Earth, Air, Fire And...Sweat
Article ID: 9845
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,311
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Author: RuneWolf [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: July 3rd. 2005
Times Viewed: 6,941
The magnitude of my arrogance, at times, astounds me - although my friends assure me that I shouldn’t be so surprised. Thankfully, the Gods seem to find it, for the most part, amusing, and take the occasional flare-up as an opportunity to re-emphasize lessons in humility, gratitude and service that They have, over the years, tried to teach me.
Take the weekend of June 17th…
There I was, basking in the warm glow of Free Spirit Gathering, the first Pagan festival I had attended in ten years, and feeling pretty full of myself. I had “done” a couple of workshops, “done” the meet-and-greet, networked, hobnobbed, swung my magickal, er, opinion around and, as far as I could see, I was pretty much “done” with the festival. It had been, well…nice…but it wasn’t something I was going to write home about. I was even considering whether I wanted to bother coming again next year.
Arrogance, as I said…
About the only thing I had left on my agenda was my stint at community service. So I girded my loins, topped off my business cards (just in case), and ambled on over to queue up for my assignment.
Originally, I had hoped to work security. After all, being a “trained martial artist, ” a follower of the Warrior Way and all that, it seemed the natural choice, and an opportunity to show these folks how it’s really done. (Did I mention arrogance?) But, as so often happens, the Gods had other plans for Their Little Wolfie.
You see, it seems the security detail for that shift was going to be sweeping the mess hall. What? Sweep the mess hall? Moi? Oh no, no, no! You people obviously don’t understand who you are dealing with here. Why…I’m ME, for Goddess’ sake! ME don’t sweep!
Thankfully, I didn’t say any of this out loud, and instead waited (sort of) patiently for the other jobs to be read off the list. When they got to the bottom, and the “best” of the lot seemed to be “carrying stones for the Sweat Circle, ” I wrenched myself out of my self-absorption and apathy, and raised my hand. What the heck – I had moved 15 yards of mulch a couple of weeks ago, I could certainly carry a few stones. C’mon, let’s get this over with.
So, with Staff T-shirt in hand and my arrogance and self-centeredness on “11, ” I set off across the fields of Camp Ramblewood toward my assignment at the Sweat Circle…
With not the slightest inkling that I was setting off on one of the truest spiritual journeys of my life.
(What makes this even more delicious, in retrospect, is that I had, in a workshop just the day before, crafted a runestave for the specific purpose of “having” a spirit-journey. Of course, I assumed, in my typical fashion, that if it came at all, it would come during my usual meditation, trance or ritual. So much for my plan…)
I don’t know when it changed for me; when the arrogance, the cockiness and the know-it-all-ness melted away and I began to open to the beauty and power of the experience. Maybe it was when the Firekeeper turned my pitchfork over. The pitchfork I had become so proud of and had placed with such care and precision. Except that the tines were facing up, and so presented a danger to myself and the rest of the crew. And, in the time-honored fashion of all true senseis, the Firekeeper didn’t say a word, didn’t point and shout, didn’t make a big fuss. He simply paused as he walked by, bent and turned the fork over in silence, and then continued on, leaving me blushing at the clumsiness of my “care and precision.”
It is, perhaps, a testament to my training in both the Craft and the martial arts, and to my teachers in both disciplines, that I apprehended almost immediately the focus and intensity of what we were doing. For those of you who have done it, you know. Supporting a Sweat Circle – stacking the wood, tending the fire, laying the stones, fetching the water – can be grueling work, especially in the muggy heat of a June afternoon. Working with a fire the size of a bridge table, red hot rocks and tools, three or four people trying not to trip over each other and all the while keeping as silent as possible so as not to disturb the sweat…you have to be right here, right now, in a way that we often blather about but seldom achieve. I can liken it to nothing so much as those times in the dojo when the whole world narrows to just you, your partner and the technique, and time itself becomes irrelevant.
And when the intense and focused work of moving the stones is done for that “round, ” you settle back and wait, falling into a deep and meditative reverie. The Firekeepers move back and forth purposefully but quietly, fussing over the fire, arranging and re-arranging the wood, raking the embers, sifting out those errant stones that made it neither into the fire nor the dome. The fire dances and leaps, and the smoke drifts up through the sunbeams angling through the leafy walls of the clearing. If you gaze long enough into the embers, you can see visions flickering therein, runes of primal fire blazing in the heart of Muspelheim… In the distance, you hear the throb of drums from a workshop or a spontaneous drum-jam. Closer at hand are the murmurs or songs from inside the dome, the rattle of a woodpecker off in the woods, the susurration of the wind in the tall, patient trees, the thud of a log falling from the fire or the tink! of a misplaced tool.
Until the call comes again from inside the dome: “Firekeeper! Open the door, please!” And then it’s all hands on deck again, and the cycle repeats.
I found myself instantly entranced by the intensity and focus, the rhythm and the discipline. I responded eagerly – perhaps a bit too eagerly at first – to the tutelage of the Firekeepers I started under. But it was their gruff patience and guidance that got me through that first sweat, and when it was done, I volunteered for the next. I would have been there all weekend, but that was the last sweat of the festival.
Every sweat is different, just as each Firekeeper and each Pourer are different. During the first sweat I worked, the Firekeepers kept the newbies well out of harm’s way, and the Pourer focused all her attention within the dome. During the second sweat, the lone Firekeeper allowed me – even encouraged me – to get more involved, and I actually had the chance to get into the firepit and tend the fire a bit, repositioning logs and raking the coals. (It’s a bizarre kind of Zen gardening – raking the ash and embers into useful and aesthetic patterns.) The Pourer for that sweat turned her attention outward once each round, calling out to those who worked beyond the walls of the dome. When she asked – no, demanded: “Give to the fire that which has kept you from walking your path, ” all the hair on my body stood at attention, and I silently gave “arrogance” to the fire within.
It was in the lulls during the second sweat, when I wasn’t so concerned about tripping over my own feet and landing in the fire, that I had a chance to reflect on the energies we were working with. The energies of the Elements: The Fire that is central to the entire process, the Air that is used to fan that fire to life, the Stones that carry the heat of the fire into the dome, and the Water – the precious Water! – that becomes steam when cast upon the hot stones, and that we drink and drink and drink to replace the sweat that runs off us in torrents.
I looked around, and saw also the energies and principles of the Witches’ Pyramid at work: Knowing the duties and the rhythm of the work. Willing oneself to endure the transient discomfort of the labor, Willing oneself to focus despite the heat, smoke and sweat. Daring the spirits of the fire, dancing into the edges of their embrace to poke and prod and dancing out again when that embrace becomes unbearable. And Keeping Silent, for the sake of those who journey within the dome, and for the sake of your own spirit that is hushed by the power and beauty of this place and this working.
It crept over me, all unknowing, the realization of how incredibly nourishing it was, to work and sweat in the service of others, people I didn’t even know, who I had never seen before and would likely never see again. But the gift really was in the giving, in setting aside, at least for a little while, the shackles of self-obsession, of worrying about ME, and simply doing for the sake of others. Serving others, serving the tribe. It’s not something I’m good at, but the Gods see fit, every now and then, to trick me into a situation where I can do it, with a whole heart and a happy spirit.
The next morning, we took apart the dome, squared away the clearing, packed up the blankets and the tools. With the Firekeeper’s permission, from the pile of rocks that had grown cold overnight, I took the last stone I had laid in the last sweat of the festival. As I picked it up, it flaked, and a shard fell back into the pit. So part of that stone I now have with me, in my circle, and part of it remains there, a connection across the miles and days.
And I’ll be back. I’ve found a calling, perhaps. Nothing big, really, in the grand scheme of things, and maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But it’s something I can do, to give back to the community, by giving to the nameless folk who go into the dome to go beyond. I have no great abilities, no profound insights, no eldritch lore – but I can swing a pitchfork and tote a few stones, and in those simple actions, feel connected to something wonderful and worthwhile.
If you have never been to FSG, and are in the Darlington, MD area next Spring, please come! If you are a regular at FSG, and haven’t done a sweat, please do! We promise that the Sweat Staff will have everything ready – the rest is up to you…
My thanks to the Sweat Staff of Free Spirit Gathering 2005. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be of service, to look within myself, and perhaps maybe even grow a little. Thanks for the chance to work and sweat, laugh and hug, and to realize, once again, that the journey is what I make of it.
Copyright: Copyright © RuneWolf 2005
Location: Reston, Virginia
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