Making It Up As We Go
The Loss of Ritual and the Challenge of COVID
I picked up the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pulled apart the bread and slid some potato chips into the gooey center, and took a big bite.
My lunch today transported me back to elementary school. Suddenly, it was as if I was back in the school cafeteria, the first day after the summer, with a surprise note in my lunchbox: Welcome back to school, Diana! Love, Mom.
There was always a note on that first day - a message in my mother’s neat hand, little doodles on the page. Every year. One of her rituals.
Maybe it was the PB&J, or maybe Dr. Jill Biden standing in an empty classroom giving her speech at the Democratic National Convention, but I’m thinking about fall – and all the rituals associated with starting school.
We’ve lost much this year, including the loss of ritual.
Formal holiday rituals like Easter and Passover. Less overtly religious ones like baseball’s opening day or July 4 parades. Other rituals, too: graduations, birthdays, anniversaries. There were no summer weddings or baby showers. No in-person church or synagogue or temple. Even with friends falling ill, and the deaths that have occurred, no hospital visits or funerals to attend.
We also lack informal rituals, the practiced regularity that made up daily life – coffee with friends, the neighborhood book club, the gripe session with co-workers at the bar near the office, working out at the gym, dinner at a favorite restaurant. These are rituals, too - routines that connected us to one another, how we offered friendship, forgiveness, advice, and care. Familiar, repeated acts that framed hours, days, weeks, and months – the habits that composed our lives – have vanished.
Ritual links us to others, shapes our memories, and marks our years. Even the least liturgical and non-religious among us understands ritual in these ways. My friend, Casper ter Kuile, who writes on “soulful practices” says, “rituals make the invisible connections (of) life meaningful, visible.” COVID has robbed us of ritual.
This loss contributes to feeling isolated and sad. Without familiar rhythms and seasons, we have become disconnected from our own lives, other people, and traditions that mattered more than we knew. COVID has forced us to reconstruct our rituals – drive-by celebrations, zoom calls, virtual happy hours, online birthdays. It isn’t just priests or rabbis or yoga teachers creating new rituals for their communities. We’re all rewriting daily rituals and important rites of passage in our lives and families. That’s hard work. No wonder we’re exhausted. It is one of the less-recognized challenges we’re facing in the pandemic.
The school year is starting again, a time marked by rituals that make up childhood memories – shopping for school supplies, packing lunches, tearful send-offs, and lining up new books on our shelves. This is our culture’s time of odd beginnings, just as the year winds toward winter. I loved it all so much that I stayed in school for three degrees and became a college professor! Fall brings it all back, every fear, every hope, every bad plaid dress.
I encourage you to mark the school year - this year like no other - with some sort of ritual, nothing difficult or complex (you’ve got enough to do!) but things that are familiar, life-giving, and comforting. Hard as this is, we will look back one day and remember – and the ways we mark this moment will remain for a lifetime.
For those with children:
Whether your children are in school or online, take those first day pictures and post them on social media to celebrate the rite of passage to a new grade. Take a few wearing their masks or in their home “classroom.”
For parents facing in-person school opening:
Make masks fun and important. Send small children off with masks depicting favorite characters (I’ve seen lots for sale online) maybe to match character lunchboxes, backpacks, or folders.
Teach them how to wear the masks correctly. Do a family mask blessing as part of the new school year preparations.
God, bless our masks.
May they help protect us, our families, teachers, and friends from COVID-19.
Grant us peaceful hearts in these strange times.
Help us when we feel angry or afraid,
and when it seems hard to be brave or kind.
Bless these masks and may they be a blessing.
Keep those we love safe, healthy, and well.
For parents of online learners:
Of course, you’ll be creating structure and rituals for your children with guidance from schools and teachers. This is for you: Find Sabbath time in the week for yourself and take it. Give yourself that gift. You are doing so much. Make even a brief time for a quiet ritual to center, pray, and reflect. Please care for yourself. You’re a hero.
For those who live alone, empty-nesters, or those who just love fall:
Sharpen your pencils, tidy your workspace, and buy some new books you’ve wanted to read.
Donate supplies to your local school (if it is meeting in-person): masks, hand sanitizer, soap, paper towels. Many children depend on school for meals, find a local food pantry or organization and contribute to their efforts in feeding schoolchildren. If your school district is online, reach out to neighborhood parents and ask how you might support them (socially distant, of course!). Make doing good a regular part of your life this autumn.
Bless your masks, too.
Find an online community or a safe, socially-distanced outdoor group, that offers some sort of spiritual development and ritual – a book study, a learning community, a yoga class, a gratitude group, a meditation circle. Lots of congregations and organizations are providing free classes and welcoming strangers to their online liturgies. Write a new rule of life – no matter your age. Open your eyes to see the world around you in new ways. Host an online dinner party, make a date of it with others. Try something different – be intentional, turn it into a ritual. It is the season for that.
We can grow. We can connect. We can make memories even in these hard times.
SHARE YOUR IDEAS IN THE COMMENT SECTION with other readers of The Cottage. What rituals might you do to mark the new school year? Can you share some resources about developing ritual with children? For individuals deepening ritual practices at home? What rituals have helped you in recent months? I want to hear from you!
THOUGHTS FOR INSPIRATION:
This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.
- Elizabeth Gilbert
Coffee in the dawn
With books open like our hearts,
Our weekend ritual
- Eric Overby
Ritual is able to hold the long-discarded shards of our stories and make them whole again. It has the strength and elasticity to contain what we cannot contain on our own, what we cannot face in solitude.
- Francis Weller