I am a firekeeper for L, a beautiful sage in Lake County who runs sweat lodges. Also known as Grandmother to her community, L is a resident at Harbin Hot Springs, my hippie getaway place for the past 15 years. This is only my second season serving as her firekeeper, but I have had a relationship to fire for many, many years. I was trained by AB, a Navajo medicine woman back in the 90’s in New Mexico. Although I have lost touch with her, I have never lost touch with my respect and relationship with the fire. I recall AB saying, “Fire is important. Try living without it.”
It is a massive job, being a firekeeper. The heat gets intense, and you are required to carry the hot heavy rocks from the fire over to the sweat lodge. (You use a pitchfork). It sometimes feels like an 8-hour workout. Sometimes, the days go smoothly, while other ties you are fighting to keep the fire going (when it rains, we still have sweatlodges; it’s just the firekeepers who are stuck in the rain).
I must say that yesterday felt like a challenging fire for me. I’ve been feeling a lot of stress at work, so it was difficult for me to focus on the fire. And I think I was phsyically tired too, which added to the challenge of the task. Fortunately, the weather conditions were great, and the women who were involved in the sweat were all in a good space. (Sometimes, as you can imagine, a lot of emotional stuff comes up during sweats). And L, who apparently used to be “controlling” with her firekeepers, expecting things to be a certain way, has mellowed out over the years. She was very patient with us. The truth is that the other firekeeper, M, and I looked like Frick and Frack out there yesterday. And the fire demanded my attention more so than usual, jumping out at me with its awesome heat. At one point, I had to walk away from it and almost took off my pants for a second because I could feel the heat (not the flames, but the actual heat), penetrate right through my jeans onto my thighs. M, at one point, singed her eyelashes. I suppose if I were a fire being asked to serve as a fuel to the stone people who were being asked to serve as conduits to heal the women in the sweat lodge, I would demand the attention of my keepers too. I’m convinced the fire is in cahoots with the wind at times, as they join together to get my attention.
One of my favorite zen readings comes from the Song of the Samadhi Jewel, which says that zazen is “like a massive fire – don’t touch it, don’t turn away from it…”
Respect it, but don’t fear it.
The reward, of course, is the dip in the hot springs at the end of the day. Nothing like water to cool down the flames, even if the temperature is hot. There’s always the cooling bath water that follows the hot bath to bring balance to our bodies.
And isn’t that what we’re all striving for – balance?
Here are a few pics of the day…