“In the early days of 1943, as men died one after another, every man dealt with the losses in a different way. Somewhere along the way, a ritual sprang up. If a man didn’t return, the others would open his footlocker, take out his liquor, and have a drink in his honor. In a war without funerals, it was the best they could do.” Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand (p. 90)
My therapist tells me I don’t seem to have many rituals in my life. She says they can serve a very good purpose; they give one a sense of grounding and/or a foundation, something to come back to in difficult times, something to look forward to in times of uncertainty. I do have some rituals, though I didn’t share them at the time, mostly because I didn’t want to sound argumentative. Plus, I didn’t remember them. But since she said this last week – and since reading that passage in Hillenbrand’s latest book (another terrific work by a woman with a gift of writing history so engaging and fascinating, one wonders how the stories went unknown for so long) I’ve been thinking of them.
I ate black-eyed peas and collard greens yesterday, a New Year’s Day ritual that I can’t remember ever missing. I get up early every Christmas morning. I iron my clothes every working day. So yes, I have a few.
I also thought more of ritual as Lynn was in New Hampshire earlier in the week, packing up the studio space we’ve rented there for the past 6 years. My schedule didn’t allow me to go with her to help, and thus I was unable to see the “happy box” one last time. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to it and to thank it for being a such a special space for us over the years. It was an experience that caused me to remember another.
I thought about how my dad moved from 2234 Fort Rice Street in the summer of 1987. He packed up the only house I could remember living in, the items that he’d not sold off in his fit of blind grief, and moved to a different house, several miles away. I was living in Louisville, Kentucky that year and working at the Grand Canyon in Arizona that summer, way too far away to get back to Virginia to see my bedroom one last time. In September, when I returned to my apartment in Kentucky, there in the living room was furniture from my old home, the couch from our family room now in my one bedroom apartment. The end table that was the very first piece of furniture my parents bought together was now mine. Familiar things now in a familiar setting, just not the same. It was a very odd experience. I’ve driven by my old house a few times in the years since, always feeling a strange sense of something unfinished, something left hanging. I wish I could have closed the door and sat in my bedroom one last time. I wish I could have slept there one more night, knowing it was the last. I wish I could have said a proper goodbye.
The packing up of the studio wasn’t quite on par with the feelings of that move from Petersburg, still it makes me think of how we say goodbye to people and places and things when we don’t really have the opportunity for formal closure. It’s important, mentally and emotionally. Bruce Springsteen parodies glory days in his song of the same title, describing what becomes of those who live their present-day lives on the high school baseball diamonds of their teenage years. It’s fun to reunite for an evening with old friends and relive old times, but for the ones who can’t seem to leave them behind, we kind of give a sad look and think “I’m glad I’ve moved on”.
Yet it’s hard to move on without closure. It’s hard to put the past in its place, to live in the present, and to look to the future when we feel as if we were simply tossed from one place in time to the next, like the sofa that suddenly appeared in my living room. It can throw you for a loop. Like the WWII soldiers in Hillenbrand’s book who needed a way to cope with the surreal fact that whole groups of people they shared a beer with one night were the next day simply gone, we grapple for something to help us make sense of things.
Fortunately, if we work at it, we can find ways. Make ways. We establish rituals to tie events up, even if we’re forced to use the most clumsy of knots. They help and they work.
It’s a good lesson to remember at the beginning of a new year. Make a toast, kiss your partner, clean out some closets, clean off your desk, work through the piles of loose ends, break in a new calendar, and get ready to start anew. Say goodbye to the past, hello to the present, and look forward to the open beginnings that await.
Happy New Year!