My November raced by in a blur of activity and the visits of my daughters and their children, my three grandchildren, all under the age of four. Our daily routine was up-ended, and the house, normally ordered and quiet, became a landscape of toys, sippy cups, Pampers, and portable cribs crammed into small spaces. Quiet was replaced by the sound of running feet, Sesame Street, the clatter of toys, and occasional upsets that are inevitable accompaniments to a toddler’s learning to share. I took refuge, brief as it was, in our bedroom, but even there, I’d be sought out: “Gramma? Bapoo? Gakow?” (The labels used by the different children to identify me).
As joyous as this precious and too infrequent time with my grandchildren was, by the time I waved good-bye to them at the airport—even my husband was leaving on an international flight to teach a course for two weeks–I was eager to reclaim my house and my routine, awaken in quiet, and have a few days where, if I chose,with nowhere to go, or the pressure to complete something by an artificial deadline. I was hungry for routine, the small rituals that punctuate my daily life, knowing that the holidays would quickly be filled with busy social activities and the return of one grandchild with her parents. I not only needed rest, I needed my daily rituals of early morning coffee, listening to NPR, a time to write before the day’s activity, or simply sit at the window and gaze across the canyon.
In her poem, “Habit,” Jane Hirshfield describes the daily rituals that define our lives: “the shoes put on each time…,” always the left one first, or a teaspoon of sugar in coffee or tea, “stirred always for seven circling,” and the routine act of “touching the pocket…for keys” before we walk out the door. She concludes by asking the reader,
How did we come to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?
(From Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)
Our personal rituals matter. They allow us to feel connected—to the world, each other and ourselves. They offer time to be quiet, to focus on our intentions (the heart) and our actions (the hand). The little rituals each of us has can even function as a kind of talisman against fear, an assurance we will be all right.
Alice Trillin, describing her experience as a lung cancer patient in the essay, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors,” wrote about her reliance on ritual (tending to her garden peas), her talisman (which included her doctors,) and her personal will as a constant source of renewal and a reminder of everyday life (in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1981).
In the poem, “Girding for Battle,” Amy Haddad describes how she protected herself with talismans and rituals as she went to a doctor appointment during her cancer treatment:
The tiny, silver Celtic goddess
placidly hangs from a burgundy cord
around my neck…
My husband’s shirt fastens the wrong way…
My last name stamped in black ink
inside his collar…
His idea to wear the shirt…
So I wear these talismans
to protect me in the doctor’s office.
(From: The Poetry of Nursing, Judy Schaefer, Ed., 2006)
I have only a few more days left to soak up the quiet and structure my days as I wish. This Friday, my daughter and granddaughter arrive from Canada to share Christmas with us. But I’ll be ready—and eager—to make the holidays as joyful and exciting for my family as I can. Having this time to reconnect with myself and enjoy my daily routine has been a time of renewal.
This week, amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, why not pause and reflect on your own routines and rituals—those small actions, informed by the heart, that provide you with a sense of calm or comfort and remind you how, by simply being present to each day, you experience healing.