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Friday, October 31, 2014

Celebrating Samhain with a Complex Child

Canann Badb. 
feannóg guth
Garbh agus amh. 
Canann Badb.
Tagann an gheimhridh 
i sioc agus scáth.
Canann Badb

"Badb speaks
a crow's voice
rough and raw
Badb speaks
winter arrives
in frost and shadow
Badb speaks"

I wrote the above poem this morning as I listened to a crow calling to me, perched on a tree outside my window. Today is the beginning of my three day celebration of Samhain, and tonight belongs especially to the daoine maith, the Good People. I've written several times over the years about how my family celebrates Samhain and about the history of the holiday so today I decided I want to tackle a more personal topic, that is celebrating this holiday with a child who has complex medical issues.
  One of the walls I often crash against in the wider pagan community is the inaccessibility of events and rituals for children who have issues, from autism spectrum disorders to physical mobility issues, that require accommodation. We are a community that prides itself on inclusivity, and yet I often see a lack of it towards children in general and specifically towards children who have behavioral or physical challenges. The biggest argument against it seems to be that something important will be lost if we change what we are doing to make it easier for children with different needs to attend. I disagree, and below I will explain how I have modified my own practice to accommodate my daughter. 
     What frustrates me is that it doesn't have to be this way - while it does require compromise and reworking it is not impossible to accommodate families that need it. And I will never believe the Gods, ancestors or spirits are offended by the actions or needs of a child who is doing their best in the moment and only wants to be part of a spiritual celebration. 
   So, to begin with: food. feasting is a big part of most reconstructionist faiths as well as other pagan religions. Allergies are things both adults and children deal with and should not ever be something that is treated lightly. Just because peanuts are your favorite treat doesn't mean it will kill you to skip bringing them to a group celebration, and being around them might just kill someone else. And that's not hyperbole. Let me fill you in on something all parents know - kids don't care about whether eating something will make them sick, if it tastes good they will eat it anyway. My daughter for many years was not allowed to eat gluten, soy, or dairy because of a congenital immune deficiency disorder which made her digestive system very touchy, and chocolate was something she could only have in very small amounts. That never stopped her from overeating things she shouldn't have when she had a chance with predictable results . Kids with allergies are not going to police themselves, especially younger ones, and I get really irritated when adults complain about how unfair it is that they have to skip out on a food they like or are complain about being expected to cater to someone else's allergies. On a related side note, its super frustrating when there is only dish at a pot luck or similar event that a child can eat and everyone else is taking huge servings of it, not leaving enough for that child to eat very much. Shouldn't this be common courtesy? 
   Accessibility. No one ever thinks of this one, and honestly I can only imagine the frustration of parents with children in wheel chairs who are faced with hikes or trips over uneven ground. My daughter is ambulatory but due to a heart condition she tires easily and doesn't have the stamina for long walks, never mind hikes. I can't tell you how often I end up carrying her (luckily even at 6 she's very small, so carrying her is still an option). When we trick or treat on Halloween we plan carefully so that she isn't exhausted by the end. It shouldn't be that difficult to find a suitable site that is easy for people with mobility issues to access. At the Morrigan Retreat this past June we had to change our ritual location to accommodate such a situation and there was no complaining about it ruining things or blaming people for putting everyone else out. We came together as a community and made it work for everyone, once we knew there was an issue. I have a friend who is a sign language interpreter and we have discussed several times the huge challenge that deaf pagans face in trying to find even basic accommodations at rituals and workshops. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not public ceremonies are designed, almost exclusively, for people with 5 functional senses, full mobility, and normal stamina. We really need to start asking ourselves where this leaves all the people who don't have all of those things. Is it that difficult to make what we do truly open to everyone?*
  Finally behavioral issues; this is the one that has caused me to stop bringing my children to most events, in all honesty. I'm not talking here about kids who are destructive or violent and really shouldn't be expected to handle being in a ritual setting without disaster ensuing. I'm talking about kids who can't act their age or who can't focus or stay quiet or still through a ceremony. People have expectations for the behavior of children at certain ages and when your child isn't conforming to that not only is the child assumed to lack discipline but the parent is criticized for being too lenient. And in my experience even explaining that the child in question has a medical diagnoses makes no difference. People come to a spiritual gathering or ritual expecting a moving experience and they do not in any way want to deal with a child who can't be still or quiet. My daughter has a sensory processing disorder that means she is sensory seeking (she touches everything) and also that loud noises and crowds upset her. She has been in occupational therapy since she was a toddler and behavioral therapy since first grade, but these are not things that will ever go away, they are part of who she is. When she was small people were pretty tolerant of her quirky behavior, but as she has gotten older the tolerance has largely evaporated, especially with people who don't know her. I find it unfair to put that expectation of perfect behavior on any child but especially those that have extra challenges with conforming to behavioral expectations. This one is a double edged sword though because I have also had problems with judgment from people (not necessarily at pagan events, but in general) when I have to leave early because my daughter has hit her limit and is on the verge of a sensory meltdown. Children and parents who deal these issues shouldn't feel unwelcome. 
    As a reconstructionist I do not believe this is how our ancestors would have reacted to people who had different needs, not when community was the center of celebration. Babies cry, women need to nurse during rituals (see point one), children fuss, kids need to use the bathroom at inopportune times, and so on. It seems natural that children who have behavioral issues would also be understood as part of the community and while - obviously - extreme disruptions can't be allowed minor disturbances and less than perfect behavior would be tolerated. The community would find ways to make sure everyone possible attended ceremonies, I think. And while food issues may be a more modern thing I know our ancestors made sure everyone, even the poor and beggars, had something to eat on ritual days. 

  So, how do we celebrate with my youngest daughter? We start by talking a lot ahead of time about the holiday, because she is very into routine and unexpected things can throw her off. On the first day of Samhain we go trick or treating and when we get home we leave out an offering for the Daoine Eile. The children each choose something to offer from the candy they have gotten. On the second night we honor the Gods by lighting a fire in my largest cauldron. Because my daughter is phobic of the dark we do not do turn out all the lights, although I used to do so before to mimic the ceremony at Tlachtga. I tell the children stories of different events that have occurred in myth on Samhain and often we end up talking more generally about different Tuatha De Danann that interest them. We have a ritual to an Morrigan and an Daghda and make offerings to them, and divination is done for the year to come. Sometimes my youngest daughter stays for the whole ritual, sometimes she doesn't. On the third day we honor our ancestors. An extra place is set at the table and water and food are set out at dinner. We light white candles on our ancestor altar and we tell stories about our beloved dead. My youngest daughter struggles with expressing her emotions so she enjoys the stories of the older dead who she never knew but will usually leave when we talk about the more recent dead. We offer coffee on the altar and leave out something on the doorstep for the wandering dead.
   And that's it. The biggest accommodations we make for my daughter are letting her come and go as she pleases during ceremonies, and letting her sit or play during the ceremonies if she's having trouble focusing, and making sure nothing is too dark or too loud. We also keep each focused ceremony short and to the point because that's easier for her to handle. It's not that hard and while it has changed how I conduct rituals and the flow of my ceremonies I do not in any way feel that I've lost any substance. In a situation where I feel compelled to do something really complex or drawn out I do it by myself but honestly that's very rare. My religion is part of the legacy I want to pass on to my children - all my children - and its important to me that she be and feel included. 

*I do acknowledge that the issue of having an interpreter available is complicated because it is not a common enough skill. Maybe we should all try to learn a little sign language to bridge the gap. 


  1. I wrote a longer response, echoing your experience, but it disappeared when WordPress disagreed about my identity. Feh.