Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Coming of age


Last month in Northern California I had the great pleasure and new experience of participating in a coming-of-age ceremony for my 13-year-old grandson, Dillon. Such acknowledgement of this significant transition in life is seldom publicly celebrated in our culture and it seems to me we are poorer for its absence. The invitation for " ... brunch and (small, not too embarrassing) ceremony" read in part that Dillon " ... is coming of age in a wild world" and asked participants to "Help us support his journey ... and celebrate his continuing evolution from little kid to young man." Supporting the journey and celebrating continuing evolution is as good a description of coming of age as I've seen.

It will do as a template for living a good life and participating in the lives of others at any age.

Public acknowledgement of and participation in celebrating life's passages makes it easier for all concerned to learn that being a little kid is not the same as being a young man, and the difference is both evolutionary and crucial.

Especially in a wild world that is getting wilder every day.

Many aboriginal societies acknowledged this passage to young adulthood with a public celebration or, at least, ritual. In some tribes of Africa today coming-of-age girls are subjected to a horrible ordeal of anesthetic-free genital mutilation, a brutal ritual which inhibits or ends sexual feeling and that cannot by any stretch of barbaric imagination be termed a "celebration." In Judaism, girls attain the status of Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12 and boys attain Bar Mitzvah at 13 and in a formal ceremony are recognized as having some of the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood.

Public familial/tribal/social acknowledgement at the age of 12 or 13 of approaching adulthood with its perils and freedoms would seem to be an advantage for both society as a whole and those individuals approaching adulthood. While other societies have carefully prescribed coming-of-age rituals, ours does not. It does not take a degree in child psychology (or even C minus in Psychology 101) to make a good argument that a coming-of-age ceremony in earlier years would have helped prepare any number of today's world leaders to deal with their duties better than they have, are or will. It could not have hurt.

But, I digress.

Dillon's ceremony took place in a large room with some 30 people—parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, a few friends and one of Dillon's school teachers. Coincidentally, on the walls of the room were hung nearly a hundred original Edward Curtis photogravures of Native Americans, somehow a fitting display/backdrop to a modern American coming-of-age ceremony. On a table were hundreds of photos from Dillon's life and times, all 13 years of them. We sat in chairs in a circle, Dillon in the chair of honor, around a large Nepalese Buddhist wall hanging on which participants placed something symbolic of coming of age to be put in Dillon's "time capsule," not to be opened for 30 years.

Dillon, who was visibly uncomfortable at being the center of so much attention and love, was introduced by his mother, who pointed out to him that any embarrassment the ceremony might cause would be less painful than genital mutilation and far more useful. That drew a laugh from everyone, a blush from Dillon and an instant awareness among the coming-of-age and those of all ages that how and by what social intentions one comes of age matters. It does not take much contemplation to realize that when and how and by what manner of celebration and degree of support one comes of age will have an appreciable effect on one's subsequent life and, thereby, the world.

Everyone in the circle took a turn telling a story about Dillon, commenting on his qualities as a person, offering a bit of advice, supporting his strengths, noting some of the signposts of his path from little boy to young adult. Some were serious. Some were funny. Some offered counsel or just good luck. None of the commentaries were more telling or heartfelt than that of his older brother, Rio, who commended Dillon for his compassion, intelligence, caring for others, ability to think for himself while emphasizing how important Dillon is to everyone in the room.

When the ceremony was over and the time capsule wrapped up, everyone enjoyed a fine buffet brunch and perused the table of photographs from Dillon's life and the Curtis photos of a lost life of America's indigenous inhabitants. Conversations flourished with people and relatives not often seen, and, in some cases, little known. Everyone was a little more connected to Dillon and him to them. Dillon was smiling and relieved, and he seemed to me to be a little less of a little boy and a little more of a young man.

Like everyone else, I cannot repress my curiosity about what kind of wild world Dillon will be living in and what sorts of skills he will need to deal with it when he opens his time capsule in 30 years.

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