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IsolatEid: how Rituals Helped me Celebrate

5 min read

“An unshared happiness is not happiness… And this was most vexing of all.

Happiness is only real when shared.” – Christopher McCandles

Sunday marked the 60th day I spent alone in my apartment. Sunday was also Eid-ul-Fitr.

Eid-ul-Fitr is the celebration after the month of Ramadan, and a holiday based on community. Communal prayers, communal feasts — the day is spent either hosting friends and family and feeding them; or eating at the houses of friends and family. However, this year was markedly different due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures. Muslims around the world prayed at home instead of at mosques. They met with only their family members or friends that they live with, used Zoom or Google Hangouts to see friends and family they don’t live with, those with cars were able to do drive-by/driveway visits and porch drop-offs of food. Everyone tried to maintain as many of the Eid practices and rituals intact. 

I, on the other hand, had just spent the past two months by myself. Even though my family was close enough, I wouldn’t have been able to see them on Eid because I don’t have a car. So the safer thing to do was to stay at home, which meant spending Eid alone (and on Zoom calls with my friends and family). Part of me was curious about how this Eid would play out, the other part of me dreaded it — thinking the day might drag on for too many hours. Maybe I’d feel too overwhelmed, maybe everyone would be too busy to call. In the week leading up to Eid, I found myself unconsciously engaging in Eid-related rituals.

Discoveries to Embellish Eid

It started with a search for henna cones in Murray Hill, and after buying three unsatisfactory ones — I finally found one that worked! (You can get amazing henna cones that smell like lavender at The Henna Studio). Even though I didn’t know how to actually put on henna, I did a small, amateur design I got from Ritual By Design. While at the Indian grocery store for henna, I absentmindedly picked up a packet of sevai (vermicelli) and Shan Kheer mix. Though I had never made either of those two things in my life, they feel like Eid things to have at home. Each family has its traditions for Eid, so I started thinking about mine as I was walking the aisles of the store. I remembered that my mom would keep cups of cold milk that had chuwara (dried dates) soaking in them, one for each family member, that we would have before going to the prayer. So, I picked up a bag of dried dates that day as well; it isn’t mandatory, but I knew it would make me feel more grounded to start the day the same way as my family would.  All these small things helped me lean into the spirit of Eid celebrations, instead of being afraid of them. 

[Read More: Religion is Not the Only Way: ‘Why Aren’t You Eating?’: The Ramadan Struggle for Muslims With Eating Disorders]

Eid Morning

Even though I was alone, I structured my Eid day as I would have if I were with family. This meant waking up early and getting ready before the prayer (which happened over Zoom!). I had taken out a shalwar kameez the night before so I could be dressed up, and put on some jewelry and makeup as well — the whole nine yards. The smell of sevai and ghee cooking on the stove mixed with chai brewing on the morning of Eid created a familiar atmosphere in my Manhattan apartment. I put on Coke Studio songs as background music, the same way as I would’ve if I was with the rest of my family. I even kept up with the ‘sharing pictures of Eid outfits’ ritual that I have with friends, by setting up a make-shift “tripod” on my bookshelf to get a nice, full-length picture of my Eid clothes! These rituals allowed me to feel excited for the day, added structure to my time, and gave me something to look forward to besides Zoom calls. 

Finding Solace in Ritual

Rituals are an important tool that can help you in times of distress and difficulty by building emotional resilience. It’s a symbolic set of meaningful and purposeful behaviors that have a healing impact, and help ground you when you feel unsettled. They mimic the feeling of community and deepen emotional connections. However, it’s more than just habits because they carry meaning by reviving good memories or experiences from the past. Practicing rituals creates space for nostalgia in moments of distress, anxiety, or sadness, and triggers calmness. For example, getting henna done on Eid has good memories associated with it for me. It is a part of preparing for Eid. So the act of putting the henna on my hand, the smell of it, making the sticky lemon-water to dab on the henna for a deeper color, the small crumbs of dried henna that were on my bed in the morning — all of that elicited the same feelings associated with happy memories of Eid in the past. This made it easier for me to feel like I was participating in the holiday in spite of being alone. 

Here’s what helped me get through these past two months and my first (hopefully, last!) Eid by myself. 

  • Structure time: Try to keep a predictable routine, one that is flexible but also creates a structure to your day. This will give you things to look forward to. This will also make the hours of the day less overwhelming. This will also help to increase feelings of predictability, in an unpredictable time.  
  • Helping others: Doing something for someone else, no matter how small, will elicit feelings of generosity and altruism. These help you feel like you are part of a community. It doesn’t have to be monetary; it can be something in kind, like baking something for your building’s staff or neighbor. 
  • Keep up “activities of daily living” even when it’s hard or meaningless: This means making sure that you keep up with regular errands like laundry, cleaning the apartment, doing dishes every day, showering, getting out of PJs even though you’re by yourself. Doing these things regularly is helpful for mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • Add an element of ritualistic-behavior to daily tasks if they are beginning to get boring. If you are getting frustrated by always having to cook every day for yourself – add a ritual to it. Maybe once a week, make one meal from scratch from your favorite cookbook or chef, or from childhood. Tejal Rao from the New York Times has some great essential recipes. Pick a slow-cooked meal, have some music playing in the background, pair with a drink or dessert that you can make at home. This will help you to feel excited and look forward to an otherwise mundane task.

Rituals empower you, and make you feel connected to a broader community and larger cultural narratives. Especially in times when you feel alone or isolated. They remind us of the ubiquitous ideals that bind us: connectivity, unity, and community. Practicing the rituals associated with Eid, many of which I was doing myself for the first time (usually, it’s my mom who would make the kheer and sevai), helped me feel less isolated and brought me a lot of joy. Practicing Eid rituals were a huge part of why my Eid day ended up being an emotionally satisfying one. 

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