In high school, I once toiled and tinkered for months on a short story I'd titled "The Ketchup Sisters." I don't remember much about it--not the names of any characters or the details of the plot or even if there was anything resembling a plot involved.
I do remember that the title referred to a childhood ceremony the main characters had performed to seal their friendship. Inspired by a blood oath scene in a movie, in which two men cut themselves and mingle their blood together, thereby becoming "blood brothers," the girls in the story were too squeamish to actually cut themselves and instead touched their ketchup-smeared thumbs together, binding themselves together forever in ketchup sisterhood. Silly, yes, but sacred, too. Sacred silliness.
That scene was loosely based on the ketchup ceremony Toni (of the forbidden pepperoni) and I performed at lunch one day. I say "loosely based" because Toni and I were semi-jaded teenagers performing the ceremony mostly ironically as a goofy antidote to the tedium of lunch period; the girls in the story had pledged their oath with sincere hearts.
Is there anything more sincere, more solemn, more sacred than a vow made by a child? We didn't only give our word, we crossed our hearts and hoped to die, stick a needle in our eye if we broke that word. We didn't merely promise, we sealed our promises with a firm shake of entwined pinkies.* And we meant it--or most of us did, not wanting to be caught with our pants on fire, hanging from a telephone wire.
I sometimes wonder what happens as we get older to that impulse to put our whole hearts behind something.
The world happens, of course. Not that childhood is without its fears. But while the monsters under the bed turn out to be mostly imaginary, the monsters afoot among us turn out to be fiercer than we imagined. We suffer loss and disappointment and brush up against the jagged edges of things. Even the luckiest among us are left a little scarred, a little harder, more cynical, the better to protect ourselves, we think.
I don't think it's only the world, though, that we lose faith in. It is ourselves. As young children, we fling our whole selves into projects and people, into lemonade stands and true love, into fantasies and friendships. Eventually, we learn the hard way (is there any other way?) that forever is not ours to promise. Despite our best intentions, we break hearts--our own hearts and the hearts of those we love too little or too much. We learn that our best intentions do not always amount to much.
Our trust in the world is broken, but more importantly, so is our trust in ourselves. We conclude (and who can blame us?) that the problem was in promising too much, in making our way through the world with a heart too open. We are wrong, of course.
Promising less, risking less may mean failing less, but it inarguably means succeeding less. When we are broken and hurt, the best cure may well be flinging our whole heart into something--even something silly. Perhaps the path to healing is paved with sacred silliness.
P is for Promise
*In the house I grew up in, this was known as a "pinkie promise." Everyone else I ever met (including my cousins) referred to it as a "pinkie swear." Even my own children called it a "pinky swear." Not only that, but they upped the stakes on the standard issue "pinkie swear" with the "double pinkie swear." Son-One and Daughter-Only made these by crossing arms and linking all four pinkies and then bouncing their linked arms up and down while chanting, "Double pinkie swear, yeah!" I fully expect both of their weddings to involve some version of this ritual.
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