Dancing All Three
Early on in my nine-year journey with Rite of Passage work, I recognized a clear connective theme. This realm draws in threshold dancers. By that, I mean people who move adeptly, and maybe even live largely, in the space between the worlds.
Specifically, I’m referring to Birth, Sexual Maturity, and Death. My own entry into this realm began as a childbirth assistant in my late 20s, where I would become, for a moment, part of the massive upheaval of energy that allows a new life to enter. The first birth I ever witnessed was actually in lambing school, in my first manifestation of life dreams as a farmer. With my new flock of Shetland Sheep at home, I decided to attend the Oregon State University Extension’s training on assisting ewes in the birth of their lambs. Lambing School.
I was, as I often have been, the youngest in the group. I was also, apparently, fresh in a number of other ways. New to my full-immersion life in the country. New to birth. After our classroom lectures, we all filed into the massive covered barn area where ewes were literally “dropping lambs” (as they called it) somewhere every few minutes. Our group of about eight tough and seasoned farm types was soon ushered over to a laboring ewe, about to bring her baby forth.
It was all very practical and the demonstration was designed as a teaching tool. Our instructor demonstrated the right moment to check on the presentation (Was that feet or a face? Was it head-first or back-first?). My impression was one of unnecessary interference. Yet, this was crucial information in the case that we might ever find ourselves needing to assist. We stood in a semi-circle and watched.
Awareness slowed and all concentrated energy was on the animal before us. She was so intently focused that she even seemed to tune us out, blatantly gawking as we were. She directed all of her life force into the task of the moment — and then — a whole new being! Slid forth and wrapped in holy film and fluid was suddenly there! I was moved to tears. The world looked instantly different. I caught my breath, slowly lifted my gaze, and found to my surprise that the semi-circle remained surprisingly unfazed by the power of what had just happened.
I also remember a chance meeting (after I’d gone on to assisting humans), with a woman at her home outside of Berkeley, California, where I practiced as a doula. I think I was buying a piece of used equipment or furniture through Craigslist. I perceived her to be friendly and very mainstream, with her crisp, professional skirt suit and heels, standing in her modern yet tastefully modest kitchen.
She asked casually what I did, and I mentioned the doula work. Then I watched this woman transform before my eyes. She, too, was a doula, she told me. As she spoke of it, her whole demeanor shifted. Her voice grew hushed with a mysterious and powerful undertone. Her body language was at once more relaxed and more lively. “You know, I find I walk through the world, and the little ones recognize me. They stop and look at you with this knowing gaze: ‘Ah, you’re a greeter’, they seem to say.”
I was stunned. Truly, they walk among us, and you never know. The Threshold Dancers. Those who witness the shifting of worlds at close hand naturally experience this reverence and awe. I started to see that those who move in liminal space regularly adopt a certain language and the recounting of the dance almost evokes the feeling of those otherworldly moments…
Last week, a friend died unexpectedly, though not surprisingly, from a rare cancer. He was my age: 39. Amidst devastating grief, sobbing, exhaustion, and re-stabilizing, I noticed the world carried a certain quality about it. The first morning after learning, I woke to the daze of awareness which recognizes that you can call someone one week, and the next week, they have gone on. It’s the awareness that is unique. That morning, I moved about my kitchen, looked out my window, and all colors were amplified. It was as if Larger Truth were a painter and all I beheld had been enhanced by her hand.
My awareness of the everyday world was also shifted. I saw the vast importance of how we are with one another reflected in minute interactions everywhere. That was it. Our power and our legacy. This is what we have. A young boy playing on his bike exuded pure child’s delight, and I imagined my friend as he must have been at that age. The boy literally shone, moving through this awareness field that accompanied me everywhere I went, for a number of days.
I felt, too, that my friend was not gone, but everywhere he had been. I had the distinct sensation that his goodness had permeated all of this place. So that when I tuned into him, I felt him all the more present. I imagined that some part of his soul masterfully knew what he was doing. He was here to pour his incredible beauty into as many places as possible, while he still had time. I felt a smile at his great success at the task.
It was as if the door between the worlds kept sliding open and closed as I periodically thought of him or touched my grief at the reality of his passing. A shimmering ripple would roll across the field and light this world ablaze for a moment, or many moments (there is no Time as we understand it there). That perception, from the ancient echoes of my heart, out to all I could see, would pulse, and maybe it was Larger Truth itself speaking so much more clearly now, that I could literally see it.
…until I caught up on sleep, and tears ran dry, and I could speak in peace about it.
This triad of Birth, Sexual Maturity, and Death, is always with me as I move through my life’s work. I’m often reminded of how we three core Board Members work in birth, puberty, and death. Culturally, it seems, we can acknowledge that we are born, and admit that we all must die. But somehow recognizing that third transition — the active awakening of our sexual selves — is optional. From where I sit, I often think, “At what cost?”
I have been a sexuality educator as long as I have run the organization. This nine-year road has had a rhythm all its own. There is a glorious expansive in-breath of growth, followed by a still and sobering drop to rest. It is the same rhythm that thrills to see one’s (a parent’s or a child’s) profound relief and gratitude at having their sexual selves acknowledged, and the subsequent frustration when reminded of the still-controversial fact that we are sexual beings. It is the joy of cultural change that embraces a new way — meeting the habitual recoil in embarrassment or shame which prefers to hide. Excitement to be part of taking us there, and the necessary patience to choose to walk with my culture as it slowly evolves. Breath In. Breath Out.
I do witness that same shifting awareness in my work with young people of puberty age. Only it is far subtler. It is a slow, gradual and unpredictable change. The way chapters in a book blend and evolve — they are not the beginning or the end of the story. Though they clearly mark a shift, one that can be traced almost more easily in reverse.
I see it in the ones I have the good fortune to know well. Their child’s face presents to the world one moment, and then suddenly – there’s the adolescent one! New selves slowly eclipsing old selves. I’ve heard parents of this age talk about the dizzying nature of the shift. They don’t know, one day to the next, which version of their child they will get to encounter that day. Is this not worthy of the same careful support we offer the beginnings and the ends?
The French call orgasm ‘petit mort’, meaning ‘little death’. I’m sure some have put the old puritanical spin on this translation. I see it differently. Because I’m aware of this triad as I guide young and old in sexuality education and puberty rites of passage, I am always remembering that place we all come from, and where we all go. If we are fortunate in this lifetime, to love well and live well in our bodies, we will touch this place in ecstatic moments through our sexuality.
This is why our sexuality, when experienced with the freedom of knowledge, reverence, and integrity, can so often heal. I do understand, ironically, this is also why it evokes such controversy. Everything powerful is exploited. When religion truly touches the sacred, some will seek to exploit that power for personal gain. When a new fad catches fire, some will inadvertently copy and ‘take’ in hopes of having some for themselves. Everything powerful is exploited.
This does not mean we accept or tolerate exploitation as a given? Not at all. It means we recognize that what holds power will attract and repel; it will evoke and provoke. Rites of Passage also hold this. We must have patience, with our culture and with ourselves. How we are with one another –– this is what we have. Our power and our legacy.
I often wonder where this segment of the Rite of Passage movement — puberty and sexual maturity rites — will be in 10 years, in 30 years, after I’m gone. I envision a time when we, as a culture, naturally embrace that we need set guides at sexual maturity as much as we do midwives and hospice workers. I hold that vision with love. May we dance, most reverently and joyfully, together through all three.