Every night, just before bed, my husband puts on my feet the toe socks he gave me for Christmas. One foot at a time, balanced on his chest, he makes sure each toe is in the proper slot. It is one of those activities we execute in precisely the same way night after night, laughing a little at the silliness of it as he plays my toes like an mbira, and I dance my feet over his belly, emitting my happy squeal.
This is one of our many rituals. We seem to generate them often. We have a ritualistic wave goodbye, and a finger greeting each morning. We’re like children loving the repetition of these protocols that remind us of our bond.
We had a number of rituals in my family of origin. When we were young kids and we visited my grandmother, we would engage in “gurgling” a game in which she would place a part of her hearing aid on her stomach and take a sip of juice, and we would put on her hearing aid’s head phones to hear her stomach gurgling with juice. There was another game we played with our aunt. She lived in an apartment with a long stairwell with a shaft that allowed you to see to the ground floor. We would drop a mitten from her top floor and see if we could get it all the way down. (It never went that far.) Songs became important rituals too. One song, “Simple Gifts,” we sang — and still sing — at holiday meals and important occasions like weddings. On the way home from summer vacations Mom would sing “Sweet summer, sweet summer, sweet summer’s gone away…” which would send us into gales of protest. “Stop! Stop singing!” we yelled, loving and hating it. I don’t know if this would be considered a ritual, but we had a habit of calling friends on birthdays and pretending to be a croaky-voiced Western Union operator with a singing telegram. My sisters and I have continued this practice into adulthood, though now, without a voice, it has become an impossibility for me. And Western Union also closed its business a few years ago. But the memory lives on strongly.
There were rituals in our small town of four thousand that engaged us too. We always went to the Fourth of July parade where I sometimes rode a unicycle and carried some sign about town or national politics. And we were members of the Unitarian Church which, while not a religion known for its pomp and circumstance, provided ceremonies that had meaning for me as a child and teenager. I loved sitting in the white-steepled New England church and hearing certain repeated words week to week, certain songs that were sung so often I knew them by heart. To this day some of those songs have the power to make me weep.
Merriam Webster says that ritual is an “act or series of acts repeated in a precise manner.” They do not presume to say why we engage in such repeated acts, but I think they are part of the glue that binds us together, identifying us as members of a tribe of some kind: a couple, a family, a town or religion. They remind us of our affinities, the love — and need — that undergirds our relationships. Without such rituals underscoring our bonds of fondness, we might take each other for granted and disperse.
As I’ve grown older my ritualized bonds to a larger community have fallen away. Long ago I stopped attending church. I have never been a highly engaged alumnus of the schools I’ve attended or taught at. I mourn the loss of some of these connections, though I’ve chosen to let them go. It is in the nature of most writers to see ourselves as existing on the sidelines; we’re lone wolves rather than joiners. I have often shunned institutional ceremonies. I remember my high school history class being interrupted as the whole school was herded outside to engage in a pep rally for our soccer team. I was annoyed. I didn’t particularly care about team sports and I resented having such a passion foisted on me. The rituals of large groups — institutions, nations — often feel coercive. I associate them with expressions of unexamined fealty to psychotic leaders and mob bosses, those who use manipulative doublespeak and hypocrisy to remain in control. As far back as elementary school I became suspicious of the pledge of allegiance. I knew a broad swath of our country didn’t care about “liberty and justice for all” so the words sounded duplicitous to me. I remember at some point deciding to stand but remain mute.
Occasionally the national anthem has the power to move me, like when a spectacular U.S. athlete stands on the Olympic podium or when a person with good values is elected as our president. Then, hearing our anthem I am capable of feeling national pride. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Ukrainians are feeling these days; I imagine they must be profoundly moved by hearing their own national anthem.
I heard a radio program that was discussing a recent film called “A Long Line of Ladies,” a documentary that tells the story of the revived coming-of-age ceremony for girls of the Kanuk tribe in Northern California. All the participants in the ceremony — mother, daughter, women of the tribe — were moved by the transformative power of the various rituals that constituted the days-long ceremony. Listening, I was moved too. They have been needing this ceremony and were so happy to bring it back.
I’ve been envisioning another life-passage ceremony that I hope will happen after I’m dead. I would like to have my body washed by my husband, my son, my sisters, and my close friends. Cleansing of the bodies of the dead is a practice observed by cultures and religions around the world. Muslims routinely wash dead bodies. For Jews the practice is called tahara; for Buddhists and Hindus, it is called yukan. The practice is observed in West Africa; some wealthy Victorians also observed it; and it has been documented in ancient Rome and Greece.
Over a decade ago an artist friend of mine told me that she had been bathing bodies for Jewish people who died in her city. She had been instructed in proper cleansing techniques and she found the practice deeply rewarding. I found her description of taking care with those mostly elderly bodies very inspiring and the image has remained with me.
I have checked out the Oregon laws and discovered that the state allows for such ministrations, requiring very few hoops to jump through. It brings me great peace to imagine the scene of my loved ones engaging intimately with my dead body, applying soap and water and fragrant oils, noticing details about me they’ve never seen before, exclaiming over various points of damage and beauty, possibly reciting a few lines of poetry afterwards. I will be fully transparent then, offering up to them the deep secrets the body unwittingly holds when alive, the secrets no longer necessary to hoard, not just my gnarled fingers and the loose crepe-y skin that drapes my thighs, but my spirit too, released from the flesh, hovering around them. They might be inspired to put on my toe socks. I don’t know what they’ll be inspired to do or what they’ll feel — I’ve never done this myself. I imagine this ritual taking place accompanied by lots of laughing and maybe a few tears. Whatever it is, I hope my beloved people will immerse themselves in the ceremony and find it to be a satisfying and bonding way to say goodbye.