an admonition like “often, who says the least says the most” might, almost presciently, crop up.
Mostly, we steered away from overly serious or overly specific topics. Ludicrous as it sounds now, our favorite ones centered on politics, hoped-for previews of our collective future. From our current vantage point, referencing “our collective future” seems cruelly satiric. That expression seems increasingly to be a contradiction in terms. But in those bygone days, even serious problems appeared capable of being addressed by responsible political measures. And even if the fortune cookie’s message wasn’t uplifting, at least it didn’t seem to portend utter disaster. Almost daily now, I catch myself yearning for the time when every day wasn’t accompanied by threats of a national tsunami.
The onslaught of Covid quickly doomed politics as our go-to topic. As conditions worsened, “plague” took on an additional meaning, referring also to the rampant ignorance that spread virulently in its wake. Protecting the common good, the unifying goal we might have anticipated with the advent of Covid, has been ignored by millions of people, who prefer to be guided by lazy indifference or simplistic faith. For many in this group, the enemy isn’t those who irresponsibly spread the disease; instead, they regard science, the source of ultimate solutions, as the foe. Resistance, sometimes physical, to common sense practices like masking and vaccinating starkly reveal the intellectual and emotional condition of this country.
As a result, we no longer rely on our fortune cookies to deliver possible peeks into our political future. Taking things day by day is arduous enough without projecting ourselves into an ominous future. Still, given how long it’s lasted, we don’t want to abandon our ritual entirely. So we’ve compromised by allowing the chips (in this case, the crumbs) to fall where they may and simply regard emerging messages as random commentaries about anything but politics.
Last night, I read one that struck me as harmless and actually made me laugh: ”To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.“ I must have been in an exceptionally good mood last night, because I’m not laughing now. How could I have been dumb enough to overlook the implications of that one? I suppose the fact that my danger sensors are now on constant high alert imparts to practically everything surreptitious political overtones.
What’s happened in the past two years has compromised our ritualistic theme-setting, but we’re re-habbing, not abandoning it. Sample topics: How will our two-year old grandkids behave when we see them next week? What happens next in the page turners we’re absorbed with? What prospects do the Phillies have to make it to the World Series next year? Actually, scrap that last one. We’re trying to find refuge from depression, not discover it in unnecessary places.