Daily rituals keep us synched to life’s basic rhythms

Once upon a time, in a previous incarnation as a musician, I developed a routine that allowed me to focus and settle my nerves before performances.

I was a brass player — I played the euphonium. This is a lovely instrument that is pitched in the same range as the tenor voice, a cello or trombone. Unfortunately the instrument is relegated almost exclusively to wind ensembles and brass bands. When I realized teaching or playing in a military band didn’t hold particular appeal, I took up a much grubbier existence as a journalist; later, I added farmer.

My pre-performance ritual wasn’t complex. Helpful rituals never are, or they become an end instead of a means. Nor is a ritual useful if it evolves into what I think psychologists mean by “magical” thinking. Step on a crack; break your mother’s back — that kind of reasoning. Which, when taken to extremes, isn’t a game anymore. Magical thinking is obsessive and stressful.

Rituals, by comparison, are calming and soothing. Early on, I discovered doing the same tasks in the same sequence before going on stage settled me. The ritual I’d developed put me into a performing groove. I could feel my brain “click” into place.

I’d unzip the soft case, remove my horn with the right hand, pull it out and cradle the instrument in my left arm, and reach into a certain pocket where my mouthpiece was always kept. I’d take the mouthpiece out with my right hand, put it in the horn and give the mouthpiece a little turn so that it fit securely. I’d raise the horn toward my lips and take a deep breath, mentally picturing a column of air flowing down into my diaphragm, expanding my lower back.

I’d start my warm-up. The warm-up changed over the years. But the way I got to the warm-up became routine. It was my ritual.

I was thinking about all this in the barnyard this morning. My fingers were numb from cold. Ice-coated grass crunched under my boots. The water buckets had a coating of ice, too, that I knocked out so the animals could drink. To the southwest, the Balsam mountain range glowed plum-like in the morning sun.

I once read chores are important because they give a person reasons to get up in the morning. Feeding the livestock gives me reason to get up in the morning. And it has evolved into a ritual of sorts. My day clicks into a groove.

There are rituals inside of my ritual, and I’ve been trying to decipher them. I believe it goes something like this.

The animals are a single barnyard unit. Yet they also function in groups — goats, sheep, dogs and chickens. Additionally, each is an individual.

I interact with them as a unit, as groups and as individuals. Between us (among us?) we’ve developed seemingly unending patterns and rituals. As individuals, as groups, as a unit. While I am in the barnyard, I influence but do not fully stop the interactions also taking place among them — as individuals, as groups, and as a unit.

This morning, as usual, I opened the stalls and ensured the goats went to their respective places. I fed them pellets. I fed the two guard dogs, and carried hay and pellets down the hill to the sheep. I checked the sheep’s water supply, filling the basin with fresh water. Next, the billy goat and his neutered male companion got pellets, hay and water. I threw scratch to the chickens and fed the barn cat. When the does were finished eating their pellets, I opened the stalls and put hay in their rack.

Simple. But then, good rituals always are.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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