Once upon a time (and we know how that goes; the unimaginable is about to happen!)…. Once upon a time, we knew ourselves to be creatures of the earth. We passed our days traversing landscapes green with vegetation, blue with sky or water, brown with rock and dirt. After eons passed, we travelled by train, rode bikes along windy roads, sat impatiently in traffic fiddling with mobile phones. Some of us waited for buses or subways, walked through neighborhoods as familiar as our hands. The air we breathed carried the fragrance of the season and the scent of our locale—fumes from a bread factory, hot asphalt, algae bloom on a lake, diesel exhaust.
If we bumped into a friend, we offered a hand or a hug. In elevators, stomachs growled, wheezy breathers gave off stale air. Someone’s shirt smelled of cigarette smoke, someone’s neck stank of cheap perfume. On escalators we looked each other in the face, smiled politely, and turned away. We lived social lives: we bowled, sat in movie theaters, met for lunch dates, pressed our noses to store windows and browsed inside. Our days were full of tactile pleasures and small injuries, which we took for granted as familiar and mundane.
In our minds, we separated work time from fooling around time by occasion and place. After work at home, we stepped out of our panty hose and high heels, our overalls or uniforms, showered and changed into casual clothes. We ate dinner with our family and put the kids to bed or plonked ourselves in front of the TV and took a pull of a beer. Watches and digital devices kept us punctual and noted the passing hours. The world was a vast palette of shapes and colors. We lived an embodied life.
This was the world pre-COVID. Now, except for our courageous first responders and front-liners in crucial jobs, our world has shrunk to the size of our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes. We wander our rooms from sunrise until bedtime, often without stepping outside. Contact with other humans may be limited to a perch in front of a computer screen, Zooming or Skyping or Facetiming. We now have more empathy for animals captured from savannahs or rain forests and put into cages. COVID-19 has been with us for nine months, and while it’s too soon to make conclusive statements about how the pandemic is affecting our mental and physical health, we know we are grieving the loss of our familiar world.
Naming and honoring what has been lost can be a powerful tool. Along with enduring personal losses, our communal relationship to time and space has been altered since the pandemic, as has our physical relationship to each other and to the sensory world. Many of our most important and sustaining rituals have disappeared or been put on hold. Linked to the loss of ritual is a loss of our sense of a meaningful existence, a felt disorientation, rootlessness, restlessness, even despair. Some anthropologists suggest the instinct for ritual is hardwired in our brains and point to evidence of prehistoric rituals honoring the dead in the caves of Europe and on other continents.
Nations have rituals. Think of the Pledge of Allegiance and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Religions, ethnic groups, local communities, kinship clans all engage in rituals that elevate and mark important aspects of life. Our most common rituals—weddings, funerals, birth rites, birthdays, communions, bar mitzvahs, fasting or serving special holiday foods—are so commonplace, we rarely think of them as rituals with roots in primeval times, but their dismemberment during COVID has made us aware of their importance to our well-being.
This experience of loss is likely to continue into the new year. How can we creatively interact with this formidable challenge? One way is to become aware of the rituals that have vanished or changed in your own life, starting with the actions and ritual observances with which you begin your day. Ask yourself: what new patterns do I see emerging since sheltering in place? Do I sleep later than I did pre-COVID? Do I stay in pajamas and a robe all day? Do I have the same morning hygiene habits? What about breakfast? Do I eat the same breakfast at the same time and in the same way as I did before COVID? If not, what has changed?
Have I stopped “dressing” for different occasions because they are occurring online? Before COVID, we often marked transitional time, that is, time between a change of action—work and home, home and leisure play—by a change of clothes or a change in our tempo. How are you marking transitional time now? Get curious about the different events in your day. What rituals might you put in place to create a sense of order and differentiation between events? Some suggestions include lighting a candle before you speak to an important relative or person; step outside between work-related meetings, breathe deeply and gaze briefly at the sky; say a positive mantra or prayer blessing at the beginning and ending of each day; use different rooms, if possible, for different work-related dates; place a wishing stone or a piece of paper with a wish on it into a bowl for each day COVID is still around; look into your own eyes in a mirror for five minutes, a practice that can be as deeply centering as it is soulful.
A camera can be a useful ally in creating new rituals. A friend of mine goes out each morning to photograph the changing face of the lake near her house. When the pandemic is over, she plans to make a book of her photographs. Another friend manages her depression by photographing every sunrise. You might choose a nearby tree to photograph through the seasons, or the daily expressions of your cat. Let whimsy and chance be your guides.
Creating new rituals can refresh and uplift our spirits. Let in and honor what arises from the depth of your being. The wisest part of ourselves, whether we call it Higher Self, Soul, our Buddha or Christ nature, is waiting to be summoned.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”