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My hometown is aflutter with butterflies. Slow your pace in front of the purple blooms of a butterfly bush and you will notice these delicate survivors, intent on the sweetness of living. Many small brown & orange butterflies alight on our bush, but there are only two, large tiger-striped swallowtails left. Last week there were many. One of the swallowtails has a long tear in his mustard wing; he sips frenetically, bloom hopping.

Our Butterfly Bush

If they are lucky, adult butterflies live 20 to 40 days after emerging from their cocoons, mating and taking sustenance from late summer flowers. Their prime seems so short and fragile. Perhaps that is why they are often symbols of impermanence. Today I told my children this Native American story, based on an episode of the wonderful animated show Raven Tales, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel, and a version of the story on the website of the United Cherokee Nations. (Children’s television does not get deeper than Raven Tales. Check it out!).

Here’s my retelling:

There was once a time when children did not grow up or grow old. The Great Spirit knew this way was not sustainable, but he wondered whether the children were ready to change and grow up. He sat on a boulder and watched the children playing, their lively brown eyes flashing, their smooth skin rosy and flushed, and he felt worried that they would not be able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood, and sad that someday they would have to feel the aches and pains of age, that their beauty would wither and fade like a bright autumn leaf. He wanted to make sure they were strong enough to understand.  So he made them a present.

The Great Spirit took all of the colors of nature, the browns of the soil, the reds and oranges of sunsets, the greens of moss and leaf, the whites of the children’s smiles, the yellows of the sun, and blended them together in a huge sack. As an afterthought, he threw birdsong into the mix. Then he shook the sack and pulled out sticky, oval objects that he gave to each child. He told the children to protect the objects until summer’s end. He asked Raven to help the children care for the gifts. The children were perplexed–the sticky little things were not very interesting. Sometimes they forgot about them and left them beside streams and under trees. But Raven always brought them back to the children, squawking and scolding and muttering under his breath.  

When the Great Spirit returned, he thanked Raven and gathered all of the ovals into his hands. He blew on them and from his hands flew hundreds of butterflies, in every color of the rainbow. The children stood amazed and awed. All of the people danced in appreciation of this beautiful new creation. But Raven and the other winged ones sat on the Great Spirit’s shoulders and complained. They felt it was not fair that he gave away the gift that made birds special, birdsong. So the Great Spirit took song away from the butterflies, leaving them silent. 

The Great Spirit asked the children if they were ready to change, and they said yes. He told them to remember that growing up is a gift and a responsibility, and that anytime they felt frightened, they should remember the butterflies, how they filled the sky with their colors for a short time, drinking sweetness and bringing new life to the world. The butterflies would always speak, without sound, of happy times. And then the children began to grow up.

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For many families, August is a month of  journies. Travel is transformative because  it breaks your habits, makes you an observer, and changes your perception of home.  The ultimate story about how a journey can transform a person is Homer’s The Odyssey, but I assumed I wouldn’t have a chance to share this legend with my kids until they became teenagers.

So I was surprised and pleased when I stumbled upon Mary Pope Osbourne‘s Tales From the Odyssey in the Montclair Public Library. Ms. Osbourne is the author of the middle-grade historical fiction series The Magic Treehouse, which my daughter laps up. Osbourne, who writes for the 7-10 crowd, is masterful at keeping language simple while making plot dense and informative, so I thought she’d be just the person to write a middle grade version of The Odyssey, which my daughter and I pledged to read bit by bit on our journies in a dented S.U.V this summer.  We’ve read the series aloud in the car, in bed, lakeside and poolside.

Ms. Osbourne’s Tales from the Odyssey, bound up neatly in a two volume set, is not a “fractured” or reinvented version of Greek myth in the style of Rick Riordian’s wonderful Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.  Her plot studiously follows the arc of Homer’s epic as translated by masters like Robert Fagles and Allen Mandelbaum. Even as she strips down the language for children,  she is careful to match Homer’s tone and characterization. For example,  Riordian’s Calypso is a lonely, appealing, relateable teenager who got a raw deal from the Gods, while Osbourne’s Calypso is a glittering, dangerous, love-sick captor of heroes in the tradition of Homer. This is a middle-grade retelling for purists who want children to have a foundation in the original storyline before they move on to more inventive retellings of Greek myth.

In terms of the age appropriateness, I might have gotten a little ahead of myself by presenting my not-yet 6-year-old with The Odyssey, in any form.  My daughter reads above grade level but she is emotionally 6, and I balked when the Cyclops chomped down a handful of Greek soldiers like french fries; when the immoral cattle of Helios lowed as they were being grilled and eaten by Odysseus’ men; and on and on. I kept telling my daughter that we should put the book down until she grew older, and she would beg for “just one more chapter.” My daughter seemed enthralled by being a little scared by this book, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for every kid, whether they are 6 , 8  or 10. There is lots of violence in this series, yet the sexuality is muted. It is not clear that Odysseus has anything more than a friendship with the various island enchantresses who shelter him.  The reunion between Penelope and Odysseus is deftly handled and true to the original.

Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales From the Odyssey is a book that should be read critically and discussed.  Some of the values in the story should be challenged.  With its eternal themes of revenge, seduction, longing, death, loyalty, and bravery, it’s something I’d want to discuss with my kids at any age.

Rhaksha Bandon, an Indian festival that celebrates and reinforces the love between brothers and sisters, falls tomorrow, Thursday, Aug 2, with the setting of the full moon.  When I lived in New Delhi, I watched a friend use this tradition to cement the bond between her adopted daughter and her two biological sons.  I wish we had an equivalent holiday in the West. I love the idea of a ritual that inspires siblings to pledge their loyalty and renew their love every year, both as children and adults.

A Rakhi for an adopted ritual

Our brothers and sisters are powerful forces in our lives. When we are small, our sisters and brothers are the whetstones against which we sharpen our identities.  Siblings walk the long road of life together:  they can be our playmates, our protectors, our confidants, secondary parents to our children, our partners in grief and joy. Sibling relationships can be stormy, and especially in need of a ritual expression of love.

The tradition on Rhaksha Bandon is for a sister to tie a bracelet made of colorful thread, called a Rakhi around her brother’s wrist, and to say a prayer for his well being. The brother then pledges to protect and love his sister, and gives her a gift, such as clothing, jewelry, or an envelope full of money. The siblings then feed each other sweets.

Like most Indian holidays, Rhaksha Bandon is associated with multiple legends.  Some trace the ritual binding of the sacred thread back to Indra, the god of thunderstorms and war. In the story, Indra is locked in a losing battle with a demon king until his consort, Indrani , ties a scared thread around his wrist on the lucky full moon day of the Hindu month Shravan.  Her blessing rejuvenates him and enables him to defeat the demon.

Another legend associated with the festival’s thread-binding ritual is that of the chaste love between Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and an incarnation of the god, Vishnu) and Draupadi (the polyandrous wife of five brothers, the Pandavas). When Krishna was wounded in battle, Draupadi knelt at his side, tore her sari, and bound his wounds with it. Krishna proclaimed her his sister, in spirit if not in blood, and promised to protect her for evermore. Later in the epic, Duhshasana drags Draupadi into court to be publicly stripped and humiliated.  He attempts to unravel her sari, but Krishna uses his divine powers to extend the thread of her sari infinitely, confounding all attempts to undress her.

Rhaksha Bandon probably evolved into the a celebration of the love between sisters and brothers because it was a way for Indian wives, who traditionally went to live in their husband’s homes, to maintain contact with their natal home and oblige their brothers to protect them after marriage. Today, the holiday has become a way for siblings spread all over the world to maintain contact with one another and send love in the form of a bracelet.

Whether or not you are Indian, Rhaksha Bandon is a good excuse to celebrate sibling relationships. My family is not Indian, but I hope our version of the festival will be authentic in intention if not practice. Tomorrow morning, my son and daughter will exchange Rakhi and compose their own promises to be good to one another in the coming year. We bought our Rakhi at Kalustan’s in New York, but a simple thread or ribbon will suffice. I’ll also bring my brother a simple handmade Rakhi and tell him I love him.

Heck, I’ll call my sister too, and send her a little gift. In the end, the bracelet is just a symbol of your intention. So call your siblings!

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