The Fire Ceremony

A true story about fears, fire, and memories

This piece comes from my graduate school thesis ‘It’ll Be Amazing Eventually,’ a collection of essays from my time spent in Maine before moving to Philadelphia for school.

AROUND FOUR IN the afternoon, people started showing up.

They drove their sensible vehicles down the cumbersome front driveway of Regina Strongheart’s. Parking off to the right, they happily walked up to the simple wooden A-frame house that sat in the middle of the clearing, surrounded by tall pine trees. Everyone took a quick moment to glance at the fire pit, which at that point, was being maintained by a middle-aged gentleman, wearing a maroon t-shirt and stonewashed jeans.

It wasn’t hot. But in the clearing, it was significantly warmer than it had been in Portland. There was no breeze to cool things off when the sun was out or to keep the mosquitoes away later in the evening. It was going to be bad, a very dire scene. But it was something everyone seemed to be willing to accept, or at the very least, assume it was worth dealing with, given the importance of the aforementioned fire ceremony.

But what is a fire ceremony?

A fire ceremony involves the following:

(1) fire pit. The fire pit should be made of stones of varying sizes and colors and be big enough to accommodate upwards of forty people.
(10+) wooden logs
(1) can of kerosene
(1) book of matches
(1) leader

The leader of a fire ceremony serves as the focal point, the guide, and the entertainment for the event’s entire duration. The leader at this particular fire ceremony was Oscar.

Oscar had very interesting teeth and glasses that leaned just a little bit farther to the left than they did to the right.

***

 “Sure,” Regina Strongheart said over the phone. “Come on by early. I’ll be here.”

So I went early. I went up to Topsham and down and around the winding, backcountry roads, and bump, bump, bump down the notoriously cumbersome driveway of the Strongheart residence. I went with only a few things and I went without bug spray. I went without much of a clue, and as a result, I went without much hope. I was testing myself, seeing if I could really dive into the thick of it if I needed to. I wasn’t going to be a deckhand much longer. Soon I was going to be a journalist. And I wanted to be an action journalist, I wanted to use the freefall, and I wanted to take the long road. 

And the long road led to the fire ceremony at Regina Strongheart’s.

Elsewhere the Sox were on. Beers sat in fridges and coolers waiting to be drank. Soon the sun would be setting. Soon things would be different. Big moves were on the horizon, specifically and just so so so importantly, the big move. The big trek south to Philadelphia at the end of August.

There is no way to get comfortable when the only place you have to sit is an unsteady rock.

Such was life, such was Portland, and such was Regina Strongheart’s.

***

The sky above was clear. The clouds that were down in Portland hadn’t made it this far north yet. Neither had Oscar.

Oscar was from Ghana and allegedly, accordingly, and possibly accidentally, had been a prince back home. Now he was living on an island off of Portland and running the Museum for African Tribal Art and Culture. A local paper had asked me to give him the rundown, find out what’s going on with this fella Oscar in the museum that looked more like an apartment buildin’ than an actual, legitimate museum.

Not much was going on there. The small museum had few visitors and few donations. But those who did support Oscar and his museum were diehard, probably the best possible supporters a struggling African Tribal Art Museum could have. They helped with maintaining a mailing list and organizing fund-raisers (which only they attended, but did so with vigor!) Once a month Oscar had movie night, usually a movie from the old country. The supporters would jam pack the small movie room and stick around after for cocktails and finger foods.

They often opened their houses up for events and rituals Oscar would perform for a nominal fee.

One such supporter was Regina Strongheart.

Regina fell in love with Oscar’s teachings and his adorable and amazing museum. She invited Oscar up to her tucked away, rustic, and idealistic compound on countless occasions, making a true event of it with food and music and hand drums. A very warm and likable woman, she hugged everyone who came in, and lovingly found places on the crowded countertop for any food they had brought, usually beans or salad or both. 

This was the first fire ceremony to take place at the Strongheart compound.

A fire ceremony is meant to happen twice a month, once at the beginning and once at the end. The ceremony celebrates the coming and going of the moon. It is meant to be a ceremony of new beginnings; a chance to put things behind us, and set new goals for ourselves that will (hopefully and ideally) be accomplished over the next month. The fire cleanses us and releases the necessary spirits required to accomplish things like being more honest or loving or trustworthy or good at basketball. It makes us free. It makes us alive. It makes us very excited.

Oscar was late. 

The fire did not make him any less tardy.

***

At a little after five, I sat down on the back porch, and listened as Regina and some others discussed the societal ills of the Bush Administration. I pulled out a notebook: small and leather, really quality branded shit. It was a gift from Molly. On the first page was a black and white picture of her. She’s jumping in a park, her hair covering her face.

I can see her belly button.

Molly showed up in Portland with outlandish red hair, sharp blue eyes, and a personality that could conquer small European countries. It was three years prior to the fire ceremony, one year after graduation, and four months until I’d never see her again.

***

Once everyone, including Oscar, arrived, there was a sizeable potluck supper. Everyone ate and talked, mostly about the ceremony and what would come from it. Women with hair under their arms, dudes with missing teeth, and kids with rat tails all mingled around, moving beans and rice and vegetarian lasagna around their plates with chopsticks and plastic forks. Oscar made his way around the room, saying hello and hugging various people. He carried two heavy tote bags and a large sun mask was popping out of one of them.

Following the food ceremony was the start of the fire ceremony. It began in Regina’s wide-open living room, with everyone sitting around in circle. Oscar sat at the circle’s main arch, and with a big smile welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming.

“No Oscar, thank you,” Regina said. People around the circle nodded their head in agreement. Oscar simply nodded back.

“It is my pleasure,” he replied.

Oscar then explained the evening’s ceremony, how it would go down, and what it would accomplish. It was to start there in the living room, with everyone introducing themselves and making their decree, what they intend to accomplish about themselves in the coming month.

Oscar asked Regina to start. From there, everyone took turns making a statement about themselves and how it’s something they wanted to change. People wanted to be more assertive or more affectionate with their partners. Some wished they could laugh more and the woman next to me that she “just wants to find some truth within herself.”

I said that I wanted to slow things down, and if it were possible, to not think as much.

Everyone seemed to understand what I was talking about. The woman next to me put her hand on my knee.

“That’s good,” she said. “That’s very good.”

The fire ceremony was underway. The fire ceremony was happening. The fire ceremony took longer than expected.

Molly was from Chicago, giving her that smooth vanilla ice cream-sounding Midwestern accent that made each word she said sound amazingly delicious. She was in Portland for a semester of school, just a semester. That meant three and a half months, maybe four if the town was good to her. 

We met because I spoke at an orientation for the school. Babbling like a goddamn fool, I was distracted by Molly’s eyes, which shot out like headlights in the dead of night up North. Upon leaving I shamelessly handed out flyers for a show my band was having down the street in a few days.

Hell yeah, Molly got one!

Then a few days later at the show, she came. Again she distracted me with her eyes and introduced herself afterward. I couldn’t remember where I recognized her from for most of the show. But halfway through the second set, it clicked. Popped in right on the four. 

Crash went the cymbal!

***

We all moved outside to the fire pit as the sun was setting, creating large shadows to spread across the clearing. Those shadows and our shadows made for a bustling scene of shaded activity across the clearing’s uncertain surface, a rough transition of twisted roots, dumpy divots, scattered pebbles, and lonely patches of brown grass.

There were no bugs yet, but you could feel them lingering around, ready to clog up the air with a massive ferocity. I sat down next to the same woman whom I had sat next to inside. I liked her; she made me feel comfortable. She had small, squinty eyes and long, frustrated black hair that was intertwined with strands of gray. Every time she raised her hand, I could see little furballs of hair under her arms.

She kept making comments to me about my writing notes while I was there. They were either questions, like how could I be even doing that right now or suggestions of quotes and comments I should write down. 

“Who’s that?” She asked, pointing her pudgy finger at Molly’s picture, the one of her jumping in the park.

“A friend. She gave me the journal.”

“That was nice. She’s pretty.”

I wasn’t sure how she knew that, seeing as how Molly’s face was covered by her hair. 

“Yes, she is.”

Everyone sat down. The bugs came, and we sat silently, waiting for Oscar to tell us what to do next.

***

The first few bugs I felt were on legs, a little below the knees. I could feel them wandering around my leg hairs like confused French tourists in the big American mega mall. People started passing around bug spray. A mosquito landed in my ear. A mosquito was flying around my head. A mosquito was biting the back of my neck. 

In the darkness, we heard bells jingling and a distant chant.

“It’s Oscar,” the woman next to me whispered.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But how can we be sure?”

***

Molly and I went out on one of the first chilly nights of the fall. She was wearing a Chicago Bears wool hat. It is precisely the first thing I remember about that night, after getting confused about which house was hers and not once but twice having to call her to get the house number.

The hat looked like it should be on a gigantic grizzly bear, not this bouncy chick from the Midwest. Although up until that moment, I wasn’t sure what she was going to be wearing, I hadn’t gotten a good read on her yet. This also contributed to my inability to figure out what to wear. I couldn’t figure out what kind of gal she was and what outfit would mesh well with that assessment. After a lot of haggling with my closet, I decided on something simple. Something nondescript, yet adequately descript at the same time.

Green Carharts, a blue long-sleeved North face shirt, New Balance sneakers. 

Sure I could be a stereotype, but which stereotype, baby!

We went to a small pub in town, local and loose, laidback. The fire was going and the warmth felt good against the cold ice of the pint glass. I caught the reflection of the bouncing blaze in the foggy windows over Molly’s shoulder. The reflections danced and gallivanted up and down along the windowpanes and off Molly’s sweater into the crusty, red brick wall.

The fire was the goodest of good and the cusp of the wave crashing onto the shore. It was amazing, life was amazing, the beer was amazing. It sent icy shockwaves shooting down my lips like friendly laser beams. 

We got talking about people, types of people, groups of people. We laughed about stereotypes.

“Ah, and I can’t stand those dudes with their North Face stuff and all their lumberjack coolness,” she said.

I was no lumberjack and never one to strive for lumberjack coolness, but goddamn it, now I had to keep my jacket on.

The fire was making me hot.

***

The fire was making me hot. 

The gentleman who had been tending to the pit earlier had stoked it to such a point where it looked like the flames were rising up in a Union protest. When a lady a few lawn chairs down from me leaned in to flick a cigarette into the flames, I was concerned she was going to get swallowed up.

What would that do to the ceremony?

Around the house, Oscar’s chanting continued, bellowing out into the open night sky. The words were undecipherable, rolling out like slugs. The bells jingled and when Oscar appeared, he was wearing the enormous sun mask and had two or three long black robes draped over him.

The bells we heard jingle, janglin’ were attached to the bottoms of the robe and tied to his sandals.

Oscar danced, chanted, and commanded his way to the fire pit, and people around the circle started joining his chants with handclaps and hand drums. Once at the circle, he slid through the lawn chairs and approached the fire. He looked like he would jump right in. 

What would that do to the fire ceremony?

***

I fall hard.

***

The dancing lasted until Oscar started to slow down and speak to the rising flames. People stopped what they were doing to listen, to try and make some sense of the sounds coming from the large sun mask. Oscar turned from the fire to us, to each one of us, and pointed. Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish! He turned back to the fire. Blah, blah, blah! He turned back to us and in silence walked twice around the circle, around the blazing fire pit.

Then, just as he had done inside, he took a spot at the crest of the circle. He raised his arms and chanted some more. All we could see of him were his eyes.

They were massive.

***

I dropped Molly back off at her apartment a little before midnight. There was defined crispness to the air that meant the coming of winter. We drove over frozen, fallen leaves and gently skidded across small, new patches of ice.

Pulling up to the front of her building, an old white building on the verge of tipping over, her blue eyes lit up the Super Trooper’s dark interior. 

“If I drive in this condition, I might die,” I said.

“That’d be terrible,” she replied. “Go Bears.”

***

Again Oscar went around the circle, but this time, he stopped in front of each one of us. He looked directly into our eyes and chanted, then handing us a stone, blessed us. The stone didn’t feel any different. It was smooth and gray, easily replaceable with the millions of stones found along the driveway. I imagine the stone would glow or something, possibly bounce into the fire on its own. Instead, it sat in the palm of my hand, neither glowing, burning, or bouncing. The woman next to me held her stone close to her chest and had her eyes closed. She looked like she was deep into some serious love-making, right on the very cusp of the bust, and, shit, I didn’t want to disturb her, asking to see her stone to compare it to mine.

Oscar finished up with one of Regina’s sons, a lanky dude with lanky long hair. Then starting at the beginning, everyone walked up to the fire pit, kneeled on a flat stone at the edge of the flames. They then repeated to themselves the decree that they had made earlier.

Then they tossed their stone and a piece of paper that had their decree written on it into the flames.

When it was my turn, I hesitated just long enough for the next woman to grab my arm.

“You’re going to go aren’t you?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“But, you have to. It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“I don’t really know why I’m here.”

“Ask the fire.”

I stood up and tried to avoid the looks of the others, all pleasing and approving looks, but their eyes all looked like wilted pumpkins and scared the shit out of me.

The flat stone looked just big enough. I kneeled down, my knees resting on the warm slab. I opened up my small piece of paper. All I had written was slow down.

The fire was hot and I looked deep into it, seeing pieces of paper that had escaped the flames resting at the bottom.

“Slow down,” I whispered to myself. “What’s gonna happen, happens.”

I tossed the piece of paper in, then my stone. Inside the stone was the stone’s spirit that was now aligned with mine. Soldiering into the flames, the spirit busted out and floated into the sky above, the goddamn ether. Goodbye, spirit. 

My piece of paper didn’t burn right away. I could see the word slow escaping the flames. Part of me wanted to reach in and snag it out of there, but as I reached my hand in, I felt the shooting pangs of scorching heat. So instead I waved my hands around the tops of the flames like the others had done. I ducked my head down and waved smoke onto the top of my head. My eyes were closed. I thought I might fall in. 

I fall hard.

***

It ended just before eleven. People milled about and a few beat on the hand drums some more. The mosquitoes had moved; the clearing was nice. 

I said goodbye to a few people, especially the woman who had been sitting next to me. Then I slowly made my way down the heaving driveway. The Super Trooper started up with an embarrassing rumble and the gentleman from before helped me back up, waving and smiling a toothless smile as I pulled away.

I wasn’t far, but I was also millions of miles from everything. I drove slowly down the country roads and watched as trees, hay bails, and cows stood in silhouettes along the horizon. Each house had one light on, one sign of life, one motion of existence. Smoke was still wafting in my nostrils and I ran my fingers through my hair, still kind of sticky from the bug spray.

Molly would appreciate this story, I thought. 

***

For a little while, as Portland was being shuttled into the doldrums of winter, Molly and I had a lot of fun together. We ate Chinese food, listened to Jeff Buckley, and laughed a lot. Molly had a tremendous giggle. It sounded like a stream, really sweet and pleasant. 

By New Years she had gone back to Chicago and I was at the same Irish pub in Portland, playing Led Zeppelin and Al Green covers. Over the next few years when I would be out on tour or even playing a show in Portland, I would call Molly after we had done sound check. She always liked that I called her at such a crazy time.

“All right, Ms. Molly,” I’d say. “I have to be going. Gotta sign some boobies and maybe break some shit.”

“Yeah, yeah, rock star,” she’d say. “Have a good show, champ.”

The lights of the interstate gleamed through the trees and it was almost midnight. Somewhere in America, the country slept soundly and at peace. They slept with their dreams alive and their ill will wasting away in the cupboards. Deep in the Midwest slept a gal with the kind of life brimming inside her that could silence the critics, stop the Cold War, and change the way Americans live.

She slept soundly and with a smile on her face. 

Some people need a fire ceremony to make it through the ifs, ands, or buts of life.

Some people just need a Chicago Bears wool hat.

 

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