Rituals and routines

I have two pairs of grandparents. Every afternoon, each pair drinks tea.

The first pair has been doing this ever since I was a child. After their afternoon nap, one of them fills up the kettle, and while the water is coming to a boil, the other one sets the table. But not just any table. There’s a beautiful smallish round table in their living room that is used specifically for afternoon tea and for dinner. Not for breakfast or for lunch. Breakfast and lunch take place at the kitchen table. And they don’t drink tea out of just any mugs. They have these little white cups and saucers, stored away in a living room cabinet, not in the kitchen with the other crockery. These cups and saucers cannot be used at any other time of day nor for different activities or drinks. Back in the kitchen, the one in charge of tea making swishes hot water around the tea pot to heat it up, fills a strainer with tea leaves from a little tin, and pours the boiling water on top. The tea pot gets covered with a tea cosy and placed on a tray. Biscuits, sugar bowl and milk jug get their own tray. Both trays are carried to the living room table, where my grandparents will spend the next hour or two talking and drinking tea. Everyone in our family knows that if you drop by around 3pm (although often a little later now they’re older), there’ll be a beautiful cup of tea waiting for you.

The other pair of grandparents takes a slightly different approach. They boil the kettle, get two mugs out of the kitchen cabinet where they store all their crockery, plunk a tea bag straight from the cardboard box they came in in each mug, and pour the boiling water on top. The mugs are carried to the kitchen table, a packet of biscuits makes its way onto the table, and milk gets poured into the tea, straight from the bottle. If the tea’s too hot, they’ll add some cold water from the plastic bottle on the bench top behind my grandmother’s chair.

I have two pairs of grandparents, and every afternoon, each pair drinks tea. But the way they do this couldn’t be more different.

The difference is the difference between routine and ritual.

Routines are habits. They’re the things we do every day. For instance, every morning, you might get out of bed, sleepwalk into the kitchen where you flick the radio and the kettle on, open the door to let the dog out, make your way into the bathroom to get dressed while the kettle is boiling, have the same breakfast you had yesterday, take your keys and wallet from the shelf next to the front door, and make your way into work.

Once we’ve established routines, we stop thinking about them, we simply ‘do’. Rather than being oppressive, I find them liberating. They help us to control and contain the vastness of time, of emotions, of noise and chaos in the everyday. Routines are the things we do over and over again. Until they stop working for us. We get bored, or something just feels ‘off’. We can’t seem to stick to our routines anymore, and life feels like it’s slipping away. We lose our footing. It often takes a little while before we realise our routines – or lack thereof – are the issue. And when we do, we either automatically fall into new ones, or we have to sit down and think carefully about which new routines we might implement so that we stop feeling like the balloon our childhood self let go of, drifting mid-air, the wind pulling us in all directions, and can once again feel in control of our days and lives.

Rituals are similar, but they’re not quite the same. Rituals add ceremony to certain routines. A special mug for instance, filled with tea from a tea pot covered by a beautiful tea cosy, at the same table, at the same time. Every day or once a week. With someone you love while you reminisce about the good old times or discuss how your day’s been. Alone with a book, or simply staring outside, letting your eye gaze follow the birds or make out the shapes of the leaves on the tree next to the window. A ritual is watching the same movie every year on Christmas day. It’s taking the time to wash the dishes after dinner instead of rushing the process, actively watching your hands, feeling the different touch of foam, hot water, stoneware, and metal on your skin.

Rituals are carefully curated. They bring beauty and magic to the everyday. They require thought. Rituals involve a set of steps, where each step is performed with intention, in the moment. They don’t just ‘happen’, we don’t just ‘do’.

Intention and beauty in the everyday. I think we could all use a little more of that.

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