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*RITUAL*
Two dedicated practitioners talk about rituals and women:
-Big Mommas and Golden Apples>by Luisah Teish

-Bringing Home the Light>by E.M. Broner
- A Community Creates a Rite of Passage for Girls
-Ms. Readers Share Their Personal Rituals

YOUR HEALTH:
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*Bitter Harvest* Thailand's sex industry went big time with help from the U.S. military and the World Bank. The insatiable demand fuels a sex traffic that consumes the lives of ever-younger girls.>> A special report by Betty Rogers
ARTS:
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BOOKS:
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-Boldtype: Camryn Manheim
-Editor's Page
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-Uppity Women: Melinda Lackey
-Women Organizing Worldwide
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-Lastpage: Making Waves
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*Studying Womanhood*
Author Noelle Howey was entering puberty when her father announced that he wanted to change his sex. A provocative memoir...

NEWS:
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-Newsmaker: Audie Bock
-Oh Canada!
-Clippings

 

 

 

When I was growing up in New Orleans in the 1950's, we believed that a woman's ability to produce and nurture life with her body gave her special powers, an ability to interact with natural forces in ways uncommon to men. In my neighborhood deep in Bayou country, this gave rise to community rituals that informed the everyday events of our lives.

When a woman brought a new baby home, the local women sprang into action. They looked in on the new mother for eight weeks, helping to cook, clean, and do laundry. They examined the baby's hands and speculated whether she had "piano fingers" (creative potential) or "pickpocket fingers" (criminal potential). The grandmothers reserved their right to "shape the baby's head" by rolling it between their hands with blessed oil, to close the soft spot and improve character. And they protected the child from bad spirits by placing turnip seeds in its pillowcase or sacred symbols over the bed.

As a little girl, I watched these women closely. They had keen intuition. Some of them knew what would happen minutes, months, even years beforehand. In this community were trance mediums, herbalists, midwives, and storytellers. They depended on each other to divine the meaning of dreams, to foresee and prepare for natural disasters, to heal illness and deliver babies, and to perform rites associated with physical growth, spiritual development, and death. These women were well-informed community organizers who settled family disputes, raised their hands against injustice, and could be dangerously inconsolable when offended. In my own household, we lived in fear of Mother's pointed finger, for whatever she said while calling upon Jesus, Mary, and Joseph came to pass in short order.

Women like these exist in every culture on the globe. In some Native American cultures, they are called medicine women or cuaranderas; in European cultures, they are called witches. Among black folks that I know, we call them "the Mothers." They're the block mothers, the church mothers, the big mommas who hold our lives and communities together.

When I was a teenager, my mother insisted upon fulfilling a deathbed promise to her father, and I was rushed through the rituals of the Catholic church-baptism, communion, confirmation. I liked the rituals, but hated the rules and rhetoric. By the time I graduated from high school, I'd decided to fire the pope and find meaningful rituals outside the church house

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In college, I studied with Katherine Dunham, the "first lady" of black dance, in East St. Louis, Illinois. Her work, steeped in Pan-African traditions, brought Afro-Haitian spirituality and culture to the American stage. Under her direction, I lived and worked among brilliant artists from West Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil, and realized that the ways of my Mothers sprang from ancient African rituals that had been preserved across continents and over centuries. As I performed the sacred dances so integral to these rituals, I could feel the energy of spirit moving through my body. I felt beautiful, powerful, and mysterious.

In my spiritual quest, I sat at Baha'i firesides, danced to Hare Krishna chants, and was initiated into the Egyptian Fahamme temple of Amun-Ra in St. Louis, Missouri. I concluded that every tradition held a piece of the truth, and each had its flaws and limitations. The only common thread I experienced was a need to honor the Mothers in every tradition-Mary, Isis, Oshun-because I had seen their power manifested in the women of my childhood.

Ironically, Western culture associates the legacy of women's natural power with the "curse of Eve," and rarely acknowledges its value. Part of my work involves reclaiming symbols of that forgotten power and integrating them into my rituals. Since the contributions of everyday women often go unrecognized in this materialistic, superstar-obsessed culture, I created a ritual to celebrate them.

For many years I was neighbor to a woman whom I'll call Sister Ocean. She was a good mother to her many children and did part-time work to supplement the family income. In addition, she found time to participate in the local voter registration drive, attend Neighborhood Watch meetings, and provide her sister friends with emotional support.

One day, Sister Ocean congratulated me on a dance performance I'd given, then lamented that her own work lacked both "glamour and recognition." I was touched to see tears welling up in her eyes. Here was a woman who performed life-preserving tasks daily. I realized the value of acknowledgement and created the Golden Apple Award for her. Since then, I have performed it for countless friends as well as for my students in the spirituality classes I teach at the University of Creation Spirituality and the John F. Kennedy University in the San Francisco Bay area. The little celebrations cost me less than ten dollars and make hardworking women feel appreciated. I invite you to perform one for a well-deserving Mother in your life.

Go to your local craft or hobby shop and purchase an apple-shaped candle. If it's not gold, tie a gold ribbon around it, or dip it in gold paint.

Make or buy a necklace for the woman you are honoring. Some stores sell beautiful, inexpensive beads made from appleseed, corn, and other natural objects.

Bake an apple pie or buy one from your favorite bakery. Steep a pot of fruit or herbal tea. Arrange everything on a tray with a small bouquet of flowers.

Gather at least two other women friends. Choose an opportune moment and surprise the honoree with a ceremony for the Golden Apple Award.

When I perform this ritual, I like to use language drawn from the metaphors of Eden. Before placing the necklace on the woman, I hold it over her head and say: "Today, your sisters have gathered to honor you as Mother of All the Living. We honor the power of your body to birth and nurture. We recognize the gifts of your mind, your curiosity, and your creativity. By the sweat of your brow our daily bread is baked and the harvest home is maintained. We appreciate the blessing of your being, woman and Earth."

Then, light the candle and say something like, "We see the bright light of spirit in your eyes, and we declare it good."

Advise her to make a wish for herself-not for the house, the children, the neighborhood, the job, anyone or anything else. If the ceremony takes place in a garden or park, encourage her to walk through the growing things as she recites her wish. The other women might want to whisper affirmations.

Relax, sit down, eat the pie, drink the tea, and share stories of everyday triumphs.

Luisah Teish (www.jambalayaspirit.org) is the author of "Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals" and "Carnival of the Spirit: Seasonal Celebrations and Rites of Passage" (Harper San Francisco).
Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009