Echoes of the Unreal

by Dan Laskin

he days are getting colder. The air has a bite. At bedtime, we spread the quilt and burrow under. In the morning, we pull on a sweater. Frost has settled in a thin coat on the windshield. Mist shrouds the river. At the office, we're aware of a different sort of light at the window. And as the day edges toward an ever-earlier dusk, we yearn for stew, soup, thick hot slices of bread, and a meaty red wine. Comfort food.

In reality, the comfort we find in autumn goes beyond food. It's the season itself we savor. Comfort time.

These warm-belly thoughts came to me as I read the story, in this issue of the Bulletin, about Friday Café, the weekly Parish House lunch that draws Kenyonfolk together for hearty food, good conversation, and the sensation of a palpable easing-the feeling of another week sliding into relaxation. A comfortable time, indeed: Friday afternoon in the fall.

We can almost taste the fall every year. And the splendor of Friday afternoon is that it's a season which comes around every week, with its own sweet taste that has nothing to do with food. In a sense, lunching at Friday Café is a physical enactment of a rhythm we already feel in our bones-icing on the cake, as it were.

What we hunger for, I think, is recurrence. Seasonal, weekly, daily: we want that feeling of coming-around-again, those bells tolling inside us. Comfort time-by another name, ritual.

It's true that humdrum routines recur, too. You grind your beans and brew your coffee every morning, ritualistically. You light the computer and empty your mind to receive the daily Facebook feed. But the most comforting rituals are those, like Friday Café, that take us out of the grind. We step away into a different kind of sameness. Rituals nourish the need for echoes from the non-utilitarian. Unlike routines, which keep us busy, rituals pull us outside the realm of business.

One of the pleasures of college life is that, while it's relentlessly busy, it's also full of small rituals. This fall at Kenyon, for example, just as the days began to grow dependably shorter, the Dream Reading Group started up again. Ruth Dunnell of the history faculty organized it three years ago. Every Friday after classes (yes, Friday again), a group gathers to read aloud from The Dream of the Red Chamber, a celebrated eighteenth-century Chinese novel, entering into "the enchanted world of Cao Xueqin's autobiographical imagination," as Dunnell puts it. This year the group is finishing volume three and moving on to the final tome.

"Are you ready to escape into another world by 4:00 p.m. on Friday?" her e-mail asks the campus. And she sets forth her unreal rules: "Drop in, drop out: come when you can . . . no advance preparation: we read it together aloud."

A strange exercise. A strange place, Kenyon. People scoff at academia because it's not the "real world." Academics go around with their heads "in the clouds." Which is to say, their daily grind is infused with passages from a Qing Dynasty masterpiece, or with lines of poetry or music, or equations, experiments, plays, theories, rules in some foreign grammar.

Maybe that's why a college campus is fertile ground for rituals-which are, after all, unreal in their own right, foreign to the commonplace, following their own rules. You come when you can, no advance preparation needed, and you read, or sing, or walk, or eat, together with others.

Strange rules, yes: but perfectly comfortable in their way. Rituals are odd and yet entirely natural. Just as the first cold whiff of October awakens us into a startlingly alien but completely familiar country-the autumn-so rituals remove us into a foreign place where we find we can speak
the language.

We depend on these intimate echoes. Friday comes around, and we take a rich bite.

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