Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. A day where we all eat the same meal containing too many carbs and too much sugar. A day where we drive some distance to be with family we only see once a year at most. Or a day where we’re plotting our shopping itinerary to take advantage of Black Friday sales that start at midnight to buy cheap shit we don’t need.

Ok, that’s the cynical view, but on a broad scale I’m not too far off. I love me a holiday, so while I am deeply cynical of the holiday and the trappings I hear about out in the world, my husband and I keep things simple and end up enjoying a delicious meal with whichever friends and family come to us.

But this year has been different. This week I got to experience Thanksgiving as seen through the eyes of the American public school system as an adult. I am shocked and dismayed to report that nothing has changed since 1980. Teachers are still making kids create teepees (which I am pretty sure belonged to Native Americans from the central plains, not the eastern seaboard), wear various headdresses, calling Native Americans ‘Indians,’ and basically spewing an historically sketchy version of events using the word ‘God’ in the story. My history degrees cringed and wept. The liberal snob in me was appalled. The mother in me smiled like a fool while my kindergartener happily (and politely!) ate up his plate of various corn products.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

No, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday of freedom. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution, but they did not believe in ‘freedom for all.’ Perhaps from a white colonialist point of view their landing was a step toward their freedom. But we know how the story ends – with Native American populations more than decimated by war and disease, forced off their lands and into spaces that forced them to renounce their languages, families, customs, and gods. This is not a holiday celebrating the kindness of whites to Natives, or their friendship.

I think there are ways to discuss the contested origins and perspectives of this holiday that even 5 year olds can appreciate. (This is a good look at the Native American perspective.) I expected that in a rather liberal, hippie town such as Olympia that there would be more nuance in this unit. I was terribly mistaken.

Yes, capitalist powers have eaten into this idea by creating a national day of shopping on the Friday after. Yes, this holiday is much more easily celebrated by the middle and upper classes who can afford the standard meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and who are not compelled to work on a day that most people get off. Cynicism and criticism vented, I still celebrate this holiday and think that, in general, it is a positive one for the United States. Why? Because anything that can bring attention to the history and current status of Native Americans is a good thing. Because having a national holiday that focuses on giving thanks is a good thing. Because in spite of the cynicism and distractions of food and goods people still post all over the internet and share in person the things that they are grateful for. Gratitude is serious spiritual and magical work.

Today I am grateful for the beautiful weather my region has been having and the sun that lifts my spirits. I am grateful for my husband and children who bring love and joy into my life every single day. I am grateful for a healthy, uneventful pregnancy, and an active fetus wiggling like mad inside me. I am grateful that Adam’s parents have chosen to live near to us, that we will drive a simple and lovely 20 minutes to their house today. I am grateful that we have enough to eat and that my parents showed me how to cook, so that I can eat what I want to eat. I am grateful for the people in my life, near and far, who support me in my fullness.

Wherever you are, I hope you will take a moment to practice an expression of gratitude. If you are American, I hope you find a way to celebrate this day in a way that has meaning for you and yours. May your families, biological and chosen, be blessed. May your stomachs be full. May you be blessed by the land and your communities. Safe travels to all who are on the roads, in the skies, or on the rails this weekend.

Blessings to one and all!

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Maxim Monday: Give back what you have received

I think this is basically an ancient way of saying ‘Pay it forward.’ I absolutely agree with this idea. Now that I have a family, I believe this even more. I can respect and care for my parents, who have given me much for my success in life. But I can pass on the gifts and resources to help my kids succeed as a way of paying forward the generosity shown to me.

And not just my kids, but everyone’s kids. Modern America is a divided society, segregated primarily by class. We have less upwards economic mobility than we have in several generations, and less than most other industrialized nations, particularly Western Europe. Rising inequality is primarily to blame. My husband and I talk about how much easier it was to buy a house and support a family with only one working parent 30 years ago than it is now. Yet, I feel like those of us in our 30s and 40s are still living under the expectations that we can have the lives our parents had, and raise kids the way we were raised. I don’t think it’s possible. At least, not without help.

Giving back, helping others, is much easier if we ourselves have received assistance. It’s easy to judge welfare recipients if we’ve never struggled to pay bills, afford stable housing, or get enough to eat. I guess some people are so used to having others pay their way or handle their struggles for them that they expect others to always bail them out. I’ve met very few of those people in my life. Most people I know have worked hard and accepted help when it’s been needed.

Adam reminds me that perhaps this maxim might be talking about giving back negative things. I don’t know how the actual Greek breaks down. Instinctively, I leaped to the positive interpretation. I’d like not to live in a world where we give back negative for negative. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so goes the saying. I’d rather walk away from those who hurt me or create systems of oppression and work instead to pay forward the good.

Too much of politics and parenting seem built around the bitter attitude of ‘well, I had it hard, and I turned out fine, so you shouldn’t have it any easier!’ But what if we didn’t have to work so hard? I’m not talking being lazy and never working diligently for anything. I mean, what if we didn’t have to work obscene hours at menial jobs for pay that doesn’t afford us basic health care? What if we didn’t have to protect children from abuse and neglect? What if we didn’t have fear walking down the street at night? What if we didn’t have to have bars on our windows and make certain we locked every door? Why can’t we make it easier for our descendents?

So I’ll be voting for things that make others’ lives easier. I’ll be raising my kids with every resource that’s been given to me. I’ll be donating regularly, even when times are tough, to area organizations doing the same. (This last one is also enlightened self-interest. Who knows when I might need assistance?) Paying it forward, giving back what you have received, is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to bitterness. Gratitude is also a powerful way to make our families and communities better, healthier, happier, stronger units.

Maxim Monday: Test the Character

I feel like this one is incomplete, as in an incomplete sentence. Test the character of what? But I suspect this one is telling us to test the character of the people around us.

Knowing of what sort of character our friends and family are made of is a good idea. Can we trust them? Do their words and actions line up? But I don’t think we actually need to test anyone’s character. If we just pay attention we’ll find that people reveal their character regularly. In my experience, life is full of tests of character; there is no need for me to go adding in extra tests.

Maybe this one means testing our own character. To that I repeat, life is full of challenges and tests of our character. There is no need to set ourselves up for more tests. And yet, when tests and challenges come up, we can embrace them as tests. Sometimes we discover that we’re weaker in some areas or under some circumstances than we realized. So then we can reflect and hopefully strengthen ourselves for the future.

May we all score an A+ in the tests to come.

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.

Maxim Monday: Be a Seeker of Wisdom

I feel like this one has been covered before in the Maxim series. But we always need nudges to remind us to seek wisdom, no?

This is another Maxim that I think I’ve got covered. Once upon a time I was a seeker of knowledge. Until only recently I felt almost as though I could never get enough knowledge. I devoured books. I pursued degree programs. I wanted more. I was hungry for knowledge, and I hoarded it, like a book collectors stack books on shelves. (Until I moved to Wales I hoarded books, too.)

In the course of the last two to three years, since quitting my PhD program and starting this blog, I have come to understand the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Before, I understood the semantic difference, but I didn’t have the lived understanding of it. Now I think I do. Now, I is it wisdom I seek.

I know that I have the skills to learn whatever it is I want to know. I rest in the knowledge that I have. I’m even ok knowing that I’ve forgotten much of what I’ve already learned! What I want now is wisdom. I seek to learn from others, their experience and accumulated knowledge. I want to learn from my own experience. I want to learn from trial and error. I want to link up my brain with my heart.

Wisdom is not just about facts and information. Wisdom is about applied knowledge, about learning from experience. These days, I seek that. I am a seeker of wisdom.

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.

Maxim Monday: Speak Well of Everyone

This one is tricky. I don’t like to gossip, although sometimes it feels good. I want to speak well of everyone, but sometimes people make it so hard to do!

Sometimes other people are awful. Instead of speaking ill of them, I’ve been learning to communicate how I feel and what my experience has been. This allows others to come to their own conclusions, expresses the truth my experience, but can allow me more space to be compassionate toward some one who has treated me poorly. I can say “I do not like so-and-so for X reason,” rather than “X is a loser.”

Is this violating the spirit of this Maxim? I don’t think so. If we try to say something nice about every one, that may actually be spreading falsehoods. But we can speak the good things we know about people when possible, and when necessary to bring up the negative sides we can choose to speak from experience, rather than name calling and blanket statements of worth.