Once I got rolling on this, I could sense that it was going to be LONG, so I’ve decided to break it into at least two parts for now.
ritual: an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner
A few times over the course of the past year when I’ve mentioned the word ‘ritual’ it always generates comments or follow up emails from friends asking me to write some more on this subject. It’s something that I kept promising to do, but never seemed to get around to it, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the meantime.
It’s one of those seeds that was planted several years ago, as I was working through a lot of different issues, and thinking about stretching goals for myself. If I’m being honest with myself, the idea probably surfaced as we were mired in grief and (what felt to me like) extreme inactivity and indecisiveness. I
It was hard for me to name that during that period, but it became crystal clear as the fog started to lift again. I set two really big stretch goals for myself in that next year. The first was to immediately set up and follow through with an evaluation of my feet issues and schedule surgery and rehabilitation as soon as possible. It was a terrifying proposition to me, but I just forged ahead anyway. It was an incredibly painful surgery, and left me almost completely dependent on others for all driving and daily chores for 8+ weeks, and then I had several months of physical therapy that followed.
The second stretch was equally daunting. I decided to not only move forward with my licensing exams, but to commit to completing all seven of them in just a few months. I outlined this plan in my mind during the weeks I was confined to a chair or my bed post-surgery, and I made it happen by crafting specific rituals for each test. I scheduled the first three at two-week intervals, took a six-week hiatus to travel to Mexico, celebrate M, E, and F’s late summer birthdays, and get everyone back to school in August. Then I scheduled the remaining four every two weeks – allowing one three week exception for the notoriously tough one.
I made this work by doing a few key things: I set aside the time I needed, established clear expectations (for myself and of others), and didn’t permit myself to make changes based on fear or panic. I knew there was the real possibility that I might not pass one or more of the tests, but I also knew that I couldn’t assign blame to the timeframe for that. I know I am capable of giving my absolute best effort in a specific (even aggressive) timeframe. I was just joking this week in a meeting that I think one of my strongest gifts is the ability to stretch time as I need it, when I need it. The ritual of my holiday card making demonstrates this to me each year. There’s that word again – ritual. What could I learn from that and apply to my physical recovery and my tests?
I scheduled each test on a Monday. After completing each test, I drove to the same Starbucks down the street, ordered the same green drink (no longer on the menu, but luckily it stuck it out through my testing period), and spent the rest of the afternoon on a rare treat – like picking up a new book or shopping for a swimsuit for our trip. On Monday evening I boxed up all of the materials for that test, and went to bed early. On Tuesday I did nothing. On Wednesday evening I pulled the next materials out and got to work for ten days, then started all over again with the next one.
I learned a whole lot of things that year, exam material aside. In a household that splits domestic chores pretty evenly on all counts, it meant almost an entire year of doing very little cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. I spent the first half with my feet up (by doctor’s orders) and the second half with my tush in a chair (by my own orders). It felt crappy at the start, but it was good practice for the end. There were a lot of things I wasn’t doing at 100%, but there were a few things I was killing it on, and those buoyed me for future challenges.
I came out of that year HUNGRY. (Maybe that should have been my word for that following January!)
Over the next few years I began to articulate just what it was that I was hungry for, and I used the practice of creating rituals around those things so that they were both fulfilling and non-negotiable. I know that (physical) muscle memory is a thing, but I think it also can apply to the creating or breaking of habits. Ritual creates that muscle memory which then transforms desire into practice.
The most obvious first answer to what I was hungry for was food. I was grateful that my family kept me fed during that year when I couldn’t do it myself, but I was ready to eat more and better, and to really stretch myself in that area. I got serious about menu planning, and I created rituals around the act of thinking about food week by week.Those rituals included a specific set of pre-printed note pads that live on the side of our fridge, a small stack of one or two cookbooks at a time, and (if lucky) a sunny weekend moment at the kitchen table. I make a breakfast from the leftovers of last weeks’ meals, and I make a short list of random ingredients that are still hanging around. I map out our evening obligations so that I get a clearer picture of the nights with more or less time, and when the schedule dictates who’s running the kitchen show that night. If we’re receiving Blue Apron meals that week (I still use and love this service all the time), I plug in those three recipes to get the ball rolling. Already the week sounds delicious, and I haven’t had to do a thing.
Mapping out the week this way takes some work, and a lot of follow-thru. But once the road map is there and the grocery list is ready, I already feel a lot better about it. It used to feel like such an undertaking to me, and I was prone to procrastinate on the task. But ritualizing the process – even down to my favorite teacup for coffee while I work – has made it part of my Saturday routine.
I’ve also made a practice of reading each new cookbook I purchase or receive from start to finish as soon as I receive it. To me they read like a regular book text, and if I know what is inside each cookbook, I’m much more likely to reach for it. And when I do, I’ll pull several recipes at a time from one book. Often there are similar ingredient veins throughout the book, and that also helps to keep my ingredient lists slim and trim.
It’s taken several years of regular practice, but even the way the list is organized and compiled makes the grocery experience better. I used to despise the act of grocery shopping, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I’ve slowly folded it into the start of each new week, and I try to use it as a quiet moment of expressing gratitude. Most of that gratitude happens in the produce section. We try to limit sweet treats at home, but always serve fruit with or after dinner. I am frequently grateful when shopping for fruit – in its seasonal abundance, and how it reminds me to savor the moment I’m in right then. I used to lament the last of the peaches, but now I know how good they are when they return again. The ritual of eating peaches for breakfast on the beach might be my favorite one of all.
We’re in the middle of a significant snowstorm this weekend, and many of our regular weekend rituals have been cancelled or postponed. I’m excited for the possibilities of a different sort of weekend – the kind that happens so rarely as to be magical. I’ve learned that rigidity in rituals doesn’t work for me, and leads to disappointment. Sometimes things get busy and overscheduled and we get off track for a week. But that muscle memory is strong, and I can sense when another Saturday aligns again in a way that fills me up again.
So I’m off to make coffee, and warm some pears in the oven, and move at a slower pace for a few more minutes before we head out into the wintry wonderland. I promise to return to this idea more next Saturday.