A couple of Saturdays ago, my husband and I attended a weight-lifting competition at one of the local Y’s. Our son-in-law, a Y trainer, was one of the competitors. The room was packed with enthusiastic fans of local lifters, both men and women of varied abilities from good to really good. There were three events: squat lifts, bench presses and dead lifts. I won’t waste time here explaining procedure, rules, equipment, safety precautions. There were two things that really impressed me aside from the display of sheer brute strength, especially one chap who attempted to dead lift 700 pounds. (He succeeded in lifting, but not releasing the lift in proper form.) The ritual of lifting, like all rituals, involves gear, costume, art, symbols, preparation, approach, procedure. There is a prominent respect for the effort involved.
The first thing I loved were the tattoos. The tattoos at the competition were really extraordinary. There were a whole range of symbols and imagery–some of it arcane and some of it more modernistic in terms of graphics. Roughly half of the participants sported tattoos, some were massive, whimsical and colorful, others dark and odd or indecipherable–writing, webbing, geometric, religious or profane. The best was an intense young man with a carefully detailed spinal cord running down his own and the word “BROKEN” in Gothic lettering spanning the space between his scapula.
The second thing that impressed me was the support for each and every lifter provided by every other lifter along with the audience, trainers and judges. There were no favorites to speak of. There was one incidence of a squabble when one lifter did not feel he’d been fairly judged. (He was given another shot at it.) In a room full of such lethal power, there was nothing but joy, warmth and good will. Cheers from the crowd, cheers from the Y attendants, cheers from other lifters. “C’mon. You got this!” There was tension in every lift as every muscle in every attending body identified with the lifter’s challenge, every breath held and released with his or hers.
The next day was Sunday. Before the service starts in the Episcopal church there is a formal ritual of lighting the candles. Two acolytes in robes (and sneakers) process in unison carrying long staffs with an extendable lit taper on one curve and a snuffer on the other. They bow before the cross and step up to the altar. There are two large, heavy brass candlesticks there. (I know how heavy and fragile they are, because I’ve tried to lift them.) The candle lighting is a spectator sport for the congregation because it’s tricky. To get the lit taper to meet the wick of the candle is not easy. Very often on Sunday there is one candle on the altar and one acolyte struggling with a taper that does not reach the wick. Finally, the head acolyte comes in, lifts the entire candle down so that the acolyte can reach it properly. There is a collective exhale from the congregation when the candle is finally illuminated.
I hesitate to wander any farther down the paths of metaphor. Weight lifting at the Y and candle lighting in church could not be more disparate except for the common rituals that attend both. But the head acolyte helping the younger with the candle, the congregation holding their breath in expectancy and releasing it at the successful lighting was so evocative of the audience of the weightlifting competition the day before, I started taking notes in wonder. I would not be more greatly entertained if there were tattoos involved. Under those acolytes’ white cassocks and black robes in church, all I see and love are the sneakers. Because of that casual street gear in a formal and ancient ritual, I think of the Olympiad, the uniforms, the gear, the march, the lighting, the athletics and all their attendant forms. I hold my breath and release like the lifters.