A while back, in a story called “The Thaw,” I wrote unenthusiastically – to say the least – about our sacred fire workshop. That story earned me the reputation of being a fire-hater, a wet blanket, an unfortunate who needed to be corrected.
Well, I am happy to say that I stand corrected. At the fire workshop at Red Bluff Park of Study and Reflection last Saturday, I discovered that it IS possible for an ordinary human being such as myself to “make fire.” For this reason I am issuing this amendment to “The Thaw.”
There’s just one caveat – it really wasn’t me. It was us.
This is how it was.
Here we are in the late afternoon, sitting around the picnic tables under our huge oak, a pack of crazy people. After being duly coached by Aron, who has just shown us hundreds of kinds of fire-making rocks and fungi and told us their scientific names, we’ve been trying for at least an hour, and nothing’s happening, not a spark to be seen. Even so we are still bashing away with our rocks, shoulders and arms on fire, hands crying out for mercy, a ridiculous situation given that humanity has invented matches. But everyone is laughing and joking that no one will have dinner tonight, because we can only light the barbecue if someone makes fire, and what bad shape we’d be in if we had to depend on this, and let’s start hoarding matches for the apocalypse.
The only thing is, there’s this ubiquitous presence hovering over us. A relentless genie of matter-of-fact encouragement, Aron is perambulating, muttering in everyone’s ear, ‘you’re almost there, keep going’ or ‘just a little more,’ or ‘more like this,’ as he demonstrates his precise striking technique. And so you keep going, against your better judgment. Why not? You really don’t think anything will happen, but it really doesn’t matter – you’re having an odd kind of fun.
Time drifts on, and you give up several times, only to resume. After a while, little by little, the encouraging guides begin to multiply, as different people find themselves, to their astonishment, making fire.
Now Pete is looming over your table, ‘try it more like this,’ showing you how to strike fast, tat tat tat tat tat tat, but barely grazing the pyrite, ‘you don’t want to hit it really hard.’ Then Mary, ‘let’s refresh that tinder, and break it up like this’ since your chunk of fungus is hidden under a blanket of pyrite dust that not even a blow torch could ignite. And so you do as they say, and you will your hands to keep it up, despite the blister forming on your thumb, and your hands become an obedient machine…
And now – surprise – you realize that suddenly you can see the sparks because it’s gotten dark! You wonder why we started so long before it got dark – after all Aron told us you couldn’t see them in the daylight, but maybe he just wanted to honor that essential ingredient, Frustration…
The guides keep returning with their eternal ‘keep going!’ and so you do. There’s one kind of stone that really works and you wait your turn for a chunk of it and finally it’s in your hand and the sparks are really flying now, flying and falling, falling and dying and falling and dying and falling and dying. Your hand with the chert is beating like a little piston and you are fixated in a kind of trance, ignoring the festering wound on your thumb…
And suddenly you see it, a tiny gem of light on the edge of your fungus, and it isn’t going out, it’s hanging on! In a frenzy you stop striking and start fanning with your hand, remembering that someone has warned that if you blow you can kill it, and you fan like crazy and Aron says ok carry it to the fire and put some straw on it and start blowing…
So you float over to the fire giddy with possibility and kneel in the dirt and lay a few wisps of dry grass over your tiny coal and blow and puff and smoke comes but no flame and you’re choking and blowing and puffing…
And then there’s the presence again, Pete this time, ‘no here like this’ and he dumps a huge wad of straw on top so you can barely see your precious fire-seed and you fear for its life. But Pete says ‘like this, from behind.’ And he kneels down and bends over your baby fire, shielding it with his hands, sheltering it in the cave of his body and blowing back into the ember and then he gets up and you scrunch down in the dirt and make your own cave, protecting your future fire with a wall of your hands, and blowing like he did, and then Oh Miracle! A Flame dances up from the straw!
‘FIRE!!!!’ you hoot, ‘WOO!’ and you hardly know yourself, a quiet and retiring person suddenly liberated, hooting and singing in the night!
And you pose for pictures and then you ceremoniously dump your contribution into the collective fire.
And as the others keep striking and striking or talking and resting or starting the barbecue around you in the dark, you stand and look into the fire. And a great simple peace fills you.
Nothing more. Just a welcome fullness. Like the end of some primordial fear.
And later when you see Janet madly fanning her tiny ember without result, you kneel in the dirt and show her what Pete showed you, and you back off and she does it and cries “Fire!!!” into the night.
In bed that night, you stay awake a long time, transfixed by the uncovering of such a deep root – like a validation, like the right to exist, like the annihilation of a deep peril..
And in the morning when you awake, welcoming the sun on the wall and the voices of friends, you find yourself filled with an irremediable happiness.