I guess I might as well come out. I’m Cueish. That is, I have a deeply emotional and historically informed experience with playing pool, or snooker, or carom billiards, or any of the innumerable cue sports. There is enormous beauty and meaning within the enclosed rails, patterns waiting to be revealed.
This is my cue, an instrument of craft and care in its creation and (sometimes, at least aspirationally) in its use. It was made by Thierry Layani, a thoughtful and ingenious Quebecois cuemaker who makes a couple of hundred a year rather than a couple of hundred per day. But really, everything about that room is a shrine. There’s nothing in there that doesn’t relate in some way to the evocation of craft and care. I have a little statuette on the side table, brought to me from Ghana by a former student who told me that the figure was representative of wisdom. Along with instructional books and rulebooks, the small bookcase also holds two chapbooks of my friend’s poetry.
When I uncover the table, I have a specific sequence for folding the canvas cover, like folding an altar cloth, or a flag. When he table is covered, there is a wooden Buddha on the canvas, not because I’m Buddhist but because it reminds me to be attentive, to slow down and take care. That Buddha is wrapped with a knit shawl in the colors of the table, the electric blue of the cloth and the burnt orange of the table skirts and the tan of the maple cues. When I uncover the table, the Buddha goes on a stand next to the bookcase; when I re-cover the table at session’s end, it goes back into a particular spot next just below the right side pocket, facing the door. I place a reliquary item before it, something to remind me of my goals for the next encounter. A cue ball, if my position control has been shoddy. A cube of chalk if my use of spin has been haphazard.
I say thank you to the room before I close the door to leave.
Friends who come to that room don’t know that, and so they apply their own vocabulary and associated rituals to it. It’s a game room, to compete and win or lose. It’s a man cave, to drink and joke around. It’s not like I have a sign at the top of the stairs laying out the rules of encounter, so it’s only natural that visitors rely on rules they’ve learned elsewhere. Sometimes I work to bring them around, but sometimes their energy is strong enough that I don’t work against it. The room becomes secularized. When I put it together again, I apologize to it, ask its forgiveness. Wait for it to become sacred again. It doesn’t happen right away.
Some friends recently went to Japan, and returned with wonderful stories and images and gifts. And one of the things they described was participating in a traditional tea ceremony. Everything precise, everything small and proscribed and layered with history. When the cup is presented, the recipient turns it counterclockwise so that the image on the cup faces them. If you just want to drink some tea, you can go to the convenience store and buy a bottle for a buck and a half. If you attend a tea ceremony, it’s because you want something greater than a simple refreshment.
Every place in our lives can be that way. A tavern can be a place to stay hydrated, a place to watch football, or a place to get wasted. But it can also be a place to discover flavor combinations, to renew friendships, to enjoy the pleasures of hospitality. The inside of my car can be a comfortable box to get me from one spot to another, and I can let the radio invade with its random stimuli. But it can also be a place to focus on the craft of driving, the shape of the road. We get to decide on the meaning of places, to turn them to greater or lesser ends.
My pool room is designed specifically to support my cue ceremony. It’s where I teach, it’s where I practice. I inhabit it in specific, care-ful ways. And that helps me better understand the spaces of others as well. I try to watch how they use a space, where I naturally fit within the flow, what parts I’m invited into and what parts seem to be less public. A space is a container of ritual, and the ritual is what’s central.
When you enter a space, watch for the ritual. There won’t be a sign. Just watch what happens, and what doesn’t. Don’t intervene without waiting for some sense of how your host flows through it. Lose your willfulness and let the space teach you how to be.
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