A Tiny Phoenix

I think I should have felt something when I walked across the stage in my yellow cap and gown. When the principal handed me the empty diploma cover, I didn’t return her plaster smile. There was nothing to return. There wasn’t even an “at least, I’m done,” to go along with the ceremony. I’d felt that on the last day of classes saying good bye to the other seniors and the teachers I’d actually miss.

I don’t think it was that high school was hell. I don’t think it was the fact that the diploma cover held nothing, as an insurance that we didn’t run amok as soon as the principal handed it over. It was that the entire ritual was hollow for me. It was a show, make it look good for the parents, get the photo op, pantomime happiness, fake triumph. The real event went unmarked, the last day of class, the forbidden feeling of relief that it was all over.

It wasn’t the first time, either. It wasn’t the last. Christmas after Christmas, not simply because of my atheism, but because the good will toward man meant nothing in the face of Tickle-Me Elmo. Weddings. Birthdays.

Ritual is a strange creature— it is a beast of made meaning, and we are its makers. There is something very human in the symbol, the stand-in, the substitution, and even today, ritual is everywhere. Or it should be, and isn’t. Or it should be, and goes oddly marked. Or it is, and I simply couldn’t connect. A wheel of tinny sounding events, litanies of names at ceremonies of induction, bored to tears. Was this ritual? Yes, it was, and it was the only face of ritual I knew until I finally I went to a burn.

It is not a carnival. It is not a show, nor a festival. It is a village. Sometimes a city. It is a wonderland. It is a weekend, or a week, and it is a playground that you build. And the night of the burn itself, we sit in a wide circle around an effigy, waiting. And we wait in affable talkativity. The effigy itself? That year, it was shaped like a Tibetan prayer wheel, an act of wild appropriation, uneasy and beautiful. It did not spin, its column dotted with holes. I participated: semi-quoting Ursula K. Le Guin on its surface in chalk: slyly styling writers as liars… because we are.

And the rite began. Our fire performers, our shamans of flame, our magicians of heat and light, converged, circled, and slung burning Kevlar about their bodies, encircled themselves in blazing hoops, exhaled the breath of dragons around our impostor prayer wheel, until all had gone round, but the last: mayhem unleashed in a rocket staff, lit up like New Year’s, and sparks flew twirling and popping, crackle bang flash! And then, and then…

We held our breaths. The wheel itself was lit. It was a slow fire, licking it from the middle, lighting it lantern-like through all its little holes, but soon it roared, hungry for the sky, the night, our breath. When the structure had collapsed, it was raked into a bonfire, and we broke like maenads circling, whooping, shrieking, laughing, crying.

That was when it struck me. We made this. This was ours, not in the sense that it belonged to us, because it didn’t, but in the sense that this was of us, this village, this temporary home, this fire and light and music. This was ritual connected, a completed circuit, alive and electric and filled with mystery. No more empty ceremony. No more blank stares and stiff clothes. Instead, living, breathing, flaming community, making meaning of our entropy, making ashes and dust.

And it lives differently in each body, sits expectantly in every form: a different event, a different ritual ready to unlock it. I could taste it there, suddenly, and then… another would hold the vastness of all silence in a game of shesh besh and a cup of tea placed just so. Ritual is the strangest beast.

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