Last spring, in early June, I had an opportunity to sleep in the woods, in the open, tending my own fire overnight. I wasn’t really alone. There were at least a dozen people somewhere within shouting distance, some with their own fires, flickering tiny but reassuring flames at the edges of my sight.
My intention for the night, my goal, was to sleep. Not to spend the night in vigil. At that moment, holding the memory of years of insomnia followed by exhausted years of night-time parenting – breastfeeding, tending to fevers, catching vomit in bowls, changing sheets – I was feeling quite sure, quite stubborn, that all-night vigils were overrated.
But I wanted to learn to sleep in the open, comfortably, without fear, without a fuss.
I found out, however, that fire is a charismatic companion. It always surprises me anew to realize how many hours it is possible to lose track of while gazing into a fire; how magical, reassuring, and even entertaining its presence.
I’d had one experience of sleeping apart from others in the open before. It included many mosquitoes, no fire, and no sleep. While there was a lot of good in the experience, it was a long night. Not this one.
I nestled down in my sleeping bag, watching the swaying leaves and branches above me form shadowy pictures: animals, birds, human faces. I looked down from the slightly elevated path on which I lay to see arched tree saplings, possible gateways to worlds unknown, beckoning me through the shadows. I felt the velvety weight of darkness around me. I watched the journey of the moon across the sky.
I listened to the faint rustling of tiny creatures in the leaves around. I listened to distant airplanes, distant trucks on not-so distant highways. I imagined them all as waves, deeply lulling waves against the shores of my consciousness. I started to drift, just a little.
The fire dimmed. I jumped up, sawed a little more wood, fed the fire again. I couldn’t let it go out. I was invested in its survival. And I felt, in an instinctive way, that it was ensuring mine, although rationally, on that warm June night, I knew this not to be true.
In that nighttime state that was both dreamlike and highly alert, I felt like the fire was alive: a friend, a lover. I wanted to watch it all night. To breathe in its smell. To gaze into its depths. To vow eternal love. Me and the fire. We would always be together. Nothing else existed. I needed nothing else.
“I’m going to be a fire tender.” I whispered to myself, after several hours of this half-waking dream. I didn’t know what I meant by that, not fully. But nevertheless it felt like a promise.
Eventually, after adding some last sticks at 2 or 3 am, I drifted into asleep. I fell asleep deeply, so deeply that later on, my sister, who had been sleeping at a distance on one side of me, said she stepped directly over me in the early morning as I lay on the path.
When I awoke it was morning and the fire was out. I thanked it for its company. I gently scattered the remaining logs, buried the ashes, poured water on the coals. I put the fire to bed.
Later that morning, when all of the individual fires had been quenched, and the whole group sat around a large mutual fire, we all shared our stories. I was moved then to hear several others also speaking of their fire as a companion, the tending as the tending of a relationship, an animate bond.
It was a powerful experience, one I return to often in my heart. The last day of a week of intense experiences that had coincidentally clustered together at that time, in what I would later see as pieces of a rite of passage that I had been for some time courting, so close to heading into my forties.
We all need those moments, when we step away, look at ourselves from a distance, release what we no longer need, speak our intentions clearly, grieve, celebrate, honour where we’ve been and where we are right now.
A week earlier I learned something through a small but symbolic experience of stepping forward into community: about letting myself be vulnerable, about trusting others to support me and to honour my small offerings. And, within that same week, a day alone in the woods; a ritual of burning things I wanted to leave behind in my life; a speaking out loud of intentions for the future. Learning to trust myself to find my way.
A stressful week, logistically – childcare, packing, too much driving – but mostly the kind of stress that comes from internal pressure, from overloading myself physically and emotionally with my own expectations, my own need to prove something to myself, or maybe to others.
The gift of that kind of stress is that it can break you down, if you let it: break you down to a point where you see what is essential. I can look back now and see how many things shifted internally for me that week. How necessary and powerful it was as a threshold where I left things behind – beliefs, expectations, fears – some that I had been carrying around for decades.
I realized recently, looking back at that week again, that instead I now carry its experiences – and others like them – in my heart. Like memory beads on a string, I can take them out whenever I need them in my everyday life: to look at them, stroke them, polish them to a brighter shine. To give myself courage, spiritual sustenance. To remember to breathe into trust.
If I can tend my own fires well, I can better tend those around me.
As years ago I used to pull out difficult experiences – worries, anger, perceived shames – and brood over them, I now hold close to me what I most cherish. I’m learning to nourish those flames.
And I long to sleep in the woods beside a fire again.
Sleeping in the Forest – Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.