I am a big proponent of habits. Our habits are the building blocks of every day satisfaction and lay the groundwork for long-term success. Some habits are made up on the spot and then practiced as the need arises. Others are practically stamped into our DNA, they’ve been ours for so long. We’re often unaware of them until we need to change them.
And sometimes habits turn into rituals. In the theater, pre-performance rituals are often just habits that have become codified in the mind of the actor, which then help them control their focus and their intentions for the night.
Other times, though, a ritual must be acquired, for the sake of one’s own well-being.
Today, the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to her grave site and placed some flowers there. Not an original ritual, certainly. But one new to me and my life. I had been going back and forth about making the drive out to Dinuba. I’m very busy preparing for a trip out of town and in rehearsals for a play. But I decided I should mark the day and the passage of time somehow, otherwise I might regret not making space in my life to consider my mother and my continued grief at her passing. Having a small, essential ritual to fall back on did exactly that. It also allowed me to spend some time in thought for my grandparents, with whom my mother is interred, and their lives before her.
Then I came home and had a text conversation with my brother and sent an e-mail to my mother’s husband to check in with him. I’ll probably watch Steel Magnolias (one of mom’s favorite movies) later in the day.
These sorts of mundane tasks – texting, writing an e-mail, watching a movie – may not seem terribly ritualistic. They aren’t, certainly not in the religious sense of the word. But they are markers I’m creating in my day to say to myself, “This is who Mom loved, this is what she did for me, this is what she cared about,” and honoring that in my life without Mom.
A lot of cultural and religious rituals are rooted in the need to mark transitions in life, to provide tools for reflection and focus, and to create an organization around what can be a chaotic existence. My tendency toward ritual is undoubtedly rooted in my religious upbringing, but just as much of it is about the routine traditions my mother gave me (or tried to give me) as I grew up. Advent wreaths, Easter baskets, and grandma’s potato salad on the Fourth of July. Changing the decor in the house seasonally. Orange rolls made on Saturday for the church coffee fellowship on Sunday. Habits that became rituals in the house.
I’ve created other rituals in my life, often out of a habit that became a ritual. At the winter solstice I typically take an evening by candlelight and consider the year that has transpired and look forward to the year to come. At New Year’s Day, Jaguar and I buy paper editions of the newspapers and spend the day reading them over coffee. Jaguar tends to clean out his computer files around the New Year and I tend to clean out my paper files. Both of us feel the ritual gives us a clean slate for the year to come. Moments like these carved out in the year mark the natural passage of time, but they also require me to slow down and to allow for some space to think and feel regarding my life. Daily rituals have also developed around my health and my work life.
You see, ritual isn’t so much about communing with the divine or offerings to the gods for me. It’s not mystical. It is a very real, natural part of my physical being in this world. Rituals are functional. By giving myself some time and space in which to just exist fully, to experience my feelings of grief and loss or my feelings of hopefulness, to take up space in the world where I’m not proving my usefulness to someone else, to use time to keep in touch with where I’m at and how I’m doing, I get know myself better. I’m at the forefront of my life for a season, a day, or a moment.
I created a ritual today to visit my mother’s grave because, as Linda Loman put it in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid to such a person!” But I also created it because attention must also be paid to me on the regular, especially during the long process of grief.
I am less and less concerned with what others may think about my rituals or my attention to my own inner life. Because carving out these rituals in my life creates a happier, healthier Heather, even at the very moment of my unhappiness.