“Are you superstitious?” a guy asked me just the other night as it started to grow dark outside and the shadows formed by the trees made strange lines dance across my ceiling.
I’m not usually the type to answer a question with a question, but I couldn’t stop myself from wondering aloud what caused him to even ask me such a thing in the first place.
“I just want to know more about you,” he replied simply, normally.
“I’m not particularly superstitious,” I told him with a lightness in my voice and a smile on my face.
I chose in that moment not to reveal that I’d recently made a major life decision based entirely on the advice given to me by a Magic Eight Ball. I think it was probably the right choice, but I’ll ask the ball the question later just to be sure.
Truth? I think I’ve become more superstitious over time. More truth? I’m in no way proud of such a thing. Superstitions strike me as a weird sort of weakness and, while I will never maintain that I am perfect, one thing I am not and have never been is fucking weak.
I wonder sometimes if being superstitious is hereditary. According to legend and lore, one of the grandfathers I never knew would only exit from his seat at the dining room table from one particular side – and then he’d proceed to walk around that table four full times before feeling comfortable enough to go sit on his couch. He also apparently refused to return home once he’d already left, even if he’d forgotten to put on his pants. The man would literally walk naked into the world rather than break a single one of his patterns because of what might happen if he randomly changed course.
Personally, I find it incredibly important to make sure I’m fully dressed before leaving the house, so I guess I didn’t inherit every aspect of behavior from this particular relative. Still, I wonder where my superstitions have come from. Still, I wonder what they all mean.
“Hey,” I said casually to a friend of mine this morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hand as I walked into his empty classroom and took a seat at a desk. It wasn’t yet 7:00 AM and he was busy affixing gigantic pieces of lined paper to his blackboard so his students could scrawl some examples of how to write a thesis in magic marker across them. His back was to me so he couldn’t see my expression when I threw out the very same question I’d recently been asked. I can’t deny that I was hoping he’d nod his head easily and immediately, that he would say that he too harbors some superstitions and I would no longer feel alone in this odd little world where a complete belief system is propelled by some invisible layer of fear.
He looked up at me and then posed a very good question in response: “What’s the difference between a ritual and a superstition?”
I thought about it for a second. “If you fear what the outcome could be because you do or don’t do something, that’s a superstition. If there’s no grave concern about the residual outcome of a behavior, that’s just a patterned ritual.”
“In that case, I have no superstitions,” he told me – and his answer surprised me because I know him very well and I guess I’d just assumed that everyone has at least one.
“So you don’t make your entire family sit in the same spots on the couch if the Rangers are in the playoffs?” I asked him.
He smiled then.
“That might be something that’s happened,” he said with a laugh. “And there was also this one time when a friend came over to watch the game and they lost and we both agreed that we must never watch another game together for as long as we live.” He nodded just thinking about his decree. It made perfect sense to him.
The thing is, it made perfect sense to me, too – and that causes me to have all kinds of concerns. When do superstitions get in the way of rational thought? Why do some patterns become seemingly necessary while others barely resonate? Can there be a genuine cause and effect formed by absolute randomness? And is there any possible way I can train myself to believe that if I don’t dust my entire home every single day from top to bottom until it fucking gleams like the sun that the world will implode because, really, wouldn’t it be nice to at least get a spotless house out of what is obviously clear craziness?
There’s a hilarious short story in Naked, a book by David Sedaris. “A Plague of Tics” describes the OCD that ruled the author’s entire childhood. His disorder compelled him to do things like lick light switches in crowed classrooms and tap the bottom of his filthy shoe against his head a certain number of times. Those around him – especially the adults – thought his actions were either examples of pure rebellion or due to a spiraling loss of sanity, and though Sedaris writes about these experiences with a humor so raw that I howled while reading it (seriously: people in Starbucks stared at me in alarm), the need he felt to engage in those behaviors stemmed directly from a disease. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does not cause what I experience on a somewhat regular basis. No, what I feel sometimes controls me are minute actions to which I’ve ascribed some power.
I think my first experience with superstition was as a spectator. Like some other kids I knew, my sister would insist on holding her breath as we drove past a cemetery. I’d join her in this little action most of the time and I guess I’d feel something after we’d finally zoom by, but mostly what I felt was pride in my impressive levels of breath control. I remember wondering if there was a possibility that I could pass out as my father drove by the enormous cemetery in Queens where so many bodies are buried that I’d grow lightheaded and sometimes I’d secretly start breathing out of my nose, but my experience in the cemetery-breath thing was very different from my sister’s. She’d actually feel a clench of anxiety take hold at simply the appearance of a headstone. For her, there were real stakes involved in holding her breath. I have no idea what she thought could possibly happen if she sucked in some oxygen, but I know that she’d sooner go comatose than allow it to happen. As for me, my earliest superstitions were way more private and also way more unusual. The first ones developed right after my father died, at a time when I probably felt a pressing need to regain some form of control in my life. I was fourteen and my bedroom had vertical blinds and I would feel compelled to close them at a certain time every night because, if I didn’t, I was sure that his spirit would appear at my bedside. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t believe in spirits; what did matter was that performing a certain simple action brought me a semblance of peace that felt sort of like a snuggly blanket for my trembling mind.
It was probably around that time when I also began to pray – and the prayer itself turned almost immediately into yet another superstition. The routine almost always went like this: it would be nighttime and I would be in my bed with the covers pulled up to my chin. The lights were out, the glow-in-the-dark stars were blazing across my ceiling, and the last phone call from the first love of my life was complete. “Good night,” we’d whisper to each other before we’d hang up, and I tried to put some oomph into those two syllables because he always told me that my phone exits sucked, that they sounded cold after an entire conversation filled with flirty verbal fire. However I’d come across, the phone would be back on my bedside and I knew that the day was officially complete and there was just one more thing to do before I could start to dream.
Please allow my family and my friends to stay happy and healthy. Please do not let any of them suddenly leave my life. Please allow me to be safe and content and in love with people who love me back. Please let my father be in peace and watching me from a distance. Thank you for everything that I have.
I’d say the words in my head and I’d sort of move my mouth along with the thoughts and then I would lean over to my nightstand and rap on the wood twice. I would reach up to my ears and touch the back of the diamond studs my grandmother had bought for me and only then I would feel ready to curl tightly onto my side and drift off to sleep. I did that exact practice – with those words and in that order – without fail for about five straight years. If someone was sleeping beside me, I’d say the prayer in my head and keep my lips still and secretly knock on the closest wooden object before touching my earrings. I’d pretend that I was reaching over to grab a tissue or the remote so I could get my knocks in because I would not be able to sleep if my knuckles didn’t connect with some wood.
I’ve never told anybody that before.
For something that once felt so present and essential, the routine just drifted away over time and I have no explanation as to how or why it stopped. What I can say with clarity is that ceasing the pattern did not occur because of an explicit decision I made. I never talked myself out of doing any of it. It just stopped feeling necessary, I guess. Still, new superstitions began to pop up, filling the void that probably shrouded something very real, something I guess I was actively trying not to decipher so instead I covered it up with some nonsense that weirdly made me feel better. I began wearing a locket that had my father’s picture inside. If there was an event I felt nervous about, I’d make sure to don the locket and, in my most anxious moments, I’d reach up and grip it tightly for just a second. There was an internal centering – a grounding of sorts – that I’d feel when I’d do it, but I was also careful not to do it too often because I didn’t want my necklace to lose its power. That’s right – I just announced to the world that something inside of me genuinely believed that my necklace was a magic necklace, constructed out of sterling silver and mystical powers. Perhaps now would be a good time to also announce that I swear I have a really high IQ.
The locket thing is still going strong after many years. I’ve stated this before, but sometimes I open it while it’s around my neck so my father can watch things that are happening. It’s usually a Springsteen concert or a particularly good Yankee/Red Sox game I figure he’d want to see. Of course, I don’t actually believe that he can see from a picture that’s been shoved inside of a piece of jewelry, but just on the improbable chance that he can, why should I deny him those pleasures? As for the rest of my superstitions, here goes:
1. I will not buy a pregnant woman a baby gift before the baby is born. Sure, I’ll make an exception when I’m invited to a shower, but I feel uncomfortable doing it every single time. I want to know the baby is here and that it’s healthy before I shower it with Sesame Street characters and plastic keys it can slobber all over.
2. You know how some people have a lucky number? I do not. However, I have three very unlucky numbers: 6, 13, and 14. My purely unscientific belief that certain numerical figures are out to get me is nothing I can even attempt to explain. Even more concerning to me is that I have no idea how my grave dismissal of these numbers got formulated in the first place. I was born on the 6th day of a month. I don’t believe the tales that illustrate that 13 is inherently unlucky. I have no fucking idea why the number 14 fills me with dread. What I do know is that I will never leave the volume on my television at 6, 13, or 14 and I will begin to quake in fear if someone else is wielding the remote and turns down the volume to a number that I know is clearly evil. I cannot just sit back and rationalize to myself that everything will be fine as Survivor airs with the volume turned to 13, so I will often ask to “see the remote” and pop that volume up to 15 while casually saying, “I don’t know why I’m not hearing clearly tonight!” There’s a practiced casual breeze to my voice. I hear it every time and it embarrasses me, as I think it probably should.
3. I cannot get off the phone with someone I hold dear without saying the words, “Be careful.” I have no memory of when this habit began, but it seems to be the one that’s least likely to drift away. Nobody mentions this habit to me and I appreciate it because it’s something I can perfectly explain and something I really don’t want to explain. There’s a very real part of me that believes that if I don’t say it – if I somehow forget or allow a momentary anger or resentment to consume me and I want to hang up without formulating those words – that something truly devastating will transpire and I am simply not willing to risk it.
While not a single one of these superstitions complicates my life in a manner that forces me to live markedly differently, I cannot deny that I’m embarrassed that I have any of these superstitions in the first place and I’m not really sure why I feel that way. Certainly most of us have quirks we don’t feel the need to alter or explain away, but I guess if you see yourself as inherently logical – and if that staunch logic is something you feel a sense of pride in – accepting that you feel compelled to engage in bizarre little actions for no reason besides a labored twinge of dread is something you’d really rather ignore. I wonder, though, if we all keep our superstitions hidden from one another like they’re secret vices capable of slicing through the fabric of what matters, the kind of thing that can cause destruction by just a reveal. Looking back at all the relationships that have mattered to me – the ones where I knew the guy’s patterns and could guess pretty accurately about what he’d do next – I cannot recall a single superstition any one of them had. I think, though, that it’s far more likely that each one of those guys just kept their superstitions to themselves.
I find it not at all surprising that the people who are the most open about being superstitious are the ones with the most common superstitions. A friend of mine told me today that he has to knock on wood if he says anything that could lead to some sticky karma.
“What if there’s no wood available?” I asked.
“Oh,” he answered easily, “I’ll just knock on something that conceptually could have been made of wood. Like, that desk over there is plastic, but a desk could be made out of wood, so it counts if there’s no other option.”
He seemed so comfortable saying something so peculiar. I envied him in that moment.
Another friend feels a pang of pure terror if she removes her wedding band. She is certain that something tragic will happen to her husband and that it will be predicated by the absence of that ring on her finger, so she never takes it off. The problem is that she hates working out while wearing her ring because the diamond gets in the way of doing pull-ups and planks so she had a different band created expressly for those times. When I asked her if something terrible had ever occurred while she wasn’t wearing her ring, she shook her head.
“My fears are based on nothing,” she said.
I guess most of our fears are based on nothing but we are fueled by stories that settle within our psyches and become so vivid that we almost give them soundtracks. Certainly my own weird actions are often meant to dispel anything terrible that could possibly befall me and I’ve obviously made the decision to quietly believe that nothing in life is entirely random.
I can control the outcome here, I tell myself.
I can keep you safe and I can make him love me.
I can reach up to my locket and feel an electric surge of power.
I can alter my experiences quietly, secretly.
I can pretend that I really believe in something.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.