Why I Go to Phoenix Fire

by Peter Van Gorder

People ask: 'What is it that you do around the fire all night?' Well, there is drumming, dancing, and singing. Food is shared, alters are built. Rhythms and songs rise and fall throughout the evening, speckled with moments of profound silence and stillness - out of which arise some of the most beautiful, authentic spoken words from the heart, mind, and spirit. No one is 'in charge' and there is everything from refined beauty to poetic chaos. This is what it looks like. This is what happens. The 'what' is fairly simple to describe. But 'why' is a much harder questions to answer.

The reason why I first attended one of these circles was because a musician friend of mine said: 'Peter, you've got to go! There's drumming, and fire, and drumming, and people who drum, and you like drumming - so you've got to go!' I got the hint, loaded my van with all kinds of drums and away I went. I played all night - till my hands were sore. I played every little drum lick, groove, pattern, and sound that I could. I played everything I could think of till I had nothing left to play. I emptied myself out. I played until my mind stopped thinking of what I should play and the playing just came. It was amazing. Previously in my life I never seemed to get enough drumming: The drum circle, the party, the jam, the evening gig, the hours of rehearsal, they never seemed to quench my drumming thirst. But alas, there I was with my drum, hands numb, mind empty, and heart full. The sun just rising, a new day being born before my eyes. I had arrived. From the darkness of the long night, from the constant chatter of my mind, from the feeling of 'need' to the experience of pure and simple being. Thank you, Steve Gordon, for prodding me to go.

As my mind emptied of all the drumming patterns it could think of, new patterns began to emerge. Not drumming patterns, but other patterns. Patterns in dance, in song, the rising of the sun, the setting of the moon. The Grand Parade was unfolding in front of me and I was suddenly becoming aware of it. With new senses I saw that there was a hell of a lot more going on around me than me and my little drum. Holy Shit! Suddenly I felt awake. 'Not bad' I thought. Some people sit in one position for years to preach this state and all I had to do was drum, breath, and keep letting go.

There is a timelessness in playing one little pattern over and over again, feeling it fit into the larger pattern of all the other drums, the movement of dance, while staring straight into the fire - widening the peripheral vision, and absorbing the movement of the moon and stars and letting go.

I always knew that we were showing up for different reasons, even if those reasons kept changing for ourselves. But why all together? Why do we do this diverse, eclectic, chaotic dance?

Two years ago I attended Hawaii Fire Tribe. It was great. It was windy. The wind blew through us and danced with us. It also put us in our proper place at times, picking up ash and throwing it in our mouths and eyes as we struggled to hold focus of whatever it was we were doing - drumming, dancing or pounding rebar. We had a bamboo wind shield around the perimeter, but at one particularly windy moment it was threatening to pull that down and pull us all of course. Some of us left the circle and went around back to pull the bamboo fence back up and re-secure it by driving more rebar and roping it down again. The first thought of most of us was 'This wind is threatening our perfect experience!' But we headed around back to fix the 'problem' none the less. It was dark on the other side of the bamboo wind shield, but we could hear the drumming and singing and were excited to get it over with and re-join the group. Two people pulled the bamboo upright, two people cinched up the rope, one person held the rebar, and I pounded. Eagerly I swung. SMACK! CLANK! CLASH! But after the first few hits I realized something was wrong - I was clashing with the drums! We all felt it. Immediately we began singing with the rest of the circle and driving the rebar in time with the music. 'We are all One' PLINK! With the infinite of the Sun - PLINK! Forever and ever and ever. The work made sense with the music and the music made sense with the 'work'.

"The universe is an infinite sphere who's center is everywhere and who's circumference is nowhere" - Dustin Hoffman in "I Heart Huckabees"

The Wind provided a great reminder - that we were indeed One. No longer on the 'outside' of the circle, we became central to it - just by shifting our consciousness. Our work was transformed into music, drudgery into game - a game with no leaders, no winners, no losers - just fun. All benefited and no one was left out.

My grandfather, who just celebrated his 107th birthday last Monday in Santa Cruz, said that his secret of long life is this:

"Know your skills, your gifts, and your talents. Share them freely with those around you. Live life with a sense of purpose and belonging." -Harold van Gorder

So now I know a bit more about why I show up. I am building a spiritual playground in which I can re-invent myself, transform myself, and turn my own personal 'lead' into my own self-defined 'gold'. These are everyday notions that we brandish about frequently, but never fully grasp the depth of until we feel them in our bones by living them in the face of ordinary, everyday challenges.

Up close, we're all doing our own individual thing - dancing our own dance, pounding our own rebar, throwing our own worries into the fire, waking up from our own sleep. But from the eye of the Universe we're all doing the same thing: Sharing our sense of purpose, sharing our gifts, and practicing our talents - not talents of drumming or dancing, for those, I am confident, are in plenty fine shape. We're practicing our talent to care for one another, to turn 'work' into Play, 'separateness' into Unity, to learn that everything we could ever want or be, we already have and are.

You don't need to drum or dance or know anything special to come to Phoenix Fire/The family gathering. And you certainly don't need to attend a circle or a fire to share your talents and gifts. One can become self-actualized by doing nothing at all. So, in whatever direction your road takes you, be the wind at your back or in your face, I hope you will come to a place of living life fully, with a sense of Purpose and Belonging.

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