A lot of people will try to define you, put you in a box, label you, limit you, in the years to come. Every day you can choose to defy their definitions.
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 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 move out into the world as powerful, generous, spiritual, strong, 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, about how societal pressures on American teenage girls can keep them from growing into confident, empowered women.
The problem was, Dr. Pipher didn’t really offer many solutions. But some of my close women friends and I started talking about it. And we decided maybe those other cultures had it right. Maybe we needed to provide a way to send our daughters off into adulthood armed with more insight than they could get from reality TV.
So we started doing them—coming of age celebrations. The first one 17 years ago now.
We’ve made these ceremonies up…woven together from bits and pieces of rite of passage rituals we’ve read about, reinterpreted 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, 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. Awkward. 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 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, even sans baby lamb 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, that she can read again through the years, whenever she needs to. I’ve heard from the girls who’ve been through this that 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.
As I was writing my letter for A, the girl we’re celebrating this weekend, I started thinking: Hmmm, this is a letter I need to send myself. And maybe there are a few other people out there who could use these words too. So here it is:
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 startup venture. Fourteen 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. There will be so much you can’t control in the coming years. 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 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 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 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.
Every day 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.
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?
Lenora Rand is a freelance writer and advertising creative director at one of the world’s largest ad agencies. She’s also a wife, mom of two daughters, and trying to figure out how to live her life with more meaning and purpose while working 60 hours a week and trying to get the laundry done. You can see how that’s going at her blog, Spiritual Suckitude.