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How do you define initiation?
Working the garden as metaphor
As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many folks in this community about how they define “initiation.” And this has led me to do some thinking on my own definition, and to be curious about how others are thinking about this.
In fact, I’m opening up my first subscriber thread this week on this topic, and I’d love to hear from you: how do you define initiation?
I offer a few of my own thoughts below.
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Growing more liberating stories
I began this project because I think our modern language and rituals around initiation need revision. In particular, the ways in which women, femme-identifying and nonbinary folks are invited to mark their milestones of change, from childhood through adulthood, in the 21st-century West.
Weddings and births are important moments of initiation, for me and for others, and yet they are not wholly inclusive of the identities, bodies or goals of the people I know. We also don’t entirely control when and with whom and whether we marry, or birth biological children, or parent them to adulthood. Life is more complicated than that. There’s no point, and much harm, in gatekeeping the notion of a fully realized and satisfying adult life for only the ones who pass through those specific thresholds.
Additionally, many women feel a need to move through eras or lifetimes in which our goals are greater agency, independence or solitude — at least in terms of the way we function in relationship to other humans. Sometimes these initiations call us not to pass through the gates of partnership and parenthood in the same way as other people do, but to create new pathways for ourselves and for others. Otherwise, we risk letting patriarchy drive us like cattle back towards the more well-trodden trails that lead to our furthered oppression, rather than the liberation we all seek and deserve as we grow.
Finally, we lack meaningful rituals for marking loss in general in America, and particularly stigmatized grief around things like divorce, pregnancy loss, and other common traumas we encounter when cultivating our families. Pain often accompanies change, and change can contain healing. But our growth can too easily stunted when our stories are shoved too quickly into the claustrophobic containers of toxic positivity and artificial triumph (More fish in the sea! Get back on the horse!), or otherwise deprived of adequate safe space to be told in their messy entirety. When this happens, we and the people we love are robbed of the nourishing fruits our loss stories might offer us all.
As I’ve written before: This is already starting to shift. And I want this project to help usher in this era of narrative rebirth.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
A review of the literature
Of course, discussions about initiation rites (and writes – get it?) are not new. Rituals and tales that mark the end of one season and the start of another in a person’s life, exist across cultures and time periods. Indigenous cultures have authored and lost more traditions than modern historians will ever be able to accurately inventory. Western readers will still be familiar with ancient initiatory stories like the Odyssey and the underworld journey of Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter—stories in which the protagonist does not just experience external change and trial, but emerges as someone who has changed internally as well.
Following in the footsteps of Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and Kant, among others, Carl Jung coined the term archetype to describe the recurring stories swirling around the notions of hero or or mother or journey, common to many or all cultures, that define and are defined by the way people live out these concepts in real life. Jung surmised that these archetypes may even come pre-programmed as concepts in our subconscious minds before we humans learn the words for them. In a very real way, he saw our ancient myths as maps for living in the present.
After Jung, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces positioned the “hero’s journey” as the most commonly recurring template for initiation. Campbell also identified three commonly occurring parts of many initiation stories that have shaped many a book and movie since: the call, the quest, and the return. Kurt Vonnegut later outlined several common story arcs beyond the hero’s journey that are more inclusive of the innovations of modern literature and the many identities we hold. Yet even their many theories cannot possibly comprise a complete list of the possibilities for human life.
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.
In fact, later scholars such as Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Carol Pearson, Maria Tatar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Dr. Sharon Blackie argued just that, adding their intersectional critiques and nuance to Campbell’s male-centric, conquest-centric framing of initiations. Campbell reportedly told Maureen Murdock, a student of his who revised his model to include a heroine’s journey that she felt was more accurate for women: "Women don’t need to make the journey, they are the place that everyone is trying to get to.” In If Women Rose Rooted,responds, “I respectfully disagree.” As do I.
This wave of feminist and decolonial work has opened up new avenues of permission for people with marginalized gender and racial identities, as well as white cis men, to run with the wolves, claim their right to wander, embrace the identity of the wise elder at the edge of the woods, or, as Daisy Alioto has it in one of my favorite memes below, to see themselves as one with the woods themselves.
All of this lit crit lineage, which I’m honored to claim as an English teacher and writer, is in the back of my mind when I think of the word “initiation.”
But what often feels easier for me to imagine, to grasp, and to talk about with others here, is the concrete reality of seasons and growth in the garden in front of me, the one I can see from the window as I type these words. The experiences of linking my nature to the nature all around me, as gardener Daryl Beyers says, have taught me with my own two hands how to collaborate with what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls “the life/death/life cycle.” You don’t need to have a degree in English to understand what a garden is telling you about how things grow and change. That is what I love about gardens.
Many of these modern writers I’ve mentioned, as well as the ancient storytellers, have all built their ideas on that same foundation anyhow – the observable rhythms and seasons of nature that are already here in front of us. It is what we historians might call a primary source.
What I can add here, in Initiation Writes, is my own description of my seasons and gardens to define “initiation” for myself. And permission for others to do the same.
What I know about living is the pain is never just ours Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo So I keep a listening to the moment the grief becomes a window When I can see what I couldn’t see before, through the glass of my most battered dream, I watched a dandelion lose its mind in the wind and when it did, it scattered a thousand seeds.
– Andrea Gibson, The Nutritionist
Nature as an “ample field” for growth and change
I personally see the initiate, the one taking the journey, as embodying the spirit of the gardener as well as the plant, and of the garden itself. That is, not just fighting and questing, but tending and holding space for the rising and falling of life and death cycles, inside of their own bodies. Initiations, in my experience, are not just about crushing #goal after #goal, but sometimes ultimately accepting, as I wrote in a previous post, that you can devote your whole being to getting something to grow, and yet you are not the one who decides whether it survives. Sometimes they begin with the arrival of several thousand unsubtle calls to the quest, delivered by magical owl; other times they simply begin with the quiet decision to compost something that can no longer be contained in its current form.
Initiation can be seen as the process of embodying the seed in the soil. Cracking open, coming up aboveground, blooming, sharing the new seeds created by your collaboration and conflict with the outside world, composting the wisdom (and mistakes) of your journey, and resting in presence before the next growth cycle begins again. Not a linear journey at all, but as many mystics before me have described it, a spiral.
A novice gardener who only knows of the Hollywood hero’s journey, of the quest to master and “win” and “be a fighter,” may consider themselves a quitter or a failure if they allow a single plant, or relationship, or creative project, or living body to pass out of their hands and into the compost pile. In so doing, they can ironically miss these moments of composting as the real call, to begin the next initiation.
Walt Whitman, who might be seen as straddling these perspectives in much of his mystical work, will tell you that “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, No birth, identity, form—no object of the world. Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain. Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.” An initiation could be seen as an experience that simply reveals this truth, and also hollows out this ample space in us, so that we can experience it even more deeply, next time.
Heather Havrilesky (aka) recently put it more bluntly. “Real life is just mistakes and filth and chaos,” she wrote this week. And yet: “It’s a really good party. Don’t miss it.” Being with the energy of initiation means making space for all of it. And gardens are excellent places to do so – holding the mistakes and the filth of life in our hands, embracing the chaos that comes with any good backyard party.
That’s why I work the garden as metaphor when I talk about initiation. It’s all here. It was here before humans began thinking about it, it has shaped our thinking about it, and I hope it’ll be here after our last human initiation unfolds here. Initiations are the assignments we fortunate human few get to receive from nature, to be part of her great unfolding, to have a taste of it in our bodies and souls, and perhaps to share our wisdom-seeds about it in stories before we go, if we’re lucky.
That’s what Initiation Writes is about, for me. About marrying the mystical and mundane. About adding our notes to the world’s infinite mapping of itself. About showing that we can let things go with each initiation and still be growing. We can burn things down and still rise. There may, in fact, be no other way.
"So long as you have not experienced this, to die and so to grow, you are just a guest on this dark earth."
– Goethe, via Michael Meade
So, how do you define initiation? Substack has developed some interesting new tools since I launched this newsletter, i.e. a feature called “Threads” that lets subscribers talk to each other, and “Notes,” which is a feed-style feature that aims to be a more civilized version of the social media apps we’ve all fled to Substack to avoid. I can’t promise their greater aims with this will succeed, but I’d like to open up this conversation to you there–to make mistakes, to experience a little chaos, and maybe to make this more of a party. I’ll keep it going until someone gets too drunk and smashes a hate-speech glass on the floor. (*Shoots That One Guy Who Considers Himself A Devil’s Advocate a meaningful glare.*)
I’ve begun my first subscriber thread this week on this topic, and I’d love to hear from you there or in the comments below.
How would you write or draw or sing or garden about initiation? What metaphors or myths call to you? Are you currently feeling more like a seed in the soil; a husk cracked open; a shoot coming up aboveground; a blooming peony; or a dandelion “losing your mind in the wind”? There’s ample space for you here, no matter what.
Janelle Hardy, who inspired me to launch this newsletter, teaches excellent writing classes online that invite people to frame their memoir writing through the lens of myth (check out this free one!). She also has a marvelous podcast where she asks interesting people to join her in telling their favorite myths or stories, stories from all over the world. Highly recommend.
Michael Meade is another amazing storyteller and historian who talks about myths as they relate to current events. Of particular note: his empowering, feminist commentary on the history of women’s choices about their bodies after Dobbs.
The Whitman lines above are from the poem “Continuities.” It is beautiful in its entirety.
Andrea Gibson’s poem “The Nutritionist” appears in The Madness Vase, one of their many collections. If you really want a good cry, though, check out this video of them reading the poem aloud on Youtube.
In an upcoming post, I’d like to talk more about the initiation of wandering. If you’re in a Wandering phase of your life – please reach out via the comments below!