Rite Passages (2)

A long time ago, I spent a hard-working day with the kinds of friends who are, really, found family. One of us (we’ll call her Missy), the sweetest and kindest one of us all, was moving into a new apartment.

The rest of us were picking up and driving, toting and sorting, unpacking and washing, and hammering and hanging, and Missy was running around, angling to carry the heaviest things herself, apologizing that people were working too hard, and trying to make the whole experience light and pleasant for everyone but herself.

It was a passage time for Missy; she had lived with an aging relative for a very long time, using all her skills of empathy and compassion to make those last years rich and meaningful.

The death of the family member also meant the loss of her home.

But Missy was not a complainer. She packed up her meager belongings, found a big, light-filled second floor flat closer to her work, and she prepared to move.

She didn’t ask for help, because Missy just doesn’t do that. But one of the women in our little group got wind of what was going on. She called us and she organized us.

So we were all on hand to move Missy.

And it was fun. It is always more fun to work hard at someone else’s house, to do their dishes and vacuum their floors and organize their cabinets (which Missy probably rearranged to her own satisfaction the next day).

And when it was all done, when Missy had a freshly made bed to sleep on and clothes folded neatly in drawers, when her cereal was safely stashed in the kitchen cupboard, and there was a new carton of milk in the newly-chilled refrigerator, when we had wrestled stubborn windows open, and lit candles to eliminate the lingering scent of cigarettes smoked long, long, ago—well, then the pizza arrived.

The pizza arrived, and maybe, along with it, came some icy cold beers.


We pulled random chairs up to Missy’s newly scrubbed kitchen table, and Missy apologized for her charmingly mismatched dishes, and someone mentioned bridal showers.

Bridal showers, that person said, are often wasted on brides.

And that (and that icy cold beer, perhaps) set us off.

There should be showers for people when, like Missy, they have a major life change, not just when they get married. Right? someone demanded.

Why not divorce showers? someone suggested.

How about, My last kid is gone to college showers? someone else put in.

Or wait, someone said, why not a shower when it’s been thirty years since you’ve bought new anything, and you can see through your dishcloths and bath towels, they’re so worn down?

We ate pizza, we thought about all the sadly un-showered events of adulthood, and we drank beer, and we got silly; our suggestions grew more and more outrageous.

But now I look back and I think, why not? Why didn’t we have a shower for Missy when her life changed radically, and when she was bravely setting up a whole new home?


I wish we had coming of age rituals for kids beginning to stare down that tunnel where the light at the other end is adulthood.

I wish we had rites for all those important passages we make after we emerge from the tunnel, too.


Peter Prevos (https://prevos.net/humanities/sociology/ritual/) writes, “According to the psychological approach, all people have a psychological need to have the support of ritual in their lives.”

The Akoma Unity Center says, “Rites of passage foster a sense of renewal, since they mark the beginning of a new phase in our lives.” (https://akomaunitycenter.org/what-are-rites-of-passage-and-why-are-they-so-important/)

I think of Missy, at 38 or so, beginning a new life on her own, alone, once her noisy, beery friends rolled down her back stairs and raucously departed. I imagine her awake until deep into the night, trying to imagine what the future looked like, jumping at unfamiliar creaks, feeling bereft and unguided.

Think of the challenges (welcome and unwelcome) we face as adults: new roles, new family members, divorce and dissolution of relationships, other separations, economic challenges, career changes, relocation, daunting diagnoses for ourselves or folks we love, unexpected opportunities, retirement, redesign.


Once I sat with three good friends; all of us had been through job changes and job losses. We were warm and intelligent women, with families, friends, and interests; we were passionate about varied causes, eager to make meaningful marks on our places in the world. We sat together in a little cafe for three hours; we ate, and we signaled for endless cups of coffee.

And we talked about work: not the work ahead, but the work that was gone. We circled it, round and round; we spun that topic so hard it drilled a deep hole in the ground. We plunged, and we sat at the bottom of the hole, and we talked about the pain and the lack of recognition; we pulled out unjust incident after unjust incident. We battered ourselves, dwelling on the unfairness of it all.

The hole we’d drilled was so deep, we had trouble pulling ourselves out.


But what if we’d done something else?

What if, say, after the tearing separations from jobs we had invested so heavily in, what if we had each taken some time to ourselves? What if each of us had poured the loss out onto pages, writing down the pain and the injustice,–what if we wrote it down and then set it aside, and spent time, just by ourselves, reading a favorite book, watching a favorite movie, listening to the music that always moved us? What if we cleared a big block of time and spent it honoring ourselves, respecting ourselves, by indulging in things that made us happy?

And then, having deliberately spent that painful/healing time, say we gathered at a beautiful state park on a clear late afternoon, greeting each other with hugs and joy at reconnecting and tears. Someone brought charcoal, and someone else brought lighter fluid. We poured the fire-making matter into a venerable metal barbecue grill, the kind that’s cemented into the ground on a sturdy metal pole, and we each produced the pages we’d written, the papers filled with the pain and loss and shock of those endings.

We took turns placing the papers on top of the charcoal, and the lighter fluid wielder splashed on some more.

A match flared; the paper caught.

We stood and watched the records of our pain blacken and burn and turn to smoke; and we let it go.

And when the papers were ash and the charcoal glowed, we put boneless chicken and aluminum foil packets of summer squash, new potatoes, green onions, carrots sliced sliver thin–fresh tender veggies basted in olive oil and christened with herbs—on the grill. And someone poured drinks, and someone pulled out plates and silverware and a beautiful pan of frosted brownies, and we sat down at a table covered with a lovely linen cloth, and we ate and we talked.

We talked for three hours, but this time, the topic was, “What’s next?”

And we dreamed together: now that the fetters are off, what can I do that I’ve always wanted to do?

The sun set, the coals turned to embers, the embers to cold ash, and we hugged once more and packed things up, and we headed off into the new lives we were just about to create.

We promised to meet again in a month and celebrate the changes we’d begun to live.


Our needs for comfort and reassurance might have been better met if we’d done THAT instead of drilling ourselves into that hole over coffee.


Prevos invokes Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), a French anthropologist who coined the term and the concept, ‘rite of passage.’ Gennep suggested that a successful ritual for adults navigating important transitions includes three stages:

  • Separation
  • Transition
  • Reincorporation

Think of what usually happens. We enter a major life change by flinging ourselves at it, running pell mell toward it, grappling it and wrestling it to the ground.

Or we stand off to the side, refusing to enter the change that is going to happen anyway. We damn and blast the change. We decline to take part. Instead, we worry the change’s cause like a dog with a rat, shaking it viciously, repeatedly, by the neck.

Not believing that passage is truly dead, we have a hard time letting it go.

A time of separation gives us the space to grieve or celebrate—some passages are wonderful, after all,—to turn backward and let things go, to wheel around and eyeball what looks like it lies ahead.

A time of transition gifts us with people who care about us, who encourage us, who offer great ideas, and maybe even wield a paint roller or bring a cold drink when we’re exhausted from the efforts of getting ready. We gear up. We stock up. We rest up.

We begin to believe it’s quite possible this whole new venture will work.

And then we launch back in, reincorporating, eager to know how we’ll fit into this new tabletop puzzle now that the colors have changed and the pattern has shifted just a bit.


Oh, think of the things we grown-ups go through: major moves. New relationships, or changes in old ones. The loss of friends, the loss of dreams, the loss of parents and siblings and children.

The growth of new dreams. The gift of new people in our lives.

We change jobs. We change titles. We get fired. We get hired. We retire.

We take trainings; we earn degrees.

We move into bigger digs.

We downsize.

We navigate new cities and towns.

We move back home.

The damned dog dies, and an era ends.

We lose weight or we gain it.

Children arrive and grow and go away.

Children arrive and grow and go away and COME BACK.

Once we turn 21, the changes don’t end. The passages continue.


I like the idea of renewal, of some sort of a meaningful marking that allows us to contemplate the change, to decide how we’ll traverse it, and to shape the new life the change engenders. And, like coming of age rituals, I think each successful rite of passage should end with a celebration—even in COVID days, when the party might only have three attendees, or the trip may be to a cottage by the lake instead of to a bustling city’s museums and restaurants and theaters.

Maybe the celebration is a book or shirt or painting we give ourselves.

But the change has happened, and we mark it.


I bet it’s been thirty years since we moved Missy into her first solitary apartment. I’m thinking it might be time for an “I can see through my dishcloths” shower.

12 thoughts on “Rite Passages (2)

      1. Marilyn Kerwin

        This is a very timely article for me and very helpful and uplifting. Although I retired three years ago and was embarked on a retirement “career”, that has been upended by Covid. The things I had planned have had to change. So the notion of taking some time to transition again and reincorporate is helpful as I am trying to navigate another “new beginning”. Thanks!

      2. You are so welcome, Marilyn! I don’t know about you, but I am a planner, and when things disrupt my plans, I am often knocked for a loop. The idea of stopping out and recalibrating really helps me get back into balance. Good luck with all the transitions you’re navigating!

  1. Kim Allen

    Another thought-filled article. I realize the rite of passages can take different forms and called different names. I bought my first house in the spring of 2005. That November I turned fifty, and had an simple soup et. Open House beginning in the afternoon and going into the night for turning fifty and buying my first house before that. I invited people from all parts of my life current and past. Looking back it was a rite of passage, and a blessing for the beginning of a new life. Twelve years later, I unexpectedly retired, a response to an unimaginable bad work situation and response. My rite of passage was truly something I felt in my soul, but it looked very different. No retirement party. But instead I crafted a new life. I engaged in a women’s hiking club, and loved actually and metaphorically being on the move, I interviewed retired people on what retirement meant to them, created new possibilities for myself, connected with people moving in their own changes (yourself!), read about women going through stage of life changes. etc. This stage is fluid. I am always reviewing. I have added another layer by deciding to let my hair go white, another rite of passage, symbolizing freedom for me, lightness, being true to myself and sage hood. You explain that rite of passages can be simple and private and are then so accessible ( it doesn’t have to be a big event) and I think that it so true. I even think the pandemic is fertile ground for rites of passages as we examine pre and post. I will read this article again. Thank you. I would love to read something from you about women entering sage hood.

    1. Kim, we’ve been traveling a lot of the same paths! I agree–celebrations can be small and personal but deeply meaningful, or larger and broader and still full of meaning.

      I am struck by your 50th birthday celebration, with the people from all stages of your life, and then your hiking response to a toxic departure…a clear message that you’re still moving forward. Both of those just seem so right!

      Thank you for the thought and the prompt about women entering sage hood…that will percolate…

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