I woke up this morning, fretful and fatigued, plagued by remnants of a receding nightmare.
The cause of my disquiet is easy enough to discern. I am a creature of habit, attached to schedules and routines, predictability and order. The disruptions of the last seven days are taking their toll.*
I have an arsenal of weapons for dealing with anxiety: odd bits of poetry, enigmatic riddles from Zen, temporary flights of fancy, emergency calls to home. When my distress becomes particularly acute, then I resort to the reliable comfort of ritual.
This morning’s was making myself an omelette.
Omelettes are a recent discovery, and for a habitual ascetic, an entire class of indulgence. I am accustomed to oatmeal—its coarseness, its plainness, its effortless simplicity. Omelettes, in comparison, strike me as superfluous. Their very excessiveness is a source of delight.
Oatmeal needs, at the very most, a bowl, a spoon, some oats, some milk. Omelettes require, at the very least, a bowl, a fork, a spatula, a pan, a plate, some eggs, some milk, some pepper, some salt, some oil, some basil, some cheese. Oatmeal needs stirring and heating. Omelettes require beating, mixing, chopping, frying, stirring, flipping, up-ending and folding. Calorie for calorie, omelettes demand more time, more effort, more attention, more care.
All of which, precisely, are what my frazzled nerves require. To focus, for half an hour, in the absorbing task of executing the mundane, to telescope the horizon of my concerns to the circumference of a pan, to suspend all priorities save keeping my fingers intact—all of these are balms to a soul in distress.
These, in essence, are what rituals provide: purpose, rhythm, familiarity, control. From the pragmatic to the profound, from the sensible to the sublime, these programmed gestures provide our only solid footing in an increasingly unstable world.
All of which means that, for the next few days at least, it’s eggs I’ll be needing far more than oats.
* An account of these is provided in three essays below On the Suspension of Order.