FSG and the ordeal path

Posted on: Wed, 06/22/2011 - 18:44 By: Tom Swiss

So you may have noticed that the blog has been fairly quiet of late. That's because for the past month or so, much of my energy was taken up preparing for the Free Spirit Gathering. This was my 14th FSG, and I've been working on staff for 13 of them. Even my first year, I ended up working unofficially in the Dancing Tree Cafe, the staff and performers kitchen, in return for being able to eat there.

But what made this year...interesting...is that this year I'm President of the Free Spirit Alliance, the organization behind FSG. (Yes, at FSG one can rise from "will work for food" to the Presidency!) Now, the President is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of FSG; that rests with out valiant Festival Coordinators. But under FSA's charter and by-laws, all the financial responsibility rests with the President and the Treasurer, and our fiscal picture has not been rosy of late; so leading up to the Gathering, there was plenty to do.

And during FSG itself, I'd resolved to use whatever gravitas or mana or whatever that the position possesses, to encourage people to join FSA and get more involved. (This year, at the suggestion of others, that included running naked across camp with "Join FSA" written on my butt.) If I had just done that, plus my usual work MCing the concerts and helping out the sound guy, it would have been a busy but enjoyable year.

Instead, I volunteered to serve as Fire Circle Coordinator, a position that had been vacant for several years. That vacancy had lead to a deterioration in the activity that is, to many of us, the heart of the Gathering.

For those who've never been to an event like FSG, a Fire Circle at a Pagan event is part eclectic interfaith magical-religious ritual, part musical/dance improv jam session, and part celebratory revel. I've written a bit about the structure of a Fire Circle before, and if you'd really like to explore what makes them work, you ought to read or listen to Billy Bardo's Fire Circle Rap, a classic of modern Pagan literature. (No, I'm not exaggerating.)

I fell in love with FSG largely because of the Fire Circle. My first night of my first year there, I found myself dancing naked around the fire until I was exhausted. I knew I'd found something special. When I go to a festival, workshops and concerts and more formal rituals and the like are nice adjuncts; but all I really want and need is a fire, a couple of drummers, and space to dance.

Over the years, the Fire Circle at FSG has waxed and waned. The past few years, it had been largely neglected. We'd left our Fire Crew -- the intrepid folks who build the fire itself and take care of fire safety -- alone down there, with no one to handle the ritual and energetic aspects. That's the stuff I picked up this year.

What this meant was that I was, basically, responsible for setting up and supervising a four to eight hour ritual, some nights involving over 100 or 200 people, each night of the Gathering. Which took things from "Boy, I'm busy but having fun" to "This is an Ordeal."

I don't mean that in the sense of "oh, my life is such an ordeal, wah wah wah." (Ok, maybe a little. :-) ) But rather in the sense of an ordeal ritual, a rite of passage, an initiation, a challenge that pushes one past one's limits.

One of my senpais is found of telling our karate students, "All you have to do is a little bit more than you can do." That was what FSG was about for me this year.

In some ways it was like my black belt promotion test: it was not fun, I was exhausted and sore for days afterward. But it was also exhilarating, in a way that's difficult to explain to someone who's never had a similar experience.

Similarly, when I look back at this year's FSG, there are not a lot of "fun" moments, on a personal level. I don't think I had a single supper that wasn't rushed, I didn't get to take time to play in the pool or sit in the shade and play guitar or any of the other chill time things I usually do at FSG. But what there is, is the memory of making a Fire Circle happen in the rain on Thursday night, against the difficulties, with no "real " drummers, just a bunch of hard-core crazies banging on water coolers and trash cans, a Fire Circle in which a first-time festival goer, a blind man, came out and danced in the rain. There's the satisfaction of putting something back on track, of defying predictions of failure, of creating a space where people can be brilliant and expressive and playful and mindful.

That, will make your heart grow three sizes.

Not to say I did a perfect job, by any means. But I feel I passed the test of this ordeal, no question in my mind.

I know that, because we ended up short-staffed this year, I was not the only one for whom FSG was an ordeal this year. If you know someone who worked the festival this year, give them a hug, they deserve it.