I feel I have to post something about today’s tragic events. My heart goes out to the parents and families whose little children are now dead, lost to them forever. There are no words for this tragedy, and no amount of words can bring back a dead 4, 5 or 6 year old. The empty hole of grief and loss will accompany a parent for the rest of his/her life, and for sure right now life itself is absolutely unbearable…
I picked up my own lovely 5 year old from school with a heavy heart, knowing that those parents have been robbed of this simple reuniting ritual, and robbed of their little child. I know there are no words, but poets sometimes know what to say to express the unbearable for the rest of us. I turn to the Auden poem I posted this week in relation to a discussion of death and funeral rituals. Here are the parts that pertain to today, written in April 1936:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong…
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
This poem has come to me often at different times of death and loss. “For nothing now can come to any good.” True hard words. What kind of world do we live in that such unspeakable acts can happen? Even before today, I have been asking myself this over the last several weeks. I admit part of this came from TV. I randomly watched several episodes of Oliver Stone’s Showtime tv documentary about the untold history of the united states, filled with footage of World War 2 and then a lot about the first atom bomb. I reflected a lot about these scenes and words. How human history is a long unending story of wars and killings and destruction. Hearing the narrative string together everything did not help to make any sense of this awful part of human nature. Even though we are not in World War 3, there is enough senseless killing and other unspeakable acts happening all over the world, in hot spots like the mid east, but also everywhere else, all the time, constantly, and today in Newtown, Connecticut.
There is no period in history that is not filled with the blood of innocents, no ethnicity or culture that is free of such evil. Whether in wars, each worse than the other, no matter where, or in “peaceful” nations such as ours, although we never seem to be free of killing our own and others somewhere usually far away: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc. I doubt there is ANY time in our nation’s history that is not like this.
I remember as a quite young child reading the Diary of Ann Frank and getting obsessed with her story and the tragedy and strangeness of her dying and her diary somehow surviving. A kind of triumph that her beautiful voice is there to be heard for the next generations; it is only through reading and other arts such as painting and music, that we are reminded that wonder still exists and some piece of goodness in some small place is shining through the constant darkness. For me, though my own preferred way of self expression is nonverbal painting, drawing and collage, I often turn to words and books for something, because of the paradox of the unspeakable and the miracle of words coming together in a simple poem or young girl’s diary that manage to express some hope for humankind…Or actually just put in words the horror of the endlessly destructive part of humanity we can’t seem to escape from, the very real hopelessness and unending emotional pain and suffering that is life in this world…
Over the summer a dear friend gave my daughter a wonderful children’s chapter book called “The BFG”, by Roald Dahl. Whatever age you are, read it soon! Suffice it to say without a long description of this great tale, there is a very instructive scene in which little Sophie, our heroine, is talking serious philosophy, ie. the strange awfulness of the nature of “human beans” with the Big Friendly Giant. I would like to end this post with that dialogue:
Sophie is lamenting the other bad giants’ endless killing and eating of humans when the BFG in his broken English reminds her,
The other day, I was reminded of a few things I had read about concerning interesting customs in different countries/cultures that were very particular to that culture. Probably I was connecting this to last week’s American ritual of Thanksgiving, a holiday I try to focus on being grateful and also feeling sad about what really happened with the “first thanksgiving”. Yes, Squanto did have a peace treaty feast with the Pilgrims, but after that, the Puritans came and, according to this interesting website: http://www.manataka.org/page269.html
“In 1637 near present day Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside. Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.
From then on it became a custom to have a “Thanksgiving Feast” after a successful slaughter of Native Americans…Anyway, back to the main topic: most of these types of rituals I will be posting about are different from what mainstream Americans are accustomed to. I will focus on the big rituals of every country/culture: birth, marriage/joining love ceremony for “life partner” and death. I thought it would be fun to post different descriptions of these rituals on this blog that are interesting approaches to these big life changes we all share as human beings. Having lived abroad and travelled a lot and having been exposed to many cultures and languages and countries from a young age, I have always been interested in ways that we differ and are similar in celebrating important life events or dealing with death, and also some every day life activities that are elevated to ritual in other cultures. When I lived in Japan for two years, fourth and fifth grade, I was exposed to all kinds of unfamiliar rituals, as Japanese culture has a lot more rituals in everyday life than American and other cultures. There is the tea ceremony and the act of giving gifts on non-holiday occasions. I remember my parents coming home with gifts all the time after they had gone to some kind of event or party or business meeting as gifts are given in all sorts of settings and types of daily activities bringing people together. The gifts were always exquisitely wrapped in that distinct style that I tried to copy when wrapping gifts; there are a lot of horizontal folds involved…
Anyway, for the first example, I will skip Pregnancy for now, as I have written about it so much here in a different context, and skip to the child’s first birthday celebration. I found a description of an interesting Korean ritual for the first birthday of a child. I remembered hearing before about this ritual from a friend, but the description is detailed enough to give a good idea of what it is all about. This is a direct quote lifted from: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2007/10/123_12172.html
“The first birthday party is special for any baby around the world, but Korea has a unique tradition of putting various things on the table in front of the baby and letting the baby pick one of these to tell the future of the baby.
On the table are usually money, thread, rice and pencil. The baby will be rich if it picks money, will live long with thread, and be a scholar by picking a pencil, which reflects Confucian tradition. Rice means that the baby will have enough food throughout his or her life, which was a huge blessing when people often suffered from famines.
The tradition is changing. Now some parents put a microphone on the table, which means the baby will become an entertainer, or a golf ball, wishing that the baby will be a famous golf player.”
What a lovely idea! In Bali, the first birthday is treated in an entirely different way. I think I first came across this in the book “Eat, Pray, Love”! Actually, if you go to the link below, you will learn that the rituals start in pregnancy and there are several different ones on different days of the baby’s life leading up to the first birthday.
This descritpion comes from the following website:
“On the first birthday (Oton), which is according to the Balinese calendar on the 210th day, the baby is allowed to touch the ground for the first time. Because the ground is considered impure, the baby has always been carried around up to this day.
This day is of course again accompanied with a ceremony which is pretty big and takes place at the ancestral temple where families and the community gather to celebrate.”
Here is a great website with descriptions of first birthdays around the world, including the American custom of parties with decorations, cake, etc. The Hindu custom is another great one, and after reading about it, I sense that certain cultures focus on themes like “cleansing the baby”, “evil from past life”, “impurity” that area also part of the Catholic tradition of babtism. What is interesting about the Balinese point of view is the idea that the world the baby enters is “impure”, not the baby!
“On a Hindu child’s first birthday, his or her head is shaved while being held by a special fire. Removal of the hair cleanses the child of any evil in past lives, symbolizing a renewal of the soul.
Usually on the day of the birthday, the child will wear very colorful clothing to school and will pass out chocolates to the entire class. The child will also kneel and touch their parents’ feet as a sign of respect. They then all visit a shrine, where they pray and the child is blessed.
In the afternoon there might be a meal that includes a spicy vegetable stew called curry and chutney which is a spicy fruit relish. The dessert is a treat known as “dudh pakh”, which is rice like pudding (they might also stir in pistachios, almonds, raisins, and a spice called cardamon)”
Another different reference to feet. Interesting.
To end, here is a tradition in Ghana, again involving a cleansing ritual:
“The Asante people in Ghana celebrate “krada” (which means “Soul Day”) on the day of their birth. On a person’s krada, he or she wakes up early and washes themselves using a special leaf soaked overnight in water (this is a cleansing ritual intended to purify the inner soul). Then in the afternoon, they have a feast with family and friends and the celebrant is usually dressed in white clothing.”