Rites of Passage: The Alchemy of Being Witnessed

Four years ago I was standing outside a classroom having just finished a session in mindfulness. I was pacing, wondering if I should leave or stay. As the last people trickled out of the room, I took the sinking feeling in my stomach as a sign that I had to confront this, and went back in. There, I unloaded everything onto the instructors and began to explain why mindfulness made absolutely no sense to me. 

“You say that we should let the feelings in, that if we shut them out, then they will only get stronger, but what if the feeling is really bad? Like what if the feeling is an urge to self-harm and I know that’s not a feeling but I don’t have good feeling words. If I let that in, then I might give into the urge and…”

I was at the end of my rope, standing across from two strangers. ...And I was sobbing. Slowly my speech was incoherent. It wasn’t really the mindfulness exercise that troubled me and sent me back in the classroom; I needed help. Perhaps I needed mindfulness - I certainly needed something. But maybe first I just needed to realize that I had hit the kind of bottom that led me to sobbing in front of strangers. 

I can’t imagine what those instructors thought of me that morning. I’d dumped an awful lot at their feet, but they gave me looks of compassion and business cards. It was through one of them that I first learned of Surfing the Creative

Endearingly, I began to call Surfing the Creative “therapeutic rite of passage dance camp,” because that was the most straightforward way I could translate it. (Though I was talking to a Surfer last summer who called it “the closest you can get to a psychedelic trip without taking drugs” and I found that translation pretty apt too). 

Led by Melissa Michaels, Surfing the Creative is a week-long camp that brings together youth from all around the world to dance together in a practice inspired by Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms. As I’ve described to people whilst proselytizing my dance, it isn’t a “learn the steps” dance, it’s a “feel what’s in your soul - how does your body want to move - make a shape” dance. Much of its practice is rooted in somatic therapy practices, which is a form of movement-based therapy that focuses on the wisdom of the body.

Surfing the Creative is also a rite of passage, something I’ve found myself describing in a number of different ways over the past two years. Rites of passage have existed as ceremonies in nearly every culture in the world - they are ancient pathways. A rite of passage can occur at any point in the life, from childhood to adolescence, from an old career to a new one, moving to a new place, passage into elderhood, and even the final passage into death. Probably the most well-known rite of passage is the passage from adolescence into adulthood. There are many things in American culture that we label a rite of passage, from getting a Driver’s license to turning 21. While some people may take these passages seriously, I find most often they are marked with little intentionality. 

me in a canyon in Utah before a vision fast, another type of rite of passage journey

me in a canyon in Utah before a vision fast, another type of rite of passage journey

The purpose of a rite of passage journey for the adolescent (and perhaps for any rite of passage) is to explore questions of “Who am I?” and “What do I bring to the world?” Most importantly though is to be witnessed, to be held by community and to be seen by community for your own unique gifts. Rites of passage journeys I’ve been on are usually divided into three stages: Severance (cutting ties from your old life, your old identity), Threshold (the liminal space, the trial, the edge you jump off), and Integration (because no journey into a new identity happens in one day and because we are never done transforming).

Over the years of my journeys with dance rites of passage and a number of vision fasts, I have intense and optimistic beliefs about how the world would change if these ceremonies were expected of all of us, if our communities all actively encouraged, witnessed, and participated in rites of passage. 

Before I get into my starry-eyed visions for the new world, let me at least tell you how rites of passaged changed (and very well possibly saved) my life. It began like this: 

The first day of Surfing the Creative starts with something called Movement Mass, sort of like church for dancers. I entered the dance floor and saw people stretching and people laughing and people smiling and reuniting and hugging. Already I was in awe. These people seemed so open. You could feel it in the room. You could also feel the excited fear in the room - we were about to embark on a journey, and none of us knew how we would be on the other side.

And so we began our walk. We walked without direction, finding the empty spaces, tentatively beginning to raise our eyes and see the other people there. Then, we released ourselves to the music.

Blues dancing was one thing. It taught me about surrender. This kind of dance was a completely different sort of being. And I was ecstatic. There was no right or wrong. No one was judging or watching. Everyone just moved how their body wanted to move, how their soul wanted to move. I fell in love immediately.

The next day I discovered my religion was movement. As we delved into Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms, I realized that I was on the cusp of a journey that would change my life. I realized that I was doing a primal dance, that these practices were part of the answers to all the my cries of sadness and attempts at initiation through the past five years. 

I flowed. In this dance, for the first time in my life, I found something infinite inside me. I didn’t know how it got there, among beats, among flowing music, in circles and circles. I realized I was the moon and tide. There was no up or down. I felt the more I just let the tide of dance take me, the closer I got to infinity. In my skin and blood, I felt beautifully and terrifyingly that I could not be drowned.

I was staccato. I was primal and old, calling to ancestors. I felt like stone, slashing with the beat. There were no smiles in my ancient rhythm. I was all stern, all defiance, all hold my own. I was an intention in every step. I was the reality of madness brewing. I called upon the ancient in those old drum beats. I called up on the stone through my stern old feet. I could have screamed but instead I just huffed with my every strike, knowing that defiance would never be enough.

I was chaos. It started with this foot here and that foot there, controlled by that drum. Then the chaos erupted and I found my body wouldn’t do my bidding. I was the drum. I was in close with universe and all - bouncing off the skin of the beat. The sticks controlled. My limbs rebounded. They turned. They dropped. Rag dolls on drum heads. The turn of the earth swallowed me whole and rattled and rumbled me in the stomach of surrender.

In lyrical I danced with a difficult question - Is this unadulterated happiness? Is this exuberance what they feel every day? It started as a pulse I felt inside, lifting to the sky and to the stars. I could feel the sun through the ceiling and the entire universe through the atmosphere, expanding above me. I was under but I was not crushed. I was opened - the whole of light pulsing in bold and caring strokes.

I was still. There was a tingling there. I knew it wasn’t my own. It was breathing me. It was holding a hand out. It was holding another hand to the earth. Everything was absorbed and felt at once. It was not overwhelming. It was a simple gesture. A small glow. A candle in the center. Complete. Whole.

my body drawing from Surfing the Creative 2014

my body drawing from Surfing the Creative 2014

As we danced through the heart plane the next day, I stood up after the fear dance and read my poem in the center of the circle. There were about half a dozen people dancing for me, interpreting my poem through movement, and the other seventy some Surfers made a wider circle around us, witnessing.

Keeping the tremble out of my voice, I started shouting, “You going to kill yourself, cutter??”

The dancers jolted as I continued, “You have to go near the arteries if you want to die - psycho. That’s inside the leg you worthless shit.

“These moments, stars, these moments, I can feel the forces boiling, boiling - There’s a maniac in this heart.” 

I spoke out loud in a voice so strong, telling them how no arguments could soothe this force inside me. 

“Steel to my skin, stainless to the blade, permanent to my body, and I am terrified of the aftermath - What if it won’t stop bleeding? What if I need stitches? What if I do hit the artery? But inside there’s a storm and it is so much louder. Inside there’s an illness and it holds so much power. To resist? Is to off, to bury deep that plunge. To indulge? Is to live, to feel, to be numb once more. So, cutter, maniac- psycho, illness. Do you have enough prescription labels or will this worthless voice inside write you more in blood?”

When I finished I was breathing heavily. My heart was in my throat, but I turned with a calm composure, albeit stiff. Arms outstretched, feet wide, I nodded my head once - a careless, defiant bow. I was ready to rush back to my seat, powerful staccato across the room, but Melissa stopped me.

“Take it in, sweetie. Take a breath,” she said.

I didn’t realize I needed a breath. I didn’t realize I needed anything. The dance had been about fear and in my hurried hand, I’d penned that poem and wrote “I’m Scared of Myself” at the top. I found more anger in it than fear. And maybe that’s what terrified me. In those moments afterwards though, I gazed in the eyes of my dancers, the ones who had felt my words intimately in their own movement, and I saw compassion there. I was stunned. They seemed more touched than I was in some ways. So my anger and my fear was not to be exuded and shut down, expressed and covered up. It was transformed in the bodies of these people. They transformed it into love. 

The next day, we danced mother and father. The day after, we danced wild child. It was the most ecstatic I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and still is. Even going back to Surfing the Creative year after year, wild child is better than any high, better than any drug, better than any party or anything supposedly “fun” I’ve ever partook in. We dress up - no limits. People in costumes, in paint, in scarves and feathers and boas. We dance undomesticated. We dance sensual. We dance sacred. We dance unapologetically.

It wasn’t only the dance and the rite of passage that really changed me. Surfing the Creative also attracted the most beautiful and raw people I’ve ever met in my entire life. Pages and pages of my journal entries were dedicated to making sure I wouldn’t forget them all. I wanted to remember all their beauty, but I knew it could never be captured.

We cleaned the floor and invited the elders of the community to discuss art and poetry and activism and queer and woman and man and anything we needed to learn from their experiences.

We drew our bodies and made dolls, colored sheets with oil pastels and wrote. We discussed how to change the world. We spoke intentions. I stood up and declared myself a dreamer, a lover, an artist, an activist, a human, saying my next step was to learn how to love myself. And love myself I would. 

I joined in the dreamers and visionaries and together we discussed all the things we wanted to change. I witnessed my fellow Surfers discuss the things they were doing in their communities, many of which were international. And for the first time I knew without a doubt that the world would be healed. That the work was already being done, that it was so entirely possible for the Earth to be a dance floor of soulful beings, and for the entire globe to have a community as compassionate as the one I found through dance. 

And at the end of the week,

“The dance is done.”

Melissa announced.

We called in the water, Earth, animals, air, plants, celestial beings in our Council of All Beings. We lit the fire and I watched the stars in quiet stillness, with guitar music and joyous celebration in the background. 

And I missed the community so immediately. I loved it there. It was nourishing, albeit transient, but nevertheless, the place where the world would be forever changed. 

The year after my first Surfing the Creative was tumultuous at best. I started college a month later and walked around that first week telling people I was “pretty great.” Everyone seemed taken aback when I answered “pretty great.” I guess most people expect “fine,” “good,” or “tired” to the question “How are you.” They were sure in for it when they asked me a year later and I’d answer “Divine.” 

My hair upon returning from my vision fast in 2015

My hair upon returning from my vision fast in 2015

Integration, at least for me, is the hardest part of any rite of passage. I would weave in and out of my old patterns, but still there was a spark in me that continuously burned, a stillness and a strength that I hadn’t been aware of before.

It would take another trip around the sun for me to fully step into myself. The next summer, I exploded, changing more in five weeks than in five years. I went on my first vision fast, returning from my solo to cut off 19 inches and 19 years of hair. I returned to Surfing the Creative to explode in the hearts of everyone there, feel the Earth aching beneath and inside me, beginning a starry dance with destiny.

There is a certain magic in remembering that first rite of passage, though. In terms of my own journey, Surfing the Creative gave me tools that 5 years of therapy and 3 years of medication never got close to. 


I remember distinctly one night a summer ago where I just couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. I laugh because this life and this planet are utterly strange, so entirely silly and so entirely preposterous…and yet so beautiful and so compassionate and so filled endlessly with love. And I laugh because I am bewildered. When I imagined “recovery” I thought it would look like ordinary contentment, and even that seemed impossible for a few years. Instead, my recovery was bewilderingly blissful, a feeling I honestly had never known existed. I never once thought myself here. Perhaps that is the meaning of my edge. 

I was stubborn and when my family physician told me in one of our meetings that I would have to learn how to love myself, I just furled my eyebrows, because I didn’t think that was possible, and truly it was the least useful advice I’d ever been given. And now I laugh because I do love myself. I laugh because I never thought I’d someday consider myself Divine, that someday I would look people in the eye and will them infinite love through my gaze. I never once thought I would embody tireless joy. And yet - here I am. Beyond my dreams. And it is so beautiful and inspiring and endless and scary and just…

Silly. So entirely silly. The way the planet works this way. My season of sorrow had ended, and my joy was so well-rested. The seasons circle again and again, but my heart had grown big enough to fit the world I wanted inside of it. And how exhilarating it is to see it expand more and more.


A letter to queer ancestors

Queer ancestors. If I send for you, will you grant me more than preposition? If I beg you, will you leave me more than shattered disposition? They paint me a world, they tell me exactly what is true, but what of you? Truth feels like daggers in my stomach, the persistent thought, the one I say I'll give a month but I know I need no moment longer. WHO am I? 

Ancestors. I am far from the soil of Norway. Were you loved then? The queer ones? Do your bodies trace the mappings of every gay boy's soil? If I begin digging, will I unearth the prepositions you left for me?

Our story. Erased like floods with every casket. Like each beating heart found the affirmation, the exclamation, the declaration. And each blood afterwards starts again. Could I find you in my DNA? Is my preposition written in the stars, a cosmic trail that leads me to whatever queer answers you may have been brought to? 

I am bound. I am undone. I have never been written before. And yet I beg you to tell me the ending. 

Instead, I'll bow. Cross a grin and let my body love what it loves. I know you'll be at my back.

Why I'm a drag king

Why I'm a drag king

Damian is unpredictably wild. You might catch his piercing eyes through tree silhouettes, confusing it for flame. He wants to shake the tree branches and tremble the earth. He is unasked, unheeded, rumor of war. At his best, he wants to tear down the structures that no longer serve us. At his worst, he is furious and tears it down without the discernment. He wants to stomp and swoop, careen across a dance floor and make all the girls swoon. He also happens to want to do all of these things without messing up his make-up.