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As I write, my daughter and ten of her friends are in the other room, watching a movie, and then they’ll take over our upstairs and have a sleepover. Though Simone’s birthday isn’t until the end of August, we celebrate at the end of the academic school year, so this is her twelfth birthday party.

Twelve is a time of transition: the girls’ talk and games oscillate between boys and freeze dance party and pin the tail on the donkey. Their bodies are a wide variety of sizes and development.

In three days, they will move on from elementary school and they’ll start middle school in the fall. This is a somewhat emotional time for me—I get emotional at each of my children’s birthdays and graduations, and now the phase of my life mothering elementary aged children is over. I have so loved having young children, and much as I love having older children, my body contracts and feels brittle at the thought of not having little children in the house to give purpose to and to brighten my days.

Simone will have a graduation/moving up ceremony at her school next week, but it is only for students and teachers—for some reason, there is no official graduation ceremony that the parents attend, so I have to deal with this transition on my own, in my own way.

Writing about it is one way that I am marking the transition; I’m having conversations with friends and with Eric; I went to a restorative yoga class and dedicated the class to this transition. I am making my own private ceremonies, making my own stories. But part of me wishes there were a more formal transition and a more formal way to make sense of these big life changes.

In more traditional cultures, there would be more ceremonies and more story telling, and I miss that. What happens I wonder, when we lose that?

This week,  I’m going to be at Kripalu for a Narrative Medicine conference. I’m excited and eager to learn from the presenters who have been doing this work for a long time. One of the things we are learning is the importance of story telling for our mental health and also for our physical health. Without stories and times set aside to process our lives and transitions, our loves and our losses, we can become blocked—emotionally and physically. As our energy gets caught by our emotional selves, our physical selves develop illnesses. If we cannot narrate our story in words, we narrate our stories in symptoms. Just as physical toxins build up and can make us sick, so, too, emotional toxins can build up and make us sick.

Even something as joyous and celebratory as a daughter’s twelfth birthday party—and it is a joyous occasion—needs to be taken in, digested and processed.

The events of our lives, like the food we eat, need to be processed; we need to take in what serves us and eliminate what doesn’t. And this processing takes place through story, song and dance.
 

In a culture that pays less and less attention to the arts and to formal ceremony, rites of passage and story telling, it is no surprise that more and more people are isolated, depressed, unhealthy and violent.
 
A few weeks ago, I was at Kripalu to interview one of the leaders in the field of narrative medicine, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a doctor trained at Stanford who integrates native healing and story telling in his work and in his books. His work has inspired me for many years, and it was a real honor to meet him and talk with him. He brings together the best of the West with the best of indigenous cultures and brilliantly demonstrates the ways in which stories—on a personal and also, equally importantly, on a communal level—are essential to well-being and healing.

One of the things that’s particularly exciting about Mehl-Madrona’s work is that the stories he uses and elicits from his students are not only the memoir-like first person story of “this happened to me and then that happened,” but also and primarily stories that tap into our deep unconscious and into our connection to the larger human and animal worlds: stories of heroes, transitions, trials and triumphs. Mehl-Madrona uses traditional native stories and myths and also stories from popular culture to help people connect to a greater community and understanding of what it means to be human and to put their own individual challenges within a larger context and gain new perspective and new courage and energy to move forward and retell their own story. “Often you need to tell a story to get a story,” he told me.

As liberating and important as it is to uncover and claim our individual stories, sometimes we can get trapped within those stories, and it is also transformational to connect our personal experiences with the experiences of a larger, more coherent world. My passage into middle age and the growing up of my individual children is not unique to me, but part of a cycle of life.

Similarly, as my daughter and her friends negotiate these transitional years and experiment with the ways in which they are and are not part of a group, are and are not unique, (middle school is an age of drama), I can’t help wishing for a kind of rite of passage. Some of her friends will have a  Bat-Mitzvah, but we never went down that route. I wish, however, there were other, readily available growing up ceremonies and ways to connect to cultural stories.

The books and the movies about girls this age that my daughter watches fill this role in part, but more communal form of story telling and stories that connect us not just to other humans, but back to the earth and to our natural cycles, and that connect our minds, bodies and spirits in times of transition are also deeply important and powerful.

When I interviewed Mehl-Madrona, he was in the middle of leading a workshop on Cherokee Body Work. “What kind of landscape are you in?” he asks his patients on the table as they explore the psychic landscape of their physical wounds. The mind-body connection is made on the healing table, and most patients locate themselves in the wilderness connected to the earth; this allows them to make healing connections they wouldn’t be able to make if they stayed in their left brain. “Often,” Mehl-Madrona told me, “the deepest healing comes from the subconscious mind—it’s more playful—imaginative.”

When we tap into our unconscious mind and reconnect with our bodies, we create pathways for healing and well-being. This happens on an individual level, a social level and also on an earth level.
 

As we listen to ourselves better, we learn, too, to listen to others better and to the earth better, and vice versa: as we listen to others better, we learn to listen better to ourselves.

This year, Simone’s last night of elementary school will be summer solstice and the full moon—a co-occurence that happens only every seventy years—just once in my own life time. This is a propitious time, a time of great transition. My hope and prayer is that we can learn to listen to our transitions, to quiet our minds and to go inward, so that we can remember the ways in which we are all connected to a greater cycle of being and belonging, presence and change and honor the life—and health—of all things.

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