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What is sacred?

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Coffee by Murison

Sacred is a group of friends drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, unbothered by questions left unanswered. 

Every group of friends has an organizer, and in our group it’s Ron. I’ve learned over the years that it’s more fun to say “yes” to Ron’s gatherings rather than following my usual inclination to stay home buried under cats and a pile of blankets and books and my usual state of introversion and torpor. So, on a recent early Sunday morning I found myself sitting in a coffee shop with our gang, enjoying delicious coffee and each other’s company.

None of us are religious, which is partly why I was caught off guard this particular morning. Our friend, Rob, joined the table with his mug of coffee and before he took a sip he looked right at me and asked me for the definition of sacred. He wanted a literal definition and for a moment, I wished I could transform myself into my friend, Rebecca. She owns a full copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I know this group of friends could be lost for hours looking through definitions, because after sacred we would need to go through the list of synonyms: holy, venerated, and inviolable if I had to pick a few with which to begin. And then Ron, who is occasionally (read: almost always) contrarian, would have insisted we followed through with the antonyms while we were at it. Then we would have spent spend the rest of the day arguing about the definitions and synonyms of profane.   

Many of us are plagued with feelings that we know a word. But when we write it on paper or type it into our computer, it no longer looks right. When we repeat the word several times it loses both meaning and sense. There have even been times in class where I’ll stop a lesson so that we can look up a word together because I doubt myself and, through time, definitions are almost always remembered in context. Sacred doesn’t seem like it can be used in a secular sense just as inalienable (or unalienable if you prefer) is inseparable from what we remember from the Declaration of Independence. It’s when we’re asked specifically what a word means that we can lose our footing.

So, I let my brain spin around for a few days considering what sacred might mean outside of traditional religious definitions. I spent time with a dictionary and a thesaurus which seem to contract, rather than expand, my thinking. The more time away from our coffee outing, the more Rob’s question has morphed in my brain from a definition to a simile or metaphor. Sacred is like the soft tongue of a cow licking my palm through a barnyard fence in Vermont. Sacred is the constellation of Orion over my shoulder on winter evening walk.

When I first answered this question during our coffee gathering, I had been steeped in Perec’s ideas of the infra-ordinary. I waxed somewhat coherently on the idea of the importance and beauty of the mechanics of every day and the small details of our lives that we give attention to, such as the footprints of little juncos in the fresh snow.

The more time I spend alone, the more my definition of sacred is tied to objects. Even the ideas of infra-ordinary seem tied to what is observable. It’s frustrating to be stuck on this and somewhat hypocritical. At the same time my frustration is at its highest with Rob’s question, I am wrapping up classes and encouraging students to see the value of unanswerable questions and to fill their lives with inquiry. Like them, I just want an answer. And I want it now.

There is an intangibility to this definition of sacred, which is why Rob’s question is still so compelling to me. Then, I unexpectedly spend an afternoon with two friends — a lunch meeting turned into one of those magical conversations where we lose sense of time and place. This is a form of sacred, I think as I hug myself on the way to my car. A few days later when I tell my friend, James, about my definition dilemma, he recites part of a Larry Levis poem to me where the narrator refuses to explain his idea of holy. James’ memory and compassion are forms of sacred as well. My friend, Chelsey, reaches out via text to ask how my brain is. Another form of sacred is having a friend who knows the challenges of my sometimes-broken brain and is willing to listen so that she can help kintsugi the shards back together.

I want to tie this essay with a bow and give you, dear reader, an answer to this question. It is the holiday season after all, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would give us an unexpected gift? Something that we can tuck away for when we’re feeling unsure of ourselves or the world around us. We can take it out and turn it in our hands, remind ourselves that this, this is exactly what we needed.

Sacred is a perfect cup of tea. Sacred is a hug. Sacred is the ability to read, to write, to think, to dream. Sacred is friendship. Sacred is being alone with ourselves.

Sacred is whatever you believe it is. Sacred is whatever I believe it is.

Sacred is a group of friends drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, unbothered by questions left unanswered. 

Every group of friends has an organizer, and in our group it’s Ron. I’ve learned over the years that it’s more fun to say “yes” to Ron’s gatherings rather than following my usual inclination to stay home buried under cats and a pile of blankets and books and my usual state of introversion and torpor. So, on a recent early Sunday morning I found myself sitting in a coffee shop with our gang, enjoying delicious coffee and each other’s company.

 

None of us are religious, which is partly why I was caught off guard this particular morning. Our friend, Rob, joined the table with his mug of coffee and before he took a sip he looked right at me and asked me for the definition of sacred. He wanted a literal definition and for a moment, I wished I could transform myself into my friend, Rebecca. She owns a full copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I know this group of friends could be lost for hours looking through definitions, because after sacred we would need to go through the list of synonyms: holy, venerated, and inviolable if I had to pick a few with which to begin. And then Ron, who is occasionally (read: almost always) contrarian, would have insisted we followed through with the antonyms while we were at it. Then we would have spent spend the rest of the day arguing about the definitions and synonyms of profane.   

 

Many of us are plagued with feelings that we know a word. But when we write it on paper or type it into our computer, it no longer looks right. When we repeat the word several times it loses both meaning and sense. There have even been times in class where I’ll stop a lesson so that we can look up a word together because I doubt myself and, through time, definitions are almost always remembered in context. Sacred doesn’t seem like it can be used in a secular sense just as inalienable (or unalienable if you prefer) is inseparable from what we remember from the Declaration of Independence. It’s when we’re asked specifically what a word means that we can lose our footing.

 

So, I let my brain spin around for a few days considering what sacred might mean outside of traditional religious definitions. I spent time with a dictionary and a thesaurus which seem to contract, rather than expand, my thinking. The more time away from our coffee outing, the more Rob’s question has morphed in my brain from a definition to a simile or metaphor. Sacred is like the soft tongue of a cow licking my palm through a barnyard fence in Vermont. Sacred is the constellation of Orion over my shoulder on winter evening walk.

 

When I first answered this question during our coffee gathering, I had been steeped in Perec’s ideas of the infra-ordinary. I waxed somewhat coherently on the idea of the importance and beauty of the mechanics of every day and the small details of our lives that we give attention to, such as the footprints of little juncos in the fresh snow.

 

The more time I spend alone, the more my definition of sacred is tied to objects. Even the ideas of infra-ordinary seem tied to what is observable. It’s frustrating to be stuck on this and somewhat hypocritical. At the same time my frustration is at its highest with Rob’s question, I am wrapping up classes and encouraging students to see the value of unanswerable questions and to fill their lives with inquiry. Like them, I just want an answer. And I want it now.

There is an intangibility to this definition of sacred, which is why Rob’s question is still so compelling to me. Then, I unexpectedly spend an afternoon with two friends — a lunch meeting turned into one of those magical conversations where we lose sense of time and place. This is a form of sacred, I think as I hug myself on the way to my car. A few days later when I tell my friend, James, about my definition dilemma, he recites part of a Larry Levis poem to me where the narrator refuses to explain his idea of holy. James’ memory and compassion are forms of sacred as well. My friend, Chelsey, reaches out via text to ask how my brain is. Another form of sacred is having a friend who knows the challenges of my sometimes-broken brain and is willing to listen so that she can help kintsugi the shards back together.

 

I want to tie this essay with a bow and give you, dear reader, an answer to this question. It is the holiday season after all, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would give us an unexpected gift? Something that we can tuck away for when we’re feeling unsure of ourselves or the world around us. We can take it out and turn it in our hands, remind ourselves that this, this is exactly what we needed.

 

Sacred is a perfect cup of tea. Sacred is a hug. Sacred is the ability to read, to write, to think, to dream. Sacred is friendship. Sacred is being alone with ourselves.

 

Sacred is whatever you believe it is. Sacred is whatever I believe it is.

 

Sacred is a group of friends drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, unbothered by questions left unanswered.

 

Stacy Murison is a Flagstaff-based writer. Her work has appeared in Assay, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Rumpus among others. You can find her work at stacymurison.com or follow her on Twitter, @StacyMurison.

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