Looking for Courage in the Coals of a Firewalk
Time flows by steadily, but people grow up in little gusts and bursts. There’s nothing even or smooth about life. I spent some time today thinking about the firewalk that happened a couple days ago.
I had spent that afternoon and the early part of the evening immersing myself in the “drinking” part of Maple’s formula. It took the form of more warm beers that Dennis found. Even though I can’t stand the guy, we ended up inventing a drinking game we called “High Tide.” Every time an incoming wave struck a particular rock, which was far enough up the beach to be out of reach of most breakers, we would chug down some 98.6-degree beer. For a long time, the mysterious rhythms of the planet, the moon, and the ocean conspired to drench the rock, which we dubbed “the Sudstone,” about once every seven waves. I think that’s the same set of mysterious rhythms that freed the captives from Devil’s Island in Papillon, but I was too buzzed to remember exactly.
As The World Turns, however, the moon pulls the Gulf Stream imperceptibly to the west, bringing warm, salty water farther up the Eastern Seaboard with the sole intent of depositing it with gusto at the foot of the Sudstone. It took only about two hours before the Sudstone was awash in the saline outpourings of the North Atlantic. It took about the same amount of time before Dennis and I were awash in the carbonated outpourings of Penobscot Beer. The metronomic beatings of the waves against the Sudstone took on a hypnotic cadence that cast us into a deep trance interrupted only by pauses to swig some more beer or pee into the ocean. It was transcendental, almost. Except that it basically boiled down to getting drunk on a hot beach with a skinny guy named Dennis.
It was well after nightfall — or, as the Villagers call it, “breakfast” — when Maple lit the bonfire. It was a carefully planned, meticulously assembled, and scientifically proven arrangement of seasoned logs hand-picked for their combustibility. Of course, it was also a big pile of scrap lumber, some of it well on its way to returning its nutrients to the earth from whence it came. So Maple goosed the ceremonial Lighting of the Fire ritual with a hefty dose of undoubtedly organic kerosene.
The flames roared toward heaven with spiritual force, dancing with the gods and scorching their eternal marks upon the firmament. Then the kerosene burned up, the heap of scrapwood grew dark and chilly, and the last flames whimpered into nothingness like the Wicked Witch after her Sunday bath. All was calm, all was nothing resembling bright. Maple returned to the pile and dumped enough kerosene onto it to alter the OPEC pricing scheme, and she tossed in another match.
The flames roared toward heaven with spiritual force, dancing with the gods and everything, but this time the wood actually grew hot and dry enough to shoulder some of the combustion responsibility itself. The orgasm of kerosene fire settled into the intimate snuggling of burning wood, and we gathered around to watch.
Maple was right. There really was a lot of smoking and singing and drinking. We chanted prayers to the sea and sonnets to the stars. We offered Native American blessings to the Earth, and Celtic blessings to the sky. We harnessed the passions of the ancestors with the promises of generations yet to brave this new world. And we got really, really smashed.
OK. I knew the point of the exercise. We were going to let the fire burn down to glowing, blistering coals. Then — already barefoot, of course — we were going to walk across the firepit. When we did, some Cosmic Miracle was going to intervene, slipping between our bare foot-flesh and the glowering cinders in such a way that our feet would not burst into agonizing flames and cause us to fall headlong into the carnivorous firepit, searing and scarring our bodies and our souls with such wrenching intensity that we choose to spend the rest of our days playing the organ in the basement of some Gothic cineplex.
By the time the fire was ready, I was not. I could feel the heat from the erupting embers against my face. It was too hot to approach comfortably — my eyebrows were curling, and the moisture on my lips evaporated if I faced the flames — so I was astonished, floored, dumbfounded when I saw the first fool plant his big Hobbit feet on the coals. He was a chunky giant of a guy, thick-boned and red-bearded, and he walked across the searing firepit like maybe he had left his lunch on his kitchen table and was shuffling home to fetch it. His expression was peaceful; too sweaty to be angelic, but too centered to be demonic. He was simply walking, like most people do to get from the bedroom to the bathroom. Except that under his feet were coals hot enough to turn sirloin into shoe leather. He didn’t seem to care. It didn’t seem to matter either way that he was pressing the soles of his feet against burger-frying, tater-baking campfire coals, with easily three hundred pounds of Overweight American grinding his flesh against the cindered lava the same way Cruella DeVil would stub out a cigarette. For him, it was just another walk in the spark.
Back when we were gearing up for the Stroll Through Hell, Maple told us all to listen carefully to our Inner Voice. She said — rightly, I think — that our heads are filled with a bunch of voices, and most of them belong to someone else. We hear Mom, and Dad, and Aunt Gertrude. We hear sisters and brothers and other fiends. We hear lovers and devotees and worshippers and groupies. We hear cynics and critics and caustic strangers. We hear the voices of beautiful people who passed through our lives for just a flitting instant, and we hear the voices of clueless people who never seem to go away. But in the hurricane of opinions, suggestions, admonitions, revulsions, warnings, helpings, supportive comments, slanderous comments, silly comments, and insidious comments crashing through your mind at any given moment, only one voice is your own. Only one voice in my head is mine. The trick is to find it, and kindly ask the others for one brief moment to shut the hell up.
Maple urged us to find our true Inner Voice, and to listen only to it. And the real act of courage, she said, is to discover that your Inner Voice is telling you not to walk across the coals — and to obey it. After a bunch of people meander, mosey, saunter, sashay, traipse, and trip the light fantastic, right across coals that you know would turn sourdough to melba on contact, it’s hard to reveal to your friends and potential sex partners that your Inner Voice is a weenie. It’s harder still to reveal that you are in total agreement with the Weenie Voice, and that you have no intention of being the first person ever to burst into flames while taking part in a New Age pseudo-spiritual aura-affirming mind-over-body ritual.
I’m telling you this because my Inner Voice chose this moment to be extraordinarily precise. It strove for clarity, for that certainty of communicative straightforwardness usually reserved for submarine commanders. My Inner Voice did some research, checking out the ambient temperature of the blazing carpet before me and running that data against the odds of immediate immolation should I take one step forward. It compared those findings against the visual bitstream pouring in from my eyes, which rather definitively told my Inner Voice that other people were walking across the coals with no obvious ill effect. My Inner Voice concluded that my eyes were malfunctioning spectacularly, and it told me that if I made even the slightest move toward the hellfire that baked the earth in front of me, it would issue a series of orders to my bladder, my tear ducts, and my vocal system with such force that people several generations from now would still be talking about the time the Visiting Weenie from the mainland actually made it across the firepit only by screaming and peeing uncontrollably on the coals immediately ahead of his feet.
So I stayed put. I didn’t move.
And despite what Maple told us about true courage, I felt like a wimp.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — BenchPress999: That’s because you are a wimp. I think the whole thing is stupid, but if I had chosen to participate, I would have walked across those coals. Other people were doing it, so obviously it doesn’t hurt you. Man up, Van.
Comment — Anaconda6645: No way. It’s the classic problem of having no one to sue. If you had gotten hurt, where would you get compensation? No one in The Village has any money. The risk isn’t worth it if no one is in position to cover your losses.
Comment — WomynFire982: you did the right thing. we do have multiple voices in our minds. the challenge is to find your own. i’m impressed, little man.
Comment — PeaceNick: I did a firewalk in Berkeley once. It’s TOTALLY cool!!! You r told 2 think of your most difficult & troubling thoughts, bundle em up, & leave em in the middle of the fire as u walk across. I thought it was INCREDIBLE!!!
Comment — Gemstone: I’m proud of you, Van.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.