An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
As far as I can trace my lineage, I am of European descent. When it comes to where I would choose to live in the world, Europe is last on the list, or maybe before Antarctica. I struggle to come to terms with the idea that it’s really acceptable for me to call home a place that is my home as a direct result of colonization.
So when asked, I say I’m from the universe. I can tell you where I grew up and where I currently live, but I’m from the universe. And yet that answer avoids an entire undercurrent of cultural ignorance, privilege, and prejudice.
My spirituality is highly connected to nature, and I want to commune with my land in a way that isn’t rife with grief. Even when in spiritual discovery, I often find myself questioning boundaries of cultural appropriation on multiple fronts. Maybe it’s just a reality of the time we live in and a necessity of growing the universal consciousness that I hold a measure of this suffering and this questioning for what it is?
Also, how can I share important spiritual traditions with my children? I say, this is important to me and this is how I think about it today, and here was my process, and here’s why sharing it with you is special. They want their own special holidays and traditions, but I haven’t made any feel appropriately safe to them as a place of belonging.
I think they need to go through their own searching, but as children, they don’t always deserve the heavy complexity that I bring to what should be their haven, peace, wholeness, divinity, sense of meaning, and ability to experience the human joy of communion and celebration.
I would love to let go of some attachment that is keeping me from providing simplicity (but not blind simplicity) for my children’s spiritual growth. Where am I going wrong?
First of all, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. But I do think you’re getting in your own way a little bit. Don’t feel badly, though. We all do that in one way or another. The first thing you can do is offer yourself some grace. We could all use some of that.
Let’s next remember, until the mid-twentieth century most people in the United States experienced no real separation between “spirituality” and “religion”. The former was what you experienced by engaging in the latter. Or not. But as long as you were definitely doing the latter, then you belonged. You got the cultural download, the community feeling, the essential stories and teachings.
I don’t know if it was our generation or the generation just before us that was the first one to not, in the majority, follow in the religious path of their parents. For sure, my parents have been (were, in my father’s case) religious all their lives, but their religious affiliations changed when they became adults. For many of us in the generations now raising children, we’ve walked away from religion entirely.
Many of us have joined the ranks of the “spiritual, but not religious”, which is difficult as an individual. It can be hell in terms of raising kids. The ready made community is gone. The traditions, rituals, and essential stories are gone. If you don’t even quite know what you believe, how are you supposed to teach your children what to believe?
I was raised with religion at the center of our family life, and it was, on balance, a positive, enlivening experience for me. So much so that I went to both a high school and college affiliated with my faith community, and I did a year of service program straight out of college as my transition into adulthood.
I wasn’t an active member of the community for about a dozen years, but since my kids were five and nine years old we’ve been regular attenders at our local Quaker meeting. Even going to a house of worship most every Sunday for the last 8 years, however, I struggle with how to convey to my children a sense of connection to something larger than themselves, to explicitly encourage them to make space for Spirit in their lives. Our holiday traditions are largely secular, focused on amorphous values like “family” and “gratitude”. I will confess that often they leave me a little cold.
And yet, some days (before COVID) I would enter worship on a Sunday and it was like sinking into a warm, infinite sea. Peace wrapped around me and held me close. Even after everything shut down, I would go out to the woods by myself, lay down on the forest floor to better see the light shining through the new leaves, and feel the same sense of unshakeable connection. That sense of connection- to God, to other people, to the Earth, guides every significant choice I make, and most of the smaller ones, too. It orders my life.
Is that teachable? Is that what my parents meant for me to understand, dragging me out of bed all those Sundays? Or is that just a thing I stumbled into because of the one that I am? I honestly don’t know.
If I could bottle it and just slip it in my kid’s cereal in the morning I would. It would be easier. But that’s not on the list of options for either of us.
I think your concerns about imperialism and cultural appropriation are absolutely valid and should inform how and what practices you bring to your children, and we’ll get to that. But first, I would argue that the answer is to not look outside yourselves for practices and traditions. Instead, strip things down to the most essential experience of the natural world and then build a spiritual life of ritual and tradition, from scratch, together.
What do I mean by the most essential experience of the natural world? I mean the turning of the seasons. I mean the endless circling of light and dark. You say that you feel no draw towards Europe, and that’s fair. But people all over the planet have built their spiritual and religious lives around the cycles of the Sun and the Moon, the changing of the seasons. It’s instinctual.
Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere, can you talk to your kids about the gifts of the Winter Solstice, for instance? How the nights get longer and the days shorter, until finally there is a Longest Night? What do the days leading up to that longest night feel like? What do you find yourself wanting to eat? To drink? To do? What could you do together on the longest night to honor that deep darkness? What could you do together to welcome the return of the growing light that next morning?
Now, what about the Summer Solstice, the Equinoxes? What is happening to your land then? If you have farm animals, or if there are wild animals, what is happening for them then? What rituals and traditions emerge from you, as a collective, in response to the feeling of those points in the year? It doesn’t have to be long or ornate; it just has to be heartfelt. Then it will be a joy to revisit again and again.
Yes, the Solstices and Equinoxes (and the cross-quarter days) were essential to most early European religious calendars, but that was because they lived close to the land, like indigenous people everywhere. Wherever you are, if you want to live close to the land, then tying your family rituals to the cycles of the seasons makes visceral sense. It’s a deeply embodied way of worshipping God. It will also provide the right foundation for discussion of imperialism and cultural appropriation when your kids are developmentally in a place to have those conversations.
I feel lucky to have been raised up in a religion which teaches that everyone carries a piece of God inside of them, and anyone, at any age, can be a channel for Spirit to make Itself manifest. It is also a religion that largely eschews complicated ritual and dogma. Every time I open myself to Spirit is brand new. Not feeling so tied to having to say this thing, in this way, at this time, it’s easier for me to advise you to listen deeply to the still, small Voice inside and just make it up as you go. I believe God will be there.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily meet your or your children’s community needs. In the absence of a formal religious community to offer you pre-made communal experience, the reality is that you’ll have to make it happen for yourselves, which isn’t easy. It is possible, however. People do it. Probably best to keep your most frequent ritual and tradition circle on the small side — three or four families, max. It’s easier to create rituals and traditions from scratch together that incorporate everyone when your group of creators is small. A couple of times a year, if it suits your small community, you can expand the circle to incorporate more folks. Then it’s a party! Kids love a party. Hell, as long as it’s only once or twice a year, so do I.
Keeping your most frequent ritual and tradition circle small also allows for those conversations with your kids about the history of colonialism to happen regularly, as they should. They shouldn’t just happen in anticipation of a holiday or celebration, but throughout the year, a daily part of interactions with your kids and your land.
Make sure your kids know what indigenous people lived on your land. Help them learn what those people did, and do now, to celebrate the turnings of the year. Help them learn what those people did, and do now, to live with the land, so they can see themselves as part of a chain of people who have cared for that land, in that place. Work can be blessing, nurture a daily ritual.
They also absolutely need to learn what happened at the hands of colonizers to the indigenous people who lived on the land they now call home. You say you struggle with claiming as “home” land that your ancestors colonized, but honestly, I don’t think claiming “the universe” instead is helping indigenous people now. If you want to help indigenous people, educate yourself and your kids about history and current struggles of indigenous people in the place you live. Make a commitment to offer resources (time, money, labor) together as a family to support efforts towards Native sovereignty and community vitality.
Do not underestimate, however, the power of teaching your kids to live humbly in collaboration with the land they call home, striving always for a mutually beneficial partnership with the natural world around them. That is the opposite of the colonial mindset, which saw land as an inanimate resource to be claimed and exploited.
Decolonizing their minds involves not just teaching them complicated history, or working to invest them in current struggles. It is also changing the way that they live with the land — liberating how they care for it, celebrate it, and fight for it when necessary, from a disembodied, power-over, exploitative, capitalist, individualistic mindset.
Stop floating above it all, hoping for some perfect way out of the mess. There is no perfect way, and no one needs your guilt or shame about it. Certainly, your children don’t. What they need is for you to plant your feet and be here, with all of the complications, responsibility, grief and yearning, so you can help them grow connected and wild, decolonized and free.
Spirit will be with you. It always is.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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