Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feeding the Fire

Saturday night the Firebird went up again, gloriously, as several thousand moderns gathered ‘round, transfixed by its healing spell. As I swayed from foot to foot, a sleeping Hawk under my coat and wrapped against my chest, I heard someone behind me say, somewhat obviously, “I feel like a savage performing an ancient ritual.” Fortunately, this casual comment failed to incite a reaction from the fundamentalist forces of antagonism that earlier in the evening—or so I’d heard while waiting in line at Artisans for my three-shot Americano—had protested the glorious event for its purportedly pagan character. I wondered whether Christmas trees occupy a place of honor in the living rooms of these latter-day crusaders.

It’s rare these days to witness, much less participate in, any kind of public ceremony that doesn’t involve spectator sports. Indeed, in an age where commonality with your fellow person is most likely to be sought and found in one of your neighborhood’s three Wal-Mart Superstores, a civic event like the Phoenixville Firebird Festival is positively magical in its ability to draw so many in.

Unlike those odd family heirlooms of behavior wherein the original intent is lost and/or willfully forgotten and your Christmas Day feast consists almost entirely of cold cuts on potato rolls and you persist in perpetuating this behavior because you’ve persisted thusly since 1971, the Firebird Festival was founded with a grounding in myth and a memory of decades of local economic decline. Also, people like burning things.

Jenifer laughed at her own childlike glee when, after the morning’s class, she described the day as her favorite of the year. This time we were even more excited than usual simply because it would be Hawk’s first time ex utero. We would also be contributing to the town’s rebirth in our own small way by working a table promoting our friend’s yoga studio.

We set up shop in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre, a smaller version of similar turn-of-the-last-century movie houses such as the Embassy Theatre in Wellington or the Paramount Theatre in Austin. We situated ourselves by an olde-tyme Santa sleigh and a restored Wurlitzer organ and got down to the business of selling yoga, which boiled down to answering children’s queries about the contents of the festive little holiday-themed boxes occupying our table. The answer was “yoga” or, what amounted to the same thing, “nothing,” since the boxes were intended to deliver gift certificates or class cards. Oddly, none of the children was satisfied by our answers, though more than one attempted to cart off a box all the same.

On the off chance I’d have some free time, I took my notebook and conjured a plot point concerning medieval European politics. With all the yoga talk and ancillary burrito eating, however, I didn’t get around to catching up on a primary source I’d chanced upon in a used bookstore in East Stroudsburg (home, incidentally, to the Frank Frazetta museum, which may well be the objective of a future field trip—I’ll keep you posted). I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, since Hawk, 15 weeks old and already a precocious flirt, was bound to be the major attraction.

As the burning time approached, we packed away our gear and headed down to the site. The streets were filled with people eagerly awaiting the countdown and soon enough the sky was filled with smoke from wood saturated from the week’s heavy rainfall. Within minutes flames licked the mighty Phoenix and the intentions of thousands soared heavenward.

Afterwards we followed the flow back up Bridge Street, walking back to Jess’s house for her “Pyro Postlude.” For the first time in recent memory, we found ourselves at a genuine party filled with interesting people our own age. Jenifer and I certainly had no idea what we’d find when we moved to the area from a university town, and it took us some time to get our bearings and discover the awesomeness lurking beneath the surface. Usually, however, this awesomeness found expression in folks a decade or three our elder. And now, on Firebird Day, another layer of Phoenixville opened to us.

Later, I walked to retrieve the car to spare Hawk the cold. The streets were mostly empty now, but the lights still shone with yuletide cheer. I scraped ice from the glass, then circled by the fire site to see the remnants of the blaze. The fire was still going, now surrounded by a small circle of stalwarts. I imagined our friend Henrik, chief Bird Builder, was among them, and envied these few in this moment. I smiled, though, too, for I have had my share of fire-talk; and I thought to myself, or maybe I said it aloud, “There’s good medicine.” It takes only a few, or perhaps not even that many, to change the world.

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Blogger Brett said...

Funny you mention the oddly human joy of gathering around a fire in a group.

I was reminded again the other day of the many times I stomped around the great Aggie Bonfire in the 1980s, back in those days when it seemed a tradition as permanent and enduring as the polar icecaps or the Twin Towers.

Every year, thousands of students would happily volunteer hundreds of thousands of man-hours to drive into the local woods (always an area already market for clear cut, and which would end up being replanted) and cut down thousands of scraggly oak trees, haul them back to campus, and build a monstrous 80-foot tall "wedding cake" of timber and bailing wire.

I remember working on "second swing," sitting on a 2x8 swing-seat lifted by an overhead rope so that I was 40 feet up the side of the structure, where I would signal down for another log to be hitched and lifted into place, and I'd then wire the top end into place as my stack buddy would wire the bottom end as he stood atop the deck of the stair-stepped ledge of first stack below.

Work would proceed in organized volunteer shifts 'round the clock as the calendar counted down the days until "The Texas Game" to be played on Thanksgiving every year.

Then on thanksgiving eve, we -- and by "we" I mean we students, and alumni, and lovers of idiot spectacle, all 75,000 of us -- would pile into that muddy field surrounding that absurd pile of logs, the fruits of almost unimaginably large ad hoc military campaign waged by human ants who would soon become engineers and doctors and lawyers and husbands and teachers and "normal" members of productive society. A towering monument to futility.

And we'd stomp our feet in the damp cold and trade hits from flasks and hug our dates and tell gruesome disgusting tales of depravity and immaturity, as a crew of guys would soak that mountain of wood using JP-4 jet fuel.

And then we'd hoot and holler and cheer as the parade of torch-bearers marched in, and we'd sing songs -- the same songs our tribe had been singing for 50, 70, 80 years -- and then we'd cheer and feel a joyous rush as that damned log pyramid went up in glorious flames.

"But that seems so pointless!" my non-Aggie friends would argue. "Why spend so much time and energy, suffer such aches and pains and injuries just to make something that you intend to destroy utterly?"

I always just smiled and made some silly line about "It's our way of telling an uncaring Universe: screw you. We're here, and we will be noticed in our brief time on this silly rock."

I'm sure my friends always thought it was *just* a line.

Those who've never danced naked -- even metaphorically -- 'round a burning pyre will never understand the pure and perfect idiot joy felt by those of us who have.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Spoken like a true Viking, B.

"These things are thought the best:
Fire, the sight of the sun,
Good health with the gift to keep it,
And a life that avoids vice."


9:10 AM  
Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Great story, Brett.

Fire is in our genes and I heartily agree with what you said.

My next house will have a space for a large fire pit in the back yard (as well as a sweat lodge and writing cabin)

12:07 PM  
Blogger Paul Michael said...

As a member of The Firebird Committee I'm very happy that you so thoroughly enjoyed yourself at our little event and am so thankful for your insightful comments. It's people like you that make this yearly project worth it for people like me, and I suspect, for the other crazy cats on our teamas well......apart from the fact that we just like to BURN things!
Thanks again. See you next year!

7:43 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Hi Paul!

The Festival really is a high point in the year for us -- we're so grateful for all the energy that goes into building and burning that Bird. Keep up the great work, and thanks for stopping by!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Mainline Mom said...

I loved the Firebird Festival, and I will miss it. It was nice to be able to enjoy it with you and jenifer last year. (or was it the year before?) It's on my blog anyway back there somewhere. Glad you're finding your people too, it takes a little time but they are out there and Pville is a great town.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm hoping to make it to this event next year!

8:31 AM  

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