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Jan 20 2014

How My Toddler’s Tedious Bedtime Ritual is Actually a Lot Like Prayer

By at 3:55 pm

crib mirror

Each night before my daughter, age 2.5, goes to sleep, she has a “special minute” with my husband, and then one with me.

This started as a compromise so that we didn’t both have to be present every night for her lengthy bedtime rituals, but the special minute has evolved into a complex ritual of its own. We talk about, in this order, five things at the drugstore, five things at the zoo, five things at the doctor, five things at the Jewish Museum (the National Museum of American Jewish History, here in Philadelphia), five things at the Please Touch Museum (the local children’s museum), five things about her mirror (yes, really), and five things about today.

And we do this every night, just when I’m the most exhausted, right when I’m on the verge of getting some alone time, exactly when I need her just to be asleep already. We talk and we talk and we talk.

I say, verbatim, the same things every night (except for the five things about “today;” mercifully, that’s where I get a little leeway). She asks the same questions in the same order every night. She asks and I answer. It’s our call and response, our ritualized dialogue. And, as I just discovered after months of this stultifying repetition, the whole process has a lot to do with prayer.

Jewish tradition calls on us to pray three times a day, to say the same words over and over, some out loud and some silently, whether we feel like it or not. I don’t pray three times a day, but I do get the appeal of marking time and engaging in a disciplined practice. When I do pray, sometimes it feels meaningful and fulfilling and I get great strength from both the communal and the personal aspects. Other times, it just feels like going through the motions. Sometimes, the prayers ask rhetorical questions, and I respond with wonder and amazement and gratitude, and other times, I think, “I’d really rather be doing something else right now.”

I can say the same things about our “special minute” that I say about prayer. When my heart is in it, these moments of conversation with my daughter are awe-inspiring. Even if I’m impatient or annoyed or trying to rush through the ritual to get to my tea and magazine, I still have to say all the words. She knows when I’m trying to take shortcuts, and she always gets me back on track. Occasionally, we’re both game for taking a diversion, and we get sidetracked into another conversation, but we always come back to our series of five things.

Jews and toddlers both love ritual. We are inclined to find the holy in the mundane. (Blessing for going to the bathroom? Check! Turning a dirty stick into a prized possession? Yup!) We are dependent on repetition for a sense of security and predictability in the midst of an otherwise unpredictable day-to-day.

No matter how my day goes, I know that, come 7:40 p.m., I’m going to be saying, “Five things about your mirror:

1. Your mirror is attached to your crib with purple strings.

2. There’s a blue crescent moon and a yellow puffy star.

3. There are three little strings as decoration.

4. There’s a pattern of stripes around the outside.

5. There’s a funny blue whatchamacallit guy with a big red nose and black and white hair.

Then my daughter says, “Why don’t we have black and white hair?” and I say, “Some animals do, but people usually only have one color of hair.”

This is either the ultimate in mundaneness, or the ultimate in holiness, and every night that I am able to tip the scales towards holiness, I realize that I depend on the ritual as much as she does, maybe more.

I may not pray three times a day, but I guess I do every night.

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