When I was little, I took comfort in symmetry.

I would walk through a door and bump my shoulder on the jamb. I had to go back through the doorway and bump my other shoulder or it would bug me for a while. I used to drive my mother crazy over shoes and socks in the morning before school. The seam on the toe of each sock had to be smoothed perfectly over my own toes, the cuff of each sock had to be folded perfectly to match the other, the laces had to be tied just so, with the perfect tension and the perfect, symmetrical bow, or I would dissolve into a quivering mass of tears and frustration, making us all late and making my mother bite her lower lip in that way she had, that way that meant she was at the end of her rope and was about to duct tape my clothing on me and sling me over her shoulder to carry me to the car.

I was pleased by the symmetry, and most of all upset at its rarity, at the constant and visible reminders that the world was a big and messy place and that grown people expected me to function despite that. I wondered if they couldn’t see it, if they couldn’t see the chaos that lurked around every corner, waiting to take a nip at our heels. I wondered if they couldn’t feel the clean edges of the comfort and order in our lives unravelling on the puncturing point of a father’s harsh words, of a loved pet’s death, of a playground-public spurning, of a math problem that refused to be solved, of the way the world slid off the keen, unmistakeable edges of a thin leather belt singing an aria of immanence into flesh. I wondered why the world didn’t stop when my dog died, when Lloyd Alexander ended the Prydain Chronicles, when hurt overwhelmed the cock-eyed logic by which we got up in the morning and went on with our days.

I abandoned my obsession with symmetry at some point — I don’t clearly recall when. Perhaps I was nine or so, when my mother went back to the Catholic church and I got a big fat dose of Christianity, which is certainly an acquired taste. When Sister Gabriel, the partially deaf Sister of Mercy with the singing yardstick and the penchant for digging artifacts out of her nose, “saved” our rebellious little souls with a sharp *thwack* from her ruler, it would hardly do to ask for another one to balance the first, so I learned to suppress the inner turmoil I felt at that lack of physical symmetry. And, as a good little new convert to Catholicism, I duly picked a Confirmation Saint who embodied chaos, disintegration, a lack of physical symmetry — I picked Catherine of Sienna, who drank the water from a leper’s washing bowl, who died in her convent bed with steel wire wrapped around her flesh, but hidden under her habit lest her Sisters suspect that mortification of the flesh had crossed some sort of line reserved only for Saviors.

But secretly, I took pleasure in the symmetry of the crucifixion, in the clean and pure song of the linear, temporal nature of God tacked down in a mass of rebellious flesh to a symmetrical cross with symmetrical nails piercing symmetrical limbs. Christ sang a body electric, a fugue of doomed symmetry, and I imagined a low cry that was almost satisfied as I thought about the last nail going in, leaving no limb abandoned.

A fixation of fixation.

The symmetry was realized, I saw even then (pagan child of pagan mother, eager but wary child of re-converted Catholic mother), through the ritual. The smoldering incense and the rich creak of the brass chains on the censer balanced the suffering behind the sound of the children excluding one another from the best swing on the playground. One child swung and the chains made a rhythym, even, in time, symmetrical, and cruel. The censer swung and In Nomine Patri God took you back into his building, kissed your skinned knees, and paid the rent.

We stood, I stood, at the center of a crossroads, at my own virtual crucifix, pierced by the imbalance and injustice around me and desperate to make it right, to know that it could be right, to learn to hear the slow creak of a machinery of justice run by the hands of a blessed priesthood.

When I was little, I believed in the balance and in the natural tendency of the universe to gravitate to a center.


Loius Martinie’ writes, in his “New Orleans State of Mind,” about the importance of ritual, of practice, of muscle memory, of the words that the soul knows by heart. “When the mind is numbed by the extent of what one is dealing with, training kicks in.” He’s writing of the boon of muscle memory, of spirit memory, of the benefit of relying on the Intelligent Reflex when there is no longer time or space to court the unintegrated Ruach.

Training kicks in. I hear this clearly, and I know it well. I know the game of interpellation and the impossibility of living outside it. I know its dangers, and I know the consequences of choices. I know also the strengths of such total immersion in a system. I know the wonder of waking up to realize I’ve just done the stations of the Cross in my dream, or recited a long passage of Chaucer from memory. I know the horror of waking up with someone lovely in my bed to realize I’ve just struck them in my sleep, reliving a different, darker memory.  I know the moment of the muscle and cell when the brain sits back and lets the body remember the sequence of steps to take in a crisis in a firefight, the beauty of the ritual of Immediate Action: Slap the magazine, Pull charging handle to the rear, Observe the chamber for round ejection, Release the charging handle, Try to fire again. I know the hot and sweet slide of release as the spirit enters, arranges my limbs, and puts my feet where they need to be. I sit in the dragon’s seat and feel, at a distance, the machinery of the heart, regular and strong; of the lungs, like bellows; of the brain, like a distant amphibious vestige; of the bowel, like a gnomic forge, shearing the dross from the gold.

When I pick up the sword and perform again for the fans of Jet Li movies who take what they can get in my hometown, I feel the steel sing, and when I do it right, my brain has nothing to do with it. When I do it right, I tap into the cells that have fed steadily on a diet of repetition, of practice and steel and water and occasionally blood, that know this sacred dance of pen and sword by heart, that believe in the importance of form. Then my mind comes to see the importance of form. Later, when the crowd is gone and I am alone with my aching muscles and my blistered thumb; then I let my body out for a minute to get some things off its chest. It says,

Every sensation you learned from you learned through me.

Everyone you ever loved, you loved through me.

When you were six and tried to burn our left eye out by staring at the sun, I distracted you with grape sherbet and the feel of clay under our fingers, and you lived and saw through me.

Every weapon you mastered you approached through me.

Every tear that you cried you cried through me.


There is a certain pleasure to be had in escaping the ceaseless chatter of memory and conscience, to reach a state where decision happens at a cellular level without all the complications that intervene with consciousness.  But always there is a danger of losing oneself in the ritual, and if you read that only one way then you weren’t paying attention.