an offering originally intended as two sessions of live story and council for the 2020 Wilderness Guides Council, which then shapeshifted forms in light of recent pathogenic happenings…
the container that this story exists within is the international community of rites-of-passage guides, the art of live storytelling and sacred theater, and the practice of council.
it is shared here, in this grossly alienated medium, outside of these contexts, with the intention that it may still find its way in the world and be in service to some.
for those who have the capacity, the invitation is to engage with these stories and questions within the container of your community and the practice of council, especially if you are a rites-of-passage guide.
The two stories – Identity and Belonging – are meant to stand apart from each other, with at least a day between the sharings, to allow for fermentation to happen before launching into a resolution.
audio recording available here: https://thetamarixproject.bandcamp.com/album/conjuring-the-axe-and-tabularasa-bearer-questions-for-identity-and-belonging
Conjuring the Axe and Tabularasa-bearer: Questions for Identity and Belonging
– a story and council –
Supposedly, we are known as homo sapiens, the ape who knows things, the thinking ape. Flattering, and perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, but that is to be forgiven under the circumstances. I have my doubts though. While we do know some things, I would offer an alternative designation of homo mythos – the ape who stories.
We are not the animals who know. We are the animals who believe, and what we believe are Stories. We create and believe the most wild and absurd stories you could ever imagine, and quite a few you couldn’t. There are footprints on the Moon and deserts that were once forests because of our capacity for Story. And not only do we believe these stories, we fight to defend them. Even at great cost, even at the expense of our physical bodies, our safety, happiness, even to the edge of our lives and the lives of those we love, we will fight to defend our Stories. We live for our stories to such a great extent that sometimes, it seems we are more story than animal.
We learn our first stories when we are very small, when we learn to keep our head down, or fight back, or shut the world out because it is not safe out there. From our caretakers, we learn the most foundational aspects of a working cosmology – what the world is, how we got here, and what we are supposed to do about it. Like a small sweater, made just right for little you, these first stories provided safety and comfort. But now maybe you are older, and that sweater you put on when you were small does not fit so well. Maybe it’s actually constricting you, choking you, keeping you small. Maybe it keeps you from going out and doing things you want to do. Maybe it causes you so much pain that you hurt yourself and those around you. It’s not the sweaters fault that it doesn’t fit you anymore, it simply needs to be taken off, or maybe it has grown so tightly that it needs to be cut off.
Of course you have tried every trick in the book to make the sweater work – maybe you dyed it a different color, cut the sleeves off, sewed on patches where it has grown thin, went to therapy, shaved your head, you get the idea. Eventually, you arrived at a moment when you realized that despite all you’ve done to make this old sweater fit, to make the old story work, it is simply time to do something different.
So you have decided that you are ready to take off this old friend and try to imagine something bigger for yourself. Perhaps you sign up for something like a vision fast, or whatever the kids are calling it these days, and in a few months time you find yourself sitting in the sand underneath a wind-flapping tarp along with a handful of other homo mythos who have arrived at similar conclusions about their state of being in the world.
So here you are, sitting in the circle, and it comes time for you to share about your story, your mythos, what brought you here. You describe as best you can what you understand about your old story, that threadbare sweater you’ve been living in for the past few decades, and some of your intimations about what or who you are here to claim. This is a raw, beautiful, and bizarre moment, one where you strip down to the naked bones of who you are in front of absolute strangers, as kind as they may be, and realize, in a moment of terrifying clarity, how absurd this business of being human really is. This identity that you’ve been going along with for all these years is really just an accumulation of stories – I don’t eat brussel sprouts, I don’t dance, I like foreign language films, people will abandon me if they really get to know me, etc. – and you are not required to continue believing any of them. Incredible realization.
So we’ve gotten down to the raw stuff of you, sitting there in the circle, in all your awkward and beautiful humanness. Now what? The ceremony, the fast, the big shebang, of course. Four days of sweating, sitting, sleeping, not sleeping, shivering, walking, journaling, dreaming, cursing, chanting, praying, masturbating, and listening. And then you come back, and there is great rejoicing and feasting amongst your popup village, and you sit down underneath that flapping tarp and you tell your story.
It is a beautiful and wild story, or perhaps it is a simple and profound story, or even an intense and difficult story, but it is your story and your guides are there to midwife your infant-fresh story into the world with the most skillful love and care you have ever experienced, and then, wonder of wonders, give this remarkable story back to you. Magical, powerful stuff, this work is.
You still might not realize how important and precious this moment is. You are now at the crossroads of your life. What you will do with this experience, how you will choose to carry this story, is of enormous importance, both to you and the rest of the world.
So let’s pause for a moment, step back from the circle of humans sprawled out across the desert floor, and consider this crossroads. As a rites-of-passage guide, I have great respect and wonder at this moment of the work. This human, against all odds and contrivances set against them, has done an enormously hard thing, perhaps one of the hardest things a human can ever do. They have exposed themselves entirely to the world, they have called an all-hands meeting for their council of all beings, they have accessed the deep mythic structure of their soul, and are now sitting there, in front of me, with sand in their hair and trust in their eyes, and they are asking the world in the most beautiful way they know how, “Who am I? What is my story? How am I to live in the world?”
As I have come to understand it, the terrain of ceremony and initiation stands to seriously address this most important question that any being, human or not, will ever ask. Being a rites-of-passage guide – that is, being at least partially responsible for the tending and midwifing of this question – is something to take very very seriously. This is sacred work.
Now that we are communing as initiates of a sacred order of sorts, here’s a trade-secret, from one guide to another: This question is really two questions: “What is the story of the world?” and “What is my story within that?”
While they are two different questions, they are almost always found wrapped up together, as they feed each other, they inform and influence each other. How one understands the Way, the Tao, the Story of the World will greatly influence what sort of story you can imagine for yourself within that world.
As a rites-of-passage guide, it seems enormously important for me to therefore try my damndest to always be listening to and trying to understand the Story of the World, so that I might help a few humans find their own story within that. The trouble is, of course, that there are a great many “stories-of-the-world” out there, and they’re rarely that honest about their origins and intentions. Sure, there are a few that most folks showing up to a fast in the desert have probably divested themselves of some time ago – those descended from the old goat-herding sky-gods and Semitic volcano-demons – but there are also those stories-of-the-world who are more politically savvy, mercurial, and innocuous in their presentation.
Here’s another trade-secret: the way to measure the current success or power of a story-of-the-world, also known as a Myth, is by how invisible it is. Once a Myth can be pointed to, and described, the game is largely up. If a Myth is hard or impossible to point to because it is so closely identified with what is considered reality, then that is a very powerful Myth indeed, one to approach with utmost respect and caution. That is, if you can even see it.
So here we are, madly pointing at invisible stories in the air, and we still have an initiate waiting back in the circle. What Myths might be dreaming this one, how many stories-of-the-world would love to claim her, what great pantheon of deities awaits her decision? A multitude, to be sure, yet here I am concerned with only one. I am concerned because I see this Myth claiming many who come to this ceremony, guides and fasters, and I have my doubts as to his origins and intentions. For I have tracked this one, I have followed the course of his long tail into the darkness, slipping past the curtains of consensus reality as I finger-trace each secret vertebrae one-by-one. There I have found where his roots lie, the throat that spoke him into being, the sleeping animal that dreams him.
I go and sit next to Deer Creek, at a bend in the water underneath a majestic Cottonwood. I take a deep breath, draw my circles of intention and protection around me in the sand, and call on my allies, my familiars, my ancestors, any who would claim me… whether by blood, lineage, or just because they like the looks of me. Thus arrayed, I evoke, I invoke, I throat-summon the story of Identity. I call out his name into the world, and demand that he stand and present himself. I demand a full accounting of this Myth and what he wants with my people.
After a few moments of waiting, he does not appear. Impressive, A powerful myth indeed. Very well, let us conjure him. “I, Tamarix of Boulder Mountain, Water and Shadow-dreaming son of Cedar, antlered child of the Helvetii, do summon you, Identity. I call forth your forms and ways, I invoke your story. I know of your ancestry, your people, I have traced the winding branch of your lineage all the way back to the first tree. You, Identity, descendant of Idem, that old Roman word carrying the meaning of Identical or Same. How you managed the trick of telling a story of uniqueness and difference is a whole story in itself, and an impressive one, I might add.”
As I speak, a cool breeze stirs the air, Cottonwood leaves dance in the space in front of me, the energy shifts, slightly.
“Identity, born of severance and master of severance, you who hold the great axe of severance. This you offer to my people who call on you in their moments of despair and desperation, those wanting to sever from the world tree that bore them, from their roots, from their stories of pain and displacement, cutting any connections or obligations to the past and starting over, building their own stories from…. from what exactly?”
A form coalesces, as a whirlwind or a cloud appears, something from nothing, order emerging from chaos. But still no response. So I continue.
“Identity, you most powerful of myths, bearer of the tabula rasa, the blank slate. This you offer to my people who come to you in their loneliness and disconnection. This is a great magic, one I have respect and even appreciation for. For a people who have endured as much suffering, displacement, war, genocide, slavery, and forced migration as my people have, what you offer is a great and welcome relief. You offer my people the ability to write their own stories, to numb the pain and start from scratch, to start over, to create, to invent something new, magical, and never before seen, from the raw materials of… of what exactly?”
A deep chuckle now, raw and earthy, then a voice, “You have spoken well, son of Cedar, you have conjured me, and you have seen me. I am the axe-wielder and the blank slate-bearer, I do receive the prayers and petitions of your people, and I do grant them relief from the great pains of longing. You who have drawn me out, who have woken me from the deep-dreaming of the world, I will answer one question from.”
I smile and give a little bow. I have been preparing for this. I feel into the hollow longing-space of my chest, my compass for truth-speaking, and reply, “Identity, I have a question on behalf of my people, those who come to you seeking the medicine of the axe and blank-slate you bear. When you swing the axe true and have done your great work, and the one lies before you, sprawled out and dripping blood-sap onto the blank slate of their future story, what are they to write with? What tools, what instruments are they to craft their own story, their identity out of?
“When the young one returns from her cocoon time in the desert and rejoins her people, if she is living inside your story, if she has sworn allegiance to your Way, if she is a true child of modernity, and post-modernity, a child born into the endlessly self-referential cycles of absurdity and meaninglessness that our culture churns out like so many plastic childrens toys, and if she truly believes that she, like one of these toys – a Mrs. Potato Head, perhaps – is a blank slate, a blank face, with a few holes that she can attach various identity parts onto as she is so inclined, then where, Identity, did these various ears, hats, noses, and assorted identity parts come from and who made them? If she is living in your world and is seeking to claim her story, what stories are you offering?”
A deep rumbling chuckle, that turns into a belly laugh, that gains intensity and spills into the canyon, echoing back to fold in on itself. “Again, well spoken, water-and-shadow-dreamer. You’ve been talking to the Oaks, haven’t you? If you’ve made it this far, why ask me the question? You must already know?”
Perhaps, but I want you to say it, son of Idem, son of Id. I want you to tell your story in front of these people, so they might know what type of world you are creating, and determine for themselves if they are to live in the world you are dreaming, or not.
“It is no small thing you ask, Oak-seer, for this involves my master, a Myth far larger and more powerful than I, a Myth you may not be prepared to deal with or understand.” I nod for him to continue. “The identities that one can imagine for themselves in my world are born from that great and most revered of Myths – the Commodity. Descended from the Old French commodit and the Latin commodus, the joining of the branches “com” meaning “with, together” and “modus” meaning “to measure,” the Commodity is the weight and scale-bearer, the one who brings all of Life together to be measured, weighed, analyzed, evaluated, examined, and ultimately given its value.
The Commodity has brought every animal, plant, mineral, idea, interaction, exchange, feeling, and experience together, every drop of water, every square foot of earth, even the air we breathe. He has measured them all according to his inscrutable formula, and has decided upon their value. The Commodity’s monomythic language of value is so pervasive that your people can hardly imagine a world not mediated by his scales and weights. He has so dreamed himself into the very fabric of your reality, your people have almost lost the ability to conceptualize value or feel into the deep inestimable beauty of an experience or interaction or relationship that is not mediated by the Commodity.
The great architect of worth, the Commodity, has created the identities that your people, especially your young ones, are picking up and writing their stories with on the blank slate that I have given them. As they write their own stories, they must use the ink of the Commodity, as they rummage through the bin of Identity parts to adorn their blank faces with, as they seek to understand and claim who they are in this world made by the Commodity, as they pick out the various isms and hashtaggable labels available to them, they are being initiated into the world of the Commodity, they become Commodities, they are reborn as children of the Commodity.
As they are initiated into his world, your people can only understand their stories through his language. In their attempts to claim their true place in the world, they are limited by what the Commodity has already made for them. If an Identity does not exist within the world that the Commodity has dreamed, if it cannot be Commodified, then it shall not exist. Commodito, Ergo Sum…”
With that the form suddenly disappears, not waiting to be dismissed, returning quickly to one of his holy shrines, perhaps Instagram.
His words fall from his mouth lightly, as snow, settling to the ground, and then dissolving into the sandy banks of Deer Creek. The myth of Identity was dreamed by the great myth of Commodity. And of course Commodity was dreamed by an ever bigger animal, but that’s a story for another time. These are no small truths, no minor realizations. This has great bearing for those coming to us seeking to claim their truth, wondering what stories they might be called to carry into the world.
There is a bow of gratitude to be extended towards Identity, for he has indeed provided a way forward, as aspen shoots seek life and roots seek water, a way of drawing meaning from the horrifying vacuousness of modernity. Identity grants us access to the great bin of identity-parts and lets us try some on. As these identities are easily picked up, they are easily put down, there is no great cost to acquiring or divesting oneself of an identity. They do not come with much obligation, they do not bind you to anything, you are “free” to develop the sexiest and most interesting identity you can imagine for yourself.
The pain of not belonging, of being alone and adrift in the world, is so unbearably significant that of course we fetishize and deify our disconnection. It is sometimes the most meaningful thing we can do with our suffering and confusion. No wonder our children are living in vans and drifting from place to place, being “free” from obligation or belonging, claiming the identity of wanderer. We find others who identify as we do to seek a semblance of belonging – but without the bonds of kinship, without the deep knowing of being claimed. The axe severs and the blank slate awaits, what more could a child of this confusing jumble of a world ask for?
Yet, the Myth of Identity conceals an ontology – a deep story of the fabric of Being – of separateness, of difference, of disconnection. An Identity is created, maintained, and defended from the outside world by the Self, by how you would like to be experienced by others. The heart of Identity obscures an ontology which binds you into a discreet encapsulated ego, which defines the ways in which you are different from others, the ways in which you are unique, the ways in which you are separate from other beings. The temporary relief of finding community within a network of similarly identified humans conceals a deeper story of disconnection, alienation, and isolation.
So this is the Myth, the story-of-the-world of Identity, as I have understood it. It might be a perfectly acceptable story to live by, there are certainly many who think so. Plenty of humans have already been born, lived out the sum of their days, and died under his banner, with no great fuss. It is a prudent story that I wouldn’t forcibly take from anyone.
Yet it remains to be seen if this story is in service to Life, in service to the Big Story, the Old-Woman Weaving story, the Sleeping Mountain story. If I have indeed been claimed by this great and noble work of guiding and midwifing the stories of humans into the world, then this question demands my full and impartial attention. What sort of a world are we initiating our people into, especially our young ones? What myths are we, knowingly or not, in service to? What does it really mean to claim an Identity and is that how this work wants to live in the world?
This is not “round”. There is no happy ending or simple resolution. This is a cliffhanger. I have invited grief, longing, unsettling, and some big questions into this circle and this council, with the intention of letting them be what they are without needing to rush through and find answers or solutions. There is a time for pushing through the detritus to find life, and a time for settling into the cold and uncertainty of winter.