Archive for February, 2009

For the most part modern, western cultures do not do ritual well.  Of course we have positive and consistent formats of marking births, marriages and deaths, but what do we do for the more nebulous transitions, like the one from childhood to adulthood or from career to retirement?  We certainly don’t celebrate menarche or menopause.


Various religions have their own rites of passage.  Jews have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, after which the young person is permitted to read from the Torah in synagogue.  Buddhists in Myanmar have a Poy Sang Long, when boys commit to a stint as a Buddhist monk. Some Christian denominations hold infant baptism, first communion, and confirmation.  All of these ceremonies are familiar markers of childhood milestones.


Some cultures’ rites of passage appear bizarre to western sensibilities.  Scarification is one such example.  Some Aborigines and Papua New Guineans endure the painful process of having their skin cut and scarred at the end of adolescence to signify their transition into adulthood. Young Massai males are circumcised in a mass ceremony, and then sent into the wilderness to survive for two years.  Hindu widows for centuries were pressured to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, in a now outlawed practice called sati.  To our western way of thinking, these practices are ordeals that smack of abuse and violation.  So what is positive about rites of passage?


A rite of passage marks the transition from one social status to another.  Generally rites of passage contain three elements: separation, liminality or transition, and reincorporation. A wedding, for example, marks the change from single to married, and it includes separation (the giving of the bride), transition (the service where the couple undergoes spiritual and/or legal unification) and the reincorporation (the announcement to the community of man and wife and a celebration with them.)  


Each stage of the rite of passage has an important function.  Separation signals closure of one phase of life, not only to the initiate, but also to his or her family and the community. Liminality enhances the ambiguity of the change, often providing a challenge to the young person’s inner resources.  In this “space between,” the young person discovers or proves he or she is ready for and worthy of a new status.  Reincorporation reinforces the change, helping to establish it firmly in the person’s identity.  People now interact with him or her with new expectations and respect. 


Even in those practices which westerners might deem unsavoury or cruel, the initiates generally go through the process with positive outcomes.  One of the most significant results for the young person is a sense of belonging and connectedness to their community.  Another is a sense of affirmation of their gender identity. Young Native Americans who undergo a rite of passage confirm their allegiance to their people and derive satisfaction and meaning from the rituals. These communities benefit in a myriad of ways from young men and women who feel included and validated at such a vital transition in their lives.


In most modern, western societies, adolescents generally do not benefit from a rite of passage to mark their transition into adulthood.  They miss out on a clear crossing over, during which they can shed childish ways and adopt mature responsibility.  Validation of their identity, competence, and sexuality is not extended, but rather merely assumed.  The default rites of passage, such as schoolies, obtaining a driving license, or registering to vote, lack the affirming tone of a rite. Turning 18 means the young person gains a new freedom of choice—to consume alcohol or to get tattooed, but the responsibility to manage that freedom is not addressed.  No wonder there are so many confused, disenfranchised young people in modern western society.


Churches, schools, and young people’s organisations can address this failure in modern, western society.  Our young people will benefit and our communities will too.


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Intrepid is not a word that applies to this traveller. Sure in my twenties, I got around—and I didn’t do the tourist thing—no hotels, group sightseeing, or bus tours. No, I lived in the countries I went to. I studied. I worked. I hit the roads and seas with swashbuckling fervour. But things just didn’t work out.
The sad truth is I had to concede defeat. In the end, I did not conquer lands, amass languages and assimilate cultures. I just settled down and feathered my nest. And I owe it all to a sensitive inner ear: I Suffer (with a capital S) from motion sickness. I might have the heart of a traveller, but I have the stomach of a gutless homebody. I have spewed on one too many ferries to class myself as an intrepid traveller.

Intrepid? Hardly– I turn green merely watching movies of other people riding on a bus. (Diesel fumes—gag!) I was the child who threw up twelve times on the 6-hour car ride to Ocean City, nearly breaking my father’s childhood record for the same trip. Most car rides involved pinning a barf bag to my shirt, just in case. It wasn’t something I could help, yet I (rightfully) incurred the hatred of many a friend’s parent, after I’d “decorated” their car. I’d like to know how I came up with the bright idea to do all that travel in the first place.

Above all the memories of my motion sickness induced degradation, one holds the place of honour as the worst travel experience in my life. Even a 36-hour labour could not outdo this memory for its sheer awfulness. It happened in Italy in the spring of 1983 on a huge ocean-going ferry leaving from the port of Sassari in Sardinia heading for Genoa. Reports that night were that the Mediterranean was burrascosa—rough.
Decency requires that I spare the reader the gory details of the women’s restroom that was writhing with lily-livered seafarers heaving their guts, so I will fast-forward about 4 hours. Dizzy with dehydration, I crawled out of that hellhole, in search of fresh air. I stumbled up to a foyer that led out to a deck. It seemed like a good place to recuperate, because one thing was certain: I would not be reacquainting myself with that reeking lavatory again, no matter what happened. Under a humming florescent light, I crawled up on a settee to try to rest.

After who knows how long, I awoke to find a squat Sardinian man leaning over me, staring into my face. The unsettling sensation of his garlicky breath on my brow caused me to jump to my feet, despite my weakness. He asked me if I was feeling all right. His croaky Popeyesque voice was almost as disturbing as the sooty blackheads that pock-pitted his nose. “I’ve been seasick all night. I just need some air,” I hastily replied as I headed for the door to put some distance between him and me.

I walked outside into the wild wind. Its coolness shocked some clarity back into my fuzzy head—just enough to notice the little monster had followed me outside. I sat down despondently, with the sinking awareness that out in the howling wind in the middle of the night away from every other human on the ferry, there was no one who could help me if I needed it. I tried to look confident as I reviewed my escape options…which were nonexistent. He could toss me into the inky Mediterranean if he wanted and no one would notice my disappearance for several days. As I formulated the dire appraisal of my situation, his squeaking voice intruded into my thoughts.

Da me un bacetto, signorina.” Give me a kiss, little lady.

Experiencing a healing of near Biblical proportions, I stood up and replied—in perfect Italian—”My mother told me never to kiss strange men.” (Where did that come from? I was sure she’d never said that.) I darted towards the entrance to the foyer. The sooty-pored sailor from hell lunged to block my get away, but being a good two feet taller than him, I had the upper hand. I kneed him in the groin (I could have nailed that nasty studded nose if I had wanted), shoved him against a wall and gave him a hearty New York salute (and a few choice English words!) By the time I got to my assigned seat in the passenger section, I had no symptoms of seasickness or dehydration. The truly miraculous part is that despite the adrenalin I slept until we arrived in Genoa.

Maybe that does count as intrepid…



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Hot flushes get all of the attention— and it is undue hype, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been experiencing some far more disturbing symptoms of perimenopause than a bit of heat and some sweat. When a woman suffers a hot flush, at least she can do something to alleviate it—jump in a pool, strip down to her g-string, or roll in the snow—or all of the above. As the hot flush subsides, blessed relief comes with a satisfying sizzling sound and a wisp of steam.

My bizarre perimenopausal symptoms have me at their mercy, leaving me beside myself with shame and grief. It’s not the thinning hair, the night sweats or the numb mind that has me worried. The real problem is, in the past few months I have devolved into a poor driver, and I place blame squarely where it belongs: on my hormones. Some may think my claim is a bit of a long stretch, but I am serious.

For most of my driving life, I have had a stellar record. Cramped kerbside parking spaces on busy city streets never fazed me. Backing the car smoothly into the space in one swift movement, I would congratulate myself and declare: “Who says girls can’t parallel park?” But those days of smugness are gone, apparently. My parking antics now hold up traffic, causing newsworthy gridlock and outbreaks of road rage. Taxi drivers shake their heads at me. Blokes on the footpath roll their eyes. Even fellow women feel embarrassed for me. The hormone-induced demise of my ability to parallel park is a loss I grieve!

Sorrow has been heaped upon sorrow—it would seem my depth perception has gone wonky. My garage is the scene of numerous motoring incidents. The back of my car bears several grazes from the garage door scraping down on it. Come to think of it, the front of the car–on both sides–is scarred as well.  (And we won’t tell my husband about the damage to the garage door itself!) Our summer holiday apartment was equipped with a snug little garage, which I wasn’t going anywhere near.  Instead, I nosed up to a cinderblock wall in the parking lot. Given the numerous “nudges” I inflicted upon it, I’m surprised it was still standing at the end of our vacation.   These vehicular mishaps are a new phenomemon–honestly!

This bizarre visual symptom has me worried. Perimenopause, after all, can last several years. By the end of it, I’ll likely be in the Panel Beaters’ Hall of Fame.

”]Maybe her hormones are to blame? [BTW, this is NOT me!]

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Highly Sensitive People. It sounds like a group to avoid—at all costs.

The truth is, highly sensitive people are not awful, nor are they dramatic, hysterical or controlling. High sensitivity is not necessarily referring to excessive emotional output but rather to a physiological profile. The highly sensitive person is one who, from birth, reacts quickly and strongly to external stimuli and who takes a longer time than normal to return to homeostasis. The physiological sensitivity can be objectively quantified by monitoring heart rate, pupil dilation, breathing, and hormone levels.

Researchers believe one in five babies are born with this high physiological sensitivity and that it is an enduring trait in most cases.  Research has found there is an even distribution of high sensitivity amongst men and women. Australian psychologist and researcher Dr Paula Barrett lists high physiological sensitivity as the most significant risk factor in child development, as it often contributes to problems with anxiety and depression in adolescence and adulthood.

A highly sensitive person is acutely attuned to the physical environment. He or she has an awareness of subtleties that are off the radar of people of average sensitivity. Light, smells, textures, air quality, temperature, space, mood, and time constraints are factors that the highly sensitive person constantly unconsciously moderates. The HSP’s senses are not necessarily keener; his or her brain processes the information more thoroughly. This sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, highly sensitive people (HSP) tend to be thorough, highly creative, and productive. They enjoy a deep inner life and have a profound appreciation and experience of colour, beauty, music, flavours, and nature. Their thoughtful processing and careful work can produce excellent results.

The downside to high sensitivity is that the high levels of sensory input can be overwhelming. HSPs tend to become overstimulated in crowds and in situations involving noise, pollution, and bright lights. Zoning out can be a sign of overwhelm or a coping mechanism to avoid fatigue. Either way, such withdrawal can seem unsociable or overly shy.

Psychologists have been inclined to use words like shy, inhibited or introverted to describe HSPs. They generally use a spectrum which has “bold” on the positive end and “shy” on the negative end, connoting shyness as a pathology of some sort and boldness as the optimum standard. Indeed, our culture prizes toughness and nerve over sensitivity.  However, one look at actors like Jim Carey and it becomes quite clear that boldness in the extreme can be obnoxious and equally as problematic as shyness in the extreme.

This alternative paradigm of high physiological sensitivity is useful because it removes the judgement from this temperament, allowing for and describing not only weaknesses but strengths as well. Moreover, researchers have discovered that approximately 30% of HSPs are in fact extroverts, a fact which proves that the label “shy” is not always appropriate or accurate.

Highly sensitive people are not flaky, as the name unfortunately implies; they simply have a nervous system that is biologically more vigilant. It is like comparing a generic brand telescope with the Hubble telescope and implying the Hubble is odd and defective because of its sensitivity. When people appreciate high sensitivity for what it is and isn’t—a physiological sensitivity rather than an emotional proclivity—they will be able to live and work with people with compassion and understanding.

A highly sensitive person needs understanding. They have to deal with a lot more sensory input than the other 80% of the population, and the load can be tiring. HSPs require time and space to recuperate after highly stimulating events. Solitude, quiet, low lighting, and greenery are restorative.

Parents of children who are highly sensitive (HSC) will do well to teach their child self-soothing techniques, such as time out (not the punishment, but rather time alone), playing with a pet, journalling with words or art, play time outdoors, and utilising tactile soothing strategies, such as stroking a soft toy or squeezing a stress ball. Teachers can learn to recognise signs of overstimulation and make allowances for individual learning styles.  Allowing the use of an IPod or time with the head on the desk can be supportive of the HSC. Some students doodle to self-soothe or assist in processing information, a fact that teachers should consider before prohibiting it outright.

For more information on high sensitivity, books by Dr Elaine N Aron are helpful. One of the pioneers of the highly sensitive person profile, her work is thorough, empirically based and gaining recognition in the world of psychology.  http://www.hsperson.com/ 

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Swap meets are in the realm of secret men’s business. Therefore, as a woman, my understanding of the goings on at a swap meet is a little hazy. I assume that it is a countrified version of Top Gear (TV show), where raucous revvings of V-8’s and curious transactions take place between petrol-heads. It would seem they congregate in a dusty paddock or lonely showground somewhere for the sole purpose of trading random bits of metal. Apparently, these swaps occur under the blazing sun and in the company of a host of whining flies, as bonnets are proudly lifted and engines are enviously inspected, much like a canine tail-sniffing exchange. I’m not entirely sure if cash and credit cards are used, or if nuts, bolts, and spark plugs are the currency. In all honesty, I’m happy to leave the automotive swap meet where it belongs—in the realm of male mysteries.

Take the Swap Meet concept, allow a creative, classy woman to toy with it, and, hey presto!, you have something wonderfully girlie and innovative. My friend Natalie overhauled the lads’ swap meet last year and came up with a ladies’ event that was fun and very practical. Rather than hubcaps and mufflers, we swapped clothing and accessories. Six women participated, each bringing a few articles of clothing that were clean, pressed, and in good condition.

The dusty paddock was abandoned in favour of Natalie’s gorgeous art deco home, which is nestled in beautiful treed mountains. Naturally, rather than swatting flies and surveying engine blocks, we girls had convivial conversation over tea and home-baked treats and then swarmed to where the real action was to happen, the makeshift boutique downstairs. All of our proffered treasures were laid out to consider, leading to flurry of disrobing, trying on, posing and swapping. Most items were previous best-loved items that had fallen out of favour or no longer fit. The collection included everyday and formal wear, shoes, belts, costume jewellery, and even a few items of home wares.

The group of six women was by no means homogeneous. There were a range of dress sizes, 8-12; the shortest woman measured about 5’5, the tallest about 5’11. Ages also differed, from early twenties to early forties. Despite all of this variety, every woman found a few items that she loved and that fit. Of the six participants, I was easily the most different in size (the tall one) and frankly I wasn’t expecting to find anything. I was so surprised that my meagre offerings fit these gorgeous, tiny, young women, whose bodies were not yet…altered…by child birth, breastfeeding and age. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that some of their items fit my statuesque frame. I arrived at the swap meet with a few nice tops I was tired of and departed with huge haul of booty, that included a pleated skirt (a current favourite in my work wardrobe), a dressy Chinese chipao top, an interesting necklace made of stone beads, and even an Asian tea set to add to my collection. A few items that didn’t work for any of the ladies—two sundresses and a cardigan—were kindly offered to my teenaged daughters.

Interestingly, everyone described a lovely, guilty feeling of leaving with more and better goodies than they had brought. Everyone was chuffed and most in the following week at work sported a “new” outfit featuring a swapped item or two. Husbands, normally silent about women’s activities, were also reportedly highly supportive (and even envious) of this free wardrobe pep-up.

Natalie’s version of the Swap Meet was very successful, so much so we discussed the possibility of repeating it biannually. The humble swap meet has gone girlie and is now firmly established in the realm of secret women’s business.

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