Searching for the Sacred

I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.

I am slowly and tentatively emerging from my pandemic bubble. Omicron is still up in the air, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” As I emerge, I find myself grieving a bit for life pre-Covid and the sense of community we’ve all lost. 

By community, I don’t mean crowds. I do not miss the busyness of people. I do not miss Christmas shopping line-ups or even Christmas parties with hours of small talk. I don’t miss the atmosphere of everyone having their own agendas and doing their own things side by side.

I also find myself fortunate to have rich friendships and deep connections with others: my kids, my husband, my neighbours, and – with the help of technology (Marco Polo and FaceTime) my friends and family back home. When I speak about grieving a loss of community, I don’t mean intimate relationships. It’s been hard to put my finger on – what do I mean by loss of community?

I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.

Graduates in Wuhan, China in June 2021, with COVID under control in China

In chatting with my husband about this, he identifies a similar feeling in loss of community through almost two years of remote work. My husband works for a large company with offices all over the world. Before the pandemic, when everyone was working in-person in their respective offices, there was a fair amount of “tribalism” between sites – different sites would oppose one another in coming up with a solution to a common problem. Yet, after almost two years of working remote, that tribalism has completely disintegrated – which is a good thing. People are collaborating across worksites more harmoniously. However, at the same time, he also feels they have lost a team-wide excitement for working on a problem together and a motivation for achieving a common goal together. As humans we are built to be in community and, at times, in healthy competition with one another. We come up with ingenious solutions to problems when we are supported and challenged by our peers in community.

I miss the rituals of community and the feeling of unity that comes when people participate in a ritual that transcends social structures. Anthropology super-nerds, like myself, will recognize this as what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. “During the period of the ritual, rank and status are forgotten as members think of themselves as a community. This helps cement unity among community members.” 

Our wedding ceremony in 2014

In the weeks before Covid shut everything down, we were busy with our weekly nature walk group, our Mothers of Preschoolers Group (MOPS), and having friends over for dinner. And while none of that seems as inherently ritualistic as say, a wedding, there were elements of ritual there. Take for example, my moms group (MOPS) meetings.

Moms Group Meetings 

Every second friday, I would drop my kids off at childcare and go into a theatre space next door to enjoy a hot potluck breakfast with 100 other moms seated at tables. We’d listen to a speaker and eat a hot meal with no kids asking us questions or pulling at our clothes. We didn’t have to cut anyone else’s food, or hop up from the table to fetch someone water or grab a cloth to wipe up a spill. 

Stay with me while I get into some nerdy anthropology theory over this. One anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep wrote about rites of passage, defined as “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, and death” (Oxford Dictionary). Van Gennep argued that all rites of passage had three phases: separation, the liminal phase, and aggregation. One familiar rite of passage is a graduation ceremony, so I’ll use it as an example. In the separation phase, the ritual-participant is separated from their role in the social structure – they sit apart from their families in special gowns. In the liminal phase, ritual-participants are neither here nor there – they are betwixt and between and form a new kind of community with the other ritual-participants. The students sit together as one and wait for their turn to cross the stage and receive their diploma. In the aggregation phase, students are reunited with their families, the tassel has been pulled to the other side of their hats, they have a diploma in-hand, and they are reunited in the social structure with a new status – that of a graduate.

Graduating from my Master’s in Social Cultural Anthropology in 2011
Graduating in 2011

Victor Turner took this further in his book The Ritual Process. He expands the idea of these phases to other rituals, not just rites of passage. Rituals are “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony” (Cambridge Dictionary). My moms group meetings were rituals, not rites of passage – but I see the same phases present. First, in the separation phase, we dropped our kids off at childcare. Then, in the liminal phase, we sat together, undefined by the number of children with us or our visible parenting style. We ate together and we learned together listening to a speaker brought in especially for us. Turner writes, “What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purposes is the blend they offer of low lines and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites, with a “moment in and out of time,” and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol, if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”(p. 96) In the liminal phase of our weekly ritual, we were women eating together in communitas – we were not only “Mom of multiples”, “Working mom”, “Stepmom”, “SAHM” or any of the other mom-statuses we ascribe to ourselves. In the third phase, we were reunited with our social status of “mother” as we picked up our children from childcare and continued about our days in this role, inspired through our participation in the ritual.

Victor Turner continued, “There is a dialectic here, for the immediacy of communitas gives way to the mediacy of structure, while, in rites de passage [or rituals], men are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas. What is certain is that no society can function adequately without this dialectic.” (p. 129.) Through this ritual, we moms were released from the expectations and constant responsibility of motherhood to eat together in communitas, and then return to pick up the kids and our responsibilities, re-inspired and refueled for the days ahead. Since the pandemic began and many of these sorts of community “rituals” ceased, I’ve noticed how much I miss them. 

Recently my husband attended a summit for his work – his first in-person work meetings since the pandemic began. He found the meetings to be incredibly productive. Participants were “released” from the expectations and daily structure of responding to online messages in order to work together on a specific problem in communitas. They left the summit with a clear direction and inspired by a sense of teamwork and accomplishment. When people say they want to continue to work remote even after the pandemic, I don’t know if they realize what they’ll be missing without communitas

Reverence

As we’ve moved away from so many in-person rituals in favour of two-dimensional online interactions over zoom and through status updates, comments and hashtags, I also feel a loss of reverence. While this pandemic would have been impossible without all the technologies available to us to interact with one another online, I have yet to experience a moment of reverence through them. I’ve missed the awe and wonder, the anticipation, and the deep respect for the moment, the place, or the person that allows a hush to fall over a crowd. The awkward silence at the beginning of a zoom call is not reverence. 

While being at home with two young children through this pandemic was life-giving and purposeful and in many ways it saved my sanity – potty-training, whining, and night terrors are also not reverent.

In an attempt to find what was missing, I decided to attend a nearby Presbyterian church. Previously, this church would not have been my style. I used to feel deeply uncomfortable with liturgy. I’ve always felt awkward with call-and-response prayers and with communion. And I treated hymns with derision. I preferred “cool” churches – with contemporary music, dark concert-like venues, coffee, and denim. And yet, in a moment when the entire congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together, I felt both communitas and reverence for the first time in years.

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done 

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this our daily bread

And forgive us our debts, 

as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, 

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Amen

To me, there was something so moving about a whole group of people reciting the same thing together. It reminded me of going to a Taylor Swift concert with my brother when she stopped singing and fifty thousand fans filled in the gap with a resounding chorus of her lyrics. Except instead of a song that has been around for a few years, we were reciting a prayer that has been prayed by millions of people over thousands of years and translated into hundreds of languages. A prayer people have recited together in community, and in the stillness of the night kneeling alone by their beds. I can’t think of any other collection of words that has connected humanity across time and space as the Lord’s Prayer. Can you?

Right Brain Left Brain

I don’t think reverence has to be religious. A great many secular moments from graduations to Taylor Swift concerts to the carving of the Christmas roast can be reverent too. 

Recently, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. The author was a neuroscientist who had a stroke and remembered the experience of having her left brain completely destroyed by the hemorrhage. Several years later, when she had regained her ability to speak and write, she wrote about the experience of living in her right brain – a place where she felt no judgment or self-criticism – she just felt at peace and one with the world. Dr. Bolte Taylor describes the differences between the right brain and the left brain as this – imagine you hike to the top of a mountain. You get to the peak powered solely by your own body and you are surrounded by a beautiful view of a cascade of mountains and a crystal clear sky. Your right brain is in awe of the beauty that surrounds you. Your right brain perceives the majesty and makes you feel like you are one with the universe, whilst at the same time a tiny speck on the enormous planet. Meanwhile, your left brain is assessing whether or not you need to put on a sweater, if you’re hungry, what you should eat, and which angle to take the selfie. 

It made me think, maybe reverence, is just something that exercises our right brain, just as talking exercises our left brain. Maybe it’s something our brains need. Maybe there is one true religion or God. Or maybe humanity has sought out God and the supernatural because it’s what our right-brain is wired to do – to perceive the incredible and feel at one with the whole. 

However you experience communitas and reverence, whether in a sacred or secular way, I think it’s a fundamental part of the human experience.

I know I’m in a rut because of the pandemic. I could go out and socialize, but I’m happy in my house and it’s so much energy to get back out there again. But I know I need to. I know my kids need to be in community again. My husband is still enjoying remote work, but he knows he needs to get back to the office so he can feel part of something important again, rather than just another cog in the machine.

Community gives us a sense of purpose, belonging and significance. And the love, beauty, and harmony that comes with feeling part of a community is fuel for our right-brains. I have lived much of this pandemic in my left brain – analyzing COVID stats, deciding whether I should wear a mask in this particular case or not, questioning whether I have a tickle in my throat or COVID. I am ready to re-engage with my right-brain. What about you? 

Trick or Treat! Re-imagining Halloween in the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Coronavirus continues its slow burn through my county in California like the longest slow dance of my high school tenure. With summer coming to a close, kids back in zoom school, and wildfires surrounding us, I need something to look forward to. I turn my sights to Halloween and my stomach drops. What if there is no Halloween this year?! As of this writing, they’ve cancelled trick or treating in LA county, and I’m just waiting for our county to do the same.

I’ve had to disappoint my kids over and over again throughout this pandemic; Barking at them to stay away from other kids, getting them outside only to see the playgrounds covered with tape, and saying no to seeing friends. I’ve played by the rules our health department laid out for us, and we celebrated three birthdays in a very low-key way, but cancelling my kid’s favorite holiday is just too mean. 

I ask around in a few online mom’s groups and neighborhood forums – and the overwhelming opinion is, “no, we will not be participating in trick-or-treating this year”. What? Even outdoors and with masks, people are hesitant to have kids come close enough to pass them candy, and many parents aren’t willing to risk the high-touch load of a crowd-sourced candy stash. My heart sank. You can’t trick-or-treat alone. It’s a community-lead thing. The only thing worse than cancelling Halloween would be to get our hopes up and our costumes on, and go out trick-or-treating only to have no one answer the door.

Rite of Reversal

Aside from Halloween being my four-year-old’s favourite holiday, it’s one that I know carries a lot of ritual importance in our society. It is what anthropologists have termed a rite of reversal.

A rite of reversal is a ritual in which the social order is reversed; the world devolves into chaos and then reverts back to order. These rites are important in human culture because they remind us why we have social conventions and rules in the first place. Sure, chaos is fun for an evening, but at the end of the day, when you crawl into bed, you’re happy that when you wake up in the morning, things will go back to the way they were. Trick-or-treating on Halloween night is an example of a rite of reversal.

On Halloween:

  • Children, who are usually only in public spaces in the daytime, get to run through the streets after dark, often without their parents.
  • Children get to go to stranger’s homes and rather rudely, threateningly demand candy (Trick or Treat!).
  • Children get to dress in costume.
  • Spooky and scary replaces light-hearted and predictable.
  • Children get to eat lots of junk food/candy.

Everyday I try to teach my children to be polite (say please and thank you and not be demanding or threatening), to dress appropriately (not go out in public in costume), to eat healthily (celery sticks not chocolate bars), and to not ever take candy from strangers. Yet, on Halloween, the opposite of these behaviours is allowed and encouraged. We literally send our kids out at night in a costume to threaten strangers to give them candy or they will play a trick on them.

Halloween is special. On Halloween you can break the rules. In doing so, it releases tension between child and parent and reinforces why we have rules at all. While Halloween is a fun night and some kids might wish it were Halloween every day, the fact that it isn’t every day is what makes it so fun and so special.

I care about Halloween for my kids for a bigger reason than their smiling faces covered in chocolate at 9 o’clock at night…I believe it is an important cultural rite that helps balance the adult-child or rule-maker/rule-follower relationship. So I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find other ways that we can celebrate Halloween in a way that fits in with the uncertainty of a pandemic, while upholding the spirit of the rite of reversal that it is. Ways that still reverse the order of things to blow off some of that pent-up steam. I know I need a release from our new-normal even more now in the midst of this will-it-ever-end can-I-hire-a-babysitter-yet pandemic.

The Year we went as a dog and a dog walker

Ghoul’s Dinner

I have wanted to host a Ghoul’s dinner for a while – a special dinner where for one night only, my family subverts the normal and throws out all the table manners that my husband and I have been trying to instill. Parents and children get to be excessively rude, having fun and doing all the things we aren’t supposed to do at the table: belching, reaching, gagging, eating with our hands, wiping our faces on our shirts, blowing bubbles in our milk, building castles with our potatoes, banging cutlery on the table, and throwing food on the floor. This night of chaos (and subsequent family clean up) reinforces why we have table manners all other nights of the year. People, and especially our children, are creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We certainly wouldn’t want a chaotic meal with spaghetti in our hair every day, so when you do a ritual of reversal for fun on a set day of the year, it reinforces why we care about correct behaviour. Life generally is more pleasant when we follow social conventions and we don’t have to clean globs of food off the floor – but once a year, it’s nice to let loose and remind ourselves of that.

If you’re not keen on the mess and rudeness of a Ghoul’s dinner, you can still subvert the normative meal-time framework by serving a desserts-only or desserts-first meal for supper on Halloween night. I can imagine the look on my four-year old son’s face when he comes down the stairs to the dinner table and sees a table set with a huge cake, sides of ice cream sundaes, pie, brownies AND cookies. A Candyland dream come true! We might even play Candyland while we eat.

The year we went as the scariest thing you’ll ever see…Bay Area Traffic.

Trick or Treat

There’s something so exciting about walking around the neighbourhood after dark. Everything is quiet and still and there’s a small thrill that you shouldn’t really be out. Halloween night is even more thrilling with permission to leave the public space (the sidewalk) and go up to people’s front doors (a public-private space) and shout “Trick or Treat!”. In usual years, neighbors give our kids treats because they don’t want a trick played on them. But what if we went back to the original intent behind that phrase and played “tricks” on neighbors who aren’t handing out candy? Now I don’t mean mean-spirited, illegal or dangerous pranks – but perhaps we could leave some cards with tricky riddles or tongue twisters on them as “tricks” instead of receiving “treats”. I think that would capture the ritualized subversion of order as well, but from the opposite angle.

Halloween Treasure Hunt

One thing that I love about Halloween night is how well my kids sleep afterwards. Even if they’ve had 15 mini chocolate bars, they crash hard onto the pillow from the excitement of running around the neighborhood for three hours before bed time. By the time trick-or-treating is over, my kids have earned their candy stash. They worked hard for it, going door to door schlepping a heavy bag around while wearing an awkward costume in the dark. Part of truly enjoying anything is the hard work associated with getting it. How good does a cold beer taste after an afternoon of digging holes for fence posts? So good.

How could I make sure that candy, which is usually restricted in our home, is part of our celebration this year, but in a way that my kids still have to work hard to earn it (instead of just buying some and throwing it in a bowl on the counter)?

The year we went as the Caltrain engine, a princess commuting to work, and a Caltrain employee.

I thought we could order some halloween-themed plastic eggs (or we could put halloween-themed stickers or draw silly faces on our leftover plastic easter eggs) and hide them around the house and our yard, filled with candy. I mentioned the plan to our immediate neighbours on our block with kids and we decided to collectively make it an event for our street at dusk on Halloween night. A Halloween treasure hunt is possible to remain distant from others – after all, if you’re searching where someone else is searching, you will have to share the booty, so it’s in the kid’s best interest to search an area on his/her own.

While the Centre for Disease Control  guidelines indicate that there is not much evidence that coronavirus transmits particularly well on surfaces, it is easy to wipe down a plastic egg with an alcohol wipe before opening. And if multiple homes are packing the eggs, they can put the candies in the eggs a full three days before Halloween to give any potential virus particles on the candy wrappers time to die before the eggs are hidden, found and opened.

2020 has been an unbelievable and unforgettable year. I want our Halloween night to be unbelievable and unforgettable too, in a good way. A way that doesn’t stand out in our memories as the worst Halloween ever, but as one of the best in spite of everything else going on around us. Throughout so much of this pandemic, my kids have had to adjust and go along for the ride. I want to put them and other kids at the forefront this Halloween and make sure they know that their childhoods are still important, even in the midst of all this scary grown-up stuff happening. Maybe you will join me.

Some orange playdough! Stay tuned for this year’s family costume. It’s truly inspired and I can’t wait to share it with you!