I guess this is growing up
On the need for rites of passage.
At age 38, I finally became an adult.
It happened in a rite of passage I didn’t know was coming until it was almost upon me, on the way to a ceremony I was invited to by a new queer family member. It was an intimate group, guided by synchronicity from the get-go. I knew that a past part of myself was going to move into the present that day, but I couldn’t have predicted the transformation: I finally graduated from the work I began in the jungle, and moved into the second half of life.
Or at least closer to it: psychologists and philosophers describe life as a two-act structure, but some Native American cosmologies divide it into quarters and smaller, corresponding with cardinal directions and the cycles of the moon: five Big Moons of 27 years, and nine Little Moons of three. Each represents a different growth phase, bringing its own lessons—and according to this framework, you’re a kid until age 27 and an adolescent until true adulthood begins at age 54; at 81, you enter the realm of the elders until age 108, if you make it that long.
During the Child Moon, we’re still building our personal mythology, what the Global North calls the ego: the story about who we are and our place in the world. This can be a story that heals or traps us, depending on what version we tell. During the Adolescent Moon, we examine that story, and must undergo some kind of initiation process to confront the shadows in our life and myth; take responsibility for our feelings and actions; and distinguish illusion from truth. If we don’t, we stay stuck in the consciousness of the child.
We don’t have real coming-of-age rituals in the Global North, the kind that truly signify something ending and another beginning. In global cultures that have maintained connections to Indigenous and ancient roots, all youth go through such rituals around puberty, marking passage from carefree youth into the world of adults.
These initiations involve the young person getting themselves through a difficult experience using their own skills, guided by the elders and ancestors; learning that they can take care of themselves, yet are never alone. They go through altered states, from isolation in the wild to consuming psychoactive plants, that trigger a dark night of the soul where they must resource themselves to find the light. And they return to the community transformed, greeted with new, adult responsibilities; perhaps even to a new home, role, or name.
Ancient mystery schools sent initiates through similar, even more intense rituals, accompanied by deep studies of ancestral texts and teachings and developing a dedicated practice of prayers, rituals, exercises, ceremonies. This could include anything from meditation and mantra to yoga and martial arts, strict dietary guidelines and fasting, and cultivating relationships with the spirits of plants, fungi, animals, minerals, and other beings. The gateway to these rituals was psychedelic in nature, though that could look a lot of different ways, and it always involved sound: intonation inside sacred chambers like the pyramids where the stone may have conducted transformational frequencies; groups dancing to induce a trancelike state; singing cyclical mantras, bhajans, and kirtans; creating mandalas, visual representations of songs; or descending together into the underworld to consume a powerful psychedelic beverage.
The point of it all is to sever the connection to the phase you were in and transcend to a higher plane, stepping toward a role that involves bringing greater wisdom and leadership back to the group. Humans are social creatures, patterned by habit. Our selves, like our societies, are complex things arising from the simple, given the right conditions. When supported by our environment, we thrive and blossom into something complex and beautiful; in a nutrient-poor or toxic culture, we wither and die, just like any living thing.
Without an initiatory experience to move us from one phase of life to the next, many in the Global North remain trapped in perpetual adolescence, fostered by environmental factors like skyrocketing inflation, gentrification, and out-of-control rents in nearly every major city from L.A. to London that drive people further from the core—fueling the problem by causing many to live with their parents or in isolated places, cut off from support networks that could help them self-resource. Without the emotional transformation, even those who achieve material success often continue to play out stuck patterns marked by impulsiveness, indecisiveness, avarice, and greed, fueled by a consumer culture that promises you just haven’t found the right product yet.
The situation is especially dire for queer and gender-expansive people. Many are disconnected from families of origin, relying as our lifeline on networks of chosen kin. Separation from these people and safe areas where we can find our own can be catastrophic, even life-threatening, for communities already suffering disproportionate suicide rates. And the legacy of repression that forced so many into the shadows has left us with no clear culture of queer elders to guide us.
Puberty is hard enough for any human, but can be particularly confusing and even devastating for many of us gender-expansive folks. Even if we had a coming-of-age ritual to hold us, what would we be moving into, with our true selves unseen? The day I got my period was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life, and not just because of the gore, splattered thick and red-brown like some kind of monster, when I spread my legs in the aluminum stall of my middle-school bathroom at age 12. Everything in my body rejected the experience of forced binary biology, and I thought I was crazy for feeling and reacting this way, only reinforced by everything and everyone around me. How did these other girls walk around proudly with their sports bras and tampons, as if life had just kept moving forward?
None of it made any sense until more than two decades later, when I started working with the fungi that reconnected me to myself. I’ve made huge strides and realizations supported by plants and queer family, but I’ve had to dart like a crazed animal all over the world to find them, cobbling together a practice and belief and support system made of a million little pieces of traditions, teachings, medicines, and ceremonies that stretch back and forward through geography and time. And still, there are only tenuous connections between them, and I have no elders to guide me; I’m only now beginning to connect with teachers and leaders, and they’ve all been peers, often younger than me.
But it’s happening, slowly, and 11 years after my Child Moon ended, I finally had my initiation day. We took the sacrament, and the spirits of the ancestors, plants and people and animals and minerals, came forth to hold me—and helped me cut the cord.
I was still connected to the mother, I hadn’t let go, and it was the most painful experience of my life when I finally snipped the psychic scissors. Yet it revealed to me something truly beautiful: I had already been through the initiation, the ritual had been going this whole time—it just hadn’t ever been acknowledged, celebrated, and released. The child self was stuck in limbo, that both-between space, not quite kid and not yet grown. So of course I was always trying to do and be and say and eat and drink everything all at once, of course I was richocheting across the globe like a pinball, of course I didn’t know what my body wanted and needed or how to start the next phase.
Nobody ever showed me. And that’s all any of us really need: someone to return us to ourselves; to remind us that our body and soul already know, if we get quiet enough to listen. And it came to me through the souls of ancestors unseen, but fully felt, who gave me a song to guide me: the song of my soul. They said it was the song I’d sung through all of my incarnations, they just couldn’t release it until the ritual was complete. So I whistled the tune as they walked me through all the hard things I’d already done, showing me I had the magic in me the whole time.
I whistled the tune as they walked me through all the hard things I’d already done; as they showed me to tap into the energy of things like food, drink, and other people without having to use my physical body. They showed me how to give reverence and respect for all the medicines and teachers, but especially the one within. And any time I got stuck throughout the process, a kind human would appear in the room to provide exactly what I needed to push through: a puff of mapacho (sacred tobacco) smoke, a softly tinkling rainstick, the right song on the playlist, or just a presence at my side.
When I finally emerged on the upper deck, my new friends were sprawled out on the patio below, and they greeted me with the name I’ve quietly been trying on. They saw and held me as the person I am ready to start becoming: the grown-up who will still dance; the queer person whose body resists definition; an adult who can finally live free.
It doesn’t mean things will be easy now; on the contrary, there’s lots of hard work and responsibility ahead. But something has fundamentally shifted. These experiences are our birthright, and I’m committed to building a world where everyone gets the chance to grow up.
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