Rituals And Boundaries: Important Life Lessons

Butter Dish III Edit

Yesterday I hollared to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, Hey, don’t put a new stick of butter in the dish ’til I have a chance to polish it—it’s looking a bit gnarly.

You must be feeling better, he said.

It’s true, I was. For the first time in over a week I was feeling somewhat restored after the first full night of sleep I’d had in as long. I have not been this worn down by illness in recent memory. I can power through a head cold as well as the next guy, and have been known to teach ballet with laryngitis on occasion. But this stuff is sinister.

Last week was a blur. My workweek rituals were derailed right out of the starting blocks on Monday with my request to telecommute, the workday spent on the sofa in my jammies, no routine packing of a lunch or gym bag. I felt grateful for a compassionate employer and work-at-home privileges.

But boy, did it ever get so much worse before it got better.

And however unwelcome illness, the derailing of daily rituals is as objectionable, speaking only for myself.

I recently saw a candid piece of video shot on a U.S. Marines base playground. In it a handful of kids are seen swinging and playing, while in the distance can be heard the first few trumpeted notes of evening Colors. Instantly and without provocation, the children stop playing and swinging and stand respectfully at attention. There are no adults seen in the video. The music ends and the kids return to their boisterous play. (Go here if you want to see it.)

It is obviously an important ritual the children have learned to respect. The video felt timely to me,  upended as my own cherished weekly rituals have been and will be a bit longer.

That little video got me thinking of all kinds of rituals, and how they serve humanity.

It also recalled an embarrassing moment in my brief life as a ballet school director. I had a guest artist at the school teaching an open master class, meaning I had advertised the class and made it available to the general public. A couple of my own students were there, but the class was attended mainly by kids from other schools in the area—whose decorum and general deportment were beyond my control. While the instructor was in the classroom getting his notes and music organized ahead of class an unknown teenage girl blew into the classroom and flung her dance bag in a corner, kicked off her street shoes, and shoulted across the room at him: “Hey! I saw you at DEA Nationals!”

Stunned, he looked up and said, “Excuse me?” “Hey, weren’t you a teacher at DEA Nationals?” “Yes,” he said and put his head back down to his notes. “I thought so,” she said without so much as a smidge of shame.

After class I apologized to him and underscored she was not one of my own. He laughed and said, “That girl obviously has NO sense of boundaries.”

Seems nobody ever taught her to stand quietly at attention for evening Colors.

If ever there were a universe fraught with ritual, it is classical ballet. From attire and grooming, to entering and leaving the classroom, there are time-honored rituals observed in classical ballet institutions across the globe. Long hair is swept into a classical bun. Class ends (and sometimes even begins) with the ritual of révérence, a formal display of respect and gratitude to the teacher, the purveyor of the art form, and often from one student to another. In some schools children enter the classroom in a formal way, when they are invited, in an exercise called pas marché. It is a lovely thing to observe, and an excellent way to teach a young child respect for the learning environment. In the professional world, every day begins with the ritual of ballet class; a famous dancer once likened it to brushing your teeth in the morning. It is how you reorganize your body after sleep, said another.

None of it is frivolous. We sweep long hair into a neat classical bun to keep it from interfering with movement, and to show the face and the neckline. Even the act of combing the hair and fastening it to the head is an important ritual that helps ready the mind for the discipline that is about to unfold. The rituals of pas marché and révérence teach the important skills of walking as one would walk on the stage (much more difficult than you might imagine), and of taking a bow in a show of gratitude at the end of a performance. And, of establishing all-important boundaries, from student to student, and student to instructor. And even from performer to spectator.

The professional begins each day with class to organize and prepare mind and body for a busy day of rehearsals. All of it, from the tiniest ballerina wannabe learning to take a tentative curtsey, to the professional warming up in  class, making a careful head-to-toe inventory of potentially bothersome injuries and other concerns for the rest of the day and the workweek—it all matters.

Important rituals reach into every corner of our lives. Nighttime bathing and stories prepare a young mind for sleep. Daily exercise maintains the body and prepares it for the rigors of life. The ritual of holy baptism (and rituals of other faith traditions) nutures spiritual lives collectively and entrusts an entire community with the spiritual stewardship of an individual life.

And what of animals? Rituals exist in the pasture and barnyard as much as they do in our own back yards. Bestselling author Jon Katz documented the braying of his beloved donkey Simon, which happened almost on cue, every single morning—it was Simon’s “call to life,” as Jon said. A ritual through and through.

None of it feels silly to me. With rituals and boundaries come preparedness for life and a sense of peace in a world over which none of us has much control. And daily rituals create an environment ripe for intellectual life and creativity. At least, that seems to be what happens in my life: rituals build a framework that somehow allows me to think and create, and also to handle the curve balls that are thrown my way from time to time.

No gym bag again tomorrow. Butter dish looks great, though, and I’ve spent some time today thinking and writing. How satisfying.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.