The One Year Mark

Ritual + Accompaniment Through the Pandemic Portal

Image by spoxx, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Amidst countless ambiguities, cascading loss, and endlessly shifting timelines, here’s one thing we know and can plan around: the one year anniversary of pandemic quarantine is coming up and, if we choose to make it so, it can be a moment not just of commemoration, but of initiation—a threshold crossing for individual and collective transformation.

When Arundhati Roy published “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in early April, 2020, few of us imagined that the portal would be open one year later. And yet, here we still are, presented with a chance—and a choice—to pass through it with intention. Roy writes:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Last April, the “portal” might have seemed a compelling metaphor but hard to fully access or enter through the thick fog of confusion that marked the first months of pandemic. Now, however, with one full year of lived pandemic expertise, perhaps enough of us can pass through the portal with the clear-seeing and resolve needed to make another world possible.

The metaphor of the portal invites us to examine COVID-19 as a collective rite of passage, without downplaying its devastation. Rites of passage are often understood as having three main phases: separation, transition or liminality, and reincorporation. If you’re reading this, you’ve already weathered a yearlong phase of separation, through the disruption of life rhythms and the physical separation from other bodies. Now, at the one year mark of quarantine, as the distribution of vaccines shines some kind of diffracted light at the end of a still-long tunnel, how might we focus attention on the learnings from this liminal time and bring intention to charting a path of reincorporation that does not equate to a return to normal?

Unlike a traditional rite of passage, no one or group is holding this container for us, and so we are paradoxically tasked with being both initiates and guides. This, then, is as an invitation to consider:

  1. What ritual action might you want to create in your own life or community to mark one year of pandemicto name the learnings from this transition time, and to cross through the portal?

Millions of words of meaning-making have been offered to try to make sense of the devastating loss, unfathomable rupture, exposure of inequity, and heroic collective efforts of this year. I’m not trying to add more. Rather, I hope that these pixels on a screen can spark experiential meaning-making offscreen and in your own life. In many ways, I write them as a reminder to myself as much as anyone else: let me not miss the chance to mark the moment and to let the moment mark me. Let me not come crawling out of the chrysalis still a caterpillar. (Or, at least not the same caterpillar.)

Ritually Marking One Year of Quarantine

You don’t need to be ordained as clergy or chairing a committee to decide to offer up some kind of ritual to mark one year of COVID quarantine. Indeed, we can’t necessarily count on our pandemic-besieged religious, cultural, and civic institutions to hold the necessary space for communal transformation at this time. (Though if you are in leadership at one of those institutions, please consider what you might offer!) Any one of us can create moments of ritual and reflection that will support in our emerging on the other side of pandemic with deeper courage, compassion, and commitment, rooted in the reality of this year’s experience of loss and interconnectedness. And it will require many of us stepping into that dual role of ritual-holder and participant, to access the medicine of this collective rite of passage.

There are many ways to create a right-sized offering for yourself and/or others—and it doesn’t need to be elaborate: you could spend 30 minutes alone with a journal; design a participatory evening of reflection with family or others in your pod; host an online offering for a wider community of beloveds; or create a COVID-safe communal ritual outside. (Here in Albuquerque, a few of us are organizing a small, socially-distanced ritual on a spacious stretch of sandy beach along the Rio Grande.)

Whatever scope or duration you’re working with, choose a time and space that will somehow set this moment apart. Ritual is a doorway into a different realm of possibility, best accessed by stepping outside of daily rhythms and the trance of the familiar.

What follows is not a blueprint, but a few “ways in” to three thematic elements that may be helpful to incorporate however you decide to mark the moment: 1) Honoring Grief; 2) Naming What’s Been Learned + Revealed; and, 3) Crossing the Threshold.

A view of the Rio Grande, where I’ll be gathering with a few others to ritualize one year of quarantine and to cross through the portal in mid-March, 2021.

1. Honoring Grief

This has been a year of loss, doled out in unequal measure across lines of race, class, and age: the loss of life, of livelihood, of embodied togetherness, of familiar rhythms of shared time and occasions that mark our lives. What is the grief you need to attend to? Where is grief living in you, and how do you want to acknowledge or be witnessed in it?

The Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax writes: “We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion.”

Author and teacher Martin Prechtel reminds us: “If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love.”

Ways In: What wisdom does your culture or lineage offer around moving through grief—and how might you apply that now? Consider ways in which the elements can be your allies in honoring grief: burying grief in earth, letting it flow in water, transforming it in fire, letting it go in wind. Draw inspiration or activities from the Artist Grief Deck, “an arts-based toolkit for communal grieving in a time of social isolation.”

2. Naming What’s Been Revealed and Learned

Throughout the year, we’ve heard the refrain, “do not let a a good crisis go to waste.” For it not to go to waste, we’ll have to turn it to compost. And making compost takes some work—sorting, layering, turning—and time. In this case, it requires our bringing awareness to what has been revealed and learned, in our own lives and the world we inhabit. It demands we pay attention to the many layers of rupture, to all that‘s been unsettled within and around us, and to examine the possibility for new life .

Arundhati Roy again, from last April:

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

We must create for ourselves and others the signposts that help us decide for a different a future, avoiding the lure of the habitual and a return to normality. Consider devoting ample time for reflection on questions that draw out lessons from this year and commitments we’ll need moving forward:

  • What ruptures have been made ever-more apparent in society over the last year—and what commitments will you make to be a part of healing and repair?

“Epidemics emerge along the fissures of our society, reflecting not only the biology of the infectious agent, but patterns of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception and is rooted in decades of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and a false moral narrative of religious extremism.” — The Poor People’s Campaign

  • What of your own patterns, habits, and stories have you observed this year that you want to transform? Through the conditions and constraints of pandemic, what have you learned about what you want to leave behind?
Nearby cottonwood companions, dancing in the afternoon light.

When the rug was pulled out from under you, did your feet finally touch the ground? Did they fumble along moist or cracked earth, trying to decipher the ancient crevices of the living landscape lying in wait this whole time? It’s a whole new kind of magic carpet ride, when the carpet disappears and one must ride the strange magic present in its absence.

  • Amidst all the loss, grief, letting go, was there any kind of strange magic present in this year? How might you cultivate that moving forward?

Ways In: Consider journaling, making art, or writing poetry. Write a postcard from 20 or 50 years from now looking back at the new choices you/we made in 2021. (For inspiration around storytelling from the future, see the Years of Repair video.) Use natural elements to symbolize what you’re leaving behind and what you’re moving toward. Create an altar full of the “signposts” that will guide your path from here. Dance or embody the liminal time. Check out this zine full of concepts and provocations for “course correction” created by my friends at Nuns & Nones, and inspired by Movement Generation. Or, thwart traditional modes of meaning-making entirely, exploring the strange magic, doing something unexpected.

3. Crossing the Threshold—#NoGoingBack

Having excavated learnings and named patterns that you seek to stop, transform, nurture and evolve, it is time to cross the threshold. Whether alone or with a group, find an embodied way to move through the portal—leaving behind what needs to be shed, carrying with you the learnings and legacies that will support in the next chapter, and moving toward the higher possibility that’s calling. This is no longer just another day of quarantine during pandemic; if you agree to let it be, this can be a sacred moment of initiation.

In his book, The Seventh Shrine, Orland Bishop, writes of initiation:

“Initiation is the process of renewing commitments to the higher purpose and aspirations of life. In an initiatory process, life potential is enhanced. It includes larger spheres of influence into which the human individual can live and act. Initiation is an expansion of the capacity to direct one’s life.”

Ways In: Find a way of crossing the threshold that feels authentic to you and the lineages you draw from. Who or what do you want to be witness to this threshold crossing? In addition to any other participants in this ritual space, perhaps you seek to be witnessed by nature, by Spirit, by ancestors, by future ones. Invite your witnesses and guides, gather your intention and commitment, cross to the other side, and feel the transformation in your very cells. Upon crossing the threshold, having said yes to a renewal of commitment and purpose, what kind of joy and celebration is possible? Perhaps there’s song, dance, poetry, or praise?

Tubes from forty-seven roles of toilet paper used in my home during the pandemic. Likely to become objects for ritual use…

Accompaniment and Accountability Through the Portal

Most of us have learned through consecutive attempts that a countdown from ten and a list of New Year’s resolutions does not a life transformation make. Consider, then, how you might want to intentionally practice new ways of being after a ritual and over a longer period of reincorporation, the third phase of a rite of passage.

The word incorporate comes from the Latin in-corporare, meaning to form into a body. It is on each of us to incorporate the learnings of this time into our own bodies such that, when at last we return to the public sphere, we can re-form our collective body according to a set of principles more deeply rooted in the truth of our interdependence—an interdependence so emphatically illumined this year by a microscopic parasite with a crown.

During the reincorporation phase of a traditional rite of passage, there would be people to welcome us on the other side, to support in integrating our transformed selves back into the community. This time, however, we must become our own greeters. What structures of ongoing practice, accompaniment, and accountability might you create to support the integration of truth from this liminal time at such a deep level that your way of being in the world shifts accordingly?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Consider creating a practice group, your very own laboratory for emergence protocol. Whether it’s a weekly phone conversation with a friend or a small group that meets regularly outside over the coming months, consider creating a shared structure and rhythm to support in reincorporation. You could focus weekly or monthly on a particular quality or attribute that you want to investigate and practice—generosity, simplicity, deep listening, for example—and share your experiences. (The Jewish practice of Mussar has centuries of wisdom on this approach.) You could read texts that point to other ways of organizing society and sharing our common home and discuss how to apply those principles where you live. (This piece by Robin Wall Kimmerer on “an economy of abundance” is a good conversation starter.)

Imagining the life-nourishing possibilities on the other side of the pandemic portal is critical work. For those possibilities to become reality, however, we must not only see them, but be them. In the prophetic words of Amanda Gorman, inaugural poet:

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

At the one year anniversary of quarantine nears, may we have the courage to mark the moment and let the moment mark us. May we have the bravery to see and to be the light on the other side. And by crossing the portal together, may we initiate one another into an expanded capacity to direct our life energy in service of our highest collective calling.

Sandhill cranes take flight over the Rio Grande.

Gratitude: Thanks to Taproot friends for initiating an inquiry into ritual for the one-year anniversary of quarantine. Thanks to Nuns & Nones companions for being together in a learning laboratory for emergence protocol. Thanks to Erik Ehn, Elsa Menendez, and Jiva Manske for exploration and company in marking the moment, on the ground.

Be in touch: If this inspires you in some way, and you end up creating some kind of ritual, I’d love to hear about what you did and what you learned. Leave a comment below or feel free to drop me a line here. You can also sign up for occasional updates and offerings here.

Artist, organizer, co-founder: U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, Nuns & Nones, Taproot. Writing from Tiwa territory, in ABQ, NM. www.adamhorowitz.org