I will begin this post with a short excerpt from Jack Kornfield’s, A Path With Heart. “There is a tribe in east Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth. In this tribe the birth date of the child is not counted from the day of the physical birth, nor even the day of conception, as in other village cultures. For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time a child is thought of in the mind of the mother. Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother goes apart to sit under a tree. There she sites and listens until she can ‘hear’ the song of the child she hopes to conceive. Once she hears the song she returns to the village to teach it to the father so they can sing it together before they make love, thus inviting the child to join them. After the child is conceived, the mother sings it to the baby in her womb and then teaches it to the midwives in the village so they can sing the song to the child as it is being born. After the birth, all of the villagers learn this childs special song so they can sing it to him or her whenever he or she is sad or hurt. This song will become a part of the child’s marriage ceremony and, at the end of life, loved ones will gather to sing the song again for one last time.”
Many of us yearn for the kind of beauty, meaning and connection reflected in this African ritual. We admire traditional cultures which give ritual and ceremony a space in the center of people’s lives. Anthropologists and historians have pointed out that ritual and ceremony assume a prominent place in our lives during times of great stress, transformation or personal questing. Perhaps this explains the renaissance of ritual experimentation in many diverse cultures around the world today. I feel that ritual has its genesis in our need to express deep emotion and so we create ceremonies, blessings and rituals to celebrate our connections with the earth/nature, our communities, our families, Spirit, the world and the whole cosmic dance.
My father used to tell me he was an Atheist. What was probably more true was that his beliefs were more in line with the Pantheistic tenants. Nature was his God, and the wild places were his temples. One of my most cherished childhood memories is building Fairy Houses outdoors with my father. This was a ceremony in the most literal sense, as it had specific ‘rules’ which included the types of natural material you could gather and how they were to be placed. The event was approached with awe, respect and a spirit of the sacred. It was also a ritual, as it was repeated often over the years and for a specific end –to invite the Fairie Folk to visit. When my own children were young, we built scores of fairy houses each summer when traveling, as well as a number of them in our very own backyard. There were beach and forest fairy houses, mountain and riverside fairy houses. One of my sweetest memories was of a time that I watched my two daughters explain fairy house building to a raptly attentive group of kids at a campground. The group scampered off in all directions and I overheard some of the kids talking the next day about how the fairies had come to their house. I have often wondered how many of those children, now adults, have carried on the fairy house tradition. So much power and magic in a simple little ritual shared over fifty years ago between an imaginative father and his child…
One of the things about creating a simple ritual or ceremony with children is that it invites them into a deeper level of intimacy with those that they share it with. When my children were very small, I sent them off to school with a “kiss for later” in the palm of their hand. If they were sad or in need of some consolation or a shot of portable courage, all they had to do was pat their cheek, and there was a kiss from Mom–ever-renewable, waterproof and good all day long. This invisible link to home and family was a comfort to both the giver of the kiss and the ‘kissee’, and was a home ritual on an intimate level for parent and child. My job required me to be away from home quite a bit when my children were in school, so I would also leave them notes to find while I was traveling. These were small rituals with a great deal of import. It is the ordinary everyday rituals that will become the foundation of the traditions we carry with us when we step out in the world on our own paths. It is in these rituals and traditions that we remember those who have gone before and taught us to listen and to look and, on occasion, just to BE.