Emily has been participating in a year of self-discovery through a leap year program called LeapNow. (Look it up at leapnow.org.) I wanted to tell you a little about the Rite of Passage that Emily and her parents, John and I, went through this past weekend.
The thinking behind the ritual is that we don’t, in our culture, spend enough time focusing on this important transition from child to adult – which actually begins when their bodies start to change. We send them off to college and hope they sort things out, or that they stay in a suspended state of adolescence for a few more years. But the truth is, these young adults have everything they need to assume the responsibilities of adulthood within themselves already. Instead of acknowledging their strengths and encouraging them to follow their own path and passions, making mistakes and learning from them, we continue to be overinvolved in the decisions they are making and, perhaps, force them into “boxes” of our own making. (FYI I found myself reflecting on the way I’ve bought in to the brain research that suggests young adult brains are not fully “mature” until their late 20s. Accordingly, we need to protect them from their own bad decision-making. This emphasis on trusting them was, in some ways, very liberating for me.)
The weekend began for the 23 sets of parents with an orientation. While we talked, the students were finishing chopping wood for the fire and building a sweat lodge and path to it. Around 6 p.m., we met our children in glorious reunion and partook of an elaborate Indian meal prepared by the students. (Some of the students had traveled to India during the Fall session.) If I had any doubts about this “letting my young adult go,” the 17-year-old daughter of the program leaders was evidence of my folly. She was IN CHARGE of the kitchen and preparation of all the glorious food. She had been to Greece, to Latin America, and to other far off places to study – following her interests – and her maturity was remarkable.
After the parents left around 9 p.m., the students were told that they would be staying up all night. According to what Emily and others told us the next day, there were some tense moments in their tiredness. But they managed to resolve the issues on their own. At dawn, they proceeded to the sweat lodge, and some very emotional sharing took place.
At 9 a.m., it was time for the parents to sweat. Our leader, with decades of experience, brought us in and led us through two hours of drumming, singing, and summoning forth of emotional baggage in complete darkness. It amazed me that complete strangers could feel so comfortable sharing very painful memories and burdens. When we emerged, we had bonded in a significant, unnamed way.
We were able to spend the next couple of hours with our individual child, knowing that this would be our last opportunity to be alone with him or her before s/he embarked on an individual journey to another part of the world. A few example internships include these: organic farming in Guatemala, multi-cultural kindergarten teacher’s aide in Thailand, music journalism in Iceland, trekking guide and & animal refuge volunteer in Bolivia, endangered baboon rehabilitation in South Africa, coral reef protection in Indonesia, and so much more! Emily will be involved in equine therapy for the disabled in New Zealand.
Mid-afternoon, we gathered for the Rite of Passage in a large room where the young people stood in a circle in the middle and the parents stood in a larger circle around them. The students were all dressed in pants they had sewn themselves from fabric they had acquired in the countries they had traveled to in the Fall. Prior to this weekend, the parents had been prompted to think about their relationship with their child through a number of questions, and to bring to the gathering two objects. One object would represent something they wished to “get rid of” that was interfering with their relationship with their child or preventing the child from moving forward. The second item was to be a gift for the immediate journey to come.
An adult leader joined with the students and first asked them to “call out” others who had been important in their coming-of-age and ought to be invited to join us in spirit. Students and parents named many others – siblings, grandparents, friends, and so forth. I called for Rachelle, Emily’s birth mother. Emily called for John and Helen Patton, her grandparents.
Then it was time for the students to be approached by their parents, one by one. They were tapped on the shoulder and brought to the space between the child circle and the adult circle. The adults then spoke directly with their child about the things that were standing in their way. These things were then either burned in the fireplace, smashed by a sledgehammer, or thrown in the river outside. I will give you a couple of examples. In one family, the mother had battled cancer and it had been hard on everyone. Family members were hurting, but their response to one another had been “Go Away!” This son burned a paper with the words “Go Away!” on it. His father also shared that he was a third generation engineer who thought linearly and made “boxes.” He had thrust this on his son “who didn’t even know what a box was,” and he was letting that go. He gave his son a box to burn. In another family, a single mother gave her daughter two mirrors to smash. They represented the father and the brother who were unwilling to see the daughter for who she was and for how special she was. The mother wanted to liberate her from relying on their assessments for her image of herself. As you can imagine, there were many touching and tearful moments. Other obstacles that stood in a family’s way included deceased parents, stepparents, adoption issues, overzealous parental control, divorce, and more. One young woman, later in the evening, appreciated that she could stand holding the hands of both her parents at the same time.
For John and myself, we said this:
John: Emily, I think, overall, we’ve had a pretty good relationship. You made us parents! And we went through a lot to become parents, so we have always been especially grateful that you came into our lives. Having said that, I know we came into this parent-child relationship with pre-formed expectations – despite our intention to honor your individuality. Our frame of reference was ourselves. Your mom and I enjoyed school and found being students relatively easy. We enjoyed “ball sports” – basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, and so forth. And, again, we found success in pursuit of those activities.
Rebecca: You had to teach us about learning differences. You had to teach us about other activities like horseback riding and swimming. All along the way, we tried to keep up with you and modify our expectations accordingly. No doubt we were imperfect in our support of you being you. And, somehow, along the way it seems that you came to the conclusion that we judged you for not being like us.
This “judgment” is a barrier between us that we want to destroy…
I then revealed a homemade judge’s gavel and “Decree of Judgment” and read it. Then I said –
You ARE worthy, healthy, lovable – good enough – just as you are.
John: I will remind you of the song we chose for your senior banquet slideshow and hope that you hear these words and that you believe they come from our hearts to you…
“My Wish” – Rascal Flatts
I hope the days come easy and the moments pass slow
And each road leads you where you want to go
And if you’re faced with the choice and you have to choose
I hope you choose the one that means the most to you
And if one door opens to another door closed
I hope you keep on walkin’ ‘til you find the window
If it’s cold outside, show the world the warmth of your smile
But more than anything, more than anything
My wish for you
Is that this life becomes all that you want it to
Your dreams stay big, your worries stay small
You never need to carry more than you can hold
And while you’re out there gettin’ where you’re gettin’ to
I hope you know somebody loves you
And wants the same things too
Yeah, this is my wish
We then burned the gavel and decree in the fire.
The second part of the ritual involved giving a gift and noting the young adult’s strengths. Again, there were some very tender moments when parents let go and acknowledged the ability of their child to make the right decisions for him or herself. One example included the self-acknowledged hippy couple who had traveled around Europe and beyond for 15 years. Their son was a free spirit and non-traditional learner like them. But at 5-years-old, Mom had enrolled him in school. He came home one day and asked to cut off his dreadlocks so that he would fit in. Mom gave him the dreadlock cutting she had kept and he melted into tears. She acknowledged that they had tried to put him in a traditional education-box when he had always belonged outside the box. I don’t remember exactly what their gifts were. But the gifts acknowledged his independence and liberated him from pursuing college unless he chose it himself.
For our part, we spoke these words to Emily:
Rebecca: As an adoptee, Emily, you know that blood kinship alone does not define family. Nor do legal documents alone define family. Family is made in the HEART, and YOUR heart is bigger than most. Your love for us, for your birth family, and for others who have been lucky enough to know you is a strength you will carry with you wherever you go. And though love sometimes brings pain, there is no more rewarding way to live than by loving deeply. As you explore the world, remember that FAMILY is created through love.
I then presented her with a pendant that reads: “Family is made in the heart”
John: You have so many strengths. You have an incredible memory. You have great common sense. But there is another gift you bring to the world that we wanted to focus on today, and that is your ability to form relationships. You meet people where they are without judgment. Think of blind, wheelchair-bound Alana or your grandmother suffering with dementia. Think of the way you accepted peers of all religions, skin tones, national origins, sexual orientations, and abilities throughout your child and teenage years. Add to that your care for four-legged creatures, particularly those who are homeless and need someone’s love.
Rebecca: As you venture into the world without the physical security of your family in Atlanta, we hope you will, nevertheless, take us with you in spirit. We will be with you, holding you in our thoughts and prayers, believing in your abilities and goodness and potential to learn new things and create new relationships. Symbolic of our presence with and support of you, we give you this reminder of your family.
I then presented Emily with a blanket with pictures of her relatives and the Falco dogs and cats. She loved it!
Once the parents had gifted their child, they brought him or her into the adult circle.
After the ceremony, we ate another banquet. This one was Latin American food – in honor of Emily’s group that traveled to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala in the Fall. Following the dinner, we spent a little more time with our “new adults,” said our goodbyes, and left them to spend the next three days preparing for their travels. Emily was very tearful. When I tentatively asked her if she was having second thoughts, she said “no.” But she will miss us and we will miss her. Fortunately, she will have her technology back and we can call, text, Face time, or Skype.
When I said to Emily – trying to give encouragement – that, hard as it is to travel halfway around the world and away from the people you love, THIS is time to do it, I was remembering my own dreams of backpacking across Europe or cycling across the U.S. But I needed money, so I worked. I needed more education, so I went to school. And the time passed. I can’t go back. Perhaps there will be other adventures, but they will be different ones suitable to my age and abilities. I couldn’t help feeling envious and even more assured that Emily was doing that right thing – that WE, as parents, were doing the right thing by letting her go.