Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rituals and Responsibility: the Balances of Community

There's something to be said for having some sort of community. 

Last weekend, I spent time within the company of some dear friends. A very close, dear friend and I went out to visit and spend the night with some other friends who live out in the country. For us, this time is meant to be an annual retreat weekend, a ritual of sorts. We visitors take out gobs of good food, make the main dishes for the two big meals (dinner and breakfast) and are treated to lovely lodgings, more good food and a great time. My favorite memories, however, are of another ritual we seem to have spontaneously developed: at some time or another, we all go out and work in the garden. On other visits, we've weeded or brought food in; this time, we planted peas together. In less than an hour, we'd planted several patches of peas around their property and I was glad to know that my work would live on and give them something of substance come late spring. Besides, as the old saying goes, "Many hands make work light."

Living within a family unit can be our children's first, and most potent, experience of community. Preschoolers and children who attend daycare may be said to be participating in the classroom community, to be sure, but it's at home, first, where children learn if they are able to trust in the world and discern their place in it. 

There are benefits for parents, too, when we consider the family as a community. For some of us--certainly myself, on some days--the word "family" is loaded and feels very personal. Perhaps, sometimes, too much so. When we are feeling stretched, when our children are challenging us, or perhaps our partners aren't as helpful as we would like, the idea of our own family may feel negative and draining. Taking a step back, however, and asking ourselves to reflect on our "community at home" might provide  more perspective, especially if we can draw back, not to ourselves, but to a more objective place. Then we can work from that position to sort out the needs of the individuals, and then the group, and to reconcile them in a way that works best for all.


It seems to me that rituals and responsibility have important roles in every community. For example, our next-door neighbor is a neat woman who has invited us over for Solstice potlucks every year. We go and celebrate the light, bring a nice something to eat, and meet a few of her friends. We invite her over for some group events as well. These rituals are pleasant. We also trade pet care when one or the other household is out of town--as she is now-- and last summer we watered the new plants she had put between our houses. It's easy to care for someone, their pets or their plants, when we've broken bread together and shared pleasant conversations. The rituals balance out the favors we ask of each other and provide common ground, so that we care for each other better than we might without that more personal connection.


At home, in our family, it seems that rituals and responsibilities go hand in hand. Years ago, there was more ritual in responsibility. Having separate days of the week for meaningful tasks (baking, washing, mending, etc.) was the norm in many households. However, in our home, with Kiddo going to school only three mornings a week, we needed some different rituals. School mornings and days are very scheduled, and our afternoons are looser, but still provide a sense of consistency and predictability. Those 'stay at home days', though, needed something else. The fact of the matter is that preschool is fun and exciting and for kids; staying at home often means keeping busy while Mama gets the work done. 


This is why we've started The List Ritual, which I've been using for a while now. I divide up a piece of paper into three columns: Need to Do, Want to Do, Plan for the Day. With Kiddo, I name and write down each task/responsibility which needs doing, and I name everything, from taking a shower to each snack and meal we will eat, to any trips we need to take to shop or for appointments. Then I ask him what he wants to do for the day, write down his ideas and a few of my own if I have any. Lastly, I judiciously plug it all in together and then read it aloud for him, so Kiddo knows what our day will look like and when any of his special 'wants' will take place. Knowing that I'll be playing a game with him after doing the dishes makes it easier for him to play while he waits. Of course, for this to work well, I have to consistently keep these small commitments, and when I do, we all feel better, of course.


Another daily ritual we have is a Snack Storytime. Most afternoons (when we're home), around three o'clock, we settle down for a snack for Kiddo, and I read a chapter from a good children's book. After this, Kiddo has his Quiet Playtime for about 45-60 minutes and I have a cup of tea while reading a book. Not only does that connected time of reading together make the separation of Quiet Playtime easier for Kiddo, the break I get helps me catch my breath before the busyness of making dinner. Having this time also allows me more patience in having Kiddo help me with the meal prep. 


The mealtime prep is a fun responsibility for Kiddo. While he's not always excited to set the table, he loves the kitchen work, especially now that he gets to practice using a paring knife on softer veggies and fruits. He's an excellent peeler, too. Even when he doesn't necessarily care for the dish I'm preparing, allowing him to handle the food gives him a better sense of what it is and I expect may eventually inspire him to try a bite or two. He also loves to taste the herbs, spices, oils and vinegars I'm using for the meal. This time of working together preparing meals will help him to  feel competent in the kitchen as he gets older, which is its own reward.


We've also discovered the joys of another sort of ritual, which is designating three Treat Days during the week. We chose Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for days when Kiddo can have a treat. (Those treats, by the way, are very small and simple: an ice cream cone; a small piece of candy; fruit and sweetened yogurt; homemade popsicles; banana or zucchini bread; and occasionally a soda --all natural fruit soda or root beer-- or apple juice if we are out at a restaurant, which is a Big Deal.) We know that it's hard for kids to wait for treats, and having a small something every other day or so eliminates a lot of nagging, sadness and arguments. (And, perhaps, obsessing about it?) Bearing in mind that we eat a fairly healthy diet, small treats in moderation make a lot of sense for us. 

I myself have a dishwashing ritual that somehow calms me. Joe likes to squeeze some soap on the sponge and wash dishes with the water running. I'll use his method in a pinch, but prefer to be more methodical. To me, there's just something about gathering all the dishes to the counter, stacking them by type, scrubbing out the sinks and filling them with hot, soapy water. Then I wash the dishes, by type, in their turn...this system works for my particular dishrack and best of all, even a large load will all fit in. Afterwards, the kitchen table and stove are wiped down, counters wiped, old napkins thrown into the laundry, dishtowels replaced... all of this is a guarantee of a clean kitchen I'll be happy to return to when it's time to make the next meal. Laundry is folded with this same sort of sorting process as well. These processes work, and when I stray from them, things are left undone or take longer--or frankly, just throw me off my game. The same for cleaning the house; it's a long bit of work, but when I'm finished, it looks great. And after a hard day, of course, cracking open a beer or sipping a nice wine is a good 'end of the workday' ritual which many of us enjoy, wink wink.


All of these things- The List, Snack Storytime, Treat Days--All of these little rituals make life more pleasant for us, and I think that's the secret quality to them that makes them work. A life with only responsibility and no rituals to look forward to can get dull pretty quickly.  Sometimes the ritual is the 'payoff' of the moment, when a child's cleaned their room and readied themselves for sleep and now can look forward to a story and some cuddles and tender talk at the end of the day. Rituals can frame our day. I know I just don't feel the same without my morning cup of tea to start the day. Once I have this, I can move forward feeling that I've taken care of myself and am ready to care for my family.


Our daily rituals add shape and consistency and reassurance that things are reliable, fine. Sometimes, they are just little things we turn to to  make ourselves feel better in a very unsettled world. Slipping into what we call "routine" behavior can have great payoffs, even in spirit. Or a clean house. Or best of all, a happier kid and family. Rituals and responsibility let us know we are of value and necessary to our community, whether it's the smaller one of family or the chosen one of friends or a logical connection with one's neighbors. We make a positive difference, we matter to others because of our contributions, and we strengthen ties with those around us. When we offer these opportunities for ourselves and our children, we offer valuable experiences to learn from and grow through. This teaches our children how to be in a community later on, as they move through summer jobs, college or other schooling, move into homes with friends or their own families and become parents or mentors to others. 

With all this said~~
Time to go and feed the neighbor's cat!

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