Before my husband was my husband, we spent a couple of weeks together in a town on the eastern coast of Italy. There was a cathedral there—I still have a postcard of its vast green door—picturesquely situated on a spit of land stretching into the Adriatic, and one Saturday, on a pre-dinner stroll, we encountered no fewer than five couples in the matrimonial pipeline. One was inside taking their vows; another was driving up in a limo; at least two newlywed pairs were posing for still photographs or running “spontaneously” toward the video camera on the broad piazza that surrounded the cathedral; and a fifth was leaving for the postnuptial reception in a parade of honking, flower-decked cars. The logistics of this dream factory must have been a nightmare.
I was fascinated: by the gowns, the faces, the screwball comedy (and pathos) of so many weddings at once. He was less engaged—and not just because, having been born male, he hadn’t been brought up on veils and rings and tossed bouquets and happily-ever-afters. We happened to be at the point in our relationship where marriage was a frequent topic of discussion, and he must have been made a bit queasy by the message, writ large, of all those white dresses and tuxes. (Note to ambivalent men: Don‘t go to Italy, where there is a bridal shop, or maybe two, in the pokiest town.)
Part of our debate had to do with whether marriage was really necessary between two middle-aged adults who already lived together. And even if we granted that it was, a ceremony might seem superfluous when City Hall was ready and waiting. That’s right in one sense—without love and commitment, the forms are pretty empty—but wrong in another: There is something innately valuable, I think, about signaling an important event with a ritual.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying any ritual is good—many are cruel, meant to propitiate an angry god or initiate innocents into some warped form of adulthood. Nor am I referring expressly to religious practices, though rituals often derive from or express some form of faith. The spirit they embody is less sectarian than that: They are about a tradition of social recognition, of shared feeling.
Rituals create a “safe” arena for the expression of strong feeling. Like a firm, discreet aunt steering an overexcited bride to the ladies’ room, they validate the enormous, messy, raging emotion associated with the event while channeling it into manageable paths. They confer dignity. They offer comfort. They radiate bliss. They link generations. And they bring people together to witness a moment of transition that will never happen in quite the same way again. This is not hypocritical. This is civilized.
The best rituals, of course, are not mere routine: They take a tradition and play with it. I’m thinking of the wedding several years ago of our longtime yoga teacher. Because she and her fiancé were both singers, their ceremony was rich in music, including a duet they sang to one another with such gorgeous immediacy you could swear their hearts were literally in their throats. A pair of jugglers (a sly allusion to the give-and-take of marriage) ushered guests into the church; two ministers, a man and a woman, pronounced them man and wife; and as they took their vows we all came out of the pews and made a circle around them at the altar, holding candles. This was community brought to life, a ritual in the best sense.
Think of the landmarks that don’t have ceremonies to attend them—moving in with a companion (or moving out), having a miscarriage or abortion, losing a breast or uterus or prostate, getting divorced, getting hired, getting fired, retiring…. Without the public acknowledgment that something life-changing has happened, it can be more difficult to sustain private awareness of the transformation and its implications. The joy or the pain is too much to bear alone, so we downplay it even to ourselves; we try to carry on as if nothing much has happened.
This is particularly unhealthy in the face of crisis. Why is there no etiquette of compassion, no group rituals to cover the vast and complex spaces between steady-as-she-goes normal life and death? The family used to fill that role; these days, it may not. And one reason people fall away when a friend has a lingering illness or finds herself in a permanently unemployed state is that there is no empathic template that goes beyond the private, purely voluntary attention of one individual to another. One fears being eaten up by another person’s pain.
It strikes me that my generation of women, now in their late fifties and sixties, has a particular talent, the legacy of 1970s feminism and the fresh, strong value it gave to friendship: the capacity to see the wider pattern beyond one’s personal situation. We do not feel we are quite alone when we cope with ageing parents, or our own illness, or a philandering husband, or a crazy boss; we instinctively look to our sisters (I use the word unironically) for advice and guidance.
The personal is political was a slogan that, at its most jejune, involved finding global significance in every last petty, narcissistic aspect of one’s life (famously, the navel). Its true meaning, however, was to endure and perhaps ease our griefs, guilts, and struggles by refusing to keep quiet, or stay private. In this, I hope, lie the seeds not only for social change but for new rituals to secure and succor us. We are ladies with a lamp, and with every dark place we get through, we are lighting the way for someone else.