Monday, March 15, 2010

Superstitious Nonsense or How I Keep Alive in this Churning Sea of Evil

My parents and I ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant yesterday. After the meal, we contemplated a small plate of fortune cookies. My father pushed the dish toward me and I picked up the cookie nearest me. Then he indicated to my mother that she must make her choice. He was not just being polite. In fact, I realized, he was waiting to see which one was destined for him. "You're awfully superstitious for an atheist," I said to him. I can't remember what my own cookie indicated about my future. I think I did not pay it much mind because I had already negated it. You see, I viewed my fortune before completely consuming the cookie. This messes with the cookie vibes.

There are certain protocols one must follow in order to ensure the safety of one's family. Women in particular must be careful to admonish loved one's toward safe travel whether it is out of state, just down the road, or even just down a flight of stairs. "Be careful. Travel safely. You won't get there any faster if you speed. Don't tailgate. Drive defensively. Call me when you get there." We also give advice to avoid falling into ovens and to be mindful of the tines on plastic forks lest one should inadvertently bite one off and choke on it. We ask people to mind that they chew carefully, walk slowly, look where they are going, and watch what they are doing. We give this advice not because it helps anyone. We don't live with complete fools. We give this advice because the advice is magical. It protects our family from harm.

When I am to be separated from family members, I am careful to say,"We'll see each other later" not "I'll see you later." You see, I might see them later in a morgue and that would be no good. On the other hand to "see each other later" implies that both of us will have life and the power of sight. These details are important. One must always tell someone you love them before they go away for any length of time. If you don't, you increase their chances of death. Also, if you are angry with them or treat them badly in any way, you put them at higher risk. God is cruel that way (if I believed in God but of course I don't.)

When I was a child, I liked to do my homework on the hardwood floor of my bedroom. Sometimes I would get tired and want to rest my head for just a moment as I wrote. But I didn't. Why? Because if I did, the pencil lead would lodge itself in my eye. That was a fact. Also, it was important to not look out my windows at night lest the undead stare back at me. And one must be careful to decide on which side one sleeps. If I slept on my right, that would indicate to my murderer that now was the time to kill me. Unless he wanted me to believe that was his plan and the real danger side was the left... in which case I should sleep on my right side to fool him. Unless he expected me to second guess myself...

As an adult, I believe that to allow any person who is not a member of my family to drive me anywhere is to tempt fate. Likewise, I only allow my parents or spouse to drive my children and then only when it cannot be prevented. I will try to go with them because my presence in the back seat of an overcrowded vehicle has protective powers. Likewise, I have found that if I pretend that I have a break pedal on the passenger's side of the car, my husband does not run into other vehicles on the thruway.

We have a creek in the backyard and a tree house in the woods. You must ritually remind children not to drown or fall. Additionally, since we live in a house with three living spaces separated by two staircases, one must daily remind children not to tumble down stairs. "Hold onto the railing. Don't fall. Be careful. Don't trip on the cat." My grandmother is elderly so I scan the floor for things that might make her fall. There are the obvious things like loose carpet and toys but what about that twist tie or a tiny bit of paper? If I saw such a thing and did not pick it up immediately, she might become inexplicably entangled in it and fall to her doom. And whose fault would it be? That's right. Mine.

You see, one has to take a rational approach to the unpredictability of life and make the appropriate plans for health and safety. I don't believe in God, but I am careful to correct myself whenever I grow frustrated and indicate that "I hate my life." No. No. I don't hate my life! What I mean to say to anyone who is listening is that "I dislike my life as it is now and would prefer a more healthful and fulfilling lifestyle. That's what I meant to say and that's what I mean- just in case there was any unfortunate misunderstanding.

You see, I don't believe in angels (mine is named Jasper) and I don't believe in faeries (actually it is much better to refer to them obliquely as "the wee people" or "them that be"). I believe we are subject to the laws of science and that my use of divination cards is a rational exercise in creative exploration of the unconscious. Reincarnation is yet another form of wishful thinking (my special pendulum with the shiny faceted black plastic bead on the end of the old string indicates that I was a emotionally distant Asian business man in my prior life. Other assessments are inaccurate because only the shiny plastic bead has the right powers.)

It is silly to keep talismans and charms although I have found that a certain turquoise ring is excellent for safe travel. I have a goddess figurine who brings me success and a bronze cow who controls my temper. Little angel figures hung here and there in my home return my loved ones safely home. Rocks keep Grandpa's memory alive and a tiny fetus doll carried in my purse intensifies my maternal connections to my offspring.

OK. So maybe I'm just a little superstitious. Just a smidge. But mostly I take care of myself and my family with good sense and planning. Wear a seat belt (you know the first time you don't- even if you're only just sitting in a parked car, you'll die). Exercise and eat sensibly. Don't smoke or drink. (And you should probably hold your breath when you walk by smokers because second hand smoke will kill you just like that). Eat organic food. Take your vitamins. Every day. Or else you will be suddenly stricken my every disease you have ever read about on the internet.

I think these are wise precautions. And really, you don't want to go overboard with worry to the point at which you are engaged in ridiculous magical thinking. As frightening as the world is, beyond wholesome discipline and sensible precautions you can't keep evil forever from your door--although I do find that the image of the roaring lion I keep in my entryway seems to help.


Lone Star Ma said...

If you weren't so much smarter than me and so much more concerned with self-improvement than I am, I might suspect that we shared a brain.

Morgaine said...

The first time I read this, I gained about 50 gray "worry" hairs and I had the inexplicable urge to run to a mirror and pluck them out one at a time -- but that would risk breaking the mirror, and gaining 10 grays for each one I plucked. The second time I read this, I laughed and giggled and snickered (and howled a few times).
The third time I read this, I wondered just how neurotic am I anyway? I think it may take a 4th or 5th read to gain the full effect, Hystery.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

All superstition aside.

Even though you don't believe in God,
Good News is God believes in you.

And that came from the pop theologian
Stephen King in his book The Stand.
The earnest, ethical character Nick tells the Black elderly woman of God, Mother Abigail, that he doesn't believe in God.

Mother Abigail (unlike fundamentalists) doesn't get upset;
on the contrary she bursts out laughing and then very seriously says,
"Ah, but God believes in you:-).

And that dear Hystery is the Good News:-)

In the Light,

Hystery said...


Now that is good news. Thank you for that. I will think of that often when I am in need of comfort (which is frequent).

Of course, in this particular piece,I am teasing myself about my atheism. Am I truly an atheist? Nah. Not in any pure sense. In addition to my unruly superstitious behaviors that so mock my claims to rationalism, I am far too spiritual a person to ever pull it off. One could say that the human brain is wired to delude itself with beliefs in the supernatural and the holy, but that seems a rather pointless delusion to me. It seems to me more likely that there is something Ineffable that humans experience. I won't call it "supernatural" because the Pagan in me believes that just because we can't explain something doesn't put it outside the natural order. Is it "God"? Perhaps. But I tend to think it is something that makes that concept, however grandly our cultures have created it, seem a rather puny thing. Whatever it is, it is beyond my comprehension. I will settle with the sense that it is Good. Beyond that, I hesitate to least not this week!

Rudy said...

Thank you for your comments on my blog, and yours, about anger. And thank you also for your last comment here, on atheism/ the ineffable/ etc. which very much spoke to what I am struggling with.

On the same thread that challenged me emotionally, I had said that God the world good, but said I was also willing just to say that it *was* good. (That didn't help.) People asked me why is there world so full of disease and pain? How can I call it good? (or bad?)

The thought is shaking me, but in a good way, I hope, a leading to pay more attention to the broken parts of the world that are outside my horizon, esp. the tropical disease people told me about.

I like your idea that just because it's ineffable, it's not supernatural. "Natural" is a way, way bigger category than we have ever imagined, and I sense like you that it's good, though I can't prove it.

Hystery said...

Today I read one of my favorite columnists discuss the topic of that which we do not know. You might want to check it out. I believe it humorously approaches my own concept of the Ineffable and our attempts to meet it through science. Mark Morford on Nature

Mary Ellen said...

One of my favorite bloggers, Linda, just did a piece on Celtic spiritual practices that I thought was splendid: These folks mixed the sublime and the very mundane, calling up the holy protection of angels and saints for their wooly sheep and their looms. Superstitions moving in the direction of a keen attention to the holy seems like a good model - we can't help our fears and our wishes for safety, after all, but we can keep reaching for and pointing to the Source of abundance.

kevin roberts said...

I whistle more or less loudly when I'm working. Once I was on a seismic boat out in the Gulf, whistling away, when I noticed the second mate staring at me'

"You're whistling," he said.

"Uh huh."

"That's bad luck. You might whistle up a storm."

"You believe that?"

"No, but other people do, " he said, still staring at me. So I stopped whistling when he was around.

There was also a technique for getting rid of bad luck that plagued the ship. Everybody drew lots, and the loser had to go into town the next time we hit the dock and transfer the bad luck to certain physically distinctive professional entertainers who I'm afraid I can't discuss further in public.