A few years ago I did this health re-set. It was January and I thought, that’s a good thing to do at the beginning of the year. A physical trainer named DeeDee would be leading it.
We met weekly and reported on our eating and our progress. How the various tools she was imparting were working or not working for us. We talked about the challenges in being healthy, losing weight—you know. One week toward the end of our meeting everyone was asked to share what they were doing the coming week and if there were things they were worried about. Someone had a birthday party to go to and was worried about there being cake. I said I was going to go the movies and, just for now, since I was doing the re-set, I wasn’t going to have popcorn.
“Popcorn!” DeeDee said, excitedly. Throwing up her hands. Like ah-ha!
“Yeah,” I said, “hard to go to the movies and not have popcorn.”
“But this is what I’ve been talking about.” DeeDee often talked about being mindfulness, to not eat on auto-pilot.
“Popcorn at the movies is a perfect example of something we just do, without thinking.”
And I said, “Oh, I think about it, believe me.”
“But it’s not a conscious decision.”
“Oh, it’s a conscious decision.”
I was not willing to demonize my movie popcorn. Ok, for one night I could go without but I had no plans to let it go entirely.
One of my favorite things to do with Bobby is to go to the movies—as in, leave the house and drive to a movie theater, remember that? We buy our tickets, purchase popcorn and if it’s the local arthouse, we’ll get the local brand, small batch, artisanal soda. We each take our own chocolate. The popcorn needs to be large because we’ll be sharing. It’s important that the butter be applied in stages—some in the middle—“Can I salt it there, too, please?” Bobby will ask and the popcorn jockey will swing the bucket over so he can shake the salt on the middle layer, then another dose of butter on the top with another layer of salt.
Once we’re at our seats, the popcorn eating begins—although not without controversy. Bobby used to not start eating the popcorn until the movie began. I like to start eating during the credits and then stop when the movie begins. But, out of fear of not getting any popcorn by the time the movie starts, he now starts eating it when I do, as soon as we’re seated.
I tried to explain the importance of the popcorn to DeeDee but instead I just let it go. But, for someone whose life’s work deals in rituals—the making of, enacting, conducting, dreaming up of rituals—it struck me.
What is the difference between a ritual and a routine? Between setting a rite with a desire to achieve a transcendent state, and going through the motions of something we’ve done many times before?
I’ve said before that this crisis is a magnifier—we see every aspect of our lives more clearly. Making pancakes on Sundays,
how I shake Sally’s collar at her before we leave for our walk and she explodes in excitement, visiting Provincetown the week before Memorial Day. All of these things are beloved acts. They are sacred to me.
So many of our rituals have been taken from us—drinks with friends, going to the theater, going out to live music, visiting that favorite little shop where you buy your stationary. New rituals have been created to adjust to these times—ordering food, wiping off the boxes that the postal service delivers, putting on a mask to go out.
These daily online gatherings are rituals. This happens then this happens, and once that happens, then that can happen. And when all of the things happen in the order and way they were designed, the result is a kind of magic. That’s the hope at least. But design is not all that goes into a ritual—intention matters. To imbue the acts with meaning. Why does this happen first and that happen next? Every element matters. To be awake to every aspect.
I made a bad dinner last night. I’ve been cooking a lot, as many of us have. I like cooking and I do an ok job—I’m no Julia Child but, whatever. My cooking is marked by a sort of concentrated rush. It all needs to come together right away. I’ve been trying to plan more but yesterday was rushed. I had made a marinade for the chicken I was going to bake but I didn’t look at the recipe for the marinade I had made the week before which had turned out so well. I just did what I thought I could remember. I also didn’t think clearly about what temperature and how long so I overcooked it, too.
The two participants sitting down to the ritual of dinner realized immediately that things were off. We proceeded in order, following the steps laid out before us, but there was no lift off, our actions were routine.
Occasionally the shaman messes up the offering, the performer has an off night, the captain has a rocky the landing. When that happens, they examine their missteps—where did it go wrong—and work to make it better the next time. Because all of us—participant and conductor, priestess and follower—we seek the transformation hidden in the rites.