Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I have an airplane ritual:

I always request tomato juice – with a lime. And if I have a meal with it and there’s salt and pepper, I salt and pepper my tomato juice. This isn’t a normal drink for me – just an airplane drink. This has been my drink for the past 3 years or so. Before that, it was ginger ale. I looked forward to it like I couldn’t get ginger ale anywhere else. I think I moved to tomato juice when I became more health conscious. Sometimes, when in the mood, I'll revert back to ginger ale. But I don't think I've drunk anything else on a plane besides those two drinks.

Some people think rituals are constricting or a little obsessive-compulsive, but I love them. They give me comfort, balance and a sense of control. Devotion to my rituals somehow clarifies my relationship to myself. It’s not a superstition; it’s just a simple reminder that grounds me in a reassuring way. Participating in my tomato juice ritual makes me happy and optimistic when I travel and connects me to previous travel memories.

One ritual that has only recently become apparent to me is the music I listen to when preparing a talk for church. It’s usually a two-day activity (I put a lot of research, preparation and rewriting into my talks).

I wrote a talk several years ago about the hymn “Lead Kindly, Light.” I wrote that shortly after I purchased the soundtrack to The Painted Veil which I listened to the whole time I wrote.

A couple years ago I wrote a talk on “Mystery”. It was then that I finally realized listening to music while I write is a ritual for me – but it’s more than just listening to music.

As I began to write my Mystery talk, I was listening to my iTunes on shuffle but my focus just wasn’t there. I tried to listen to The Painted Veil music again, but it just brought back memories of my last talk. This is when it occurred to me: I needed new music. Something I’d never heard before – something I could devote this talk to. So I went to the iTunes store and looked up some of my favorite film music composers and decided on Alexandre Desplat’s Lust, Caution (never seen it, but I loved his score to The Painted Veil). Miraculously, I was able to relax, focus and write my talk.

I realized this ritual actually began way back in college when I would write art history papers. I had a tendency to designate certain music to the topic and I listened to that music over and over again as I did research, outlined and wrote until my paper was done.

It all started when I wrote a term paper on William Merritt Chase. I wrote this when I was a sophomore. My dad let me borrow the computer in his office to write my paper. I looked through the CDs on his shelf and chose Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings (go ahead, listen to it while you read the rest of this post). There’s more music on that CD but I had that 10 minute piece on repeat. It was pastoral and springy and I wrote my paper in April so it was fitting.

The next year I wrote a paper on Geertgen tot Sint Jans “Nativity” and for that paper I listened to the Little Women soundtrack over and over. Part of that story is Christmassy and I wrote that paper in November and December so it was fitting.

I actually love this ritual. I love it because having done this, I’ve assigned specific memories to specific music. I have a mental musical journal of my writing method and how I can escape ruts and blocks and come out with a product I am satisfied with and proud of. It gives me stability and continuity and helps me work more effectively. It gives me focus and control and shape to my process.

I love that simply believing this ritual will help, makes it help – which makes the ritual take on a power of its own. I find that when I have another writing project coming up, I actually look forward to it because I begin to plan for it – I plan for the music I will choose and that magically makes the task a lovable one.

I should develop more rituals – maybe they will make more tasks and projects lovable.


SRA said...

N/A Bloody Mary, eh? Go Laura! (ask for a piece of celery with your tomato juice next time)

Ilene said...

I like grapefruit juice on an airplane. They usually have the nice tart stuff instead of that gross ruby red grapefruit punch.

I try not to drink on planes. The bathrooms frighten me. What is even worse than airplane bathrooms is trying to change a baby on an airplane.

When I play my "Little Women" CD, I think of you and me sitting on our respective beds with our little black lamps glowing as we read or wrote whatever paper or Latin/Italian translation we were working on.

Dallas Graham said...

I like your description of rituals.

I usually write letters on the barf bags in front of me. For many years I sent them to a friend who told me (years later) that he had kept all of them. Imagine my surprise! He told me that he kept b/c he thought, "I'd like to have them for a show one day."

A year or so later, I happen to ask him if I could see the collection. He looked and me and with little delay said, "Oh. I've thrown them away."

Crushed? I bit. Actually... "a lot" a bit.

I'll look at tomato juice differently next time.