Rituals (or Goodbye to all that)

We sat around our dining room table in mid-August. Summer was ending. Our younger son would start 11th grade in a day or two, his first time back in a classroom since the early spring of 9th grade. A few days later his brother would head back to college for his junior year in person.

Before we eat, I said, I want to do something. Four half-melted candles, a hodge-podge of what I could find in the kitchen drawer, stood up in the center of the table, anchored to the bottom of a glass jar by their own melted wax. Next to that, the last four matches of a box. I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.

I needed this. I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary these past 17 or so months. I needed to mark the end of one phase before we rushed headlong into the next without a breath. I needed to call it out for what it was – an aberration, a valley, a trial – in order to face and welcome the “new normal” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.

I expected eye rolls, but they did not come.

So I lit my candle and told my boys I was proud of how they had weathered this strange and unprecedented challenge, isolated from friends and the rituals of high school and college life, and that they had shown remarkable resilience and good humor, as well as grief and mourning. We went around the table and each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. It do not know that it changed anything measureable, but it did give us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.

The instinct to mark time is a hallmark of being human. “One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.” – Rebecca J. Lester, Ph.D

As Jews, every Friday evening we are invited (I guess “commanded” would be a more traditional way to go) to light Shabbat candles to separate the work and school week from a time to renew, rest, and recharge. (Unexpected bonus: during the pandemic, having such rituals helped keep track of what day of the week it was.)

Tonight we mark the beginning of a new Jewish year. Some of our “normal” rituals – gathering together, getting dressed up (i.e. out of sweatpants), driving to our synagogue or the larger hall rented to accommodate the large crowds who show up this time a year — are still not back. Instead we will meet our synagogue community outside in a park. (Still better than last year, when the park was shut down and empty of the sounds that animate it, the human energies filling and colliding, reducing it to a plot of sand, grass, metal, bricks. It is the people who make it a park.)

Apart from the novel location, the practicing of other rituals will ground us — the prayers themselves and the fact that we know to gather at all. Rituals are meant to be done in community. “Rituals anchor community in the body. We physically feel the community.” – Byung-Chul Han.

One ritual of the Jewish High holidays that I love because it involves being in nature and letting go of regrets is Tashlikh. We will gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, to symbolically cast our “sins” into the ocean. I will cast away my sky-high fear. I will cast away washing my groceries when I come home from the market. I will cast away telling my teenager and 20-year-old to wash their hands every time they come home. I will cast away the grief of seeing caution tape on the monkey bars. I will cast away the anguish for all that was missed or lost in the past year and a half. Harder, though just as necessary, I will cast away the silver lining of having my kids home, the false-comfort of thinking I can protect them, and try to adjust to their being out in the world where they belong. I will cast away the clenching and shrinking we needed to practice, and try to open to what will be born in the year to come.

More Pandemic Life, and Light, One Year Later

Last Passover I thought the Jews might break the internet. I did not yet know that this “Zoom” thing could handle our bandwidth. Miraculously, it could and did. Some fifty relatives waved at each other from our own homes, believing surely we would be together this year.

That was not to pass. Rather than resume our pre-pandemic mass gathering, our familial organism divided into smaller cells spread across counties and states. Even so, I felt a real liberation from the narrow places of last year: for the first time in a year I was sitting with my parents inside their house, eating at their dining room table, maskless, and vaccinated. We chose to open a laptop to Zoom as our rabbi led a Seder from her home and we joined a congregational family of hundreds. She closed the Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem,” and we affirmed, “next year in Tarzana.” Even this felt like a step forward.

More signs of light? For my 2020 birthday, one month into the shutdown, my friend left a very special gift on my porch, rang the doorbell, then hightailed it to the safety of her car.

My birthday month has come around again, and last night we walked to this friend’s house, rang her doorbell and did not back up but stayed on her welcome mat. Five of us went up to the roof in time to see the sunset, and toast how far we have come; the world isn’t talking about where to source toilet paper, but vaccines! Earlier in the day, I had told my son that I sensed a light coming — though I hedged, acknowledging that my feelings could change in a day or an hour. Last night on that roof, with darkness settling over us, Christopher summarized the sentiment of the moment, saying, “I don’t know what comes next.”

We have never known what comes next. The last year has taught us that. I hold at bay the knowledge that anything could happen still, a fourth wave might crash over us and wipe out plans for summer or even fall. And it might not. I focus on the light streaming through my window right this moment, as real as anything.