Try This: Reinventing Ritual
Let's Start with Liminoid vs. Liminal
First, let’s correct some history …
In 1991 the novelist and teacher Tom Spanbauer launched his second novel, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. He’d moved to Portland from New York, where he’d been a student of Gordon Lish’s at Columbia. Tom had studied Minimalism, Lish’s house style, and been published in The Quarterly, Lish’s literary magazine. Tom moved to Portland, and began teaching. His workshop met on Thursday nights in his home, and seldom had more than six students. Among them were Suzy Vitello and Monica Drake and me. Due to his book tour, Tom took a hiatus from teaching.
When he got home, he threw a party. In The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, a beautiful prostitute in the old west runs a brothel. She’s named Alma Hatch, and she has three dresses she wears according to her moods. One red dress, one white, and one blue. Only when she’s in love or looking to fall in love does Alma Hatch wear the red dress. So for the party, Tom asked everyone to wear a red dress. Men and women alike.
Again, this was in 1991. Nowadays, Red Dress Parties are an annual fundraiser for AIDS-related causes. Such parties fill stadiums, and retail stores stock racks of red dresses in every possible size in the weeks leading up to a party. According to Wikipedia, the first such party began in a Portland, Oregon basement with seventy-five guests in 2001.
Well, Wikipedia is wrong. Tom’s party was held in a West Hills mansion offered by one of his weller-heeled students, and hundreds attended, and … it was held in 1991 to bring together a big ocean of Alma Hatches. All of Tom’s writing students, and all their friends, and all their friends’ friends. A sea of red. In an essay, another one of Tom’s students, the writer Ken Foster, wrote about the party, mentioning a body builder in a red Spandex dress, and that person was me. I was twenty-nine and tipped the scales at 215 pounds,and that dress was the only one that even remotely fit.
My goal is to give credit where credit is due. Tom created the Red Dress Party. Not that this matters—what matters is that people have adopted the ritual. It serves their purpose. They might not know they’re recreating the character of Alma Hatch, a beautiful madam in a brothel in olden days Idaho … and it’s kind of sweet they’ve no clue. If you ask me, it’s pretty glorious that all of those dress-wearing folks don’t know.
Another story …
In 2009, after a year of treatment, my mother died of cancer in Ilwaco, Washington State, a small fishing village near the mouth of the Columbia River. We’d lived most of our lives in the desert, and as a family we’d drive for two days every summer so she could wade in the ocean for a few hours. On those trips her greatest hope was to find a blown-glass fishing float. These balls of glass sometimes ripped free from nets in east Asia and were carried by the currents for years before they’d arrive on the west coast of the U.S. It seemed like such a miracle that something glass would survive to wash ashore at our feet. The gift shops sold these floats in every color and size, but the real joy would be to find one.
When we made these family trips we never locked the door of our house. “What would be the point?” my mom asked. We had nothing worth the trouble to steal. Like every other family we knew, we drove, stayed in the cheapest motel we could find, and walked the beach in search of glass floats. And we never found one.
Decades later my mother retired, moved to the beach, and eventually found the four small glass floats she’d keep in a bowl until her death. My sister and I were caring for her, and the morning she died—after the strangeness of watching police photograph her body, an unattended death gets a lot of attention—but that morning I started going to gift shops and buying every glass float. Basketball-big or tennis ball-small. Red, green, yellow, blue, orange, purple, and brown. In tourist trap after trap, I bought them all. If the store had more in storage, I asked for those, too. Her funeral would be in a few days, and I drove an endless circle between souvenir stores and my mother’s garage where the floats piled up in cardboard boxes. My sister chartered a commercial fishing trawler. At the funeral we invited everyone to meet at the harbor.
To cross the Columbia River Bar in February is not fun.The sea heaves. It’s cold-cold. My family is not a hugging family, but as the boat climbed each swell and dove down its back, everyone in their black mourning clothes grabbed each other in panic. Drizzle fell from low clouds. The water looked like wet concrete. When we reached calm seas, we began tossing the glass floats overboard. None of us have sea legs so we collided and stumbled as we pitched it all into the ocean. And it felt good to throw glass balls as hard as we could. Just chuck it all and be left with the shabby cardboard boxes. For the better part of an instant the sun broke through the fog—not just as a dramatic device for this story, but for real, the sun came out. In that flash of light the water was polka dotted with a rainbow of round colors for as far as we could see. The current had caught the floats, and they were already moving north where they’d wash up on the Long Beach Peninsula. This is what we did instead of flowers.
Some time later the local newspaper reported an unusual number of fishing floats being found on the beach. Most were probably found by white-trashfamilies who’d driven there, and stayed in cheap motels with kitchenettes to save money. They’d spend a day walking on the beach, and they’d go home for another year. If they found a glass fishing float we’d tossed, they’d never know the backstory. About our family history and whatnot, and how this had marked a frigid funeral afternoon. Even now, when any of us visit the beach we buy a few floats and covertly drop them at the tide line. This isn’t as litter-buggy as it sounds. Soon enough there’s a squeal of surprise and the float goes on to become someone else’s happy story.
The point I’m slowly getting to …
Tom’s red dress party, and tossing the fishing floats, were both “liminal events.”According to the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, liminal events mark a transition between traditional periods of life. A regular occasion, such as a wedding, a funeral, a birthday, as well as holidays such as Halloween. Liminal events are occasions when people set aside their regular lives. They come together in a spirit of “communitas” with no set social hierarchy and a flattened social status. These events occur at specified times.
Similar but not, are “liminoid events.” The liminoid have qualities based on the liminal—they create an alternative to regular life, they are short-lived, participants enjoy the equal status of communitas—but they can be held at any time. Liminoid events would include rock concerts, Burning Man, circuses, raves. And of course Fight Clubs and Party Crashing.While liminal events occur regularly and by tradition, liminoid events are a one-time, any-time party that people consent to attend.
The glory is when people adopt what you’ve presented, and it becomes a ritual part of their lives. Especially when they don’t even know you created the pattern!It’s a joy to set something in motion.
Don’t overlook this. Don’t downplay it. People need ritual.Gender reveal parties or whatever, people are always facing liminal events, and they will look for models for how to celebrate such occasions. Plus, people need the outlet that liminoid events offer. Trust me on this, the little games presented in Fight Club and Choke and Rant have been adopted to greater and lesser degrees. People need a script and rules and roles to play. And who better to invent them than—you?
For a long time we saw books based on social models. They depicted a ritual in which people could gather and discuss their experience. Think of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Joy Luck Club and How to Make an American Quilt. Each serves as a model people can replicate.
This is arguably the greatest pleasure of writing: to create a fictional experience that serves people so well that they create it in the real world.
Do you remember when you were a kid? You could just dictate reality. You could throw out some wooden boards and say, “The boards are safe, but the dirt ground is lava.” And kids played according to those rules, and they loved it.
Well, you can do that for the whole world. Or a lot of people. What’s maybe more important is those people need you to refresh their rituals and to invent new ones.
A book or story doesn’t have to present just one event or chain of events. It can present a process or activity that readers can adopt. Red dresses or glass floats. And what’s sweet is that most of them will never, ever know the idea was yours.
A big shout-out to Karla and Peter, who run Time Enough Books in Ilwaco, Washington. Peter is the captain of deep sea tug boats.
Watch for more about liminoid events, based on the Cacophony Society. If this gave you new insight and purpose for your writing, please …
I am now a petite 165 pounds. Airline seats fit me much better now that I’m no longer spending half my time in the squat rack.
Yeah, it’s called “The Graveyard of the Pacific,” no shit.
Except for a brief spell in the early ’80s when some of us fell under the spell of Leo Buscaglia, and even then the hugging trend only lasted a few weeks at most.
An apt metaphor in themselves, to stand in for the dead body.
Long Beach is sort of the redneck Riviera of the Pacific Northwest. No offense.
Forgive me if this begins to sound like a high school research paper. I just think this junk is fascinating and a good launching pad for fiction.
In communitas, everyone is more-or-less equal in status. In fact many liminal events are marked by a reversal of social status. On Halloween, children dress as outcasts—cowboys, hobos, animals, monsters, and the dead—and demand tribute from adults, under the threat of doing property damage to the adults. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes about how the poor would gather wild flowers and physically exchange them over the casket at a funeral in return for money and food from the wealthy mourners. To my recollection, this rite was called “handing over” or something similar, and is the basis for the funeral flowers we know. Most Christian cultures have a typical crazy reversal of power just before Lent. Like Fasching or Carnival or Mardi Gras, when the relatively poor celebrate openly and enjoy special attention and privileges. Hyde writes how the poor were allowed to party in churches, an otherwise profane act. While the clergy would ride in parades tossing dung at the crowds. Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World also covers these planned periods of anarchy that acted as a release valve for stress between the upper and lower classes. In fact, many of the liminal events were created—like Saturnalia, when Black slaves were allowed to drink to excess and become sick so they’d surrender to another year of servitude—to keep the status quo firmly in place.
Invented for my book Rant, wherein participants use “liminal” badging—such as Just Married signs and roof-roped-on Christmas trees—to mark themselves as players in a consensual public demolition derby, i.e. a liminoid event.
They think they just “found” that beautiful, orange glass ball. They don’t need to know the truth.
Rest in peace, Robert Bly, who died November 21, 2021. Your long pissing match with Susan Faludi is at an end.
How many others were disappointed to scroll down and not find a photo of Chuck in that dress? Ah, well… the photo in my head is probably better anyway.
When I’ve heard you speak about liminal and liminoid events I’ve also heard you talk about the third place. Can a third place often play a role in these types of events? Do you think bowling alleys are a good example of the third place? (Especially one that came and went?) If a story is trying to invent a third place, what elements must absolutely be present for it to work?