Shedding the Past, A Rite of Passage – Interview

Marla with Dreadlocks

I had the honor to attend and drum for a Moribayassa (see explanation of this rite of passage below) for Marla, a participant at the Sacred Fire Circle at Circle Sanctuary last week. One of the unique benefits of participating in a Pagan community is the opportunity to share in rites of passage, and have a community of support and celebration for your own rites.  Pagans are as creative with the rituals that define and celebrate life’s transitions, as they are diverse in their beliefs.  This ritual was to celebrate the cutting of the dreadlocks from Marla’s head. For her it was the symbol of many changes in her life, setting aside the past, and an ending of a personal commitment the dreadlocks represented for her.  It was a powerful and joyous rite.

Listen to an excerpt of Moribayassa from this ritual

I asked Laurie, a Madison, WI.  hand drummer who helped organize the ritual, what is a traditional  Moribayassa  like?  

Laurie:  Moribayassa is a rhythm and a dance that comes from Guinea, West Africa. It is performed by a woman just once in her lifetime. She does this dance as a way to celebrate having overcome some kind of adversity in her lifetime. She will announce she will do the dance sometimes years in advance, and drummers and singers gather when the time approaches to help her. The woman will dress in rags, which is a big deal because Africans are very concerned about their appearance. She dances in the rags and dances like she is ‘crazy’.  She dances several times throughout the village, and when she is done she takes off the rags and buries them, usually under a tree. She is then dressed in new clothing symbolizing that now she is a new person. She has overcome the difficulty, it is in the past now, and behind her.  It was quite an honor to play this rhythm for Marla in the context that it was meant for.    You can read more, and learn the rhythm in   “ A Life for the Djembe” by Mamady Keita.

I talked to Marla the day after her ritual.  She was still overwhelmed from the ritual.

When did you start dreading your hair?
Marla: In the spring of 2008.  My ex-husband’s sister was dieing of cancer. I hadn’t had contact with them for 15 years. His wife told him I should  be told, so he called me. His sister was a hairstylist, age forty. They called just as she was put on oxygen, and a week later she was gone.  After that, I just quit combing my hair because it just wasn’t important to me anymore.  It was compounded by the fact I hit forty and still hadn’t had children. That’s were it started, because I felt I was wasting time, and to honor her life.  My niece initially twisted my hair, and then they all came back out. I tried again back-combing it into dreadlocks and then super gluing beads in them so they couldn’t untangle any more.  Finally they started to “dread” on their own.

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Video: Interview with David Stewart of Mentorship Circle for Boys

The Boys Mentorship Collaborative will host Secrets of the Ancient Fire on Friday, September 15th at Hidden Falls Park. Open to all men; boys under 12 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Suggested donation is sliding scale from $5-$15.

The Boys Mentorship Collaborative is the counterpart to Journey of Young Women. David Stuart, the organizer behind this program, plans for this to engage fathers and sons in styles of communication and interaction different from typical western acculturation.

Rites of Passage for Minneapolis Girls

Karen Mackenzie Sister Circle

used with permission of artist Karen Mackenzie

Journey of Young Women  (JOW) is a rites of passage program for girls in grades three through eight, headed by Katherine Krueger in Minneapolis. The weekend of September 22nd, there will be 4 new groups starting, for 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th and 6th together, and 7th and 8th together. Coming of age training begins at 5th grade.

In 2005, Katherine Krueger spent three nights watching her daughter camp from a half mile away. As she saw her daughter’s silhouette, she wept.  “It was a huge thing for my daughter to go off and be on her own. I wept. I grieved – not because I was scared of what was happening to her, but because she was leaving me. It was like severing the umbilical cord all over again. To see her as a woman, to see her silhouetted against the horizon – it was beautiful. I wept for the beauty of it, and I wept that that didn’t happen for me.”

Watching over her daughter from afar was the culmination of a year long initiation completed with a three night rite of passage. Krueger’s daughter, in choosing an initiation where she faced death, opted to spend three nights camping on her own. As a safety measure, Krueger and other mothers with daughters also involved in the rite of passage camped at a distance and performed perimeter checks. “We had a signaling system where we could see each other from half a mile away, just to have a check-in to make sure she was OK. She could come in, if she needed to.”

Krueger says the process transformed both herself and her daughter, and that it left her with a belief in the necessity of such rites. “Afterwards, I just assumed there would be an ongoing community [for rites of passage] in the Twin Cities.”

When that didn’t happen, Krueger started one herself.  In 2009, she founded Journey of Young Women, a mentorship circle for girls in grades 3 through 8.

The program, informed by values stemming from Krueger’s inclination towards animism and Buddhist principles, is designed as an expression of spirit for people of all belief and non-beliefs. It serves as a way for girls to master skills such as building fires, cooking, and survival camping.

In designing this program, Krueger draws from her experience as the founder of Waldorf Homeschoolers of Minnesota, and Discerning Learning, where she helped with designing curriculums.

The initiatory education has three aspects. First, mentorship of daughters and of their parents, with the program encouraging parents to seek out other people with wisdom to offer their children outside their own skill sets. Second, the girls learn practical living skills from how to ride a bus and cooking to how to build a fire and how to plunge a toilet or build a shelter. Third, beauty. The girls take these skills and lessons and add a sense of aesthetic to it. “When we build a shelter, we don’t just build a shelter. We make it beautiful. We go inside and cast a circle, and it’s all quite beautiful.”

The program differs from Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts in that Krueger classifies it as cosmic education. “It includes the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. We don’t view those as separate.” Physical challenges are seen also as an expression of spirit – so if a girl does something challenging like rock climbing, or other activities where there is risk, she is emotionally and spiritually present with that risk. Also, the program is conducted as a community activity: in this case, community means it calls upon parent participation. There are circles and gatherings for the mothers, and a fathers gathering as well. “We always have some sort of family celebration at the end. When the families are involved, the parents are learning and growing – and they also get detailed reports about what the girls are doing, and assignments [to practice with their children at home.] So if the girls are learning about intuition, the parents are given some tasks to try at home.”

Krueger reports a significant impact on the parents as their children go through the program. “In the mom’s circles one of the biggest things I teach them along with the skills their daughters learn is connecting with the younger self. As the children are going through the different stages of birth every year, the younger self is stimulating those memories of your met and unmet needs.”

Krueger’s curriculum addresses what she does not see taught in mainstream culture. “For girls, especially connecting with our intuition, or inner wisdom. Personally it wasn’t until I was in my 40s I began to connect with my inner voice.” Connection to the cues of the physical body is very important in what she teaches. “I teach girls with guided meditations and different exercises to get their awareness in different places in their body: their hearts, their throat, but especially in their bellies. The pelvis is this basket holding all of our digestion and reproductive organs, with so much intelligence, so much of our ancestral wisdom.”

In addition to body awareness and life skills, JOW teaches assertiveness alongside connectivity. “Families are impacted sometimes immediately and sometimes over a longer time – if you stay with me for six or twelve months you’ll see the girls being more assertive. That doesn’t just mean  [the girls] standing up for their own needs, that means doing it in a connecting way. I come back to it again and again, and no girls ever get tired of it because they need it so much.”

Parents have reported to Krueger changes in their daughter’s behavior at home and at school. “[The girls] are noticing more kids that are not being included and kids that are being bullied, and they’re noticing their own feelings – they’re noticing that it’s not something wrong with them, that there’s a real, beautiful need there. They’re saying ‘I’ve got a beautiful need and I deserve some attention,’ and then they feel good about themselves and take positive actions.”

JOW, while influenced by Krueger’s belief system, welcomes people of all beliefs and non-beliefs. When speaking of mentorship, Krueger also emphasizes that opening up to greater possibilities is an important part of the program. “So for some people in the Christian tradition, it’s turning to God, for people in a Pagan tradition it’s gearing up for the Lord and Lady or Spirit – you’re enlarging the matrix. You first conceive the womb as the matrix. Then the mother is the matrix. Then the mother and father. So we bring the mentors in, and even a bigger picture in. Even if you’re an atheist you bring in maybe morality or the good universe [as an extension of the matrix.]”

Krueger has gone so far as to offer Goddess circles, and speaks of casting circles and calling directions as part of the ritual expression, but comments, “The Goddess has been pretty quiet through this. I’ve offered some Goddess circles and they haven’t flown. One thing that did fly really big was making Goddess dolls. We imbued each doll with the Goddess quality we most wanted to manifest in our lives. I don’t know what it is [the resistance to Goddess circles] I think that people think it’s too out there.”

While originally the program served only 5th and 6th grade girls because of the proximity of the age to menarche, participants requested every year that Krueger include offerings for younger girls. Now JOW offers activities for girls in grades three and four. “Third grade is a very powerful time. It’s the 9 year change. Until then, we feel so much trust in the infallibility of our parents, and we feel connected and protected by a loving universe. Right around 9 we become aware maybe subconsciously that we’re going to die, and that our parents are maybe not infallible. It’s very scary. It’s like the ball from innocence now includes the real world.”

In addition to the rites of passage trainings the girls go through, Krueger also offers a Red Thread Circle for women experiencing menstruation. “It’s inspired by the traditions of our foremothers on all cultures on all continents to gather during your bleeding time,” she says. “It was a time for ease and replenishment a time for learning things that women need to know, and I think of it as a time for chocolate and strawberries and massages and music and belly dancing and loving your bodies.” The idea is to gather month to month, mothers and daughters, or a mother or daughter alone, and there is a ritual performed with a red thread that the women hold as they cast a circle. The women then learn a craft or skill and build up energy, and talk about sensing the energy when women and girls come together.

The Red Thread Circle also acknowledges the passage of the seasons. “We make corn dolls around Lammas, we decorate candles around Winter Solstice – usually something with the seasons.” All of the circles call the six directions and the elements. “I think of this as secular,” says Krueger. She tells her participants, “If you’re Christian, think of this as naming parts of God. If you’re atheist, think of this as naming parts of the universe. You can think of it as part of your psyche. I think of the directions and elements as living entities.”

JOW affects the development of the adults involved as well as the girls. When asked about any resistance to the program, Krueger says, “When they first hear about it, most people say ‘I wish I would have had this when I was a little girl.’ The second thing they say is ‘I wish I would have known about this when my daughter was that age. Once they start to dip their toe in, they see it’s a commitment. It takes money, and it takes time. They have to drive. They’re often overscheduled – the girls are in drama, or sports, or choir – and they try to wedge it in. It’s very hard for people to let go of something and that’s what has to happen to make sure their girls aren’t up until midnight doing homework.”

Participation in JOW is intensive: girls meet twice a month, with one meeting a month being an overnight stay, and there is a mother’s circle once a month. Girls must take on personal challenges between meetings– physical challenges, service projects, and emotional challenges that ends with a three night campout that includes rituals of passage for the girls under supervision of their mothers.

Krueger, after her experience with her daughter’s initiation, concludes, “Every city should have a coming of age community for girls, and one for boys.”

Note: Krueger also partners with a rites of passage program for boys. An interview with her partner about his program will be forthcoming.