Ritual in the time of Covid

I like words. One of my favorite words is “Liminality.” It comes from the Latin word for “threshold.” Liminality refers to a sense of standing in the doorway, having not quite left behind the past, having not quite yet entered the future. It involves great promise and potential, yet also change and the unknown. It can feel exhilarating and disorienting at the same time. It is filled with possibilities and risks. It can be simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Rituals are planned, symbolic activities that are that help us through periods of change. Rituals help us navigate times of liminality, especially rites of passage. A rite of passage marks a change for the participants involving sense of identity, social status or way of life. Weddings, funerals, graduations, baptisms, bar/bat mitzvahs, and ordinations are all examples of rites of passage that usually involve a ritual. They are all ways of saying, “You used to be like this, now you are like this,” and “Our lives used to be like this, and now they are like this.” Rituals help us process the change as they acknowledge the ways we are now different. The planning, simple or elaborate, adds to the effectiveness of the ritual. Tradition adds to the effectiveness of the ritual. Participation adds to the effectiveness of the ritual.

The Covid pandemic of 2020, with its associated social distancing,  self-quarantining and imposed restrictions on travel and public gatherings, has had a dramatic effect on our rituals. Missing high school graduation may seem minor when compared to the thousands of lives at risk, but I don’t think we should discount distress over missed rituals too quickly.

Any kind of graduation is momentous in the life of the graduate, but somehow high school graduation has a larger cultural and historical significance. From my grandparents’ generation through my parents’ generation, many people could claim the distinction of  being “the first person in the family to graduate from high school.” For decades, high school graduation was the recognized rite of passage into adulthood. “You were a child, you are now an adult.”

The changes that come with finishing twelfth grade usually reverberate through the family. Younger siblings have to adjust to differences such as finally getting their own (lonely?) rooms. But parents can experience changes just as powerful as the those of the graduate.

When we become parents, we make a commitment of at least 18 years to be responsible for a small human and, hopefully deliver a grown, responsible human to the world. When that day comes, everything shifts. Whether it is our first child or our last child, the tasks that have shaped our lives change. Our sense of identity and purpose used to be one way , now they re something else.

This is why high school graduation is such a big deal. We need the ritual of watching our youngsters walk across the stage (even if it means sitting in the glare of the setting sun, crammed in with a thousand other people there for the same purpose.) We need the rituals of announcements and congratulation cards. We need the rituals of all-night parties for the kids while the parents relax. We need the rituals of back-yard barbeques and potlucks.

Graduation is not just a celebration of what an individual has accomplished, although that is very important. It is also a ritual to mark the change in everyone’s lives. Especially if it involves leaving home, we need a ritual to mark the rite of passage.

Covid 19 has played havoc with all of the patterns of our lives. Some rituals can be delayed or substituted. Many people seem to be finding ways to have meaningful weddings even if they can’t have the huge gatherings they planned. I hope they don’t spend too much time regretting what they didn’t have. Funerals are being delayed and will still be meaningful when they happen, but the loss of comfort in the first, raw stages of bereavement may make healing more difficult.

I sorrow for all those who have worked so hard to finish college, graduate school or doctoral degrees who will not be able to “walk,” and I hope they all can create a substitute ritual ro help them manage the transition of “before” and “after.” Will high school graduates and their families be able to invent a new ritual for this important change? Will our communities?

M own children are well and truly launched, but I now realize I have had my own high school graduation ritual with the community. I took a Sunday evening yoga class for years. My usual driving route took me past the high school stadium, just about a half an hour before the ceremony started. Each year I would remind myself, “Next week is graduation, I need to take a different route,” and each year I would forget and be aggravated to get caught in the traffic jam. I wish I could get caught in it this year.