The Oscar nominated short documentary “How Do You Measure a Year?” is a film based entirely on a ritual. Each year, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt asks his daughter to sit in the same spot on their couch and answer the same set of questions. The ritual begins on Ella’s second birthday and extends to her 18th. After not watching any of the footage during those seventeen years, Rosenblatt edits these sessions down to a crisp and moving twenty-nine minute time machine. With less than two minutes for each year of life, this film gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “they grow up so fast.”
I watched this film with my daughters the day after Father’s Day. It was funny, moving, sad and most of all loving. The questions ranged from the mundane (“What do you like to eat?) to the philosophical (“What is power?”) It was particularly touching to watch their exchanges each year as he asks her about the status of their relationship – which varies in strength and nature as one might expect.
More than habits or traditions, rituals require a certain level of solemnity, precision and faithfulness. We see them most often in religion, cultural rites of passage and even in our own compulsive behaviors. Examples of each are funerals, graduation ceremonies and this particularly complicated pre-at bat ritual from one of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra.
While they vary in form, their function is similar. Rituals connect us to something larger than ourselves, to each other and to ourselves.
My life is relatively light on rituals but in watching this film, I could not help wishing I had more of them – whether they be self-created like Rosenblatt’s charming birthday chats or part of the culture, religion, and national ties that I’ve allowed to atrophy over time.
Rituals require both deference and reverence – two acts increasingly in short supply. They ask us give ourselves over to something bigger than ourselves.
We see this on Rosenblatt’s couch as Ella is a teenager. On one hand it is clear that there are places she would rather be, yet on the other knows this is the only place for her right now.
Revealing yet another beauty of a ritual – it grounds us in the here and now, creating a stillness in a given moment while simultaneously connecting us to all that has come before and all that will follow.