ALBANY — I am looking forward to Easter this year. Sunday is one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, and I will be there — at least in spirit.
For my entire life, the Easter routine has been to get dressed up and go to church. That routine will not change this year, even in a time of social distancing. Well, the get dressed up part will change because I won’t be in church physically. The rituals that I enjoy inside my church will change because I can’t actually be there. But I am practicing physical distancing, not social distancing, so I can participate in my church service online and have some serious social closeness.
On Sunday morning at 10:30, I will turn on my television, listen to the music, participate in the prayers, and hear a message of encouragement from my pastor. A sidebar on our media feed will tell me who else is participating. We have more than 200 people on a typical Sunday. I wonder how many we will “see” on Easter as I keep my routine of attending church, but not the ritual of a normal service.
During this time of enforced isolation, I have come to appreciate that I have two support patterns that help to structure my life — routine and ritual — and they are not the same. My routines are those habits that give form to my day. I eat breakfast, brush my teeth and go for a walk. My routines have become more important as I have gotten older. I organize my days well in advance in a notebook I keep by my chair. My wife keeps her list of things to do in the kitchen.
A ritual is different. It is more ceremonial and often connected to an organization. When we participate in a ritual, like going to a place of worship on a particular day, we make a commitment to join other people in a rite of passage. Whether it is a wedding, a birthday celebration, or a graduation, all demand particular behaviors and even socially acceptable clothing. Easter, for example, is typically a time for extravagant attire — our Sunday best.
Rituals can be ancient and mysterious. They can even be considered sinister. We Freemasons have been practicing our rituals for hundreds of years. I have always found great comfort when the lodge door was closed, and the Tyler was seated outside, even when the only purpose of the meeting was to practice our rituals. But that secrecy surrounding Masonic rituals has also given rise to conspiracy theories — even though Masonic fraternities contribute millions of dollars every year and support such open and appreciated charities as the free hospitals of the Scottish Rite and the Shriners.
We can’t control rituals or change them. They are usually set for us. That is what makes them rituals. They connect us to an organization, to our community, and sometimes to society in general. Rituals are what we have lost for the time being. But we can still have routines to reinforce a sense of control over our every-day lives.
Before I went into my self-imposed isolation, my life was ruled by routine. I was up at 5:30 every morning to read the newspaper and write. I walked in the mornings, went to the gym at 2:00, and ate dinner at 6:00 in front of the local news. Monday through Saturday, I alternated between a three-mile walk and a trip to the gym. I did yoga exercises twice a day and looked forward to my wife coming home from work at around 4:00. Sundays were set aside for church, followed by lunch at a restaurant.
Now, most of that is out the window. My routines have changed. I still take my morning walks and do yoga exercises in the bedroom, but my wife no longer comes home at 4:00 — because she is already here. My gym is closed, as is my church and all the restaurants we once visited for Sunday lunch. Once a week, we venture out to the grocery store or drug store, careful to utilize the facemasks she made for us. But otherwise my days, like the days of most everyone else, are filled with … well, monotony.
My isolation shelters me from the world’s troubles but, somehow, I sense the anguish of job loss and illness. I recently experienced the death of a close friend. There is no way to sugarcoat what is going on. But I see hope in these sad times. I see families riding bikes together, I see couples walking dogs, I see children playing croquet on the front lawn. People are sitting on porches and patios just talking. During one morning walk, I noticed two neighbor ladies walking together. They were far in the distance, heading my way, and something struck me as odd. It took me a while to figure out what it was. One lady was walking along the curb while the other was in the middle of the street — about 6 feet away. They were not in the same family unit and were honoring each other’s social distance.
On that same walk, I saw another unusual sight. A woman was running toward me pushing a stroller — one of those big, three-wheeled jogging strollers. As I caught her eye to nod hello, something was a little off. She was in good shape but seemed little old to be pushing babies around in a stroller. I glanced into the stroller, expecting to see a grandchild. Image my surprise at having my gaze met by a dog. It was a big dog — maybe a yellow lab — and he looked pretty content lying there bouncing along in a baby carriage. He was a little gray around the muzzle and looked to be at the age when running alongside his companion might have been difficult, but she had figured out a way to include him, anyway.
When necessary, we invent new routines to give us comfort and some sense of control. And we even give a nod to some of our rituals. Our church, for example, has asked us to post a photo or a brief video of what we will be wearing to church on Easter Sunday. Not the all-dressed-up, Sunday-best outfits we would wear if we were going to the church building. We are to show what we will be wearing as we watch from our homes. For me, it has been an old T-shirt, some shorts, and my comfy bedroom slippers. For this Easter, I might shave and put on a clean T-shirt.
At the end of one of our first days in isolation, I suggested to my wife that we take a walk every evening after dinner. She not only agreed, she decided to document the walk by posting a photo on social media of our feet in a different pose each night and one photo of something interesting or beautiful that we had seen. She has done this every night. It is now a touchstone of our time together. A new ritual that keeps us sane in these insane times.