The saying goes that we all have rituals – and the sayer points, often times metaphorically, to baseball players. The raise, the pinch, the shuffle, the swing, the dust-off, the spit, the spit, the spit. Ritual seems a bad word, suddenly. Habit? Superstitious habit? Let us stick with ritual for a second. I don’t think I have many rituals that I can consciously identify. Even now, as I sit thinking about my rituals (how do I write when I write?) I get mostly vague mental images of turning on music before cooking.
My ritual, my habit, the thing that I planned when I planned was to shave before going to the airport.
This ritual is a habit because, well, I fly a lot. Since moving to Berlin, I have been flying even more than my usual a lot.
Yesterday, in planning for my airport flight tomorrow, I went to my usual barber (a gentle man from Istanbul who speaks with kind eyes) and asked him to go ahead and make me pretty for the immigration control officer. As I sat there looking at the mirror, I realized that 1) I rather liked my face covered in short, grey, splinters. And 2) I was afraid of what these short, grey splinters would tell someone else about me.
I realized that this particular habit began ten years ago. I flew back into Chicago from London on Sep 16th, 2001. I was originally scheduled to come back on Sep 12th. I remember shaving. I remember shaving every single time since then. Now, this was not a rather well-thought out thing. There was no reason, I don’t think in retrospect, to conclude that NOT having a beard was a good idea.
Except that the images we were watching were of Usama and Omar and I was reading about Sikh elders getting attacked and the world had decided that a beard was really the marker of hate – but only on brown skin, naturally.
My younger brother grew a beard around 2006-7. He had a manicured kind long before, but then he began a proper Sunnah beard – emulating the Prophet. Long, uncut, with little hair on the mustache. My father as well. I love their beards – they represent faith, devotion, a sense of commitment to their ethical and moral lives.
My own adventures in hirsuteness came from laziness. I was not a fan of the daily shave, preferring the shadow. Either way, there was not much stock in my facial hair pot – it represented nothing, I believed.
But my clean shave on the eve of flying did make a representative gesture and maybe even an identitarian one, as well. I did because I wanted no “trouble” at the border. I wanted to see my loved ones and reach my destinations. It was a small thing to do.
Ten years later, the small thing was a grooved-in habit.
There is, of course, much to say about the last ten years and I feel that we all should. There is every reason to think back, willfully and in full light of history, about what we lived through, enabled and participated in. The wars, the killings are but one aspect of our global re-ordering. When I say “we”, I ought to qualify it by saying Americans or Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis or Muslims or whatever else. I will not do that. I read some of the fiction that came out after 9/11 when I was writing this piece and I remember a discussion (phone, was it?) with my editor Jonathan Shainin (who wrote this must-read tracing Updike’s post 9/11 novel) about pointillism or minutiae in the American gaze on 9/11. I remember, if I can recreate my own thoughts, being very adamant that this microscopic examination was another form of refusal by the American imagination to look up and out, to refuse to be historical and global.
I will probably still make that argument. Perhaps with more qualifiers, though.
In the meantime, I want to look at my own minutiae.