When I was small, my dad would occasionally wake me up on Saturday mornings and ask if I wanted pancakes. It was a wonderful question, though an unnecessary one, because what kid turns down pancakes for breakfast? “That’s alright, Father. Just my regular toast points and cottage cheese with a side of honeydew. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice if you’re so inclined to earn my love this day.” (I hate everything in that meal except toast, by the way. Toast is boss.) So, I would respond like a child who knows maple syrup is manna from heaven/Canada, hurriedly dress, and wait impatiently at the dining room table. He would bring out the utensils first, then the butter, and finally the syrup. This was key, because while he brought out the other accouterments as he was cooking, the syrup came out only moments before the pancakes themselves. He would carry a plate holding a steaming tower out of the kitchen and set it on my place mat. It sat there for a moment, fogging up my glasses as I inched my face closer and closer to take in the aroma, and then my dad would start cutting. Taking a fork and knife, he sectioned off the stack into neat, orderly rows and columns, leaving a stack of perfectly square pieces. It was beautiful. Carefully poured syrup would slide so neatly between the cuts, touching each piece on its way to the surface of the plate below. Each individual bite was as good as another, and I savored them all one by one.
I still cut my pancakes this way, and I’m convinced they taste better when the ritual is followed. Logan visited me in Nashville recently, and he became noticeably excited when I suggested we get breakfast out one morning because “I get to see you cut pancakes.” It’s a running joke for those around me, and I’m okay with that. It is a bit ridiculous, but it’s my ritual. And that’s what makes the difference here, the ritual. It’s a tiny one, but one that still represents so much. I don’t think about its meaning each time I sit down to a short stack, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My father, unwittingly I’m sure, instilled love and care into a simple meal and its even simpler preparation on random weekend mornings so long ago. I know he did it to make it easier for me to eat, which is why parents cut up any number of foods for their kids. But I still do it; not for convenience, but because it’s a ritual that holds meaning. And really, any ritual worth its salt is inherently about meaning-making. I started thinking about this after hearing a delightful interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Morning Edition last week as I drove to work. I found myself nodding and smiling the entire time he spoke about his relationship with coffee as something that has an elegant way of positively shaping one’s time socially and personally.
Coffee has become that for me in adulthood as well. Seinfeld’s right to note how we use rituals like sharing a coffee and a conversation with someone to set these wonderful spaces apart from the rest of the day. If you let it, the ritual carves out a niche where you can simultaneously hide from the world and be more fully part of it. You’re in it; you’re giving definition to your time and the act at hand. Rituals, especially the little ones that we connect to things and people we love, are constantly pushing us to shape how we navigate the myriad of choices and options open to us as modern, busy people. So, even though cutting pancakes into crisp, exact lines or letting the slow wafts of steam envelop your face before taking that first sip of bold, black brew are tiny exercises in making meaning, they are fraught with meaning nonetheless. And honestly, that’s about as holy and pure as anything else I can think of.