We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I was twenty-two years old when I started to write. For the first time in any true sense, I began to write creatively, both to express myself in new ways and to explore my own language. I began slowly with things that were on my mind, wrestling with pressing decisions and investigating motivation. As the practice progressed from hobby to habit, my writing took form more as a seeking than a saying. I tried to clear my mind of day-to-day things, sat quietly, and reached out to the deeper rhythms below the hum. Only then did I come to the art of it, to sincere efforts in translation.
To facilitate this process of seeking and saying, I approached my writing sessions in a consistent way: dimmed the lights, lit a candle, played some music, and sent a polite request for wisdom into the universe. I invoke the darkness that shrouds the bulk of existence, play host to the elements that give rise to the rarity that is life, and extend my antennae into the sky in my humble attempt to explore my own consonance with universal rhythms. The results are mixed, of course, but this is the ritual.
Although some may associate the notion of ritual with a sinister intent or with a shadowy occult form of sacrifice, most of us have ritual in our lives. I greet each day with a ritual grinding of the sacred beans; a boiling of life-sustaining water; and a slow consumption of the warm, caffeine-infused results. Although the phenomena of human ritual vary widely, many of the motivations are common. Often they arise out of the opposition two forces: the human desire to affect the world around us and our lack of control to do so. One thinks of the raindance or the myriad pre-hunt rituals that humans have performed, pressed under the weight of existence.
My own writing ritual is a small outgrowth of one my friends and I developed over many years on our group expeditions. In our youth, we mixed journeys into raw nature with our personal investigations into the nature of our being. We found a certain openness in gatherings at the edge of the river, around the fire, under the night sky. In one particular location, where the force of life and eternity seemed peculiarly strong to us, we built a fire pit. Not just any fire pit, mind you—this one was special. For us, it was an open invitation to return to this place, an altar upon which we could measure ourselves in pure form, and a crucible in which we could burn away parts of ourselves we did not want or need.
In those days, there was a strong desire to stretch boundaries, to explore new places and spaces, to see things unseen, to hear things unheard, to try things untried. In time, we began to experiment with another creeping pull—the desire to return to places we had been before, to places where we had resonated well with the surround. The first place where we felt this sort of majik we named the Euberland. And in the beginning, we thought this strange yet familiar buzz was unique to this place alone: a slow bend in a creek with soft gravel beds and majestic sycamores, an open meadow hemmed in by thickly forested hills. It was a secluded and somehow ancient place where caravans had traipsed during the civil war, where native people had undoubtedly gathered. We thought it the fountainhead for the spring of being, and, for a time, it was just that to us.
The more we revisited, the more welcomed we felt, and the more attuned we became to the rhythm of the air and the water and the land. It seemed, almost as if by means of some open circuit, we could plug ourselves right in to the earth by way of standing between soil and sky; and in doing so, we could transcend the human-nature dualism.
Ultimately, we came to the sense that we should be able to find this majik elsewhere, perhaps even everywhere, and so we went, scattering ourselves across the globe in this humble hunt. And the deeper our investigation, the more we found that other locations opened up and shared with us the subtle magnificence of place in time.
* * *
The notion of return has a strong pull, and its undertow reaches into many facets of our lives. In many religions, the myth of a return to an original state, to an edenic garden, is prevalent. Across many cultures there is a romantic association with the idea of a return home, to the place of one’s birth or family origin. In environmental philosophy there are deep discussions over whether human being might be capable of a “return to nature,” whether any past cultures have lived in harmony with nature that might serve as a model for such a return, or whether such backtracking would even be desirable or effective.
In an intriguing critical meditation on Heidegger’s work, Luce Irigaray muses: “There is never any return but a return to the same.” In seeing return as she suggests, as a going back, we might ask: Is return a forward action or some sort of backward retreat? In seeing return in this way, as a going back, we might ask: is return a forward action or some sort of backward retreat? For much of my life, I thought of return as a surrender of forward motion, and in that, for example, I avoided the idea of moving back to the place I grew up. But that is a narrow conception. I would argue now that return is a dual action. As the word itself suggests, it is a ride on the circle, rather than a slide along a line. There is a turning in re-turning. Return is an opening, an opportunity at a-gain.
The most tangible example of these subtle shifts giving rise to a new turning that I can think of occurred regularly along the creek shore of the Euberland. The creek was prone to flood events that would erode the banks, deposit or wash away (sometimes large) areas of gravel, and carve out new aquatic spaces for discovery. These events (and the resulting accretion and avulsion that claimed some of our satellite fire pits and even struck down a Wood God totem we had raised and revered) gave us an early understanding of impermanence and flow that have remained important parts of our view of the world. This recognition of change as constant gives new context to Irigaray’s thought: perhaps there is never a true return for us; each time we “return,” we have come to a different place, a new space and time. In that light, return might be even better conceived of as a ride on the spiral, in spite of the line: we may only ever approach the places we have been before.
I’ve become more and more convinced that whatever the path for humanity, there is much to be accomplished in fostering improved personal relationships with the natural world. There is no doubt in my mind that there is power in place that may be accessed—unlocked via experience—a power that can glow white-lightning-hot-cold enough to forge intense relationships to natural rhythms that change a person. The Ritual of Return, then, may be seen, not as an act of control intended to affect the world externally, but as a crucial act of integration and exploration.
* * *
Crater Lake is the most amazing place I have ever gotten to know. I may have visited places more stunning, but I have never felt the same about a wild space as I do for the azure jewel of southern Oregon. Ten thousand years ago, the crater that is the park’s namesake was a towering volcano in the Cascades mountain range, a spine of volcanoes stretching from Washington to California. It was known then as Mazama; and one day, the volcano known as Mazama showed what is was made of. It erupted with such cataclysmic force that it blew the whole mountain apart in a rain of ash and fire and lava and basalt that one simply cannot imagine. It was too big to conceive of. The pumice, the hollow dry bones of the volcano’s marrow, is layered for miles and miles around.
What remains of that most chaotic of earthly events is the base of a mountain that contains one of the deepest and most pure bodies of freshwater on the planet. From chaos unfathomable to a peaceful blue lake. And, yeah, it is really, really blue. It is unimaginably blue, the 100th color they left out of that big box of 99 crayons because it was just too powerful for ordinary children to wield. On seeing it, most people can only say, “Wow. It is soooo blue.” And though predictable to the point of being humorous, they are right. All of blue is right there in the water.
And that is the last I will write here of the lake itself. The casual visitor to the park that visits the rim, comments on the aforementioned color, and drives on south or north to take the road through the Redwoods or up the Oregon Coast Highway has missed something here. And it is that something that can only be known through repeat adventure.
Our trips to Crater Lake began in 2004 and continued as a late summer ritual for many years to follow.
* * *
Something about repeat returns to wild places changes its effect from awestrike to something much more subtle. It is change itself, the slow pace of small shifts that mark not just the passage of time, but the ebb and flow of the timeless exchanges: river meets shore, mountain meets wind, tree meets the weight of snow. On repeat experience, subtlety becomes nature’s majik, and one learns to experience place anew despite a general familiarity. Places grow more complex and appreciable under the shifting shadows, the varying light of the day and night. Last year’s favorite tree, succumbed to winter, is this year’s seedling bed. The bear cub from two years ago, now lord of the land.
At Crater Lake, we know the way the trees rot, turning from a moist red pulp into hard, dry cubes of dead wood. “That one’s gone to cube,” one might comment. We understand the way the trees huddle together, often in groups of five or six, to bear the routine 20 feet of winter snow with the help of a neighbor. We’ve got our favorite trees: the ones that tower in their prime; the dead ones against which we shelter from the wind; the young stand of hemlock—at one time only about our height—that high five us each year as we enter one of our favorite trails, like teammates ushering our big entrance onto the field of play. The examples are many, developed over time: nights by the fire, sunsets at the edge of existence, moonrises that wrench the heart, and high-altitude rides through the spinning cosmos.
Although the lore is as deep the lake, two disparate examples suffice to introduce the glow of the place.
At the edge of one of the first rim spots to view the lake when approaching from the north, there is a dead tree. It must have once been an amazing solitary sentinel, providing an excellent little shady spot from which to sit in stillness and ponder the nature of color, the shiftiness of clouds, or other such topics. Still, the skeleton of this tree serves as a gathering point to take in the lake, a guide suggesting one of the very best vantages. Over our many visits, the remains of the tree have shrunk, bit by bit, as the grey bark is consumed by moss, flecked by the wind, and carried by the snow into the blue below. Each return is like visiting an old friend. You know one day it will not be there any longer, and each chance to stand with it once more is sweet. Sweet enough to commemorate in pictures. The w[i/ea]thering makes it somehow new despite its easy description as old and dead. I haven’t been to Crater Lake in several years, but I occasionally travel there in my mind in hopes that tree is still standing in some form, appreciating the remains as well as the bits that have been lost. It is a little thing, I guess, to love an old stump, but it is somehow a lesson in how we view things: moment enriched by time and experience.
The next example requires a bit more scene setting. From a high point in Crater Lake, of which there are several wonderful towering spots, one can look in any direction (save for a portion of the view south, where the town of Klamath Falls can be seen way off in the lowlands of the Klamath basin) and see nothing but unbroken wildlands. To the West, an unending series of forested hills that ultimately give way to the Pacific. To the North, the towering, lightning-smashed peak of Mount Thielsen, and the spine of the Cascades. To the South, to California, the Siskiyou National Forest, the Redwoods, and the snow-crested Mount Shasta. To the East, the lake and the imposing Mount Scott. It is hundreds and hundreds of square miles of wilderness, to give it an inadequate measure. Below the canopy, there are trails leading to waterfalls and pumice deserts and sphagnum bogs and places of the world that are rarely visited. In the weeks we’ve spent in the Crater Lake backcountry over the years, I can only recall specifically seeing one other person—a young woman several miles deep on the trail, running, with nothing but a water bottle. She may have been just a figment of my imagination, perhaps just a young deer or some other graceful thing. In short, only a dozen or so people might be camped in the entire backcountry portion of the park on any given night, and Crater Lake is a place where one can go to be wonderfully and spectacularly alone.
Our favorite high-point in the park is called Union Peak. The remains of an old volcano, it rises up alone in the southwest part of the wilderness and can be seen from many areas along the rim of the lake. Tradition has been that, after our visit with the old tree on the rim, we begin our hike toward Union Peak in the early afternoon in a footrace with the sinking Sun and with the hope of making it to the 8,000 foot summit in time to see it drop over the far western horizon. Once we hit the area below the peak where we set up camp, we ditch our bags, and scramble up the steep slope. Along the way, there are incredible views of the park. The final approach tests the legs and the lungs. At the top, we are free to engage the horizon in every direction.
On our first ascent, we missed the sunset by a matter of minutes but arrived in time to see the fire in the west give way to purple and the rising of the sliver Moon in the east; on our second ascent, we saw the sunset unobstructed by clouds and watched every last drop of light disappear. On a subsequent trip, we experienced a form of celestial happenstance we had never encountered. Just as the Sun caught the horizon in the west, the full Moon cracked the horizon in the east. And though I couldn’t be sure to any scientific exactitude, the orbs appeared to be exactly opposing each other, both in terms of their 180-degree opposition in the sky and in their timing as they drifted above and below the horizon-line, respectively. It felt as if the Sun and Moon were connected by a long arm stretched between them, with the heavier Sun dropping and raising the Moon into the evening sky. We stood as fulcrum between the two. These things happen at Union Peak every night.
To the extent there is a common experience for us on Union Peak, it has been to rest, soak up the sky, shelter from the wind, take photos, and let go whatever of life that had been bothering us thousands of feet below. On our last trip, perhaps expecting more of the same, we got something new again. With the setting Sun, a thin wisp of cloud became visible on the long line of the western sky. As daylight waned and the air cooled, the wisp coalesced, and a string of clouds stormed the hills between us and the coast. We stood watch, and eventually the clouds spread over the distant parts of the park from the northwest and then sifted through the ridges into the valley below. We waited, [un]knowing. Quickly, the moist air at the front edge of the clouds hit the base of Union Peak and lifted, and as it did, clouds instantly materialized below and rose fast all around us, bathing us in the mist, sweeping us into the fog, and curling down over the south face of the peak. It came on a striking chill that was one part fear; one part thrill; and one part soft, pink-purple majik. On that mountain top, there was only the fine focus of moment. There were four of us, air, water, and rock. That was all.
These and others have been the gifts of our returns, the subtle differences that have made the trip each time a return home and a journey through the new that characterizes place in and out of time. Such gifts are given on slight shifts of the wind and on the gentle turn of the Earth.
* * *
Maintaining our wonder is sometimes difficult work, particularly in the mundanity of routine that marks human modes of survival. There is a certain diligence in finding inspiration, in being amazed, by what seems to be the familiar. For some time, I have been testing the Ritual of Return through my photography, returning to the same spots on repeat occasions and taking photos each time, searching for the inspiration below the hum of assumption, below the false veneer of what I think I know about or have experienced in a place. The results have been consistent. Each time I revisit places that I feel a connection to, that connection deepens: I see and hear and smell things I didn’t perceive before; I discover new angles, new colors; I entertain the landscapes less and explore the fascinating microscapes more; and my expression becomes more textured as a result. This is a resonance that is enriched with practice.
To be sure, the Ritual of Return is not solely an effort in recognizing change and difference. For a time, I made a home on the flanks of Mount Hood, a volcano in the Cascades north of Crater Lake that likely bears some similarity to Mazama. One need not go so far to be reminded of what these volcanoes can do; Mount St. Helens is only about an hour away. Despite the irony, I found a great peace in the shadow of that volcano. The turn of the seasons, the return of the bears, the repeat cycle of wildflowers from March to October. Each plays its beat in the rhythm of the place that hearkens to that “sameness” Irigaray alludes to in her concept of return as a venture to the same. In this way, home is the place where wonder is maintained on a cycle of old-new.
At peace on a volcano: a final tale from Crater Lake takes us there.
* * *
On our latest trip to Crater Lake, we revisited the cinder cone of an old volcano to the south of the lake, known as Crater Peak. Our return had been promised two years before. A close friend and I spent a night in the crater in 2008. We gathered rocks for a small fire pit and huddled close to a fallen giant that made an excellent break from the wind and served as a bit of an entertainment system, holding our gear, our music devices, and providing a little fuel for the fire. We sat in the grass that night in absolute agape wonder at the show the sky put on, the Milky Way brightly splattered across the nightscape. As we prepared to leave the next morning, our return-pact sealed, we stashed the rocks of our fire pit in the crevices of our downed treehome.
On the hike up and around the side of the volcano, Union Peak towers over the park toward the western horizon. Crater Peak is a stark contrast to Union Peak. It is covered in trees, softer and more squat, and the top is a huge, pleasant grassy bowl with a few epic trees keeping vigil. When we first saw the cinder cone, we immediately identified it as a playground of eternity, a rare stadium or amphitheater for the greatest spectacles of life. We meant to headline a show there someday.
That someday came on Sunday, September 5, 2010. As we entered the field of play, we felt almost as if we crossed over some threshold into an old, perhaps eternal, home. A place to which it had been foretold we would return. We made our way across the depression to the fabled downed tree to set up the entertainment center for the night. We pulled the rocks of our fire pit from where we had left them just over two years before and reassembled it. We made ready.
I leave much of the rest to the memories of those involved. We ran and played and watched the drift of the cosmos, which seemed to press itself in all around us, covering us in a sparkling velvet blanketsphere. I simply cannot describe the feeling of walking up to the lip of a volcano, the threshold of the crater gripped by the most vivid night sky I’ve experienced. It felt like we traveled across the galaxy in a bowl-shaped meadow cradled inside a crystal dome. At least, that is how I recall it.
I can close my eyes and return there. It will suffice until we can reassemble that fire pit.
A reading from the Gospel According to John:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
I built the closet at age six… I started after I told my dad not to paint over the wallpaper in my new bedroom… It had yellow flowers that matched my wicker lamp and wood cut butterflies my mom had made.
The look in his eyes, a visceral sadness; a confirmation that describing his son as “sensitive” was not sufficient, that look gave me the material to build closet. Dad had taught lessons with words, hands and a belt, but it was his eyes that day that taught me to hide.
A year later, he died unexpectedly and I locked myself inside the closet and prayed to be “normal.” I tried to avoid anything that might have earned that look. I hid the yellow wallpaper and the wicker lamp in my closet and painted my bedroom grey. That fall, when the kids named me “faggot”, I searched my behaviors for the most offending and tried to hide those too.
I found that as much as my love of opera and antique silverware might have appealed to my kindred Auntie Mame, those interests were less endearing to the Boy Scouts of Northwest Missouri.
Desperate for affirmation, I found the Church, where a little Midwestern boy can sing in a foreign language while wearing a costume without being afraid. Not having a father to come home to, I found solace in God the Father. Dogma and ritual provided cold, disimpassioned mercy counterbalancing my family’s disapproval. The confessional mirrored my closet, and the pretense of holiness masked the sins I imagined for myself.
As I got older, the closet became less of a hiding place and more of a camouflage. I hid parts of myself in the closet I closed it and hung a crucifix outside as a diversion. By the time I got to college, the closet was mostly forgotten; the name-calling and judgment from my peers had quieted enough that through practice I was able to craft a new image. The “faggot” of yore was replaced by the image of a witty and faithful man. “Sure”, I could hear people say “he likes art, music, and design… perhaps his clothes match too well, but look at how well he sings and prays!” For the first time, I was able to pass as “normal.” It felt good and, to be honest when you have been pretending that long it can be hard to determine what is real.
I thought I would be a priest, devoted to service… Instead, my best friend, a beautiful and talented woman said she loved me.
I didn’t set about lying but I didn’t tell her about the closet, but, in my defense, I had distanced myself from the experiences that had pushed me inside that I had really forgotten that there had ever been a closet. As a matter of necessity, my life had been isolated; homosexuality was hypothetical and antithetical to the façade I had built.
I didn’t try to lie, I thought mutual care would be enough. We married, had three kids, and embarked on a largely happy life as newlyweds.
The turning point came three years into our marriage when in quick succession, my younger sister was murdered and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The blunt force of these experiences was beyond my ability to cope and instead of opening to my wife, I closed myself. I retreated, finding the closet and hid what I felt instead of sharing my pain. I focused on my career to the exclusion of my family quietly maintaining 10 years of white-knuckled sanity before my marriage dissolved, as my wife and best friend couldn’t live with a husband so distant.
She left and in the moment I was shocked, devastated. I tried to establish a new sense of “normal” throwing myself into the practices that had given me purpose. But was confronted by the inauthenticity of these practices. One by one I stopped. Stopped church, stopped praying, stopped looking for my sister. I quit my job; I drank gin, and numbed what I could.
I wasn’t enough, there were too many pieces missing… I wasn’t man enough, I wasn’t holy enough, I wasn’t handsome enough, or smart enough… Unmoored from the Catholic doctrine that had stopped me earlier in life, I was presented with a previously unthinkable choice: acknowledge the things I had hidden from for virtually all of my life, confront all of the things I was hiding, or chase a bottle of pills with an expertly-mixed cocktail and pray for mercy from a God I didn’t trust or fully believe in.
In the end, it was my children that stopped me from destroying myself.
After 36 years locked away I told my friends and family what I had been hiding: – “I’m GAY!” True story: people aren’t surprised when a male, Catholic, interior designer/opera singer, who tap dances, and once considered becoming a priest, tells them he’s gay.
Having informed the world and thinking the work was done, I quickly fell in love and ended up living with a charismatic artist, thinking that I had “come out.”
It took me nearly a year to realize that these were just actions. I said the words: “I’m gay” but had not acknowledged what those words meant or what that label had done to me.
I was still in the closet, but this time, I was pretending that all the missing pieces had magically reappeared! I imagined a beautiful life with the artist and my kids, ignoring a reality that was just as dysfunctional as my earlier life had been.
He loved my kids but when they weren’t there he belittled me. The career I had worked so hard to develop was largely supporting his career.
Honestly, I’m not sure that I would have acknowledged anything had the artist not tried to hit me.
It wasn’t even a one-time thing, or even remotely the worst thing that he had done, but for whatever reason it was the thing that made me recognize that I was letting him treat me like my dad had, like the kids in school had… The ridiculousness of the situation unbolted my closet.
Seeing his raised hand, my brain opened, I remembered all the things that had been done, that I had accepted from this man who said he loved me: being pushed, hit, drugged and worse. His actions, the broken glass and destruction of my things helped me see the closet and to remember what I had hidden inside.
As the closet fell apart, I remembered my dim adolescence and the chants of “faggot,” the pain of a fist in the eye, and being rolled around in a trashcan.
As the yellow rose wallpaper was exposed, I felt my stepdad picking me up, shaking me, and hitting me. I heard a litany of names that no 7-year old should know… Every slight, every bruise, the rocks thrown and each name not my own, became real again. The hours sitting and crying unable to fathom what was wrong with me became tangible. The hypocritical religious-indoctrination that I had clung to hoping to be good enough to see my dad and sister in heaven.
Finally I remembered my dad, his disapproval, synthesized by my 6-year old self and eternally misinterpreted. I started to recognize how his look, some 30 years earlier invited me to become something less than what I was created to be. I thought I had come out but instead I recreated the same disapproval.
I’m not sure why, but that last time he tried to hit me, the stupidity of my predicament became apparent… I wasn’t enough because of what I was lacking, I wasn’t enough because I couldn’t accept the substance of my own experiences.
I’m starting to grasp that admitting my sexuality wasn’t coming out. Maybe it was a step, but without introspection, it was just another distraction.
Now, instead of accepting that I am gay, I’m trying to learn who I really am which is so much more than “gay.”
A year after the artist tried to hit me I find shards of glass hiding in my living room. I still fight invalidation that helped me build the closet. I’m trying to acknowledge that it, like those pieces of glass; are just a ruined thing that no longer serves any purpose. On the occasions I’m able to do this, I walk away from it and take some of the power that I had given away.
Every day I come out a little more and in doing so, am confronted by the “me” I really don’t know. Each day I’m a little more gay, a little more artistic, a little more musical, and on the best days a little more dad to the children who saved my life. There is no finish line, but I’m not in the closet and that is a start.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Zakk Hoyt – November 6, 2017 © 2017, all rights reserved.
This month, join Emily Frost, Marisa Taborga Byrne, and Dane Zahorsky as they discuss Whole Person Sexuality and how to support youth in empowering themselves and their communities towards equitable intimacy and healthier relationships.
About This Month’s Guests – Emily Frost
Emily is an artist, girls empowerment coach and contemporary rites of passage guide working with youth and families around the Bay Area of California. She is also a devoted mother, wife, sister and daughter. She is the founder of LOVE YOUR NATURE, a movement devoted to girls and women awakening to their inherent wisdom, power, and purpose. Emily works with young people and adults, in groups and individually, as a counselor, rites of passage guide, experiential educator and consultant. She facilitates programs that develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, with a focus on girls coming of age.
Emily is also the co-founder of Real Talk Events, designing events to inspire learning, honest sharing, and authentic connection about what it’s like to be alive in these times. Her ‘Real Talk Curriculum’ is specially designed for teen girls to talk openly about sex, sexuality, intimacy, and other “risk taking behaviors”. She is a is a certified facilitator with Prajna Consulting, at the crossroads of youth advocacy, gender, sex and sexuality. She has trained in the work, philosophy and practice with Prajna’s founder, Charis Denison. Their partnered events address the questions: What are teens doing, what do they want, what do they need, and how can we support them.
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Sexuality Doesn’t Develop in a Vaccum – About This Months Topic:
Whole Person Sexuality, or holistic sexuality, is a expansive topic that encompasses values, relationships, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, experiences, self image, communication and socialization. Healthy love and sexuality emphasize the relational and interpersonal aspects of self-inquiry as an integral part of a thriving community. Holding these conversations with youth in strong and healthy ways can help cultivate the interdependent sexual health of the entire community, as well as be a preventative measure of sexual harm and misconduct.
Whole Person Sexuality is the open acknowledgement and discussion of one’s sexuality and gender not just internally but as an integral part of healthy community, that includes one’s spiritual, bodily, emotional and intellectual connection to their sexualityBy sharing our self perception and esteem, as they relate to other individuals and the community, we can become more sexually and emotionally literate, engendering healthy intimate relationships with self and others.
As seekers ourselves, our goal is to help cultivate the interdependent sexual health of the entire community.
Initiation as Prevention
Preventing sexual assault is one of the greatest and most important challenges in our lives today. The key is to be proactive and not reactive. Of fundamental importance is holding space to explore healthy personal and interpersonal practices. The more one can build off of the existing sexual health education (or lack-thereof) in intimate and public discussions, the more it will reinforce a culture of healthy sexuality, create a feeling of invitation and investment, and aid in preventing sexual misconduct in the various places we frequent from our bedrooms to our workplaces.
Practicing Community holds consent based openness and access to relevant information as paramount values. One of the most common experiences of rites of passage for many youth is sexual exploration. Without guidance or dialog this natural threshold can often manifest dysfunctionally. Whether the topic is emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse, free and open information and dialog regarding natural curiosities, taboos, and desires will build respect and mindfulness in maturing youth.
We encourage practitioners and caring adults to create situations in which peers are guided by mentors to explore healthy and responsible sexual literacy. Consider a viewing of Al Vernacchio’s TED talk entitled ‘Sex Needs a New Metaphor.’ He promotes moving away from a winner/loser dynamic regarding sex and towards a collaborative model of sexual interaction among youth.
Here are a few discussion topics that can start you off in addition to the many wonderful resources below.
- Common assumptions about sex, sexuality, and taboos.
- Sexual awakening as a rite of passage.
- Appreciating sexuality as vehicle for spirituality.
- Seeking mentors or trusted peers to rely on for sexual advice, accountability, and support.
- Sexual and physical insecurities and fears.
- Gender Identity, expectation, and inequality; the restrictiveness of gender roles.
- Developing and enforcing physical and emotional boundaries and safe words.
- Clearly defining and practicing consent and requiring it for every step of a sexual interaction.
- Understanding and defining red flags or danger signs in relationships.
- Awareness and history with STD’s and normalizing testing.
- Understanding male and female responsibilities and options for birth control.
- Ensuring access to a trusted OBGYN or primary care doctor.
- Becoming familiar with turn-ons and offs and clearly articulating what is wanted and not wanted
- Appreciating individual differences and preferences.
- Differentiating online from face to face courtships and relationships.
- Dealing with social pressures and anxieties.
- Normalizing sexuality conversations and articulating fantasies to avoid suppression or maladaptation.
- Understanding the ecology of sexual relationships and all their variations, including monogamy, polyamory, bisexuality, etc.
- Coming to clear agreements in relationships: what it means, how it is respected, what constitutes cheating, etc.
- Jealousy, obsession, and reactionary behavior in and outside of relationships.
- The different love languages. The differences in expressions of love and affection.
- The regular practice of check-ins. Encouraging strong and honest intimate communication.
- Bedsider.Org, https://www.bedsider.org
- Sex, Etc., https://sexetc.org/
- Generation5 Youth Zine
- Advocates for Youth: Youth Activists
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/
- I Know Mine: https://www.iknowmine.org/
- Love is Respect: http://www.loveisrespect.org/
- Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
- Awkward or Not: App to find out if parents are ready to talk about sex for teens
- My Little Red Book, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
- Flowering Woman Moontime for Kory, Mary Dillon with Shinan Barclay
- Transitions, Making the Most of Your Campus Experience
- Shameless Magazine
- LGBT National Help Center Youth Talk Line 1.800.246.PRIDE (7743)
- Camp Victory : a private nonprofit organization that strives to create a special place for child and teen survivors of sexual abuse
For Parents and Guardians:
How to talk to your children about sex
- Planned Parenthood
- Advocates for Youth: Parent Resources
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/parents/
- Teaching Sexual Health
For parents of sexual abuse survivors
- For Mothers of Sexually Abused Children
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- National Child Abuse Hotline: 1.800.4.A.CHILD (422.4453)
- Center for Positive Sexuality
- Tamera, Global Love School
Body Love Resources
- Body Image and Acceptance Tools
- Esther Perel- The secret to desire in long-term relationships
- Wheel of Consent, by Betty Martin
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Christiane Northrup
- Flesh and Spirit, Jack Zimmerman and Jaquelyn McCandless
- Jack and Jaquelyn: An Adventure in Evolutionary Intimacy, Jack Zimmerman and Jaquelyn McCandless
- Wild Feminine, Tami Lynn Kent
- Vagina, Naomi Wolf
- Cunt, Inga Muscio
- The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort
For Survivors of Sexual Assault:
- Bay Area Women Against Rape 510.845.7273
- San Francisco Women Against Rape 415.647.7273
- GLBT National Help Center Youth Talk Line 1.800.246.PRIDE (7743)
- RAINN- 24 hotline 1.800.656.HOPE
- Love With Accountability
- 1 in 6: for male survivors
- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, Staci Haines
Sexuality Health Education & Trainings:
- Amaze: https://amaze.org/educators/
- Our Whole Lives, Universalist Unitarian Church
- Advocates for Youth: Resources for Sex Ed Teachers
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- Texas Association Against Sexual Assault
- Guttmacher Institute
- American Sexual Health Association
- Future of Sex Education
- Teaching Sexual Health
Prevention and Healing Work with Youth:
- Darkness to Light
- National Children’s Alliance
- Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids
- Stop It Now!
- Connect’s Ending Child Sexual Abuse (ECSA)
- Generation FIVE
- Planned Parenthood
- Circles of Empowerment
- Red Tents in Every Neighborhood
- Fire & Flower: Girls Rite of Passage Program
- Golden Bridge International: Surfing the Creative
- Marisa (Sasa) Taborga Byrne
- Queer Asterisk
- Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd
- Queer Nature
- Queer Odyssey
- Rooted Emerging
- Sacred Groves
- So Faun
- The Sophia Project
I was lucky enough to have been blessed to meet Becky Chief Eagle in late 2016 at the Youth Passageways gathering in Los Angeles, and soon thereafter, her Wasani, Dallas. We were introduced by way of the man who knows everyone, Frederick Marx, who invited her to our circle. I’ll be forever grateful for that gesture.
Over the past couple of years, Becky has come closer into the YPW family, most prominently jutting to the forefront of my awareness when she, alongside Hubert BlackWolf, performed a grief ceremony for me in Estes Park, a month after my mom died. It was there that Becky and her husband invited Youth Passageways to come to her and Dallas’s home, the All Nations Gathering Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The 9 months leading up to that gathering have been a slow and organic process of building trust, of deepening relationship, and of preparing myself, as a child of the western dominant culture, to give into the mystery, to be as Becky and Dallas say…spirit-led.
There is much story to tell and other places to tell it in, but after 10 days in South Dakota, working, dreaming, truth-telling, praying, unburdening, breaking down, building up, and healing, one of my most vivid memories is the end of our time together on a Sunday afternoon when I was honored to stand among 7 others and send our combined prayers by way of arrow into the lands below.
Some of you may know that I’ve been teaching myself traditional archery, with the intention of hunting by the fall of 2019, so as to place at least some of the responsibility for my animal consumption, on my own hands, to take that life with integrity, and in honor of the life ended. So I’ve been practicing as often as I can and showed up to All Nations with my bow and set to practice when a fee moment arose. As it would happen, Dallas had a whole collection of bows and we got to talking about archery and ceremony. He excitedly proposed we all get together with the bows we had and end by making prayer ties, affixing them to arrows, and shooting them out into the land.
So it was that on the last day of our gathering I was gifted the honor of standing among 7 others (Lakota and non-Lakota alike) in representation of each of the 7 generations, and at Dallas’s count, we loosed our combined prayers into the treeline below. As a young man, I sought adrenaline in a great many places, many of which, were destructive and dangerous. Yet, as those arrows flew out into the sky aimed at nothing but the unknown place where they’d find their ground, I felt a rush unlike any before, a sense of reverie and joy in the sheer act of being alive at that moment.
Part of my leaving the land before reintegration home was walking the land and forest line below, finding our arrows, collecting the 35 prayer ties and bringing them together, binding them with Sage and Palo Santo, Becky and Marisa gifted me before departing for safe travel in a new prayer, that whatever may come next, maybe in the spirit of the proverb that has been a core message in Youth Passageways as long as I’ve been a part of it, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I stand today as I did then, in gratitude and awe of the human, animal, terrain and cosmic spirit. I also stand in the intention that we go far.
*Thanks to Sobey Wing for the video!
*These are just some of the many voices that were present. We’re looking for more, please send your reflections or experiences HERE
Delacina Chief Eagle
The youth gathering held at the All Nations gathering center was an empowering experience within a safe & nurturing environment. I felt free to express who I choose to be all while being comforted with encouragement from those surrounding me. Pilamiya, thank you, to everyone who blessed us with the medicine of their spirit.
The healing balm of generous invitation and gifting supported a cross-cultural contact beyond my expectations… it felt like all participants showed up having done ‘their homework’ to be able to listen, honor and celebrate differences and breathe new understanding into our network and our individual and collective work with youth.
Akicita His Horse is Thunder
It was a great opportunity to meet kind and open-minded people. 1 word is awesome
Marisa Taborga Byrne
What brings together a diverse network? Shared time on the land, stories from elders, ceremony, games, and intention for healing. The gathering at All Nations Gathering Center was joy-filled, soft, and deep. Having been invited by Becky and Dallas, of the Lakota people who first stewarded those lands, created a holistic welcoming feeling, and the Lakota youngers and elders who joined us nourished that sentiment. Such deep gratitude for the invitation, and for how we all showed up, ready to listen, to share, to love.
JO Jett Cazeaux
What stood out for me from the beginning was the strong representation of Queer, Trans & gender non-binary folx in attendance, including myself. There were many moments I recall from our time that, in my opinion, led to mutual understanding and growth edges, safe space to be one’s authentic self and opportunities for allies to carry the labor of advocating for Queer/Trans/non-binary visibility at the Gathering. What stands out for me, personally, began our first night with the sweat lodge when we were instructed that women go in first, then men. Feeling the crux here and the support and opportunity to arrive in this sacred space empowered. Following the women & leading the men, landing in the hottest “seat” in the circle, with grace, humility and strength, set the tone for my time at All Nations. Learning from the Creation Story that the Half Moon is traditionally the time when Two-Spirit members hold ceremony was special to hear. And recognizing that the Lakota people, just like some cis settlers, are open and learning a language that does not erase the visibility of the community members that do not fall into the binary of brother or sister, but that we are all kin. And finally, those cis comrades that went to the table to advocate when erasure was happening, I am eternally grateful. With all that said, reflecting on our follow up call when Becky told us that those Two Spirit community members of Pine Ridge that were in attendance at the Gathering shared that they felt “seen” and saw others “like me”, meant the world to me and lots of relief & joy. A testament to not only those of us showing up authentically but a direct reflection to how our cis friends, mentors & elders elevated our presence and voices.
Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge the courage it takes for those of us who show up in these spaces that still, despite best intentions, face language, history & structures that are visibly binary. Advocating for our visibility to be spoken, incorporated into stories & weaved into ways we move forward in our gatherings is the hope. That the labor is carried by all of us- honoring our ancestors & future generations with clarity, kindness & kinship for all of the YPW family.
Read Dave’s Reflections HERE
Read Dane’s Reflections HERE
This month join Larry Hobbs, Marisa Taborga Byrne, and Dane Zahorsky for our second episode as they discuss our connection to wild places and specifically the power and beauty of nature-based rites of passage!
Read the Transcript
About This Month’s Guest – Larry Hobbs
Larry has worked in a variety of both humanitarian and nature-based work throughout his lifetime. From a field biologist studying whales and dolphins to a psychotherapist working with individual and family systems to a teacher and naturalist leading wildlife expeditions worldwide, to years of Rites of Passage training at the School of Lost Borders.
Larry has dedicated many years to the 4H Challenge Program embedded within the Washington State University’s extension program with a vision of making traditional Rites of Passage available to all 4H youth. Although still conducting river dolphin research in Southeast Asia and teaching and leading natural history trips around the world, Larry’s passion rests in guiding Rites of Passage and in sharing his knowledge of the ways we interrelate with and understand the natural world that supports us all.
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Nature as a Lens
At any given moment if you turn your face to the sky, you’re simultaneously looking at the past and the future. As you wake each morning, the rays of sunlight washing across your face have traveled 93 million miles, appearing precisely as they were 8 minutes ago. That self-same sun will still shine eight minutes from now, and another after that, on and on until, eventually, in a few billion years, it will nova in sublime fusion, transforming our solar system into something new.
More tangibly, take a moment and look to the ground, place your hands in the dirt. You are touching your future. There, your body, your ashes, everything and everyone you’ve ever known or loved will one day return, reincorporated as billions of nearly indiscernible molecules nesting betwixt and between the roots and soil beneath your feet.
Think of the tectonic plates on which you stand, forged from the Earth’s molten youth, its fiery adolescence, think about the countless leaves and trees returned there after innumerable seasons, carried on the wind, the breath of the Earth, dust and mud from river beds, valleys and mountains, and the atoms of our ancestors, the foundation on which we love, breathe, fight, mourn and build our homes and communities.
I grew up in the Great Plains of the United States where the horizon seems to justify that the earth is indeed flat only broken by the small city centers, constellations of vertical buildings, reminders of our superiority over our environment. Yet 250 years ago, the center of Kansas City was nothing more than flowering grasses, originally home to the Clovis tribe and a hundred million years before that they were the bottom of great sea and awe as we understand it was unknown on the Earth.
Our ideas are no different than our cities. They gather in complexity; sometimes great leaps are made, and they provide us with the openness to adapt and open to what is asked of us. Like all things, they are fleeting, the best become sacred, most will erode. And much will change in the next thousand years. Often our inability to lean into this humbling perspective rests in the fundamental misunderstanding that each of us suffers, and ultimately lives and dies, alone. Look back at your sorrows. How many before you have shed similar tears? Alone, at night, out in those plains, we all share in our ability to persevere and adapt in the face of struggle, is this not the core truth of why passageways persist after thousands of years?
And at the center of those passages for a great many people is an alignment and stewardship of wild places, those that engender…wild ideas.
To be in wild places, to be with wild and unfettered ideas, we are invited to ground in what is most essential, we are called into service as individuals and communities, the kinds of people our hearts, and the cosmos, dare us to be.
So this month as we dive into nature connection, take a moment, go outside and look up to the past, run your hands through the future. Feel the connection of time and place, and be remember all we share with one another. Whether you are digging in the soil or digging in your past, pointing a finger at the moon or contemplating your future, we and the universe are inseparable.
Dancing in the waves, relishing the sweet scent of a flower, tracking animal stories through imprints along a river bank, listening to bird song. What nature offers is a connection to a broader scope of life, to where we came from, to right where we belong. Below is a list of nature-focused programs, articles, and other resources. Enjoy!
There are over 50 Youth Passageways Partners Doing the Work
- Click on this link to see the listing: Wilderness Connection Programs
Other Nature Connection Organizations
- Sacred Earth
- Way of Nature
- We Are Nature Rising
- http://wearenaturerising.earth/nature-connection-directory/ a directory of over 73 nature connection programs in North America
- Wild Earth
- Write to Freedom
Blogs from Youth Passageways
- Bearing Witness: Exploring Rites of Passage as a Supportive Framework for Transgender Youth – Laura E. Parker-Schneider and Taylor E. Solymosy-Poole
- The Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature – Weaving Earth
- The Courage of Becoming: WSU 4-H Rites of Passage – Michael Wallace, Larry Hobbs, and Scott Vanerwey
- Dancing All Three – Vanessa Osage
- Love From Earth – Peggy Eyers
- Take Death by the Hand – Lindsay Hagamen
- Between Two Worlds – Malidoma Some On Rites Of Passage
- Exploring Second Nature Youth, Wilderness, and Rites of Initiation – Flynn Johnson
- Nature-Based Rites of Passage – Gigi Coyle
- Natural Burials – Sarah Hymas
- Psychological Benefits of Nature – Bill Plotkin
- Rediscovering Rites of Passage: Education, Transformation, and the Transition to Sustainability – David Adam Lertzman
- A Wilderness Pilgrimage: Where We Go When We Die
- There’s a Place for Every Question in the Vast Container of Nature
- The Sounds of Nature’s Silence are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives
- In Quiet Places, We Face the Questions That Can Make or Unmake Us
- We Are Owned by the Wilderness
- Toward a Contemplative Ecology
- The Grandness of Uncentering Ourselves
- Lessons from the Landscape
- We’ve Lost the Modern Meaning of Glory
- When the Mountain Whispers
Growing up with rites of passage and related practices woven into my life, I felt like I had all the tools I needed to navigate through any transition that life could throw my way. And it’s true, my toolbag is hefty, including mentors and elders I can call on, ritual and ceremony, practices for connecting with nature, and an ability to build community.
Then a few years ago, it became clear that alcohol was negatively impacting my life. It had become a key coping strategy for managing life’s stressors. While I would attempt to set limits, I couldn’t keep them, and the occasions of waking up embarrassed by what I had said or done the night before–or even worse, at times not remembering–felt miserable. I can see where this is headed, I thought, and it is nowhere good.
Thus began a profoundly powerful initiatory experience for me, far more difficult than fasting alone in nature or any other ordeal I had experienced. Getting sober required a complete reworking of my identity, a rewiring of my brain, and important changes in my social roles and sense of community.
When I first became sober, I felt like a trapdoor opened up on ground I previously thought was solid, and I found myself falling. That feeling didn’t stop for months. Every time I thought I had finally landed on something solid, the ground would again give way beneath me, and I’d find there was another trapdoor. Feelings I had pushed away for years came forward, and there was nothing I could do but feel them, pray, and turn to others who had walked this path for comfort and guidance. In the process of recovery, I found a rich community of fellow journeyers, mentors, and elders, and learned a process that deeply mirrored the approach I’d learned through rites of passage.
As I have walked this path, I have reflected on the role of substances in the lives of young people today, as well as the role of altered states of consciousness in healthy, intentional initiation.
Experimentation with altered states of consciousness is part of many young people’s transition into adulthood. The adolescent brain is uniquely wired for novelty and adventure-seeking, and substances provide this ready stimulation. And young humans are not the only species to experiment in this way: young dolphins have been documented getting high on puffer fish; other mammals ingest mind-altering substances as well.
Yet at the same time, societal messages about substance use are confusing and contradictory. Laws about what is legal and what is not are often arbitrary, and do not seem to correspond to what is safe and logical. Rather than being prepared to work with powerful plant medicine, and being held in strong containers with clear boundaries for such exploration, young people are mostly told simply to wait or abstain. So they make their own choices.
I know how important experimentation with substances was for me. In my early and mid-teen years, drug and alcohol use helped me explore different ways of experiencing the world. They helped me release social inhibitions, and connect deeply with my peers. They offered excitement and adventure. Yet what I didn’t know was that they were also gradually forming patterns in my brain, altering my brain chemistry in ways that made me less able to find both excitement and a sense of peace and relaxation without them. Before, in my childhood brain, I was able to develop new connections and pathways constantly. This is why children can pick up languages and new skills so easily. But during adolescence, the synapses that are not being used begin to thin through a pruning process, and ones that are used are made stronger and more efficient through myelination. My substance use literally wired itself into my brain, becoming habit. Social connection and coping with my emotional world became tied to substance use. Over years and further pruning, this evolved into patterns of addiction.
Plant medicines are an important part of cultures across the globe, sacred gifts from the earth that allow humans to pray, gain wisdom, and connect in countless ways. For many cultures, proper use of these plants is part of the Original Instructions handed down to them from the spirit world. There is nothing wrong with altering our chemistry in these ways.
Part of the problem comes from the ways these practices are separated from the realm of the sacred in Western culture. Questions arise: Does the use of sacred plants in contexts outside of their Original Instructions dishonor the plants and change their medicine? What of the use of synthetic substances: does this further separate us from our true nature? How does the exchange of money and commodification of sacred plant-based ceremonies distort the medicine, put pressure on traditional practitioners, and give rise to folks profiting off another’s culture? Certainly, in places around the world, the pressures of production for mind-altering plants lead to overharvesting and environmental destruction; the violence that comes as a direct result of the drug trade is almost unquantifiable.
Those of us that seek to support young people on the path to adulthood must be having a conversation about the role of substances in the lives of young people, and how it relates to our work. Substances are a significant part of youth culture, and their power to transform and their risk of harm is great. Also, the distortion of our relationship with altered states of consciousness is part of the same process which destroys healthy rites of passage, in large part a byproduct of colonization. Perhaps we can inoculate youth in some way by sharing this story. Finally, there is much to learn from the recovery community about what a healthy, spiritual-but-not-religious, multi-generational initiation process can look like. All of these topics are worthy of scholarship in their own right.
I grew up in the age of “Just Say No.” I can still picture the advertisement with a sizzling egg in a frying pan, emblazoned with the words “this is your brain on drugs.” That message did little to deter me from experimentation, and later, from dependence. This is not a simple issue, with a simple solution. As a network, I would love to see us grapple with the complex issues associated with adolescent brain development, the ubiquity of substances in our communities, and the spiritual, cultural, and environmental issues associated with altered states of consciousness. Such a conversation could help us develop ethical guidelines and resources for young people, parents, and other youth-serving adults.
When I was 16, I had so many questions for life. I thought when I reached 18, I would be a grown-up, and have all the solutions to life’s problems, but I didn’t. Then I thought 23 would be it as that was my mother’s age when she had me. Now I’m 23, graduated from college with dual degree, but I still don’t feel like an adult. The truth of life, on the contrary, seems to bury itself deeper than ever.
Tired of looking for jobs that either not exciting or I was not qualified of, I decided to take some time off. I traveled to Iceland by myself, hoping to find the voice inside me. I had been disconnected from it for so long that I needed to make an effort to find it again. I didn’t plan the trip. After being declined by all the hosts I sent requests to on Couchsurfing, I booked a hostel for two nights the same morning I flew to Reykjavík.
From the outset, Iceland’s fresh air and cute little houses filled my heart with joy, which I hadn’t experienced for months. Downtown Reykjavík is so small that my curiosity quickly faded away, leaving me with anxiety and frustration of what to do next. I signed up for a northern lights trip that night. A boat took us into the infinite darkness on the ocean. And not even the hot chocolate with rum could keep me warm in the Icelandic September night. And then suddenly, the time was up. We weren’t even able to see the aurora because of the heavy clouds.
I got lost on my way back to the hostel. There were not many people on the street at midnight. An hour had passed; all the emotions inside me erupted. I blamed myself for being stupid as I walked the route twice during the day. I scolded myself for not planning. I complained about making the northern lights trip only to bear the unpleasant darkness and cold without getting a chance to engage with the whole point of the trip. I questioned myself for making this stupid trip to Iceland in the first place.
I was split into two halves. Half of me sent the other half to trial, and interrogated it harshly. Before announcing its death sentence, a flashlight came across this stream of unconsciousness. I thought of the reason I came. It was to reconnect with myself and find that voice. After more than two hours of struggle, I finally made my way back to the hostel.
I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night, and this voice arose from deep inside, whispering:
“I want to get out of this body.”
It was in that moment I realized how much I had disliked myself. The next day, I decided to simply observe my feelings and judgments toward myself. Watch, acknowledge, and let go.
I went to a dance and meditation workshop, which I had accidentally come across earlier that night. Dancing helped me embrace my body. The voice of the other night seemed to be gone once I acknowledged its presence and danced with it. I introduced myself and shared what I had been feeling with the group. They hugged and encouraged me after the workshop. A man approached me. His name was Ola. He asked me if I’d like to go for a walk with him along the harbor. He also asked me if I had a place to stay. The truth was that the hostel I stayed in was all booked up from the next day. Ola offered to host me. He gave me good vibes, so I accepted the offer with genuine appreciation. We took a walk along the harbor. He told me that what I said in the workshop resonated with him. He then shared with me his journey to Thailand after a heartbroken split with his wife, along with his soul’s awakening. I listened deeply.
Ola picked me up the next evening from downtown Reykjavík. We were chatting when he was driving. Suddenly, he pointed at the left side of the window. It was the northern light! He parked the car aside the ocean. I jumped off, and was absolutely blown away by the beauty in the sky. The northern lights, the aurora, the fairy in the sky was alive! It was not just a beam of light. It was a sky full of angels moving, jumping and dancing. It made me want to cry. The spirits were calling. I had never felt as connected and grounded.
After that the trip just seemed to unfold for me. I stayed with Ola for two nights. He treated me as a family member, showed me around the city, and told me stories of his life as a fisherman and a carpenter. I went on a road trip with some friends I met on a couchsurfing meetup. Iceland’s stunning nature cracked my heart open and awakened my soul. It gently whispered the truth to me:
“Live the questions. Explore the uncertainties. Be with this body.”
I’m 23 and confused, but I’m not afraid of not-knowing anymore. Exploring often looks like failing, but it’s not. It’s like sailing on the ocean. You never know how far you’ve gone if all you’re doing is looking out to the horizon without moving. Life is indeed a journey. So enjoy the trip!
In prefacing this letter, it references the accidental death of an 18 year old Daniel Rezmer, a young man from our community who had participated in every one of our local and international programs for four years. His death was a huge shock to both our Teen Journey community, his high school community, and the community at the University he began attending. His death was an initiation, one that prompted deep questions about who we are as an organization, our role in the community/village, and how we might respond.
He had just started University and a group of students went to a popular cliff jumping spot for the afternoon. The dam that fed into the river was opened making the water far more aggressive than usual, but no signs were put up to warn people. He was the first to jump, and he and the friend who followed were trapped in the water against the cliff face, clinging onto the side. While the fire and police looked on for 40 minutes without helping, two local workers attempted to rescue them without support. He ended up giving his life for his friend, and he could have been saved if people had worked together.
The symbolism of his death was profound in that it demonstrated that the work of preparing our youth for the world they are inheriting will come from the grassroots. Also, that we must all work together to help them learn to support each other in developing the skills that will empower them to create the kinds of communities that will navigate these turbulent times ahead. Lastly, how unprepared we are to really process the grief that such initiations bring, and how we are learning as a culture to be vulnerable, committed and responsible enough to respond to life’s initiations.
For those who have read the famous elder who spoke on the Hopi Prophecy, Daniel’s passing illuminated the truth of his entire message, which ended in the haunting words “you are the ones you have been waiting for.”
[Image of Daniel by Jacklyn Tomei]
Dear Youth Passageways Community,
Our organization, the Teen Journey Society, suspended its activities this year and whenever there is a gap – a space between stories – there is an opportunity for something new to gestate. During this gestation period I am engaging with the question of individual of collective change in relation to Rites of Passage, and I would like to open up this inquiry to a larger community of practice for feedback. One of the premises put forth in this letter is that: Our capacity to be adapted by initiatory events and the transformation of individuals within the community is directly related to our capacity to endure.
I use the word community with intent, because community implies a collection of individuals who are bound together in service to a shared story, or myth, of who they are and what they are here to do. I feel that the Youth Passageways network has taken an important step in creating a platform and identity for the formation of a community that recognizes the importance of the revitalization of both Rites of Passage as a tradition, as well as the entire infrastructure that is required to make this successful and relevant to our modern society and planetary trajectory.
In the words of Joseph Campbell:
“And what it [the new mythology] will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with – the maturation of the individual from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos.
All this hope for something happening in society has to wait for something in the human psyche, a whole new way of experiencing a society. And the crucial question here, as I see it, is simply: With what society, what social group, do you identify yourself? Is it going to be with all the people of this planet, or is it going to be with your own particular group? “
The Teen journey vision is “to support the emergence of a global village connected from the heart”. I do believe that this is a simple and profound story, within which lies the DNA of this RoP community. To quote from the opening of the Youth Passageways vision statement: As we confront an unparalleled global crisis — what many are calling a time of collective initiation — there is a growing recognition that the revitalization of rites of passage has the potential to play a leading role in the renewal of our communities and the human family.
In examining the quotes of Campbell, our vision as a society and of the Youth Passageways network, it is clear that we are in service to a perennial challenge of humanity, with an added dimension: of the maturation of the individual and the collective, and to establish this identity in relationship to nature and the cosmos.
Additionally, my notion that this work can be accomplished by an organization in the conventional sense of the word has been challenged. With humility I have come to recognize that our best efforts are placed in aligning the structure and activities of our collective to be in service towards what we identify to be the evolving myth, and be very open to change.
In this letter I open the dialogue by briefly speaking to a few questions: What is the challenge of change? What is emergence? What is the contrast between global and village? What is a Rite of Passage? How do rites of passage bridge the village and the world? And what role does the heart have to play in all this?
The Challenge of Change:
The biggest challenge faced by any individual or organization is that of change, because it threatens our idea of how we are to ensure our duration. To quote the I-Ching, which is maybe the most developed system of understanding the dynamics of change and duration:
“duration is a condition whose movement is not exhausted by obstacles. It is not a state of rest (in the sense of absence of motion), for mere standstill is retrogression. Hence duration is self-renewing movement of an organized, integrated whole which proceeds in harmony with immutable laws.”
According to the I-Ching, duration is achieved through transformation. Resistance to transformation leads to exhaustion, which creates standstill and then retrogression. We learned that our effectiveness is dependent on our ability to continually self-renew – we are challenged to become an emergent system within and without, individually and as an organization.As we have discovered, the process of change can be slow, challenging and unpredictable, and I feel that this is at the heart of The Work. We recognize that in order to endure we must change, yet we unconsciously resist the change that we know we must make. The bigger the change, the bigger the resistance. The more diverse and innovative the community, the more challenging it is to find shared norms, rituals and authorities to accommodate change. Our experience has shown us that to truly transform as an RoP organization embedded in a community requires a degree of responsibility, self-awareness, agility and courage that requires conscious cultivation. In essence, we have to be able to work with the natural law of emergence.
Emergence is a term, commonly used in science, where a complex interactions of natural processes give rise to a new phenomena or organism that would have been impossible to predict prior to the transformation. The interesting thing about emergent phenomena is that it usually cannot be detected through interactions of smaller, simpler entities; the emergence becomes visible through the larger entities, patterns or regularities.
One of the best examples of this is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. In the case of this marvelous transformation, there is a tremendous resistance from the caterpillar that is being transformed inside the cocoon. Even though the caterpillar has formed this cocoon to dissolve itself so that it can be reborn into something totally new, it literally attacks the butterfly cells – called imaginal cells – as they replicate and recognize each other to form larger clumps of cells that develop into the various features of the butterfly-to-be. However, as the new identity of the butterfly becomes established by the replication and collaboration of cells that reflect this new self-image, the momentum builds until such a metamorphosis is unstoppable.
In this sense, emergence is a kind of rite of passage found in nature, and this is because natural systems are emergent by design. It is the part of the evolutionary process for all life to undergo the process of emergence. We are discovering principles of emergent design processes are emulated in human systems, and indeed, have been for thousands of years by many indigenous cultures. The most significant of these design principles is that of fractality, or what is also called sacred geometry. In fractal systems, the whole is a reflection of the sum of its parts, where everything is connected and each individual fractal contains the essence of the whole within it.
However, to truly model a fractal system consciously, we must reach a certain degree of inner freedom and spiritual understanding as a group. It is our story of separation, our frozen personalities, our judgements and opinions that stop the fluidity and naturalness of a system that works in harmony with its fractals. The challenge that the individual and the group faces is that the unconscious will often try and prevent the transformation from taking place (just like the caterpillar resists the butterfly). It is by shedding our layers of rigid ideas of who we are and how the world is that we can become natural and fearless enough to allow what is truly emerging in the present moment to arise. Ironically, this takes a deeper kind of structural integrity, one that is totally present, authentic and fundamentally loving. This is where our freedom lies, and it is worth the work to get there.
We at Teen Journey have been learning how to weave cocoons so that emergent processes can take place that lead to transformative experiences for youth. What I have been coming to understand is that the state of adolescence is almost pathological in our society, because so few people have had the womb experience significantly enough to really be re-born. This second womb, or cocoon, was the role of religion before. As uncomfortable as this may make some people feel, I believe that our work is very spiritual in nature, and is also maturing through its relationships with other fields in the arts and sciences so as to access a wider language and not remain dogmatic.
We are now in an age where spiritual work occurs mostly in the domain of the individual, so if we are not doing our Work individually then we cannot fully support the transformations that our youth are undergoing. What I have also seen is that if an organization represents a community, the organization will be tested to see if it can adapt to the needs of the community during a time of crisis. This is where we come into an area of even greater challenge and unpredictability, where the organization itself is put through a Rite of Passage.
Rites of Passage:
The definition of a Rite of Passage by a long time expert in this field, Ron L Grimes, is: “A gesture, swelling up from a sea of relationships, into a momentary performative event.” I like this definition because it acknowledges the deeply emergent nature of ROP. A community’s ability to undergo and perform ROP’s is the defining factor in its capacity for resilience and evolution. The passing away of the young Daniel Rezmer in our community is a perfect example of this, and the manner by which we as a community processed his death will determine the degree to which we were initiated and transformed in service to the myth that is evolving through us as a society.
Daniels passing led to a number of gestures. From the first gathering on the bridge two days from his passing, to his memorial and funeral service, his passing was an initiatory experience for individuals, for a community, and an indicator of our depth and capacity (or lack of) to respond to a ROP event. I bring up Daniel for a number of reasons, and I cannot discuss them all here. I would just like to note for now that there are two main forms of rites of passage for communities, one that is planned and executed by us, and another that is thrust upon us, evoking a gesture as a response from the sum total of relationships as a human fractal.
Indeed, even the ones that are planned and executed follow much of the spontaneity of the second kind (as we have learned through experience). What I would like to propose
here is that a community’s’ capacity to be initiated by the events of its own life are directly proportional to its potency for initiating youth into participation within the life of the larger society
In the case of Daniel’s death, we were challenged in our capacity to grieve deeply as a community, and to act in a way that truly honored his memory and transformed this tragedy into a source of hope. Not hope in the heroic sense of the term, but the hope that comes from knowing that the remembrance of deep humanness is still with us – that we can respond as a village, take responsibility with shared compassion and dignity, and receive the messages that such significant experiences have to share with us.
Daniel, as I said at his memorial, began to display the signs of a whole human being. He displayed the signs of one who was raised in a village devoted to the total potential of a human being; one who is natural, compassionate, happy, and seeking enlightenment while being service to his local and global community. Young people like Daniel I believe are now the norm, not the exception, all they need is the right environment.
His father and mother provided him a place of virtuous influences, nourishing food, wise elders, a conscious space for peers to gather, heal and play, and many opportunities for him to pursue his passions. Can we recreate a village like this today, not in the sense of huts that are all close together, but spaces and influences that provide this nourishment? This is the task that I felt Daniel whispering into my heart as I sat in mass to pray for his soul.
This brings up the question: who is the community really? how do we know the appropriate response to life’s initiations and thus know how to initiate our youth? In the context of Teen Journey, the structure that we sought to hold the community is the village. I must admit that I am not an expert in village models, but in some sense, this is also a blessing. In the words of the Zen master D.T. Suzuki ” the beginners mind has many possibilities, the experts few.” It may look nothing like what initially comes to our minds.
Simply viewed, I saw a village as a collection of families, not necessarily related by blood, that share economic, cultural, political, and ecological space and practice. One that includes children, mothers, fathers, youth, mentors and elders, and have a way for them to participate. We require the ability to address a wider spectrum of the different initiations that occur over the course of a life-cycle, and have relatively organic ways of exchanging knowledge and services that support the whole.
I feel that a major part of the effort in developing a village model that speaks to our contemporary realities is to create something that is transcultural – meaning that it is able to draw upon the wisdom and practices of many cultures. A big part of this envisioning what kind of village we want to build. To use a permaculture term, we must “design with the end in mind.” The fractal that we develop on a local level will be the fractal that is shared on a global level.
It is for this reason that I write with such intensity, because I have seen the growing pains of this organization and what it was striving to become – a new paradigm village that addresses the timeless theme of all myths and cultures: the maturation of the individual from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos.
A village may be necessary because all the life cycles are represented in the village, and the lessons of many life cycles are necessary in order for a true preparation for the soul to be initiated and then be of service to its human and non-human community; whether a youth experiences these in one location or many is not as important. Furthermore, our work on a local level must be understood as a contribution and reflection of a global process, of which we are members. For this to occur, real relationships and communication between other such villages is essential, and this is why international work and trips are essential to the unfolding vision.
The vision of a post-modern village is a new one, and it can indeed seem daunting. However, it is my belief that our destiny is to model this in both an urban and rural context, on a city and province context, on a bioregional and international context. We are not alone in this work; I have read many thinkers and met many doers engaged in this soul-work. For indeed, the village we are building is not only for ourselves but for our future generations. We may not see the fruits of our great vision in this lifetime, but we can plant the seeds and tend the garden for our young ones to harvest as they bloom into beautiful flowers of the future.
What then is the role of the heart in all this? The heart is the seat of our divine intelligence, it is the place that receives and transmits the feelings of the universal fractal in accordance with our own consciousness. It is the crucible in which our work takes place. A village cannot be fabricated in a contrived manner, at least not a village capable of Rites of Passage that support our spiritual awakening. For, in order for lasting results to occur, the village must be exist to prepare youth to embrace the call of their souls support them through the process.
This means that the village must itself be practicing living and loving through their spirituality, and responding whole-heartedly to the initiations in its own life-cycle. A village has to be connected from the heart center, otherwise people will not be able to give what is required for the village to thrive. This is why Teen Journey leads youth on a journey to the heart to discover who they are; because who we are is rooted in our experience of interconnectedness, in relationship to those whom we serve and are served by. As our individual and collective identity is maturing, the concept of the village needs to be re-formed to support this maturation.
The education of the heart is what will always keep us on track; it is the guiding light of our mission. It is this work of the heart that forges a community that cares, that can be relied on during times of great difficulty and rejoiced with in times of celebration. It will draw us into the acts of wildness and courage that the small Self will try and dissuade us from. It was such an act that drew the first team who came together for the Teen Journey Camp that was the seed of what we have become today.
If we are to really embrace the capacities of directing, creating policy, and monitoring the activities of an organization that is working towards such noble visions, we must truly be able to engage these concepts; to fluently converse in them, to feel them in our genes. We are after all in service to a dream, to a local and global village that seeks to be forged in the heart, and to a larger mythos of a world that has revitalized the traditions of Rites of Passage and its role in renewing communities and the human family at large.
Our small organization has matured through it’s life cycle, which is usually a seven-year turnover, and is poised to make another transformation soon. My sense is that we are being asked to step into a more rooted and expanded definition of who we are, while realistically assessing our capacities to perform the mission that we have set out to achieve. Indeed, it will require many partnerships and alliances in the spirit of family and service to our coming generations. I don’t have all the answers for how to accomplish this, but they are certainly available for us to access if we keep returning to these kinds of questions.
It is excellent that we now have this platform to help us share a certain level of understanding that is necessary for such visions to be realized. Love is born of understanding, and through this understanding we can really manifest our work with great love. It is the power of love that is at the heart of this work; it is love that is choosing to initiate us over fear as we embrace a new way of being in the world and pave the way for a generation of youth who’s evolved consciousness will create the communities that our hearts know are possible. I trust in this power.
May love be our guide and the beauty of our village and its young souls be its measure.
All my relations,
On the heels of Summer solstice here in California, after a lovely evening walk where I was privileged to see a resident horned owl as well as a king snake meandering through Eucalyptus bark, I write to you, my spirit family. Some of you have asked me about the lessons learned from this current journey with a broken wrist. So I thought to write, record and share some of my reflections and possible learnings.
So first, I’ll cast the scene in which I’m writing. It’s almost dark now at just about 9 PM the day after summer solstice, and I’m sitting outside with my feet in a bath of Epsom salts. A woodpecker called just minutes ago and hummingbirds dashed by as the pink sky of the west descends into gray duskiness. I appreciate my home more and more these days, here in the beauty of the Ojai Valley. If there is a good place to experience a broken bone, Ojai is it! I feel blessed to be able to sit here and welcome the gathering darkness with such gratitude in my heart for the blessings as well as the challenges of these last weeks.
When my sons were teenagers, 3 1/2 years apart, they were circumcised. Though they may not love that I would write this, I have always considered that to be a rite of passage in their lifetime. Similarly, I knew early on after this happened, exactly one month ago yesterday, that I could recognize this as some kind of initiatory experience. Though I’m certain that more is to be revealed, there have been such moments already of revelation. Though there were already pathways that I was following, this “break” has made changes and transmutations more urgent and present-centered. I feel my heart has been opened in so many ways that nearly daily my eyes well up with tears in gratitude and emotion.
Not all has been easy. Fear has grabbed me in so many ways. Though I might know and trust the perfection of all on some deep level, on the human level I still felt myself spiral down with doubt and fear. The gift? Acceptance of my humanness, my acknowledgement of living on many levels of reality. Fear seeps in unwelcome and unbidden yet tended by the mind, my mind. Fear about the unknown, about the repercussions, about the physical results. Yet at the deepest level I could say that there were angels affirming and encouraging me to trust and surrender, giving me messages quickly, affirming and reminding me of the ability of my body to heal itself. I walked to the doctor three days after being in the emergency room. On my way home I stopped by what’s left of a vernal pond and cried tears of weariness, pain and fear. In that moment an elder of the community came and gave guidance and affirmation. She was a 91-year-old angel, chiropractor all her life, who looked at me and said with confidence “the body heals itself. Surgery is good when it’s necessary but your body will heal. It will take longer but it will heal.” And then as I walked further on my way home another angel stopped me, blessed my wrist, and said this will heal without surgery. This was after every doctor thus far had said you need surgery.
In addition, so many more angels in Ojai came to my aid. Whether it was making bone broth, or picking me up at the emergency room, or taking me shopping, or driving me places, so many friends and community members offered their help. How does this feel? It still is overwhelming and brings tears to my eyes. I’ve had friends stay with me at the subsequent doctors’ visits that helped me through some very difficult and stressful times. This was after thinking I would take a bus to the orthopedist and just be there on my own. What was I thinking!
I’ve been told by many, including at the doctors office, that there were so many breaks and fractures that week. I’ve heard some explain this as a transformation of our physical bodies. Of course I would love to feel that my injury is part of some shift on a global scale, some transmutation leading to greater alignment in an evolutionary process, at the risk of sounding grandiose! Again, my experience is on the human level as well as cosmic level!
More gifts? SLOW DOWN! Although I already had felt like I had made great strides in this realm, I am now forced to be home, to find steadiness and rhythm in a more contained environment. Fortunately, I’m able to do my work as program director for the Ojai Foundation from home for the most part. I can walk to one of the best organic food places ever within 10 minutes. I can walk to the nature preserve where snakes, swallows, owls, hawks, bees and so many living relatives greet me, including close by friends who also walk and enjoy the preserve!
I’ve been asked “what do I need a break from?” One answer that has revealed itself is living with such intensity. I find that I can have health and wholeness in my body without intensely exercising or doing so much, that I can work from a steadier and more flowing place where I mix up what I’m doing and flow from one thing to another in a much more natural pace.
I had already been working with the idea of detaching from any identity, including musician, drummer, swimmer, biker, program director, percussionist. One of the lessons that I’ve always felt from Hazrat Inayat Khan’s life Is that he put down his vina at some point and acknowledged that he himself was the instrument of the divine, that he didn’t need any external instrument. I’m realizing more deeply that my womanhood and my expression as a musician is not dependent on these external instruments. So I continue to work with these perceptions, and wonder how the repercussions will shake out. I don’t know why I needed a physical break in order for this to happen, but this is what has happened. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m giving up playing an instruments!
I know many of you have probably asked what Louise Hay would say about a broken wrist or wrist pain. I really didn’t look it up right away because I think some of that work is not so valuable. I have always felt that there are many levels of reality with any situation that we might find ourselves challenged by. The opportunities and lessons can be for many, not for one. The situations are much more complex than a simple meaning. However, eventually I did look it up and saw that flow and movement was connected to wrist injuries. This is a surprise as I’ve been working with the medicine of Saraswati, she who flows, for months, years, lifetimes possibly. So I really can’t tell you whether this is true or not for me right now. I continue to invite and embrace flow, ease, grace in my life, in every aspect. I know that my love and welcoming of the medicine of Saraswati has influenced me deeply, and is why I can feel the grace of this challenge along with its difficulties.
Some other gifts … Finding out about automatic dictation on my phone and on my computer … Being free of playing an instrument while singing in an ecstatic kirtan solstice eve and feeling the freedom and aliveness of that! … Playing didjeridu more and singing harmonics on my cast for a vibratory healing experience! … Feeling the flow of social time and inner quiet time, appreciating both, as friends come and go from my home … Having a direct experience with the medical field, which has directly resulted in looking at fear, and breeding more compassion for those who are in chronic pain … Surrendering to the world of insurance and doctors, which led me to the doctor that I feel was best suited for me … taking pleasure in small crazy ways, such as the hilarity of some of the typos in automatic dictation! … Strengthening my left hand and subsequently right side of the brain, the nonlinear intuitive functions … saving water and still staying clean!
It’s so dark now, as the moon along with Venus and Jupiter will rise a little later this night. So grateful for this time to write and reflect, serenaded by chirping grasshoppers and running water, cool night air and comfort in the darkness. The gifts as well as the challenges will continue I’m sure. I hope my writing might serve in some way. Thank you for reading.
Some recent auto dictation bloopers …
Tripping grasshoppers rather than chirping grasshoppers
In my castle rather than in my cast
Cure time rather than kirtan
Screw this pathway rather than through this pathway … both are true!