The Importance of Ceremony

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Life rushes by very quickly. One day you’re worrying about buying a present for your daughter’s 10th birthday, and the next you’re thinking about what to get for her start at university. You think about moving to a new house or apartment and suddenly realize your history includes owning three homes and moving into and out of two dozen apartments.

How did that happen?

Often, when I’m in the middle of a long drive, I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve been on autopilot for hours, thinking about something entirely separate from the road I’m on. This used to happen to me when I was a paperboy at the age of 11. I’d be walking along, dropping papers into my customers’ doors while my thoughts were lost in a tumble of worries and ambitions. Then I’d look down and see three-quarters of the papers in my bag — gone. Where did they go? I had no memory of dropping them into the doorways. And because I was a conscientious kid, I would actually go back over my route to check each of the doorways to make sure I’d dropped a paper in there. Sometimes, by then, a customer or two would have already retrieved their paper and it wouldn’t be there. So I would have to knock on the door and ask, stupidly, “Excuse me, Mrs Johnson, did I deliver your paper?” I would get the oddest looks sometimes.

We walk, or dash, through most of our lives in a kind of semi-conscious state. And it’s okay most of the time. But too much of it can make a person feel weightless and insubstantial in the world, as if being here is leaving no mark. So once in a while we need to stop, and mark an important moment. We need to become conscious and present, and to honour the things that matter to us. It gives weight to our existence. It acts as the gravity of our lives, keeping us solidly on Earth even as it spins.

The picture you see here shows the tobacco canister that kept my father’s ashes, and a glass of Scotch, his favourite drink. They’re set by the remains of a camp fire, because Dad — whose name was Bill Cole — loved to sit by a fire, staring into the embers with a glass of Scotch in his hand, ruminating about life late into the night. I loved and then (as I got older) dreaded those long, boozy nights, but it doesn’t matter what I thought of them. They were important to him.

And this image you see was taken on the coast of Prince Edward Island. That’s also important, because my father achieved his greatest success as an actor while performing at the Charlottetown Festival, and my favourite memories of him, as an actor, and as a Dad, are all situated on that island.

So when my father died several years ago, I vowed to take his ashes to PEI. And this summer I got the chance. So I spread them in this fire, and along the beach nearby. I raised a glass of Scotch in Dad’s honour, and made a little speech. I did it to show respect to my father and his memory, of course. But a ceremony like that is equally, or perhaps even more, for the person performing it. It’s a pause in the midst of the rush, a moment of clarity and presence, a statement that the memories and experiences we have are important and worth honouring. It’s a reminder that we’re here, on Earth, even as it spins.