Rites of Passage

Special occasions are still special.

By Melissa Kirsch

As January ends, we’re approaching one year of quarantine. How do we understand a year in which we’ve spent weeks, months and seasons mostly apart, our plans upended? We might not be able to yet. But we’ve found ways to cope: marking time, developing routines, creating novelty, getting accustomed to the two-dimensional world of video chat.

I read a good article this week by the anthropologist Rebecca J. Lester on the importance of rituals, of “punctuating the monotony of quarantine time and reminding ourselves that, although much of the world seems to have stopped in its tracks, time, in fact, moves on.”

We’ve amended our rituals over the past year: abbreviated Thanksgivings, graduations via Zoom. A regular dinner, with family or solo, might have assumed new importance as a sign of the end of each day, a day possibly indistinguishable from the one before and the one before that.

I received an email last month from Noah Nichols in Norman, Okla.:

My 21st birthday was on March 19, 2020, and I was supposed to travel to Las Vegas with my two best friends to celebrate. We obviously canceled our trip, and opted to just celebrate at local bars after I turned 21 at midnight. Two days before, our city council announced that all bars would close on March 18 at 8 p.m., four hours before I turned 21! I proceeded to have a pity party for about … 9 months now, and I was curious if you thought I should still do something to celebrate once we can do so safely. Should we go to Vegas? Have a different trip altogether?

I’ve been thinking about Noah, his 21st birthday celebration suspended in the amber of March of 2020, a time when so many things were paused, put on hold, postponed to some later date. Whether we’re excited to legally order our first beer or just to celebrate a milestone that, in American culture, signifies our arrival at adulthood, our 21st birthdays are often big deals. They’re rites of passage whose observance is integral to our chronologies, the story we tell of our lives.

The pandemic has disturbed our sense of time in countless small ways. “When our usual rites of passage are also absent,” Dr. Lester, the anthropologist, wrote, “this can produce a profound sense of dislocation and alienation that is existentially, psychologically, and even physically painful and exhausting.”

So, to Noah: I think you should still plan a trip to Las Vegas with your friends to celebrate your 21st birthday, for whenever it’s safe to do so. The precise date may have passed, but its significance in your life should be honored — not just because it’ll be fun and the trip will give you something to look forward to, but because it’ll help remedy the dislocation that comes of having had to skip a rite of passage.

In the meantime, why not do something socially distanced with the same two pals to observe your 22nd birthday this March? You could do something virtual or, better yet, pick your poison, make a picnic and meet up somewhere outdoors and lift a glass, start planning the big trip. (It looks like it might even be sunny and pleasant in Norman that day.) You could choose a theme, if you wanted: “The Hangover”? “Ocean’s Eleven”? Perhaps a talent show, à la “Viva Las Vegas”? Or, if that’s not your style, a couple beers is fun too.

No matter what, do something. Mark the day. Delineate this new chapter of your life.

I suggest we all mark today with this scene of Elvis and Ann-Margret dancing in “Viva Las Vegas.” It’s pure joy.

I listened to a clip on social media of a college pal playing a piano piece by the French composer Dominique Charpentier, and it sent me off to discover more of his work. It’s good music to think by, to soundtrack a quiet winter day.

You could put on some Charpentier and play around with Vivian Wu’s snowflake generator, recommended by the always-inspiring blogger Jason Kottke. Add a cup of tea and you have a good formula, I think, for a few moments of stress-free stillness.

Once you’ve relaxed, maybe you’d like to read a classic work of American literature? On Thursday, Jan. 28, The New York Times T Book Club will be discussing Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country.” You can R.S.V.P. here, at no cost, for a conversation between the novelist Claire Messud and the T features director Thessaly La Force. Be sure to submit a question, if you have one.

Tell us.

Birthdays, graduations, weddings: What are some of the ways you’ve observed rites of passage this year? How have you created memorable milestones for yourself and others? I have a few friends who are part of a Zoom dance troupe with people in their community; they choreograph dances and rehearse separately, in their own homes, and they perform for friends and strangers who want something different, and socially distanced, for a special day. A surprise dance number to “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas made my video birthday this year.

Write to us: [email protected] We’re At Home. We’ll read every letter sent. More ideas for leading a full life at home, every day, appear below.

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