By Cori Howard
It all started with this ad. A pathetic inspiration really, but it got my 11-year-old daughter laughing and talking about something that is still relatively taboo and not often discussed – her period. “I want a first moon party,” she said, immediately after watching it. And suddenly, my friend and I began scheming about how we could make a vagina cake and a uterus piñata. My 15-year-old son, listening in on our wine-fuelled conversation, was horrified. But we would not be deterred.
We all knew it was coming. We saw the bodily signs – the breast buds, the pubic hair, the body odor. And although I was still coming to grips with how quickly puberty was hitting my little girl, I desperately wanted to honor this moment in her life somehow, to make it positive. Then, lost in the humor of actually planning a first moon party, my friend called and said: “Don’t just make it funny. Do it right.”
She knew me. We’d had endless discussions over the years about rite of passage ceremonies and why they were lacking in our lives and our culture. I had wanted to do something for my son. But at 13, he wasn’t into it and I didn’t realize at the time, he had turned the corner in age. He’d already become an eye-rolling teenager who scoffed at my “weird ideas.” At 11, my daughter was still young enough to be a willing guinea pig for my bohemian fantasy of a female rite of passage ceremony.
So I started reading and thinking. I knew my daughter’s first moon party couldn’t just be piñatas and cake – although it was really fun to make them. The real reason I wanted to host a first moon party was to offer my daughter, and her friends, an antidote to our consumer, hyper-sexualized culture around teenage girlhood. If I could offer her a ceremony that celebrated becoming a woman, that could show her a new way of looking not just at periods, but at sisterhood and spirituality – why not, right?
So the shaman arrived on a sunny, May afternoon and my daughter, surrounded by her 6 closest friends, asks: “Mom, is this going to be weird?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Maybe. But it will be good weird.”
The tent was set up in my backyard, a yurt with red moons painted along the side, and the girls dove in giggling, their long giraffe legs sticking out behind them. It was, oddly, almost like a birth in reverse. Inside, it was magic. The floor was covered in multi-covered carpets, saris, scarves and pillows. There were candles set out in a circle for each of the girls to decorate, goddess statues, candles, incense, bowls of chocolate, platters of red fruits and several small altars. So many things to look at, explore, touch and feel.
For the first hour, the shaman led the girls in crafts, storytelling and guided meditation. They talked about different cultural menstruation rituals, the significance of the red tent, the importance of reclaiming something that has for so long been considered negative and shifting it to make it positive. From outside the tent, I heard the shaman explain that what happens in the tent, stays in the tent. “Like Vegas?” asked one of the girls.
When the adult women were finally invited in, my two closest friends and I read a few words of wisdom we had written to my daughter. I could hardly get through the first line before breaking down in heaving sobs. I knew I was going to cry. It’s just who I am. But I wish I could have held it together to show strength and to articulate the words I had so carefully crafted.
“Love your body,” I warbled, through sobs. “It will never be perfect. Perfect is boring. You are not.”
I passed the talking stick, a wooden carving of a grandmother’s face with feathers coming out of the top, to my friend. She read: “Follow your passion, believe in yourself and listen to the voice inside you even when it’s soft, uncertain and saying something different from everyone around you. That voice has truth and power in it. Trust it. Trust yourself. Take chances and you will soar.”
Then, she handed an opal ring to my daughter, a ring that had been given to her by her mother, that she had worn when she was 11. Her son would have no use for it. I was floored, and cried again.
Then, the stick was passed to my other friend. “You have so many firsts ahead of you,” she read. “Yes, your body has dictated your first moon. But many of your firsts will be driven by your decisions. First kiss. First love. First everything Choose wisely. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them and move forward. Don’t ever let anyone hold you back from being you.”
Listening to these words made me realize how I wish I had been able to have a red tent ceremony, to understand way back then that our bodies, our friendships, our stories are sacred, and that we can make space and take time to be together in ways old and biblical and moving and epic.
I knew my daughter was afraid I would cry, and I did it anyway. But I also watched her understand the power of the emotion in that red tent and I watched her start to cry too. Then, I watched her friends cry, as the talking stick was passed around and they shared stories about what their friendship with my daughter meant to them.
One girl, in braids and a red bandana, started talking and quickly, crying. I don’t think she had ever cried in front of her friends. My daughter got up to hug her. The conversation turned to shared memories and the adult women faded into the background, as laughter took over and the girls became young again, grabbing handfuls of chocolate and tying red ribbons around each other’s wrists as a symbol of the secret they all carry inside of them and the power of sharing those secrets with best friends.
As I sipped the delicious and deeply nourishing chocolate and honey mixture the shaman was passing around in beautiful ceramic cups, I realized my tears had paved the way for these girls to feel safe enough to talk freely and emotionally in front of each other, in a way they had may have not otherwise done. And I knew that open expression of vulnerability had deepened their friendships, and mine as well. I sat there so full of love and gratitude. It was the closest to a spiritual moment I’ve had in a long time.
After passing around roses to all the girls in the tent, my daughter led them all out into the sunlight for the piñata and the cake and pin the pad on the period. Soon, they were on the trampoline playing tag and truth, back, so easily, to being 11.
The next morning, my daughter said: “I wish I was still in the red tent.”
“Me too,” I said.
Then, she passed me a red ribbon and to tie around her wrist. And as I wrapped it, surprised at the gesture, I asked what she’d say if the other kids at school asked her why she was wearing that.
“I’ll just say cause,” she replied, confident, carefree, unconcerned, already at ease with secrets.
As I watched her walk away, the red ribbon flashing, I thought of a story the shaman had told in the red tent. It was a story about a baby girl in her mother’s womb who was visited by a woman from the moon who danced across a moonbeam bridge to reach her, kiss her and bestow upon her a red velvet purse filled with the seeds of life. Each girl in the tent was lying down, eyes closed, listening to this story. During the telling, the shaman placed a red velvet pouch placed upon each of their bellies. Inside were magic stones and a red ribbon.
The next day, watching the flash of ribbon on my daughter’s wrist as she walked off to school, I felt this calming, awesome sense of connection to a long chain of women before me, mothers and grandmothers who took the time to slow down, pay attention and see the magic in our bodies and in our lives.
Cori Howard is a writer, editor and author of Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood,
an anthology about the emotional transformations involved in becoming a mother. She founded The Momoir Project
many years ago, an online writing centre & community for moms that offered courses aimed at helping women craft
and share their true stories about motherhood online and in person. She now
leads writing and yoga retreats in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, where she lives with her two teenagers.