The ceremony of intangibles


Meetings! Why do we meet each Wednesday morning? Why does Harbir usually choose a black turban for our meetings, although sometimes when I see him on the street, he’s wearing a blue one? And why is he always so cheery, his eyes twinkling, his entire face smiling…?

For that matter, why is Jamie always so critical of everybody? From the moment I enter the Food Court, I can hear him arguing with Alan at our usual table by the balcony -Jamie, the bald, retired plumber who used to be sociable and friendly whenever he was on a job at my house, and doctor Alan, as we called him, always in his faded brown sports jacket, and red tie, only recently retired from his academic position in History at the university- what would the two of them have to argue about?

I sighed quietly and made my way past a medley of older people in the sparsely occupied room. Jamie was waving his arms in frustration at something Alan had likely said, while Har leaned forward on the table drinking his usual orange juice with a puzzled expression on his face. It was another Wednesday morning.

Only Har acknowledged my presence, although Jamie did stop waving his arms for a moment, and Alan briefly flicked his eyes in my direction.

“No, Jamie -that’s just not true…”

Up went Jamie’s waving arms again. “Come on Doc – there was a huge amount of lead in their pipes! That’s been demonstrated time and time again by the archeologists…! Are you going to ignore all that evidence?”

Alan shook his head irritably. “I’m not arguing that, Jamie!” He rolled his eyes as if a student had asked a very stupid question in one of his lectures. “I grant you there was lead in their plumbing; I am merely pointing out that it was very unlikely to have played a major role in the downfall of the Roman Empire…”

Jamie stared at him for a moment, clearly unwilling to concede his point entirely. “But it did play some role, though, eh? I mean you’ll grant me that…” His arms were waving more slowly now; less emphatically. But it seemed obvious that he felt Alan was being condescending.

Harbir leaned even further into the table and placed his head between their warring eyes. “Draw!” he said, chuckling. “It’s a draw…”

That’s what I love about Har: he always finds a way to calm the two of them down with humour. I think maybe he sees it as a duty -he once told me that his name in Punjabi means ‘God’s warrior’, so…

Alan leaned back in his chair and smiled at me. “You’re late, G…”

“Again,” Jamie finished for him.

I shrugged good naturedly, and glanced at my watch. “I…”

“He just shows up when he shows up, guys…” -Harbir, the mediator again.

“Sorry,” Jamie said, glancing at Alan again, but using his eyes as cover for snatching a piece of donut from my plate. “Finished mine already,” he explained when I stared at his wandering fingers.

Alan sighed at the blatant trespass, happy no doubt that it wasn’t his donut. “We were just speculating about why empires disintegrate.” He had a brief sip of his now lukewarm coffee. “We were dabbling in British history and were about to attack the American power-exploits around the world, when Jamie thought he’d pull rank about plumbing…”

Jamie blushed, but managed an embarrassed smile. “I definitely know more about plumbing in Rome than the Brits in India…”

Harbir stared at the two of them. “I’m just happy you two didn’t start talking about our defeat by the British East India Company in 1849…” Uncharacteristically, Harbir lost his smile for a moment. “I mean we Sikhs fought for the British in both world wars…”

“And thank god you did, Har. Thank god you did!” Alan added, showing his own, sometimes forgotten role in mediation.

Jamie stared at his empty plate and cold coffee for a moment, then smiled. “The only thing we plumbers ever fight are the leaky connections under sinks… Does that count …?” He scraped his chair back from the table. “I’m going for another coffee. Anybody want anything… apart from another donut?” he added, glancing at me with a mischievous look on his face.

I mean, what a group, eh?

Sometimes I wonder if really important things like love or friendship might benefit from being more firmly anchored though. They are, after all, intangible -you can’t simply wear them like shoes or a hat and it would be silly to carry a sign professing the way you feel. You could, I suppose, give gifts that are physical manifestations of your friendship, but they are merely tokens and not to be mistaken for the friendship itself. Short of continually bestowing offerings whose significance would surely fade with constant repetition, or, as the friend, constantly demanding that it be demonstrated, is there a need for something else? Is there a need for a lasting reminder?

I think about that sometimes when I’m falling asleep at night. I wonder if by objectifying an emotion I could preserve it better -as if standing back and looking at it as a stranger might, I would see its value more clearly. Recognize its constituents as parts of an organism with a life and needs similar to my own; requirements that I could sanctify. Reify… I wonder if I could at least give it a persona I could name; a shape I could evoke; and with these, a ceremony I could enact: an alter ego, I could, in effect, enter…

Ceremonies -rituals, if you will- prevent us from forgetting what it is important to remember as time wears on; they anchor us to a past that still has significance for us. A ceremony is transformative, but only for the willing. The inner willingness is what keeps the ceremony alive and fresh -it’s what empowers it…

I’d like to think that our Wednesday meetings are ceremonies -not ones needing flags and music; there are no incantations or secret handshakes; no formulaic texts outlining the purpose for our gathering- just a group of friends discussing, arguing, laughing about our lives and making do as best we can with whatever time remains to us.

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