I’m feeling all rambly, I’m trying to work something out. I’m feeling bad that I don’t have more rituals. I’m wishing I had more to show for myself, because rituals seem like the sort of thing I should have. I think the imaginary version of myself in my head has LOTS of rituals, really beautiful and meaningful and attractive ones. Like Madeleine L’Engle and the way she swam every morning, reciting all the scripture she had memorized in her head as she did her strokes. Like Marlee Grace’s Personal Practice (which I’ll get back to). Like anyone who does morning pages. The real version of me knows that rituals that look beautiful and attractive from the outside are usually still just pretty normal to feel, and the real version of me also does have rituals, but they just aren’t beautiful or interesting or attractive ones from any perspective. They’re ordinary. They’re floppy and thin. But still rituals. They just came on quietly.
The way I make coffee, the order of things. Opening the blinds in the morning. Corn flakes at 9 pm. Taking off my glasses and rubbing my eyes. Turning on the light above the stove. Checking the door every night before going to sleep, opening it and checking that the gate is locked. These things repeat in my life, the ruts the turning wheels have made in me. I do wish I had more beautiful rituals to report. I wish I could tell you that I drink water first thing every morning, that I draw or I take a walk every day, also, that I do yoga every day, that I breathe deep, that I think through the things that matter to me, that my faith has become ritual in me with all sorts of beauty and finesse and wisdom and whatnot. But I don’t think I can say that. I think, in me, at least right now, it’s all more rudimentary. More simple and completely unimpressive. I just do things. I just go places. I’m completely in the middle of a get-through part of my life, where I don’t feel like I have very much room to expect anything more of myself than the getting-through. A new ritual? Please. I can’t be held accountable. Anything out of the ordinary, anything extra? Forget it. I’m just here. I’m just walking to work, riding the bus, eating something, looking out the window. A ritual in itself, the getting through. But one that feels both tight and empty at once.
I know what rituals are for, and I know how good they can be. I’ve been a part of many in my lifetime. Large ones and small ones, organized ones and found ones. When you’re a child, many rituals are handed to you and it’s wonderful. There was a song we would sing every day when my dad got home from work. Every day. We drank milk with dinner. Every day. We did all sorts of things over and over and over until meaning began to be braided into the things we did. Until things that were once non-essential became essential. In college, in my theater program, ritual was at the center of everything. We met every Tuesday and Thursday in the same room at the same time. We were encouraged to have a path that we always took to get to the room. For me, this path meant stopping in the lobby of the theater, stepping up onto the built-in benches there, and laying my forearms across the top of the smooth wooden pillar between the benches. Sometimes laying my head on my arms. Taking a breath. I don’t know why I picked that to be the thing I did. In our room, we played games that were more like organized rituals. I can’t describe it without making everything overly strange and complicated, but just know that it was beautiful and it changed me deeply. It changes you when you get to be in a room twice a week with other people who know what is going on, who carry all the things with you, time after time after time. We moved, we walked, we danced, we sang, we looked at one another, we put our backs to the walls, we threw imaginary rocks, and it all was ritual and it all was good. So many rituals I can’t tell you about because they feel secret and special. Rituals that I now carry around with me everywhere I go, nowhere really to set them down. Holy, heavy things. I hope I’m not making it sound strange or scary, and I recognize that I might be. They weren’t strange or scary. They were rituals, simple, particular, and full.
And church. Every Holy Week, I sit in the middle of ritual and it moves me to my core. It shakes me up, really. I never expect it to but it does. And all of a sudden I want to jump up and be in the middle of it all! I want to be an active participant! I want to carry the candle, wear a robe, wash the altar, hold the chalice, wash the feet, carry the cross. Those rituals feel so immediate, so full, full of all the saints and all the years they’ve been carried forward, repeated, upheld.
Here is what I think makes something a ritual:
- Done on purpose
It’s a thing that is done over and over again, and it’s a thing that is, must be, done a certain way. I don’t think rituals come with meaning already inside of them, I think the meaning is gained in the repetition, in the specificity. Slowly, slowly. Over time. Through space. The unspoken “4” in the list is holiness, a big part of ritual and why it matters, but something that is not lightly attributed to anything. Something that comes when it isn’t asked for. Something that only appears because of grace being showered on a ritual.
I’ve been sewing a lot, and it has occurred to me more than once that it is extremely ritualistic. That so many things are. There are processes, ways we do things, rituals that are built without us meaning to. Meaning slowly creeping in. Today, as I pieced a small word quilt that I’ve been excited to make for a long time, it all began to feel tedious. Not in a bad way, just in the way of things that you do over and over again. I sew every day, at my day job and at home. I cut pieces of cloth, line them up just so, sew a seam, backstitch at the beginning and end, turn the sewing machine’s wheel to move the needle to the correct position, cut the threads, align my next seam, sew again. Over and over and over. Within sewing, this thing that is so exciting and inspiring to me, with a world of possibilities and hope, this thing that I want to spend my life doing, is large swaths of repetition. Everything distilled to simple motions done over and over again. Muscle memory. A body acting, reacting, remembering. How much of my day is like this? How much of my life? In all the things that keep me going, in all the things I’m excited about, my body knows how to go along, assigns meaning to the tedium of it all, agrees to repetition, makes it holy.
A needle through a cloth. Over and over and over again.
I could decide that sewing is boring. I could decide that all the things that I have to repeat over and over are boring. I could. And sometimes I do. But meaning creeps in. Specificity joins. The repetition becomes mine, the way of things distinct. Sewing becomes my sewing. The tedious part becomes the part I rely on, the way to rest my running brain, a way to bring order. Rituals are a grace to us and our wildness. Rituals give us space between all the invention, all the striving. I can design a pattern, all exciting and new! And then I can make it, sit down a while and sew. Spend some time, touch the fabric, think my thoughts, sing some songs, let it be boring when it is. An unimpressive ritual.
I’m no good at creating new rituals for myself. Anytime I say I’m going to do something every day, it becomes the very last thing in the world I want to do. The mind’s sabotage. New rituals come to me in the things I already do. In the repetition of my days, the ones I find myself in, and in the specificity I can’t help but bring. In the way I always set the thread snips down in the same place, the ways my muscles remember, the position of my chair, the frequency of the breaks I take to take off my glasses and rub my eyes. I’m learning to call these found rituals holy. I’m finding grace in it more and more all the time.
Still, I miss the grander ones. I miss my path to the theater on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the grandeur of holy week. I’ve been thinking so much these past few days about Personal Practice, a ritual developed by a woman named Marlee, an improvisational dancer, who decided she was going to dance every day and record a video of it and post it on Instagram. She decided it, a big thing to decide, and then she did it. I watch her videos frequently and have been for a long time, following along. Apparently a lot of other people do too because there are a whopping 27,000 folks following her feed, which seems crazy for something that seems so personal and tender, both for her, and, far away, for me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because she just published a book about it which landed in my mailbox a few days ago and filled me with so much something to read. In the book, she writes about how it was for her, how it carried her and documented so much change in her life and heart and body, how it felt really difficult most of the time but also really wonderful. She documents where she danced and what songs she danced to and what specific moments of it felt like or were about. She never says “I’m a special person because I did this special thing every day!” She just says, in her book, in the prologue, “I just wanted to get myself to dance more, and the only way I could figure out how was to say ‘hey look I did this today’ and then do it every single day. Even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to.” I feel like I understand that.
I read her words and I watch her dance and I want to be a person who decides to dance every day. Maybe someday I will be. Not to steal her ritual, not to try to replicate her experience or be like her or plagiarize or anything, but to see how it could be for me, in my body. To see how, or if, it would change me. To see how I would change in it. It is a ritual, fought for and chosen. The kind I’m bad at because I’m so bad at choosing rituals. I look at this thing that she decided to do and I feel small and simple, like I couldn’t choose something like that and keep it going, like I don’t have that sort of willpower or beauty in me, things that I know are silly to feel, but I do. But, as I write, the name of the ritual is popping out to me. Personal practice. Personal PRACTICE. It’s a ritual, sure, but it’s really a practice. That’s a different bent. She’s not merely repeating dancing every day in a specific way, she is practicing. Showing up and practicing. For some reason, just the highlighting of the word makes me feel more hopeful, makes the whole business of it feel more spacious. Practice. Practice? I know how to practice! I’m even good at practice! I can choose things to practice if I want to. I can choose things to practice, and maybe ritual will follow. Maybe rituals aren’t the thing to aspire to, but practice, rather. Practicing prayer, practicing yoga, practicing drinking water, practicing morning pages, swimming with scripture, practicing sitting down to sew, dancing every day. Seeing about it. Giving it a shot. Just practicing. Just trying some stuff over here. And maybe, just maybe, the practice will become ritual, meaning and all braided through. Maybe, just maybe, the practice will become a part of the fabric of you. Maybe, just maybe, all our repeating things here on earth, or some of it at least, is not just toil, not just business, busy work, getting-through. Maybe some of it is holy.
This post originally published on Synchronized Swim, a blog I share with my friend Jess, where you can find new writings by me every Monday.