This Friday I’m going to Wisconsin to attend a coming of age ceremony for the 14-year-old daughter of a long-time friend of mine.
When I’ve casually mentioned this weekend excursion to acquaintances at work, I’ve gotten strange looks, like I’ve just told them I’m about to head off to the woods to sacrifice baby lambs, wipe the blood on my private parts and writhe naked with other women, under a full moon. If I happen to say the words “rite of passage ritual” while trying to explain myself further, things go downhill from there.
Throughout history and across cultures and geographies, people have held coming of age rituals as a way to help their kids identify who they are. Where they come from. And to support them in moving out into the world as powerful, generous, spiritual, strong and loving, fully realized adults.
In America the closest we come is the Bar and Bat Mitzvah. So, I guess if you’re a non-Jewish teenager in America you’re supposed to figure out how to make a healthy, mindful transition into adulthood by simply watching how our major young adult cultural role models are doing it…you know…Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashians…
Yeah. Not so sure that’s a good idea.
Back in 1994, Dr. Mary Pipher published a book called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, all about the societal pressures on American teenage girls and how that can harm them, kill their spirits, keep them from growing into confident, empowered women. My daughter Zoe was just a year old at the time, but as I read that book, I have to admit, I got really scared.
The problem was, Pipher didn’t really offer many solutions. But some of my close women friends and I started talking about it. Many of them had kids who were a lot closer to adolescence than Zoe…and out of those conversations, we decided maybe some of the other cultures had it right. Maybe we needed to provide a way to send our kids off into adulthood armed with more insight than they could get from reality TV, and some words of support and stories from people who loved them and had lived through the whole adolescence thing themselves. Maybe we needed to have some sort of coming of age ritual/ceremony/celebration.
So we started doing them. The first one 17 years ago now, for two girls, a daughter and a step-daughter of a couple of the women. The next three years later. Then when Zoe turned 14, seven years ago now, and again, two years later with Hannah and another friend’s daughter, who also happened to be one of Hannah’s best friends.
We’ve made these ceremonies up… woven together from bits and pieces of rite of passage rituals we’ve read about, reinterpreted, re-imagined, and personalized for the particular girl. They’ve mostly involved sitting around together, a few cherished adult women in the girls’ life, sharing poems and quotes and stories and songs and symbolic gifts with the young woman being celebrated, offering wisdom and laughter and an arsenal of love for her to take with her on her travels into adulthood.
And I know it sounds kinda weird. And possibly quite awkward. And definitely way too hippie/touchy-feely/granola crunchy. I totally get that. But somehow, despite all its non-coolness, the girls, bless their hearts, have gone along with it, and it’s worked. What we’ve set out to do, we’ve done…taken a few hours to say to these girls “you matter, you can do this, we’re with you, you’re not alone,” in a way in which they hear it loud and clear, and remember it.
So I’m looking forward to the weekend. Not just because it will be fun to hang out with these people up in the woods of Wisconsin, even sans baby animal sacrifices, but because I know there are many ideas, spoken and unspoken, about what’s important and how to live your life and how to see yourself, being tossed into our daughters’ (and sons’) laps on a daily basis, and as freakishly strange as it is, this seems to be a way to say once again, that’s not all there is. Keeping up with the Kardashians isn’t all there is.
One of the things we’ve done for every girl, is each write a letter to her with words of advice and encouragement and love, and her mom gives her a special box to keep the letters in, to look at and read again and again, through the years, whenever she needs to. I’ve heard from the girls who’ve been through this that the letters have definitely been read, sometimes the letters have been what’s gotten them through the nastiness of high school politics, personal failures, crushing disappointments, or just those dark, angst-ridden nights when nothing seems to make any sense.
I’m still working on my letter for A, the girl we’re celebrating this weekend, but as I was getting to the end of it, to the “words of advice” part, I looked at the list I was making and started thinking, wow, this is a letter I need to send to myself. And maybe there are a few other people out there who could use these words too. So here is part of my letter to A (full names have been omitted to protect the identities of those who may not want to advertise their involvement in bizarre, off-the-grid coming of age rites).
I had dinner last week with B, who is 28 years old now, living in New York City, she just finished her MBA. She’s recently returned from working for women’s health and economic development in Ethiopia for two years, and now has this amazing and kind of high-powered job at a cool start up venture. 14 years ago, when she was 14, a similar group of women gathered around her for a weekend to celebrate her coming of age. And it made me think of you, where you will be in 14 years, and more importantly, how you will be in the world.
I think a lot of that depends on you and the choices you make, the people you surround yourself with, the way you spend your time. There will be so much you can’t control in the next years of your life. Things will happen to you. People will come in and out of your life. Circumstances will change. Zip codes will change.
But you can choose…and I’d say, in fact, you have to choose, every single day, who you’re going to be.
You can choose to be yourself, when other people around you are just trying to fit in.
You can choose to stand up for what you believe in. You can choose to believe in something greater than yourself, have gods other than money and fame and status, and you can remind yourself only a daily basis that you personally are not God, or even God’s second cousin twice removed.
You can choose kindness over exclusion and hate. You can choose gratitude over despair and the trap of competition and constantly comparing yourself to everyone else’s Facebook updates.
You can choose community, real intimacy, honesty, knowing and being known, over superficial “fun at a party,” “make me look good” relationships.
You can choose to ask for help, support, and the love that you really need, instead of pretending you can go it alone and you don’t need anyone.
You can choose to believe that you have choices and those choices make a difference.
You can choose how you spend your time. Because how you spend your time really does end up being how you spend your life.
A lot of people will try to define you, put you in a box, label you, limit you, in the years to come. They will try to define you by your looks, by who you love, by what you do for work, by what you believe about God or don’t.
Everyday you can choose to defy their definitions.
You can remind yourself that it’s not about what you look like, it’s about how you see yourself. And how you see others.
It’s not about who you love, it’s about how you love.
It’s not about how you make a living. It’s about how you live. Every day.
It's not about what you believe about God, it's about being God's hands and feet and voice and love in the world.
I am so grateful to know you A. I’m so excited about the young woman you are now and are becoming. And I can hardly wait to see you 14 years from now. Let’s plan to meet for dinner, ok?
Peace and blessings,
Here's an update, post celebration I thought I'd share. My 19 year old daughter, Hannah, along with some help from me and her dad, wrote this song for A, and really for all girls who are heading off into the land of the amazing, strong, and powerful people they will be next. This video is a live performance of the song, with band, at Martyrs in Chicago, a month after the event. Enjoy
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