The Education of Intern Sara: Lessons Learned from Mr. Rogers and Twyla Tharp
The Art of Finding Your Ritual
There are certain words in the English language that just speak to me. They have a weight of their own. They don’t need to be used in any sort of dramatic or political way, they can simply be uttered and evoke something in me. The word ritual has always held that power for me. There is something alluring and charming about the concept of a ritual. I imagine this has more to do with the imagery that comes to my mind, than the act of rituals, as they exist in reality.
To me a ritual is an almost magic-inducing act. Something that involves an altar of some sort, a small but precious array of collected and displayed objects, and a summoning of something wonderful, be it inner strength or a magical creature from another realm. Imagine my hearts sorrow when I realized that when many artists speak of their daily ritual, they are not talking about a spiritual pre-show that gets them going but the very ordinary acts that precede their art-making.
The Research That Lead to “my hearts sorrow”
Most of the reading I’ve done for pleasure has been of the autobiographical, biographical, and in some cases, unauthorized biographical nature. Granted, the latter category often amounts to being a little better than an unabridged version of the National Enquirer, but when lured, the little reader inside me will take the bait. The biographies I favor are almost always about artists, usually musicians. I mostly read them because I am interested in knowing what it is that makes them special, where their art comes from and mostly why is it that they were the successful one? As of the last few years, I’ve been trying to find biographies that talk less about rock-star-debauchery and more about craft and how the artists got there. That’s all I ever really wanted to read about, but it’s hard to come by, at least with musicians. The dance world however gifted me with 3 wonderful books, all by the same artist. Twyla Tharp, a well-regarded dancer/choreographer (and now writer) wrote three great books, the first being an autobiography, Push Comes to Shove: An Autobiography, the second a book entitled, The Creative Habit and the last The Collaborative Habit Overall, 3 for 3, they were enjoyable reads but there was one thing that struck me from the three books and stayed with me for years. It seems to have been more powerful than even I realized because everyone I’ve spoken to about these books remembers the same thing. Twyla Tharp’s ritual.
It’s as simple as this. Twyla gets up at 5:30 every morning and hails a cab from her Manhattan home to her gym where she works out for 2 hours. Once she gets home, she eats 2 hard-boiled eggs along with her morning coffee. Next she showers. Lastly, she sets off to rehearsal. And she does this EVERYDAY and has for at least 20 years.
To be fair, I’m not saying that getting up at 5:30 is easy, not even for someone like me who LOVES the idea of waking up really early, I simply can’t do it. And we can all agree that it takes a great deal of discipline and dedication to get to the gym everyday and make a go of it for 2 hours. That being said, the fact that the simple banal act of getting in a cab is the key to her productive day is mind blowing to me.
This simple act of getting in the cab is the ritual itself. Once she has done this, the rest of her day is set to automatic pilot. That means as long as Twyla gets in the cab, she knows the rest of her day will go as she intends. And since she does this EVERY SINGLE DAY the chances of her breaking the habit are probably slim to none.
Ever since I read that book, I have been trying to get myself to get up at 5:30 to go the gym. No lie. There was something so genius about the simplicity of that ritual that it made me wish it was my own. And I tried, I did, but the truth is, rituals need to be of our own making. Something organic to us that brings us a sense of security and ease. As much as I love the gym (a habit that took me several years to create) and as much as I adore being up early in the morning, the 5:30 am gym habit was never meant to be mine. That being said this simple ritual made me think of other familiar rituals.
Mr. Rogers’ daily ritual is one that I have always had such and affection for. I’m of the opinion that we all watched him, all loved him, and have all gone through the I’m-not-a-baby-I-don’t-want-to-watch-him-anymore phase. Despite the phase I was in at the time, his morning ritual of changing from his sports jacket to his zippered cardigan, and then from his leather dress-shoes to his comfy tennis shoes always intrigued me. ALWAYS. But why? Maybe I just liked the theme song? Perhaps I knew that the sweater and tennis shoes meant a trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe would soon follow? Maybe children really do crave structure? According to the program’s philosophy the consistency in the way he communicated with his viewers “creates a calm, safe place for preschoolers to visit.” Maybe that was it; maybe that’s what we all need? To create a calm, safe place, something that eases us into the task at hand. Or maybe, I was just a 3-year-old clothes-whore who wanted all of those fashionable colored zippered cardigans.
In my quest to find the answers, I was led to what is easily the least sexy, nerdiest, but-still-manages-to-be-interesting book on the subject of ritual and art-making called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work written/compiled by Mason Curry. It’s a wonderful little book that is largely a compilation of excerpts from interviews and biographies of creative geniuses discussing their work rituals. He covers everyone from Maya Angelou (a personal favorite of mine) to Albert Einstein to Pablo Picasso.
I’ve found one truth in all of the rituals I’ve read so far. NONE of these rituals were the least bit sexy. None involved altars, the evoking of magical creatures or anything that you and I would consider fun. They were all simple, every day tasks equivalent to hailing cabs, putting on cardigans, eating 2 hard boiled eggs… and yet, they got every one of these brilliant artist-genius types, to create their art.
Simple. Banal. Ordinary acts.
Author, Robert Fulghum’s book entitled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten said it all in its title. Without our realizing it, before we even started elementary school, Mr. Rogers had already given us the key to being brilliant writers by teaching us to start our day by putting our cardigan’s on, one sleeve at a time.
To my writer friends, here’s to finding your banal, not-at-all-sexy but effective ritual!