This past Sunday, my first rites of passage youth group “marked”. The marking ceremony is the culmination of our three year program. It is an opportunity to bear witness to the transformations that each of the boys are experiencing in this period in their lives. The ceremony itself is just one facet of the entire rite of passage; our group time has been spent deep in the work of understanding this moment in their lives. We’ve spent time deep in nature, on adventures together and pushed ourselves with our fire vigil, dusk-till-dawn hike and solo nature sits. The boys have, at different times, exceeded our expectations and failed them. Courage, openness and depth have all been demonstrated deeply; but not in every instance. The boys are still trying on the responsibilities and possibilities of adulthood. And I am very much looking forward to continue to see this evolution as the group shifts into a new way of being over the coming months.
This was the first substantial rites of passage ceremony I have facilitated to date. While I felt supported in many ways in my teenage years, I did not participate in any structured mentoring outside of the family or rites of passage initiation as a teenager. Only by listening to my peer leaders and the wider community of prior group leaders in the Stepping Stones Community, did the first possibilities of what our marking ceremony could be rise in my head. Every year we would hear accounts of marking ceremonies, and sit in councils where leaders consulted with the wider community about the plans and possibilities they held for their marking ceremonies. I am deeply in debt to the wisdom shared in all these meetings, written accounts and conversations over these years.
Chaise, my co-leader, and I started mentioning the ceremony and building it up with the boys and the parents many months ago. Just starting with occasional mentions of the “marking ceremony”, building up to connecting the relevance of what we were doing that day to the marking ceremony, months in the future. This last month, with our last summer trip, several group meetings and a parents meeting, we were deep in the co-creation of it with the boys, parents, Pat (our elder) and each other, as co-leads. I really enjoyed the rather organic process of how it all came together.
Parts of my initial vision involved being able to stand on a hill and look out over the bay, and using an invocation used by an Adelaide school for their rites of passage ceremony (one I had found in The New Manhood). At first, I was drawn to the hills overlooking the bay near Mt Tam, near where we had done our dusk-to-dawn hike. It was a real haul to get out there, a big consideration when we were planning for all the families to get out there as well. This became even more of a pressing issue when one of the mothers in the group fell from a horse a few weeks prior to the ceremony! In the end, one of the other mothers suggested the perfect spot, John Hinkel Park, a quiet North Berkeley park, with a stone amphitheater for the ceremonial space and a view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
For months and months, Chaise and I had been stopping in stores and shops on our travels through our daily lives and adventures, looking for worthwhile gifts for each of the boys. Nothing really felt right. Chaise had also considered making buckskin leather pouches for each of the boys but decided that that would be beyond his resources in the lead up to the ceremony. If we couldn’t get the right gifts, we resigned to skipping them as part of the ceremony altogether. Here, again, we were saved by the parents. One of the parents runs a business that provides little yoga gift boxes; she had an incredible stash of gems, stones and rocks (amongst other things), that she offered to us to pick over.
Chaise and I spent a lovely afternoon sitting with the array of minerals and just letting our impulses and our thoughts of the lads guide us in picking out what was right. Without much effort, we arrived at our gifts. Each youth would get two group stones, that everyone in the group got. And one stone that was unique to them. We were drawn to some cool magnetic polished stones, seeing them stick together. Just like our group; we stick together. That was the first group stone. We were also drawn to the deep rippled greens of some malachite. When Chaise pulled up an internet search on the mineral and it said that it was symbolically linked to great change or transformation… perfect for our rite of passage moment, we selected that as our second group stone. The process of picking out unique stones for each of the boys was the most fun. One of us would pick up a stone and wait for the others assessment. “Ahh yes, you picked that one up for Douglas*“. Being so aligned on how we saw these stones and our boys was such a natural delight. We had our gifts, and a perfect integration into the ceremony; we would use each unique stone as the first prompt for our co-leader reflections and witness statement for each of the boys.
With these aspects in place, Chaise and I measured and paced out the ceremony in our heads, sharing the different steps and requirements with the parents, youth and Pat, our elder. I’ll pivot now to walking the reader through the ceremony as it unfolded.
We started in the morning, with just the boys, at the Heart House. Over two years ago, when Chaise first joined the group, the boys had collected a huge pile of acorns, and Chaise had suggested that we could leech the tannins out of the acorns, mill them for flour and then bake something with them. Well, now was the time to fulfil that promise. We ended up baking muffins for the families, with a recipe provided by one of the lads. During this time, the lads wrote in the group journal, on the prompt “Saying goodbye to boyhood” and wrote out their threshold statements on manhood, in preparation of the ceremony.
After lunch, we headed over to the park, and prepared the ceremonial space. A brazier for the fire, the altar space and connecting them, the threshold, representing the boundary between childhood and adulthood. After the fire got going, Chaise pulled out a bag of charcoal, collected from our prior fire-place councils. We had shared many deep moments around the fire place; it was an important motif of our time together. We had worked with fire-making many times and often asked the question, “what inner fire are we tending to?” when reflecting on the people that we were trying to become. The bag of charcoal contained a physical connection to those fires and those times of questioning. We explained to the lads, that by ourselves, as just the group, we would have our own special part of the ceremony before the families came.
We would mark them with fire, using the charcoal, as a physical representation of the process they were undergoing and the ceremony we were just about to start. One by one, each of them came up for Chase, Pat and I, and we leaders and elder marked each of them with the charcoal. As I recall that moment, I pinch the charcoal between my thumb and index finger, crumbling it to draw long dark lines across the face of each strange creature that eagerly stood in front of me, initially starting with a few fresh canvases, and then adding to the marks already there from the other generations of mentors holding these boys close. As we marked the lads, we to, were marked by the moment as mentors.
Moments later, the families began gathering off to the side. The boys, marked as they now were, sat together of their own volition; holding their separateness from the families. The group had such a strong identity separate from their family identities. As leaders and elder, we had seen the secret lives of the group of youth and the group of parents, and this was the first time when all three elements were arriving to share a little of our collective secret lives. The boys were calm and reserved, already feeling into their reluctance to share about their secret lives with the parents. However, their excitement broke through when they spotted an unexpected guest; Jeff, who co-led the group with me when we first began. You could see the urge to break ranks, rush up to him and see him up close ripple through the boys but they held their formation. Chaise dashed off for a moment to ready himself and I confirmed that everyone had arrived. The air was full of anticipation. Chaise returned, we embraced, and I rang the bell to break that anticipation, inviting us into ceremony.
We ascended the stairs of the amphitheater, where at the top we could catch views of the bay and the bridge. I began with this the first part of the invocation:
Look below at this beautiful place, and this beautiful bay.
Down there in this city, across this bay, you have spent your boyhood.
Fourteen or fifteen years ago, you were born, your parents excited and amazed, doctors and nurses helping you make a start.
Down there you were a baby, a little toddler, loved and cared for, going to the park, the forest and the ocean. You played with friends, perhaps have brothers and sisters who were your companions.
You got older, went to kindergarten and school. You had relatives and family, friends, mates you played with. What you needed was provided. You had a place to live, clothes, and a bed. You were taken care of.
Down there you played games, had holidays, perhaps travelled to other places and returned. You played and learnt, laughed and cried, you grew up, grew stronger and smarter.
You lived your boyhood. Down there, out there, is your boyhood.
Think now, of all the people who helped you. Who fed you and healed you and taught you and cared for you. The homes that sheltered you, the family that loved you. The enemies and the friends you made. The sun that warmed you, the cold that you shivered in, the rain that came down.
Think of your boyhood, and all that went into it
Think of your parents, who may be here right now, or where-ever they might be, and all their dreams and hopes for you.
Then Chaise, positioned behind the boys, begun from another direction:
Your boyhood is now ending. Soon you will start to become a man.
The journey to manhood is more than just the time we have spent together. It is a long road but you will begin that road today.
Right now, you begin turning from boyhood to manhood. But first, this is a chance to say goodbye. Goodbye to being a boy. And goodbye begins with saying thank you.
So just in your mind, send a thank-you for the people down there in that city, or far away across the earth, wherever you have lived and grown, who loved you, and cared for you, in small ways and large, the places, the experiences, the films, books, music, all that human tradition gave you, that made your boyhood rich and good. Even the painful times - the hurts, the betrayals, the disappointments that made you who you are.
Begin to say goodbye to boyhood. Say thank you for your boyhood. Breathe deeply, and carry with you all these gifts into the next, new stage of life, a man’s life. Welcome to the journey of becoming a man.
The bell rung out once more, the tone carrying in the wind, and we invited the families to form two lines for a processional guard, through which the group would walk back down into the amphitheater. The youth, group members and their younger siblings, sat on the right side of the amphitheater. The adults sat on the left side, with the boundary between the two demarked by the threshold we had earlier built.
Pat, our elder, opened this part of the ceremony, with his story of the journey of the group. He spoke to the wildness of the group, its early difficult days, and his early doubts as to whether the group would ever drop into a space of openness and realness with one another. And, then reflecting on the sharp contrast to his experiences with the group in the last few months; the depth of sharing in council, the ability to hold both wild adventure and a deeper space of reflection. His spoke to his awe and admiration of witnessing the self-work that the boys had been engaging with over these years. Pat, as a Zen Buddhist, shared that the way in his Buddhist tradition of showing the deepest respect for someone’s process was to grace them with three full bows.
To watch Pat, with 73 years on him, prostrate himself three full times in front of the boys… Pat has shared with us several times about his reckoning with growing old and the lost of his energy and agility. There was something unspeakably profound to me to see him do this. The certain but strained movements, so well practiced but clearly impacted by the tolls of time. The peace of the moment, with only the lightest scraping of Pat’s shoes on the asphalt surface and the gentle rustling of leaves on the breeze. I feel a joyful and reverential grief welling in my chest as I think about it. Once more, the bell rang out across the amphitheater.
Chaise and I then spoke. To recognising the traditional peoples of the land, the Chochenyo Ohlone, who had no doubt practiced vital forms of initiation and rites of passage on these lands. To the place of this marking ceremony in the overall rite of passage we were participating in, as a important time to witness and note the transition and passage that has been the work of the group over these years. And we spoke to the gifts and what the group stones both represented.
We then began the meat of the ceremony. Seven times, we would pick a random bag from the bags of gifts (stuck conveniently together by the magnetic group stones). Each time it would start the same sequence: The youth would be called forward, presented in this way, to the ‘whole village’. The leaders would offer the gift, and share their reflections and witness statements. The group would be invited to share their reflections of the presented youth. Then the presented youth would be called to approach the threshold, and from the other side, his family would be invited to do the same. His family would then share their reflections and words, voiced across the threshold. The family would then take up the bowl of water and mirror, holding those up for the youth, supporting the youth as them ‘did the work’ to cleanse away the markings they had received. Finally, the youth was invited to drop the piece of paper with their first statement of manhood into the brazier, pause on the threshold as the bell rang out, and, once the tone of the bell had sounded out, cross over to the adult side.
Each time round was such a sweet treat. We would open the bag, pulling from it that youth’s special stone. We shared about why the stone evoked that boy to us. Its texture, the variation or pattern of its coloring, its ‘feel’, the feelings or thoughts it brought to us. And then Chaise and I would share our reflections. The openness to bettering oneself that we had seen in one youth. The cool composure of another youth. The leadership shown and demonstrated. The wildness and hilarious reality of another.
The group, initially begrudgingly, shared recollections of moments they had shared with the presented youth. As the ceremony progressed, one of the youth had clearly taken it upon himself to share about each and every one of the other boys, even standing to share before the group had been called upon to do so! Two or three members of the group would speak up, with some comic and loving moments, for each of the presented youth, before the bell would sound again and we would invite the parents and presented youth to the threshold.
And then so many endearing moments of parents sharing, with deep emotion and love. It is beautiful to just be able to sit back to witness such intimate love and gratitude shared within families. And to watch each of the lads, in their own ways, cross the threshold. Noticing how they held themselves. How they paused on the threshold, and where they looked, some looking forward to where they would be stepping into the adult world; some watching me with the bell, silently asking if it was time to cross and silently waiting for the bearest of nods or blink of my eyes. Seeing them step over the threshold, and walk away, each time with applause ringing across the amphitheater. Indelible moments in my memory. Seven times they were called forward, and seven times the bell rung as they crossed the threshold.
It was done. Chaise spoke, to note the difference in where folks were sitting at the start of the ceremony to where they were sitting now. Pat closed the ceremony, sharing the Poem “Rites of Passage” by Thom Gunn:
‘Something is taking place. Horns bud bright in my hair. My feet are turning hoof. And Father, see my face –Skin that was damp and far Is barklike and, feel, rough.
See Greytop how I shine. I rear, break loose, I neigh Snuffing the air, and harden Toward a completion, mine. And next I make my way Adventuring through your garden.
My play is earnest now. I canter to and fro. My blood, it is like light. Behind an almond bough, Horns gaudy with its snow, I wait live, out of sight.
All planned before my birth For you, Old Man, no other, Whom your groin’s trembling warns. I stamp upon the earth A message to my mother. And then I lower my horns.
And with that, we broke bread, and feasted as one.
Three years. The easiest recalled words from our Stepping Stones training, “Every group follows its own path”. The wild energy. Losing boys early on. Losing Jeff, my first co-lead, and gaining Chaise, the savior of the group. Losing Gerald. Learning about fire, getting lost, jumping off rocky cliffs into the wild river below, watching the fog consume the whole bay, nay, the whole world, at 1am on the top of Mt Tam, nights out in tents, under the stars. And my own initiation. An initiation into mentorship, responsibility and leadership. Of guiding youth, of facilitating council, of spanning the distance between the sacred and the profane. At times, dragging the group into happening by sheer force of will, against everything else pulling it apart. Feeling into the support of the community, of Pat, of my co-leads, my Cali-family and Chels when I felt spent.
It feels whole, to be marked by this process, a depth of contentment. I feel the tendrils of my future-thinking-mind, pulling me towards thoughts of what-needs-to-be-done-next and how-can-we-scale-this-for-others-to-benefit. But I like this place, this moment of contentment, so I think I will stay here for just a moment longer…
Please support the Stepping Stones Project if you can; The organization is in dire need of funding, to increase the number of groups it can manage, and to cover scholarships for families that don’t have the financial means to afford the program. I donate my time, roughly 150 hours a year, to the cause but many of my co-leaders do not have the luxury of that and they need to be paid. Please, if you can, donate or contribute.