A Rite of Passage Into 2024

I was shivering already as I looked up at the stars. In a crystal clear sky they were bright enough to reflect on the water beneath me. If I had been plopped here without knowing where I was, it’d be impossible to know which way was up or down. It was a perfect reflection on a perfect night.

Then, the process began.

Off came the pants. Then the socks. And finally the shirt.

Stripped down on an icy dock wondering what the hell I was doing.

Three. Two. One…

I’ve always loved the idea of rituals. Rites of passage that usher us from one phase of our life into the next. Personally I feel like they are a great checkpoint from which we can mark stages in our lives. It’s so easy, especially nowadays, to just mindlessly flow from one era to the next. Oftentimes our “rites of passage” take little more than filling out a form online . To mark an accomplishment with a ritual makes it intentional, meaningful, memorable. Plus, it’s not a guarantee that we will complete the rite of passage that we undertake; it requires effort and strength. Which makes it all the more exciting and satisfying when we do complete it and are able to move onto the next phase. Rituals provide a healthy bit of friction that keeps us moving forward in a meaningful, fulfilling way.

Humans have been practicing rituals for as long as we’ve been around, whether they be religious, political, or personal (like a Midwest man slapping his knees, standing up, and saying “Welp” when it’s time for you to leave). In particular, I’m interested in rites of passage: rituals specifically designed to move us from one phase of life into the next.

Typically, a rite of passage involves a person withdrawing themselves from where they currently stand in order to prepare for the next phase of life. Then there is an in-between stage where passage into the next step is not guaranteed, but the person is no longer in that original state. Finally, the lucky person must “consummate” the rite of passage by completing the ritual exactly as specified in order to be considered successful. This can include getting a driver’s license or graduating from high school. Other examples include Poy Sang Long, a rite of passage in Thailand where adolescent boys take monastic vows to earn the title of novitiate monk, or the festive russefeiring among students in Norway preparing to graduate from school. Most of the time there is a community aspect that monitors the process and makes sure that the requirements of the rite have been successfully met before bestowing the honor onto the participant.

As I embarked on this journey of living slowly and strenuously, I wanted to start the year with some type of rite of passage. Something to really mark the fact that I was shifting my perspective in life. That, from now on, life was going to be different in a good way. I loved the idea of separating myself from my current way of living and jumping gloriously into this next phase that was sure to solve all of my problems. I was ready to strip myself away from the excessive comfort to which I’ve grown so accustomed and face discomfort head on, with courage and bravery.

So, I thought, why not jump in…literally?

I called up my friend Troy, who truly is a good friend for going along with my plan. Together he, Gab, and I drove to the lake on the edge of town on a cold, dark, starry night. We were the only car in the parking lot at this hour. There were no lights around us. All we could see was the silhouette of the lake basking underneath the clear sky of stars above. The air was cold, and I was sure the water would be even colder.

The plan was to cleanse myself of the past few months by hopping into the frigid lake. Thus starting my life anew.

“You sure you wanna do this?” asked Troy, ever the pragmatist.

“No,” I quipped back, “but that’s exactly why we should.”

Gab, who was clearly the wisest of the bunch, waited in the car with the heat on. It was a balmy 25 degrees outside and she had no rite of passage to move through at this hour. Instead, she was taking pictures from the passenger seat while rocking out to her music.

Troy and I walked out onto the dock and stripped down into our swim trunks. The plan was for one of us to plunge into the dark, freezing lake while the other stayed on the dock in case of emergency. Then we’d swap. To determine the first victim we flipped a coin.

Troy won the esteemed honor of being miserable first.

On the count of three, Troy plopped himself into the water and was immediately reborn. Or at least was immediately frozen. He let out a loud yelp and started laughing uncontrollably.

“You have to stay in for 10 seconds!” I yelled while wrapped under my blanket on the dock, already shivering without even being plunged into icy depths. I counted out loud to make him feel better. As soon as the “t” in “ten” hit my lips he was hoisting himself out. His limbs were moving a bit slower than normal, so I reached down to grab his hand and help hoist him onto the dock.

“Holy shit! That was awesome. Alright, your turn” he said with a smile.

At this point there were many thoughts racing around my mind:

Do I really need to do this to start off the year?

Is this actually safe, or are we going to drop dead on the way back to the car?

How bad of a friend would I really be if I whimpered out now and just went home?

One of my annoying idiosyncrasies is that I put way too much thought into just about everything. I struggle to just plunge into the depths gung-ho and without remorse. It used to be the case when just hopping into my backyard pool growing up. Even though the water was the same temperature as the air, I’d stand at the edge of the deck for five, ten, sometimes fifteen minutes nervously anticipating the “shock” I’d feel once my body hit the water. The same tendency came with asking a girl out on a date (which was a rare occurrence). Even when one girl accepted my offer I didn’t believe her and asked, “With me, right?” I suffer from “paralysis by analysis”. And I don’t want to. This, hopefully, would be some type of antidote for that.

Determined as ever, I shut my brain off as best I could. It could console me after this was complete. On the count of three, without thinking, I plunged into the frozen depths. I could feel my heart jump out of my chest, the skin on my head shrinking around my skull. My fingers tightening up and quickly losing feeling.

I loved every second of it.

I did my best to breathe deep and enjoy the sky above me. My heart rate slowed and the world opened up. Here I was, the only person in the lake at the moment, experiencing a wildly exhilarating ride that no one else could understand.

I felt alive.

At ten seconds (it may have been twelve, I’m proud to admit), Troy helped me back up onto the dock as my limbs began to fail. I dried off as quickly as possible and threw my wool socks, top, and hat on aggressively. Troy and I began laughing uncontrollably. What the hell were we doing out here? Sensible adults don’t strip down in a public boat launch and hop into a lake at the start of winter. Maybe they should, though, because this was the best I had felt in awhile. Thoughts of death and paperwork and stress were nowhere to be found. My mind was completely present in a moment of euphoric exhilaration.

In that moment, though, I felt a pang of regret for the years I had spent as a sensible adult. What a waste not having fun.

When I got back to the car Gab already had the phone out to take a video of my triumphant return. While she didn’t fully understand why I needed this, what mattered was that she knew I needed this. She knew I was processing everything that we had been through, and that she needed to be there for me along this bizarre form of coping. It was obvious she was happy that I was happy.

Plus, she was excited about the dessert I promised her if she tagged along.

“Okay, time to go. I’m cold” she said as she put the phone away.

“Oh yeah? You’re cold?”

I smiled as I put the car into reverse, blinded the lake with my headlights, and drove off as a new man.

The year had started well.

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