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Rituals, The Ones We Lost and Might Yet Create

Here we are at the beginning of another year. I like many am reflecting on what’s transpired over this last bout round the sun, as well as grappling with what I see coming round the bend. This past year has been like no other in my life. The challenges it’s presented have precipitated growth I wouldn’t have asked for, but deeply needed. I’m focused on a couple facets of my experience, most poignantly on my relationship to the rhythm of living within this period of pandemic, as contrasted with what I’ve come to know as “normal”.

Early in the pandemic many began to comment on and make light of the difficulty in keeping track of days. This much needed humor illuminated a somewhat obvious, yet profound notion. Without a cyclic rhythm, things begin to feel incoherent.

For some that rhythmic normalcy might’ve consisted of getting up for coffee and breakfast, spending the day at work, and returning home. On a broader scale it might have included their weekend outing to a bar or their favorite restaurant. And still broader, a vacation during the summer. These repetitive behavioral patterns appear to my eyes to be rituals of a sort, or at least the remnants of ritual. They help order our sense of the flow of time on various scales, giving us anchor points in which to ground. Maybe it's far-fetched to think of these things as rituals, rather than habits. But to my eyes the line between the two grows ever more difficult to ascertain.

My attempts to establish a normal rhythm early in the pandemic felt frustrating. Nothing gave me the sense of familiarity which I sought. In my mind, I clung to the habits and behaviors I’d used before quarantine, despite the conscious knowledge that those were no longer options. As the summer season turned into fall, I surrendered to the disruption and finally addressed my need for an entirely different structure. Then the holidays began their approach.

For solstice, my housemates and I gathered around a fire in our backyard. This contrasted with previous years, when most of us would have been out of town, visiting family. We read a story about the meaning of solstice, then went around and each shared: a challenge we personally faced this year (a thorn), something beautiful about the year (a rose), and a hope for the coming year (a bud). This gesture of acknowledgement toward both our communal bond and the end of this difficult year stayed with me. It imbued the days following with a mythic quality. An awareness lingered that these dark days are here providing us a chance for restoration, before the sun’s light returns and brings with it a renewed liveliness. These days contain within them the promise of rebirth, but it seems we need to participate consciously in our own personal restoration, if we're to fully experience that rebirth.

The disruption of typical holiday proceedings showed me some things. It showed me how much more nourishing the holiday (holy day) can be, if I actively engage with the meaning associated with it. I need to allow my behaviors to reflect the meaning I'm making. I've seen how necessary it is to slow down during this time. And I don’t just mean for a week or so after the 25th of December. As I see it, the lengthening of days won’t be noticeably significant until the beginning of February. It may strike many as quite a luxurious notion to allow restoration for a period of weeks, but damn doesn’t it seem necessary? Thoughts such as these leave me in a state of anticipation. What will emerge once this period of physical distance and social disruption has subsided. “Back to normal” is a rather distasteful notion to my mind. Will we expect ourselves and others to resume the pre-pandemic pace of life?

I can't escape the awareness that our relationship to the passage of time, the story we live within, and the pace of life we consider “normal” are merely small pieces of a more extensive series of shifts needed to come back into harmony with the life surrounding us. Can we allow something of the pre-pandemic world to die, even as we look toward the light approaching at the end of the dark passage we’ve endured?

The anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival approaches as we round the bend into 2021. For many this will mark the anniversary of deep losses. The loss of loved ones. The loss of work. The loss of a way of life. Like our holidays, these life events will help us mark time. We will likely relate year after year to the person we were and how we dealt with what we experienced.

In light of this, I want to invite you to make ritual space for yourself. Rituals take so many forms. They can be performed once on a significant day of the year, or they can be done consistently over a period of time. They can involve an elaborate recitation of thoughts and feeling, or they can be done in complete silence. In The Wild Edge of Sorrow Francis Weller encourages us to relate to grief by “developing a practice that we sustain over time. Any form will do-- writing, drawing, meditation, prayer, dance, or something else-- as long as we continue to show up and maintain our effort. A practice offers ballast, something to help us hold steady in difficult times.” There’s no pre-ordained way to give yourself space to process and feel. An intentional choice to slow down, reflect, release, and move forward—that’s all that's needed. Using a creative practice as Weller suggests sounds wonderful, but I believe solace and meaning can be cultivated in even mundane activities, such as simply walking. If you want guidance on this topic, there’s plenty of resources to draw from out there. First, I suggest looking to yourself. But if you’re in need, reach out to us.

I remember my first spontaneous ritualization of grief. Every year for a span of years on April 28th, my deceased father’s birthday, I literally ran away from anyone who approached me in the school yard. I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time. In retrospect, I see a young boy attempting to grapple with a deep loss he couldn’t yet grasp. Absent a guiding hand, he responded to his unarticulated need with an intuitive gesture, a withdrawal from normalcy. We carry this language within us. A language of gesture, tone, and feeling. It lies beneath words and ideas and explanation.

Take a walk. Write something and burn the paper. Set aside time to have a conversation with someone who knows your struggles and holds your heart. Maybe there are tears in there, maybe not. Regardless of what you do, give yourself time to be human. Honor your grief. Honor the strength you’ve needed to navigate this year. It has not been easy and you don’t need to pretend like it has.

With warmth and care

Ben Murphy

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Your thought processes are rich and deep and thought provoking. I love reading what you write.

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