Music Suggestion: Tradition, Fiddler on the Roof
Drink Suggestion: 2009 Côte du Py, Morgon

One of the many things I love about France is the cultural significance of a properly hosted dinner party. There is a protocol to the evening, a proper order to the many servings, both food and drink, and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, wine soaked memory. I have a dinner party to plan for this weekend, and the pressure is on. Our invited friends will expect a certain adherence to the dîner rituel français, and while I have enjoyed many an incredible French meal, hosting one is another story. A collective prayer, please.

I was at the market this morning to generate ideas about the Saturday menu and to pick up a few things for today’s lunch and dinner. Aix-en-Provence has a number of daily open air markets, but the largest is behind my flat at the Place des Prêcheurs plaza. Shopping at the local farmers’ market has nothing in common with the typical American grocery run. A local market visit cannot be rushed, nothing is prepackaged into “convenient serving sizes,” the produce reflects the season, and patience is required. I have my “favorites list” with regards to certain vendors, but still prefer to start with a slow tour of the stalls to see what looks good. Provence is famous for its fruits and berries, and this being April local strawberries have begun to appear. I did some berry sampling this morning on my inspection lap (okay, Costco does sampling too: Chef Boyardee, tiny hotdogs wrapped in pastry, …) to see if they were worth buying at this early point in the season. Frankly, tasting wasn’t required; the perfume of the ripe red berries was intoxicating. Resistance was futile.

Céline has the best salads, the bent old man with the LA Dodgers cap (has no idea who they are, I asked) offers the most savory tomatoes, I prefer my chèvre frais from a local goat farmer with the small card table, bread only from Farinomanfou (a couple from Quebec, completely fou [crazy] about their selections of flour), apples and apple juice from the orchard outside Venelles (son and daughter work the stall), and the best butcher – Pagni, the Italian – operates from a white stepvan at the market’s edge. He calls me l’américaine and dreams of visiting New York and watching a baseball “match” in Yankee Stadium. Ahhh, magnifique!

Today I was in Pagni’s line behind 2 ladies of 74 and 82 (we were exchanging ages for reasons I didn’t understand), and during the course of slicing this and grinding that, Pagni (56) was expounding on his 3 marriages. Why 3? Because he loves younger women and his wives keep growing older! He then looked to me for support on the universal truth that younger is always better when it comes to females. I was at a loss for my French vocabulary. There was an R rated discussion of his sexual prowess, which left the women pink cheeked and clucking with laughter, and a 5 minute ramble about a recent trip to the hospital; I followed perhaps half of that. It took me 20 minutes to buy 4 sausages and a slice of ham. The bill for the meat – 7 euros – the price of the wait – well, priceless.

Rituals and traditions are critical in our lives, particularly at the hectic pace we maintain. The world seems to spin faster now than when I was a kid, spending afternoons at the little league field and sketching race cars for hours. My own children suffer (enjoy) a continuous bombardment of new gadgets, video games, and distractions that are form fitted to their 140 characters-or-less attention spans. Forget writing a letter with pen and paper, kids today cannot sit through an email. That would require the crafting of actual sentences (subject, verb, object, …remember?) and the use of capital letters, punctuation, and possibly even (horror of all horrors) paragraphs. They tweet through short bursts of symbols, smiley faces, abbreviations, and puzzling acronyms like IRL, LMK, LMAO, and my son’s favorite, LMFAO. Explain please.

All of us, children and adults alike, have less time to exhale and reflect these days. Rituals provide a moment for reflection and remembrance, and a link to our family, ancestors and traditions. Changes are unsettling and rituals remind us of the familiar; the things that are comforting. Particularly when in transition – professional, geographic, emotional – we need our rituals and traditions for ballast, to keep us stable and connected. Quoting from a 1992 Family Circle article, “Family rituals are an important means of binding the individual to the group; they give us a ‘we.’ Rituals and traditions speak volumes about a family’s inner life. Taken together, they are a family’s thumbprint, its metaphor of intimacy. Even when a ritual passes out of constant usage, its residue remains.” This is beautifully said.

Rituals around food and the meal played important roles in our childhood home. One of my favorite memories was the Sunday lunch, because my grandmother always joined us after church. She loved to decide who amongst the 5 grandkids would say grace, hearing about our activities for the past week, amusing us with tales of my dad’s childhood, and rousing everyone for a relaxing walk around the farm property after the huge meal. Rituals around food and the meal play important roles in my own home as well. We have replaced grace with statements of gratitude and the walk through the fields with a stroll around town, but meal time remains cherished family time, not to be violated.

I took a course on the power and value of rituals and traditions this past year that was fascinating. Rituals are used universally, across all cultures to honor and celebrate, heal, provide transition, and bring order to chaos. We explored various approaches, including the construction of small altars and memorials, the burning or burying of notes (my kids loved doing this at home), jewelry (we made African “wish necklaces,” I think mine worked!), and rites of passage.

I am curious which rituals others enjoy as well, as it is fun to try the new as well as revive the old. Was there a ritual maker in your family, and what roles do you play today in continuing or creating traditions for your own family, or yourself? If interested in experimenting with traditions and rituals, consider the timing (beginning, middle and end) and placement, participants, and purpose.  And above all, note that rituals should benefit everyone involved and harm none. Feel free to post your own thoughts and experiences with rituals and traditions on the blog.

So, a week has passed since I started this entry, and the dinner party was – for the most part – a success. Local black and green olives provided a simple but traditional starter, along with a lively champagne (Louis de Sasy). The main course of seared Mediterranean tuna was laid on a bed of sliced heirloom tomatoes, chopped fresh onions, and basil (all sautéed briefly), which was light and perfect for a warm spring evening in Provence. My wine guy, Yves, who runs Cave d’Yves at the corner, talked me out of a white wine for the tuna, pointing instead to a Beaujolais (2009 Cote du Py from Morgon) that perfectly complemented the fish/tomato combo.  The thick, deep green asparagus spears that I had selected that morning from Céline were roasting in the oven for about 15 minutes (and a glass of champagne) beyond their cook time; an “oh shit” moment. So, ….we also enjoyed a few over-cooked mushy spears with crunchy tips. I was redeemed, possibly, by the fromage tray – a selection of chèvre (goat), reblochon (cow), and brebis (sheep) cheeses – followed by a sweet pear tart, sprinkled with pecans and offered with coffee.

A true French host would have offered a post dessert digestif – an Armagnac or limoncello, perhaps – and opened a box of chocolates to end the evening. Always room for improvement, as my grandmother would say, always room for improvement.

Bill Magill

Postscript: Catherine Freemire teaches a fascinating course on the topic of rituals at San Francisco State University, as part of its Core Strengths Coaching program ( Much of my discussion on rituals and traditions is thanks to her. A few books worth reading on this topic include (I have a longer list if interested):

Beck & Metrick, The Art of Ritual (1990)

Cohen, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album (1991)

Driver, The Magic of Ritual (1991)

Hammerschlag and Silverman, Healing Ceremonies: Creating Personal Rituals for Spiritual, Emotional, Physical & Mental Health (1998)

Imber-Black & Roberts, Rituals for Our Times (1992)

Lieberman, New Traditions: Redefining Celebrations for Today’s Family (1991)

Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal & Delight in Our Busy Lives (1999)

Ryan, Attitudes of Gratitude (1999)

Seo, Heaven on Earth; 15 Minute Miracles to Change the World (1999)

Music suggestion: Hard Times, Woody Guthrie
Drink suggestion: Prohibition Ale, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

I first published this essay in 2009 through the INSEAD Knowledge series (hence, the references to that year). I thought it was worth a reprint, given the employment challenges with which many of us continue to grapple despite the economic recovery supposedly underway.

This could be the best year of your life; a year of discovery, correction, clearance, and enlightenment. 2009 could be the year that started all wrong and ended so right. Twenty years from now, when sharing life’s lessons over a bottle of wine with friends, you might reflect on 2009 as your year of real change; that barrier year between who you were and who you became.

Yes, we are talking about the same 2009. The year of global recession and record unemployment. The year of depressing retirement account balances and even more distressing home foreclosures. The year your cushy job disappeared, leaving you in dismay and wondering who would cover the mortgage. The one you proudly flaunted like a scar among sailors – “so you think your monthly is big?” – but is now costing you twice the swooning value of the home. It is only March, but the year looks frightening.

With savings melting faster than the Larsen ice shelf, this could be the year your kids learn the name of the neighbourhood public or state school; the year you learn to use a metro pass. With that generous company expense tab gone, you may have to forgo “business” dinners (with your still-employed friends) and the inevitable $100 charges; damn that French wine. 2009 will be a memorable year.

This is a time of upheaval for many of us. But whether it is constructive upheaval or devastating chaos is your choice; fully 100 per cent your choice. Consider a home knocked from its foundation by an earthquake, its frame askew and doors queerly misaligned. Leaving it crippled on the lot is not an option. Do you restore to its former condition, or do you pull it down, given a valid excuse to rebuild to a better blueprint? This year you may indeed have that choice. You may have been avoiding this unwelcome decision. In 2009 the choice may find you.

But all is not lost, nothing is inevitable, and hopelessness need not reign. Consider, if you will, the world of physics. Momentum is a key and indispensible force in the physical world. It carries a five-ounce baseball speeding over the plate and helps a 4,000 tonne train down the tracks. Barry Bonds could reverse that momentum in a single crushing swing, but even Superman struggled to slow the lumbering train. And the man of steel was impotent against the momentum of life, wrestling with the demands of his calling. That was his true kryptonite, the bonds of predestination that would never break.

We, fortunately, have no such binds locking us down. It may feel that way, however. How does one change a career, fix or flee a marriage, chart a new course? With the wind at your back, why ask tough questions? With dead air in your face, the questions may become painfully persistent and unavoidable. There may no longer be a job to lose or a relationship to save.

Money and motion can be numbing and their absence can be sobering. Under the bare light of a quiet day, in the absence of tense adrenalin from work commitments, festering annoyances that have been endured through distraction suddenly become untenable. In your unemployed calm, a greater sense of import and urgency over these irritations may surface. The outcome may be confrontation, but also resolution.

Seek liberation in this upheaval. Before instinctively sending out your resume in a blast mailing and chasing down every lead that looks remotely interesting, take one step back. Get in touch with your true Mission. What were you put on earth to contribute? Each of us can do at least one thing better than anyone else on the planet. The blend of our genetic gifts and formative experiences yield a unique cocktail. For Mozart or Einstein or Michael Jordan the gifts were obvious. For the rest of us it may not be so clear, but is no less true. Deep down we each understand our talents and passions. Marry the two and you will set the world ablaze.

Now is the time to get right with yourself. A transition year is ripe for big questions and interesting answers. But getting right with yourself demands first a simple, but possibly unsettling, realisation: This Is Your Life. Your conception was a miracle. Your Mission is unique and precious. It must be revered and protected. Your Mission is not surrendered to someone else’s journey; not those of your spouse or boss. You have permission to deny the expectations of friends, co-workers, and neighbours. On your deathbed – and there is one on order – you will answer only to yourself. It will be wholly unfair and highly unsatisfying on that day to assign blame to others for your regrets.

If any of this is finding resonance, I offer three simple steps that may help you gain perspective on where you are and where you want to go.

Step 1: Find a quiet place, take a deep breath, relax, and imagine your golden role: the role that best exploits your strengths and passions; your Mission. This can be challenging when stressed by immediate concerns over job loss and bills. But it is exactly at this time that the exercise is most valuable. Take a day or a week if necessary, and contemplate the perfect work/life situation at age 50 or 60. If you are close to 60, then project out 10 more years. In this economy, no one is retiring, right? Imagine what are you doing professionally, where are you living, and who is with you. Stay rooted in reality – you won’t become a professional boxer or world-class soprano – but avoid compromising the options. Think outside the box and let your ambitions stretch.

Step 2: Sketch your career arc from now until that golden role. What two or three interim steps are required to get there from a professional prospective? What additional education, training, and experiences are needed? Again, do not constrain the options, but think credibly. It is critical to draft a plan that is immune to the inertia of your career and personal decisions to date; one that is void of concerns over feelings or unexpected consequences. Dangerous thinking, yes? But with little to lose, don’t be timid, be a pirate.

Step 3: Take an inventory of all major people and objects of gravity in your life. When navigating across your career arc to the golden role, these will be either anchors or sails. Your home, cars, spouse, lover, club memberships, designer wardrobe, wine collection, time share, sailboat, and everything else that orbits your world today as massive planets, consuming your energy to stay in motion. Anchors or sails? Some categorisations are easy; others may be painful and perilous. But it’s a good year for unsettling considerations. If not now, when?

The rest should be obvious. Once you understand your Mission and hold the map for navigation, outfit the vessel with your best sails and jettison the rest. Simple, right? No, for most of us life is more complicated. But I find this exercise highly illuminating, uplifting, and energising. It is a structure for positive reflection and provides a sense of control over an unruly situation. You may be caught up in the perfect storm, but at least you are at the helm. And the possibility of popping out on the other side of this economic vortex with a clearer head, a lighter load, and a better direction is exhilarating. This could be a very good year; the best year of your life. Let’s toast to that.

Bill Magill