On the western edge of the world, as defined by the International Date Line, it’s Sunday afternoon. I’m sitting at 39,993ft above the Pacific Ocean, according to the screen in front of me, just under two hours out from Honolulu. From there I’ll have one more leg to fly before two days of travel will see be back home in Maui. Though right now I am feeling conflicted by that word ’home’. I am returning to where I live and more specifically to the house, the home that I share with my wife, my grandchildren next door, dear friends not far away. But I am returning from not only a life changing experience, the death of my father, but also six weeks in the city and country where I grew up. I have not spent so long there since moving to the US about 14 years ago. So many pieces from my time in Bristol, in Britain call to me of home. The smells, the sounds, the sights of the flora and fauna - they hold me in a way that other landscapes, however fascinated or pulled towards them I feel, never fully do.
I was in Britain as summer made way for autumn. September, the month which made up the majority of my stay, gifted us beautiful weather. More summer than autumn, though by the end of the month the temperature was just starting to drop. The leaves on the trees that line the road on which my parents’ flat is situated started to change from green to their autumnal colours. It won’t be long before they carpet the ground.
It is at that time of year that the conckers start dropping from the Horse Chestnut trees. Conckers are the chestnuts of Horse Chestnut trees. Here are a few that I picked up from the grass outside of my parents’ apartment building. The tree’s canopy aligns itself with the apartment balcony, and from there I watched the leaves change from green to orange, red and browns.
As a child, conckers were a part of school playground life for me as the autumn term started. The conckers would be strung onto a piece of string and one would take turns using your concker to break your opponent’s concker from its string. Pride was held in owning a concker that had fought and won many such battles and was still going strong. There were also various recipes which one could put your concker through, baking was involved in some of them from my memory, to harden it, assuring your conker’s longer life - though that was regarded as cheating.
A part of the concker season back then was not waiting for the conckers to fall, but knocking them out of the trees. Parents and children, would throw sticks up at the trees to free the conckers. I remember one particular road on a Sunday afternoon being populated not with cars but families throwing sticks up at the trees and running to collect the conckers that fell. Cars still used the road, but the situation on those afternoons was more one of sharing the road alongside the families. Here is a photograph of that same road during my recent visit. No concker collectors in sight.
Indeed I saw no one collecting conckers while I was back in Bristol. Walking past the school that I used to attend, I saw no kids outside in the playground having concker fights. Is this something else that time has seen the passing of?
The one constant in life is change. This trip home presented me with one of the most difficult manifestations of that. But I find it sad as well that such a simple pleasure as conckers, which took families outside together and was a fixture on the school playground, appears to have disappeared from British life. Someone please tell me it isn’t so.
Yesterday it was pouring with rain outside, really pouring. The proximity of my parents’ top floor flat to the roof amplified the sound of the falling water. For the most part the rest of the day was overcast, it was humid. Today is the same, perhaps a little clearer.
Following my father’s passing away on Tuesday, this weather has been a real comfort to me. I don’t want to venture far from my parents’ home at the moment, feeling safe and comfortable here, while feeling raw and vulnerable in my emotions. The wet and overcast weather gives me a reason, gives me permission not to venture out.
At the same time I recognize for me the healing power of fresh air, of being out and stretching my legs. The site of the Horse Chestnut and Beach trees that are abundant around here as well as the smell of the moist grass and early falling leaves reassure me and bring back happy memories of my time growing up in this corner of Bristol.
Yesterday evening, during a break in the weather I popped out to run a couple of errands. Unexpectedly I bumped into an old school friend out walking his dog. It was a fortuitous and lovely surprise. We stood for a while, each sharing a story of a loved one who had passed away. I was grateful for the meeting - a blessing.
I’m walking to the shops, walking down back streets, residential streets instead of the main road. I find more joy and interest in looking at the houses and front yards instead the busy main street. Houses that I use to pass most every day as a kid. I haven’t been back to Bristol to visit my parents for two years. COVID has been the culprit there. I wasn’t planning on visiting until next year when hopefully COVID might have been a little quieter. I wasn’t basing that on any science, just hope. But now I find myself back home.
My father has cancer and is nearing the end of his life. It is hard to acknowledge that at times. The good days that he has definitely perk me up. The reality is a decline, or a roller coaster with a downward trend.
This morning while walking to the shops I passed a house with a mother standing by the front window holding her young baby. I found myself reflecting on the cycle of life. The joy in the mother holding the newborn, my sadness as I experience the gradual decline of someone dear to me. In both, gratitude for life.
This post is not an attempt to be bleak, or to put a damper on the day. Rather it is a sharing of thoughts that go through my mind on the subject of death, shared with the hope that someone else might take something from it.
The Tibetans have a saying,
we are one breath away from our next life.
They don’t say this in order to put a dampener on life, but rather wake us up to life! Life does not exist apart from death, and with the time of our death unknown to us, the Tibetans are saying, “make the most of this precious time that you have by using your life meaningfully,” regardless of what your belief is in what comes next.
Alex Honnold, the first person to free climb El Capitan, a nearly 3,000ft granite wall in Yosemite National Park, put it in more stark terms in the documentary of his climb, Free Solo,
Anybody could conceivably die on any given day, and we are all going to die eventually. Soloing just makes it far more immediate. You accept the fact that if anything goes wrong, you are going to die, and that’s that.
I was lying on our living room floor one Sunday evening, a couple of weeks ago. I was tired after a full day. Relaxing jazz music was playing. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, the thought came to me of what if this was my last evening? How do I feel about that? I imagined life carrying on as usual despite my departure. There would be grieving and loss from families and friends - at least I assume that I would be missed! - but the world would carry on regardless. My death would just be another happening on this Earth…another death.
I lay there wondering if I had any regrets? Could I let go and leave my life behind? What would I miss as I saw my last breath coming? Would I feel as though I had led my life in a meaningful way? I didn’t feel morose as these thoughts went through my mind, rather it felt good, maybe even healthy to be reflecting in this way.
I can be very good at putting off things that I don’t feel like doing - from paying bills to gardening. It is not a habit that I am proud of, and it does not serve me. The activity needs to be done sooner or later, and so putting it off or pretending that it is not there does not help me. Whatever I am doing, it’s voice will be calling to me in the background of my life. So, I ask myself, why not make a plan and get to the job as soon as you can? I might feel uncomfortable or dislike what I have to do, but better to look at that now and address it than wait until the last moment, when it is also possibly too late. By delaying the action, the source of my discomfort just sits there and waits until the same circumstances arise again, triggering the same procrastination.
That luxury, next time, does not occur with death. There is only one chance. So much better to look at your relationship with it now, where your concerns are, and what you need to do to get them in order. Then your life can happen with you being comfortable, maybe not liking, but being comfortable with whenever death knocks on your door. No looking over your shoulder, hoping that nothing is going to happen. You have prepared yourself.
I don’t know how I will be at my death time, and I still have some items to get in order, but I find these reflections help me.
A little under two weeks ago I wrote about the Medicine Walk that I was planning to embark on. The time that I went out on the walk coincided with a week when family were all away. Because of that I returned to an empty, quiet house. It was an ideal environment to sit and reflect on the experience in the wilderness of Haleakala crater. I’ll with you share some of those reflections here.
With an empty house, I had more time than usual to sit, reflect and journal about the walk. I found myself spending some time writing or reading and then going off to do something else. I didn’t force the reflections, with a pen in my hand I just allowed what came up to flow onto the pages. A few days into this process I asked myself if I was being indulgent? Was this the introvert in me who spends time in his head and is perhaps over thinking things now? I answered myself with a “no.” The words were flowing and I would let them keep coming until I felt complete. As I write this, I am unsure how far I will take my sharing of experiences of the walk. This is nothing against you, the reader, but perhaps it will emerge that some experiences are better kept for those with whom I can have a face to face conversation?
Rites of Passage
In an earlier post I mentioned that rites of passage work consists of three stages - Severance, Threshold, and Incorporation. For the purpose of this discussion I would like to add an additional stage to precede these three - Preparation. I’ll speak about my Medicine Walk in the context of these four stages. As you read about these four stages within the context of my walk, look for parallels for them in aspects of your life. There is no substitute for going on on your own solo, whether as a Medicine Walk or a longer wilderness trip. However, being able to hold aspects of your life within this framework can help to give them structure and direction when it feels as though these are missing, or when you are struggling to find purpose and a way forward.
Preparation really started when the idea for the walk was planted in me. I was musing over how solo wilderness work might look in working alongside Introverts and HSPs. What might it offer? An email to a trusted teacher and friend who works within this field and with whom I shared some of my musings, sowed the seed for the Medicine Walk.
As the day approached I could feel the anxiety build in me. It was one thing to speak about the walk, another to go on it. I was excited to set off, but also as I looked at my daily routine I realized that for one day that would be broken in a very different and real way.
I checked out maps of the area that I would be walking through. I looked into anything special that I should know about Haleakala National Park - weather conditions, walking conditions, facilities available. I arranged with a couple of people that I would contact them when I returned from the walk. The day before I ran through an equipment list and lay everything out for the next morning. This did not include a camera. I was there just to be and experience, not to try and capture.
I set the alarm and went to bed.
Severance happens as you leave your home and drive to the trailhead. It is a small death, a leaving behind what is familiar and giving up of yourself to what lies ahead.
I wasn’t sure how to take this, but my alarm did not go off that morning. Thankfully my mind appeared to be in anticipation of what was happening and I woke up around the time it was meant to sound. I got up, did a last run through of what I needed and in the early morning hours headed up the mountain.
At the summit I walked to the trailhead which I took as my Threshold. A rainbow formed near to me in the early morning mist. I said some short prayers to request guidance for the walk ahead and gave thanks to those who were supporting me in this endeavor.
And with that I set off.
Threshold is that space between the old, that which is no longer relevant in your life, and the new, that which is to be born. It is crossing of a Threshold from that which is familiar to you, to a dream place, a place of possibility and meaning. Like exploring a dream, we just have to be open to what might be present, to what might show up.
This is the part in which I will be more quiet in what I share as I explore and process the experience. Save to say here that I set off in a cooler atmosphere than I had left at sea level. The cool air was welcomed for clarity of thought, though the solar radiation was strong as I was now at 2 miles in elevation. The early morning mist burnt off to reveal extraordinary vistas.
The descent into the moonscape of the crater was mesmerizing - for the silence (so quiet that all that you could hear was the ringing in your ears), for the crunch, crunch, crunch of boots on the cinder sand (though it is amazing how even in that environment, a head full of thoughts can drown out external noises!), the scale of what I was walking through (it was really very difficult to take it all in), the aliveness of the barren landscape even though I was walking through a dormant volcano (the petrified rocks breathed with the life force that threw them up from the bowels of the earth, the frozen paths of lava flows capturing time in space).
And in all of this nothingness there was a current life clinging on to what nourishment was offered - some plant life (including a threatened species, the Silversword), a few birds, and I saw a beetle - though barrenness prevailed.
My way back to the Threshold took me through an area that was more lush. Although lava was visible, vegetation had taken hold and started to break down the sharpness of the landscape. The clouds came in and as I climbed the long and tiring switch backs out of the crater, rain fell intermittently and views were obscured. I was transported back to the landscapes of South Wales, my home for 17 years.
I crossed back over the Threshold and gave thanks again to those who had guided and supported me through this experience. I walked back to the car to rest, contact those who were waiting to hear from me, and eat before driving back down the mountain.
I fell asleep early that night.
With the walk complete, I returned to my everyday life. This is a time to reflect on what lessons have been brought back from the walk and to see how they might be brought into your everyday life. “What has been born? What is new? What has been left behind? What gifts do you have to share?”
It can also be a time of “coming down to earth with a bump”. The high of the experience is replaced by the mundaneness of everyday life. Share your experiences with trusted confidants. Tread carefully for a day or so. Perhaps you have brought something back from the walk. Perhaps an image reminds you of your experience. For me the omnipresence of Haleakala on this island, whether visible or shrouded in cloud, takes me back to where I was on that day.
I will continue to explore the outcome of the walk, and am continually grateful to those who have kept this form alive.
The Four Stages in Daily Life
How do you see Preparation, Severance, Threshold and Incorporation manifesting in the activities of your day to day life? As I alluded to earlier, at a fundamental level these four are a play of change that is never far away in the continually evolving nature of our lives. Being able to hold change, which at times can be scary or appear to lack meaning and context, within a framework can give us strength and courage to carry on our way. It gives us permission to let go of the old and embrace the new as our lives move on and we grow.
The URL to this website is made up of the words “Crossing The Threshold.” While it informs my work, I have until now made no reference to its meaning. A friend and colleague recent asked me to what what I was referring. That question, along with a new logo and header on this site (and some more changes to come), has prompted this post. With the New Year only a couple of weeks away this feels like an opportune time.
Birth and Death
In ancient times traditional peoples recognized passages in their lives by leaving behind the familiar and heading out alone to spend time in wild nature - both the external and internal. While away they would fast and engage in ritual, to return with a vision and task. These traditional vision quests have been incorporated into more contemporary rites of passage through organizations such as The School of Lost Borders and The Animas Institute.
All rites of passage are made up of a death followed by a birth. To be born into something new, to grow and move forward in our lives we have to give up the old before taking birth in our new incarnation. We are born with new strength, belief and ability. This is not woo, woo, but what we find happens to us as we let go of our old limitations and in doing so make room for what was hidden within us.
Within in the scope of these rites, this process of death and birth is made up of three aspects:
The Three Aspects of the Rites
Severance is our psychological death, our giving up of the old so that we can make room for the birth of the new within us. It is normally preceded by a period of time in preparation. Time spent in the physical preparation for the journey along with reflection on what it is we are setting out to explore. What is it that you are looking to let go of? What self-images are no longer serving you and need to be jettisoned?
Threshold is your time out alone. We are alone in that we do not have the company of others, though our journey is held by friends and guides who sit at home awaiting our return. Their company from afar held consciously, helps to hold us when the small death feels as though it leaves little for us to stand on.
We also have the company of the wild nature and what we bring to our experience of being alone within it. As we enter more deeply into the fast, perhaps for three or four days, our senses become more attuned with the wildness within and without of ourselves. A sense of intimacy arises. Coupled with any ritual, meditation, reflection, or praying that we engage in, we set the ground for our birth into what we are being called to do.
Incorporation is our return to the world. We return leaving behind the old self and bringing with us the new. For some there will be a clear illumination of direction, for others the sense will be less clear. So on our return the support of friends, family and guides is important. Like the butterfly freshly emerged from its pupae, spreading its wings in the sunlight to dry, until those wings have dried the young insect is vulnerable and susceptible to attack and a killing of its new life.
So take care of yourself and be careful of company kept in those days that you emerge from your fast. You also are vulnerable. Use caution in who you tell your story and experiences to. Told to the wrong person the power of your experience can be crushed in a short time. With the right support and guidance your experiences can be given the helpful perspective of the earned wisdom from elders, to nurture your learnings into further growth, helping you see what you have learnt and how it can be taken out into your life and the service of others.
Crossing The Threshold
So Crossing The Threshold emerged out of the recognition that as we go through changes in our lives, we are being called to cross thresholds into something larger, different, to grow and learn more about what it available to us within ourselves. We are leaving behind the familiarity of the old and entering into the unknown that a death and its subsequent birth brings. That transition in our life becomes so much easier and manageable through the support of others. The work is always yours, the guidance and support is to help you on your way.
The change does not have to come about through a wilderness fast. That is one modality. But as we search to step into something new in our lives, our work, thresholds are crossed, the old is left behind as the new emerges.
What Thresholds do you want to cross as we enter into 2015?