I was straining pretty hard trying to find something to talk about tonight. I like to think that I throw interesting idea up here, and I certainly wanted something thought-provoking.
Nothing came up immediately, so I flicked over to YouTube and said, “Eh, I’ll think of something.”
As I was rolling through YouTube, I noticed that one of my favorite channels, Extra Credits, had put up a new video. For those of you who don’t know, the Extra Credits puts out weekly videos based around various aspects of video games- design, writing, storytelling, mechanics, marketing, the industry, etc. As a bit of a gamer and literature/history nerd, their videos frequently get me rather intrigued in aspects of art I hadn’t truly devoted much time (or thought) to. For example, they have done videos on Horror characters and monsters, character development using the Myers- Briggs Type Indicator, a crash course in symbolism, and even a quick and dirty (but interesting and informative) overview of the “hero’s journey” narrative. I highly recommend looking them up if any of that appealed to you- or indeed, if you like games, writing, or business at all.
Their most recent video discussed something that, as a writer and wanna-be storyteller, I never realized had a name- the magic circle. The magic circle, in brief, is an atmosphere created that “draws people in”- that lets the audience divorce themselves from the real world and enter the world of the story. This can be generated by a number of things- the presence of music, stirring and startling visuals, the hint of the mysterious, even the physical location and conditions the audience is in. It’s whatever qualities in a story or it’s performance that let the audience lose themselves in the world and invest in the story.
As I was watching the video and listened to the Extra Credits crew discuss examples of how it works and where it can be found, I got to thinking about something else I had read recently that made mention of very similar notions- a book I had picked up on Judaism.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s excellent book Gonzo Judaism was suggested to me by my older sister. Having grown up in a pretty secular Jewish family, and part of a religious congregation we had roughly ZERO interest in, we had both spent quite a lot of time in recent years debating and evaluating our identities as Jews- if that’s what we would even call ourselves, what it would mean if we did, what it would mean if we DIDN’T, and so on, back and forth. In the book, Rabbi Goldstein calls for a change in what seems to be the dominant atmosphere of American Judaism and calls for younger, questing, vibrant souls to confront Judaism in the same spirit that Hunter S. Thompson confronted journalism (creating what he called “gonzo journalism”- hence the book title.) One chapter in the book discussed how a “new” Judaism didn’t need to (and, in fact, couldn’t) completely divorce itself from the old, and how some congregations have been looking backward- digging up old, forgotten, esoteric prayers and rituals from Judaisms past and breathing new life into them.
Regardless of which religion you come from, or even no religion, the impact and effect of ritual cannot be denied. Rituals, performed properly, and with full faith and knowledge of their meaning, are not just superstitions and chores, but SYMBOLS. Even if you are not religious, you have certain habits in your life that MEAN something. When you come home from work and take off your tie or put on comfy clothes, that is a ritual- one of making the transition from your work self to your home self. Inversely, when I was working at a hospital, it didn’t matter if I had arrived early for my shift and was in the building for 30 minutes already, clipping on my ID badge felt like I was “officially” on the clock, and at work. Even the simplest images and actions can have power if we give it to them- then they become rituals.
When several rituals are used together, they create an atmosphere- something that draws us out of ordinary life and into the holy moment we are experiencing. Lighting candles, lighting incense, singing certain songs, wearing particular clothes- all work in concert to draw us into something different.
In other words, they create a magic circle.
Anyone I haven’t lost by now is probably nodding and going, “Ok, great- rituals are important. I thought this was a food and dining blog.”
Well… what else is food? What else is sitting together at a dinner table? The smell of dinner coming in from the kitchen… the taste of THAT roast chicken your family ONLY makes on Friday night. How are these anything BUT rituals? How is that anything BUT a magic circle, dividing Friday night dinner from all the other dinners you had that week?
Restaurants spend an incredible amount of money on creating ambience- decor, music, lighting, furniture, uniforms for the staff- all of it based around a certain theme and meant to convey a feeling- creating a magic circle in which you are physically and emotionally enveloped in a single story- the story of you having dinner. As Warner LeRoy said, “A restaurant is a fantasy — a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.”
In Gonzo Judaism, Rabbi Goldstein gives suggestions on how to approach rituals- creating ones for yourself that will create a separation for you: a division between the sacred space and moment in time you want, and the rest of the mundane world. Lighting incense, putting on certain music, fixing particular foods- all serve to bring you mentally and emotionally to somewhere far, far away from where you are.
Meals do not need to be, and perhaps were not meant to be, just necessary pauses in the day to shove nutritious material into your body.
Nothing NEEDS to be “ordinary”. Every day doesn’t NEED to be “same shit, different day.” All it takes is the desire to make it different, the awareness of how, the attentiveness to make it happen- and just a bit of the magic we place into anything that matters.