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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

Learning to Fly

Updated: May 20

Rites of passage exist in all known societies. Humans seem to struggle with moving from one stage of life to the next, and it’s a big deal when it happens. We create rituals to mark these passages―bar/bat mitzvahs, vision quests, menarche ceremonies, graduations, 40th birthdays, retirements, etc.

Successfully navigating a big passage should be celebrated. But I think the little rites of passage, which often go unnoticed, contribute so much to our ability to handle the big ones. I sometimes wonder if in our increasingly fear-bound world we over-protect our kids and deprive them of taking risks, which is a necessary component of a rite of passage.

The little rites of passage add up.

I grew up in an era when parenting seemed a lot easier than it is today. Our parents didn’t hover over us. We were expected to get dirty and to get hurt now and then. My siblings and I had our share of accidents on the farm. Not too many broken body parts, thankfully, but lots of cuts and bruises. Many of them happened while taking risks.

The barn was a gold mine for little rites of passage to happen. One of my earliest memories of those rites had to do with learning to fly. It happened in the barn on my grandpa’s farm.

It was always a little scary to step into the darkened interior of the old barn. A wide, cinder-gravel bank led up to the big, white sliding door, which needed more than one of us leaning against the end to start it rolling. But first, someone had to go inside through the little door to unlock it.

The only light in the barn came through the cracks between the wall boards and the high loft windows. In the first moments of standing still, while my eyes adjusted to the dark, there was always a flutter of something winged that lived up in the rafters and a scurry of critters on the wooden floor.

Then the immensity of the barn came into focus. It always filled me with the same awe the gothic cathedrals of Europe would inspire in me decades later. The barn was built of heavy beams that stretched upward into the blackness. There were wooden ladders, pulleys and tools, tractors, hay wagons and implements. A mountain of alfalfa and timothy bales were stacked almost to the roof on one side of the room. The smell of grain and hay was mixed with sheepish odors—lanolin and manure—wafting up from the lower level where the ewes lived.

The object of our mission was the big barn rope, which hung from up where the beams had disappeared down to the center of the bay where we stood. There was a large knot tied about 3 ft above the tail of the rope hanging close to the floor. Usually my oldest sister lifted me up so I could sit on the knot and hang on tight while she grabbed the tail of the rope to swing me. Many times, I’d watched my sisters and cousins climb the ladder and swing out on their own over the full width of the bay, but I’d never been brave enough to try it myself. It wasn’t a matter of being a certain age. It was simply a matter of being certain I could do it.

I remember the day when that happened. Maybe I was six or seven. That afternoon my curiosity outweighed my terror, just as it has many times in my life since. I climbed the ladder, and my sister pulled the rope to me. Straddling the knot properly required a tiny leap, a commitment to go through with it, and I probably hesitated longer than the others liked. When I finally mustered enough courage to let go of the ladder, the sensation of flying was like no other swing I’d ever been on. The arc took me alarmingly close to the post on the other side of the bay, but I never crashed.

It was an exhilarating act of courage. Of freedom. Of confidence.

Maybe the others in the barn had experienced the same thing in their debut flights. It wasn’t something we discussed. There were no cakes or parties to celebrate that night. But it was one of those little rites of passage that took me into another stage of development, and I like to think that it gave me courage to navigate the bigger rites of passage later on.

~K L Kurtz

*The photos are not from my grandpa’s barn, but there is something in each that evoked childhood memories and brought back a longing for that old barn.


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