We took our places in the circle with the others, mid-morning light slanting through the school windows. Soon, beautiful voices lifted together in an ancient, yet recognizable, song. The hand-dyed shawl was lifted and placed over the shoulders of the four pre-pubescent girls who would be graduating from Sunday school and moving on. I was crying. Not because I knew the girls well; I didn’t. We had only recently joined the congregation to instill in my young daughter a sense of spiritual history and community. I cried because the music was melancholy and stirring and because the entire ritual, in its beauty and simplicity, had caused this group of modern suburbanites to slow our busy lives and gather to mark the passage of time and to honor these four young women as they moved through it.
At that very moment, on an autumn Sunday, our contemporaries were driving on the highway or shopping at the mall or watching kids play soccer or working out at the gym. All worthy endeavors and all the more noteworthy when one steps out of modern life, even for a brief amount of time, to do something that could have been done hundreds of years ago. I feel similarly when we go snorkeling and marvel that a parallel underwater world is occurring at the same time as our everyday one. We just tend not to stop and think about it.
When my family made a conscious choice to slow down, and reduce modern life’s typical pace, what we really did was get better in touch with rhythms and practices that have more in common with the turning wheel of the day and the year than with the artificial markers of the typical school and social year, not to mention the standard expectations about children’s development that don’t always fit our own children.
What our family’s life had been missing, by rushing around, and what I explicitly yearned for, was something almost primal, certainly pre-20th century. Something that I experienced when I was part of a community that sang and placed the shawl over the young girls’ shoulders. I vowed to have more of it in my life.
In traditional cultures, people regularly gathered to mark natural, seasonal, daily and life events with song, dance, ritual and prayer. The angle of the sun, the tilt of the planet, the capture of the hunt, the harvest from the Earth. Both the mysterious and the mundane were cause for gathering — often in celebration, sometimes in grief, usually as a community. People were regularly connected to each other and to forces larger than themselves.
Because our modern culture can be poor at creating space for and then honoring life events and the movement of time, we have to create those rituals and activities for ourselves. Fortunately, my family found many ways to do that.
We join people around the world in celebrating the precise and dramatic moments, at each solstice and equinox, when one season moves into another. We’ve taken part in communal events at the beach, on a mountaintop, in a wooded national park and a sweet local park, in backyards and in living rooms, and in various other places where friends and neighbors have gathered. We partake in bonfires, rituals, nature storytelling, marshmallow roasting, swimming, dancing, wreath making, shadow puppetry, or carols, depending on the season. Experiencing the heightened awareness and wonder of watching the first star appear in the summer sky or walking in the darkened woods with our neighbors slows us down and brings us awe, connection and joy.
Celebrating seasons allows us to participate in weather, time, community, generations, place—a continuum in which we each have a role. Honoring the seasons helps ground us and put us more in touch with the natural world and with ourselves.
In addition, we found that having a regular rhythm at home can transform a hectic family life into a peaceful one. Mealtime, bedtime and morning blessings and practices can all add up to a richer and more fulfilling family experience. We like to share answers to whimsical questions before and during dinner, such as “What color was today?” or “What’s your lucky number?”, which provides a nice opportunity for transition and reconnection and gets everyone to share in atypical ways.
We’ve also seen that the warmest and most potent family memories often come from moments that seem small at the time. Small gestures and jokes that arise during shared activity, downtime and play can have a way of becoming repeated family sayings and rituals, which add to life’s texture and enter the family memory bank. One memorable time, we were crushing berries in a food processor to make jam when one lone berry ended up on top of the unit, plump, uncrushed, and seemingly looking down at the rest. My daughter, Anna, was three years old, said, “That berry looks like he’s saying, ‘OK, every berry, I’m going to say who gets made up into jam.’” We laughed that she had created a sort of boss of the berries, and the saying became one of our gentle family traditions. To this day, years later, when we’re gathering to go somewhere, we are likely to call out, “OK, every berry.”
Imbuing everyday moments with individuality and intention helps bond families and lets children know that they are important family members. Small moments, whether spontaneous or ritualized, can mean a great deal to a child and be a means of strengthening family ties, and they occur when given space and love.
We also enjoy making things with our hands, another pastime that modern culture doesn’t always honor or make time for. When we work with felt, we join a lineage going back an incredible 9,000 years. When we engage our hands doing tactile crafts, from finger weaving to making dried-bean mosaics, we honor the maker and the art by taking the time to do something with care. As we craft side-by-side, we also provide the space for conversation to occur in a low-key way, for telling jokes, or for letting comfortable silence envelop us.
My family gets outdoors, in the garden and in nature, to experience phenomenal wonder and beauty and to slow our pace to match the natural world. We often get into deep discussions in nature, when we’re not observing or playing games. Something about being in a beautiful place under a vast sky leads to different insights, connections and experiences than those we tend to have indoors. In addition, when we plant seeds in the garden, keep a moon diary, or make a feeder to attract and nourish lovely birds, we’re experiencing connection to our food supply, to the greater ecosystem of the Earth, and to the people who have lived on the land before us.
Lastly, we enjoy making music and dancing, acting silly and playing, all of which certainly get us in touch with each other, if not the ancients.
Slowing down has offered my family greater memories and closeness, more enjoyment of tactile arts and fun activities, and the blend of community, beauty and awe that I had experienced, and desired more of, at the long-ago Sunday school ritual.
Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which grew out of her award-winning blog, Slow Family Online. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and is the Social Media Director for the Children & Nature Network, an international movement to connect all children and their families and communities to nature. A longtime Girl Scout leader, Suz enjoys gardening, hiking, soap crafting and food canning. She lives with her husband and daughter in Mill Valley, California.