Wednesday 26 November 2014

Relations and Relationships (1) | Parents, Children and Families

A Naming Ceremony is a wonderful way for parents, grandparents and others to welcome a child/children into a family. There are many ways to be a parent though and lots of different types of families. Watch any advert break on TV and you will come away with the view that the family consists of two parents – a father and a mother – and a couple or three children, probably quite evenly spaced in terms of age. Clearly, this does represent one type of family, one version of parenthood, but there are others. Single parent families and same sex parents are just two challenges to the stereotype and there are children who do not live with their parents but with other family members, with foster carers or in social care.  

The next thing to think about is just how does one become a parent? Although many children live with and are cared for by their biological parents others may spend some of the time with at least one stepparent or stepparents. Stepparents themselves may also be biological parents and families in contemporary society can be complex in terms of sibling relationships as well as parental ones.

New Reproductive Technologies (NRTs) make things even more varied and through, for example, in vitro fertilisation (children conceived in this way being commonly referred to as test-tube babies although in fact eggs are in fact fertilised in a petri-dish and not a test-tube), surrogacy and sperm and egg donation, heterosexual and same sex couples and single women and men are able to achieve parenthood. We can be forgiven for thinking that all of these options are recent ones but there is a reference to surrogacy in the bible and the first recorded case of sperm donation was in the 1700s. For those who decide against these options – either via medical assistance or through a more DIY approach – adoption, either through links at home or internationally, may be more attractive.

However a family is created or formed the relations and relationships between children and their parents are significant. This is not always reflected in the way some families are represented. Words like normal, natural and real are sometimes used to describe biological relationships achieved without medical assistance and thus the assumption can be that non-biological parenthood and child/parent relationships achieved following technological help are abnormal, unnatural, unreal. 

BUT given the different social and technological choices and opportunities that many now have all of the options mentioned above are in fact normal and genuine, that is real, and definitely NOT extraordinary or unnatural. Furthermore, it is the relationships that we develop and nurture with children - as (biologically related or not) family members, as friends, as guardians, as childcare workers and so on - that we should value and celebrate the most. 

Friday 21 November 2014

Strictly More Dancing (2) | Weddings, Namings, Funerals and Other Ceremonies and Celebrations

Continuing to reflect on the place of dance in ritual, ceremony and celebration it is common of course for dancing to take place at the reception after a wedding, commitment, or renewal of vows ceremony and at anniversary do’s also. The Ballroom and Latin revival means that more couples are taking lessons to prepare for their ‘first dance’ at the reception or party. This is not the only surprise that some delight their guests with or indeed one half of the couple springs on their partner; the latest craze being the Flash Mob with grooms and their groomsmen/women and brides and their attendants and others all joining in the choreographed fun. There are loads of examples on YouTube. 

Parties following baby and child namings, and other rites of passage such as birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, gradations, retirements . . . may also include the opportunity to move to the music. Children are wonderful dancers, uninhibited and free. When we get older though self-consciousness sometimes takes over, more often for males than females it seems, and we worry about how we look and whether or not we're getting 'it right'. Sadly, 'presentation of self' (as defined by the sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) as how we perform in front of others in order to create an impression of ourselves) takes over from self-expression. 

If there were more opportunities for us all to dance, if dancing was more embedded in our ceremonies and celebrations maybe that might make it easier. After all social inhibition is learned and not universally experienced. So why not dancing at the actual ceremony, alongside sing-a-longs to the chosen music? Dancing can be romantic, soothing, beautiful, funny, sexy. What a better way to celebrate happy occasions such as weddings, relationship commitments, renewal of vows and namings. And what of the funeral ceremony? A funeral is, or should be, focused on the life of the person who has died. There is usually music, that is significant is some way to the bereaved and the person they have lost. Music often leads to movement; foot tapping, swaying, dancing. Again such a good way to celebrate a life. So why not dancing at a funeral? I certainly want there to be some at mine; maybe to Martha and the Vandellas . . .

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Anchor Books 

Strictly More Dancing (1) | Entertainment and Ritual

I love to dance. I was so excited when once I was 16 I was finally allowed to go to Desdemona's (the teenage/20 something nightclub in Falmouth in the 1970s where the entry fee included free pizza or pasta) on a Saturday night. I won a couple of prizes in those early years including a pair of knickers complete with the caption URA1. My first husband was 'a mover' and I have happy memories of us on the dance floor. In recent years - well more precisely the last 25 - there's been less opportunity for dancing so I relish the occasional chance I get to 'take to the floor' at a party, wedding or a conference dinner. I've never progressed beyond disco (I appreciate I’m showing my age here) except for the odd attempt at ceilidh and line dancing. (If you haven’t see it watch the episode of Gavin and Stacey that includes some of this  ). Some of the more 'formal' Latin American and Ballroom numbers are on my list of things I’d like to learn.

The definition of dance is:

As a verb: to more rhythmically to music, typically following a set sequence of steps.

Or a noun: a series of steps and movements that match the speed and rhythm of a piece of music.

Which, for me at least, goes nowhere near to capturing the joy a good bop can engender. 

Of course there's much more to dance than a good night out. How about a good night in with dancing clearly as popular as a spectator sport as it ever was with Strictly Come Dancing regularly beating the X Factor in the UK TV ratings war. There are some issues here though. Why no same sex couples? Why are women not allowed to lead? Is the knock out process really fair for with some of the professional dancers being now more well-known than the 'celebrities' sometimes it's not clear who is being voted for? Great fun nevertheless.

Dance and dancing has been part of ritual, ceremony and celebration for as long as anyone can remember; whether pagan, religious or political. Perhaps not surprisingly one of my favourites is a local example; the Helston Flora Dance (Furry Dance). On the 8th May every year, or on the previous Saturday if the date falls on Sunday or Monday, those entitled to dance (all the school children of Helston, those born in the town and others who have done something significant for it) dance through the bluebell decorated streets, wearing lily of the valley pinned on their finery, accompanied by Helston Town Band (although not Terry Wogan) to celebrate the coming of summer. Again sociological comment can be made about the  'rules' of the day. This time it is class that's the issue with workers separated from professionals and ‘gentry’ both in terms of when they dance and what they wear.  The Hal-an-Tow, a mummers' play telling the ancient history of Helston and enacting a fight between good and evil also features.  

Tuesday 18 November 2014

A Celebrant’s Imagination (3) | Life Experience, Family and Friends

This final blog entry in my Celebrant’s Imagination series is written back home in Falmouth. My parents and I settled here in 1970 after four years of travel. My parents favoured Coverack but were worried it might be isolating for an 11 year old girl (me). It was a pin in the map that brought us here. We lived in the town for eight years before finally moving to Coverack, just a few months before my dad’s early death. Although my mum stayed in Cornwall (except for a few years in the 1980/90s when she lived nearer to me during a particularly difficult time – see below) it took me 34 years to get back (via London, Cheshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Coventry and Plymouth). I’m still travelling though as clearly this part of my particular socialisation has had a lasting influence.

In thinking again about my particular path to celebrancy my positive and negative life experiences are equally relevant. Just a short extract from something I wrote for an academic conference on motherhood and mothering last year:

I’m thinking back to the day when my mother thought I meant to kill myself.

No babies for me, it seemed. A realisation I felt painfully emotionally and physically. . . a complete challenge to all my hopes and expectations. On the day in question I ran from my mum towards the river. ‘Don’t, don’t,’ she shouted running after me. But I never intended to jump and I wasn’t running from her but from myself. . . .

I have adapted. I have been fulfilled in other ways. The following nearly 30 years have been busy. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much time researching and writing about issues such as pregnancy loss, infertility and childlessness. Issues that I and others feel are important, yet often misunderstood and/or misrepresented. I am grateful for the meaningful relationships I have with the children, and more recently, grandchildren of others. But I feel sure that I would not have survived intact, reformed as whole without my mother’s support and unconditional love. For her it was all about me, always about me and it was not until after her death that I realised she never, ever, spoke of her own loss, no babies for me; no grandbabies for her.
Dorothy Thornton (MY MUM)

It was at my mother’s funeral in 2012 that I finally decided that I would like to become a civil celebrant. Although I chose the music and the readings (just as I did for my husband John’s funeral two years earlier) and read a eulogy that I had written the service was still not what I hoped for, officiated by a man who appeared not to have listened to anything I had told him about my mum; my Dorothy.

Alongside the significant losses in my life the constant positive affirmation from my parents, the encouragement from my two husbands (especially John), the caring and continuing support from my small extended family (both biological and via marriage) and my work-based relationships all make me the person that I am.  And of course there is another group of people that are hugely important to my personal auto/biography, to myself; my friends. Recently sociologists have begun to research and write about the increasing focus of many on ‘friends as family’. The significant others we couldn't do without and who are, or should be, central to the ceremonies and celebrations in our lives. This is certainly, absolutely relevant to me.Without my friends, a few in particular (they know who they are), life would be much harder and so much less fun. 

Celebrant's Imagination Word Cloud

Thursday 13 November 2014

A Celebrant’s Imagination (2) | An Auto/Biographical Practice

Another way to think about both the sociologist's and the celebrant's imagination is through a focus on auto/biography. The / is important here. Auto/biography acknowledges that when we write and speak of the life of another aspects of our self (in terms of our views, opinions, experience, relationship with the person in question and so on) influence what we say. Similarly, when we write and speak about our own life the lives of others are significant in that we position ourselves as similar to, different from, influenced by (and so on) both historical and contemporary others. All of this is relevant to a celebrant’s practice. There are other shared concerns such as the importance of ritual at significant points of the life course; a focus on identity and how this might differ, not least with reference to age, ethnicity, gender; and of course social networks and networking.

The process by which we acquire and in turn pass on the skills and habits that we need to observe in order to fit into the society, or subsections of society, within which we live, work, and play is referred to in sociology as socialisation. Socialisation is of course a lifelong experience as is our experience of education. My formal learning lasted longer than for some as I returned to higher education in my late twenties after training and practising as a nursery nurse for 10 years.  My work as a teacher and a researcher has given me the opportunity not only to continue to learn about the auto/biographies of others but to learn from them also. My interests are quite eclectic and amongst other things I’ve taught, researched and written about reproduction (including pregnancy loss and infertility), pregnancy and parenthood, working and learning in higher education, travel and transport (I’m writing this on the train by the way) and crime. I sometimes tell students that in order to do well at sociology one of the most important things to be is nosy. Nosiness has certainly worked for me. A particularly significant group of people in my professional life have been the friends and colleagues I have met through the British Sociological Association (BSA), not least those members of the BSA Auto/Biography Study Group. It is with the help of these folk that I have developed my own sociological imagination and, I think, I hope, a sense of humility regarding all there is left to learn.

My most recent educational opportunity has been my Civil Celebrant training with UKSOC and I’ve written previously (Three Funerals and a Wedding, 24th October 2014) about how fulfilling I found this. Significant here is how, for me, the experience helped me to make connections with and draw on and further develop skills acquired within my sociological undertakings and also my work as a nursery nurse. All of these occupations are people focused, are creative and require imagination. How privileged am I, as a civil celebrant, to be able to engage in this type of auto/biographical practice and to learn about and from the people whose lives are central to the ceremonies I am involved with. I’m too much of a sociologist to think of this opportunity, this life course development as natural and inevitable but I feel fortunate that my life experiences and life chances have come together in this way.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

A Celebrant’s Imagination (1) Thinking Sociologically about Place and Identity

The Liver Building Complete with Birds
I wrote the first draft of this piece last week whilst in Liverpool for an academic work commitment. Since then I’ve moved house and now I’m in York, again for work. I’ve been a traveller most of my life.

I was born in Liverpool at almost the very end of the 1950s in the same year that Charles Wright Mills wrote The Sociological Imagination. Mills argued that in order to develop said sociological imagination one needed to take account of biography, history and the social structure. Sociologists then are concerned with the relationship between individuals and society because we are all shaped by the time and culture in which we live and by our relationships with other people. In turn we all have some impact on the lives of others and on society. These arguments are, I think, as relevant to a celebrant’s imagination, as they are to a sociologist’s, in that the ceremonies a celebrant creates and delivers – funerals, weddings, renewal of vows, namings and such like – focus on the life of the person/people concerned and on their relationships with others and their engagement with wider society (via education, work, leisure, politics and so on).

Celebrants too, of course, are part of society and, just like anyone, everyone else, where and when we live and our family, friends, workmates, lovers are all significant in making us who we are. Although my parents and I left Merseyside (we lived in Prescot, just eight miles from Liverpool city centre) when I was only seven my early life and experiences are relevant to my identity. Last week’s trip reminded me sharply that my credentials as a Liver bird might not be as obvious as they once were but I still have the traces of a Scouse accent; detectable in the way I pronounce shirt, jug, bath, love . . . There are lots of memories too. There was the time I wet myself watching a street parade as I thought the policeman walking alongside the May Queen and her attendants had come to arrest me as our neighbour had warned me would happen that morning when I squashed his best roses during some boisterous play. I remember also the stern talking to I received after a party my parents held during which I’d sat and counted the contents of my money box in front of everyone. I didn’t mind too much as I’d made a fortune as all the guests gave me contributions as they left. Mine was a happy childhood. As an only child I was never lonely as my mum and dad always seemed to find the time to play, read, and talk with me. They taught me my first lessons and explained the things I didn’t understand; my first socialisers. There were lots of lean times but I was never short of love or attention, or new experiences.

Leaving the Liverpool area was the beginnings of an adventure for us and the places I’ve lived – in the UK and abroad – and the people I’ve met have all had an influence on me. Many other journeys, much more (in)famous than ours began, or included a stop at, the city; not only but including, enslaved people from African, prisoners sentenced to transportation, child evacuees and child immigrants and of course the Beatles, Cilla, John Barnes, Ian Rush and others. Like my story, the stories of all of these people, are in part linked to the UKs seventh largest city and to The Leaving of Liverpool

Liverpool Lime Street Railway Station

Last word to The Pogues I think:

Mills, Charles Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination London: Penguin

Monday 3 November 2014

Grief and Other Emotions | Breaking Down Taboos

Following my presentation of a funeral ceremony that I had prepared as part of my UKSOC Civil Celebrant Training, my tutor asked me ‘is grief negative?’ How shocking. Not his question which was perfectly reasonable, nor his observation which was gently put. No. What I’m concerned about is the fact that I didn’t realise myself the problem with what I’d written, what I was saying. Over my life I have suffered a number of what many would consider to be significant losses. My father died more than 35 years ago when I was 20 years old and, my (to my knowledge) one and only pregnancy, ended in miscarriage a few years later. More recently; in the last five years my husband and my mother have both died. Alongside this personal experience I have worked as a sociologist for over two decades which involves, amongst other things, breaking down taboos about everyday expected and normal experiences such as dying and death. How then with all of this experience, both personal and professional, could I fall into the trap and describe not only grief, but sorrow and anger as negative?

Grief engenders other emotions; perhaps sorrow and anger surrounding the death and/or the circumstances of the dying but also probably happiness and joy in recognition of good memories and a life well lived. Historically, all of these emotions have been denied in the bereaved as it was argued that the best thing a bereaved person could do was put the death and the associated grief behind them and move on to other things. More recently there has been an acceptance that for many of us, finding a way to take the deceased with us; through talking about them, through memories, by carrying on a life’s work, and so on, is more helpful. This approach also acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with any of  the feelings we have following the death of someone close to us, or even not so close to us.

Blog Entry Word Cloud
I know this. In fact I think I practice it. Death doesn’t embarrass me and I don’t attempt to divert people to other topics if they talk to me about their bereavement experiences. I talk about my own losses, my dad and mum, my baby, my husband, and friends and other family who have died. Why then, I wonder, did I, if not deny a whole set of emotional experiences, at least label them as bad?

My excuse is, that despite the changes in the way in which we think about dying, death, funerals and bereavement, there is still an expectation from some that emotions such as sorrow and anger are best kept private and not publicly displayed. It’s not a good enough excuse though and what I should have written, what I should have said, is that it’s important to let yourself feel and express, if you need to, the emotions that others might deny or classify as negative.

Celebrant funeral ceremonies which are concerned about and with the person who has died, can help those who have been bereaved to feel comfortable to express any and all emotions. The language we use is important in facilitating this. 

Saturday 1 November 2014

Black for a Funeral, White for a Wedding, Pink for a Girl and Blue for a Boy | Clothes, Tradition, Respect and Celebration

Even today some people believe that the most appropriate colour clothes to wear at a funeral has something in common with the myth about early Henry Ford cars: any colour as long as it’s black. One explanation given is that black clothes at a funeral denote respect. Respect is defined as regard for someone’s feelings, wishes or rights and/or admiration for their achievements, qualities and abilities. This doesn’t really make sense then unless the person that died was a particular lover of black clothes or the celebration of their life involves some reference to black. When asked people might also say that this is the way it has always been.  But, like most traditions, this one is historically and culturally specific, although there are different arguments as to when black became the funeral colour of choice with some arguing for the Roman era and others for the middle-ages.

Many argue that the original of the ‘white wedding’, denoted by the white (or ivory, eggshell or ecru) dress worn by the bride, should be credited to the wedding of Queen Victoria for those of the highest classes and the end of the second world war for others. Other sources cite the bible as containing the first such reference. Whenever the tradition began and whether or not the white dress and veil was originally associated with sexual purity, some women still worry about the appropriateness of white as their choice if, for example, the marriage is a second one.

So what about pink clothes for a girl and blue ones for a boy? This was probably introduced in the mid-19th century and is, like black for funerals and white for wedding dresses, the norm in some societies but not in others.

Sociologists, of which I am one, are concerned with norms and values in society and how our behaviour is influenced by traditional, law, social policy, what the media tells us and so on. We are also interested in the way people present themselves differently in different social situations and how this relates to said norms and values. With this in mind, although it might be acceptable to sit and watch telly in our pyjamas, it’s probably not a good idea to attend a job interview in them. And although we might wear a suit or a best dress if invited to Buckingham palace it’s unlikely we’d wear the same for a trip to the pub.  

And yet there have been many changes with reference to dress. Theatre goers attend in both evening dresses and jeans and many of the traditional gender differences (not just in relation to colour) in clothing have been challenged in recent years. Similarly, we no longer need to pick what to wear to a funeral or a wedding or a naming in line with what people have always done or in terms of what others might think and how they might judge us. A bespoke ceremony includes individual, even unique, clothing; whether this means wearing a football strip to the funeral of a sports fan; the wedding party and guests dressing as vampires on the big day or a sister and brother at a naming ceremony dressed as supergirl and batboy. In fact, there’s actually nothing wrong with sleepwear at a funeral, and Levi’s or posh frocks at a wedding or a naming. So, if you want me to, maybe I’ll officiate at your ceremony . . . wearing pink (or blue) pyjamas.