When rites make right

by Steven Goldsmith

This column is supposed to be about rituals, but first I’d better tell you why I recently threw a toy truck out the window of my speeding car.

I don’t usually go in for antisocial behavior. My last brush with the law was more than half a century ago — busted for a bag of pot at age 14.

But there I was, a few weeks ago, driving through the California redwoods with a 6-inch pickup truck in my hand and littering on my mind. Just shy of five years before, on that same road, an out-of-control black pickup — a full-sized one — crossed the center line at 60 mph and crashed into the Subaru I was driving. The fishtailing truck sliced the side of our vehicle away like a can of sardines. Thanks to airbags and luck, my partner Kristin and I emerged from the debris with few visible injuries. At the junkyard the next day, no one could believe we had walked away from the abstract metal sculpture that was Kristin’s destroyed Forester.

Days later we were picking windshield bits from our bodies, and years later we still were grappling with physical and mental fallout from the crash.

Factor in that:

  1. The redwoods trip was our first retirement outing,
  2. Kristin and I had histories of trauma,
  3. The crash happened two weeks before the election of Donald Trump,
  4. The reckless pickup driver — who was unscathed — ran a local right-wing talk-radio station.

These points may help explain why, when obligations recently took me to Northern California, an exorcism seemed in order. At the exact curve in the highway where the truck hit us, I flung the toy pickup onto the shoulder while shouting, “We survived, (expletive)!”

Did this minor marring of a scenic byway wipe away all harm? Of course not. But the act — let’s call it a ritual — merged into the lane of crash images I’d been hauling around for five years. Thanks to the small act, I no longer am just an accident victim; I’m also a man who fiercely proclaims his survival.

We’re approaching an autumn season that abounds with rituals. Who has not felt the annual jitters of back-to-school day, the strange thrill of Halloween and the overstuffed comforts of Thanksgiving? Those events add to the year’s roster of weddings, funerals, housewarmings, birthdays and retirement parties. Many of us also partake of custom rituals tailored to our small group, as when school pals gather at a cabin to share cocktails, karaoke, cards and maybe a bit of calumny against their old classmates.

One of the tragedies of Covid is the number of precious occasions it has stolen, or shrouded in fear. Virus-safe digital gatherings rarely pack the same cathartic wallop. But solo rituals, at least, can carry on. They can be as simple and comforting as bringing a tuna sandwich to a park bench every week. Or they can take you to the deepest places. Nearly every June, I lay flowers on the Pacific Ocean surf where I scattered my wife’s ashes back in 1987.

The truck exorcism made me realize what rituals have in common: They are toy-sized stand-ins for a life-sized real thing — a funeral for the loved one you won’t see again, an anniversary for the leap of faith you took when you hitched your life to that of another person.

This play-acting — this miniaturization — serves us well. Amid the disorder of our lives, rituals remind us that we loved someone, finished out a career, survived a peril. I don’t know about you, but my Social Security years blow by faster and faster. A ritual slows it all down, puts the blur into focus.

Rituals also lighten whatever is too heavy to carry around. I may continue to get flashbacks about that monstrous truck sliding at me in the redwoods. But thanks to my silly, self-concocted ritual, I now also relive the exhilarating feeling I got from flinging something back.

Steven Goldsmith is a former reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Puget Sound Business Journal.