By Michelle Bosco
It’s been two weeks since our NCAS-I team returned from Cambodia. Upon my return, I was flooded with questions such as, “How was it?” “Are you still jetlagged?” “What was your favorite part?” Although I appreciated my loved ones’ interest, I was overwhelmed by the vagueness and overly general questions and it felt difficult to answer them. I noticed my hesitation and resistance to offering any details. I’m not exactly sure why; maybe I wasn’t ready yet, or maybe it felt easier to put my experience in a little box that I could revisit later.
However, my choice to withhold information didn’t last too long. I began to share little pieces of my experience here and there. I realized this isn’t just something I can store away. It’s something that needs to be shared, needs to be heard, and needs to continue to live and be passed along. It’s clear this project has depth, passion, and heart and it’s filled with of a ton of stories. Stories filled with beauty, stories filled with fear and hurt, and even some stories filled with a little bit of magic.
Each member of NCAS-I has their own unique experience and I feel so fortunate to be able to share with you not only my story, but theirs as well. Although I’m sure I could ramble on and on (If you know me well, then you definitely know this to be true) and give you a very detailed report of our experience from each day, I feel it’s best for you to hear about it through the different rites of passage we encountered. I also want to reveal stories about the guides we met and the demons we faced along the way.
Before I do so, I’ll briefly explain what rites of passage mean. Rites of passage are a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage through another over time, and from one role or social position to another (Campbell, 1949). These rituals have taken place in all cultures over the world, integrating human and cultural experiences with biological destiny: birth, reproduction, and death. This concept was originally articulated by Arnold van Gennep. In 1907, he outlined a form inherent in all rites of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation (Gennep, 1960). Van Gennep stated that a person had to be separated from one role before he or she could be incorporated into a new one. The ceremonies and rituals allow people to move forward and let go of the pre-existing roles. They can also support people to embrace transitions with acceptance and gratitude.
One of NCAS-I’s first rites of passage ceremonies occurred on May 12th (2 days before we left for Cambodia). One of our supervisor’s, Katie, led a “letting go” ceremony. We were instructed to write down on a small scrap of paper, something we wanted to let go of, or something we wanted to leave rather than take to Cambodia. After we completed this part, we walked outside and began the actual ceremony. With snow still on the ground, we shivered as we huddled close together. Katie set her charcoal incense burner on a rock, and one by one we placed our tiny scraps of paper inside of the burner.
As we inhaled the smell of sandalwood and frankincense and watched the smoke rise, Megan read the poem, In Black Water Woods by Mary Oliver. The last line reads, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things; to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” These words struck me because I knew it was time to leave behind that which no longer served me, and embark on a journey filled with a realm of unknowns. As I watched my words burn and disintegrate, I felt fear creep up inside me.
I was afraid and resistant to leave my comfort for discomfort, yet I knew relief would come from making the choice to let go. This rite of passage was parallel to Van Gennep’s first stage, separation. This stage is characterized by separating from the existing awareness of all that is familiar and secure (Gennep, 1960). I assumed I would remain in this stage early on in our trip. Even though I was well-informed of our travel details and schedule, I knew the comfort and familiarity I had in the states would be stripped away as soon as I landed in Cambodia. Not only was I facing challenges in adjusting to a new environment, I was also grieving the losses from my old role that I recently let go of.
There were others that felt similarly; anchored in the separation stage, and preparing to explore fears and expectations brought on by this new change. It was difficult for some of us to adjust and arrive, and due to our vastly different histories, we had to cross the threshold and officially “arrive” in our own ways.
For Liz, she officially “arrived” in Cambodia when she decided to return to Angkor Wat all by herself. She was able to leave the group and travel solo because she faced fears that she still carried from nine years ago when she backpacked through India and Nepal alone. Liz said, “I had endured some pretty scary, unsafe, and ongoing situations on that trip related to being vulnerable, naive, female, and not in control of where I went and with whom. Setting out at dawn with my art supplies, a cell phone, and a tuk tuk driver was an affirmation that now, nine years later, I am possessed of far greater resources. I can trust my instincts of what feels safe and unsafe, and have the assertiveness and autonomy to be 100 percent responsible for where I go, and with whom. This sense of safety allowed me greater flexibility and openness to explore on my own terms.”
Artwork by Liz Maher
Liz’s example of arriving is part of Gennep’s transition stage. The transition stage is when the grip of the old period merges with the new period. (Gennep, 1960). Liz merged the two periods by facing her fears head on. She was also in full flight of the adventure and ready for what was to come next. There were other members of NCAS-I that had profound experiences in this stage.
For part of this Service-Learning Practicum, we studied Cambodian culture and spent a great deal of time learning about the Khmer Rouge. We also attended a circus performance in Battambang, Cambodia before visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh. The performance beautifully portrayed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and it also left an imprint on our team, knowing that the arts were allowing a way for the Cambodian people to tell their story and express themselves, and help combat trauma that so many of them faced. Emma was deeply moved and did her own response art around this subject. Her artwork depicts how the Cambodian culture handles tragedy and how they have the strength to carry on.
Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal
When I look at her painting, I see resiliency and hope. Perhaps it’s the color palette she used, or perhaps it reminds me of how I felt on that night. Either way, I know I felt completely different after attending the Killing Fields, S21, and while I was reading Arn Chorn Pond’s book, Never Fall Down. I felt defeated, depressed, and sick to my stomach.
I struggled as I tried to process my feelings around the Khmer Rouge, and I realized my discomfort wasn’t going to vanish just yet. I had to face my own demons during this transition stage. I was disoriented and felt out of control. I watched my doubts about my performance working with clients constantly pop up like some sort of annoying snooze button that never turned off. I even questioned how I was showing up in our NCAS-I group and I repeatedly wondered if what I was offering was enough. On top of this, I felt guilty for having these concerns, especially when I was reminded about what the people of the Khmer Rouge had to endure. My problems seemed trivial and I tried to conceal them.
With some time and space, I gained clarity and understood what this highly uncomfortable place was. It was my way of being in the transition stage. When I finally realized this, I no longer brushed away my feelings and made them seem small or unimportant. I also had the support of a few amazing women who served as my guides. They allowed me to recognize my innate power and reclaim what I forgotten; to trust myself. I will be forever grateful for their patience, guidance, and love.
Artwork by Michelle Bosco
I moved forward and continued consuming, ingesting, absorbing, all around me, and when it was time, purged and released what I needed to. I realized the doubts I once had about myself were merely a result of trying to meet everyone’s expectations (an impossible task by the way), so I freed myself and made a decision to take in only what I wanted and needed to.
This realization brought relief and left me feeling liberated and excited about the possibilities of growth that a new beginning holds. Gennep describes this as the incorporation stage (Gennep, 1960). In this stage, people emerge from the pain and struggle and see that the wait was well worth it. I felt as though I resurrected my creative and powerful energy and as though I had so much more to offer others. Each member of NCAS-I gained something different. For example, Krystel gained the gift companionship. She viewed each close relationship as an opportunity for growth and vowed to bring this gift back home, especially to her fiancé, Andrew, who she will marry in less than two months. Others gained clarity, wisdom, confidence, hope, the list goes on! To mark this transition, each member of the group made their own necklaces to symbolize self-recognition and deep understanding.
Artwork by Michelle Bosco
Our last night in Cambodia ended with magic. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to forget about it) We took a boat ride down the river and stopped as soon as we saw a tree that appeared to have white Christmas lights on it. As we moved closer we were amazed and delighted to find that it was fireflies. It was pure magic, like nothing I’ve ever seen before! My gaze was locked on the tree until I realized it was time for one last ritual before returning home. Each of us were given candles and one by one we placed them in little boats made from leaves and released them in the water. As I watched each one float away, some burning out, and some still flickering, I was reminded of another gift I gained. Joseph Campbell describes these gifts as boons, or jewels that one carries after a voyage. (Campbell, 1949) One of my great boons is my awareness; there can be no light without entering the darkness, and with each descent into darkness, the light shines ever more brightly. I know the next transition may pull me into the darkness, but this time I will be able to navigate the journey more gracefully. I can trust that I am exactly where I need to be.
Artwork by Sue Wallingford
Author/artist note: Please do not use the images without permission. Thank you.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Foundation (1st edition).
Gennep, A. v. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago.