Necessary rituals


I have been thinking a lot about rituals recently although I don’t belong to any organization that practices them, nor, for that matter, have I been invited to any in the community for a while. At my age, I should no doubt be anticipating more funerals than weddings, but no summonses to either have arrived recently, thank goodness. And anyway, those aren’t the rituals I had in mind. Nor are the everyday habits and patterns to which I have no doubt fallen prey.

I suspect what I had hoped for were those special activities whose practice offers solace and refuge from everyday life. Things, perhaps, whose origins are sufficiently obscure that they discourage analysis, and yet require total, if not mindless adherence to their performance. When I was young and still believed in magic, I suppose I participated in things like that in church, but I’m afraid those clothes no longer fit. The ceremonies seem tired and frayed to me, and the voices no longer speak from another world.

Perhaps requiring an escape that keeps my mind from constantly wandering and yet achieving some form of inner peace, is asking too much from a ritual, though. Surely inner dialogue accompanies any process; it’s what the mind does after all; even in sleep, thoughts break through in dreams. And while walking a labyrinth, the brain still makes decisions, all the while wandering along trails of its own. It does the same during an exercise run; during an interesting hike it constantly focusses on the unusual, the unfamiliar or the beautiful and works on making sense of them – comparing them to what it already has in its files.

No, I’m searching for liberation in a ritual -well, maybe that’s too grandiose. How about just losing myself? And with something that won’t annoy, or bore me along the way. That may be asking for a lot, I realize, but nonetheless it is a goal as worthy, perhaps, as a ritual itself: it is a grail-quest.

However, sometimes answers come disguised, and appear unexpectedly through the most unlikely doors. One must only be willing to rephrase the query, and re-purpose the answer. I love it when that happens.

Anyway, I was wandering through the apps on my phone one day seeking a refuge from ennui when I saw something in a BBC Future article that, although I thought it was probably click-bait, nevertheless caught my attention. It was an essay about reading out loud written by Sophie Hardach, a freelance journalist for the BBC. Since retirement, I seldom have need of a voice; I even have to practice saying ‘Hello’ before I answer the phone so the caller won’t think I’m sick, or that they just woke me up -especially in the middle of the afternoon.  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200917-the-surprising-power-of-reading-aloud

Hardach points out that ‘For much of history, reading was a fairly noisy activity. On clay tablets written in ancient Iraq and Syria some 4,000 years ago, the commonly used words for “to read” literally meant “to cry out” or “to listen”.’ And yet, over time -perhaps as writing and information content evolved- silent reading became more common, except for performance arts or bedtime storytelling to children. ‘But a growing body of research suggests that we may be missing out by reading only with the voices inside our minds. The ancient art of reading aloud has a number of benefits for adults, from helping improve our memories and understand complex texts, to strengthening emotional bonds between people.’

In fact, according to some studies done by Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, ‘people consistently remember words and texts better if they read them aloud than if they read them silently. This memory-boosting effect of reading aloud is particularly strong in children, but it works for older people, too… Even just silently mouthing the words makes them more memorable, though to a lesser extent.’

I find it interesting that we read out loud more than we realize. Sam Duncan, an adult literacy researcher at University College London, conducted a two-year study of more than 500 people in Britain to find out how common reading aloud actually was. She found that the practice was widespread, albeit often not thought about in those terms. ‘Some said they read out funny emails or messages to entertain others. Others read aloud prayers and blessings for spiritual reasons. Writers and translators read drafts to themselves to hear the rhythm and flow. People also read aloud to make sense of recipes, contracts and densely written texts… “There were participants who talked about how when someone is reading aloud to you, you feel a bit like you’re given a gift of their time, of their attention, of their voice.”’

What has any of this got to do with rituals, though?  

I used to do the whole reading-out-loud thing when I was a child and first learning about words, but as I got older and school got busier, I found that it was a bit slow -not to mention embarrassing- so I stopped. I suppose that’s what happens to most of us: it slows things down too much, and reading aloud requires a fair amount of concentration to recognize the words, figure out how to pronounce them, and then reproduce them in sound.

Actually saying the words meaningfully requires a quick analysis of the context, and adopting an appropriate cadence, a rhythm, to make them flow the same way in sound as they would on the page. Breathing, too, is harder than one might imagine, so right away the value of a comma, not to mention a period, becomes much more than mere punctuation. It’s value in creating a pause to draw a quick breath assumes an importance likely not fully appreciated in silent reading. Whether to an audience, or only to yourself, reading aloud is performance art. It is all-consuming from the start -it requires total concentration and practice to make it interesting to anybody -including you. In fact, it becomes a point of honour to try to improve how it sounds.

I actually find myself trying to add feeling and nuance to the way I express things, and realize that I enjoy the sound of a well-pronounced word, and have come to appreciate the tempo of something as basic as a masterfully-constructed sentence. One could lose oneself in perfecting the performance…

I now find myself returning to spoken things -stories, poems, and even essays long since condemned to written silence on the page. I try to visit at least one of them each day, and clear some time when I can practice the enunciation and texture as if I were preparing a bedtime story for a bunch of rapt-eyed children. It’s the least one should expect of a decent ritual…

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