Over the long weekend, I was on a trip with my dad through Arches National Park, UT and Mesa Verde, CO. Being me, what I took most strongly away from the trip wasn't the way standing under the arches made me feel like I'd stumbled upon a world turned inside out, or one made of Play-Doh, or how the cliff dwellings looked like pueblo legos from far away on the other side of the canyon, or even how climbing a 32 foot ladder hanging onto the side of a sheer drop didn't scare me at all. It was my dad's reminder of a senseless ritual I used to require as a child.
I'm not sure whether to call this a habit or a ritual. Washing hands is a habit, washing them 3 times is a ritual, right. 'Ritual', I think, implies an extra layer of meaning given to an action, right? Washing hands once is for simply getting hands clean; washing them 3 times implies that the person has an obsession with cleanliness or maybe just an obsessive personality. Eating fish on Fridays might just be because you got used to the taste, but eating it on Fridays to follow a religious edict implies that eating fish carries a spiritual meaning on top of the nutrition/taste.
So I guess mine was a ritual. Every night before bed, I would recite mechanically to my parents, 'Good night, see you in the morning, sweet dreams, good night.' And they would have to recite it back. They had to say it in that order. They also had to say it last. And if either of those things happened wrong, I wouldn't be able to go to sleep. I would lay awake worrying about nameless things. Like maybe I would die in the night knowing my parents didn't say goodnight to me, and that when they came in and discovered me dead, they'd feel badly for not wishing me a good night. Something like that, although I'm sure I didn't put it into any sort of well-formed thought.
While my dad and I were on vacation, he still said, every night - tongue-in-cheek maybe, but still mechanically - 'Good night, see you in the morning, sweet dreams, good night.' Then when I was silent, he'd say, 'Say it! Say it!' just like I used to.
But on no night did he not say it. I sort of wondered if he had to, if it was a knee-jerk thing. I've grown out of it - it hasn't occurred to me in years - but I've changed my entire environment, left my house, left my parents, gone to sleep bidding goodnight to different people. He's still in the house where I grew up.
This makes me wonder: if I still lived at home and my parents were still together, as they were for the majority of my childhood, would I have never been forced to break out? Would I still be totally obsessive about this insane ritual, and others: like making my mom taste my seafood before I ate it to make sure it wasn't rotten; like having to finish walking up stairs with my right foot; like not being able to turn in a circle without then turning the other way; like always eating my food collatedly (peas, potatoes, steak, peas, potatoes..)? I stopped all that in college because it didn't occur to me to perform these things when in a completely alien environment. Within the context of the dorm, they were, if not impossible, totally out of place.
I'm sure a ritual can be broken while keeping its surroundings constant. But I'm sure it's easier if everything changes and becomes strange and new, and starts to require attention to every crazy detail.