Thursday, 11 August 2011


So we in the UK are bearing witness to the inevitable: when you have a profound lack of elders, coherent rites-of-passage and lack of vision for its youth - the move from a culture to a society (at best) to survival. Our trance-obession with the Olympic games (odd mythic reference in all of this) has robbed funding for many small communities for centers and arts activities of any sort. So many festivals and centers that work with young people have been axed - including myth, poetry and storytelling.

An awful implication in much of the UK media coverage is that the world these folks are reacting against is somehow sane, or fair. It's not. It's already crazy, already an insult to the soul, already seemingly hopeless, already impossible to invest in. And when you are no longer invested - already flattened out by absolutely no prospects - then a riot seems an exciting place to be. Adrenalin, chaos, a brief flush of potential power before the deadening nothingness of your daily life returns. These scenes are mimics of the initiatory need to wrestle death (see below) - the thieving is a manifestation of a society utterly drained of chivalry, but it is not the root of the disquiet, the deepest motivation. And of course, who really gets damaged? the localised community, not the banking fat cats, but the exhausted Indian shop keeper, the mother on her way home from a twelve hour shift at the supermarket.

In terms of media is it easy to sideline the straight up fact that this is a spiritual crisis - before anything else. This is just a hint of a kind of climate change of the soul, an impoverishment of possibility. Meanwhile the bankers ruin continues, not one of them goes to prison, the old guard ride on, waving through the carriage window at the little people.

Guess what Mr. Cameron - working with youth long term involves more than just sports. More than running shoes, expensive stadiums and a career where you are retired at thirty. More than just horizontal, aspirational jargon. We have to move downwards into the intensity of our collective griefs before any thought of an upswing. I could go on with this, but it is a scene i'm sure most reading this understand only too well. We need to re-find a story with inspiration, depth, vocation and beauty. We appear to be living in a time where we are vigorously defended against having an experience of our own beauty - what does it really look like? So many like myself have worked with at-risk youth for years with local government and found our hands covered in red tape just when any real movement of the soul has seemed possible.

When beauty becomes indistinct, when any psychic compass has lost its truth north, then these scenes are no mystery, no mystery at all. That's part of me running around with the looters, part of us, face covered as we enter an archetype too powerful to control. This isn't a Goddess time, a Zeus time, but a Trickster moment. But where Trickster abides, weird luck is possible. If you have the eyes to see it.

Tariq Jahan, the father of one of three killed in a hit and run defending their communities from looters, delivered a strong and incredibly non-judgemental eulogy for both his beautiful son and a call for peace. Inspirational and some real eldership in a moment like this.

A Conference with Soul and Heat:

So with the Minnesota Mens Conference approaching from the 13th-18th September - 'When the Waters Rise: Men and the Work of Renewal' this is a personal call to any men involved with community or youth work to seriously considering attending and lending their voice to the conversation. Go to TODAY and get involved. The issues that instigated what has come to be called men's work are at the very center of why England (and many other parts of the world) are in huge crisis. This is a conference that will be directly addressing the huge upswell of pain and confusion many of us feel - of any age.

Anyone who knows me will know my huge respect and involvement with women that are doing similar work. I think this will be a crucial conference and if you are sitting in a sofa nuzzling a brew considering attending then please don't be so passive, get off your lardy ass and step up. We need you. This is a moment to seize.

There will be contributions by Robert Bly, Malidoma Some, John Lee, Daniel Deardorff and many others. The food is good, sauna hot, lake cool, forest with the occasional bear, and a 100 of the most interesting men you could hope to meet.

Here is an excerpt from my new book 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree' - looking at the roots of rites of passage and some personal experience of working with youth. If it is useful then please forward on to other folks, groups and communities. These are times that are calling out for the best and most ingenious (interesting word) in all of us.

When the Wild becomes Feral

We understand that some sort of devotional life has existed between humans and animals and landscape for millennia. From an indigenous perspective, neglect of ritual forms creates a kind of chaotic sickness or malaise that invokes a very real sense of dislocation from the wider community. These ritual forms are the secret history of the world: they are medicine. To face the world without them is to walk naked into a blizzard, to enter a desert without water.

If, as a young person, you were not absolutely clear what the full breadth of the word community meant, the chances are you may think nothing of trashing it.

There was a time when the link between animals, humans, and the land was fluid, magical. The perception of community would extend out, both into the landscape and through the stories seeping up from the burial grounds of your ancestors. The swift raven, the sharpened axe, the soft hairs on a mouse’s belly, all were interconnected if you looked long enough. The anchors of story, ceremony, and hard living kept you held in this awareness.

At a certain point in your development, normally around fourteen, this perception would take on an even deeper reality as you were removed from your domestic concerns, village ties, and family and taken out into the lonely open spaces or deep forests. Just at a time when the youth thinks they have seen all the adults have to offer they are catapulted out of what is familiar and into “the world turned upside down,” the initiatory zone.

As a young man, the only conscious initiations I or any of my friends experienced involved proving ourselves in playground fights, boasting outrageously, and pretending we’d had sex when we hadn’t. We would make dens out in the woods behind the estate, occasionally visited by girls, and we would all take pride in our ramshackle shelter. It felt vital to have a place built by hand, away from the concrete. Rain would sluice through the ceiling of branches and twigs and we’d sit there with blunt pen knives whittling spears in anticipation of the elders who never came. Some instinctive soulfulness was at play, and in our own way we cultivated it.

The stories were invented rather than handed down, but came through time in that small area, getting scarred knees, covered in soil and listening to the ghostly sound of wind in the trees. Girls were intensely mysterious to us, and made our throats hurt and our faces hot if we met one we liked. We knew they had their own hideouts in the woods, but we were rarely invited. Something was hidden in their camps that had to do with the moon, long grass, and their contrary nature of which we could only speculate. We were wild pagan kings, green wood bandits, mad for life and drunk on adventure.

As we move from childhood we experience a kind of leap. We know that at adolescence, the average male has up to thirty times the normal amount of testosterone coursing through a body struggling to catch up. He glimpses somewhere up ahead the capacity to bear greater responsibility, have children, to contribute to a wider community, but rarely achieves this gracefully. This second jump has always been complex, and its innate vulnerability has required the birthing canal of initiation to anchor the individual into their new, wider role.

In my own life it was a time of intense questioning and profound difficulty. Flailing about, my friends and I took risks, climbed drunk up the sides of tall buildings, fell in love with unobtainable girls, got beaten up, all the good stuff. We were expanding, stretching our wingspan in rooms that now felt too small. Furniture was always going to break. We were moving through a gateway, but the doorkeepers and the world they represented seemed grey, repressed, and bloated. Where is the mystery in going straight from school to college to job to mortgage? What wider perspective, what beauty cuts through that ghastly procession and makes you howl with the joy of being alive?

Waves not Caught

So we see a huge momentum entering at this stage, but a complexity in how to handle this great surge. If nothing is presented to the youth at that crucial stage, if no Arthur, no White Buffalo Women, no Elder appears, then the energy loses focus, eats disappointment and becomes self-centered, because the world it’s heading towards seems dulled or greedy. Mythology, as we will see, helps us into adulthood by showing us a picture wider than our own self-absorption. It’s as if adolescence is a moment when a wave is higher than usual, when some power makes it crest, peak at a point where far off views are seen, other vistas, not just the churning sea. Dreams are more vivid, possibilities endless. A healthy community catches that moment, and allows a container both for its power and impact as the wave crashes down again. Initiation matches the upsurge of energy by offering something of equal magnitude, a sense of appointment in life.

The sobriety of this mishandling means that the wild parts of us become segregated, marginalized, or only appear when we’re drunk. Wild consciousness gets limited to an AC/DC record, a survival skills workshop, a one-night stand. Rock’n’Roll holds that wildness for many of us: I love it myself, but its obsession with youth points towards boys and girls who remain uninitiated, whose perception of wildness cannot grow with time. It becomes a frozen moment, fondly enjoyed, but as unacceptable in your “grown up” life as a wolf in kindergarten.

The job of the elder is to be nuttier, more curious, occasionally fierce and more connected to the eccentricities of wildness than the youth ever dreamed. More than anything, the elder has seen some rough pattern to their life and knows how to express it through a story. This carries tremendous hope with it.

Wrestling Death
There is a fear of death in continually idolizing youth, but it quietly and continually moves through our community regardless. Part of that heroic teenage expansion lies in drawing close to the winged stranger, seeing that one day, possibly soon, there will be an end to all this. Every ram-raider, every teenage life-threatening prank is an unconscious, archaic desire to come close to that dark wind. By the third or fourth day without food on the mountain, you start to hear death shuffling around through the trees. Initiation creates a boundaried opportunity to step nearer the kingdom of death and be called back to the living by the singing voices of the elders.

Traditional wisdom holds that death requires a kind of courting in much the same way you’d court a new love. You send her gifts, whittle a cord of ornate words to hopefully, possibly, land in a gleaming bouquet at her feet. This is a form of archaic gambling, to construct strange little dances to honor her, never to ignore her.

Youths are meant to wrestle death in constant, boundaried endeavors that help the sun rise one more day. That great wrestling is the one of several secretive reasons our world keeps turning. Death finds it charming. The Great Raven Woman appreciates panache. She is a constant companion, and sends you little vibrations every day in the form of miniscule endings. She is entwined with and in love with life. She adds poignancy to endless summer days, also tapping her cane when you think this grief/joy will last forever. They say she has the kindest eyes and is always immaculately dressed.

All she asks in return is a little acknowledgement, a little style and affection in how you address her. The initiation of wilderness is a clear wave in her direction, a leaving of golden apples at her feet, of sewing her claw marks into the hem of your dress. It opens a dialogue that should inform the rest of our lives, rather than meeting her all at once, rather abruptly, at the end.

In my own work with at-risk teenagers, I have met many adolescents who grew up with no father in the mix. Sometimes, due to their brutality, it was just as well they were out of the picture. Part of my job was to scour housing estates, older brother’s crack dens, arcades, and bars to locate them when they failed to turn up for an appointment and convince them to get in the car without any kind of physical altercation.

On two occasions I saw one of them climb out of a second floor bedroom and jump rather than engage with me. Another time, one pulled the end of the car gear stick at sixty miles an hour in an attempt to off-road the vehicle (it almost worked). Another climbed out on a ledge over a raging river and threatened to leap if I asked about his father again. Most of these young ones seemed to fill the space of absence with two very different feelings about the father.

To some, the father became heroic, above the squalor they endured, clever to have escaped, even if that was to prison. With every personal misery they were suffering, the dream myth of life with the father was amplified. Once in awhile, the father, usually so as to apply for more government benefits, would offer them a weekend in Birmingham or wherever he happened to be. A temporary glow would come over the youth, only to be frozen into contempt upon returning to the over- worked mother, livid boyfriend, turbulent home, alcoholic uncle. It’s a different context, but I think of Fran Quinn’s words:

I love you so much I will hold onto anything, even your dark and angry face

The other road taken was denial of the father, loss or fear articulated as rage, perceiving him only as a monster. Either of these roads is thin and lacks balance, but that can be hard to grasp in the suffering trance they’re caught in. That thin road—he/she’s like THIS, and only THIS—can enable emotional movement but lacks soul. In an environment that refuses the necessary reflection, we scurry for ways to transcend the absence. We can ride that animosity or fantasy for decades, and let it infiltrate our lives in a hundred different ways.

The Ritual Cut or a Perilous Wound
Adolescents already possess a defined sense of mythology, although they don’t verbalize it as such. As with Baba’s children, whom I discussed in chapter two, in the absence of ritualized forms, adolescents’ initiatory route takes a kind of shadow form. The trauma they experience instigates change but not necessarily growth. It’s not that these young people lack identity; they have defined, handed-down archetypes from their life experience, environment, and family. They are often more established in their sense of themselves than some of the more affluent teenagers I sometimes work with.

Jake, a fourteen-year old, had an unshakable sense of his own identity as hell-raiser, sex offender, and bully. Caught in an almost hypnotic desire for his underworld experience, e.g., Prison, he would often be found stealing cars the same afternoon he had been in court after yet another warning. For Jake, prison was the river he had to cross to become a man like his father, to bear the same tribal scars. The street mythology was more authoritative than anything society could throw into the situation to calm it. If you’ve been raised by wolves, why would you listen to an old English sheepdog? Despite everything attempted to stop him, Jake escalated his misdemeanors until he was sent down.

Street perception of people and situations involves tremendous subtlety. You have to bring a kind of “edge-seeing” into every situation, read body language, act instantly, know how to bluff and spot weakness, and get what you want. Forcing youth to the periphery of society, it creates the necessity of the intuitive. Opportunity lies in grasping it. I’ve always been interested how at- risk youth can often grasp the underbelly of a story quickly, the hidden motivations behind the characters actions. The edginess of their position means that they are often looking into situations while simultaneously watching their own back, learning to look both ways.

They are Baba Yaga's children, accelerated into experiences they are too young for and lack the blessing and support of elders to make sense/soul from. But even in the shadowy world they inhabit, we see Yaga’s intelligence at play, the survival drive, the canniness, the desire for initiatory experience.

They get it, but in ways that take them too far into the burning grounds, so that a ritual cut becomes a perilous wound for which they lack the salve that would clean it from infection. That ritual cut is meant to be flooded with the mythic imagination. As the skin heals underneath, a hundred bright images from the myth–world scurry into their blood stream. Without it, the wound congeals and we fall into disappointment.

I discussed this situation with a Crow Elder, who suddenly turned to me and said, “That (the at-risk teenagers) is where we find our leaders!” He recognized what was crying out underneath the masks and made it his work to find it, honor it, and inspire its bearer towards leadership in the community. Such youths see the shit of the world because they have had it rubbed in their eyes from the moment they could crawl.

Much has been written about the need for reintroduced rites of passage for such individuals. In my own experience, hours or afternoons in their company weren’t enough. A walk or a story wasn’t enough. What was needed (and rarely happened with so much health and safety red tape) was a complete removal of everything that was familiar to them, in order to walk the real initiatory road. Estate, gone. Drugs, cars, and status, gone. Family, gone. They needed the Uncles with the Clay masks, ropes, and blindfolds. The Aunts that lead them into the red center of the Women’s Hut.

Some strong, serious ritual act needs to come in, to alert the soul that something real is happening. The poet Timothy Young, experienced in this area, says that if you teach boys to hunt with skill and respect, some energy enters them that hones their natural ferocity into something grander and more useful.

Geoffrey Canada describes running a martial arts evening in Harlem. Does he go in as lamb, or as a therapist? No, he goes in as a lion. Pacing up and down, he draws the attention towards himself and the work, towards activity, and for a moment the lure of the streets is dimmer.

I’m trying to bring magic into the lives of these kids. To bring a sense of wonder and amazement. I can feel the students losing themselves and focusing on me. I have crowded all the bad things out of their minds: The test they failed, the father who won’t come by to see them, the dinner that won’t be on the stove when they get home. I’ve pushed it all away by force of will and magic.4

So we follow the archaic clues: severance from the estate, district, gang connections, sexual partners, and drugs, and follow the thin trail towards possibility and challenge. This is a true Rebel move. The marks of street life are still consensual, preordained in their way, but the way of the Mountain is unique and uncertain.

The initial response to that kind of uncertainty is anger, and many at- tempts to escape from the program. Over the years we have found youths trying to hitch their way out of Snowdonia, ducking in the amusement arcades when they were meant to be fasting, with much smuggling of Class A drugs in their rucksack. When the dust had settled, however, and no way home was apparent, slowly they began to gather round the nightly campfires. When they began to realize the intensity of the rite-of-passage they were undertaking, and the fact that it didn’t seem completely “safe,” they began to see it as a challenge, one they’d have to raise their game to get through.

These “terrors of the streets” often turned out to be scared of the dark, petrified by wild animals, rigid with fear at the thought of encountering a spirit. This was a new set of obstacles, different from those they were used to. As the days progressed and their defenses dropped, they started to look like children again. Suddenly we adults were the only ones with any information about the road they had elected to take. Separated from peers and intoxicants, often going through drug with- drawal symptoms, they started, slowly, to see the characters of the myths we told as being like them, standing at the edge of the unknown. They saw they were stepping into a life of uncertainty, odds seemingly stacked against them.

Those first few days on the mountain, getting ready to go out, it all felt like bullshit. But when I couldn’t get a fix and we knew we were into something serious, I started to listen to the stories we were hearing at night, all bears and wastelands and stuff. The dark up there was worse than the streets, terrible man, it felt like it had been there forever. If I’d known how it would be out there alone I would have run away.

John, rite of passage participant

Martin Shaw Copyright 2011


Unknown said...

With you all the way, Martin. Time I got off my arse and got involved again. Once again, you articulate what I'm too lazy to put into words. Thank you for doing it.

Lunar Hine said...

Thank you. I've seen a little of both sides - some running wild and some teaching a step on the good red road. Maybe I have more to say...

A mermaid in the attic said...

Hi Martin, found you via Rima's Tweet. Everything you've said puts into words beautifully and eloquently things I've felt for a long time but couldn't quite articulate. We create smaller and smaller boxes for teenagers (metaphorically and literally too, with the kind of housing being built and lack of access to wild spaces these days), and then we are surprised when they smash the walls trying to get out. We have to do better.