Small Hands in the Big World

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Red Tent

I recently introduced my Women's Group here but failed to mention that one dear member (the friend who initially invited me into the group, actually) also dabbles in writing. We came to know one another nearly 20 years ago, when we were travel writing fresh out of college. Since then our lives have taken different paths but our friendship has remained constant. Stephanie Bell has done animal protection work for more than a decade and her compassion is boundless, her wisdom unfailing, and her perspective one I always appreciate. Welcome, Stephanie, and thank you for sharing this experience; also a special thank you to Simone and Saja who gave permission for their story to be told. You are truly inspiring.

"Ritual is the way we carry the presence of the sacred." ~ Christina Baldwin

Coming of age can be an arduous passage. Transitions by their very nature are rarely uncomplicated and, let’s face it, life can be challenging. Many cultures have prepared their children for the important transition from the innocence of childhood to the rigors and complexities of adulthood with meaningful ceremonies, ranging from fasts and wilderness vision quests to bat/bar mitzvahs or lavish quinceaneras. One dear friend of mine married into a family whose tradition is to take a family hike with the honored adolescent. At the final stretch of the trail, the teen is sent alone to the mountain-top to read personalized letters from each member of the family amidst Nature’s humbling splendor.

Honoring the transformations in our lives that simultaneously mark ends and beginnings is a beautiful and symbolic ritual that has been unfortunately lost to many of us in western culture. So, it was a privilege to participate in a coming-of-age ceremony for Saja, the radiant 13-year old daughter of my treasured friend, Simone.  
That it took place in the peaceful shade of the California Redwoods--trees who have stood in hushed majesty for hundreds of years--only added to the beauty.
Simone laid the groundwork three years prior for Saja's “Red Tent” ceremony (a centuries old multi-cultural tradition to honor female fertility and its monthly symbolism) when Saja's body first began to reveal signs of transitioning to womanhood. Simone wrote heartfelt letters to the inner circle of women in her life, asking them to draft a letter to Saja about their own coming of age and to select a small treasure (jewel, stone, shell, etc.) with special meaning to place in a wooden chest for her. Simone hoped, but graciously did not expect, that we would all be able to be personally present for a ceremony during which these items would be presented to Saja. But when the time came three years later, we all "moved heaven and earth" to be there in person to honor Saja on Friday, July 15, 2011. We gladly set aside hectic schedules and responsibilities, enduring travel mayhem, rental car mishaps, and even a stolen wallet (trauma!). But the frenzied pace and effort it took to actually get ourselves there was bonding in itself and set just the right tone for the Red Tent, which was remarkably still and calm, by contrast. It transported us to another place and time.

We were blessed with a Full Moon:  the perfect phase of the moon’s synchronous rotation to celebrate Saja’s milestone. The towering fairy ring of Redwoods that sprung from, and now encircle, the ancient remnants of an old growth nurse-log in Simone’s forested backyard was beautifully bejeweled by Simone's creative husband with shimmery red fabric and candles, carpets, and blankets. Regal Simone, Saja’s lovely and youthful grandmothers, her beloved aunt, and I decorated our faces with bindis and our hair with roses and reverently ushered Saja into the fairy ring and decorated her similarly. (Saja's 15-month-old niece made brief appearances, too, and when she wasn't in our circle, we could hear her in the distant background under the watchful care of the men folk making her unmistakable and inquisitive "Hmmmm??" observations about everything in her line of vision.)

Soon after we assembled, a talented Pakistani henna artist whose soft presence exuded overwhelming warmth—joined us to share her artistry. Though we’d not met her before, she felt like family. Her henna painting techniques had been passed down in her family for generations and she adorned our hands, arms, and calves with intricately crafted patterns with a skilled and patient hand.

As if on cue, woodpeckers, Steller’s Jays, and a skittery flock of band-tailed pigeons fluttered in our midst, reminding us that all life is precious, sacred, and interdependent. While Sabrina painted us with cinnamon- and lemon-scented henna, beams of sunlight cascaded through the branches of the grand trees above, illuminating Saja’s glowing olive skin and serene smile. Sparkling cider, spinach dip and veggies, vegan lemon bars, and divine chocolate mousse cake (also vegan) nourished us for the many hours during which we lounged and shared from the heart about what it means to be a woman and what we remembered about being Saja’s age. We celebrated aloud and on paper the myriad attributes that make the kindly, grounded, self-aware, vegan since birth, graceful, thoughtful of others, witty, strong, strikingly beautiful, and gentle Saja special and truly rare among humans. When asked to share about her passions, Saja unabashedly told us that she loves animals (she is unwaveringly kind) and softball (she may be kind, but I wouldn’t want to be a batter facing her skillful pitching!) and she later laughingly also added boys to the "passions" list (comes with the transitional territory, of course).

These sweet-smelling, slow-moving, and intentional afternoon moments were not only a gift to Saja, who was shown in a tangible, meaningful way how deeply she is loved and that she will never be alone on her life’s long journey—but they were also a gift to each one of us in that circle, as we were transformed by the magic of the Red Tent in which women have communed since the beginning of time.
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