To every thing there is a season, and "to every season," says anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, "there is a ritual.
"Spring is probably the most dramatic season--with its beauty of rebirth--so spring rituals tend to be particularly important. Religions show a clear tradition of spring celebrations--Easter and Passover."
In simpler societies, "Personal reflections would be subsumed in the group's rituals," says the University of Southern California professor and collaborator on "Number Our Days," a 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary. "But we live in a funny time when the larger practices and beliefs that unified an entire people have broken down."
So when bursting buds and warm breezes stir an inner urge to celebrate, replenish and reflect, "people are having to arrange rituals for themselves."
Such as these contemporary rites of spring: playing hooky, spring cleaning, the Cherry Blossom Festival, the sighting of robins, flying of kites, country drives and the "modern saturnalia" of college students flocking to beach resorts.
An emerging, popular form of "spring break" is the weekend getaway, usually geared to physical and/or mental renewal. A burgeoning number of resorts and fitness centers are sponsoring "shape escapes" designed to prepare winter-wiggly bodies for bikini season see box . Area retreat facilities offer spring getaways featuring everything from "wild plant foraging" to "couples massage," or just the chance to watch nature begin its cycle anew.
It was on just such a weekend retreat at Cacapon Mountain that two therapists from the Springfield Psychotherapy & Consultation Center got the idea for a spring "mental health break" for women.
"We had rented a friend's cabin and taken our daughters off with us for a weekend getaway," recalls psychologist Kathleen Nadeau, 36. "We were tramping through the woods talking about the changes we had seen in our practice and our profession."
"We sat down on a rock and went on and on about what a rejuvenating experience it was for us," says social worker Susan Grossman.
"Suddenly it dawned on us what a super experience it could be to get a group of women together for a retreat like that.
"We started brainstorming about the workshops we would have--like stress management and balancing roles and career choices. Spring seemed right since people would be shaking off the winter doldrums. By the time we had driven home, we had it all planned."
About 50 women attended their first "Women's Time and Space" retreat last spring.
"Signing up was a turning point for many of them," says psychologist JoAnne Lindenberger, 33, the third SPCC retreat coordinator. "It was the first time they'd gone away for a weekend just for themselves, without their husbands and children."
About 10 of the original group and 30 first-timers attended the second annual women's weekend retreat this month at Coolfont resort in Berkeley Springs, W. Va. Ages ranged from late twenties to early sixties--with most age 35 to 45. About a third were married and two-thirds single. Among their professions: chemist, speech therapist, administrators, secretaries, computer specialists, poet and ex-nun.
While most expressed interest in the workshops and the hot tubs, many cited "a chance to reflect" as a major reason for participating.
"I felt ready to take some time to go away and reassess," said Department of Energy executive Paula Daigneault, who is "nearing 40."
"I went to a women's college so it's like coming home. I love the chance to just sit around the fireplace talking."
"Stress was the reason I came last year," said Bonnie McBride, 34, a computer-specialist intern from Alexandria. "I had gotten RIFfed, so it was a lifesaver. This year I brought a friend and a bottle of champagne I'd been saving since September of '81."
"I'm involved in setting some new goals for myself," said Lynne McCombs, 41, a Loudoun County psychotherapist. "Also, I've recently discovered the value of women as friends and as a support system that I hadn't utilized for a long time."
"I thought this would be helpful since I'm looking toward retirement," said Catherine Stifler, 58, a grandmother and guidance counselor from Parkton, Md. "By this time in the school year I'm starting to get drained. This is the first time I've gone away for a weekend by myself. It's very relaxing."
Spring breaks like these are "a major antidote to burn-out," claims New York psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, who coined the term "burn-out" and wrote a 1980 best-seller with that title. "Taking off some time every couple of months, just to think and reflect, is very important to mental health. People don't do it enough."
To get the most from a retreat, he says, "Don't fill your time with musts and shoulds and have tos. You want to change your pace and take a look at your life from a distance."
Among the questions he suggests pondering:
* Where am I at this point in my life?
* What's good about my life, and what's not?
* Do I like where I'm living, my relationships, my job, my financial situation?
* What changes, if any, do I want to make?
* What risks have I taken recently? "To risk," he says, "is to live."
* "You might want to write your answers in a journal," says Freudenberger, "or talk into a tape recorder or type it out. Sometimes it's helpful to have a partner with whom you can think out loud."
In addition to longer getaways, "Daily reflection time is also important. Try walking to work instead of driving so you have time to think. If you do drive, turn off the radio and reflect. Take a walk or just sit quietly at lunch."
To turn your spring break into a ritual, anthropologist Myerhoff advises:
* Integrate the old and the new. Rituals "bring into juxtaposition what has changed and what has remained the same."
* Incorporate elements of celebration and contemplation. "The two major functions of ritual."
* Decide "what it is I want to say about this time." And "with whom I am going to do it."
* Pick some tangible symbol of your ritual. From buying a new hat to photographing the dogwood.
Creating a personal spring ritual can affect your mental health the rest of the year, contends University of Minnesota psychologist Paul Rosenblatt.
"Sometimes the knowledge that you've got something special to look forward to, come April, is the only thing that gets you through the long, cold winter."