Let go of nostalgia and start living for today through ritual. "It is essential to our sense of belonging ... that we mark the moments of transition in our lives."
I’ll never forget how I felt so lost at sea when I had my baby.
I had all the knowledge and tools for surviving the early days of new parenthood at my fingertips. But I had no clue how to navigate the gnawing sense of being severed from one identity and not knowing what was coming next or how to get there. I wanted to be saved from the crashing waves of my new reality but was so exhausted and didn’t know what to do next.
One bleary-eyed afternoon early on in my days of new motherhood, I picked up my phone, opened Instagram, and started talking. I felt deeply compelled to share my raw experiences and welcome those who were watching and listening into the room with me as I shared every aspect of what I was going through.
I would post in the middle of the night when I was holding a crying baby. I would post in the morning when I would be absolutely wrecked with exhaustion after a long night of baby wakeups. I would post when I was nursing for long stretches. I would post about the spikes of anxiety that would shoot down my spine every time I heard a door crack. I would post about hearing my daughter’s phantom cries or frantically searching under the sheets of the bed for her only to realize she was sound asleep in the bassinet next to me. I would post about the sacred relief my daily 5-minute morning shower would bring me. I would post about the grief of realizing my life was forever changed, never to be what it was before ever again. I would post about wanting to hear from and talk with friends but feeling physically unable to respond to their text messages and calls.
It wasn’t until about eight months later that I realized why I was doing that—why I didn’t just keep all of my experiences private and preserve my precious energy in the little cocoon that was my postpartum time. And why I, instead, chose to share the wide range of experiences that came with having a baby in these times.
Posting online was my way of being witnessed in the years-long ritual that is matrescence: the rite of passage in becoming a mother. I had a visceral need to be seen in my transformation.
With each season of life, there is an initiation that marks the end of one and the beginning of the next—also known as a rite of passage. It is, by its very definition, relational in that the impact is felt in how the community sees you so you can see yourself.
A rite of passage consists of three distinguishable elements: separation (or preliminal), transition (or liminal), and reincorporation (or postliminal). The root of “liminal” is Limen, Latin for “threshold” or the beginning of something new.
It begins with the separation phase, where the person on whom the rite is centered is symbolically severed from their old status. This could be symbolized by the cutting of hair, walking away from a parent, or physically moving the body from one location to another, for example.
From there, the person ritually moves through a period of transition where they are in between phases—at the threshold of their new identity. This could be symbolized by spending several days alone in the wilderness, walking along a rose-strewn corridor from one threshold to another, or moving their body in an expression of change through dance or song.
They are then seen as transformed and reincorporated into their group or society in their new role. This could be symbolized with a circle of people welcoming them inside with verbal affirmations of their change or the donning of ritual adornments or regalia meant for the new role.
[Read: “How Does Your Reaction to Change Affect Your Life Experience?”]
In cultures throughout the world and all throughout time, human beings have counted on their rituals to mark these rites throughout their lives. It is only in modern times that these rites have lessened or been tucked away into smaller more isolated spaces marked by dogma or likeness. And, in some instances, rites of passage have been nearly eliminated from people’s lives. They have very few rituals to mark the shift from puberty to adulthood—no witnesses to see them as transformed after healing from illness or completing a lifelong career.
We are living in a time where so many of us are feeling an aching sense of loss of meaning in our lives and a disconnection from old ways of being—ways that give us deeper purpose and understanding of the different stages we naturally move through during our lifetime.
This is made most evident in our collective discomfort with death and being in the company of the dying, our rejection of the aging process in our own bodies and others, our fear of the natural world and desire to tame or kill it off, and our separation from the transitions that we, as human beings, naturally go through during our lifetimes.
“Without ritual, humans live in nostalgia.”
These words from West African spiritualist practitioner and writer Malidoma Patrice Somé in his book Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, feel so true in my bones. Without the regular practice of ritualizing our lives, we yearn for times passed when things felt more meaningful. This is because our brains have a tendency (particularly in moments of discomfort or suffering) to recall positive memories over negative ones. It is a method of mood repair.
[Read: “How Colors Affect Our Moods.”]
We look back with sympathetic affection and a sense that things were, in some way, “better” then. And, while this can be an excellent coping mechanism for challenging mental health moments, it doesn’t always serve a deeper need for us to respond to and digest what is happening in the present moment. When we collectively move away from the initiatory experiences of life (like death, birth, marriage, divorce, and menopause, for example) and dwell in the nostalgia of the past, we can’t show up for each other in the way we desperately need.
I am a human being who did not grow up with a lot of rituals but also deeply craved them. It was only in my 30s that I sought out and made a regular practice of honoring the sacred in my life—no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. So, when I became pregnant, I could feel how vital it was for me to have rituals where my community could support and witness me in the transition from a childless young woman (a maiden) to that of mother, and all the shifts to my identity and ways of life that go along with that.
Ten months later, I found myself in my child’s darkened nursery rocking her to sleep and sharing about it on social media. I was in the transitional phase after the great separation brought on by my pregnancy and birth, but not yet in a place of arriving back into my community to be seen as fully changed. I needed to not feel alone in that liminal experience. And, given the times we are living in, the best way to get my needs met was to open my phone and start talking. It provided deep comfort and solace in an unsettling and overwhelming time.
It is essential to our sense of belonging to ourselves and each other that we mark the moments of transformation in our lives.
This acknowledgment supports us in consciously stepping forward into new roles, while also allowing space to grieve and say goodbye to the ones we are stepping out of. And, while many of us did not grow up with these rituals being modeled for us, we can be a part of creating new ones in our families and communities that will go forward to our descendants along with the understanding of their importance.
Some of the big transitions of life are birth, first period, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, menopause, and death. But so many of us experience different or additional transitions that hold meaning and a shift in our identity. For example: moving to a new home, pregnancy loss, adoption, accepting a new job (and completing an old one), shifting to an empty nest, planting a garden, and graduating. When I run workshops about creating our own rituals to honor past initiations, I hear about all kinds of unique and meaningful moments in people’s lives—all of them worthy of ritual and witnessing.
Perhaps you can start, like me, with being witnessed in the liminal over social media. Or perhaps you can ask the trees or the clouds in the sky to be your witness in your initiatory life journeys. Rites of passage are not reserved exclusively for any religion or special group. They are for all of us, and it is my sincere hope that we can collectively remember and honor that.
Want more about ritual? Keep reading: “Questing for Ancient Ritual.”
Read our review of Root and Ritual: Timeless Ways to Connect to Land, Lineage, Community, and the Self by Becca Piastrelli in the January/February 2022 issue of Spirituality & Health.