Illustration by Penelope Gazin
It’s the space between things that’s truly important. That’s what committed self-actualizers will tell you; so will graphic designers insisting on negative space, and stylists who are all like, “Less, less, less, less…” pulling off bracelets and pants. It’s never the thing itself, but the stuff—the lack of stuff—around the thing. Falling asleep, I often find a convincing, semiconscious simulacrum of cozy peace by imagining a nonscientific, crayon-drawn version of a light field, and then focusing tighter and tighter on the black empty places in between the things. That is what’s important, right there.
By now, as mid- or late winter or whatever it is approaches, still months until fireworks holidays, and until some liquid-jasmine physical atmosphere makes us more able to be with our bodies, and with each other (hugs through piles of down aren’t the same), the allotment of collective ritual opportunity has mostly been spent. Ritual is always limited for us, a casualty of everything else that happened, for the young and secular and very much online who occupy so much of our time creating new versions of good and fulfilling lives. Ritual, like real, physical, people-and-concrete communities, can’t be counted among the experiential, cultural things that have been (equitably or not) replaced by some aspect of technology. A human need that is, I think, as in us as it ever was, the practice of welcoming, organizing, confirming ritual has been forced to wait it out under a ten-foot wave until we decide how far we can (or, will) go with our inboxes and social-media posts as extensions and expressions of not just ourselves, but also the solemn end—the waaay end of our feelings. That undefined space around and between the “things” is more important, yeah, but those things, the markers and parameters that define both types of spaces, are there for a reason.
Yesterday I sat in front of my laptop, my body a tense C-curve and my paper cup of coffee a Starbucks serif, clicking through a photo gallery of this church I thought I might go to on Sunday. It’s the same denomination that I was raised in, and what I wanted from it is basic nostalgic comfort, and probably some approximation of a set of values that I keep in a glass-door trophy case in the hallway of my memory palace. I miss it.
I’m into this stuff, into real-time, on-purpose meaning-making, but this kind of attempt at creating ritual by sort of re-creating it based on previous experiences more often happens online. Most of the rituals that we’ve come up with to replace what has been collectively lost somewhere else already feel supernormalized: posting baby pics on Facebook is, I guess, what’s “done” now, with “It’s done” and “It’s not done” always being the ordering philosophy for any sort of social interaction, whether in person or online. But then your baby is on Facebook the same way fleeting YouTube stuff and 10 percent–off coupons are on Facebook, and that’s when this new, aggregated version of normal still feels temporary and shifting. It’s an appropriate, if still anxious, middle ground of convenience and celebration, of making and remaking meaning together.
Birth, death, marriage, divorce, coming of age, accomplishments, and failures all require real acknowledgement and recognition. We need a way to ritualize and symbolize that makes use of both our humanity and the reality of how lives play out. Birthdays are the easiest, with the routine of abbreviated Facebook messages for the public confirmation and validation, and multi-’moji texts, for the private loving-up. It’s easy, because the tone of the thing itself isn’t usually in conflict with the way it’s celebrated online. Still: I just sent my friend a season of a TV show via iTunes for her birthday, which is in most ways better than giving her a box of what will too quickly turn to shit, but clicking toward and downloading a prezzie on your birthday must be a step in the vertiginous march toward the void.
For a while—real years, by now—I’ve been rereading Moby Dick every winter. It’s not my favorite book, and it’s not a cute read to skate over in an afternoon; I read it every year, and will keep reading it every year, as a dull protest against having nothing else to do to mark time. Otherwise, my entire adult life feels too much like a mostly uninterrupted, mostly unmarked length of heavy rope, unfurling through a routine of work and hanging out and moving between the two, and I guess also waking up and falling asleep. It’s all being recorded, meticulously if abstractly, online, and I’m sure interruptions and markers will eventually emerge from all of the space around them, even if they’re not so obvious to me now, and even if I feel like I need them to reveal themselves sooner.
More of Kate’s Li’l Thinks can be found at Twitter.com/KateCarraway.