Turning Sixteen

(Originally published in "New Moon Network" magazine, May/June(??) 1997)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

On 12 November 1995, I turned sixteen and crossed that invisible threshold separating childhood from the rest of my life. On that crisp November evening I passed into a new period of my life surrounded by my family and twenty-four close friends.

I had been thinking a lot about having a ritual or rite-of-passage, and I felt that my sixteenth birthday was an appropriate time for such an event. I don’t exactly know why; it wasn’t the time of my first period, nor was it the time that the government says I’m a legal adult, and so I guess it was a bunch of combined factors. For one thing, N.J. law requires homeschoolers to submit curriculums until the age of sixteen, and this birthday marked the last time my parents and I would have to spend wasted time proving my “achievements” to the school board and assuring them that I am getting an “Equivalent Education.” But beyond that, I just FELT like this was a turning point in my life, and my desire for a ceremony wasn’t really prompted by much more than that. I think I began to realize that my relationship with my parents was starting to be different, and I no longer felt that it was a “Mommy, I hurt myself (gimme a drink/look at my picture)” relationship--it was a friendship, between me and two of the most important people in my life. I looked at my friendships with my peers, and the changes there were apparent also. We no longer played games as much as we used to, but we sat and discussed world politics or women’s rights or just the day’s events. Not that we didn’t race through the park or play a game of Scrabble once in a while, but our relationships were becoming different, and more complex than scheduling a play date at four o’clock Tuesday. I also realized that half my friends weren’t even my age, but they were close friends nevertheless. They talked to me, too, about life without saying “Oh, hush, there’s a child present!” or something to that effect. They were beginning to accept me into their world, a world that had, at age seven, seemed mysterious and impossible to join.

Thinking back on those pre-sixteen months, I think that I needed confirmation for the changes I felt were happening. I knew that even though I didn’t feel like a child anymore, the majority of adults did consider me as such, and I needed something, some strength I could draw upon when insensitive older adults referred laughingly to my childish dreams or told me “not to worry, you’ll grow out of that stage soon enough.” So having a party with mostly adults who WERE respectful of me and my dreams seems, in retrospect, a good thing to do so that I could stand up to these unfeeling (or perhaps simply ignorant) adults. Even if I didn’t say anything to the woman who lets me know she thinks I’m too young for the dance class we’re in together, I would have, secure in my mind, the knowledge that I am not still the child she thinks I am.

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to happen at my rite-of-passage, but I read some articles and books, and I let all those invited know I wanted some kind of ceremony: on the invitations to my party I wrote, “As I enter the adult world, I would like to have a ritual of some kind...Please feel free to bring a poem, ritual, or any advice, but most of all, bring yourself!” Soon after I sent the invitations, my friend Betsy wrote and said she wouldn’t be able to come to the party, but she was reading a great book about ritual ceremonies, and she photocopied the chapter on rites-of-passage for me. Amanda sent me two gifts: a little heart-shaped jigsaw puzzle and one of those funny heads that sprout hair when you water them. My friend Peg called from Vermont to wish me a happy birthday, and she gave me the greatest gift she could have--she told me that she was coming to visit in two weeks. In retrospect, I don’t think that I needed to do any more planning for the actual ritual. If I had mapped out the ceremony to the last detail, it would have taken the spontaneity out of it and made it less magical.

I was determined that no one should have to bring food to my party, so I started cooking Indian food (plus cake) for thirty people a week in advance. I did most of the cooking, but my mother and siblings helped also, and up till the moment guests arrived I was chopping and arranging and setting up. I was a bit strapped for time, because I had rehearsals for a play all day for the two previous days, but I somehow squeezed it all in.

I decided to forego the traditional pink and blue crepe paper, and instead I encircled the room with Nepali prayer flags from my aunt and uncle--stiff rectangles of muslin with prayers written in Arabic on each one. I also hung another decoration from them, a string of metallic flowers in bright colors. I cleared the tables and furniture of everyday objects, and lit candles in childproof places. Those who couldn’t be there sent their good wishes in the form of cards, pictures, and gifts through the mail, and I set up a space for their gifts on a small table in the corner of the room. As people arrived, it began to look beautiful.

About an hour before the party, my mother and I went up to my room and chose what I would wear. I put on a flowing jumper from my friend Sue, tied around with a tinkling belt and an amber necklace from my friend Poldi.

Almost everyone I invited came, and it ended up that the guests were mostly women older than me and a few girls who were younger. (I didn’t plan it to be an all-women event, but it seemed like it was supposed to be that way.) My friend Morgan came all the way from Vermont; homeschooled friends came; my adult friends came, people who had already passed through this time in their own lives. I opened the gifts they brought me, each one given with thought: a decorated blank book from Jill, cassettes from Kim and Elizabeth, books from many people, paper cut-outs from Jen, a beautiful poem that Bernadette wrote and illustrated, a prayer wheel from my aunt and uncle, handmade soap from Lydia, and cloth menstrual pads from Wendy. (“Bleed in good health!” she said as she handed them to me.)

For about two hours we all sat and ate and talked, and I figured that when it was the right time to do the ritual it would happen. It was Wendy who got it started. I love Wendy. She is one of those people who always manages to keep their sense of humor, and she always seems to have time to give hugs. She came with several songs and chants written hurriedly on a paper plate, and she started the ceremony by singing three of them. (Even at this point I didn’t know how the rest of the evening would go--I just knew that it would evolve.) The room was lit by candles, and the faint light illuminated people and things with a soft magical glow. At this time we were all seated in a circle, and Wendy asked me if I would like to sit in the middle. I sat facing her, this wise women who had two children of her own, had made countless dinners, who had worked long hours in her garden; I looked at Sue, who, instead of having her own kids has become the proverbial Pied Piper of children; I looked at my mother, the strongest women I know, who has given birth six times; and I felt suddenly as if I were really entering womanhood--that this was not just a cute little ceremony but something REAL. Then Wendy started a chant and taught everyone the words and we all began to sing. After a few minutes, everyone stood up, and kept on singing. And for the next half-hour or forty-five minutes, I went slowly around the circle hugging each of my friends, who whispered something in my ear. “I love you.” “Listen to yourself always.” “You will be a strong woman and succeed in everything you want to do.” I listened to them and felt how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many people whom I love and who love me. The chanting pulsed all through my body as I went around. I hugged Lydia whom I have known since she was five; Lydia’s mom whom I’ve known like a second mother; Jackie who is one of our family’s closest friends; my sister, with whom I’ve shared secrets and fun times, fights and cold shoulders; Nalani, who is my adult friend but still a “kid-at-heart.”

These people were all welcoming me into a new phase of my life; an older, more mature time. Even though I still have days when I want to whine like a petulant child; and even though in the eyes of society I am still “only a teenager”, I know that on that chilly November night I left a certain part of myself behind and a new piece of Me came to take its place.