With the leaves from the trees mostly gone, I can see what’s been hidden. Down Peterborough bike paths I can see into backyards. Down country roads I can see the contours of the land where before my eyes could only follow the treetops.
The Fall brings the melancholy of loss. Another too short season of green now gone. The long list of things to do, places to be, people to re-connect with - now put off as preparations for winter’s slower travels take over. The chores of putting away the paraphilia of outdoor living and chopping wood provide for thinking time. And my thoughts are carried by the grey weather and my low moodiness into deeper arenas of loss.
Laments arrive in the voices I conjure to tell me stories from seasons now gone. My memories in these stories seem so clear. These haunting voices – disguised as the ones I’ve hurt or hindered – angry, accusing, blaming - rake my ego over the coals - roasting the path I’m walking on.
In Fiji, decades ago, I joined the tourists (interloping at the big Hotels from my humble hostel) to see the firewalkers. Sitting poolside in the afternoon, I’d watched the tall coffee-bean black Fijian men build the fire with long dead branches and split lengths of tree trunks. The fire pit was the length and width of two small cars parked end to end. Before I headed off to find food at the cheap backstreet restaurants, I saw them carrying stones the size of dinner plates to heave into the fire.
When I returned for the evening’s festivities, the pit glowed in the twilight – no flames or smoke – just a white ash covering.
We watched the women dance. Grass skirts and modest cotton tops revealing little. Their motions were explained by the hotel’s entertainment director as a story of their people. It was all slightly cheesy. Ancient culture’s celebration turned into performance for the paying Palangi.
With the dancing done, the man with the microphone led the guests over to the firepit. With an elaborate lead-up, the emcee explained the ritual significance of the fire walk. Walking the hot stones represents a passage – from boy to man – from self-absorption to self-denial as a servant of the people.
And other passages too. From a man to a mate – from a mate to a father – a father with a role and purpose that serves the tribe. It might be the passage from a warrior to an older warrior – whose years have added a deeper repertoire of skills to the battle.
Once the Survival Dance has been accomplished, attention is paid to the Sacred Dance – discovering a more sacred purpose for the time left on earth. And so, from a warrior to a sage – from sage to elder – from elder to ancestor. Each stage of the journey involves both celebration and loss.
Each stage marked with a communal ritual of support for stepping into the next role and a lament for what is left behind.
Slowly the firewalker stepped onto the path of hot stones. The stones - laid out as if to cross a creek - were evenly placed for stepping. No leaping or hurrying across. His face calm, his hands out from his body for balance, he stepped slowly and carefully as if each stone represented a testing passed.
The voices, the scenarios in my head - visitors from my past – work, family, friends - each represent a testing. But I haven’t passed the test. I’ve failed. The ones with the hottest sting are the ones that haunt me most often. They come and take me into torment when I’m most vulnerable or lonely or tired.
My usual response is to jump quickly from the hot stone – to push the voice from my head – to find a distraction – to hop quickly away. And so - to walk with intention on each hot rock with the knowledge that there is nothing to fear but my own worst judgments – is a ritualizing of the passage.
They are all in the past. And in that sense I have passed over them. I have crossed over. I have made it through from that shore to this new shore. I wasn’t swept into the torrents and carried away. I passed.
And if I remember – if I ground myself in the here and now. Those voices, those memories lose their heat. Perhaps the soles of my feet are more calloused from the walk. Perhaps the pain gets dulled with repetition. But I believe that it is really because I have learned, and practiced, and am now better able to centre myself in the present joy of my living. When I practice the centering, I can cross those stones with calm and coolness.
If I bring the positive “yes” from today with me to address those old ghosts – the heat, pain, and fear they once conjured in me – dissipates. “Yes I failed to live up to my own expectations.” and “Yes, I failed to be who you wanted me to be.” The power of confession – not from some dark and guilty prison of my own making – but from the bright daylight of truth – releases the rock-hard dense power of shame and magically transforms it into the sand of its component parts.
I can say “Thank You” to my old self and to my old companions.
I can say “I forgive you” to my old self and those old companions.
I can say “Goodbye – God be with you.” as I journey on.
It’s not that I will never return. Those old stories are powerful reminders of the lessons learned. They still hold wisdom yet uncovered. But now, when I prepare myself with simple reminders that the ground I walk on today is across the bridge, across the river, across the fiery hot rocks – those old ghosts will no longer trap me, imprison me, or define me.
The Fall from grace is not the end of the story. Being kicked out of the garden opens up new paths of discovery that I’d have never known. The illusions that kept me there are gone. With eyes and heart wide open I travel on. And I see that wherever I am now – whether desert or jungle or beside still waters – is full of the wonders that each day brings. And I say YES and step forward.