Knock on wood, I'm not superstitious. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't just a few little rituals I take seriously. By "seriously" I mean that they take up several warehouses of emotional space in my life.
I make deals with myself all the time. For example, I have promised myself that when I finish this column I will go downstairs and eat, without guilt, all the remaining brownies in the Tupperware container (last count: three and a half). I can therefore make myself sit here at the screen because there is the little voice whispering "Just a couple of hundred words and then, wow! Three whole brownies and a small piece as a special delicacy."
Other writers have sexy or ethereal muses breathing life into their words; I have The Cake Boss.
If I make myself get the car washed, I can buy a lottery ticket. If I can bring myself to Armour-All the vehicle (a process adored by so many men they look forward to warm Saturday afternoons when this can be accomplished, whereas I see it as the equivalent of getting my ear-wax removed) I can treat myself to the purchase of a new lipstick.
If I grade all the papers from one entire class without swearing aloud, I get to use in my pen the annoying peacock blue ink that everyone in the nation despises, but which I for some reason adore, on the second batch of essays.
I used to do this sort of thing with unnerving regularity when I was in high school. I'd make a bet with myself—"If this station plays "Taxi" by Harry Chapin before I leave this morning, then they won't give a pop-quiz in geometry"—and I was certain I'd found the right way to predict (although not determine) the future. "If he doesn't call by eight this evening, then he's definitely seeing Fiona" was also the sort of equation I set up in my head. "If I don't pick up the phone by the time I count five hundred, then I don't really like him" went along the same lines.
Rituals are one way of making the chaos seem less terrifying.
Some folks do this for even more serious issues, making various pacts with the Cosmos (the great unknown in the universe) in order to prophetize their destiny. They seem to shake hands with the Heavens, saying "If I do this, then You'll have to do that" as if God was offering a warranty. My grandmother, who interpreted religion very much her own way (she made it up) didn't go to Mass regularly, but insisted on having pictures of saints everywhere: in the bathroom, in the kitchen cupboards, in the linen closet (as if to pay homage to St. Springmaid, patron of fresh towels).
If you dared to ask her about this eccentric practice, she'd whack you immediately on the back of the head, declare you a heretic, and shake her head with her eyes closed in sincere disapproval. Some of these religious pictures came out of old calenders or were clipped from magazines, but that didn't matter. As far as my grandmother was concerned, they watched out for all of us. The older I get, the more I congratulate her on her methodology; everybody did okay.
Who's to say she wasn't right?
My friend Beth's mother called all of her children every evening to wish them a good night. This got a little old for Beth in college, but those calls are one of the things she misses most about her mother now that her mother's gone. Apparently the calls didn't keep her mom alive, just made her happier while she was. She once told Beth it was "like tucking you all in at night" and it helped her sleep. I hope it still helps.
Other rituals are less charming. I once knew a man who believed that if he spit on the tracks, the train would arrive sooner. I never wanted to be near him when he ordered food at a busy restaurant.
I knew a young woman who thought that if she simply left the television on at all times she was protecting herself against thieves; she used to leave the back door unlocked, for example, but thought that even local robbers wouldn't be foolish enough to enter a home which was occupied. They would be tricked by hearing voices into thinking the family was home; that most families don't sound like either John Stewart or the cast of "Modern Family" didn't occur to her. Thieves can be satiric, it seems: they stole her television.
I heard about another young man whose ritual involved moving from apartment to apartment every time the refrigerator needed defrosting; he felt this would keep him footloose and fancy-free. Basically it kept him ice-free, nothing more, but he swore that his independence depended on moving from place to place.
Maybe that's what these pacts do: get us moving, somehow, into the future. Promising myself that I will shed a few pounds, for example, I find that I'm thinking about the new suit I'll buy for the summer. I picture something luxurious, diaphanous, and unmitigatedly feminine. I'm so taken by the idea of myself as a sort of Victorian heroine that I go downstairs, have a cup of coffee and few brownies.
And I promise myself that after I finish these off, I'll really get back to work.