March 23, 2014
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8 (KJV)
I am a lover of ritual: blame it on the Hindu/Episcopal school upbringing. I have spent my life enacting the rituals of others and creating my own. I believe in the power and potential magic of observance, of setting things aside, of distinguishing.
I refrain from eating meat or drinking alcohol on Tuesdays, because that’s what I watched my parents do. I observe Lent—which I started doing in middle school as an imitation of my Christian classmates—but which came to mean more to me, ironically, than it did to many of them.
Many of the most important rituals in my life seem secular on the surface, but are nonetheless sacred. As Meredith Striker puts it in her poem “The End of the World”:
is a burning bush
Each year, three of my closest girlfriends from college and I pick a weekend and spend it together, live and in person, come hell or high water. We’ve learned that we have to make this gathering happen, because if we don’t, life takes over and too much time will go by without being in each other’s presence.
After my father died, I instinctively began gathering friends and family together on days connected to him—his birthday, on the anniversary of his death—as a way of remembering him, but also as a way to create and keep community. Many of the people who now attend these gatherings never met or knew my dad; we became friends after he was already gone. But inviting them to share in celebrating him, I’ve found, communicates a kind of trust and desire for intimacy that is difficult to put into words.
One of the most meaningful rituals in my life is a weekly one: our family’s modified observance of the Sabbath. You may remember, I work at a Jewish school, so each Friday at the end of assembly, we welcome Shabbat by lighting the candles, chanting the brachot (blessings), drinking the wine—er, grape juice—and eating the challah. It’s a beautiful way to start the weekend.
Inspired by this, Jill and I started spending every Friday at home; we make no plans to go out and turn down all invitations we receive. Around sundown, we turn all electronics off—no TV, no computers, no cell phones—until after we make and eat breakfast together on Saturday morning. We’ve been doing this for the last two to three years, and it’s basically the best thing ever.
There is something very civilized about self-imposed rest. In our often frenetic world, it’s tempting to try and “sneak in” errands, chores, tasks, etc. whenever possible, leaving little time behind to just be. I’m not always good at being self-disciplined, which is why rituals probably work so well for me; one thing I am good at is following rules. So if I’m tempted to get some laundry done, or catch up on a little grading, or do anything that can be construed as “work,” I stop myself.
Now that Shiv is in our life, he participates in the family Sabbath, too: walking around the lake with Jill at dusk, helping me prepare the meal before sundown, and lighting candles at the dinner table. Of course, he doesn’t know exactly what any of it means or is for just yet, but he will learn. We plan to maintain our observance as Shiv grows older, making Friday night for family: game night, reading aloud night, camping-in-the-backyard-and-looking-at-the-stars night. Saturday will come, and with it, the opportunity to spend the night at a friend’s house, to go out to dinner as a family, to run errands or do homework, to clean the house and work in the yard. But on Friday we remember the Sabbath, to keep it—and our family life—holy.