As I creep and clamber on all fours along the sunny hillside, covered in sweat, dressed in an all-black full-body unitard, running and rolling along deer trails between bushes, no doubt through patches of protector (aka “poison”) oak, I marvel at the sense of satisfaction and joy I feel. It is the second day of our ROP winter camp-out, and I am stealthily following a group of participants as they face an elaborate group challenge: working together without grown-ups to follow a map to a series of “elemental portals” throughout the landscape, with the ultimate task of finding the “wise, wild witch of the forest” and bringing back fire. At portals for earth, water, air, and fire, the group meets magical characters who offer them gifts and riddles to guide them on their way. Throughout the adventure, they are confronted with various tasks that require them to care for each other (like having one person without sight at all times, or deciding collectively when to have lunch) and also utilize their naturalist and stewardship skills (like finding wild edible plants, and respectfully harvesting flowers from a tree that talks!). I have the role of shadow and guardian for the group, following them secretly to ensure they are safe and on the right track. Eventually, the group reaches the “witch’s forest”, and I crouch low in a coyote brush and strain to hear every word as a wild and cackling crone imparts powerful wisdom unto them and tests them, before giving them fire (a candle) to bring back to camp.
On my way back I come across some older GGP participants in costume, who have been supporting the challenge as characters at the various elemental portals. I can tell they too feel a certain sense of noble purpose, having played a part in weaving the magical storyscape that held their peers’ experience. I also see the GGP elder who played the part of the witch, walking down the hill, glowing, to my eyes, with the undomesticated creativity and wisdom she channeled in her role.
Mentoring youngers with Gaia Girls Passages, I feel privileged to participate in the weaving of new stories — stories of synchronicity, magic, and mutual support across generations and species; stories in which each person at each life phase has unique gifts to share with their communities, and in which communities know how to call forth and receive the gifts of each individual. Every day I think of the children I mentor, and I feel called into such integrity as my life is shaped by the question of what I want to embody and model for them. How can I practice self-care and self-advocacy as I hope to teach them to do? How do I give myself permission to be fiercely authentic and creative in the face of my own internalized cis-hetero-patriarchy, for the sake of their freedom and mine? What does it take to maintain my own daily practices of gratitude or listening with presence to my wild neighbors, as we practice at each GGP gathering?
Later that evening at the campout, sitting around a fire lit by the candle the group retrieved from the witch’s forest, we all hear a vivid telling of the story of Vasilisa the Wise and Babayaga — a Russian tale of a young person’s initiation, which inspired the design of the group challenge earlier that day. As I am transported by the storytellers (a collaboration between an auntie and a teen-apprentice), I relate both to the characters of the wise women who send Vasilisa off on her journey and also to Vasilisa herself, in my own version of initiatory quest for my inner fire. I look around at the fire-lit transfixed faces of nearly 40 gaia girls participants (across three different years of the rite of passage program), aunties, and elder, and I wonder where they are finding themselves in the story.
Being an auntie with Gaia Girls Passages demands so much more of me than rehearsing and presenting curriculum. Rather, this work invites me to embark on my own adventures of personal development, healing, and wholing, to take my humble and dignified place in an intergenerational, interspecies web of community. As the fire is tended down and I nibble a cookie made by a GGP parent, I am filled with gratitude to be a part of this village.
By: Auntie Kelsie Pombo