Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rites of Passage

I wrote the following piece this past May as part of a journal I kept over the course of an intensive class on Gender I took as part of my graduate program. The questions have stuck with me - and morphed and expanded. On Tuesday, we had a funeral service for the matriarch of my husband's family. She lived almost 90 full and wonderful years, with the last few marred by illness and disability that took away much of the person she really was to all of us. So we celebrated her life and said our goodbyes. Our culture does have rites and rituals - but I wonder how much meaning we allow them to have. And I wonder why we choose to celebrate or memorialize some events and completely ignore others that have as much if not more significance in our lives. It feels daunting to think about creating rituals for my self and my family that hold the meaning I long for. Would those rites help create the community I seek - or should I focus on finding the community and let the rites come as a side benefit? Or am I longing for something that I simply cannot have?

Rites of Passage

There is a birthday party coming up in my family. My oldest daughter turns 10 on March 11th, and we are marking the event with a celebration with a select group of her closest friends with putt-putt, laser-tag and bumper boats on Saturday, March 7th. Birthdays are special at our house. The first year, we do a big family get together. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, as well as close family friends help us celebrate the day. After that first year, though, it becomes all about the kid. Their requests are considered. Family is always invited, but no longer catered to. If they want to brave the kid friendly venues we've chosen and surround themselves with the other 2, 3, 4... year olds we've invited, they are welcome. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't. But we spend lots of time with family and birthdays only come around once a year, so large or small – we always try to do something the child will enjoy. We also have ritual celebrations on Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families. The kids also especially enjoy Easter and Halloween each year, and we recognize other holidays in fun and festive ways.

But we are missing something in our ritual celebrations. We as a family, and I think largely we as a culture, have forgotten or failed to create rituals to celebrate the true rites of passage. We celebrate getting a driver's license, prom, and graduation – from preschool and kindergarten and elementary and junior high and high school. But we don't celebrate the events that mark our lives as women and men, as developing human beings.

Ancient cultures celebrated these passages in meaningful ways, more for men, but in some instances for women too. There were rites and rituals to mark first hunts, and first menstrual periods. There were vision quests and naming ceremonies. There were rites and rituals for first sexual experiences and marriages. Births and deaths were marked by ceremony. Some of these ancient rites of passage were truly celebratory, some were undoubtedly cruel and gruesome. But in our modern society where families are often isolated and community is often forgotten, these rites of passage have all but disappeared.

This topic has been on my mind for some time now, with puberty descending upon our household rapidly. My older daughter has begun to develop secondary sexual characteristics. The onset of menstruation is within sight. Crossing this threshold of womanhood was not something that was celebrated in my family of origin. I barely had adequate information and I was certainly left with the impression that the event was something to dread. I am determined that my own daughters will not approach this marker in their lives with anticipatory fear and dread. I began to lay the groundwork early with them, being more open in conversation and casting their femaleness in a much more positive light. But to me, that is not enough. I want them to revel in their womanhood. I want them to embrace the creative power of their ability to give life. I want them to celebrate the goddess within. And I want to help them do all of these things in a real and meaningful way.

Although the thought of renting a limousine and advertising to the world that my daughter has reached the age of menarche seems a little outrageous to me, I understand the desire to celebrate and celebrate as community. Certainly I can plan a special outing for the two of us to mark the occasion, and if that's the most I can do, I will at least do that. But a mom and daughter outing misses the support of a sisterhood, a community of women to mentor, encourage and celebrate. What if we could form a community of women important in our daughters' worlds who would come together to celebrate this transition into womanhood? How life-giving would it be for our daughters to know they had a community of sisters to whom they could turn for support? And celebration of menarche might only be the beginning. In some cultures, a woman's monthly cycle allowed her a period of respite. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could stop once a month and indulge in self-care and celebration of ourselves as women? And what about the rite of passage of a first sexual encounter? Without the guilt imposed by culture and religion, the celebration of the first sexual encounter, maybe even with a partner specially trained to teach a young woman about the pleasure her body could give, would empower women around their sexuality in a way modern culture has never seen. Pregnancy and birth could be celebrated in meaningful ways that supported and celebrated women through these transitions. Aging would bring wisdom, and menopause could be a time to celebrate and revere women in yet another life transition.

But these ideas are radical. They would represent an upending of culture and religion as we know it. I would never dare to broach the subject within my group of friends or with the mother's of my daughter's friends. They would think I had lost my mind. So instead, we celebrate birthdays, and we plan for another graduation, and we buy a dress for prom. We encourage our daughters to either hide or flaunt their sexuality in destructive ways and we withhold critical education to help them make healthy choices. We make them feel ashamed of being a woman and we castigate them for their budding sexual desires. We bring a casserole to a new mom, if she is lucky, and a pink or blue gift for her child and then demand she get back to work in just a few short weeks. We push through a fast- paced life never stopping to breathe. And then we have retirement parties and relegate wisdom to the sidelines and poke fun at old age even as we purport to celebrate it with outrageous red hats. We focus on birthdays and Christmas, acceptable reasons to celebrate. And we miss out on what it could really mean to be a woman. I wonder what if we had that kind of community? What if I was able to help create it? What would it mean for my daughters? What would it mean for me?

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