Ritual has long been a part of my life from childhood, growing up in a Jewish home, to sharing them with various communities as I went out into the world. I enjoy creating them and participating in them. They mark the passage of time and the bonds we share with our fellow planetary dwellers. They have connected me with the Divine within and around.
I remember when my husband was in the ICU for the last 5 1/2 weeks of his life, I created sacred space in the room with prayer icons from various traditions, soothing music playing all the time, photos of him when he was healthy, and an electric menorah since he was there during Hanukkah that year. It was healing for me and for the staff who cared for him, and I am hoping, for him as well. A ritual that I did each morning, was to go into the tiny bathroom in the family waiting room, look into the mirror and say to the God of my understanding, “You know my heart. You know my prayers.” Then I would ask, “Is this the face of a woman about to lose her husband?” The answer that resonated each day was ‘no’. That was until the day the Resident who was caring for him talked to me about disconnecting life support, since he had been placed on it while awaiting a liver transplant that never occurred. That day, the answer was yes. I had to come to terms with that truth. It was one of those life changing experiences since it launched my journey to become an interfaith minister, grief counselor and organ donor educator. Ritual made it not only survivable but helped me to thrive through it.
I was introduced to the work of a devoted ritualist named Day Schildkret who says, “Meaning making is what restores our humanity and is my life’s purpose.” Day is the author of Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals For Times of Loss, Celebration and Change.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him.
A pivotal event shaped your understanding of loss, your mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Can you share a bit about it?
I was talking about a time about a year and half ago when she had forgotten my name. It was actually the story that opens up the book. The reason I opened the whole book with this story is because the fundamental narrative of ritual is about remembering.
My mother forgot who I was for the first time, so this was a threshold moment for my family, for me, for her. She didn’t even realize it. It shifted my experience, for the most part. With regards to loss and celebrations, I know what to do. I am a ritualist and meaning maker. In that moment, I didn’t know what to do. I tried to move on with my day. I had meetings, I had calendar events. I had emails to respond to. I just couldn’t. I was too heartbroken. As someone who had grown up in the Jewish culture, who still practices Judaism, one of the go-to meaning makers is candles, so I lit a candle to mark that this was the time. Even doing that felt insufficient. I just lit another and I called out the name of someone that loved my mom, like her sister. I called her into the room. I lit another candle and kept on calling in the people so I wouldn’t feel so alone in this moment. Before I knew it, I had lit 50 candles and my whole room was aglow in candlelight and I had called in 50 people that loved my mom, either living or dead. In doing that, A- I didn’t feel so alone, B- I didn’t feel so in the dark, simply because the whole room was lit in candles and C-I didn’t even realize I had the capacity to do this, but I was metabolizing my pain into beauty. It’s not a cure-all and therefore, I was done with my heartbreak. Every time she forgets my name, it’s painful. That’s a great example of how ritual allowed me to move through a threshold moment, not by keeping quiet about it and not by moving through my day as if it were normal but by making meaning with it and making beauty with it. Really adorning that threshold was something.
Since life doesn’t stop as we grieve, how do you navigate what I call “life in the midst of death in the midst of life”?
How do we slow down when there’s loss in a world that is moving very quickly? The first thing we have to do is choose to do that. Which is really a counter cultural act because the culture is constantly telling us we have to power through and move forward and get back on the horse and get back in the game and all of these euphemisms, that basically suggest business as usual. Just the act of acknowledging that loss needs slowness or stoppage. It needs us to slow down. There is a constant sign I see on the road here that says, “Be prepared to stop.” Those are also signs for thresholds. We need cultural models. I, and many others who are promoting an action of stopping in the midst of a threshold and not try to carry on and not try to know what you’re doing. You are moving from who you were and what was, to who you are and what is. We don’t really have a lot of cultural value systems that say it’s okay not to know. Especially with loss. That’s the point of being wrecked and heart broken. You have to have a willingness to proceed as if you don’t know and when you don’t know, you usually proceed a lot slower. You’re not rushing forward and racing through. That’s a symptom of certainty.
It is the outgrowth of uncertainty. Loss produces uncertainty. It also produces vulnerability, and the vulnerability produces humanity. When we have loss, it is an opportunity for us to be more human, This dominant culture doesn’t care about that. It cares about productivity, growth, and certainty. We have to be counter cultural. How do we relate to loss which is slowness, stopping, wondering, awe and a willingness to not know and a willingness to participate in a world that is much bigger than you? That is the ultimate counter cultural piece in a culture that centers the individual. Loss is suggesting is that is not about you.
How does your spiritual faith guide you on your journey in this incarnation?
I don’t see them as separate. There is no ‘not guidance, guidance.’ When I am able to remember, which is the whole point of ritual, with myself or other people, the greater meanings of things or the greater understandings, of my life, then that is the guidance system. So, forgetting, which is very human, is an impetus to remember. It’s not bad or wrong when we forget. It’s human. Computers don’t forget. But we have this very old technology that predates religion that allows us to have mechanisms for remembrance. It’s not just for me. It’s for us. And so, a lot of culture had collective rituals so that the people can remember together.
You reference layers of wax on candles you have burned. It is truly about life layers and loss layers that we humans experience. Can you talk about that experience?
It’s about acknowledging thresholds. It could be in relationship to loss, or it could be in relationship to celebration or just things changing. Those layers of wax on the candlestick were more of the evidence where I acknowledged life changing. Weddings, best friends getting married, other friends giving birth, a close friend getting diagnosed with cancer, a close friend losing their animal, another friend losing their parent, so those were on top of the other. The stratum of wax is more evidence of life happening and even more so my willingness to turn toward my friends as life was happening and mark my moments with them.
This has been a time like no other for many of us. How can we reclaim connection when over the past few years we have, of necessity, been apart?
Now that we are in this new stage of this experience, how do we reconnect with each other? How did it come to be that we have been so isolated, and not only that, but what are the consequences of the isolation and not only that, how did it become so normal? I live alone. There are too many times when I feel very lonely and longing for people and my community who are mostly in California and I am in Portland, Oregon. It is a much bigger conversation about loss of village living and the displacement of people and the introduction of technology and consumerism as a way to feed the loss that people experience. I wrote a segment in the introduction to my book that basically said, “If we lived in the same villages that our ancestors lived in and if we ate the foods and sang the same songs and wore the same clothing and acknowledged the same seasons and lived amongst people who knew us from birth, then this book that I wrote would be completely unnecessary.” The book itself is not a consequence of things working out for us. It is a response to things really not and to me, ritual is a very accessible way to bring people together to help them remember, maybe to experience something, and to come together with people they love, to mark a moment in life. Unfortunately, rituals have been dominated by religion or a New Age-y domination, but they predate all of this. Rituals belong to the people and the people’s imagination. Anything can be made into a ritual. It just requires a willingness to make meaning with it. And so, the rituals themselves are ways to gather us back together, whether that is virtually or in person, whether that’s inside or outside. There have been 101 times in my book where I basically say to my reader, “Don’t do this yourself. Hand this book over. Give this book to your friend. Give this book to your neighbor or your partner. Don’t organize your own ritual. You are holding enough with your threshold. It’s the job of people that love you to gather around you to witness you in this moment.” There are many solutions for gathering people back together. One important way that I have tapped into and am preaching about is to have a ritual renaissance and employing ritual as a mechanism to gather people back to together in a time that is far too isolating.
What is the difference in your mind between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation as we engage in ritual?
It’s an almost dangerous question to ask these days since there is a lot of moral policing in the culture. Culture appropriation is being in the presence of another culture’s wealth for richness and inadvertently not realizing how starving you are for that kind of richness. It’s kind of like inviting a person who’s hungry to a feast. They can’t help but take because they are trying to feed an inner hunger. It’s not the absence of food that makes hunger. It’s food that makes hunger. When you fast on Yom Kippur, you can keep going, but once you start thinking about food or smelling food, that’s when you realize how hungry you are. It’s the same thing with appropriation. You see another culture and you are so hungry for their dress, or their language or their rituals or their songs, and you are trying to feed something that has been lost in yourself or your own people. I unfortunately don’t have any tolerance for that, and I am not promoting that kind of behavior, however, culture itself is incredibly promiscuous and it does not like to be contained. It likes to travel, and it loves to inspire. I equally have no tolerance for people who like to police culture and say, “Only you can do this, and you can do that.” It’s not how culture works, ever. Same thing with ritual. It’s very creative. And sure, certain rituals belong to certain cultures, but that doesn’t mean the function of ritual belongs to anyone. When it comes to appreciation, it’s about being able to find your own wealth or value or your own community’s wealth or value, most importantly, to find your own ancestral value. Perhaps your own people had that kind of wealth and they had to flee, and they lost most of it. If you are already full or attempting to feed yourself with meaning, you are most likely not going to steal from another people. That is the distinction.
Day shares the beauty of nature and daily ritual with creating Morning Altars.
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