Monday, May 27, 2013


(Today's prompt was to write a holiday-appropriate tale. Memorial Day doesn't hold much meaning for me as a holiday, and I rarely celebrate it in what might be deemed a traditional way. However, an event Sunday night suddenly made this Memorial Day quite meaningful in a very ordinary way. Hence, the story "Bonfires".)

Flags, graves, parades, and picnics mark Memorial Day, the day off that Americans seem to universally celebrate on the last Monday in May. The reason for the holiday always seemed a little lost on me, though I cannot quarrel with those who wish to memorialize those who fell in war. Still, not being particularly patriotic nor having any immediate family members or friends affiliated with the military, I never quite got the outpouring of patriotism and duty that seemed to accompany this holiday.

But a day off from work is a day off, and even if I no longer work on schedule where holidays seem to matter, I look forward to the long weekends that holidays like Memorial Day offer. Like Americans across the continent, I watch the weather forecasts carefully even though I am not planning picnics, family outings, cemetery visits, or parades.

This year, rain and an unseasonable chill began the three-day weekend. Farmers at the Saratoga market behind their booths in thick flannel and I found myself clapping my hands repeatedly to keep them warm. The damp cold was expected to continue through mid-afternoon Sunday, with a possibility of nicer weather on Memorial Day itself.

Jim and I had planned to spend the entire weekend in the garden, planting tomatoes, which traditionally go into the ground on Memorial Day weekend. Instead, we had our seedlings back indoors and were ourselves huddled by our fireplace, surprised by the late season chill.

A rainy day and unseasonable cold snap, however, can produce conditions favorable for some outdoor activities, if one watches the skies carefully. So when the rains diminished and the sun began dancing in and out of clouds mid-day Sunday, our neighbor Tom must have begun to sense a change in fortune. He knocked on our front door shortly before 8 p.m. as we were ladling our homemade beet pasta into bowls for dinner and said the magic word: "Bonfire."

My face lit up. Jim whooped with joy and said, "Give us 15 minutes."

Before I moved to upstate New York, I used to be part of a grassroots community building group of artists and magicians known as Fire Tribe. This was when I lived in Hawai'i. We would celebrate both the December and June solstice with a four days of dancing, drumming, and storytelling around a blazing bonfire. People would dress in flashy costumes, or sometimes not at all. Alcohol was strongly discouraged, as was openly apparent acts of sex. The fire would be lit at midnight and burn until sunrise. Sometimes the all-night ritual of dance and drum was a test of endurance. Other times, it simply was great fun. Even in Hawai'i, the air would turn slightly chill after dark. Dancing around a fire in a sleeveless cotton dress was the best solution for staying warm and cutting back the chill.

I lived in Hawai'i for 11 years, and often felt as if magic, spirituality, and reality melded as one. The yellow pages had a separate listing for psychics, and meetings with them usually took place in fairly standard consultation chambers in residential or business locales. The mystique of incense, crystal balls, and dark mysterious music that seems to accompany the psychic profession on the American mainland was absent in the islands, where oddity was perhaps the norm.

I, too, received training in the psychic arts while living in Hawai'i, and still occasionally pull out a tarot deck or try to read tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. This practice, however, feels oddly repressed in much of the rest of America, with dire warnings emitting from church pastors of the devil infecting the brain. I have learned to keep my psychic sensibilities under a bit of a wrap. But, still, I miss the magic dearly. The occasional bonfire brings it back.

Living in the country in houses that often have undergone centuries of repairs done in a traditional DIY mode results in a lot of debris, most of it heavy and bulky. In addition, high winds that whip through woods tend to leave a lot of unuseable wood scattered in back yards. Carting the stuff to a dump or trying to dispose of it via a twice-monthly trash service would be expensive and unfeasible. As a result, most people set up piles in their yards, and wait for an opportune time to douse the pile with old fuel oil or gasoline and toss a lit match onto the heap.

Well, it takes more than a match to set the pile aflame, but that's a detail for another story.

If you live in the city, and until three years ago, the city was all I knew, you might be thinking, "Wait, isn't this dangerous? A bonfire in your back yard?"

Well, it can be dangerous, which is why the local, regional, county, and often state-wide fire prevention agencies monitor the weather and impose burn bans at certain times of the year. It is also why lifelong rural residents like our neighbor Tom prepare their burn piles well in advance and then watch the weather carefully, waiting for the right conditions to materialize.

A couple days of rain ensures that the ground around the pile is moist enough to quench flying sparks. Dry night skies that are dusted with stars and perhaps a few trace clouds ensure that the sparks that shoot upward will meet a pretty sight. Before I quit drinking, robust shots of vodka, whiskey, or rum accompanied the bonfire. Now, I'm happy to celebrate with hot chocolate or a simple seltzer.

The bonfires burn fast and hot. Set aflame just as the night air chills, the shooting flames provoke instant warmth. Icy tensions melt; bad moods turn magically good; and suddenly, even if there is no holiday, one feels like there might be a reason to celebrate.

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