Monday, August 02, 2010

The comfort of ritual

It was a weekend filled with significant ritual, one joyous, one sad. Neither was about me (altho, technically, a child's birthday commemorates a day his mother completed a very rigorous task, but never mind), so I was merely a bystander. On Saturday it was a birthday party; on Sunday, a funeral.

Ah, the delayed gratification of summer birthdays--we were camping on Eamonn's official day, so we planned to have friends over the weekend we got back. The event was fairly low-key--water balloons in the backyard, temporary tattoos, soap bubbles, hot dogs and juice. The six-year-olds tore around the house, delighting in their own company, but very aware of the vital elements of the celebration. The event had a logical progression: play, eat, play, open presents, play, get gift bags. If something wasn't happening soon enough, a guest was certain to remind us of the next activity. Very ordered. As I said, a ritual.

There was the same sense of security-through-logical-order at the funeral of a dear neighbor the next day. He was a proud veteran of WWII, and had an honor guard and a group of navy men at the service to prepare the flag that draped his coffin. It was moving, especially the
meticulous folding of the flag, to witness this ritual of preparing a sailor for burial and the send off for his soul. Taps on a single bugle.

Participating in these juxtaposed celebrations made me think about the role of ritual in our everyday life. They unfold without surprise, designed to mark a significant passage and to give those near and dear to the recipient a role in the event. One prepares a birthday cake, one writes a eulogy, one lights candles, one says a prayer. They provide comfort by bringing structure to the unstructureable--growing up, death. It's a way to impose a sense of order over things we can't control.

As a householder, I appreciate that which gives comfort, even if--ultimately--it is just an illusion. My sons will learn soon enough that the future is unknown, unwritten. That their parents have created a very safe, but very small, world for them to inhabit and that everywhere else is a free-for-all. Dog-eat-dog. I explained to Eamonn that Mr. Jayson had died and that we were going to the service. He wanted to know why he died, why your body shuts down when you get old. But he seemed pretty accepting of the news, and I think this glimpse at death wasn't too upsetting or scary. Maybe (I hope) his own life seems endless right night now and that 91 is an unconceiveably long way away. Now is the time to focus on birthday guests and who gets what color balloon.

It was a weekend of reflection, with this contrasting events. Each tempered the emotion of the other, leaving me a bit pensive. But in a good way. I'm all for ritual and habit, if it helps smooth the passage of these affecting events.


Anonymous said...

As Grandpa Longneck would say to Littlefoot: "It is the circle of life".

And when kids discover that, as Joe Strummer would say, "the future is unwritten", they hopefully will see that as a pretty cool thing.

Nice post.


babs said...

Beautiful post, Brenda. I love how simple and meaningful our rituals can be. Those are the sweetest.

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