Even Here: On Learning ...

Spiritfire

Wed, Aug 8, 2018

Recently I had the opportunity to provide bodywork at Spiritfire, an annual four-day event that’s like a cross between a spiritual retreat and an arts festival. My husband has attended Spiritfire for more than a decade; this year our whole family went, and I was both an attendee and a vendor. I’d never worked in a setting like this before – in a tent, in the midst of a festival – and had some trepidation about it, but it turned out to be a great experience.


Picture of Embodywork massage tent

The festival runs from a Wednesday through Sunday, and attendees camp on site for the whole event. On arrival, my family was assigned a cabin and I was shown where my massage tent should go. I worked right in the middle of everything, but had some empty space between me and everything else so that it wasn’t too noisy. A dining pavilion was on one side of me, a merchant circle with other vendors in the distance in front of my door, the ritual space (more about this in a bit) in the distance behind my tent, and a somewhat-trafficked area of grass and trees on the other side. Tall trees kept my tent in shade. Between me and the merchant circle, hanging from a cable strung between two of those tall trees, was a swing: a wooden seat on VERY long ropes. My son and the other kids spent a lot of time on or around that swing, so I could often see and hear him while I worked.

My massage tent was 10x10’, featuring a high ceiling with a center peak where bugs loved to congregate, and no floor but the grass. Plain white walls except for the front wall, which had a zip-up door and a white mesh window. With my massage table on a diagonal, there was ample room for my big box o’supplies in one corner, my work-stool at the head of the table, a camp chair in the corner by the door. Most of the time I kept the camp chair outside, but there was room to bring it in when it rained. (Luckily, the weather was mostly beautiful, aside from some drizzles the final day and a dramatic thunderstorm the last night.) The tent wasn’t grand but was perfectly sufficient for my needs. I used a shower curtain as my massage table cover, held in place with clips, and it wasn’t perfect but it worked just fine. I can probably improve on it in future. But sheets were not a possibility (no laundry facilities), and this got the job done, and I could wipe it clean between appointments. I’d brought some pretty beach towels plus a small fleece blanket to use as covers for my clients, for modesty and warmth; of those, I used only one beach towel. Had it been colder I would have needed more, but it wasn’t so I didn’t.

Around 3pm Wednesday, I opened for business – which mostly meant that I hung out in my camp chair outside the tent reading a book. One woman had found me while I was setting up the tent and requested an appointment that afternoon, so I worked on her for an hour. After that I pushed the table back against one wall and set up my massage chair – but other than one person who asked for 20 minutes, nobody came other than to say hello, so I read. It was peaceful. It was also the only day that I wasn’t fully booked, for as many hours as I was willing to work.


Spiritfire centers around a nightly ritual, which I will do my best to describe. There’s this big circle, with a bonfire in the center (unlit when we all enter), soft peat spread all around in what’s called the dance track, and a colorful sand mandala drawn on top of the peat that will completely disappear once people begin dancing. The mandala was different every night. At four points around the outside of the circle are “altars” – one to music/sound, one to voice/singing, one to water (which included gallon jugs of same, since one gets thirsty dancing around a bonfire), and one to seva, or service. (That term was new to me, so I googled it. It’s a Sikh term meaning “selfless service” for the benefit of other humans or society.) Near the sound altar are benches for drummers. Near the water altar there’s another altar-ish space called “The Well,” which I gathered was a place for anyone having intense emotional experiences to retreat to, but I wasn’t 100% clear on that. Near the entrance to the circle – the “Gate,” marked by two tall vertical banners – there’s an area with 15 or 20 painted wooden abstract figures all facing the circle, called the Watchers. Just beside the watchers there’s another special area with sculptures and animal skulls and such, which was referred to as the area of “the unseen ones.” As I understood it, this was a way for people to feel that loved ones who have died are with them in the ritual space.

Once the ritual got going each night, it was really quite cool. There was no prescribed format; drummers would drum, singers would sing and chant, dancers would dance, for the most part everybody going clockwise around the fire, and everybody was free to come and go, drop in or out of every part, add to the rhythm/song or change it or let it fall away or start a new one. My husband compared it to a giant improv act where the only rule is “yes, and…” – and that’s a good comparison. It could have been chaos but it wasn’t because everybody preferred to work together to make something good. Often the music was beautiful. The drumming was of a higher caliber than I’d ever heard before, clearly there were some expert drummers there, but still room for beginners to add to the rhythms, which they did. And the dancing – some people just walked around the circle. Some full-on danced. People did everything in between. Some people wore elaborate costumes, some had ordinary street clothes. The times I participated, I’d start by walking and picking up the rhythm of the music, and eventually that would turn into dancing. My son, when he felt inspired, danced and skipped and ran, weaving in between everyone. Sometimes the circle was crowded, sometimes not. Sometimes the music was loud and fast and intense, sometimes soft and lovely, sometimes there was silence. Sometimes somebody would speak. There was always movement of some kind. The fire and the ritual would keep going every night until the sun had risen. I never made it through a full night but that was fine. There would be a crowd at the start, but people would come and go throughout the night. The dining pavilion had a nightly “food altar” with snacks to keep everyone going.

To begin each night’s ritual, a little after 11pm we would walk the pathway leading up to the Gate and enter in a loose procession, standing around the perimeter of the circle until everybody was in. There was an opening ceremony that was different each night, at the end of which the fire was lit. I didn’t love these opening ceremonies, though I could appreciate that they functioned to set the ritual time apart from regular time, to create the container in which the ritual would happen, and most other attendees seemed to enjoy them.


I hadn’t known how I might react to all this, but at the first night’s ritual, I had a great time: grooving around the circle, watching my son and husband dance, watching everybody else, taking it all in. I could happily have stayed later, but just after midnight my son (who is 9) found me and said, “This is awesome but I NEED SLEEP NOW.” So I took him back to our cabin and we both went to bed, my husband following a few hours later.

After that, every day we’d get up around 8 or 9, have breakfast, take showers, hang out a bit. I worked from around 12:30 to 6pm each day, doing a combination of 30- and 60- and 90-minute treatments. Myofascial release went over really well with this crowd, and especially with the people who had chronic pain issues. My clients were lovely and appreciative, and several of them chatted with me through their treatments so it was a great way to get to know people one-on-one.

I wasn’t doing the full health intakes I’d do in my office, but would ask everybody about what was going on with their bodies that day, as well as whether they’d had any significant injuries and/or surgeries in their history. One client, a man who’d come to me with back pain, answered that question by mentioning a knee surgery in his distant past, and then, after I’d left him alone to undress and get on the table and I had re-entered the tent, said, “So, when I got undressed I realized that I forgot to list the most obvious thing: I’ve had top surgery.” I’d had no idea he was trans, and found myself deeply grateful that I’d seen the recent episode of Queer Eye that follows a trans man through top surgery and its aftermath, because sure enough those were the scars on his chest, and rather than any embarrassing (to both of us) questions like “What does that mean?” I could just smoothly ask how long ago the surgery had been and whether he had any problems with range of motion through his chest and shoulders. Two weeks prior I’d had no idea what that surgery was, but thanks to an hour of tv I sounded like a professional who knew what I was dealing with.

After the health intake questions, the last thing I’d ask was whether the client, once they were on the table and covered up, preferred to have the tent door open for better air flow or closed for more privacy. I left it up to them, and had about an even split in terms of people’s preferences. One of my favorite moments was with an older woman who, when I asked her this, said, “Oh, I’ve been a card-carrying nudist for decades, go ahead and open the door.” I thought this was just a funny turn of phrase so I responded with a jokey, “I hadn’t realized there was a card for that!” It turns out there actually is a card for that. I may have the name of the organization wrong, but it’s something like the American Sunbathing Association; they maintain nudist campgrounds and beaches around the country, and the card is a way of distinguishing between those who follow a naturalist lifestyle and those who may just want to ogle the naked people. Massage therapy teaches me all kinds of things!


The second night’s ritual was my favorite; I found myself dancing in ways that I haven’t done in years if not decades. I didn’t last terrifically long doing it, but it felt good, and perhaps more importantly it felt natural. I didn’t specifically intend it, just moved in time to the music and it happened.

During the last night’s ritual, I got surprisingly emotional. It was rainy that night, but not too bad early on, and though we felt some drips during the opening ceremony it felt like a pleasant cooling off after the day’s heat. I didn’t walk or dance at first, but watched, and my son danced more confidently than ever before, and it was wonderful to see. He was glorious, and I could see so many more people I knew than I had the first night, so many people I liked, and people I’d gotten to know at least a bit, and I felt love for the whole community and the whole ridiculous gestalt of the thing, and I stood there at the side and cried joyful tears.

Later on it poured, a true thunderstorm, and I sat under the dining pavilion’s roof, chatting with friends and snacking on the food altar offerings. It took an hour to wait out the worst of the rain, but we were happy, and meanwhile the ritual kept on going, rain be damned.

When the rain lightened up, I went to check on my massage tent, as I hadn’t known how well it would hold up against rain like that. And it’s good that I checked, as water had dripped through the roof onto the massage table. I turned on some lanterns so that I could see well enough to dry the table off thoroughly before packing it in its case, as I didn’t want it to sustain any damage and we’d be leaving the next morning anyway. Eventually I made it back to our cabin, where my son was already sleeping.

We got very little sleep before my husband came to wake us for the closing ceremony, which took place in the ritual space shortly after sunrise. Honestly, I was too tired to really process anything at that point, and was grateful when it ended. We all returned to the cabin and slept a few hours more, rising around 10. And we got dressed, and had a quick breakfast, and then broke down the massage tent and packed our stuff and loaded up the car. A little after noon, we were on the road home.

I think we’ve decided to all go again next year. My husband has always loved this event, our son had a blast, and I enjoyed maybe 90% of it. I absolutely loved working in that setting. I’ll clearly need to figure out some kind of rain fly for the massage tent, but I’ve got plenty of time to do that. The work was satisfying and fulfilling as well as being a genuine service I can offer this community, plus a good way to get to know people one on one. I don’t think I’d enjoy the experience as much without the work.

And it turns out I like working in a tent on a mountain, in spite of heat and humidity. The setting was so beautiful, and my location in the middle of everything made for some wonderful sounds; often while I worked I could hear singers at a workshop on one side of me, or an impromptu drum jam in the merchant circle on the other side. I loved looking up from my work and seeing my beautiful boy playing, waving at me. I loved sitting outside my tent with a book, soaking up the air. I even became fond of the chipmunk who, during my stay, grew ever braver with regard to my tent; at first it peeked under one wall, later it darted in and then out, later still it ran straight across, and by the last day it was curiously exploring the tent like it might explore any other new feature in its landscape.

It’s possible I identified with that chipmunk just a little bit.