Navratri 2013

Navratri, nine nights devoted to the Holy Mother in her various forms, began on Saturday with the dark of the moon. Last year I kept the observance rather simple and personal. This year I feel pulled to engage with the holiday more deeply.

The first three days are a purification of sorts. The focus is on Durga, but also Kali and Parvati. I spent one day on each goddess, making kala, and working on letting go of what no longer serves me. I burned black candles and spent a lot of time in meditation. I pushed myself in my yoga practice.

Today begins three days of devotion to and focus on Lakshmi. I made an extra effort with my clothes and make up today. I made a sugar scrub with jojoba, olive, rose, and jasmine oils. I am taking time out for beautiful novels and music. Sitting in meditation this morning I realized how necessary this break from such seriousness is! It’s usually all Kali, all the time in my head! But a person needs a break from the unrelenting intensity She brings. Lakshmi says to me, “Flow. Seek out the beautiful in each moment. Create beauty in each moment. Bless each moment and person you touch.” Such a different outlook on the world!

Mahalakshmi

Mahalakshmi

As Lakshmi is the goddess of abundance, I will be asking for blessings upon my family’s finances, seeking Her assistance in finding a house for our growing family, and making donations to various organizations. I have learned that there is no receiving if you are not ready to give out of the abundance you already have.

After Lakshmi’s days come three days devoted to Saraswati. She is the patron goddess of sound, speech, and knowledge. I will petition Her for blessings on my voice and writing, and my husband’s business. The last day involves placing your books and tools used in your vocation in front of the altar. That means Sunday will be a media fast for me.

I’ve also brought some of the observance out into the main living area. I have a smaller altar area set up on the dining table. Flowers, a pot with water and rice (representing Ma as the earth and foundation of our sustenance), a cup for incense, a candle, and today’s banana offering. I light the candle morning and evening and say a simple prayer. It brings the observance a bit more into the family sphere, without having to involve them in my detailed observances.

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May you and yours be blessed with abundance of all good things! May you find the beauty that surrounds you and is in you! Jai Ma!

Family Announcements

When I started this blog just over 2 years ago my youngest child was only 4 months old, we were living in Wales, I was enrolled in a PhD program specializing in systematic and feminist theologies and the Virgin Mary. Now I’m living in Washington State, my eldest child has started kindergarten, my youngest is 2 and half years old and goes to preschool five mornings a week, and I happily moved away from academia. Time flies!

My family is the greatest joy in my life. It is the source of my deepest rewards, challenges, and personal growth. It with much happiness that I let you all know that I am pregnant with my third child! My husband and I have been debating for a year whether or not to expand our family, and well…… I wanted to do it sooner rather than later, as I am no spring chicken (according to biological dictates)! I am mid-way through the first trimester; the baby is due in mid-May, which makes me think I’ll birth around Beltane.

Many women don’t often mention their pregnancies until they have passed into the second trimester, when miscarriages are less likely to occur. I do not have a history of miscarriage. Each of my previous pregnancies stuck, so I have no expectation that this one won’t either. That said, birth, like death, is something we have little control over. There is always a risk that this bub won’t ‘take.’ My belief is that the more women who speak about their miscarriage history, the less likely women will be to feel isolated or alone in the event of one (which happens more frequently than we realize), or worse, to assume that they are flawed and faulty women because they haven’t carried or have trouble carrying a baby to term. So if I have to share sad news, I will do so. But please, send your blessings for healthy, smooth pregnancy!

 

Ganesh Chaturthi

Yesterday was Ganesh Chaturthi – the first day of a ten (or so) day festival celebrating the birthday of Ganesh. In India this is a huge festival! Many people make murtis (statues) of Ganesh out of clay and then submerge and dissolve them in local rivers.

There is no Hindu community in my town with which to celebrate, and I have no interest in crafting a statue (maybe next year?), so my household celebrated by basically having a bit of a birthday party for Ganesh.

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I set up the altar on the dining table. We placed all of our Ganesha murtis (all four) on the cloth. There is a candle, lots of flowers, a singing bowl, sandalwood incense, a plate with chocolates (one for each of the family members), and a big bowl of sweet rice ‘pudding.’ I performed a puja for the whole family, and then we sat down to dinner. After we had eaten dinner at the table, we cleared away the dishes, sang happy birthday to Ganesh, and dished up the rice.

I left the altar up during the night. It was so pretty.

May the blessings of Ganesh – wisdom, truth, the removal of all obstacles, and the abundance of all good things – be with you and yours!

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Not Everyone Appreciated Our Rite of Passage

Last week I wrote about the coming of age ritual my husband and I did for our five-year old son. That single post has received significant attention: repostings, comments, and discussion. More people may have seen that post than any other I’ve written and there are a few things I want to follow-up on.

In retrospect, the title is unclear. I would prefer to re-title it “Rites of Passage for a 5-year-old.” The event was not just a ‘regular’ ritual, it was specifically a rite of passage. ‘5 year old rituals’ makes it sound like it took five years to perform this ritual! Re-framing the ritual as rite of passage may have helped alieviated some of the criticisms my family received.

While most of the comments and discussion around my post were positive and supportive, we did receive some criticism. The most common response was that we scared our son and he wasn’t ready for such a ritual. It is to that criticism that I want to respond.

First, I am grateful for the critique! No one was rude, though a few voices came close. By blogging I aim to be part of a wider discussion, and disagreement is part of discussion. The naysayers are right in one respect: we did scare our son. But he gets scared regularly. He likes to read stories that push him to the edge (Homer’s Odyssey, for example) or try new physical feats, like balancing on a ledge four feet off the ground. Fear is a part of our lives, and facing our fears, especially in a safe context is an important part of developing confidence, resilience, and pride.

We, collectively and individually, need containers for our fears. We did not design our rite to provoke fear in our son; all the activities were things he’d done in the past. That fear came up was was unsurprising and we had space for that. Do the people who think that we deliberately frightened our child think that fear is never ok? Do they not let their kids try something scary for the first time? How can children handle the unpredictable, often scary world if they don’t know that they have tools and resources to face their fears?

Isn’t that like many meaningful rites of passages? I immediately think of birth. American society doesn’t treat it much like a rite of passage, but it is. It is scary, unknown, and uncertain, even the second or third time! It requires mental, emotional and physical endurance and resilience. Most people involved come through with some degree of increased pride and strength – and despite the fear, pain, and struggle of birth, many women go on to do it again.

One woman on Facebook said, “A rite of passage should not make a child cry in fear.”

My husband, Adam, replied, “… I don’t believe that a children’s ritual ought to be designed to frighten a child, but if a child’s fear arises in the midst of ritual it should be dealt with then and there. To me, stopping the ritual simply because of fear is empowering the fear, not the initiate…” I agree with him.

I’m not a fan of the kind of thinking that gives everyone a trophy for participation. However, I think creating spaces for kids (and people of any age) to push themselves and challenge what they think they are capable of is important for developing character, and the virtues of strength, pride, resiliency, and even compassion. The aim is to push the participant toward their best, even if the participant is five.

While our son lashed out to a surprisingly intense degree, we expected some of this. We have an intense son! He loves fiercely, he rages fiercely, he cuddles fiercely, etc. It was no surprise that his fear is expressed fiercely too. Adam and I knew that we’d need to roll with the reality of the situation, and we did.

Another criticism was that involving fire, specifically, was too scary. That may be. But jumping a fire is nothing our son hadn’t done before! Our son has since said he was afraid his feet would catch fire. I asked him if he truly thought his mama and papa would let that happen. No, he said. In that same conversation he was smiling proudly and said he was excited for his next set of rituals, whenever those would be.

My son is clearly working out what that ritual meant. He’s told us he was scared and in the same breath expressed pride. It is now a touchstone. When he is feeling nervous about something we remind him that he’s a boy who’s had his 5-year-old rituals, and I wish you could see his beaming face when we remind him of that!

For example, our local grocery store recently changed its name. “How is it pronounced?” he wanted to know. I wasn’t sure and I suggested he ask an employee.

“No Mama, you do it,” he said. I whispered to him, “Hey, you’re brave, you’ve had your rituals!” He beamed, “Oh yeah!” Then he walked over to the employee. I heard him say, “Excuse me”, and ask his question.

Somehow that touchstone reminds him that he can face his fears, little or big. So while he might still talk about how the ritual was scary, it has brought him pride and strength lasting weeks after the ritual.

My five-year old freaked out, it’s true. But he freaked out in the loving, safe company of the two people who love him most in the world. We asked nothing of him that he wasn’t capable of. Next time he faces the unknown he’ll have this experience to look back to, and hopefully next time, he’ll freak out less. And there will be a next time. He’s even looking forward to it.

What We’re Reading

I like books. I really like books. I seem  constitutionally unable read only one thing at a time. This filters down to the kids, too. We’re reading some great stuff right now, so I thought I’d share.

First up, the two-and-a-half-year-old. Here is her current obsession:IMG_0677

She is in love with the Octonauts, a series of books and cartoons that we discovered thanks to the BBC in Wales. We read these several times every day (saints preserve me). The art is great, the characters are adorable, and, when watching the cartoons, she learns stuff about marine life and the oceans.

My daughter is so obsessed that she insists she is neither boy nor girl, but penguin – Peso Penguin, the medic character. I am called almost exclusively Tweak Bunny, the engineer – no more Mama here!

 

IMG_0678Next, my 5-year-old. Together we are reading the following: A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K LeGuin, Wildwood by Colin Meloy (he of the Decembrists), and The Odyssey as retold by Gillian Cross and illustrated by Neil Packer. These are unintentionally listed in order of least to greatest preference.

LeGuin is marvelous, but rather dense and staid for a 5-year-old. Son still enjoys it, but he asks for the others first. Wildwood, an alternate reality book set in Portland, OR, is good, but not great. Son really likes it, and middle school readers might love it. As a more advanced reader there are some flaws that I think better editing could have helped, and also could have slimmed down this hefty tome by about a third. Meloy says in 10 words what could easily be said in 5.

The surprising winner is The Odyssey. I’m pretty sure I read this a million years ago (I know I read The Iliad in 9th grade), but I don’t remember being as interested as I am now. This retelling is excellent. I highly recommend this version. You get all the awfulness and weariness of Odysseus’ journey, but little of the repetition or gore of the original, which is perfect for getting young minds hooked on ancient myth and story telling. The illustrations are beautiful. Ancient Greek lettering is used in some of the pictures, too. We found this at the library, but I would like to get a copy for our home, as I know this is a book we will return to many times. (Follow this link to see the first 17 pages.)

 

Here is what I’m reading.IMG_0682 The first is my one novel, Victor Hugo’s French classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve never read it. I have a love of 19th century and gothic novels, and Hugo’s other great novel, Les Miserables, is one of my all time favorites. This book, however, is rather slow going, both because I have limited time to get engrossed in a book like this (one with such complex writing and long-winded descriptions that uninterrupted chunks of time are necessary for true enjoyment) and because, well, it’s a little dull so far.

Second is Living Your Yoga, by Judith Lasseter. One of my yoga teachers recommended it, and I quite like it. It’s a little book on how to bring the values of yoga into your every day life. I’m reading one chapter a day and using it as a bit of focus. Today, for example, is about Control, about letting go of our need for it, and how this affects not just our asana practice but also our relationships. Yesterday was Compassion, etc.

The next two are both Scarlet Imprint books. The olive colored one is their latest, Serpent Songs, a collection of essays on Traditional Witchcraft. I’m only half way through. I am struggling with some of the essays. I may write a longer review when I finally finish. The white book is Peter Grey’s The Red Goddess. I’ve read this one before (twice), but I am reading it again! I love this book, even though it is highly problematic, particularly to anyone with a strong biblical studies background. And yet, I still think it is worth reading.

What are you reading? Anything you recommend?

 

Chop Wood, Carry Water

There is a Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

I’m definitely in the ‘before enlightenment’ state of things, and most definitely lately. I feel further away from anything spiritually meaningful than I have in a while. I’m tired, getting over some sort of mild virus, and likely swinging on the swing set of hormones. While I usually have a strong container for dealing with news and the internet, the last few says have felt particularly overwhelming. It feels like the few are eager to make a quick buck off the backs of the many. If it’s not the confusion and atrocities of Syria or the targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt breaking my heart, it’s the continued melting of the ice caps, destruction of bee colonies, or systematic reduction of access to affordable and relevant healthcare for the poor, the marginalized and/or women in the US. How can we continue to poison one another, in body, mind, and spirit??

What’s a person to do? I neither want to stick my head in the sand, nor do I want to freak out from overstimulation. I don’t want to ignore the suffering of others, but I also don’t believe that I have the power to make the change I want to see. I cannot single-handedly affect policy in the Middle East, save innocents from drones, or abolish contaminants in our water,plastics and food. While I do my best to make the healthiest choices for my family that I can, I don’t think I can avoid all toxins, nor do I completely believe that we, as a society, can shop our way to change.

Again I ask, what’s a person to do?

Chop wood, carry water.

I accept that I’m overwhelmed, that for whatever reason, my boundaries are lower today. I remind myself that usually I have good perspective and that whatever I’m feeling will pass and my perspective will return. I make sure I’m eating something healthy (not falling onto my stand-bys of milky tea or coffee). I focus on my chores. I move my body and do one thing that I have to do anyway. I sit in front of my altar, even though it seems pointless in this mood.

What do you know? I’m less cranky after sitting. Even a pouty puja is better than no puja at all. After my chores I feel a little stronger, a little more focused. I know that it’s a mere semblance of control. By tomorrow this clean living room will be dusty and cluttered and crumbed once more. And that’s ok. Every day the water needs to be carried.

That’s how I’m feeling this week. If the wise ones are to believed, I may feel this way at times even after enlightenment. Good thing I’m getting good at chopping wood and carrying water.

Five Year Old Rituals

Last week my son had his 5 Year Old Rituals. What does that mean? Let’s start at the beginning.

My son was born prematurely and spent the first month of his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). It was easily the worst month of my life. Son, B, was born healthy and strong, though very, very small. He has grown to inherit both his mother’s and his father’s emotional intensity, so while he’s a bright, healthy, empathetic little guy, he’s also combative, struggles especially much with impulse control, and wants all the attention all the time. (Some of this is typical to the age, some is very clearly inherited personality.)

Me and my son, 24 hours old. He's less than 5 lbs.

Me and my son, 24 hours old. He’s less than 5 lbs.

Adam and I have wondered if some of the emotional intensity of our son is due to his month in the NICU. Surely, infants have no memory of such things? He was cared for, relatively healthy, and I was with him nearly 24/7. Two years ago our suspicions were confirmed. Sitting around the table in Wales, eating breakfast one morning, Adam and I were discussing when we would move. B was just shy of 3 1/2 years old. “Don’t leave me!” he said. “Of course we wouldn’t leave you,” we responded. “Don’t leave me like you did in the hospital,” he said. Now, B knows he spent a month in the hospital, but we’ve never given him the details. What he said next blew my mind. “You left me in the hospital and I was lonely. I tried to take my stickers off, but the doctors wouldn’t let me.” And here he touched the exact places on his torso where the monitors had been attached. He had indeed tried to rip them off repeatedly. He successfully managed to rip out his feeding tube two or three times in the first weeks as well. Besides showing me that even pre-term infants have the capacity for feelings and memory, this confirmed that his early experience was exacerbating the intensity of his emotions.

Fast forward to this summer.

At the Gathering I attended in Canada in May I had the pleasure of meeting a family raising their kids in their tradition (I think it was a branch of Wicca). Their eldest child, a male, had recently undergone his Coming of Age Ritual. I asked many questions, heard the story, their reasoning, and I witnessed how self-possessed their 14-year-old son was. I was really moved. Something else they told me was that they had been building up to it over years. It hadn’t come out of the blue, but had a context. Coming of age meant something specific for their family and also for the community they circled with.

My husband and I have talked off and on over the years about the lack of rituals in our Western world. We have them, but we don’t call them out as rituals, of course. Adam and I would like to have Coming of Age Rituals for our kids, but that context starts long before 12 or 14 or whenever they’re ready. So we decided to start at 5.

When I was pregnant with my son, we were living in California and the state had a big advertising campaign for healthy kids; 0-5 years were the ages covered. How could all of those ages be lumped together? I was confused. How is an infant and a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old similar? Now that I’ve got my own kids I see just how appropriate that grouping is. Only recently has my son left all the traces of babyhood behind. The leaps of emotional, intellectual, and physical development that occur through out these years are huge and consistent. And at five kids in the United State start kindergarten. Five felt like the right age to start rituals.

Over the course of the summer we’ve been talking about B’s ‘Five Year Old Rituals.’ He seemed excited. He couldn’t wait! Adam and I have been planning out what to do, what might have meaning for him, etc. We wanted an element of surprise. We wanted to incorporate a few aspects of ritual as Adam and I experience them. We wanted to bring in some of our spirit allies. We wanted a few tasks that would mark the end of an era and the beginning of something new, using the strengths that B has. And we would celebrate!

Last week he finally had them! And it was NOT what we expected.

After putting both kids to sleep, we woke B up and had him get dressed again. He had only been asleep for 10 minutes, but he sleeps deeply and did not want to wake up. We told him there were cupcakes waiting for him at the end of the ritual – that did the trick! While I set up a few things outside, he had to help Adam build a fire in the fire pit. He carried the wood and learned to light matches. He was awake and happy at this point. We sat on the ground and did a little grounding meditation. I said the Holy Mother prayer and called to Ganesh and our Ancestors for guidance.

Fire, made by my son and Adam

Fire, made by my son and Adam

At this point B was sitting on the ground with his hands over his ears. He didn’t want any of the prayers. I brought out some special spirit food incense and he was more than willing to help sprinkle it into the fire.

Then everything devolved into a nasty mess of name calling, tears, and yelling.

The backyard was dark, except for the fire in the pit. B ran around the backyard telling us our fire was an ‘idiot fire’ and it was weak because it wasn’t burning up to space. He was angry and crying. Adam and I were a little stunned. Hadn’t he been looking forward to this? We had to reinvent our three tasks and rethink the ritual.

For the first task we had planned to recreate a womb with our bodies and have him push out. Like the armchair psychologists we are, we hoped that maybe this would give him some sense of closure and empowerment around his birth story. In the end we didn’t do this, but there was some physical struggle, since he came up and starting trying to tip me out of my chair, hitting me and trying to throw a brick at me. So we held him tight and he screamed and pushed us away.

His next task was to jump the fire. While I held B and tried to get him to stop yelling (it was 10 at night, midweek, and the neighbors were trying to sleep), Adam started jumping over the fire. This got B’s attention. We told him his task was to jump the fire. He didn’t believe he could do it. We told him we’d help him and explained that it was ok to be scared. Finally we were able to convince him to try. We held his arms as he ran and when he jumped, we lifted him up over the fire. This scared the crap out of him and he started crying some more.

At this point we decided to move inside, so as not to wake the neighbors. I carried things downstairs to Adam’s office and altar. Adam and B put the fire out. Once downstairs we sat and grounded again and then asked B to tell us his story so far. He’s very articulate, with a great memory, but he wanted our help. We coaxed him and he told us the events of his life that he remembered.

Finally I anointed him with water from the jug in which I have water blessed for Kali. He wiped that off immediately. We said we were proud of him, that he was no longer a baby, but now a boy. We gifted him with his own statue of Ganesha, and with a little incense holder and incense matches. He giggled with delight at the statue, hugging it and crying out, “My very own Ganesh!” We finished with tiny cupcakes. Exhausted, we all tidied up and got ready for bed.

New Ganesh murti

New Ganesh murti

Was this a traumatic experience for him? I wondered if this might only make things worse. What a confusing and far more upsetting experience than we had expected or hoped for. Did we do the wrong thing in thinking this was appropriate? Tucking him into bed that night, he said he wanted me to sleep with him, that he didn’t want to be a boy but to stay a baby. Then he rolled over and fell asleep.

What was fascinating is that the next day he woke up and proudly told his sister that he had had his Five Year Old Rituals. We went out for a celebratory lunch altogether. Two kids, aged about 5 and 7, were sitting next to us. B said they’d probably had their Rituals too. His grandparents came over unexpectedly that afternoon and he proudly told them about his Rituals.

B practices lighting incense

B practices lighting incense

Later Adam told me that B had apologized in the morning for calling us names, saying that he was scared and he had wanted to shut down the things that were scaring him (the ritual), but he didn’t know how so he called us names.

In the end, this was a very different experience than either Adam or I expected. We learned a lot about our son. We learned that ritual with children is never going to go as we plan it. But it also served its purpose. Our son feels like he did something Significant and he feels proud of himself. Those are great things to hold in his heart as he heads off to kindergarten in two weeks time.