Keeping the Boat Upright: Little Rituals of Grace

My musing started with toast and jam. An Asian-style, handleless cup of green tea sat beside me and a golden beeswax candle flickered within reach, while outside the morning sky shimmered with misty blues, but the scent and crackle of toast shifted my thoughts.

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Spelt and emmer bread

Specifically, it was homemade spelt and emmer (einkorn) bread that I crisped under the broiler until crunchy and golden, the edges nearly singed, drizzled with olive oil (in a rare drama, there wasn’t any butter in the house) and spread with an agave-sweetened apricot jam from Italy.

Until that sensory moment, I had been lightly considering practice, as in a routine that we engage in nearly the same way each time as a means of self-improvement and personal transformation. But as the blunt knife spread across the burnished bread with a scraping sound, and the familiar scent of toasted goodness wafted up to my nostrils, I found myself thinking about ritual instead; the deliberate little actions, almost like casually enacted ceremonies, that collectively build a conscious life.

‘Ritual’ wasn’t far from my mind, really. I spent the entirety of April wading through the editing process on my new book, a narrative of our years in England. In describing and illuminating that life, seeking to accurately paint not only the locale but the details of an existence amongst the hedgerows and green fields, I realized that much of it centers on the little rituals of hearth and home — and heart — that I/we engaged in (and still do). Making artisan, hearth-baked bread. Walking in nature, listening to the breezes dance in the whispering trees. A cup of fine tea in a china cup while watching the rain stream in rivulets down the window and drumming upon slate rooftops. Lighting the hand-dipped candles on the table at supper and savoring a good meal fresh from the earth. Reading a book aloud in the quietude of the evening. Feeding the little birds in the garden. Rituals, all of these.

My morning cup of tea, the first one, comes immediately on the heels of having stepped lightly out the front door, endeavoring to wake neither dogs nor partner in this small cottage, and greeting the pale dawn in my usual barefoot way. Feeling the cool, damp earth underfoot and inhaling the salty air tinged with notes of resinous cypress, while listening to the chant of the near distant sea, its voice sometimes hushed, other times boisterous. It is a mostly wordless appreciation of the other living, flowering beings in the front garden, and a silent prayer of gratitude for another day of life.

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All stop for beauty.

Admittedly, my morning routine blurs the line between ritual and practice. Like a practice, it is something I engage in each day, and there is a strange grey hole inside of me, something distinctly missing, if I don’t do it (which really only occurs when I am traveling and in a city). And also like a practice, it moves me closer to an intrinsic sense of well being in bodysoul, like my nascent Qi Gong routine and my more established “earthing” time.

These are the three main elements (morning ritual, earthing, and Qi Gong) of my practice at this stage of the journey, each one a commitment to well being. A practice means diligence, and perhaps that is partly what delineates them from rituals. [Both are separate from our actual craft and work.] And while I have written in previous posts about “soul practices” (and projects), I find that I am a bit looser with those, in that a couple of days might slip by without journaling or morning pages, or wandering in nature. 

Circling back to the toast and tea, I think of rituals as being actions, often nearly habitual, that nourish us in some fashion. Mostly they invite us to inhabit a moment more fully, like slipping on a fine jacket of intention and appreciation. Something about them enriches, much as a dinnertime conversation with one’s beloved about the good things of the day rather than simply the latest round of minutiae or politics. 

Plunking down on the couch to watch television isn’t a ritual (not in my book, anyway); it’s simply a habit. It doesn’t guide us closer to savoring the sensory moment but rather diverts away from it.  

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A writer’s perch on sunny days

So as I sat down with breakfast and first thoughts toward the journal, the little blue bird flittering around my head was twittering something about “practice” for this week’s post, the importance of having one. Yet as I crunched into another bite of apricot-clad toast, I found myself considering rituals instead, and that we actually need both in a consciously constructed life. Too there is also the rootedness that I wrote about last week, or the lack of it. (Admittedly, as a nomadic soul, I’m still working on that one myself.)

The toil of writing a book is massive, to say nothing of all the other efforts involved in the process, like the repeated edits, building a book proposal, finding an agent and/or publisher. It’s climbing a mountain, really; a long uphill trek, often steep, where one alternates between a sense of accomplishment and discouragement. Despair, even (best keep away from the precipice). You need walking poles, rope, crampons, lots of fuel and water, and a dependable buddy or guide. Frankly, it is an insane amount of work for what is likely to yield a pitiful or laughable return; a wresting match that often pins one to the ground and forces one to reconsider what “success” means. 

Regardless of our chosen profession or role in life, a practice keeps the little boat upright in sometimes choppy waters (or helps us keep climbing the mountain), and rituals make the overall passage in said vessel (or the ongoing ascent) more mindful, appreciative, and engaged. As so often I have written in these posts, to what will we give the precious gift of our attention?

Friend, this week I’m encouraging you toward that practice or two for well being, something you’re diligent about: meditation, exercise, Tai Chi, yoga, dance, journaling, breath work, et al.. And also hoping that you have created a handful of little rituals that nourish and sustain — something other than a cup of Starbucks coffee on the run (drive) to your next errand or meeting — deliberate actions that anchor you, even briefly, to a more sensual connection with life.

Your ritual might be as simple as being barefoot on the earth with senses cast ajar, the crunchy goodness of a perfect piece of toast with jam, playing sloppily with a paintbrush or digging in the garden, a weekly pilgrimage to your farmers market. A gratitude journal. Singing in the shower, maybe. In a busy life, it’s essential to create little rituals of grace.

Whatever yours may be, inhabit them fully and with heart. 

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