"Our culture ignores the power of initiation. Uninitiated boys become lost men leading unfulfilled lives. The male initiation experience we offer makes a difference."
This was the official spiel and I was skeptical. I'd come to the graduation ceremony to honor a friend's successful completion of the male initiation program offered by a non-profit organization. I didn't come to be sold a bill of goods.
Then one by one the 30 new initiates stood to speak. Man after man described the recent weekend event as the most powerful experience of his life. I listened intently. That evening I reserved a space on the next initiatory weekend, still some months away. it couldn't come soon enough for me.
I had a vague notion the venture would include drumming in the woods. What else, I didn't know. I didn't care. I wanted whatever those 30 men had found. I set out with anticipation.
What I did not anticipate was boot camp. As soon as I and my fellow initiates set foot on the wooded site, we were ordered about, offered no explanations, extended no sympathy.
We languished in cramped dark quarters. We were yelled at. One instructor played good cop; two dozen more acted bad ass. We received scant rations, cold showers, little sleep, loud lectures. One unexpected experience after another kept us off-balance.
At last, our resistance worn down and our bodies worn out, we were herded into a darkened enclosure. We were told to sit on the concrete floor and keep quiet.
Off in the woods began a distant drumming, accompanied by men shouting and chanting in unison. The noise grew closer, louder, more intense. It erupted right outside the rusty doors of the metal hut in which we waited. Then came a loud rapping. Someone, something wanted in. I was convinced that whatever or whoever it was, it held the power to change my life. My heart raced. My hands shook. My breath came in gasps. I thought the top of my head might lift off. As the chanting reached a crescendo, the man next to me elbowed my ribs. I heard his dry voice: "I'm not buying any of this, are you?" At that moment, the ribbed steel doors of the hut were wrenched open.
For me, that whole weekend was tinged with a sense of possibility, magic—and déjà vu. In condensed form, it echoed some of my coming out experiences of six years earlier.
Coming out remains the watershed moment of my life, the reckoning point that divides the B.C. and A.D. of my existence. It changed the course of my life. It threw me off-balance and held me there whilst a deep reordering took place in my psyche.
I came out at age 34. It remains the single most scary, painful, destructive, instructive, exhilarating and wonderful experience of my life. I will never know what it is to give birth to a child, but I will always remember giving birth to myself.
And I will always wonder, 'why did it take me so long to get there?'
Part of the answer rings in the dry voice at my elbow. For years it was my own arid withering self-talk: "You absolute loser. You sin-sick reprobate of a worm scudding to hell. You little dog turd. Don't you know men are supposed to be attracted to women? Can't you pray a little harder? Can't you control your thought life any better than that?"
I admire young people who come out early. I feel jealous of them. And rather stupid. How could I not realize I was gay? How many clues were staring me in the face? How many chances to come out earlier did I miss? How many times did life come roaring up, rapping at my door, ready to teach me about loving and accepting myself—and how many times, unwilling or unable to face my sexual orientation, did I turn away?
How much life I must have missed out on! Or maybe not. Maybe the time wasn't right. Maybe I was not psychically strong enough to face the truth of my sexual orientation. Maybe a deep inner wisdom whispered, "Not yet, not now." Maybe that wisdom is still at work in me.
Maybe life is forever knocking at my door, wanting to come in and shake things up, offer me chances to grow into more life. Maybe I can trust the process as it unfolds, take one step at a time, be gentle with myself even as I honor my current understanding, knowledge and awareness. Maybe all of life is one long initiation into itself. To which I say, "L'chaim!"
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, January 2011