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The best birthday party imagineable

Last summer my son was turning eight and I wanted to do something meaningful for him. I thought about how societies in the past had “growing up” or “changing stage” ceremonies and I wished to offer him this type of experience. Eight is a big age. More so than the previous seven, my boy had begun the process of looking outside of the family unit. His youthfulness, his ability to be lost in tales of giants and elves was lessoning. Gravity and age were pulling him more and more into reality. Had it not been for love of the person he was growing into, I believe each day would have felt like a Shakespearean tragedy continuing to lose each moment to age. The notion itself was difficult to swallow.

I had heard tell of tribes from America to Africa, from Europeans to Asians, all at one point or another making an experience that extended beyond words and gifts, families and friends. Stories of elders showing up and grabbing the boy out of the hut while the mom (who was in on it) screamed for her son. The boy was brought to the men for an entire night where he was initiated into the ways of men in that particular society.

After that point, it was understood that something had changed. He was expected to behave differently. By doing this, the tribe defined a clear line for the boy. Where before he was a child, now he was (I am hesitant to say) a man. Other stories describe taking the boy on his first hunt and having his first kill. There are still other rites, predating all our modern stories, that tell of when the boy goes on his first war party, counted his first coup, or wrangled his first horse.

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I wanted something like this for my child. I wanted a tradition to pull from and thought inauthentic any aspect that was not my own. But the thought kept coming back: everything starts, then stops, then starts again. A tree from a seed, a man from a babe. We are always in phases of the cycle. It is hard to know if we are living or dying, but the circle continues to turn. Nothing ever really starts or stops. We live and die in a continuum.

With this in mind, I ran out of excuses. If a ceremony—or preferably, a journey –was in store for my son, what exactly would it look like? That was the thought I couldn’t escape.

I am a firefighter - a job which shines for me because it involves constant problem solving (bringing order out of chaos). Five years ago I started a business, the Freeloader child carrier, that has taught me how to put out a whole different kind of fire: managing the Freeloader business while meaningfully participating in my family’s life. Surely with the help of my lovely wife and partner for the last 15 years, we could imagine an experience worthy of my boy growing up to be a man. And if we could imagine it, we could bring it forth into reality, the Universe willing.

Then I thought about the Hero’s Journey, as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Admittedly, a different notion of a ceremony, but a personal transformation, a passing of rites, nonetheless. If I could find some tricksters and trolls, princesses and magicians, perhaps we could create a journey. Blur the lines between reality and fantasy, and there, in that space, allow for things to become bigger, deeper and hopefully more life-changing. Now where does one find these types of individuals?

Renaissance Faire

As it turns out if you ever have a problem you can’t solve, the renaissance faire is a great place to start. The closest renaissance faire I knew of was east of Austin. Having a child in a Waldorf School, we were no strangers to this event. The school encouraged that we incorporate as many knights and villains, swords and turkey legs (dragon legs) into our life as possible.

As Merlin performed some truly outstanding magic, I watched distractedly. I had to talk to him. I had to approach him and pitch him my idea. “Would you be willing to be part of an epic birthday journey that involves princesses and trolls and pirates?” He said I had his attention. He asked me to contact his producer, Chris, the Trickster, to coordinate the details. I met the Trickster (who also performs regularly as a magician on 6th street in Austin, TX) at an IHOP next to a really quality breakfast spot. The Trickster walked in wearing a waxed mustache and a fedora. I had my man. I told him my thoughts on the journey and on creating a ceremony and a meaningful experience for my son. He explained to me that he had spent his life blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

He said he had been conjuring on something like this for a long while, and that if I were to trust him, he felt like he had the tools to make it happen. Then he rebuked me for not mentioning a traveling song for the journey.

The idea I presented to him was simple:

1. a princess gets kidnapped by pirates (or something similarly villainous and menacing),

2. the boy gets tasked with saving her, and in order to do so, must successfully overcome three challenges.

If the boy can achieve this end, defeat the pirates and save the princess, he will earn the honor of being knighted and having the eternal obligation of helping those that can’t help themselves. AND I wanted to incorporate magic, specifically, disappearing potion. The Trickster agreed.

The Tale of River’s Journey.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we encountered a princess who tells our party that we are starting out on a birthday hike. At this time, no one realizes that she is a princess but something about her tells us she is not of this world. She is magical. We continue to hike with the princess for the next ten minutes until we come upon the princess getting abducted by pirates. I try to stop them but they have weapons.

When I go to call the authorities, Merlin steps out of the wood and stops me. He sees that I have my son, River, with me, and steps closer to him. He conducts purity of heart tests on River before sending us on our journey with a clue and the following items from his magic backpack:

  • foam swords,
  • disappearing potion, and
  • a traveling song.

Stage 1: The Trickster

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Having hiked for half a mile, we encounter the Trickster at a fork in the trail. The Trickster naturally attempts to fool River using a game that can’t be won composed of a cup and a silver ball. River has three chances to guess where the ball is or the Trickster will send us the wrong way (“to certain doom”). Using the clue provided by Merlin, prior to River’s third and final guess, we magically find the silver ball in the pocket of River’s little sister, Scarlett. Solving the Trickster’s riddle leaves him little choice but to provide our party with our next clue on our way to save the princess. As we continue on, we sing our traveling song.

Stage 2: The Troll

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We can hear him yelling before we see him. He is blocking the only way across the raging river. We must get around him. Naturally curious bystanders (some planted) are yelling and screaming and run away as we walk up. As the party approaches, the Troll yells. The Troll is legitimately frightening. Not all the adults in our party want to risk it. But the children know that the Troll cannot catch what he cannot see. We consume our disappearing potion and wait for it to take effect. Now he can hear us but not see us. Some of the braver souls distract the Troll as the rest slip by. River silently sneaks up and grabs the scroll out of the Troll’s satchel. The party crosses the raging river singing the traveling song louder than ever.

Stage 3: The Water Faye

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This portion of the hike ran about 1.5 miles. I had communicated to parents beforehand to bring their hiking attitude, but I was concerned about the children. I really wanted all of the kids to push themselves and feel that sense of accomplishment when it was over. I feel comfortable with bringing the Freeloader. If we had a kid (or adult for that matter) fall out, I could use the carrier to place them on my back and the journey would still be on track. I primarily used it for younger sibling-types. Without the Freeloader, taking 3 year-olds on a three mile hike in Texas in July is asking a lot.

We continued to sing our traveling song as we made our way through the river and onto the last stage. We crossed the river for a second time before we came across three Water Faye. They swam over to us from a rock in the middle of the creek where they sat. Unable to talk, they kept motioning at us. I read the clue aloud a couple of times and, eventually one of the girls in the group understood it and gave them a gift. The spell that the three Water Faye were under was broken and they broke into song. They explained to us that a nasty spell had been cast on them and the only way to break it was for a stranger to offer them a gift. They handed us the last clue and we traveled on our way. Unfortunately, due to my lack of effective communication, this part did not make the video. Somehow I forgot to tell my extremely patient, wonderful, nice videographer that she would be hiking 3 miles and crossing creeks with her valuable equipment.

The Finale

The final clue indicated that to save the princess, weapons and the like would not be effective. Having wandered up the trail we came across the band of pirates that held the princess. There was general nervousness in the party until River realized that the very traveling song we had been singing was what was needed to break the spell and win over the pirates. We circled the pirates and began to sing the traveling song louder and louder each time we passed anew. One by one, the pirates were so overcome with a sense of joy, that they too began singing and dancing until even the lead pirate found himself singing and dancing uncontrollably.

During the pandemonium that ensued, River ably slipped the spell binding necklace off the princess’ head and saved the princess from the pirates’ grasp.

The Knighting Ceremony

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We ended our journey at a bridge near a road. The Princess asked River to take a knee, lightly touched each shoulder, then touched his head with a rather large sword (a gift from a stranger that is a magical story in itself). The Princess leaned forward and pronounced him “Sir River”. He was now officially a knight. Sir River – has nice ring to it doesn’t it? I believe it to be a title that in itself demands a higher level behavior, a less “me” centric perspective on the world and hopefully a gentle nudge in the direction of compassion.

Conclusion

Our journey now complete, we sat down to have cake & sing the birthday song with Merlin, the Water Fayes, we even included the Troll and the Trickster (perhaps we do have our own ceremonies in this time and place….)

Post-script on the “growing up” Journey

I don’t know what was ultimately accomplished. Maybe calling it a ceremony is too much of a stretch. It at least achieved the level of a journey. Perhaps I shot for the stars and my arrow stopped short somewhere between here and there and you would have to be on a ladder to know where. That being said, my boy is growing up. I wanted to establish that – for him, for me, for his village. I do feel like having done what we did when we did it is critical. His analytical brain has already begun reanalyzing experiences in the past and making them congruent with the rather cold present. The childhood magic leaks out a little more every day. Which isn’t such a bad thing. This world, this very world with all of its sunrises and heart breaks, with the rainy days rolling into sunny dispositions isn’t all that bad. This world doesn’t lack for magic as long as us old folks keep believing and recognizing it. Our children are going to grow up no matter what we do. One day, they will take care of us and have their own kids. When that day comes, maybe they will look around, think really hard, and choose to give their kids a “growing up” journey of their own. Hell, maybe then they will even call it a ceremony.

Huge thanks to Moth to Flame Films for their amazing, inspired work!!! You helped us tell our story our way and we couldn't have done it without you.

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