Trial by fire on New Year’s Eve

by Amy Kingsley

The longest stretch of the drive to Stokesdale faces north. A left turn three quarters of the way faces west, into one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, a deep magenta peeking through the trees. As the sun dives lower beneath the horizon, that shade morphs into a deep almost red ‘– the color of fire.

Fire’s been on my mind a lot the past couple of days; grass blazes are taking out sections of drought-ravaged Texas. When I went home for the holidays, only white-painted fireworks stands interrupted parched landscape the color of desert sand. My mom looked at them warily, worried about the potential for more damage on New Year’s Eve.

But on this eve of 2006, as my family hopes for the year to start without witnessing the union of spark and tinder, I am making my way toward a close engagement with the element. Somewhere around one of these bends is a house where Raven Smith and Heather Ash Amara are meeting with a small group for a New Year’s Eve firewalk. A tiki torch marks the driveway, a winding but well-kept gravel path terminating at the front door of a fairy-tale cabin.

‘“Are you Amy?’” asks Christine Staub, one of the owners of the enormous cedar-paneled domicile. ‘“You have the reporter look all over you.’”

Before I can ascertain whether she’s referring to my pair of beat-up Converse All-Stars or hooded sweatshirt, the group of twenty-odd participants files down a back hallway into a basement rec room.

The sparse room has few decorations, but plenty of lip-service to major world religions. Besides the centerpiece, a Buddha banner hanging on the front wall, the room holds a Shiva statue from the Hindu tradition and a Virgin Mary candle.

The décor is a prelude to the cultural cornucopia to come. In a brief history of firewalking, Amara mentions the Vikings, Fiji, Japan and Kung Bushmen from Africa. We won’t be learning any of those cultural traditions tonight, though. Our ceremony hails from California, and it is a tradition scarcely older than a quarter century.

‘“Firewalking is about presence,’” says Smith, flashing a straight-toothed smile. ‘“It’s about whether you choose to be engaged with life.’”

The key, we learn is to be fully present in the moment. It’s that simple. Be present. Then walk on 1100 degree cedar coals.

After this intro, we walk out to the site, a gently sloping clearing with split cedar stacked in the center like Lincoln Logs. Amara pulls out a bundle of sage and tells us to tear off a small piece. Once all of us have pinched of a bit, we are supposed to endow it with intent for the New Year and sprinkle it on the wood.

The young man next to me mumbles something inaudible. Others announce their plans with gusto.

‘“Mastery of Love!’” says one woman who flings her sage cross the cedar.

‘“Self-Empowerment!’” announces another.

‘“Meet my deadline,’” I whisper.

Once the intentions have been deposited, we each take a long match and, in one synchronized motion, step in to light the wood pile. The blaze catches on the newspaper and lamp oil, grows fast and shoots a spray of sparks toward the starry sky. Just as quickly, the warming flame recedes and vanishes.

Young wood is the culprit, and the fire is clearly going to take some work. Smith assumes over fire duties while Amara leads us back to the house for the preparatory workshop.

Amara, a Toltec mentor in the Eagle Knight lineage, has been teaching firewalking for 14 years, and she was trained by the two teachers who brought the practice over from India.

‘“I’m not the teacher, the fire is the teacher,’” she says.

True, we don’t learn much in the way of technique, just the temperature of the cedar, 1100 degrees, and some vague notions of presence and energy.

Physicists have long debunked the practice of firewalking. The most common explanation involves the conductivity of the cedar. Wood does not conduct heat well ‘— which is one of the reasons is it used to insulate the handles of pots and pans, and most people average two steps every second, a rate too quick to pick up much heat from the smoldering embers.

As a matter of fact, one of the group members ‘— Shannon Stafford ‘— is a physics instructor. He is middle-aged, and belongs to the class most often served by such self-help: privileged, white and unfulfilled. Amara dismisses the science, and he doesn’t protest.

The folks in this group have paid $50 for the four-hour firewalk seminar and more than $100 to spend the day here. Lesson one: presence isn’t cheap.

Part of the run up to the firewalk involves a little problem-solving drill. We pair up and share our problems then work out three solutions, two of them manageable and one outlandish. I have to admit that I find this kind of useful, until we get to the last part.

Amara instructs us to tell each other about the craziest thing we did in the last year.

‘“Well, I cleared up some stuff with my dad,’” says Carole, an older woman with tight gray curls and watery blue eyes. ‘“He’s been dead for a while. But I actually contracted mental gonorrhea; I mean I was actually diagnosed with gonorrhea caused by my guilt over our relationship. Then I went to his grave and I healed myself. That was pretty crazy, huh?’”

What, with mental penicillin? I think.

Once we conduct another exercise to make ourselves big, a key part of presence and firewalking, we head out to the coals. The stubborn wood has finally yielded and now the fire is a picturesque pile of embers.

We are instructed to chant as Smith and Amara rake out the coals. The gauntlet looks about 12 feet long and is glowing beautifully, releasing a lovely fragrance. Smith instructs us in a chant, and three participants work a rhythm out of African hand drums.

People start to circle the coals, and then they begin to cross it. Loud cheers erupt as Stafford crosses the fire.

Although I don’t really feel that either my presence or energy have shifted, I walk the coals barefoot. The soles of my feet are fine, but a few embers caught between my toes sting a bit as I cool them on the grass.

Smith calls for silence. Since I have walked, I retreat from the crowd, pull on my socks and shoes, and make myself small. In turn, participants approach the coals, announce an intention for the year and walk. When they reach the end, the crowd responds back with a hearty repetition.

‘“Blossom fully,’” Smith says solemnly.

‘“Blossom fully!’” comes the refrain as he crosses the coals.

‘“For love,’” Worth Gray says.

Gray, who ditched a Caribbean sailing adventure to be here with his long-time girlfriend, turns the corner at the end of the walk into her embrace. From my tiny vantage, I perceive the two do look bigger. Maybe it’s the fire, or maybe it’s each other. It’s probably a little of both.

I don’t know what I’ve learned tonight about presence or bigness. Small and outside of myself, I seem to see more. But the euphoria of the others is real. So, I pack my things and head back to Greensboro to finish my New Year’s Eve ‘— with a newfound determination to make my deadline.

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