Letting the World Surprise You: Secular Transcendence and, Once Again, Morris Dancing

I had this kind of amazing night on Halloween: it gave me one of my moments of atheist/ secular transcendence, and it’s been making me wax philosophical about the importance of letting the universe surprise you. So I thought I’d share with the rest of the class.

One of Ingrid’s Morris dancing teams practices on Monday nights, and since last Monday was Halloween, they decided to have a short practice and then do a couple of ad-hoc performances out in public. I tagged along: it didn’t seem like it was going to be anything special, but I like the Morris gang, and I didn’t have anything else planned, and I wanted to hang out with Ingrid on Halloween.

And it was astonishing.

The first dance was at the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that recovered the astronauts from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 moon landings, and that’s now a national historic landmark and museum in Alameda. (They were doing night tours for Halloween.) It’s a massive, weirdly beautiful object, especially imposing and spooky at night. And the dancing in front of it was one of the weirdest, eeriest, most beautiful sights I’ve seen in quite a while. The outfits for this dance team are both festive and dark, with rag coats in blacks and grays, and top hats with black veils. They look spooky and slightly menacing even in broad daylight: in this setting, they looked positively unearthly. (A gallery of larger photos is at the end of this post.)

And I watched, alternating between snapping as many pictures as I could, and just standing there agog at how gorgeous and bizarre and unexpected it all was. Out of all the odd turns my life could have taken, watching my wife’s Morris team dance at an aircraft carrier on Halloween night has got to rank pretty darned high. (And not just any aircraft carrier — the aircraft carrier that picked up the Apollo astronauts when they splashed down! How cool is that? I hadn’t even known this was in the Bay Area. Yet another surprise.)

Their second dance-out was in front of the Alameda movie theater. Less of an unusual space, but more of an audience. Which meant that I got to experience their surprise and delight. I was watching the audience as much as I was watching the dancing: passers-by on their way to the next trick-or-treat stop, their plans happily interrupted by this unexpected spectacle of veiled folk dancers in rag coats dancing to accordion music in front of the movie theater. Little kids with huge eyes; parents with big grins at their wide-eyed kids; grownups snapping a hundred pictures; teenagers capering alongside and cracking up, semi-mocking but also appreciating the spirit and wanting to join in. There was this one kid in particular, about thirteen years old I’m guessing, who stopped when the music started, and just stood stock still, jaw hanging open, absolutely mesmerized. His older sister (I’m guessing) kept trying to get him to move along… and he would not move. He had never seen anything like this in his life, and by gum, he was going to see as much of it as he could.

Which I guess is what I’m getting at by gassing on about this.

There is so much in this life that I have never seen. And I want to see as much of it as I can.

A lot of things in my life changed when I became an atheist/ materialist/ secularist. And one of the main ones was how much more open I became to the world… and how much more open I became to being surprised by the world. When I chose to prioritize reality over whatever pre-existing opinions and beliefs I might have about it — and more specifically, when I made this a conscious philosophy and guiding principle of my life — my life opened up in ways I could not have imagined. It’s opened up in large ways… like flying around the country giving talks to crowds of total strangers, and having a significant portion of my friends and colleagues be people who are young enough to be my children. It’s opened up in small ways… like taking time to notice and absorb the street art around my neighborhood, and stopping on the street to buy a coconut curry ice cream pop from a food cart on the corner. I feel this excitement about the very fact of my life that I didn’t have before: this incredible sense of good fortune about the fact that there is a universe and that I get to be alive in it. And I feel this sense of urgency, almost responsibility, to not let myself get world- weary and jaded, and to let myself be gobsmacked by it all.

It’s not that life had no surprises for me before I left my religious beliefs. Of course it did. But I feel so much more intimately connected with the universe now that I’m not lying to myself about it. And I feel much more capable of being astonished by it. Like I wrote in Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters: Our world gets bigger when we let the world in. Our world gets bigger when we let the world itself take priority over whatever ideas we might have about it. Reality is bigger than we are. Our world gets bigger when we let that reality be what it is… and when we pay careful attention to what it is, the most careful attention we possibly can.

And since I now think that this life is the only one I’m ever going to have, I feel much more driven to experience it as fully and as richly as I possibly can. It is sometimes intensely frustrating to know that there are restaurants I’m never going to eat at, movies I’m never going to see, books I’m never going to read, people I’m never going to meet. But that makes me feel that much more passionate about really experiencing the restaurants and movies and books and people that are part of my life. It makes me feel that much more driven to stay present with them, to not space out and drift into my own little world, to connect with them and see what surprises they might have in store. Sometimes it’s a big, obvious, dramatic surprise: like seeing Scotland for the first time, or speaking to a crowd of 1,000 people, or meeting someone out of the blue who within a year would become one of my best friends. And sometimes it’s a small, subtle surprise of everyday life: like the taste of the scones from the new bakery, or some silly and wonderful video of a guy dancing in his rec room, or an afternoon with friends in a generic conference hotel room laughing ourselves into insensibility.

Or the sight of my wife’s Morris dancing team, dancing in black veils and dark rag coats in front of an aircraft carrier on Halloween night.

Other pieces in a similar vein:
Skepticism As a Discipline
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour

Letting the World Surprise You: Secular Transcendence and, Once Again, Morris Dancing
The Bolingbrook Babbler:  The unbelievable truth is now at freethoughtblogs.com/babbler

16 thoughts on “Letting the World Surprise You: Secular Transcendence and, Once Again, Morris Dancing

  1. 1

    Here’s what Stan Rogers said about Morris Dancers:

    Morris dancers, for those of you who don’t know, are cute people who dress up in little white suits with green sashes and pork-pie hats with feathers. They tie sleighbells to their feet and they strap long white hankies to their wrists. In any event, there’s nothing really alarming about Morris dancers; they’re actually quite harmless.

    Except that from time to time they will arm themselves with some kind of cudgel or bludgeon or some kind of blunt instrument. And they will gather in a knot or a mob known as a clot or a team. And they’ll gather in kind of a mystic circle and, to the accompaniment of accordion and violin, they will rhythmically and ritualistically hit each other again and again and again, with these sticks. This is supposed to be some form of British fertility ritual, or some form of entertainment, or something.

    It’s part of the introduction to Rogers’ song “The Idiot” which has a tune which Morris dancers could dance to.

  2. 4

    ‘Tis, it just so happens that my other team, Berkeley Morris (not pictured here) does a morris dance that has been choreographed to Stan Rogers’ “The Idiot.” And it’s pretty much exactly as the quote describes.

  3. 5

    I was that 13-year-old kid (disclaimer: not actually 13) in February 2004 when I went to a Burner party and saw people spinning fire for the first time: O MINE EYES, WHAT BE THIS WONDROUS SIGHT

    I really ought to start practicing again.

  4. 6

    One of the best parts about following your writing, for me, is getting the isn’t-the-world-an-amazing-place contact high from the things you write about! Extra joy for everyone! 🙂

  5. 8

    Well, I’m certainly not going to deny the dork factor in the Morris, and I am aware of the disdain that many Brits harbor, probably as a result of having it forced on them as children. Douglas Adams spoke disparagingly of it as well.

    But what can I say? I have found a way to get some exercise while stomping and bashing sticks together, I get to dress up in silly clothes with a bunch of like minded atheists and pagans, the music is gorgeous, and you get to have beer afterward (or sometimes during). Works for me.

    Off to practice now, in fact!

  6. 9

    I visited the USS Hornet some years back. In particular, I remember having a tour around the engineering section by one of the people who had served in the engineering section during WWII (which was an awful experience). The USS Hornet also fought in the Battle of Midway, which many military historians consider to be the most stunning naval battle in the history of the world, and helped sink the Yamato, the flagship of the Japanese navy and, along with the Musashi, was to this day the most powerful battleship ever built.

    My life in Taiwan is like what you describe here, except more so. When I lived in San Francisco, I could tell myself that I have lots of time to explore/try x, and that there was no hurry. However, I know that I have, at most, a few years in Taiwan, and that once I leave I will never come back (one of the reasons I came to Taiwan at this time is that I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I would never have another opportunity). So I cannot delay trying/exploring things in Taiwan (and there is enough to do in Taiwan to fill a lifetime – so I have to prioritise). In a way, leaving Taiwan would be a little like the end of my life – it would certainly be the end of my life in Taiwan. At least I would (hopefully) have another life waiting for me somewhere else, whereas when death really comes knocking, there won’t be another life waiting.

  7. 12

    Nurse Ingrid,

    I am aware of the disdain that many Brits harbor, probably as a result of having it forced on them as children.

    Really? I’m English and I don’t think many English kids are even that aware of Morris Dancing, let alone forced to watch/do it. I do remember doing dancing round a Maypole with gaily coloured ribbons, but I also remember thoroughly enjoying that.

    As for “disdain”, I’d like to say a flat no, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. From the 70’s and through the 80’s, overt symbols of English/British nationalism (St George’s & Union flags, etc) were fairly comprehensively appropriated by the National Front, BNP and football hooligans. Sometime in the mid-90’s between “Britpop”, Euro ’96 and “Cool Britannia”, somehow this mental association between displays of pride in being English/British and racism/fascism/thuggery was (mostly) broken.

    But in that dark period some people probably had a sub-conscious, niggling feeling of embarrassment bordering on disdain about things like Morris Dancing. In the abstract at least – on actually witnessing it, they’d probably have similar reactions to those described by Greta above…but maybe with a mild feeling of discomfort they’d be unable to articulate or identify.

    Maybe a portion of that taint lingers still in the national consciousness, but I’d wager most of any remaining antipathy is a perception that other people think that kind of thing is uncool and don’t want to be seen as uncool themselves.

    Neuroses. We got ’em!

  8. 13

    I’m not English, but I did grow up partly in England, and I suspect the British attitude toward Morris dancing is a lot more ambiguous than simple disdain. Yes, Morris dancing is generally considered to be highly naff, but I think most English would be secretly quite sad if it were to disappear if only because it is uniquely English. I also strongly suspect that most Britons’ reaction to learning that there are Morris dancing groups in places like San Francisco and Seattle (I’ve seen them practicing at Gasworks Park) would be one of pride, even if they did cover it up with something along the lines of “of all the things about English/British culture to adopt…” accompanied by eye-rolling.

  9. 14

    Jurjen S.

    I also strongly suspect that most Britons’ reaction to learning that there are Morris dancing groups in places like San Francisco and Seattle (I’ve seen them practicing at Gasworks Park) would be one of pride, even if they did cover it up with something along the lines of “of all the things about English/British culture to adopt…” accompanied by eye-rolling.

    I’d expect to find Morris dancing in San Francisco and Seattle. Those cities are known for being “different” and “counter-cultural” and that sort of thing.

    Incidentally, every so often I go to the town park (I live in southeastern Connecticut) to watch cricket. There are large numbers of Indians (India Indians), Pakistanis, Jamaicans and Australians living in the area. Enough of them are cricketers to field four teams. But there are only a couple of Britons playing on these teams.

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