I know. Most people don’t connect Morris dancing with transcendence, atheist or otherwise. Most people who have seen Morris dancing connect it with cacophony, silly outfits, and beer. But I had a moment of atheist transcendence at the Black And White Morris Tour a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to talk about it.
A quick bit of background. Morris dancing is a more or less harmless addiction that takes the form of dressing in colorful outfits, strapping bells to your legs, and dancing in smallish groups (usually six or eight people), clashing sticks together and/or waving hankies about. It’s an English folk tradition, and while many Morris dancers will tell you entertaining lies about how incredibly ANCIENT the tradition is and how there was probably Morris dancing at Stonehenge, it’s actually about 500 years old or so. My darling Ingrid is deeply involved with it, but I love her anyway.
Now. Typically, a Morris outing involves one or more teams each dressing in their own distinctive team outfits, each team performing their own dances. But the Black and White Tour is different. Everyone just dresses in whatever combination of black and white strikes their fancy. And the dances are common ones that many dancers know: so pretty much everyone on every team can dance just about every dance, all together.
And this year, it was magnificent.
I don’t dance the Morris myself anymore. High impact, bad knee. I was just there to watch and hoot. And this year, I was gobsmacked. I’ve seen a lot of Morris dancing in my life — Ingrid’s done it for years, and I did it for years before she did — and while I enjoy it, I’ve also seen enough of it to last me several lifetimes, and am not easily impressed. But this time, I was more than impressed. I had my breath taken away. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable things I’ve seen in my life.
And it was all for no good reason.
Which brings me back to atheism, and the atheist transcendence.
It’s hard to describe what exactly made this day so breathtaking. Part of it was that it was such a beautiful blend of individual expression and group coherence. So much of life stresses one at the expense of the other: the individual submerges their own expression to go along with the group, or the individual says, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine,” and does what they want regardless of the effect on society. The Black and White tour somehow managed to hit that rare, perfect, synergistic balance between the two: the joy of working together, and the joy of being yourself.
The exuberantly imaginative interpretations of the “black and white” theme are a perfect example. It was a specific enough vision to give the group a coherent look, while at the same time allowing a tremendous amount of room for personal expression. The fact that it was an inter-team event helped as well: instead of one or maybe two sets dancing at a time, there were often four or five sets of six or eight dancers all dancing in a row, turning an already flamboyant dance form into a lavish, extravagant spectacle. And the fact that the performances were mostly by mish-moshes of people who had rarely, if ever, danced together before somehow added to the goofy, boisterous glee of it. It wasn’t about precision or team pride. It was about joy.
And partly, it was just beautiful: the black and white of the dancers capering in the sunlight, against the Victorian white and glass of the Conservatory of Flowers and the green, green grass of Golden Gate Park. It looked like some wild, arty circus had come to town.
But much of what made it so magnificent was the sheer, beautiful absurdity of it all.
There is no good reason on this earth to do Morris dancing. It is an utterly pointless activity. Okay, you get some exercise and social contact… but really. You can get social contact anywhere, and you can get better exercise at the gym. And you don’t have to strap bells to your legs and wave handkerchiefs around like an idiot to do it. It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy.
Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.
There’s no purpose or meaning to it, other than the purpose and meaning we create. In a few decades, we’re all going to be gone, dust in the ground or ashes in the wind. In a few million years, the earth and everything on it will be gone, boiled away into the Sun. And if the physicists and astronomers are right, in a few billion years the Universe will essentially be gone, dissipated into a thin scattering of atoms dotted throughout vast stretches of empty space. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no prize in the CrackerJacks, no final chapter that ties up all the loose ends. And there’s no big daddy in the sky to shake your hand at the end of it and say, “You done good, kid. Here’s your blue ribbon.”
And yet, here we are. We were, against wildly astronomical odds, born. The chances against any one of us having been born are so high as to be laughable; the chances against there having been life on this planet at all defy description. No, there’s no purpose to it, if by “purpose” you mean “being a cog in someone else’s machine.” There’s no reason for it to have happened, except that it did. And the meaning of it is whatever meaning we create. The meaning of it is to diminish suffering and create joy and connection, for ourselves and for each other, for as long as we’re here.
We can do that in our work. We can do it in our art. We can do it in our friendships, our relationships, our families. We can do it in politics, charities, community involvement. We can do it with cooking. We can do it with fashion. We can do it with sex.
And we can do it by dressing in ridiculous outfits, strapping bells to our legs, and dancing in the park like fools.
For no good reason.
Other pieces in this series:
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
Photos copyright 2008 by Tiffany Barnes, of White Rats Morris team in San Francisco. You can click on any of the photos to enlarge, or you can see the whole slideshow if you like. I’m a little sorry they’re all by Tiffany, actually: they’re gorgeous pictures, but it means there aren’t any of her, and she had one of the best outfits of anybody.