Thursday, June 11, 2009

Coming of Age Ceremony




I read this book a couple of years ago about how almost every culture in the history of mankind has had a coming of age ceremony for their boys. The point of these ceremonies was, the author argues, to communicate clearly to the young man that their station in life is different from a certain point onward. To present them with a clear image of what it means to be a man. To imbue values and give them a vision for their future. In a society that lacks these ceremonies you have many young men who mostly lack these things, adrift in a narcissistic quest for finding them in all the wrong places. Well, needless to say, I don't want that for my sons, and being one who over thinks everything I set to work designing a ceremony of my own since my oldest son, Justin, was fast approaching 13, the standard age for this sort of thing.

The book included several ideas for ceremonies of this type, and I mulled them over. One issue I have is that I do not fit many of the manly cliché's. I don't hunt or fish. I don't care about sports. I'm not competitive. I don't work on cars. And I take no pride in loud bodily functions. So when it came to devising a ceremony that communicates a clear vision of manhood, I had to really think about what it was that made ME a man to begin with. Perhaps that "manliest" thing about me is my sense of duty. I am more than willing to give up my happiness for the sake of my family and my values. The willingness to sacrifice for what you love is certainly not a dominantly male characteristic, but hey, It's the closest thing I've got! So I set to work applying my creativity and artistry to design a new ceremony that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Since the majority of the values that my family has given to me are embedded in our Christian tradition I wanted to keep that connection clear and obvious. I chose that as the theme for the ceremony. Since one of the main points is to pass on values I decided to literally instantiate them with symbolic stones. I like the power of the number 12, for all its biblical gravitas and decided to come up with a list of 12 core values that I want my sons to embrace. Since I was doing 12 stones, it was only natural to me to use the same 12 that are representative for the 12 tribes of Israel as listed in the Old Testament. I thought it would be great to have a value carved into these stones as a keepsake. Well it turns out some of those rocks are darn expensive. So I went with a plan B, and got 12 chunks of white limestone, and carved the words on them along with a circular niche in which I could embed much smaller tribal stones.

I also wanted to make a ring that could be conceptually connected with the stones/values. I had a little bit of experience making our wedding rings, so I thought I could pull off another one. This ring would also have 12 niches in it to set and even smaller collection of the tribal stones. I've been playing with this new material called PMC, (for Precious Metal Clay) that is literally finely ground silver mixed with a binder that gives it a clay-like consistency. You fire the finished piece in a kiln or with a torch and that burns away the binder and sinters the silver powder leaving you with a pure silver piece of jewelry. After a bit of experimenting I was able to make the ring, but my stone supplier did not get the tribal stones I had ordered in time for the ceremony.

However, that dilemma actually sparked an idea that I think is far superior to my initial plan of just giving Justin the ring with the stones. See, I had a conceptual problem that was gnawing at the back of my brain the whole time I was planning this ceremony. The problem is that Justin is just very immature in a lot of areas. I mean, what 12-13 year-old isn't? It seemed awkward to me to set this artificial line that he passes that automatically puts him in a new category when his mind and body are still obviously not there. But I began to think of the difference between a coming-of-age ceremony and a manhood ceremony that would happen around 18. To me, this coming-of-age is more about receiving a vision or goal to strive for over the coming teen years. It's a painting of an ideal that all Foreman men should work to become. So with that distinction in mind, I took the lack of tribal stones as an opportunity to illustrate the point that this is about becoming, not about what he has already become. There is a Christian concept called the Already/Not Yet that accounts for some of our scripture's apparent dichotomies. I apply this to my son, in that he is now chronologically in a different state, but has yet to fully come into it in fullness. That is exactly what I hope to communicate over the coming years by inserting the tribal stones into his ring when I have seen the particular values truly taking root in his life. In other words, I'm dolling them out one at a time based on his maturation. This is very… video-gamey. Which suits us all fine as it's a medium we are very familiar with. Many games feature some kind of artifact that the hero has to re-assemble piece by piece, collecting them on his journey.

And a journey is just the element that I thought would complete the ceremony perfectly. The journey has always been a beautiful metaphor for life. A spatial distance representing a timeline, physical obstacles as life's difficulties. From the ancient Greek Odyssey to Pilgrim's Progress to Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, the power of the journey is evident. So I thought about what kind of mini-journey we could incorporate into a ceremony, and Mt. Saint Helens was the first thing that came to mind. A volcano that made headlines around the world in 1980 when it erupted sending ash all over the globe. It's located an hour from my parent's house in Vancouver, and my extended family and I have hiked to the crater rim several times. It's usually a great day-trip, taking 6 or 7 hours, climbing over boulders and scrambling up a steep scree slope near the top. It's where I'd like my ashes scattered. (A mountain for a grave is way cooler than a cemetery plot, plus, the idea of my body slowly rotting in a box does not appeal to me.) We scattered my uncle's ashes there, so there is a family significance attached to this mountain. Perfect, I thought, until everything went wrong.

So every time I've been up the mountain it was in the middle of the summer and we have left early, and taken a trailhead from the Climber's Bivouac. Well this time we ended up driving the wrong direction not once, but three times before we actually got to the trail head. So we were two hours late. Aaaaaand it was a different trailhead than we had ever done. The roads to the normal one had been washed out so we got to start miles further away. Later I would find out that the early summer makes the hike very different. Interesting setbacks to be sure. The party consisted of me, my son Justin, my dad, my cousin-in-law Eric, and my co-worker and best friend Kirill. My dad didn't plan on getting all the way to the top on account of an accident he had 10 years ago where he fell 20 feet off his roof and broke both his ankles. He can walk fine now but circulation is poor. We got off to a brisk start, then I remembered how pathetically out of shape I am.

Fortunately, my ceremony plan involved 12 stops along the way to deliver the stones to Justin. But I didn't want to just hand him a rock with a word on it, I wanted to explain why I choose the 12 values that I did. So I got a friend of mine to print up my list along with explanations and Bible verses that talk about said values on some super duper art paper, and I wrapped each stone up with one of these descriptions. Oh, I want to point out that each value has a corresponding Bible verse that generally speaks of the trait, and also an example of it in the life of Jesus. Christ as the perfect Man is the hero I want my sons to emulate. I spent a couple of months considering which 12 values I should choose, because of course, I can think of a hundred important things I want my kids to be. But I finally settled on this list:

  1. Faith
  2. Generosity
  3. Humor
  4. Patience
  5. Wisdom
  6. Bravery
  7. Honesty
  8. Self-Control
  9. Fortitude
  10. Leadership
  11. Humility
  12. Love

Many of these values are obvious and any father would want their sons to embrace them. But I think overall they create a good image of what my family has passed to me and I want to pass to my children and grandchildren. There were several runners up that I hoped I was able to fold into the ones that made it. Values like Moderation, Chivalry, Mercy, and Justice. Cutting those while keeping Humor might seem a bit odd to some, but I really can't paint an accurate picture of myself or my family without it, whereas I was able to get the spirit of the other one's into the explanations for the final 12. Here is the list complete with references and descriptions.


Faith

Mat 4:10 Eph 6:16

Faith is the cornerstone of everything. God put us in a position where we can't even begin to reason without faith in our minds, faith in our senses, and most of all, faith that God grounds those things. In a world with a million different faith claims, make sure you examine the fruit that these claims produce before you decide who or what deserves your faith. This requires Wisdom, Bravery, Fortitude and Love.


Generosity

Mat 26:26 Psa 112:5

Everything we have is a gift from God, so sharing with others is the obvious thing to do. Besides financial generosity we strive to share our skills, time, and passion. Of course we all have limited resources, so make sure you make wise decisions about how and to whom you allocate them. This requires Faith, Love, Wisdom and Fortitude.


Humor

Mat 17:27 Pro 17:22

Life without humor would be unbearable. An appropriate level of humor helps us recognize that many difficulties are not the life-shattering events we sometimes think they are. Humor reduces stress and makes us fun to be around. Humor plus Faith and Fortitude equals joy.


Patience

Mat 19:14 Eph 4:2

Patience is only gained through the grueling process of living through life's tough challenges. Like a muscle, patience must be exercised in order to grow. Remember that every nuisance, obnoxious person or event, and pain in life is an opportunity to increase this blessed attribute. As you become more patient the easier life will be for you. Not because the thorns won't be there, but you simply won't be bothered by them as much. This requires Humor, Love, Self-Control and Fortitude.


Wisdom

Joh 8:7 2Ti 3:15

Wisdom is the greatest complement to the greatest trait: Love. Love without wisdom can become foolishness. But wisdom without Love is useless. Always seek wisdom, ask for God to bless you with it. Remember its source. This requires, Faith, Patience, Honesty, and Humility.


Bravery

Luk 22:42 1Co 16:13

This world does not share our values, and there will come many times when you will be forced to make hard decisions that will affect your life. You must be brave in order to keep your values. This requires Faith, Fortitude, and Self-Control.


Honesty

Luk 2:49 Pro 16:13

It's hard to always be honest. Especially when no one's looking. Honesty in your studies, work, and thought-life are essential to finding wisdom and for building good relationships. Honesty with yourself is the only way to grow. Only use brutal honesty with yourself, for everyone else, temper the style of your message without compromising the content of it. This requires Wisdom and Bravery


Self-Control

Mat 4:2 Pro 25:28

Our mind and body is always making demands of us, and a lot of the time we need to say no. When temptation is beyond your strength, cry out to God for deliverance. This requires Faith, Fortitude and Honesty.


Fortitude

Jn 19:16-30 Heb 12:1

Fortitude is strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage. God will give you the endurance to weather life's storms with fortitude. This requires Faith and Bravery.


Leadership

Joh 18:11 Mar 10:45 Mar 10:43

We are called to be the leaders of our families. We are given the responsibility to inspire others to faith in Christ. Lead by godly example. Only use words when necessary. Lead as Jesus did, with the goal of serving rather than self-aggrandizement. This requires Love, Humility, and Wisdom.


Humility

Joh 13:5 Jam 4:10

Never forget that every good attribute you have is a gift from God. And every time you see weakness in others remember you have plenty of weakness yourself. Never forget that you could be wrong about anything. This requires Faith and Honesty.


Love

Joh 10:11 1Jo 5:2 1Jo 4:8

God is Love. We strive to be like Him, therefore we Love. As we diminish ourselves and increase our focus on God and others we learn to be like Christ. Love is more than a feeling, and it's more than a decision. Love is God's way of animating all that is good. Every trait on this list is rooted in, and springs from Love.

So at intervals along the hike we stopped and I gave Justin one of the stones. I had him kneel out of reverence for the virtue, and read the description, then I would put the stone in his bag. The idea here is that these values are not free. They take work, and can often feel burdensome. He should know that when he agrees to strive for these it won't be easy. The first stone I wanted him to receive was the Faith stone. I wanted my dad to give that one to him as Faith is the unifying value that is being passed down through the generations, but my dad had the better idea that he should to give it to me, then I would give it to my son.

As we continued we came across a random inflatable pink flamingo standing next to the path, so I just had to give Justin the Humor stone there.

Eventually my dad had to turn back. He asked that we do the Bravery stone at that point and he gave Justin a stirring talk about how Grandpa would not be with him on the whole journey of his life. And that he needed to bravely face his life's journey despite the loss of loved ones. He said that I would get Justin to the top of the mountain though. Little did I know at that point how hard that would be.

The trail left the treeline and began to get steep and rocky. Just as I remembered the other trail to do, so I thought this new trail we were on would meet up with the old one. Well it never did. I knew there was going to be trouble when we got to the first boulders we had to climb over and my knees didn't lift as high as my brain was telling them to. We were probably about a quarter of the way up and my legs were already going rubber on me. On the plus side, we had some nice cloud cover so we weren't overheating. Yet strangely Kirill's automatic tinting glasses were getting dark. We assumed it was due to the snow patches bouncing the light around. The sunburns we all had the next day were evidence that the clouds did a crappy job of keeping the UVs off us!

My ankle did it's thing and started shooting pain up my leg every step. Fortunately we were blessed to have Eric along who is a nurse and actually came prepared. He wrapped my ankle and it felt better after that. A couple hours later we were struggling up packed snow without snow gear. Every other time I've been up this mountain there were a few patches of snow here and there. This time there were only a few patches of rock here and there. And it was almost all loose and harder to walk on than the snow. Every step involved kicking your toe into the snow a time or two before digging in and moving to the next step. By the time we came out above the clouds I was seriously hurting and summoning every ounce of fortitude I had for every step. Eric is a fit guy and was always bounding ahead. Even Justin was ahead of me most of the time. I was grinding down to fumes, literally taking two or three deep breaths before every step.

But we still managed to get all the stones ceremoniously delivered. It was 4:30 by the time we got close to the summit. But of course "close" is a relative term when you are going as slow as I was. As Justin and I approached the final rock outcropping before the final thousand-foot stretch of snow, Eric noted the time, and how it looked like it would take us (meaning Justin and I) another hour to get that final distance. And that it looked like clouds could be rolling in, creating a total white-out that could bring freezing weather and make finding the trail back down very difficult. These were all rational and reasonable observations. And his idea that we should head back down immediately made sense. But I had too much symbolic weight attached to this journey driving me onward despite the potential hardship and agonizing pain Justin and I were feeling. I told Eric that he could turn back if he felt it was foolish to continue, but that I had to keep going. Justin said if I was going he was going. I told Justin that he didn't have to complete the ceremony, but that if there is any way to do so, I would do it. Justin agreed that he wanted to complete it. Kirill nervously agreed with Eric, and decided to head back with him. It's best to stay in groups. Eric said they would head back a ridge or two and wait. He gave me his emergency whistle and a compass and we parted ways.

Looking back I feel foolish and selfish for this decision, because it put Eric and Kirill in a horrible position where they would obviously be worried for our safety and so couldn't really get far enough down the mountain to accomplish the point of turning back. I have apologized to them both repeatedly since then, and they are real stand-up guys and were graceful about it. On the upside, it did make the final ascent that much more epic and therefore memorable. And that is the point of ceremony, to burn the event into a person's memory.

Well, after 45 more minutes of grueling trudging up the steepest snow pack Justin and I finally got to the base of the rim. There was about 10 feet of jagged, loose rock between us and the very summit. Here is where I had planned the final challenge, the most vivid object lesson for the ceremony. Justin was barely holding back tears and was in a lot of pain, so I found a boulder that was stable enough and we rested on it for a while. I slowly hobbled around finding 12 bigger-than-the-Value-stone rocks and attached papers to each one. One each paper was an opposite attribute from the ones I had given Justin on the trek up. Hate instead Love, Quitting instead of Fortitude, Impatience instead of Patience, Selfishness instead of Generosity, etc. Now my brain was pretty tired, so I can't be sure exactly what I said until I review the video I was shooting, but I told him something along the lines of:

"This is one of the most important things you can learn in life. When things get tough, when there is an obstacle in your life, you will be tempted to set your values aside for a bit because it seems like that will make getting through that rough patch easier. So we're going to go ahead and take the rocks out of your backpack for this final challenge."

Justin whimpered his agreement and we transferred all the Value stones out of his pack and into mine. Then we turned to scramble up the last 10 feet, but I stopped him and said:

"But wait! This is the lesson you must learn… you don't replace these values with nothing. Something always replaces them: the opposite value will take their place. So while you think you are lightening your load, you are actually adding to it."

I pointed to the stack of larger, jagged rocks with the anti-value labels. I could see the dread on his face as we placed the much heavier load into his backpack. He struggled to hoist it onto his back.

"Oh, and there's one more thing you should know. When you lose your values you are blinded. Blind to the direction you need to go in life."

The red fabric I tied around his head soaked up his tears, but the quivering lips indicated he was right at the breaking point. I honestly wasn't sure if he'd be able to do this. I scooted up to the rim and encouraged him.

"Stay low, these rocks are loose… Try to find bigger rocks to grab onto… You're almost there!"

His trembling fingers dug into the sharp gravel and he slowly, carefully wriggled his way up. I crouched, ready to spring to his aid if he slipped. When he was within reach I hoisted off his backpack and removed his blindfold.

"You did it!"

He half sobbed and nodded, sniffling. I think I was as relieved as he was. Together we took the labels off the anti-value rocks, piled them up at the very crest of the summit and lit them on fire, symbolizing Justin's rejection of them. And there, clinging to the shifting rocks around us, above the clouds we sat for a bit. Our beleaguered breathing and the eerie intermittent clattering of rocks slides echoing around the crater were the only sounds. After a breather I presented Justin with his new ring, and explained how I was going to 'upgrade' it with the tribal stones as I saw evidence in his life that these Values were taking root in his soul. His fatigue made it hard to see any reaction on his face, but I think I saw a little glimmer of life return to his eyes as he received the symbol of his achievement.

Knowing that we had people waiting for us, and that getting down before dark was imperative, we wasted no more time and started back down. We were back in the clouds almost immediately and it was hard to make out the rock outcroppings that were the only landmarks we had. We did a lot of sliding on our butts, which, while kind of painful due to the sharp ice chunks everywhere, was still preferable to walking. A few minutes of sliding and we heard Kirill and Eric shouting for us. We did a little Marco/Polo action to find them, and regrouped a little ways down. The rest of the trip back was such a relief after the painful hike up.

It was getting ominously dark by the time we were getting close to the bottom, so we were limp/fast-walking for the last mile, finally emerging from the woods at 9:20. The nice dinner at a restaurant we had planned would have to wait till Monday. Justin and I took Monday off and rested our sore limbs. It's Thursday evening now and I am just starting to be able to walk down stairs without too much pain.

Overall I'm really happy with how things turned out. Justin is very proud of his ring and wears it around his neck all the time. My dad is working on a box to keep the rocks along with the explanations and photos from the ceremony. I hope this will be an heirloom that Justin can hand down to his sons if he has any. I hope the ceremony can continue and that it will bless generations of Foremans to come.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Stuck In-between?

Am I the emotional victim of the American Dream? Last night I had two different dreams where I ended up crying hysterically. (In my dream, not in real life.) In my first dream I came upon my youngest son, Shane along the side of the road, he had a suitcase packed with various things including two of the same book: Professor Wormbog and the Search for the Ziparumpazoo. (http://www.amazon.com/Professor-Wormbog-Search-Zipperump-Zoo/dp/157768687X ) Let me tell you a little bit about what this book means to me. I think it was my favorite book as a child. Somehow I ended up with my original 1970-something version in my book collection. Trouble with it was that someone had, at some point colored all over the last page and ripped half of the page off. The dénouement of this book really gives it a huge boost in charm, so having it ruined really sucked. A couple months ago I decided that if I ever wanted to read this book to my grandchildren I had better get myself a new copy before they were out of print forever. Well, it turns out it already is. And there are copies going on Amazon and Ebay for hundreds and hundreds of dollars! I did manage to track down a copy of the original printing version with minimal wear and tear for around 40 dollars and got it. A long term investment in my future grandchildren.

So back to my dream: There Shane was, with his suitcase busted open, it’s contents spilling out into a big mud puddle, including both of our Professor Wormbog books. I snatched them up and opened them both, trying to assess the water damage. As I did I found that Shane had colored all over the new one I had just purchased. So naturally I started balling. In real life I would not have cried over this. But clearly this dream symbol meant something bigger than a particular book. (No, I’m not a Jungian dream interpreter) Maybe it symbolized my childhood. Maybe the scribbles over the images represent my fading memories of the halcyon days of yore, frolicking without care. The 5-year-old Josh collecting super balls with dissolving rice-paper scoops at a carnival in Japan. The 8-year-old Josh attempting to get lost in the woods with my fancy new survival gear in Portland. The 11-year-old Josh riding my bike and collecting pollywogs in the dried river bed near our home in San Antonio. Whatever the reason, I wept hard over that ruined book.

I have many dreams every night, all of them clear and easy to remember. I think because I wake up dozens of time every night and the memories must get registered in my conscious memory. My last dream of the night had me and my family exploring a house for sale. In real life we just tried to refinance the condo we purchased two years ago, at the height of the real-estate bubble. Tried and failed. The value for our condo has plummeted. We are in this for the long run. This makes me sad because I always wanted my kids to have what I had as a kid: a house with a yard and places to explore nearby. Turns out that dream is dying. I don’t see any way that will happen before my boys have moved out in 8 years or so.

Well in my dream we are looking at a fairly modest, but beautiful home in the suburbs bordering the country. A huge, beautiful yard. Autumnal light spilling through the blinds onto a sprawling den with outdated yellow and orange carpeting. And the price was so low… but there was still no way we could get a loan for it when we are so upside down in our condo. And I wept. I sobbed uncontrollably. The kind where your whole body shakes. I woke with the distorted view of the living room through tears fading from my mind.

If my ruined Professor Wormbog book was my childhood fading, this house was the dream of my future fading. The dream for my kids’ childhood fading.

In real life I take comfort in the fact that kids can flourish with or without houses with yards. That the relationships between children and parents are the more important aspect of childhood. But in my dreams I weep.