Ritual Standard Time

IMG_9192.2The last thing I’d expected to hear was a baseball game. The day had started with snow — a Scrooge of a storm, all hard knocks and bitterness, dry even for New Mexico. The wind hounded it off and then howled at its back for hours. Leaden clouds stripped the life from the browns and…other browns of the desert. It was a raw, bleak February afternoon, weeks from opening day.

But when I flipped on the car radio, there it was:

“The ball just caught the inside corner of the plate. Two balls and one strike the count.”

The UNM Lobos, playing some poor young men from Fresno who were swearing never to leave California again.

“41 degrees at game time, with a wind chill of 19. A swing and a miss, and it’s two and two.”

I don’t know the first thing about the Lobos. Two thirds of an inning passed before I even figured out which team was at bat. The announcer did the barest of bare-bones jobs. But oh, that call.

“There’s a fastball up and in. Three balls and two strikes.”

It’s the heart of the game, the pulse underlying 162 regular-season games a year. Add the pre- and post-seasons, and six months of the calendar are measured in balls and strikes, the way they have been for over a century. It’s the sound of summer, no matter the actual weather, and on that raw February day two seconds were enough to transport me to a world of delicious, slowly unfolding tension. I wasn’t on Saturday errand time any more but on Ritual Standard Time.

*     *     *     *     *

Slowly unfolding tension. Yes. It’s monsoon season — the height of the year in a dry country. To watch the thunderheads building every afternoon and the sky turning black, to wonder whether the “scattered showers and thundershowers” will include you in their path, whether the heat will break in a downpour… Suspense is a slow burn in the desert until the rain begins to fall.

I love this time of year. Mornings I take my tea out to the patio and watch the sky turn from steel to robin’s-egg to azure. After work I’ll sit there with something cold while the clouds build, enjoying the shade and the crossword. Toward dusk I’ll take the ballgame outside and watch the sky darken again. The first stars come out to the call of balls and strikes.

So many mornings. So many evenings. Summer is a long season of rituals for the senses. The basking, the cold drinks, the fragrance of basil and mint, the grapes and peaches and juicy melons, the crickets and cicadas. The windows tuned to catch every breeze as the hot desert day fades to a cool desert night. And the wait for rain.

This is why we endure the heat: because it brings the blessed, life-giving rain. The monsoon has been generous this year. But oh, how the tension draws out before the rain begins to fall.

So many mornings. So many evenings.

IMG_0951.4*     *     *     *     *

Baseball announcers are experts at parallel conversations. The play-by-play proceeds on one track and the color on another, without either feeling like an interruption. They are like meter and rhythm in music: the balls and strikes shaping strong patterns beneath the stories that create character and variety above. Vin Scully can describe an earthquake happening live in Dodger Stadium and then spin off to the ’89 quake at Candlestick Park, all while the count continues. (“There’s a ball in the dirt.”)

Sometimes the tracks stay resolutely apart, and stories and stats float above a sleepy count. But sometimes they converge over a good play — a diving catch, a sweet stolen base, a towering home run. The moment is brief. It may cast a glow for a while, but not for long. The next batter steps up to the plate, and count and color start over again. (“That was almost a good bunt. It’s oh-and-one.”)

Count and color. Baseball is like life, you know, and the patterns of count and color, meter and rhythm, are the same patterns that fill our days. The rituals of mealtimes, of morning coffee, are like balls and strikes — the structure beneath the adventures that give our lives character and variety. My own life, forced into patterns of rest, is heavy on count and light on color. Between the gentle job and needs of daily life, I enjoy few breaks in routine. But even the healthy have to eat every day. We are all forced by our bodies into a certain amount of routine.

When does a routine become a ritual? When you come to love it and feel lost without it? When you make it beautiful? When it leads you to some deeper experience?

And when does ritual lose its meaning again? How often can you repeat it before it becomes mindless habit? How often before you stultify?

*     *     *     *     *

IMG_0955.2aI love my patio, but it gets claustrophobic sometimes. Between close walls, the only openness is skyward. After a weekend resting at home I feel cloistered. How did nuns do it — the Medieval ones sent off to live within stone walls? How did they cope with enclosure and sameness? With the eight hours a day of prayer and singing, the regimented duties, the privations?

The only variety came from the passage of seasons, the food on the table. And from the liturgy itself — the grand sweep of the church year from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, and then into the long, summer months of Ordinary Time.

Did they cling to resentment like a last bastion of their old selves? Did they live with their minds elsewhere, in the only escape they could find? Did they learn to take comfort in the rituals? I have done all three. The last is the most satisfying, but it must be relearned every day.

A ritual doesn’t become a ritual without repetition. How you deal with repetition determines whether ritual matters, or whether it bores you silly.

I wonder how baseball announcers do it, cooped up in a press box three hours a day, 162 days a year. I think of the stories about the triceratops skull found beneath Coors Field, the D-Day invasions, and Motorboat Jones’s nickname (“How’s ol’ Motorboat doing these days?” wondered the announcer, and then we all found out)*; the lines of Longfellow and Donne scattered ironically between pitches; the endless litanies of statistics. Apparently, they struggle, too.

We are programmed for activity, for synapses to form, for neurons to spark. We are not programmed for stasis. Forced leisure has a certain ambivalence in comfortable circumstances. It is not a bad thing, exactly, to be stuck in safety in a cushioned garden chair looking at clouds. Hour after hour. It is not bad to be cloistered. This is not a prison of violence or poverty. But illness is a prison nonetheless. You are limited in action and movement; you are forced against your will into sameness, into the bare bones of work-to-live and necessities. You are aware that even bare bones are a luxury.

In restricted circumstances it’s hard to find the color. It’s a struggle to give fresh meaning to repetition, to see leaf and blossom in the rituals that root our days. The color matters — the evenings out, the movies and concerts and gatherings with friends. Without it life is endless balls and strikes and no home runs. It’s Narnia under the curse: always winter and never Christmas.

One can bring color into the count. Announcers might gussy up their language. (“That ball had more English on it than the Queen.”) Medieval nuns might have embroidered altar cloths, and burnished paten and chalice to glow in the candlelight as they chanted. I bring my favorite mug onto the patio, run fingers through a patch of chamomile, settle in to watch the hummingbirds. The color may be reduced, but the rituals are strong and beautiful.

Still, dissonance grates between the pleasure of individual moments and the restriction that builds up over time. Happiness demands a winnowing of awareness down to an ever-smaller present.

So many mornings.  So many evenings.


*He’s fine.

*     *     *     *     *

IMG_0267.2The bell at San Felipe de Neri Church is ringing. You shouldn’t set your clock by it (trust me), but it’s a pleasant companion on the patio. Tonight as it calls the faithful to Mass, it calls me in to dinner. I’m making a favorite: a simple pasta salad with handfuls of fresh herbs, some tomatoes and scallions, a salting of feta, a drizzle of olive oil. In the background, the Dodgers are playing the Rockies.

Calling baseball “the sound of summer” isn’t quite right. It’s more the sound of summer’s waxing and waning. It has April’s promise of excitement; the slow warm-up of May; the long slog of midseason heat; the quickening pace in August and September; and the final blaze of October before evenings turn long and quiet. The ball-and-strike count has a different tone on Opening Day than during the championships; a different intensity before the All-Star break and after it.

Ritual means something different in context. The small changes in its rhythms articulate the long, slow changes of cycles and seasons. They connect the day to the year; they position it in context to give it its own flavor. They link to long histories — the 130 years of baseball, the centuries-long flow of liturgy.

Rituals articulate time. When you observe them, you don’t look up startled one day and wonder, “Where did the summer go?” You’ve lived the progress of the season; you’ve engaged in its slow unfolding. You’ve tasted its subtle flavors.

My attention has wandered from the game (baseball can be like that), but it dawns on me that the pace has slowed. I listen and understand why. Troy Tulowitzki is at the plate. He is the slowest batter in baseball — and among the best. He does a long routine between pitches, and the announcers have plenty of time to describe it: he tightens his batting gloves, takes a good look at his bat, digs in, adjusts his helmet, taps the bat twice on home plate.

This at-bat is a wily one. Tulo fouls off pitch after pitch. In between he re-does the gloves, the bat, the digging in, the helmet, the tapping. Every. Single. Time. The announcers are half irritated, half amused.

Then we hear it. The crack of the bat. The voices sharpen, the pace quickens.

“There’s a high fly ball into right center field. Pederson is on his horse, he’s racing back, at the warning track looking up, and she is GONE! Troy Tulowitzki! A three-run home run!”

The moment when count and color come together in a blaze of glory.

Without the occasional hit, Troy Tulowitzki is just another obsessive-compulsive slowpoke. Factor in his batting average, and he’s a pro who uses ritual well — to focus his entire being on the split-second present, on every 90-mile-an-hour fastball thrown his way.

As I scoop the herbs off the cutting board the fragrance of dill fills the kitchen. My senses come alive: to the summer breeze through the window over the sink, the rhythmic motion of knife on board, the aromas of onion and herb, the bright splash of tomato on heirloom dishes, the sound of the game running through it. How many meals have begun this way? How many eons of meals have begun this way? I am standing in a grand continuity of dinners and cooks. Everything savors of ritual: the plate and cup, the running water and washing of hands. It’s a feast of senses and mind, memory, enjoyment, and kinship.

This moment is reduced to bare bones; it is all essence. Food and drink, safety, connectedness. Beauty. It’s a home run. It’s Christmas Day. At least until tomorrow, when we’ll start over again. Another at-bat. Another meal. Another ritual.

Thunder growls low. The wind holds out an offering: in a dry land, the sweet, sweet scent of rain.

IMG_0865.2 ___________________

The penalty for being a slow writer is that facts change before you finish with them. Tulo is no longer a Colorado Rocky, alas. I wish him well in Toronto.

24 thoughts on “Ritual Standard Time

  1. Beautiful post that I could relate to with nearly all of my heart (I’m not the biggest sports fan, but it didn’t matter as I read). It is never a negative thing to be a slow writer (and poster). Thank you for sharing your words!


    1. Thank you, Kim. I’m glad this one spoke — despite all the baseball! Thank you also re: the slow writing/posting. I’m actually (slowly) reading a book by Louise DeSalvo on The Art of Slow Writing and the advantages of letting things percolate. I see the benefit of slowness — while secretly wishing for speed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful and evocative as always. Your ‘slow time’ writing transports me, every time. I was thinking of my father’s experience in particular when you touched on sometimes feeling ‘trapped’ by your illness — by the sameness and the ritual it brings; even if you love your patio, your tea, your cloud gazing… I often wonder how he coped inside his skull prison, that fiercely intelligent, ultra-Alpha male angry mind, trapped in its bone walls. Observing but unable to participate. Reacting, unable to show the reaction. Feeling the frustration of ‘not feeling’. I think I would go mad, myself. It takes a strong person to live with illness and disability, and still find the beautiful moments that make life. x


    1. Thank you, Jacque. “Slow time” is something I have aplenty… ;) Yes, MS or ALS (or the more severe cases of ME) must be utterly brutal. A day is an awfully long time to get through when you can’t participate in it. The weight of years must be suffocating. When my mom was in her 60’s she said she still felt like the same person she was at 20, only with stiffer knees. Illness works the same way. You’re still your healthy self, just in a body that’s at odds with you. I can picture a man with your father’s huge capacity trapped in a small life–like a lion in a too-small zoo cage, (mentally) pacing with frustration. Your depiction of him is powerful and does him honor. x

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So. Many. Birtwistle. Flashbacks, as I read this: on mechanistic repetition as a basis for ritual, on the importance of microvariation, on how the total number of repetitions shapes the degree of deviations allowed.


    1. Oooh. I know next to nothing about Birtwistle. (Only that if you were a late-night classical radio announcer in the early ’90’s, you could guarantee one angry and one grateful phone call by playing Tragoedia.) Can you recommend any (easily accessible) resources about him on repetition, Brian?


  4. Poetry and prose here lifting us through that count and color of life….I think I miss many of those rituals…long gone and new ones not yet established…I see what my husband and father both love about baseball….the ritual of it in their lives…and the ritual of listening to those games on the radio with my dad gone now….not rooting for any particular team but just the color and the count drifting on the wind with the seasons as I spent my days just being with him….thanks as always Stacy…..I need to linger a bit more over these words here.


    1. Baseball and companionship always seem to go together, Donna–there is so much room in the game just to enjoy being with someone. I’m glad you have those good memories of listening to games with your dad. My own dad doesn’t care for baseball and makes comments about watching the grass grow… (or cars rust, or paint dry…) It’s funny how just the sound and rhythm of the game can bring that sense of presence back to us.


  5. for me that would be cricket, but read about in an English novel. Or a snippet in passing from someone else, listening to the radio.
    The commentator people complained bitterly about, who got so engrossed in the colour, and glossed over the count The CRIcket!

    I’m still floating along in limbo, between the lines, not yet in my new rituals – which grow slowly around me.


    1. One of my favorite announcers does sometimes gloss over the count, but he’s been announcing for over 65 years and has such good stories that it’s hard to object. He’ll even apologize–“I’m sorry to tell so many stories, but trust me, they’re more interesting than anything happening on the field…”

      One of the laws of moving is that you cannot simply cut and paste your old rituals into a new home. Enjoy watching the new ones grow!


  6. I grew up with baseball (American League/Red Sox during their long years of drought), so this really resonated for me. My younger sister’s first sentence was “It’s a high fly ball.” But my favorite sentence in this essay had nothing to do with baseball: “Summer is a long season of rituals for the senses.” That perfectly captures the essence of summer.


    1. Somehow I suspected that you would understand those rituals for the senses, Jean. I always enjoy when you write about your summers in Maine–you seem to craft your days for maximum savoring.

      I love that story about your sister–and applaud her! Cubs and Red Sox fans know the true meaning of fandom.


  7. Stacy – Good to see those Albuquerque clouds again, I missed them. In the UK, we do a lot of tea-drinking – it’s a ritual which never loses it’s meaning.


  8. Jim & I have started watching Breaking Bad – and the ABQ portrayed in that isn’t at ALL what I imagined from your posts. It is a blessed relief to revisit the Albuquerque I know and love through your eyes, Stacy. (NO mention of crystal meth whatsoever). I envy you your love of baseball. I wish I had the same love for cricket. I went to my first Test Match last year and enjoyed a day in the sun, sipping beer, chatting with my family … but not really knowing what on Earth was going on sport-thingy-wise. I shall go again but would really like to think of myself sitting in the greenhouse listening to a live match on the radio. And rooting. (Won’t happen). Beautiful writing as always. I wish I could sit in your patio, sip tea (Earl Grey obvs), watch the hummingbirds and filch some tips. One day, eh? Dave p.s. sorry – only just seen this post!


    1. ABQ definitely has its seamy side, Dave–in some ways Breaking Bad rings too true for comfort. (There’s an actual case in court now of man who allegedly used his car wash to launder money for a drug ring…) But around here we’re more into B vitamins than crystal meth. I’m glad I could waft a little of the wholesome side of ABQ your way again.

      One reason I love baseball is that it is so much about story-telling. Each at-bat is a little drama nesting inside the greater dramas of the inning, game, and season. The sport is just an excuse for all those stories in a way. (Thus marking me as Not a True Sportsperson.) Is cricket like that? I mean, maybe there are back doors into enjoying it. You do make the greenhouse sound so cozy on a rainy day. (Or maybe you could just murmur “wicket” to yourself a few times and call it even.)

      The NM Tea Co. has a very tasty Smoky Earl Grey you might enjoy, but I will stock up on the regular E.G. in case you don’t. The hummingbirds are on the lookout. I’ll come visit you at the AG as soon as I can!


      1. Well. I never knew that New Mexico grew tea! Up in the mountains I’m guessing. ;) Hmmm. Smoky Earl Grey? That might just be gilding the lily, Stacy? Mind you I’m very partial to a mug of Lady Grey (Shhh – don’t tell anyone. It doesn’t sound very ruffty-tuffty gardener tea-like does it)?

        That is hilarious about the car wash laundering operation. Perhaps he thought cops hadn’t watched Breaking Bad (a programme I resisted watching for years … and now can’t think why. Utterly hooked).

        As for the cricket. Maybe I will try listening to the crack of leather on willow on my little radio. Who knows I might learn to embrace it like my Dad. And brother. And brothers-in-law. And nephews. And nieces.


        p.s. ‘Wicket’ sounds like an excellent non-swear word for when I next jab myself on a rose thorn.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The naivety of (alleged) crooks can almost be endearing. I think this one should get booked for plagiarism, too.

          Wow–that’s a lot of relatives to have passionate about cricket. I could see wanting to rebel altogether and go for rugby or something. (“Scrum” could be the next worse level of non-swearing after “wicket”.)

          Liked by 1 person

  9. You make me want to watch/listen to baseball! The nearest I can come to an equivalent is cricket, which I don’t understand very well but love listening to on the radio because of a similar juxtaposition between commentary on the action and commentary on life, the universe and everything. And banter.

    Ritual vs boring routine. A puzzle, how one becomes the other and back again. I lost a lot of this summer in a haze of sitting at my desk, finding myself surprised to emerge to find sun and people paddling or even swimming in the sea. Very poor. But I am trying to learn about mindfulness, to help make every moment matter, easier said than done. For every time I have chopped herbs and chillies, fried spices, sliced onions, almost mesmerized by the colours, smells, rhythm of it all, there must ten where I rush through it resenting the time spent there when I should be – I don’t know, elsewhere, doing something different.

    Its funny, I am so hugely privileged to no longer be imprisoned by ME, but I am struggling to find my way in this newly active life, to find the balance between doing and being, and missing the stretches of time that I had to rest physically and could therefore let my mind wander, ponder etc without guilt. I wouldn’t swap this struggle for what you still encounter every day, but I do want to bring with me into this newly active life some of the skills I was forced to learn through the years of sofa-lying and inactivity.

    And its not cricket, really, its football that has some of the same rituals, seasonality etc. Even in the few weeks each summer when there are no games there is the ridiculous speculation and sudden frenzied activity of the transfer market, when men get traded by the big clubs for obscene amounts of money and we fans sit there, biting our nails, hoping that our beloved club with manage to bag a really great player, one who will lift us through the bad times in the coming season…


    1. Janet, what a delicious comment! Yes, I could see cricket being more akin to baseball in terms of the pace and commentary, but soccer playing a more similar role in the cultural imagination. Sometimes I find myself getting caught up in trade rumors and all those things with baseball and then have a moment of clarity where I realize that we’re all insane. What an odd thing national spectator sports are, really. (Mind you, I am NOT missing tonight’s game.)

      I think meals are where the ritual/boring routine puzzle plays out the most. They’re just so inescapable, sick or well, busy or not. Mindfulness is one of those things I try (with marginal success) to learn. It sounds like such a lovely idea–but the one thing it never seems to engage is the actual mind… I mean, it sounds great to get absorbed in the chopping of an onion, but in reality, it’s BORING. What are our brains supposed to do while we’re chopping onions yet again??? (I realize that I’m not catching on to something important here.)

      It is so, so gorgeous that ME no longer has you in tow. I am so happy for you! I can see how it would be hard to find the balance again in an active life–all the rest and leisure time and tranquility may be forced on us in illness, but they do still have their beautiful sides. Do you find yourself wanting to make up for lost time, too? I’d think it would be hard not to want to do everything all at once. I’m sure you’ll find your way into a more comfortable rhythm soon–hopefully while there’s still beautiful autumn sunlight to enjoy!


      1. Hi Stacy, your comment about Mindfulness made Peter guffaw! I think I am a little weird, because I can slip into a mindfulness blissful state while chopping an onion, but not regularly. I think you are wonderful for just being so genuinely delighted that I am free from The Beast, I do wish I had some secret recipe I could pass on to free you too, it is one of the most aggravating things, people keep asking why I think I/we got better and I don’t really have a good answer, except that I know that a reduction in stress and joy at where we lived played a part.

        Curiously enough, I don’t find myself desperate to make up for lost time, I think I am too aware of what a long lost period there is, and how I am now emerging into health a completely different person, a lot older, discovering that the menopause and just plain aging crimp my style. I have re-discovered how much I loved to exercise (like I said, I am weird) but I am struggling to work out what I want to add in. Everybody I know who is well lives at a frenetic pace, and is permanently exhausted. I had years of being permanently exhausted, I don’t want to volunteer for that all over again! But then the challenge becomes one of how to earn enough to have a good enough lifestyle and still have energy for gardening, visiting people, exploring. I have a deep desire to get up a few mountains next year, as I never thought I would get the chance again, and yet here I am living so close to some of my favourites, and I should be able to stand on the peaks again after all. Incredible. But for the rest, I sometimes get twinges when I think of the lost career opportunities, but mostly I want to take what I have learnt about living a slower life and turn it in to a positive. I crave experiences, time with people, getting out and about, the things I was totally unable to do for so many years. I do wish I could give you the same conundrums to battle with Stacy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m sorry to have been so long to reply, Janet. I can’t imagine not being delighted for you–just to know that you have your freedom back and actual, exciting choices to make again is so wonderful that I’d like to shout it from the rooftops. (If only I didn’t have to climb onto the roof first.) I imagine a great many people are clamoring for your secret elixir. Be careful, or you’ll find yourself with lots of new neighbors hoping for a miracle cure from that good sea air. ;)

          I hadn’t thought about actual aging… I always imagine getting well and feeling just like I did at 29 when I first became ill. How disillusioning to realize that life doesn’t work that way. (Rolls eyes at self.) Well, I am egging you on to climb every single one of those favorite mountains of yours and hoping your new business settles into a good, sustainable rhythm that allows you to explore and experience to your heart’s content. Enjoy living large!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. No apologies necessary Stacy, I know how it is. The aging thing really p*ssed me off, to be honest! Though it does seem to be balanced, at least a little, by my greater ability to relish life, that is certainly something ME teaches you, though I’d rather have skipped that lesson ;-) I hope you find your sea air equivalent and get to fidn out about it all yourself, but in the mean time, thank you, I will live life as thoroughly as I am able. Made plans to climb one of those mountains with friends next year, very excited that we finally get to share walking with them, they weren’t in to it when I was still well, and although I have always enjoyed hearing about their exploits I was always sad that I wasn’t able to share them. I may need special show inserts and walking poles now, but apparently we are the best people to walk with they know, which is rather wonderful!

            Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s