Understanding the Power of Ritual, and Applying it to My Life

(note: this is adapted from a personal reflection I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton for May Day, 2014. I write about this name-change ritual in The Book of New Family Traditions.)

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Let me confess something: I am obsessed with ritual.

When I was pregnant with my son Max I decided to write a book about family traditions and I spent 3 years immersing myself in the topic of ritual. I read more than 60 books and spoke with hundreds of parents, as well as psychologists, anthropologists, and religious educators in preparation for The Heart of a Family.

I became obsessed with questions like what makes a ritual really powerful? Why are some rituals just rote mumbling, while others affect people deeply, and change them permanently? How does a person or a group create the type of ritual that strikes something deep in your core and makes you feel so alive that you are literally vibrating?

You know what it’s like when you are in the midst of an intense experience that fills your every cell and sense? During those times, the nattering little id voices in your brain just shut up and disappear, leaving a refreshing clarity.

I read about a tribe in Tanzania that heals feuds by slaughtering a goat and having the two people quarreling eat its liver. And about the womanhood ritual for 13-year-old girls in the Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico, which lasts for 4 days. They dust the girls’ faces with pollen, a symbol of fertility. There is a lot of eating and gifts, special costumes, and running. At the end, the girls dance literally for an entire night. They do this still.

Under the spell of this research, I kept asking myself how to celebrate things more powerfully in my own life. I got into the habit of asking myself which of the 4 elements—earth, air, fire or water – best fit each occasion. Sometimes, this works so beautifully it takes my breath away.

The best example was when I legally changed my name to my husband’s name in 1995, after the birth of our son. I changed my entire name from Margaret Anna Cox to Meg Cox Leone, and I didn’t want to have that just happen on a piece of expensive legal paper. When I did the “which element” exercise, of course I chose water – baptism. Right?

But how and where shall I submerge? My husband suggested I stand in a pail on the back deck, and be doused. But I needed more drama than that. I asked my friend Carol if I could dive into her swimming pool, fully clothed, in front of family and friends. Incredibly, she said yes!

Dear friend Carol Mason, who hosted the ritual in her backyard.

Dear friend Carol Mason, who hosted the ritual in her backyard.

To start off the ceremony part, I said a few words about why I was doing this and asked them to be my witnesses and support my new identity. Then I dove off the diving board, and swam toward my husband, who stood by the shallow end, holding two glasses of champagne.

I made a few remarks before diving into the pool!

I made a few remarks before diving into the pool!

My friends ate and drank and made me laugh. It was modest as rites-of-passage ordeals go, but it was a bodily push through a physical medium with enough celebratory bells and whistles to make me feel new, changed. I carry with me the memory of everyone cheering as I plunged into the silence of the water, then was suddenly swept up again into the air and party clamor.

Cutting the cake after my dive & kissing my son.

Cutting the cake after my dive & kissing my son.

A proper ceremony needs witnesses!

A proper ceremony needs witnesses!

 

Every once in a while, I meet someone who really knows how to scratch this itch, and is not so timid as myself. About a decade ago, I met a 50-something woman from Georgia, a friend of a friend, a poet named Jan. She talked of wanting to experience life in a primal way, and about how she owned this remote property, where she would go with women friends to dance naked around a fire. She wanted to feel the heat of the fire and the earth under her bare feet. I was in awe. Less than a year later, I heard that she was dead, cancer.

I have to find my own meaning of primal, and it may not be Jan’s. But one thing I have learned is that in order to be changed by a ritual, I must strip away my defenses and present my naked vulnerability. I feel comfortable practicing that in this room on Sundays, so you may look over one day and see tears streaming down my face. And when an opportunity comes along to dance around a May pole, I take it.

A T-shirt to proclaim the change.

A T-shirt to proclaim the change.

What do you need to celebrate next?

Comments

  1. I love this post SO MUCH, Meg. I can’t wait to share it with a few close friends who value the idea of Ritual as much as you/we do. Thanks for writing it!

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