Brain Pickings

The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane

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“The wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.”

William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.

This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life — not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy worldAnne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.

More than a pleasurable rhythm for everyday life, rituals cast an anchor of stability during turbulent times:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

And yet the most magical moments happen when life’s soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:

Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.

Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:

You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.

Without stitches, you just have rags.

And we are not rags.

But the true purpose of discipline — for this is the practice at the heart of routine — is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission — routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamott articulates this beautifully:

The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.

[…]

Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.

Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.

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Mozart’s Magnificent Love Letter to His Wife

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“If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed.”

It’s hardly surprising that humanity’s most beautiful minds — the creative visionaries who bequeath us with the finest works of art, music, and literature — should also be the ones who author the most bewitching love letters, that highest form of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” One particularly heartwarming specimen of the genre comes from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791) — doubly so for the unusual start of the romance that would become the love of his life.

In late 1777, Mozart fell in love with Aloysia Weber — one of four daughters in a highly musical family. Despite the early cultivation of his talent, he was only just beginning to find self-actualization; she, on the other hand, was already a highly successful singer. (A century later, another great composer — Tchaikovsky — would tussle with the same challenge.) Despite her initial interest, Aloysia ultimately rejected his advances.

Over the next few years, Mozart established himself not only as the finest keyboard player in Vienna, but also as a promising young composer. When the father of the family died in 1782, the Webers began renting their house to lodgers to make ends meet. Young Mozart moved in, and soon fell in love with Constanze — the third Weber daughter.

On August 4, 1782, the two were married and remained together, very much in love, until Mozart’s death nine years later.

Shortly before his sudden death, in a letter from September of 1790 found in Love Letters of Great Men (public library) — a collection of romantic correspondence featuring Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, and dozens more lovers of letters — Mozart writes to Constanze from Frankfurt, where he had gone seeking gainful employment to remedy the family’s financial downturn:

Dearest little Wife of my heart!

If only I had a letter from you, everything would be all right…

Dearest, I have no doubt that I shall get something going here, but it won’t be easy as you and some of our friends think. — It is true, I am known and respected here; but, well — No — let us just see what happens. — In any case, I do prefer to play it safe, that why I would like to conclude this deal with H… because I would get some money into my possession without having to pay any out; all I would have to do then is work, and I shall be only too happy to do that for my little wife.

After a getting a few more practical matters out of the way, Mozart fully surrenders to the poetical:

I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever

your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.

But even lovelier than the signature is the part that comes after it. Mozart violates in the most endearing of ways Lewis Carroll’s rule about postscript and writes:

PS. — while I was writing the last page, tear after tear fell on the paper. But I must cheer up — catch — An astonishing number of kisses are flying about — The deuce! — I see a whole crowd of them. Ha! Ha!… I have just caught three — They are delicious… I kiss you millions of times.

Complement this gem from Love Letters of Great Men with other masterworks of the genre, including the exquisite letters of Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer.

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The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Sweet Allegory for the Simple Secret of Love and the Key to Nurturing Relationships

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A gentle reminder that the best relationships don’t complete us but let us grow and become more fully ourselves.

The best children’s books, as Tolkien asserted and Sendak agreed, aren’t written for children; they are enjoyed by children, but they speak to our deepest longings and fears, and thus enchant humans of all ages. But the spell only works, as legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom memorably remarked, “if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.”

Few storytellers have immunized us against our adult dullness, generation after generation, more potently than Shel Silverstein, one of the many beloved authors and artists — alongside Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and dozens of others — whose genius Nordstrom cultivated under her compassionate and creatively uncompromising wing. In a letter from September of 1975, she wrote: “Shel promised me that it was in really good and almost final shape… I hope with all my heart that this is really the case.” Silverstein had gone to visit Nordstrom some weeks earlier and recited the story for her, which she found to be “very very good (in fact terrific).” “I hope he hasn’t messed it up,” she adds in the letter, “and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t.” Nordstrom’s intuition and her unflinching faith in her authors and artists was never misplaced.

In 1976, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (public library) was published — a minimalist, maximally wonderful allegory at the heart of which is the emboldening message that true love doesn’t complete us, even though at first it might appear to do that, but lets us grow and helps us become more fully ourselves. It’s a story especially poignant for those of us who have ever suffered from Savior Syndrome or Victim Syndrome and sought a partner to either fix or be fixed by, the result of which is often disastrous, always disappointing, and never salvation or true love.

Silverstein tells the tale of a lonely little wedge that dreams of finding a big circle into which it can fit, so that together they can roll and go somewhere. Various shapes come by, but none are quite right.

In these unbefitting rolling partners, one can’t help but recognize the archetypes implicated in failed friendships and romances — there are the damaged-beyond-repair (“some had too many pieces missing”), the overly complicated (“some had too many pieces, period”) the worshipper (“one put it on a pedestal and left it there”), the self-involved narcissist (“some rolled by without noticing”).

The missing piece tries to make itself more attractive, flashier — but that scares away the shy ones and leaves it ever lonelier.

At last, one comes along that fits just right, and the two roll on by blissfully.

But then, something strange starts happening — the missing piece begins to grow.

And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow.

At last, a shape comes by that looks completely different — it has no piece missing at all — and introduces itself as the Big O.

The exchange between the missing piece and the Big O is nothing short of breathstopping:

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

This notion is utterly revelatory for the missing piece, doubly so when the Big O asks if it has ever tried. “But I have sharp corners,” the missing piece offers half-incredulously, half-defensively. “I am not shaped for rolling.”

But corners, the Big O assures it, can wear off — another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth. With that, the Big O rolls off, leaving the missing piece alone once more — but, this time, with an enlivening idea to contemplate.

The missing piece goes “liftpullflopliftpullflop” forward, over and over, until its edges begin to wear off and its shape starts to change. Gradually, it begins to bounce instead of bump and then roll instead of bounce — rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself.

And here comes Silverstein’s tenderest, most invigorating magic — when the missing piece becomes its well-rounded self, the Big O emerges, silently and without explanation. In the final scene, the two are seen rolling side by side, calling to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contribution to history’s greatest definitions of love: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is immeasurably wonderful in a way to which neither text nor pixel does any justice. Complement it with Wednesday, another minimalist and wholly wordless allegory for friendship, and Norton Juster’s vintage masterwork of poetic geometry, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, then treat yourself to this animated adaptation of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and his touching duet with Johnny Cash.

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