It’s no surprise now, after more than a year of being in some form of community isolation, that we feel tensions rising from time to time. We have moments of being snippy, short tempered, or otherwise less than our best selves. Heck, this happens even without pandemics.
This article is about a way to cope with being cooped.
There’s a background story. It’s about a centuries-old practice among the Norse people called “going into the ashes.”
Travel back a thousand years in your imagination. Picture a rectangular wooden building, about 20 feet wide and anywhere from 50 to 250 feet (!) long. The roof 16 feet above was sod, the floor packed dirt. There was no electricity or running water. Inside, two lengthwise rows of columns supported the roof and divided the house. This was a Norse longhouse.
One longhouse was home to a number of small families or a large extended family. The people lived communally. They raised animals and did basic agriculture outside in summer, but in winter they rarely ventured outside except to hunt. Even their animals were brought inside.
A longhouse would have been a busy, noisy place, with many people and animals living under one roof. Peace and quiet would have been impossible to find. Everyone ate, worked, talked, and slept together in close quarters. Going outside to find solitude was a bleak option for much of the year, especially at night. Leaving could quickly be fatal in severe winter weather.
Inevitably, tensions would arise, even among people who cared for each other and about each other. So how did they stay sane?
The answer was in the arrangement of the fires that burned continuously in the central section. Some houses had one long central fire that served the whole house, others had small individual fires in each section. Around the fires, the ashes were pulled back a short distance to provide a perimeter for safety—and for an important cultural practice. The ring of ashes provided a way for people to be alone while still in close proximity to each other. The custom was well thought out and very simple. They called it “Being in the ashes.”
At any time, a person who wanted to be alone could simply step inside the ring of ashes. When they did so, they effectively ceased to exist.
They had no rights, no privileges, no obligations. There was no communication between them and anyone else in the longhouse by voice, touch, gesture, or eye contact. The only interaction was the provision of food and removal of waste. They were alone. They were safe.
Perhaps an elder, friend, or spouse might suggest going into the ashes. We all have times when a word from someone else helps us make a decision that we can’t quite get to by ourselves.
How is this story relevant today?
First, it is an acknowledgment that from time to time we need separation from the people we love. Second, it offers us a clear, understandable, and constructive way to have that separation.
One of the best things about the practice of being in the ashes is that it respects both the one who goes into the ashes and the ones around them. Going into the ashes allows that person the freedom of being genuinely alone. It allows others freedom as well: freedom from having to be concerned about, taking care of, or checking up on the one who is separated.
For some of us, this requires a shift in the way we behave. We may have to let go of a habit of seeking out and comforting someone who wants to be alone. When we are the ones who have chosen to be alone, we may have to let go of a wish that someone will come to cheer us up.
By our standards, being in the ashes the Norse way was extreme. Some changes to the protocols are appropriate in modern circumstances. For example, if someone in a household decides they need time in the ashes in our society they could prepare their own food and go to the bathroom. If the principle of complete solitude is followed, that person would prepare their own food and clean up with no conversation or interaction with the other people in the kitchen. Some people would love that, and some would find it very stressful. I can tell you that it takes getting used to.
This leads to another obvious requirement: everyone should agree on the protocols before they are implemented.
I have worked with groups that adopted the practice of time in the ashes. The first thing we did was agree on the protocols. Then, on the rare occasions that someone said “I need time in the ashes,“ everyone understood. We gave that person the privacy that they asked for, and we did so easily and respectfully. Usually only a few minutes or hours was enough. Paradoxically, knowing you have the choice to go into the ashes often seems to be enough.
When it became evident that some tweaking of our protocols was needed, we discussed and agreed on the changes.
Another protocol: when there is a group activity, someone who is in the ashes does not participate unless he or she comes out of the ashes—and stays out for a time. A person in the ashes is not allowed to pick and choose whether and when to come out and go back into the ashes, or otherwise manipulate the practice for personal benefit.
The duration of someone’s time in the ashes is up to that individual. There are stories of young Norsemen going into the ashes for up to two years while they sorted themselves out.
It is up to the one in the ashes to let the group know clearly when they come out. At that point they take up again the responsibilities, rights, and privileges that they left behind.
It is important that this practice be done with respect, not used as an opportunity to get out of work or exercise passive aggression. For example, it is not appropriate to let the dirty dishes pile up if mom takes some time in the ashes. And mom, if that does happen, it’s your right to stay in the ashes as long as needed for the lesson to be learned and the dishes to be taken care of.
The understanding and protocols should be tailored for your particular situation. What I’ve presented is the rigorous end of the spectrum, as it applied a thousand years ago. Above all, time in the ashes has to work for you to make your life together easier.
April 2, 2021