My husband and I have been together for roughly two million years. We have seen each other through college finals, loan applications, car repairs, childbirth, teenage drivers, health, sickness, and highway traffic. One of the ways we manage to lurch through each week relatively unscathed is through the application of routines and rituals.
Routines and rituals are designed to make sure we don’t forget anything, which is an issue that looms larger and larger the older we get. Recently, I woke in the middle of the night with the realization that I had been failing to take my daily low-dosage aspirin, meant to help with blood-thinning. Ordinarily, I have a routine of refilling all those little pill boxes with my prescribed medicines, and that way I don’t forget any of them. But I’d run out of aspirin and my husband said “Just use mine,” as he has a giant economy-sized bottle of them in the medicine cabinet. Trouble is, I keep my meds in a different cabinet, and without the aspirin bottle physically in place, without that visual clue, I forgot to add them to my sorting boxes. Fortunately, my brain kicked in with the reminder (albeit about a week late) and I’ve now bought my own supply. Problem solved. Well, for the moment.
There are lots of useful routines and rituals that have kept us on track over the years. Refilling the diaper bag every Sunday night was an absolute necessity when the kids were little. Keeping track of bills paid and groceries needed – of course. Teaching myself to always glance at the fuel level in my car as I backed out of the driveway – a practice that serves me well. Fastening seat belts, turning my head to cough, always saying “thank you”, and washing my hands – all good routines, and we all have some. It’s rituals that fascinate me. How they develop, all the steps involved. I grew up in the Catholic Church, pretty much the fatherlode of rituals, and began learning the parts of the Mass and Latin responses when I was only seven years old. Later, my older sister taught me the rituals of hair styling and makeup to bring me into young ladyhood (big brush rollers! Dippity Do! Yardley Lip Slickers!), and although I may have skipped out on some of the lessons, I still can’t bring myself to leave the house without mascara and lip gloss.
When my kids were in high school, each of them were members of the Marching Band. Yes, Nerds-R-Us, the whole family. Their band was competitive, so in addition to half time shows and local parades, they also took part in competitions across the state. As a volunteer, I was often in the band room as they got ready to perform, and I loved watching their rituals of preparation. The girls in the Color Guard had to have specific makeup and hairstyles (heavily sprayed), and the marchers had multi-layered uniforms that had to be put on just so. Then they tuned up and prepared their instruments, and before going onstage, they had a group pep talk and bonding ritual that would create solidarity before the performance. Always the same ritual, always the same intent – be prepared and work together.
We rely on these routines and rituals and, for many of us, we enjoy them. My husband just went through the ritual of packing for a ski trip. He obsesses about preparation – the airline tickets, the accommodations, the stowing of the ski boots. Not only do these routines help him get ready, they also help get him into the anticipation of yet another chance to hurtle himself down a mountain on two narrow strips of wood (or whatever skis are made of these days), just as he did when he was twenty. My own favorite routine is getting ready for an onslaught of grandkids – making sure their favorite toys are available, organizing the changing table for the last child still in diapers, checking to see if the weather will be amenable to some quality swing-set time. My routine gets me prepared and allows me the pleasure of anticipating time spent in the company of small children, just as I did in my twenties. The older I get, the more I appreciate things that make me feel young.
In 2023, one of my goals was to write more. So, I created a routine and ritual to accomplish that – wake up, check email, have breakfast, sit down and write. The ritual includes a second cup of coffee, a review of what I wrote yesterday, and then into the writing I go, coming up for air only when the dog wakes up and says he has to pee. On a good writing day, defined as a day when I’m happy with what I wrote, I have a surge of energy that sets me off well for the rest of the day. On a bad writing day, when nothing seems to hang together, the resultant grumpiness can sometimes be funneled into obsessive cleaning of closets, so either way, it’s good to write in the morning. The rest of the day, my brain is available to free-associate, which often inspires the writing on the next morning.
I keep telling myself to add ‘exercise’ to this routine. I put ‘exercise’ in quotation marks, because my idea of exercise nowadays is five laps through my house – living room to hall to bedroom to hall to kitchen to dining room and back to living room. Five laps take about five minutes. But if you do it enough times a day, it can add up to . . . fifteen minutes. Hmmmm. Probably I should work on that…
Another favorite ritual of mine is time spent with my adult children or with my sisters. This always begins with the Facebook group messages of when and where. It’s never simple. There are nine adults in my immediate family, which means nine different schedules, plus the four grandchildren who actually have their own schedules now, in terms of naps, soccer practice, t-ball, etc. Among my sisters, there are five of us, and we each have our own limitations of ‘when’, before we even get to the massive question of ‘where’. But once these questions are resolved, then I can enjoy both the anticipation and the actuality of a good time, talking and laughing with the people I love most. I’ve noticed that even our conversations have their own ritual – we start by sharing news and updates with each other, and then segue naturally into current events, TV shows, movies, books, and trips down Memory Lane. Whether with my kids or my sisters, loud talk and laughter is always a part. We have never actually been kicked out of a restaurant, but we’ve certainly received a fair share of annoyed glares (and more often, appreciative smiles).
Sometimes rituals have a more sober purpose, such as the rituals surrounding death. The rituals help us put one step in front of the other at a time when our brains are almost completely dysfunctional and we’d rather just pull the covers over our heads. The purpose is to show respect for the loved one, but the actuality is it keeps us from possibly going insane. You can only learn this through experience, unfortunately, and like anyone my age, I’ve had my share.
I sometimes wonder what my grandchildren’s experience of rituals will be. The world has changed so much from my childhood to now, and I can only expect it will continue to evolve. Some of the holiday rituals of my youth, for example, I have already allowed to fade away. Not for me the days spent baking ahead of Thanksgiving, nor do I wear those frilly little organdy aprons like my mom and Grandma when serving a special family meal. My kids know that I’m not a fan of cooking. I admire people who enjoy cooking, but I am not one of them. When there are thirteen of us here to eat, we will be getting carryout and we will be using disposable plates. Not fancy, but my golly, a lot less work. Which of the rituals that we take for granted now will my grandchildren not even experience in their adult lives? Whatever they do, I hope that the ritual of family time together will still be strong. They all have lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, so hopefully, that will remain an important part of their lives. I think it will.
In any case, I am just left-brained enough to enjoy my little rituals, from making that first cup of coffee in the morning, to the last kiss for my husband each night. I love sitting down to the computer to begin writing for the day. I even love moving on from that to the housework and getting all my stuff in order for the day. Now that we’re retired, having some shape to our day is a big benefit. Those of you who are retired will understand what I mean. They’re not just chores, but something to do which makes me feel useful and needed. Like when I was in my twenties.
So, I just want to say “Have a good day.” Take fond care of your routines and rituals, they will serve you well. And yes, I really must stop writing now. The dog just woke up. He says he has to pee.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta