Monday, December 7, 2009

Rituals, holiday traditions, and the daily run

Yearly rituals are a favorite part of the holiday season for many people. Especially me. I have often said I’m an adult with an inordinate attraction to routine, which is one reason I have an 849-day-long running streak. I like the steady drumbeat of repeated actions: daily rituals, yearly rituals. To me they feel like a heartbeat.

But every now and then I have to call myself up short and ask: Is this a repeated ritual because I like doing it, or do I like doing it because it’s a repeated ritual? Sometimes I catch myself believing that things are important to me and claiming that’s why I do them every year – and then having to admit that the event itself is no longer that enjoyable but I just like the idea that it’s one of our many rituals.

Yesterday was a busy day; I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to fit in. So one ritual was maintained and the other temporarily abandoned. I’m hoping I made the right choice.

The ritual that was abandoned yesterday was the holiday concert at our church. The holiday concert has been one of my favorite traditions ever since we moved back to Carlisle eight years ago. There are so many reasons I love it. The music is wonderful, especially in terms of its variety: there are traditional singalong carols, instrumental performances by children, complicated choral arrangements sung by the choir, talented soloists, and a chance for children in the audience to shake bells and play other percussives while everyone sings “Jingle Bells.” The sanctuary of the church looks beautiful at night with the lights low. Friends, neighbors and church members fill up the pews. It’s a cost-free, gift-free, even Santa-free (most years; sometimes he shows up to hand out the Jingle Bells instruments) event, which is reason enough to make it one of my favorite yearly traditions.

But last night it just wasn’t in the cards for us. After church in the morning, at which Holly and I were the advent candle lighters, we headed out to attend two different parties an hour from home. On the way back, we were delayed due to arriving in Concord Center just as Main Street was closed down for their Santa parade. When we finally got home, I went for a very short run – one mile, the bare minimum required to maintain an official running streak – and then put together some leftovers for dinner. When dinner was over and it was time to decide whether we were going out again, I asked Holly how she felt about the concert, knowing she and I were the only ones likely to have any interest. She looked ambivalent, and I found something touchingly mature in her uncertain response of “Do you want to go?” No more childishly definitive yes’s and no’s for her; she’s apparently picked up the womanly art of gauging other people’s desires before making her own decisions. To say I find this development a mixed blessing is putting it mildly.

But since her response smacked of maturity as well as sincerity, I answered in a similar vein. “I sort of really want to, but I also sort of don’t feel like dressing up and going out again,” I said. “Me too,” she said. “Maybe we should just stay home and get more caught up here,” I said. We’d been out for most of the day; I needed to clean up the kitchen, make the kids’ school lunches, do a little bit of desk work, run some laundry, clean the guinea pig’s cage: the usual Sunday evening lineup. Holly, meanwhile, had inexplicably hit on the idea of converting her book case into a miniature shopping mall layout, and I knew she was itching to work on that.

In some respects, I felt sure we were making the right decision. I tend to overplan and overschedule anyway, and we do a lot of rushing around and arriving places flustered and late. In fact, most years that’s just how we arrive at the holiday concert, since it always falls at the end of a busy Sunday. And it was appealing to think that I’d be two hours ahead of where I’d otherwise be if we skipped the concert versus if we went. After all, the lunches, guinea pig and deskwork would all still require my attention when we got home at nine o’clock.

But in another respect, I’m never sure that letting opportunities slide is the right tack to take. It’s always easier to stay home than go out, always easier to let the kids keep themselves busy than to drag them to a cultural event. But cultural events are important, and so is community. And so are holiday rituals. So I could see both sides of it. I still can, even though I appreciated having a quiet, unrushed evening and feeling like I accomplished everything I needed to in that timeframe.

The ritual I did get to was the daily run. By the time we got home from the parties it was well after dark, and Rick was out doing something else, so I couldn’t justify taking more than the time required for a mile, nor did I especially want to, on a cold dark night with new snow on the ground when I had plenty to do around the house. But I fit in my mile nonetheless, just as I’ve done for the past 849 days.

And I really can’t justify the importance of that. Even other runners have said to me about streak running, “What’s the big deal? Being able to run every single day without ever taking a day off doesn’t make you a better athlete.” True, and ten or twelve minutes of exertion isn’t enough to have any impact as far as fat-burning or other aerobic benefits. The truth is, I don’t know why I do it. I can’t explain what the point is. For the first 732 days, when Tim ran with me, that was the point: us taking on a challenge together. But I can’t use that explanation any more, now that Tim has stopped his streak and I’m running by myself.

Moreover, why does it matter more than going to a concert? It wasn’t really one or the other: we could have done both, or neither. But still. I fit in the run; I skipped the concert. I can’t explain why the run matters. Except that it’s a ritual. I don’t feel like I need a compelling reason to do it as much as a compelling reason to stop.

So the concert was an unfortunate loss; we’ll try to resume that tradition next year. Meanwhile, there are other holiday traditions to observe: the annual town tree lighting later this week, plus Tim’s school band concert, and then another yearly party next weekend. I can’t give up on getting the kids out of the house to cultural events, but at the same time it’s reasonable to listen to them when they just feel like staying home. Just as it’s reasonable, I guess, to go running for no substantial reason. Every day.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting questions you bring up here. Why we do some things over others, and here talking about rituals. I remember reading somewhere that it's easier to do something if you do it every day: i.e., easier to work out if you have a daily routine as opposed to trying to decide whether to do it or not and when.

    Perhaps this is why the run was easier to fit in; it was almost an automatic habit.

    The holiday concert sounds wonderful, but I know how good it can feel to just stay home and get things done (minus the guilty feeling).

    Your description of Holly's response was quite touching.