I apologize if I haven’t been posting as often. As you may be aware, I have been offered a publishing deal to collect some of the essays from this blog, as well as Dying for a Diagnosis, into a series of books, the first being focused on spirit work and shamanism. I am in the process of writing new essays specifically for the book, so that’s been where a lot of my writing spoons have been going to. But I promise not to let this blog go fallow in the meantime; this essay is not likely to be included in the first book, but it leaped out of my fingers and onto the page – like most of my essays do – so here it is.
Many of us feel lost, alone, abandoned. We mope our way through life, doing what we think we’re supposed to, little more than children afraid if we step outside the box of expectation, that some Cosmic Hand will come down and deprive us of pleasure until we surrender back into what it is that we think we’re supposed to be doing. Day in, day out, the days blend together; without the invention of the weekend, we’d never know to stop working and get a little sleep.
Once in a great while, something will come along and afford us the opportunity to have an adventure. But how many times have you heard about something, felt a longing for it deep in your bones, but let the voices of scarcity convince you to stay home? I don’t have enough money. I should be cleaning my house. I need to get more sleep. My body won’t be comfortable traveling for that long. It’s scary and unknown, and I need more comfort in my life.
And then those who invited us on this adventure we’ve turned away from return, and their stories are filled with wonder and exploration, and they come away with some deeper connection (to people, to themselves, to a greater meaning, etc), and we do everything we can to comfort ourselves again, that it wasn’t meant to be, that it would have been different if we had gone with them, that we would have held them back, or in some other way been a weight on the buoy of their transformation.
Then it comes time for us to tell a story about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going, and we can’t think of anything to tell. No one wants to hear about six months of going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching some tv, and going to sleep, a diligent consumer doing what is expected of them. There is no excitement, no story, no moral, no journey. We shy into the background, feeling ashamed of our complacent life. We yearn for something more, but the yearning passes as soon as we go back to what is familiar.
Many people ask me about ordeal, and they’re surprised when I tell them about my own; we expect ordeal to be physically painful, to be about blood and sweat and tears, and we turn away from that and let it be the story of other people. I have enough pain in my life, we tell ourselves, and I don’t desire to be in any more of it. But my story, my ordeal experience, looked nothing like what someone would expect. Many people come to me for ordeals because in their mind, “ordeal ritual” and “hook suspension” have somehow become linked; in the same vein, more ordeal workers than I can count have asked (or sometimes demanded) that I teach them hook suspension, because they feel without that knowledge they are somehow lesser. But my ordeal, my most transformative experience, had nary a hook in sight.
People get angry when they ask me to facilitate an ordeal for them, and when I come back with my ideas there is no black leather, no floggers, no bondage, no masochism, no pain. This happens even more often when the potential ordeal dancer is involved in the world of kink; because we speak of kink scenes as being cathartic, as being “ordeal like”, they come to assume all ordeals have some sort of kink element involved. My ordeal happened at a family-friendly event, in front of children; in fact, there were aspects to my ordeal that attracted children to me while it was going on. And there was no black leather, no whips and chains, no sexy dominatrices forcing me to my knees. My ordeal did not happen in a darkened room fitted out to look like a torture chamber or dungeon; my ordeal happened in the middle of a green field, at the peak of summer, during the afternoon.
You’re probably yelling in your head, “Well, tell me about your ordeal, then, Del!” But the denial of that desire, that place of expectation, that desperateness to sate the uncomfortable feeling of unknowing, the fear of being the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on; that is the spark from which ordeal is made. We have to find a deeper truth to our lives, in the corners where we do not know all the answers, do not know what to expect, can not set our watches by how long it will take, and most importantly, be in a realm where success is not assured. In order to truly engage in the realm of ordeal, there must be the chance that you’ll never know the real answer. In most ordeals, we only learn that we are asking the wrong questions, over and over again, increasing in volume; if we’re lucky enough to get the answer, it is never a comfort. It only reminds us that we aren’t thinking big enough, wide enough; stuck once again in our boxes of expectation and instantaneous comfort.
Many times, in fact, someone will approach me and detail to me exactly what their ordeal should be. They’ve thought about it down to the last detail; they’ve cast all the characters and chosen the stage, they might have even purchased the tools ahead of time, so that they could feel them first hand. And it pains me, so deeply, as one experienced in facilitating ordeal, because my first and most plentiful order of business is to disavow them of their vision. They’ve created the false ordeal; the one they know they can succeed, the one where they control what happens, where they’ve played it out in their head until it’s lost all sense of potential loss of control, or potential to fail. Many ordeal dancers have gone on, decided to find an ordeal master who will do exactly what they say, exactly how they say it, and unfortunately there are a bevy of ordeal facilitators who, feeling unsure in their own ego, will take the job and execute it perfectly. And yet, somehow, the dancer is back at my door, begging me to explain why their ordeal meant nothing to them, why it didn’t sate the need they had.
My ordeal was completely unplanned. I didn’t have any time to create expectations, and I think it was sprung on me such because I’m the kind of person who likes to rehearse conversations in my head before I get to the party; if I had known I would be challenged in such a way, I would have spent weeks thinking over the hows and wheretos and in the end I would have learned nothing. I would be so caught up in the steps, I’d forget the dance altogether. I also had no facilitator other than myself (although I did ask a friend to spot me a bit, just in case), because honestly, if I could not be both master and dancer at the same time, I needed to get out of the business of providing ordeal.
Have you had enough discomfort yet?
To me, an ordeal is nothing if the story is never told. It doesn’t have to be shouted from the treetops, but even if you just send me an email a few days later, describing what happened to me from your own perspective, and I delete the email after reading it and it is never spoken of again, it is the story that brings the most healing. We need to feel like we have had a significant experience, one that is worthy of story telling, that brings us from faceless drone to Hollywood celebrity, even if it’s just in our own minds.
The other half of this truth or dare game, is that sometimes ordeal is not the right path for you. Even if you’re kinky. Even if you’re open to body modifications. And it could be that those things are why ordeal may not be what you need. Sometimes, we can’t figure out what it will take to move us forward, when the secret is that you just have to do it. The ordeal may be hearing the truth: you don’t need a ritual, you need to do something. The ritual may be fun and fill your desire to be the center of attention, and it may even help you enter into an altered state of consciousness, but if what’s really holding you back is you, nothing I or any other ordeal master can do will get you past that first step. You can’t go back to school if you don’t fill out an application. You can’t move on from your past relationship if you keep reading their Facebook statuses and blogs and sending them emails just to have them respond to you. You can’t heal from the death of a loved one if you keep doing things and saving things that remind you of that loss. If you need to dress up that first step through a ritual, that’s okay; but you also have to remember that it’s just a first step, and that the ritual won’t do the work for you. Nor will the ordeal master. Only you, pulling up your big kid pants and doing something proactive will get you where you want to go.
That was a key to my ordeal, too. I could have chosen to stop, sit, think about the fear I was about to face, and instead of just pushing forward and doing what needed to be done in order to achieve the result, I could have waited and written an elaborate ritual with lots of “smells and bells”, as we call them, and then scheduled it for six months hence, hoping that in that time somehow I would feel more comfortable with what I was about to do. But there it is again, the enemy of ordeal, comfort. So instead of waiting for all the trappings and orchestrations of a ritual to insulate my experience, I just took my damn clothes off.
That was my ordeal. I was at a Pagan event at a local summer camp, where nudity is common. I never walked around nude; I have too many body issues, ranging from gender dysphoria to fear about being fat. My body is shaped oddly. I have a humped back/neck (a genetic gift), a large torso with small limbs (chicken legs, as Rave is wont to say, or an egg on sticks), a belly that hangs low on my thighs, skin so pale I glow, and a lot of scars. I have no need to prance around with all of that in people’s faces; I’m better looking when I’m clothed. So the first step in my ordeal was just to take off my clothes.
In many ordeals, an integral part is stripping away our artifices. We have to stand metaphorically, if not literally, naked in the eyes of those who witness. Ordeal is about showing and facilitating parts of yourself that you’d rather keep hidden; your fear, your rage, your failures, your shortcomings. If you can’t be honest about what those are, the ordeal is meaningless. You must be willing, enthusiastic even, about standing in the fullness of that which you’d otherwise hide. If you’re not ready to bare it in front of witnesses, you’re not ready for an ordeal.
My fear? Thunderstorms. I know many of my friends revel in the power and might that can be felt in the air, on the skin, when the skies turn dark and the clouds rumble. I feel lost and alone, like I’m going to be swallowed up, blinded and deaf, and that everything I love will be destroyed. I have suffered much loss at the hands of weather, and it seems thunderstorms are the reminder of that pain. Admittedly, my fear of thunderstorms isn’t wholly rational, but few fears are. I had originally left the group of my friends who were settling in to watch the storm, with the intent of hiding in the cabin until the worst of it had passed.
But when I got inside, I heard over the staff radios that they were looking for people to patrol different parts of camp, making sure the attendees were making safe decisions. As Pagans are wont to do, many of them were stripped down and dancing in the storm, and however wonderful that may have felt, the storm was raging dangerously close to tornado, and even though the cabins would provide little safety if the winds really got going, it was safer to be inside than out under the trees. So the staff were looking for people to make sure the attendees were inside their cabins, and that they had some form of communication there should we need to move into the stronger shelters if a tornado touched down.
There’s a moment when you’re crafting an ordeal, that you get this inner sense of being on the right track. You just know you’ve found the heart of the challenge, whatever it may be. Often, it’s something that you stumble upon, rather than find or know; asking a dancer to take off their shoes, you learn he has never walked barefoot on dirt before, and PING. There’s the real challenge. This was my PING moment, that I knew my calling to service was stronger than my fear of the storm. And the best and most convenient way for me to discharge this duty was to take off my clothes; after all, who wants to walk around in sopping wet jeans for hours? Especially when there isn’t a dryer in sight?
So in the face of my fear of nudity, coupled with my extreme dislike of thunderstorms, I knew that the challenge being set before me was to get out there and do my job. Naked. In not just a storm, but one so bad it could become a tornado any minute. I stripped off my clothes (except for a pair of hiking sandals, so I could handle all the walking and have a little traction), and readied myself to go out into my fear. On the cubby-closet sat a large rubber duck, a gift from a friend, the duck as big as a 13” television. My intuition said to take it with me, so as I walked out of the cabin, my inventory was:
-one pair of hiking sandals
-one staff radio, encased in a ziplock bag to keep it as dry as possible
-one 13” rubber duck
-a lifetime of fears
My friends were baffled. Less than three minutes ago, I had declared that I was going into the cabin to hide from the storm, and now I was striding out, butt-naked, with my head held high and my left arm curled around a large rubber duck. They blinked in disbelief as they watched me go down to the place I had been dispatched to, the middle of a large hill, and start telling campers they had to go into their cabins. There was something about the rubber duck that made me seem more friendly, approachable, and less of a tyrant trying to end their Pagan-y fun, dancing around in the rain. A small boy came up to me and asked me what my duck’s name was.
“Well, what’s your name?”
“Max,” he replied, seeming very proud.
“Well, that’s funny. My duck is named Max, too. And this Max says that it’s safer for you to be in your cabin until the storm dies down a bit.”
And here’s the real moral of my story. I could have easily chosen to lay down in my bunk, reading a book until the storm passed. I could have done what I thought was expected of me, bowed to the comfort of what I would normally choose. I could have let my fear dictate my actions.
But then I wouldn’t have this awesome story to tell.
And when I die, I want the memories of my friends to be littered with stories like these. I want them to stay up, late into the evening, warmed by a campfire, as they trade stories of my life’s adventures, never being sure which parts I exaggerated or blatantly made up, and which ones were true stories of derring-do. Isn’t that what we all want? I can’t think of a single person who would be happy having their epitaph being “They always arrived to work on time, stayed late when asked, and their house was spotless.” We all want to be heroes of our own mythic journey, have stories to tell our children and grandchildren, making them proud to be related to someone with moxie.
So here’s my question for you: Truth or Dare: What’s your story?
That’s just…. beautiful. I have no other words. I’m going to think about My Story.
I am so, so glad to see an ordeal master talking about the fact that all those hooks-and-pain-and-blood ordeals are not actually useful for everyone, they are not one-size-fits-all and may not even be a challenge for some people. While I use less intensive forms of pain and sacrifice in my Work and devotion regularly, there are things for me, like for you, that are much more outside my comfort zone and provide true ordeals. I am in the midst of one right now, a prolonged emotional ordeal that took me totally by surprise when it began, and deeply challenges me even though it might not even seem difficult to another person with different wiring. (Being in the middle of it, I’m not ready to tell the story yet.) You’re right, the key is that success can not be guaranteed, and that the ordeal truly pokes at the most tender parts of one’s soul. For me, that takes a lot more courage than facing some sharp metal bits going through my skin.
I think you touch upon a very basic principle here that goes way beyond ‘ordeals’ or the pagan/kink community. Simply put, life is far more fulfilling if you challenge yourself. Move beyond your comfort zone. I actually am not that comfortable performing for an audience that might judge me (ie, not my friends 🙂 ) which is one of the reasons I’ve been pushing myself to do theater again. There are lots of every day things that could be called ordeals in the sense you describe. Another example – a friend of mine is deathly afraid of spiders. So afraid that even seeing a plastic one could send her running out the room. She signed up for a ‘friendly spider’ program at her local zoo, and they would not let her go home without at least getting close enough to put a cup over a spider, slide paper underneath, and move it to another place. She was freaked out and wanted to go home, so she found the strength to do just that, and was afterwards surprised at herself. Not “traditionally” what you might call an ordeal maybe, but it really was, and it was an experience she tells a story about, and is proud of herself for managing to overcome a bit of her fear.
My most recent ordeal took place over an entire year: They told me to dedicate the year to “Doing Things You’re Not Good At.”
Publicly. One example: having sucked at sports and coordinated movement my entire life, I signed up for a year of martial arts training.
It took aim at my biggest fears: failure and being criticized by others. It also made me realize the limitations I was placing on myself by sticking to areas of known strength.
I will also say that the hardest part of the big “pain and blood” ordeal I had was being publicly yelled at by Odin and not having an answer for questions he was asking me. At that moment, it didn’t matter that I was naked, bruised, covered in wine and mud. None of the physical stuff mattered at all. It was that He was demanding words from me and I didn’t have them. Another public failure, but lots of lessons.
Del, that is an awe-inspiring story. Congratulations to you for answering the call. May your friends understand the size of your truths.
Reblogged this on The Burning Ground and commented:
Reblogging for obvious reasons, I think! I am fond of the idea of—and this probably does not sound like an appropriate label, but—casual ordeal. It may even be something of a life path to me. I don’t have nearly as cool of a story to tell, though. Most of my ordeals involve dealing with interpersonal complexities which are all the more complex simply because I am me. I also have a lot of insecurities and anxiety surrounding atmospheric phenomena, and I’ll just leave my commentary at that…! 😉
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Gee, I was an Ordeal Master and I didn’t even know it. I used to teach and coach folks on …. PUBLIC SPEAKING….. No hooks, leather, etc. Just getting up before a group of people and giving a speech. Did you know that one of the most feared things for people besides dying is speaking in public.
Actually, I see it as going through the sound barrier. You don’t know if your small plane will hold up, and you are shaking and the plane’s shaking. Then, nothing, you are on the other side, and you are in a different place – beyond the sound barrier. With your new found strength and resolve, you can move on.
My first introduction to the topic was all this stuff with hooks, etc on the net. Various well-known folks discussed their Ordeals in terms of physical pain such as hanging on hooks, etc. So I just figured it was one of those weird Neo-Paganany things that we sensible Roman Pagans wouldn’t dream of doing.
But going through an ordeal with aplomb and grace is a part of Romanitas, which all good Romans strive for. For me, daily living with a brain injury is an ordeal. The brain therapy and PTSD folks had me facing my worst fears: walls in stores and rogue crockpots.. After the wall on the store fell on me, I was crushed by crockpots coming off the wall. Just seeing a crockpot would have me break in a cold sweat – seeing one for sale on a shelf, and I would run screaming out of the store! Well, I suppose I could like without going into stores (order stuff on the net) and I could live without a crockpot. But the whole point of my getting better was to face the unfaceable, and move on from there. Well, I now *cook* with a crockpot, that I *bought* in a store.
I think that for me “Ordeal” is not the word but meeting the challenge set by one’s Gods. That challenge could mean speaking in public about the glories of Father Neptune or something just as scarey. It is a matter of gaining courage and giving up fear. Romanitas is my word for it.
“Well, I now *cook* with a crockpot, that I *bought* in a store.”
Virginia Carper, You Are Awesome. 😀
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