I grew up white, secular and middle class in 1950s America. That meant watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, trick-or-treating on Halloween and putting presents under a tree at Christmas. But by the time those traditions got to me, they were hollow, commercial enterprises, which just left me feeling empty. So from a relatively young age, I found myself looking to fill an existential hole, to connect with something bigger than myself.
There hadn't been a bar mitzvah in my family in over a century, so I thought I'd take a shot at that—only to be devastated when my one encounter with the rabbi, a really tall, godlike figure with flowing white hair, consisted of him asking me for my middle name so we could fill out a form. Yep, that was it.
So I got the fountain pen, but I didn't get the sense of belonging and confidence I was searching for.
Many years later, I couldn't bear the thought of my son turning 13 without some kind of rite of passage. So I came up with the idea of a 13th birthday trip, and I offered to take Murphy anywhere in the world that had meaning for him. A budding young naturalist who loved turtles, he immediately settled on the Galapagos. And when my daughter, Katie, turned 13, she and I spent two weeks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where Katie learned for the first time that she was powerful and brave. Since then, my partner, Ashton, and lots of our friends and relatives have taken their kids on 13th birthday trips, with everyone finding it transformative for both the child and the parent.
I wasn't brought up saying grace. But for the last 20 years, we've been holding hands before every meal. It's a beautiful bit of shared silence that brings us all together in the moment. Ashton tells everyone to "pass the squeeze," while she assures them it's not religious.
So recently, when my family asked me if I could please do something with the more than 250 boxes of stuff that I've collected over a lifetime, my ritual-making impulse kicked in. I started wondering if I could go further than simple death cleaning. "Death cleaning" is the Swedish term for clearing out your closets, your basement and your attic before you die, so your kids don't have to do it later.
I pictured my children opening up box after box and wondering why I'd kept any of that stuff.
And then I imagined them looking at a specific picture of me with a beautiful young woman, and asking, "Who on earth is that with Dad?"
And that was the aha moment. It wasn't the things I'd saved that were important; it was the stories that went with them that gave them meaning. Could using the objects to tell the stories be the seed of a new ritual, a rite of passage—not for a 13-year-old, but for someone much further down the road?
So I started experimenting. I got a few dozen things out of the boxes, I put them about in a room, and I invited people to come in and ask me about anything that they found interesting. The results were terrific. A good story became a launching pad for a much deeper discussion, in which my visitors made meaningful connections to their own lives. Derrius asked me about a Leonard Peltier T-shirt that I'd worn a lot in the '80s, that, sadly, is still relevant today. Our conversation moved quickly, from a large number of political prisoners in American jails, to Derrius wondering about the legacy of the Black Liberation Movement of the '60s, and how his life might be different if he'd come of age then, instead of 30-odd years later. At the end of our conversation, Derrius asked me if he could have the T-shirt. And giving it to him felt just about perfect.
As these conversations established common ground, especially across generations, I realized I was opening a space for people to talk about things that really mattered to them. And I started seeing myself with a renewed sense of purpose—not as the old guy on the way out, but as someone with a role to play going forward.
When I was growing up, life ended for most people in their 70s. People are living far longer now, and for the first time in human history, it's common for four generations to be living side by side. I'm 71, and with a bit of luck, I've got 20 or 30 more years ahead of me. Giving away my stuff now and sharing it with friends, family, and I hope strangers, too, seems like the perfect way to enter this next stage of my life. Turns out to be just what I was looking for: a ritual that's less about dying and more about opening the door to whatever comes next.