playing with fire.


It was the end of a bad day at work. It doesn’t matter what got me to that point – a boss, a customer, the sales, or lack thereof. What matters is that I was upset and only slightly at the end of my patience and sanity.

The night, though, finally drew to a close and I began the walk home, following the waterfront and listening to the darkened waves as they lapped against the shore. To my left was Lambton Harbour, to my right was Frank Kitts Park, where during December the Telecom Tree stood seven stories high, lit by 37,000 lights with the possibility of 16 million different color combinations.

As I tried to let the layers of frustration fall away, something caught my eye – what seemed to be two orbs of fire spinning in the distance. With the tree disassembled, the park was yet again a dark, blank canvas against which the fire danced alone. My first thought was a juggler – the unicycling world championships are currently taking place in Wellington, so I had no idea what other circus-themed pursuits would cross my path – but as I ascended a set of stairs from water-level to street-level, I realized it was a fire twirler.

A woman stood in the middle of an empty expanse of grass, spinning a metal staff that was lit at both ends. She was talking to a man as she spun the staff in circles and figure eights, effortlessly exchanging hands. I quietly took a seat on a bench not far from them, not the first to do so. On a bench next to mine sat a boy of about four years old with whom I assumed to be his mother and grandmother. Although they were seated, the boy was perched on his mother’s shoulders, his arms around her neck.

The man the fire twirler was talking to then picked up a staff and asked if he could light his from hers. I had figured he was a beginner, there for a lesson, but soon he took up another staff. He walked a little ways off and stood with the two staffs crossed behind his back to form an X, the flames backlighting him like some adventure hero from a comic book.

“That looks really cool,” the woman says. He brings the staffs in front of him and I watch, mesmerized, as he twists them in impossible ways, impossibly fast. Never once do I hear a clink of metal from the staffs hitting each other. Occasionally, though, he does drop one, setting a small patch of grass on fire, but he quickly stamps it out with his foot. Once, he even sets fire to part of his sleeve, but that doesn’t seem to alarm him either as it’s quickly blown out. After a few seconds of the double-spinning, he then pauses, bringing the staffs above his head, forming yet another X. He places one foot in front of the other, arching his back and extending his arms into the night sky, the ends of the cross blazing. He’s no longer a cartoon superman but Vulcan, or perhaps Homer’s Hephaestus – minus the lameness, of course – an ancient god of fire, bending metal to his will.

“How does he do that?” The boys asks, as the man loops the staffs under his legs like an NBA pro with a basketball. I wonder the same.

At the same time, the woman has laid down her staff and picked up poi, a pair of chains with handles on one end and a wick on the other. She lights them and begins to create wide, fiery circles. I wish for my camera, to be able to leave the shutter open and watch how the long exposure allows designs to dance across the image. She swings the poi around her, over her head, so fast you can no longer distinguish between the two separate chains.

I think of the phrase “poetry in motion” and decide that this moment will forever come to mind when I hear those words again. A cop walks through the park and I send up a silent prayer that there isn’t some ordinance to prohibit this moment.

“Can we go have drinks now?” The little boy says. I remind myself I am theoretically eavesdropping and should thus refrain from laughing aloud with the two women.

“What kind of drink?” The grandmother says with a laugh.

“What would you like? A nice glass of sauvignon?” The mother asks.

“Yeah, for you! I’ll buy you a little bottle of wine.”

And then, like that, both fire dancers blow out their fire and walk towards their pile of bags and equipment. I sit for a few more moments, waiting to see if they’ll re-light their staffs and poi and resume their spinning, but they make no move to do so. I realize the magic has been extinguished with the fire, the moment barely lasting five minutes, and I am suddenly nothing more than an intruder, someone suspended in the middle of two conversations. I stand up and continue the walk home.

As I walked, I thought of an essay by Simon Winchester, titled “Ascension in the Moonlight.” Having just come from Antarctica, Winchester writes of an unexpected stay on Ascension Island, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Finding himself suddenly anxious to get home, he arranges to be dropped off on Ascension in order to catch an RAF flight back to London. For the short time he’s on the island, he’s hosted by the Anglican vicar, Paul Wilson, and his wife, Angela. That night, only a couple hours before Winchester is due to catch his flight, the Wilson’s take him to the beach to watch a host of Brazilian sea turtles lay their eggs – coincidentally witnessing a total lunar eclipse and a comet at the same time. Of this moment Winchester writes:

And it was in that instant I realized something: that in this astonishing grand conjunction – of new friendship, of tropical warmth, of strawberries and cream and cool white wine, of white sand and sea swimming, and of Brazilian turtles, an eclipse of the moon and the rising of a comet – was perhaps the greatest wealth of experience that any one individual could ever know in one moment. I was at that instant blessed beyond belief, beyond all understanding.”

And so on the shore of Lambton Harbour, I myself grew immensely grateful for my own conjunction of sorts, perhaps not as grand as Winchester’s but one poignant on a personal level nonetheless. For in this year of getting to know New Zealand, so much is planned – from the cities I live in to the places I visit, from the activities I take part in to the festivals I attend. I plot writing schedules in my planner, keeping track of which blog needs to be posted by when and setting monthly quotas for myself if only to feel like I’m writing with some sort of consistency. I see myself worrying about finding work, only to grow tired with my jobs a few weeks after starting, as if I’ve lost perspective, as if I’ve forgotten to fix my gaze on the bigger picture.

So to unexpectedly stumble across two fire twirlers in the darkness of a still summer night – in a city where wind and warmth rarely go hand in hand – took on its own depth of meaning for me. The walk home wasn’t too long after all.


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