The High Holidays of Judaism always arrive at around this time of year: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed quickly by the less High but still 8-day long Holiday of Sukkot (7 days if you live in Israel).
And I’ve noticed this year, maybe even more than any other year, just how much each of these is rife with symbolism. There are unusual fruits eaten with their own brief prayers relating their metaphoric significance or at least puns about them and how they relate to the blessings we hope to have this year. There is apple dipped in honey for a sweet new year. There is round challah bread to symbolize the circle of life. On Yom Kippur, it’s a common custom to wear white to signify a fresh start. And don’t even get me started on all the things a sukkah may or may not symbolize.
I’m not going to deny that symbolism can have great power, that seeing a physical manifestation or reminder of an emotional truth can be very effective. However, I think it’s largely true that the symbols that have the most power to us are not the ones that are passed down to us (not to say that there’s anything wrong them), but rather, the ones that we create for ourselves.
I am no stranger to making my own symbols. I’ve been choosing certain actions based on their metaphorical resonances since long before Augustus Waters made it cool.
[Side note: I recall reading a review of The Fault in Our Stars movie and the reviewer scoffed at Augustus’s cigarette metaphor, saying that it barely worked in the book and certainly doesn’t work on screen, and to that I say, “BAH. There’s nothing to ‘work’ or ‘not work’ about it. Either you acknowledge that there are people who create symbols for themselves or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, you’re wrong.” We may be unbearably pretentious but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist!]
For instance, a while back I took to wearing a fake engagement ring, first as a social experiment and then, as explained here, as a symbol to myself of all the times I have felt most wanted, chosen, or loved, by classmates, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, family, etc.
Lately, I’ve taken to wearing another kind of ring for symbolic purposes.
The ring is a clamp from the inner tie rod of a car that we worked on in class. (Tie rods are what connect the tires to the car’s rack-and-pinion, which is attached to the steering gear and moves to the right and to the left to steer the car. Not important! Well, no, very important, but not in regard to this post.) Point is, it’s a piece of a car and I turned it into a ring. I even coated the outside with clear nail polish so that it would be shiny.
The symbol has a couple of major layers, which I was very conscious of while choosing it:
- It takes something stereotypically masculine (car part) and turns it into something stereotypically feminine (shiny ring). This is important to me because it helps me fight my internalized misogynistic thinking that anything feminine or girly or pretty is inherently inferior or weak or useless. These are constructs that are pushed onto us constantly and — while this may surprise you, given my affinities for bright clothes and makeup — I am still deprogramming myself from my aversion to anything girly.
- I made a very conscious choice to wear it on my left ring finger, where it is customary to wear an engagement and/or wedding ring. I did this even though occasionally my fingers swell up a bit and it might make more sense for me to wear it on a pinky finger or even the ring finger of my right hand, which may be slightly narrower. But I didn’t want to, because I absolutely want that symbol of commitment for myself. That this is what I am dedicating my life to right now. That even when it’s overwhelming, or I’ve had a bad day full of sexism and frustration, or when it’s a long weekend and school feels far away and it may feel easier to slip backward into a more conventional career, this nail-polished piece of metal around my finger provides a physical, tangible reminder for why I won’t do that.
I lost it a couple weeks ago, and I felt naked without it; kept tightening my fingers or reaching my thumb over to my ring finger to feel the ring but it wasn’t there, and I felt unsettled and anxious, like I’d lost an anchor, like I was loosing my grip on my commitment. It’s irrational, but that’s how much power symbols can have. I totally understood why Augustus would risk his life to get another pack of cigarettes to replenish his anchoring metaphor and regain his equilibrium.
What was worse than losing it, though, was the way I lost it: I took it off to wash my hands before eating bread, as per the Jewish custom, and I forgot it by the water fountain where I washed. This was because the water fountain is in a fairly small, semi-isolated nook of the school and I don’t like being in that nook for any longer than necessary, because I can’t help but be aware of the fact that out of anyplace in the school building, that is the easiest one in which to overpower a girl. It’s not like it’s ideal for that — if I screamed they’d totally hear me in the shop — but it’s definitely not the most comfortable place to linger. So I get jumpy when I’m there, and as a result, forgot to put my ring back on and by the next day, it had been cleared away.
And I hated the symbolic significance of how I’d lost it — letting sexism and fear push me around to the point where my behavior was affected and I lost something valuable to me — I hated that even more than I hated losing it, and so I desperately wanted to replace it, to erase that negative energy and make sure it never happened again. Luckily, I take home lots of spare odds and ends from shop, and I found another inner tie rod clamp in my small collection, and that’s the one I currently wear.
So the symbolism on this one is three-fold. Better not lose it.
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