In my gender class this week, we talked about initiation rituals. Specifically, we were reading about initiation into manhood among several groups in Papua New Guinea. I’ll spare you the details, some of which caused the men in the class to look faint.
But we also discussed initiation rituals from our own cultural backgrounds. Bat mitvahs and bar mitvahs. Quinceañaras and sweet sixteen parties. Getting married, getting a job, and having your first child. It all got me thinking about transition rituals.
The importance of ritual
We’ve all experienced transition rituals. A wedding is a transition ritual marking the passage from single to married life. A funeral is a transition ritual for our passage out of this world. Graduation celebrates the end of college and the beginning of “real life.”
Transition rituals are satisfying because they signal a change in status to the rest of the world; they are collective. They provide us with a script with which to navigate potentially traumatic life changes. They announce to the world that things will be different now.
As a sociologist, I sometimes believe we live in a society that might be the very worst in all human history for satisfying our basic social needs. We design our communities in ways that are socially isolating. We’ve built a food system that makes us sick and cut us off from the source of our food. Our expectations for what marriage should be are insane when you take just a quick moment to unpack them (one person should be your best friend, confidante, financial partner, co-parent, roommate and sexual soulmate…are you kidding?).
It’s not surprising, then, that we don’t take seriously the importance of transition rituals. We don’t get much of anything right, so why should this be any exception.
Don’t talk to me now
The halls of a high school are a world unto themselves. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to navigate that social world. It’s also difficult to shift gears once you’re outside of the building. At least it was for me.
Every day after school I would make myself a bowl of Campbell’s vegetarian vegetable soup. I wasn’t actually a vegetarian back then; I just didn’t like the little bits of meat floating around in the regular vegetable soup. Also, I really liked the tiny, dark okra seeds that used to be in the vegetarian vegetable soup.
I had a special Pyrex pan that was reserved for just these occasions. It was see-through, and I could watch the vegetables and noodles tumbling around in the bottom of the pan when the soup began to boil. When it was hot enough, I would sit at our kitchen counter with the book I was reading and my soup. I would read for as long as it took to finish my soup, and soup takes some time. For that short period, I would escape into the safety of the pages and the comfort of the soup.
My poor mother learned not to ask me any questions or attempt to engage me in conversation about school until I had finished my soup. If I was goin g to share anything about what happened inside the walls of high school, it would only happen after my soup was done. It was only after my transition ritual that I felt human enough to engage the world in conversation.
A pantry full of soup
Sitting on the couch the other day after coming home from a full day of teaching, I thought about my vegetarian vegetable soup. I am unfailingly grumpy when I get home from campus. This is true regardless of what kind of day I had. In fact, I can be quite perky driving down the hill from campus and still prickly when I come in the door. I do not think this is because I despise my home, my husband or my child. I think it is because I need my vegetarian vegetable soup.
I need a transition ritual. I need to decompress. I need to mark the space between being a professor and being at home. In the fifties, I guess husbands did it with a martini and the evening paper while their wives kept the kids at bay. But we don’t live inside Mad Men, and even there, it never really went so well.
I could meditate, I guess. Or do some yoga. Go for a walk. But none of these have the comfort of a bowl of soup and a good book. And maybe, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So this week, my husband brought home several cans of vegetarian vegetable soup from his trip to the grocery store. Our pantry is stocked. It seems to me that asking my family to leave me alone for 20 minutes is an improvement over being grumpy for several hours. It’s worth a try.
Thank god I still have the Pyrex bowl.
Do you have transition rituals? What are they and do they work?