“I received a letter containing an account of a recent suicide: ‘My friend jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge two months ago. She had been terribly depressed for years. There was no help for her. None that she could find that was sufficient. She was trying to get from one phase of her life to another, and couldn’t make it. She had been terribly wounded as a child. Her wound could not be healed. She destroyed herself.’ The letter had already asked, ‘How does a human pass through youth to maturity without breaking down?’ And it had answered, ‘help from tradition, through ceremonies and rituals, rites of passage at the most difficult stages’.”
—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
My name is Kedar Brown. I was born in Savannah, Georgia on February 21st, 1960. During the first seven years of my life, I grew up just over the bridge from the small town of Thunderbolt on Wilmington Island. My back yard; “the bluff” we called it as kids or rather my mother did when she would warn us; “stay away from the bluff.“ It descended into the tidal creeks that adjoined our back yard.
I learned to swim before I can remember. My early childhood was alive with the smell of saltwater marsh, earthy woodlands, shrimp boats and adventure. The bluff with its live oaks, low hanging Spanish moss, and the dry oyster bed at the base of an old black walnut tree by the water’s edge had a magical allure. It was etched into my psyche by my mother’s warnings and some ancient calling, residue of DNA from a more wild, indigenous self… a call to the edge, to initiation, set to awaken at a later time in my life.
The progression of our day-to-day lives and the initiatory passage of our lives are like rivers flowing side by side in opposite directions. One is moving in this world of ordinary reality and the other moving in a parallel world with a magical current from an unseen source springing forth from a darker, richer, fertile ground some distance into the “west.”
Embedded in our mythological consciousness is a narrative waiting to awaken and we too, as in the old Native American story of “Jumping Mouse,” will hear the roaring of the sacred river calling our name.
…But there was that roaring again. It was faint, very faint, but it was there! One day, he decided to investigate the sound just a little. Leaving the other busy mice, he scurried a little way away and listened again. There it was! He was listening hard when suddenly someone said; ‘Hello. Hello, little brother,’ the voice said, and Mouse almost jumped right out of his skin. He arched his back and tail and was about to run. ‘Hello,’ again said the voice. ‘It is I, Brother Raccoon.’ And sure enough, it was! ‘What are you doing here all by yourself, Little Brother?’ asked Raccoon. Mouse blushed and put his nose almost to the ground. ‘I hear a roaring in my ears and I am investigating it,’ he answered timidly. ‘A roaring in your ears?’ replied Raccoon as he sat down with him.
‘What you hear, little Brother, is the River.’ ‘The river?’ Mouse asked curiously. ‘What is a River?’ ‘Walk with me and I will show you the river,’ Raccoon said. “
–Hyemeyohsts Storm, Seven Arrows
Most generally think of their lives (at least in this one lifetime) as beginning with a birth and ending with a death. However, it is the initiatory passages of our lives or periods of the soul’s decent into the deep well of dark waters where we find ourselves being allured across uncertain thresholds by a mysterious gravitational energy unconcerned with the comforts of a life we have out grown into a new way of belonging in the world. These waters run opposite the flow of life in that they begin with a death and end with a birth. Such is the way of initiation.
The Challenge of a Good Life
My friend and teacher, Malidoma Somé, West African elder and shaman of the Dagara people, shared a story with me about a man who lived in his village. Late one night this man was sleeping in his thatch-roof hut when he was awakened by the smell of the unknown. When he opened his eyes, he saw the figure of Death sitting on the ground beside him. The man was terrified. He got up and ran out of his hut into the night. He ran and ran and ran deeper into the night until he came to the next village. He paused for a moment and after considering his situation he decided, this is not far enough. With that thought he took off running deeper and deeper into the night. He ran and ran and ran until he came to the next village. Feeling very exhausted he collapsed into sleep and after only a few minutes his body jolted awake and, realizing the situation, again he got up and began to run. He ran and ran and ran into the darkest, quietest, stillest part of the night until he came to the furthest village outpost at the banks of a great river. This time he collapsed right where he stood from complete exhaustion and fear. Sometime after sunrise he was awoken again by the smell of the unknown. When he opened his eyes, there was Death sitting there on the ground beside him. His pupils, wide as saucers, were looking at Death looking back at him and Death spoke; “I came to see you way back there in the first village to tell you I would meet you here.”
To have a good death is to have lived a full and beautiful life; not because you did not have your share of challenges or sometimes made wrong decisions but in spite of them. Do not be afraid of death. Be afraid of the unlived life. You do not need to live forever, just live well and love well.
Most great visions and subsequent journeys begin with darkness and great loss. In the same way we plant seeds in the dark of the new moon, the old Celtic marking of the new day began and ended with sunset, and the new year was once ritualized at the eve of the darkest nights, following the end the harvest and preceding winter at Samhain.
These periods of darkness or challenge serve as a calling, a kind of gate-keeper at the threshold. Something wants to die and as in the Wendell Berry quote above, without the wisdom of initiated elders and the old ceremonies and rituals to guide one across these great divides many will misinterpret the calling and not make it across. To navigate more clearly and cleanly across these thresholds we must learn to read these challenging passages of our lives as part of our personal mythology rather than the collective mythology of “isms” (e.g. consumerism, sexism, materialism, lookism etc.) with a belonging and identity often devoid of spiritual ground
The Call of Your Name
Carl G. Jung, and more recently Joanna Macy, reminds us, “There is one great question that runs like a thread through everyone’s life and you are fortunate if you can find it.”
It is the life that we cultivate each day, by the stories we tell ourselves and the way we live our lives following these great disruptions, that will lead to the crafting of character and a true elder, or simply just an older version of the younger uninitiated self, still in search of the holy grail or even worse—one who simply refused the call.
“In the depths of the soul, anyone’s soul, there is a desire for Initiation. Initiation means one thing dies and another comes to life.”
~ Michael Mead
Some years ago, as a wilderness therapist, I was working with a seventeen-year-old. The reason he was sitting in front of me deep in the woods at this wilderness rehab center for teenagers is this. He grew up in a village in South Africa until he was eight years old. At that time he moved to a major metropolitan city here in the United States. He found his belonging through drugs, alcohol, and gangs; a shadow form of modern society’s rites of passage for youth. Knowing something of the customs of indigenous tribal communities, I asked him what he remembered about his time in the village. He told me a story about going to live with his grandmother at a young age for the purpose of receiving a name, a name different than his given birth name. I asked if he could remember it and write it down for me. He wrote out a very long name in his native language. When asked what it said, he spoke about elements and nature and animals. At that moment he stared off into the forest and said, “You know, the last thing my grandmother said to me before I left was, ‘Follow your name’.”
I often hear people speak of medicine names that they have given themselves or received following some form of initiatory rite of passage. Sometimes they wear it as a badge of identity or authority. Such names received following initiatory encounters are a directional beacon, calling one into a life to which they belong; a name that may be initially spoken with some uncertainty or even trepidation at the responsibility to the vision it holds. These names are like breadcrumbs on the trail; not simply a refection of who we are at that moment but more importantly where we are going.
I wrote the following poem in remembrance of that young man. My prayer for you reading this right now is that the name you carry, be one that carries you across a lifetime of depth and purpose; a name that leaves a story behind you that serves as a blessing to your future generations.
Follow Your Name
Pay attention… pay attention
Be careful not to distract yourself
By focusing on the obstacles in your life
Focus on the delivery of your medicine
Not on the stories in your head
Where you recount your limitations and loss
Do not indulge in such self-importance
As a way to avoid taking responsibility
For your medicine and
The gift of healing you came here to offer.
You are the heroes and heroines of your own story.
If you are not initiated into the bone memory,
Into the mythology of your own life
You will likely be living an existence
That is not entirely your own.
The life you know you must live
Is the one standing just a few paces in front of you
Looking back over its shoulder with eyes wide,
Waiting for you to remember.
Apprentice yourself to yourself
Follow this trail to the horizon of your own vision,
The place where you live in the absence of story;
The place where the sharp edges of this unfolding moment
Demands your full attention.
Where are you?….. I am Here!
Who are you?….. I am this Moment!
Pay attention… pay attention…
Do not show up in the world in such a way
That others give you name
You have no belonging too.
I would like to end this article by telling you this story. The original bare bones of this story were told to me by Steven Foster and Meredith Little, pioneers in reintroducing rites of passage back into modern culture. The story arrived on their doorstep by way of an anonymous Native American storyteller. As a storyteller myself, I have put a fair amount of meat on those original bleached white bones; however, the story plot-line remains the same.
Before, I tell you this story, it’s important to know that the point of a good medicine story is not that it be understood; for if a story is completely understood, it is considered dead and has nothing more to teach you. Stories are living and breathing entities. The point of any good story is to notice where your attention enters the story for the first time, or where your attention stays fixed in the story even though the story moves forward; or where your attention leaves the story and where it travels to after that. It is at these thresholds moments in a story that you will find the coded messages for your own clarity and healing.
So… as they say, “Once upon a time” or “Once below a time;” or “Once standing next to what you think is time”… there was a village. In that village there stood a circle of warriors standing shoulder to shoulder facing outwards around a lodge. Within that lodge there was a circle of grandmothers facing inward, and within that circle of grandmothers there was a woman bringing new life into her village.
As this little one made its passage into the village from the world of the Ancestors, sounds of chanting, singing, deep breathing, screaming, drumming, rattling and prayers of gratitude to the Ancestors were heard pouring forth from inside the lodge… in the way that chanting, singing, deep breathing, screaming, drumming, rattling and prayers of gratitude to the Ancestors were often heard when a woman was bringing new life into her village. As lightning touched the earth, the cries of this new one could be heard in the circle.
This boy child grew up in the village sitting around council fires late into the night, listening to stories from the elders. He heard many stories of a time in the village when there was much laughter, ceremony and ritual, respect, singing, feasting, dancing, deep connection to the Ancestors, and gratitude among the people. The old one’s spoke of this time with a tearful longing in their eyes as the time of the “Singing Stone.”
As one moon crossed over into the next, the boy noticed a dark cloud had descended upon the village. And with this dark cloud people began to forget who they were, where they had come from, and why they were here. Most of them could no longer hear the guiding voices of their Ancestors echoing deep within their bones. The anguish of this forgetting had shadowed itself among the people and there was much fear anger and sadness.
As this boy grew to that place of betwixt and between… no longer a child and not yet an adult… he decided that if he could find this Singing Stone that his elders spoke of and return it to her village, the sun would again shine and the sounds of laughter, singing, dancing, ceremony and ritual, respect, gratitude and connection to the Ancestors and the natural world would once again be alive in the village.
So, he went to his grandmother and grandfather and said; “Grandmother, Grandfather, I will go in search of this Singing Stone and return it to our people so they will once again remember who they are, their connection to the Ancestors and the entire web of life.”
They replied, “Yes Grandson, it is time for you to go. You must first go to your mother and ask for her blessing and then go to your father and ask for his blessing. After you have done this return here to this fire.”
So he went to his mother’s lodge and received her mother’s blessing for the journey. With that blessing his mother gifted him with one finely crafted bow. As the boy walked from her mother’s lodge he heard weeping for his mother knew she would never ever see this child again.
He then he went to his father’s lodge and received his father’s blessing for the journey. With this blessing his father gifted him with one finely crafted arrow. As the boy walked from his father’s lodge he heard weeping for his father knew he would never ever see his child again.
He returned to his Grandmother and Grandfather’s lodge saying, “I have done as you have asked.” They replied, “Before the sun rises and anyone awakens, you will leave this village into the east. Do not look back for there will be no fanfare for your departure. Remember to listen to your own deep wisdom and that of your Ancestors that echoes through the trees and down these rivers and you will find your way.”
Before first light he walked out of the village into the east the way you walk out of a village when you are going on a great journey to remember something long forgotten. He walked into the east, into the morning sunlight, into the wet dew on the ground, into the clear, cool, crisp air of spring. Walking some distance into the east, he came upon Eagle standing in an old Oak.
“Eagle can you tell me where I can find this Singing Stone I have heard my elders speak of?” he asked. Eagle replied, “Grandson, I have heard of this one you search for. However, it is not here and I cannot tell you where to find it. But I will tell you this. We have been watching you and we believe in you, and in listening to the wisdom that moves through these forests and down these rivers, you may find something out here. I suggest you travel south and see what is there for you.” Thanking Eagle for the guidance, he turned south.
Far into the south he walked, into the fire of midday sun, into warm southern winds, into dark green vegetation of summer. Walking some distance into the south, he came upon Snake sunning on a large stone. “Snake can you tell me where I can find this singing stone I have heard my elders speak of?” he asked. Snake replied, “Grandson, I have heard of this one you search for. However, it is not here and I cannot tell you where to find it. But I will tell you this. We have been watching you and we believe in you and in listening to the wisdom that moves through these forests and down these rivers, you may find something out here. I suggest you travel west and see what is there for you.” Thanking Snake for his words, he turned west.
Far into the west he walked, into the setting sun, into autumn leaves, bright colors on the ground and overhead, into the evening mist. Walking some distance into the west, he came upon Bear standing by the waters of an ancient holy well. “Can you tell me where I can find this Singing Stone I have heard my grandmothers speak of?” he asked. Bear replied, “Grandson, I have heard of this one you search for. However, it is not here and I cannot tell you where to find it. But I will tell you this. We have been watching you and we believe in you and in listening to the wisdom that moves through these forests and down these rivers, you may find something out here. I suggest you travel north and see what is there for you.” Thanking Bear for the guidance, he turned north.
Far into the north he walked, into the deep snows of winter, into the cold, clear night, into the season of deep surrender and grace. Some distance into the north he came upon Buffalo in a snow covered meadow. “Buffalo, I have searched the four corners of our land. I have grown weary from my search. Can you tell me where I can find this Singing Stone I have heard my grandfathers speak of?” he asked. Buffalo replied, “Grandson, this Singing Stone you search for, yes, I have heard of it. However, you will not find it here and I cannot tell you where to find this stone your elders speak of. I suggest you go up on that mountain and for four days and nights pray to creator and to your ancestors and see what is there for you.”
For four days and nights on the mountain he prayed and sang and cried and he cried and sang and prayed. As he welcome the sun on that fifth morning he knew clearly he must return to his village. He offered prayers of gratitude to the spirit of the mountain and turn toward home.
Returning home he walked towards the village, the way you walk back to a village when you have been on a great journey, looking to remember something long forgotten or lost or stolen. In the very early morning hours of the return, he heard voices moving just above the slow moving river water that ran beside the trail; the way you sometimes can hear sounds from a long way off moving just above the slow moving river water. Coming closer, he now recognized these voices to be people singing, although he could not yet make out the words. Rounding the bend, he saw family, friends, children, and village elders standing on both sides of the path.
Seeing their smiling faces, he could hear their words clearly now! Saying…
”Welcome home, Singing Stone. Welcome home!”
That night, Singing Stone dreamed he was sitting around a sacred fire with Eagle, Snake, Bear, and Buffalo. Singing Stone expressed much gratitude for their lives and the guidance they had offered him. Buffalo replied, “Do not thank us with your words, but let the way in which you live your life speak your thanks and this we will see.”
“You Go Well, Singing Stone.. Go Well”
Maybe one day you and I will meet down the road and share stories around that sacred fire.
Bright River Blessings!