Rituals we perform for good luck are known as sorcery, and actions we avoid out of superstition are taboos.
“One morning I happened to turn over the salt-cellar at breakfast. I reached for some of it as quick as I could to throw over my left shoulder and keep off the bad luck, but Miss Watson was in ahead of me, and crossed me off. She says, “Take your hands away, Huckleberry; what a mess you are always making!” The widow put in a good word for me, but that warn’t going to keep off the bad luck, I knowed that well enough. I started out, after breakfast, feeling worried and shaky, and wondering where it was going to fall on me, and what it was going to be. There is ways to keep off some kinds of bad luck, but this wasn’t one of them kind; so I never tried to do anything, but just poked along low-spirited and on the watch-out.”
I read Huck Finn as a high school sophomore in Big Lou’s English class. It was the ‘79-’80 school year and, I remember, it was winter when he assigned it. I read Finn the same way I read every book back then—late at night, in my bedroom on the third floor of our house, lying in bed on my stomach with the covers pulled up to my neck, by the light of the hurricane lamp on my nightstand. I loved reading this way. It was the only way I felt I could really get into a book. I read this way year round. In the summer I’d crank the window air-conditioner on high so I wouldn’t sweat to death.
As with all the books we read for school, we had to write an essay about Finn. I always loved to write so I found these types of assignments enjoyable. Hell, I’d even ghost written a few for some friends of mine who weren’t so inclined. Now, Big Lou was a writer and it was around this time that I began to fancy myself a writer as well. Lou was also a Hemingway man in every respect. He liked his writers tough and his prose sparse. So in retrospect, it was no surprise that he gave me an C on my Finn paper. I remember being pissed off because of all the work I’d put into it. I went to a Catholic high school so I thought I was being particularly poignant when I compared how Twain used the character of Jim as a literary device to help shift the white population’s conception of black people as something different and inferior to being just like them in every way. In other words, imperfect but gifted, flawed but trying, basically human beings trying to get along as best they know how just like everyone else. I remember I even used the word transubstantiation to compare the metamorphosis of Jim, and by extension black people, to that of how the priest symbolically changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during mass.
But Big Lou wasn’t buying it.
I went to him to complain about my grade and after some back and forth he said to me, “Swain, you might be a writer. I don’t know. But I do know what’s keeping me from finding out. You’re problem is you’re trying so hard to be one that it’s fucking everything up. You’re either a writer or you’re not—your gut will tell you that. But, if you want to be a writer, the first thing you gotta do is get the hell out of your own way. Look at Zitchsky.” Zitchsky was the guy who sat to my left in English. I remember him laughing at me because he got a B+ on his essay which was about how fun it was reading Finn while high. Now, I got high as much as the next guy, if not as much as Zitchsky, I’d just never thought about writing about it before.
“You got talent,” Big Lou said to me. “But fuck, that’s nothing. The world is full of talented writers who don’t add up to shit. What Zitchsky’s got that you don’t is authenticity. He can’t write worth a damn but he’s authentic. You can write but I don’t know who the hell you are behind your words. You see what I’m saying? You can write but Zitchsky’s a writer. You want to be a writer? Then stop trying to be one.”
Which brings me to superstition and running. You see I write for the same reasons that I run—to find myself and maybe catch a glimpse into what life’s all about. And over the years I’ve come to find that running is a lot like writing in that they are about getting out of your own way. To do either with any kind of success you first need to live in the moment. And to do that you first need to clear your mind. In other words, to be authentic you must first forget yourself so you can lose yourself to the task at hand. That’s where superstition comes into play.
By definition, superstition is the belief that events in life are caused by supernatural forces. Huck Finn is full of superstitious characters, either doing something in order for something good to happen or not doing something to prevent something bad from happening. In the passage used to begin this article, Huck having spilt salt was scrambling to pick some up so he could throw it over his shoulder to keep away the bad luck. The origins of spilling salt being bad luck goes way back to a time when salt was hard to come by and thus expensive. The idea of throwing spilt salt over your left shoulder goes back to the early Christian belief that the Devil hung out over your left shoulder looking to lead you into doing evil. The anxiety over spilling the expensive spice gave him an opportunity to tempt you into doing evil. Thus throwing salt over your left shoulder became a way of driving the Devil back. Finally, in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper Judas has knocked over the salt jar and who wants to be like him?
Rituals like this are a means of restoring order. In his work The Golden Bough Sir James Frazer traces the cultural origins of superstitions to practices of magic that were precursors to what we in the West would call religion. Rituals like these are what Frazer referred to as a form of sympathetic magic. They are a way for us to act upon the supernatural forces to either curry favor or keep evil at bay. “Do this and this will happen” or “Do this in order that so and so may happen (positive magic) or “Do not do this, lest so and so should happen” (negative magic) (p.17). Frazer labels positive magic as sorcery and negative magic as taboo.
“Although I myself don’t go to church or synagogue, I do, whether it’s superstition or whatever, pray every time I get on a plane. I just automatically do it. I say the same thing every time.”
As a runner I practice both forms of magic. For instance, outside my house sits a ceramic gargoyle, Goliath. Whenever I leave the house for a run I touch him for luck and when I return I touch him again for gratitude. An act is considered to be superstitious if there is no logical causation to its desired outcome. In reality, touching Goliath has no bearing on whether I’ll have a good run but I do it anyway because of how it sets me mentally. Touching him serves as a mental trigger that helps me get out of the way of myself so I can run. The act is how I am able to be in the moment.
I put the question of having superstitions to my running friends and found, not surprisingly, I’m not the only one who has something he or she does to mentally prepare for a run. I have a male friend in Texas who chews four pieces of gum when he runs. And a female friend in Kansas who always wears her blue paisley bandanna when she races. And another female friend in Texas who paints her nails purple, black or pink the night before a run. And one in England who always has a fresh kit for race day and one in Scotland who wears sunglasses when she runs regardless.
I asked them all about why they do what they do and all of our answers amounted to the same thing: these are ways of setting the mind. These acts are ways of clearing the path so that nothing gets in the way of the act of running. The same went for my friends. The runner who chews gum said that, “four just feels right.” My friend who paints her nails said black is her tough race color, purple is her fun run color, and pink is her girl run color.
“I tend to eat things in fours. I’ll eat four nuts, four grapes, four chips at a time. I don’t know why. It’s not really a superstition. I don’t think anything bad will happen if I don’t, but three potato chips doesn’t seem right.”
Also, the act’s origins tend to be spontaneous and not the result of any conscious forethought. I mean, would I logically conclude that I need to touch Goliath in order to run? I did it one summer day out of impulse, had a good run, and have been doing it ever since. My friend and her bandanna? She said she started wearing it back in ‘09 when she cut her hair and a running band would no longer stay in place. It worked, she had a good run, and has been sticking with it since. She’s even been recognized because of it. She shared a story of running the Chicago Marathon when a Twitter friend posted, “just saw Lacy at mile …” She saw the Tweet after the race and they met in person later that week.
Superstitions are not limited to individual acts, sometimes we have co-conspirators. For instance, I have a running friend in Louisiana who travels to marathons and when he does his wife who stays at home always says a little prayer for him at race time. Culturally this is the heart of sympathetic magic. Frazer gives countless examples of instances of tribes going to war and how those that remain behind must behave in order to ensure the warrior’s good fortune. “Hence on important occasions the behavior of friends and relations at a distance is often regulated by a more or less elaborate code of rules, the neglect of which by one set of persons would, it is supposed, entail misfortune or even death on the absent ones” (Frazer, p. 19).
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
I’ve always been a bit superstitious. Yet another reason why I’m a terrible agnostic. I’m like Huck Finn in that I use them to keep bad things from happening to me. I don’t throw salt over my shoulder if I spill some but I will cross myself whenever I run through an intersection. See? As an agnostic, I’m horrible. I know the Association is going to ask me to return my membership card. But I don’t care. These rituals help me, not necessarily to keep evil at bay, crossing myself won’t keep me from getting hit by a car, but it does help me keep focus. There’s a mantra quality to these kinds of superstitions. Just as the yoga practitioner may chant “ooohhhmm” to help clear the mind of thought, touching Goliath clears mine. It’s the same with my friend and her paisley bandanna. Or the one who chews four pieces of gum. Whatever the ritual, it’s all about creating a mindset. Eliminating distractions is synonymous with keeping the Devil at bay.
“Oh, and Swain,” Big Lou said to me as I walked away. “Quit writing Smitty’s papers. And Hartmann’s. And Doan’s. I asked Doan what he thought the definition of transubstantiation was and you know what he told me? He said it was getting a hand job from a tranny. Now get out of here and write something real.”
Thanks, Big Lou.
Begin reading Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, with his first essay on “The Meaning of Life.”
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