Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kettles Ready


So i hear the earth is moving in the U.S., safe and good things wished to all friends (and otherwise) over there. I have spent a more sedate and very wonderful week with my daughter being outlaws and learning to cook outlaw food on outlaw fires, watching fireworks over Plymouth hoe (bay), eating way to much popcorn at yes, the Smurfs movie (she wanted Kurosawa but i insisted), wandering the woodland trail and lots of story. Story, that, on the rare occasion that she slept, led me back to my own reading of old classics like Bruno Bettelheim's 'The Uses of Enchantment', Heinrich Zimmer's 'The King and The Corpse', and Marie Louise Von - Franz's 'Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales'. I look forward to some autumnal (sorry, that word again) study specifically with fairy tales, and some group work out of it - how does that information sit thirty years (or more) later? Whilst i don't go along with every word there is some true gold in all three of those books for anyone interested in the business of exegesis of story - a tricky ground.

An excerpt this week from chapter seven of 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree - 'Deer Woman and the Velvet Antlered Moon'. In this Siberian story the Moon falls in love with a young woman who looks after a remote herd of Deer. When he charges down on his chariot from the night sky she changes shape into many different objects until he is worn down enough (and tied up) for a slightly less intense conversation to begin between them. This is a little of the commentary that i would hope can be enlarged to a wider thought on love and courtship.

It is a genius clue that when the gift comes, the Deer Woman hides. The myth-world’s frequency is different from that of the human, and much tearing and thunder can commence when the two worlds square up to each other. Destiny is an awesome thing. James Hillman tells the story of the great Spanish bullfighter Manolete (1917- 1947), who as a boy “clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him”4

His clinging was an attempt to jump down the hole, to buy himself time until he had developed a container strong enough to bear the gift offered. Come adolescence, he ran towards his gifting, and towards his death. Gored by the bull Islero at age thirty, he died, his funeral the largest Spain has ever seen.

It could be that Manolete sensed his destiny, the glory and the sobriety of it, and bought all the time he could before the pulse became too persistent to ignore. For others, the price of relationship to the moon is that they are unable to reenter the village, its light grows dim around other people. An artist’s studio can be seen to be an attempt to “catch beams.”

Of course, when we are overwhelmed, we attempt to return to safe ground—when the Deer Woman is confronted by the Moon, she runs back to her father’s tent. However, as in many initiatory stories, he’s not there. The father and the tent represent her grounding in her community, her childhood, and her humanity. The container remains, but this time she has to be the negotiator, the elder, the one with wit. Sometimes, when making a painting, I will occasionally slip into ground so new and unexpected to me that I panic and paint over it, calming myself with more “negotiated” gestures. Like the surface of the moon, I don’t recognize the landmarks, I can’t see any footprints. So I try to drag the Moon back into my black tent of tradition, comfort, and warmth. I too will try to familiarize the otherness of the experience into something that can gradually be integrated into a body of work. Try as I might, I’m not an astronaut yet.

The Deer Woman stays safe by a kind of mimicry, an invisibility that preserves us in all sorts of situations—at school we imitate the teacher and his or her “light of knowledge,” and gradually learn to hide our own peculiar, idiosyncratic opinions. If they should pop out, we would become visible and vulnerable, so better to ape what is bigger and brighter than us.

This kind of activity, while potentially life-saving as we grow, can become a castrating and unconscious habit if carried into adulthood. Of course the Moon is looking for her, not an imitation of himself. But in this case, she bides her time and wears him out.

Of course, there could also be a straight avoidance of intimacy in her hiding. Better to munch a lettuce leaf and practice detachment than get down into the muck of relationship and have to deal with its unwieldy shadow.

The Great Thief
It could be said that to know the moon is to be connected to thievery. Even the Moon’s glow is stolen sunlight, reduced 500,000 times. Not content with stealing sunlight, the moon also has a penchant for pilfering color. The gold of a cornfield or the crimson of a rose are quietly replaced by greys and blues when moonlight’s fingers fall on them. A lover of letters, the Moon steals into books read at dusk—as we read in the gloom, words become indistinct as he scoops them up and carries them off. Night is the time of break-ins, affairs, slow time-ruptures to the agitated clock of light. At the same time, we know that the Moon replaces everything the next day, just as we left it, so he appears a cheeky thief rather than a savage robber. The Moon is also a friend to lovers; his inky sky covers them as a blanket, but his light offers a slender trail to the sweetheart’s door. So to draw down the Moon brings a certain wiliness.

All this talk of thievery could have scared the Deer Woman: would she want her own color, her essence, so consumed? We see a strong reaction to the bluster of the potential suitor. Can you remember being with someone who cast so much light that your own couldn’t be seen? Like a hip-hop star covered in bling jewelry, the moon so far offers no real relationship, only adoration. The Deer Woman has been alone long enough to know that she doesn’t want that. And so it begins. She refuses calls, rain-checks dates, and has always just left the party when you arrive. This just intrigues and frustrates you more, until, like the moon, you find yourself frantic and sweating, searching under animal skins and through friends’ address books trying to track her down.

Just when you are finally turning away, you hear her voice from the top floor of a crowded restaurant, and there you go, charging in among the tables again. Her faint voice is a tiny clue that this is a courting rather than a flat refusal. Once the Moon’s grandiosity is lessened, and he is wrapped in the cords of the world, when he even faces something approaching mortality, he and the Deer Woman really start to communicate.

How can she trust such an energy? Surely better to stay in her glorious isolation. But the Moon Man also offers an image of largeness, flamboyance. His arrival has broken the steady rhythm of the animals and the frost: he offers an outwards expression, to be seen. In the tangle of our own relationships, the rambunctious partner offers a challenge to our inwardness—we despise but are attracted to this rambunctiousness. In the myth-world, all these characters reside in us, and so we could say that the Deer Woman—solitude loving wilderness being—and the Moon Man— mighty, galaxy-shining, tide-altering—are trying to reach an accord with each other. The Road of Solitude and the Road of Voice have found a crossroads.

All of us sense that many types of love exist. There is that first burst when we feel immortal and beloved in the eye of our sweetheart, huge and extraordinary. It is as if this sensation is propping up some fantastical posture of our own importance. The love is really about what we are experiencing—a sense of connection, support, and ardor—still centered around the self in some way. A relationship based on this pattern seems to have roughly a three-year life span. The crunch time is the possibility of a less self-centered love emerging, one rooted in compassion. Instead of trying to frantically draw your self-esteem from your partner, you instead, like the Deer Woman and the Moon Man, start to appreciate the other’s separateness, the intense beauty that is theirs alone—that they have desires, dreams, and idiosyncrasies that are not about you. This mystery can be so daunting that we allow the other to pass out of view forever. The Deer Woman never seems to be caught in the former, that instinct body is always pushing for a place of real appreciation, she’s not looking for props.

Copyright White Cloud Press 2011

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Come and Study with Us: THE YEAR PROGRAMME

Please see above Californian friends - Thurs 22nd sept, NUMINA CENTER, Santa Rosa, alongside events at Dominican and Sonoma universities, various radio interviews and Point Reyes open evening on the 23rd. The final weekend of the myth course is entirely filled, but contact Point Reyes Bookstore (the wonderful Lisa Doron) if you'd like to be on the waiting list.

Thank you for the very warm response to last weeks entry. Over 400 'shares' on Facebook, and many e-mails of support. Please keep sending it along to anyone it would benefit.

Down here in Devon rain is sloughing in from the high moor. We appear to have gathered in the last of the potatoes from the soil in our tiny (really tiny) garden, but are forming ambitious. if folly-led expansion ideas for a positive eden of veg appearing in various dustbins and wound round fences for 2012. The land feels as if it is gearing up for the move into early autumn. I find it all impossibly beautiful but i know that irritates all the summer people who are quire rightly hanging onto every last moment of sunlight before the move into mulch, mist, long walks and red beer. So i won't say more on it till late September at least.

I'm off for an early meeting this afternoon with friends the storytellers Chris Salisbury and Sue Charman (and directors of...) regarding the Westcountry Storytelling Festival 2012, for August next year. Interesting plans afoot. I'll also be over in Vermont in three weeks having similar meetings with Caroline Casey, Tony Hoagland and other esteemed colleagues for the shape and beauty that will become the Great Mother Conference 2012. It's great to see in this era of utterly slashed creative fundings wonderful uprisings of fiery language and powerful art.

So i want to offer an invitation to consider coming to study with us at the school for the up coming year programme. A chance to do something vital, occasionally troubling, sometimes hilarious and always engaging. It's a step outside normal, tick-tock time and into something robust and eternal. It will serve you well. Contact Tina at www.schoolofmyth.com, and she can put you in contact with me for a chat if you'd like a first hand account of what the great adventure offers. Jump in, jump in. Wake up that sweet pirate hurling coins at the moon.

It's always a true boon to get a sense of sign up early, the whole 'last minute' thing is a total drag for balancing the books.

Some of what it offers is laid out below.

The dates below are for the Westcountry School of Myth year programme beginning in October. Underneath that is an excerpt from a new interview - all of which can be found at:


Oct 14th to 16th 2011

Dec 2nd to 4th 2011

Feb 3rd to 5th 2012

April 6th to 8th 2012

June 22nd to 24th 2012


What does the School of Myth offer?

Let me just say what a huge variety of student we get - from professors to artists to surgeons to street musicians. As long as you have a love of story and nature than this is a good place to come - regardless of experience.

What makes the school unique in Britain is a very developed relationship between rites-of-passage and the myths that we believe are linked to that process. So if we experience many initiations in our life, then these are stories that we need, regardless of age, to orientate ourselves in challenging times. For those that want to experience a wilderness fast then we offer that (from summer 2012), and then those who would rather take a more gradual pace can experience the year programme without the fast in Snowdonia. We ask: what myths speak to you? Why? How can they be carried and expressed?
So here’s some of what we provide -

Foundational Stones:

A spacious exploration of the relationship between myth, wilderness and the psyche. We also reclaim the artificial divide between ‘culture’ and ‘wildness’ - all decent initiatory practice is a culture of wildness. We believe that discipline is the dance partner of wildness. We are based on residential centres within Dartmoor National Park, and under canvas when the weather is good. We offer what I would call foundational stones to becoming a storycarrier. Each weekend is one of these stones - with plenty of study between sessions to deepen your practice. How you integrate and express the stories is up to you - this is not a course entirely about storytelling remember-but the old belief is that find some way of communicating the radiance and murk of your own walk through life. Areas around story we explore are:

Story is a Sharp Knife:

Story not as allegory, repertoire or form of psychology but as an independent energy. How do we nurture it if it decides to be told by us? Recognition of your inner- eco system, your own weather patterns, your character, and how they relate to the grand characters that radiate through these stories like jaunty tigers. So we develop an appropriate relationship with story. Some would say a very old one.

From the Comparative to the Associative:

Not just the comparison of one myth to another but a move into a much more varied eruption of information - the condition of our souls, the wider history of culture, the sweet intelligence of the wren. We are less interested in the notion of harmony - that all myths are telling the same story - and far more engaged with the pursuit of polyphony, independent bursts of multiple insight, from both teacher and student alike. Harmony is a western pre-occupation, useful sometimes but not at the expense of certain unique insights. So we are very engaged in a constant emerging conversation. We bring in some myth theory - Eliade, Segal, Zimmer, Hyde, Von-Franz, Kane, but are very tuned to what is actually revealing itself right there, in the moment. For those that read we provide an exhaustive reading list, but for those that don’t we have other means. I’ve worked extensively with folks with dyslexia and autism too, giving their situation a mythic as well as diagnostic appraisal. From my way of seeing they are in the realm of the Magician - those that see in a different way, and need to be approached appropriately.

Myth is Nothing to Do with a Long Time Ago:

It’s about a place that you can inhabit at almost any time - Blake’s ‘eternity in a grain of sand’. It’s why a story seemingly three thousand years old can seem to be speaking to the nature of our lives today. It is! They are partially referring to inner realities that are ageless, hence their impact right this very second. At the same time I offer a caution for making stories entirely personal - the anthropocentric can become a form of brutality to stories - i believe there are little dark nests within them that are entirely for the pleasure of the gods, not just about our nutty love lives. It’s a fine line the mythteller treads.

Myth is also promiscuous, not dogmatic. It’s a bed hopper. It’s not designed for tablets of stone in my opinion, but moves through history with fluidity, catching but also challenging the mood of the times. When it becomes too dogmatic it becomes toxic - but I think that’s an anxious human response to the stories rather than the origination point of the stories themselves. I don’t even think many stories arrive from a human point of view. Many of the stories I love are when you are suddenly seeing through the eyes of Raven, or caught in the foamy curls of Irish sea.

The Pastoral and Prophetic:

At the school we study what we call prophetic rather than pastoral stories. These are stories that hold paradox and grit equally, that have hard material within them. Romanian Gypsy, Siberian, Gaelic and onto Arthurian Romances - it’s that enquiry that links them. They are certainly all initiatory stories, that’s a great focus to the year.
In that huge question that frequently gets asked: “what stories do we need now?” we say, “the prophetic!” Stories of shape-shifting, relationship to crafty animals and lonely stretches of river, the emergence of the feminine, stories with both the Trickster and the absolute simplicity of love for the earth at their core.

Place and the Arising of Value:

Re-consecrating a relationship to five miles around where you actually live. Walk its boundaries, become an apprentice to its mythologies. When you find its stories - either a local folktale or a personal experience, don’t write it down with words but by image - a kind of visual map. That’s how I learn all stories; not by script. Offer libations, beat the boundaries, get into walking. Blake found all of this in the east end of London. What are the songs of stewarding this place down through time?, the ploughing, market, crofting, ferrier songs? The songs of the fisherman leaving before dawn from Brixham? Cities have their deep histories too.

So we ground ourselves as well as leap into the imagination - what is the story of that watering hole, that rowan tree, that stretch of grass between two abandoned buildings. We encourage a little grandiosity - become the resident storycarrier of your milage - as Gary Snyder say’s “be famous for five miles” These are bio-regional times we are moving into - we care about eating local food, being connected to our surroundings. Well, what about the stories? Local folklore? Grimms and the Russian fairy tale world are great to jump into, but not at the expense of a localised experience. Seek both.

Magical Privacy:

In an era of frantic networking and frankly too much information about things that are actually not that important we offer space to carve out some interior time. To cook in your own images, feelings, compulsions. To wander the moors, to get wet, to warm by the fire sipping hot tea, to have fellowship with us but also some delicious solitude.

The Dagara of Africa believe that when something is made public it is already in decline - so all really potent acts of magic are done in private. That thought has impacted me a great deal. I think we are in danger of becoming addicted to disclosure. So we like to assign projects to students that are never revealed to each other! Never shared to the human community - only buzzards and long grass - to them you can talk all day.

I am working into this idea a great deal at the moment. I think many people are longing for a deeper life.
So that’s a taster of what we get up to. Lots of time in nature, lots of time by the fireside, great fellowship with your fellow travelers - it’s one hell of an experience, truly. You won’t get a diploma worth a damn in commercial terms but you may just get a swan feather cloak of story, culture and deep belonging placed around your worthy shoulders. What would you say is of the most value?

It’s a place of study and transformation. Many of our students have gone off and become wonderfully authentic storytellers, almost all are causing some kind of trouble in the world. This makes us very happy. Some fall so mad in love with our nomad life they become part of the school crew - visionaries, cooks, musicians, poets - it’s unbelievably sweet at times.

Martin Shaw copyright 2011

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 www.hiddenwine.com 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