A Writers’ Fire

It’s dark. Quiet. Still. I stand at the street looking down on a small circle of men in white. Where is everybody? I check the time…7:45…I’m early.

There are hundreds of people in Ubud for the 2013 Writers’ Festival. A large percentage of them are the volunteers from around the world. They make this event possible. All of us are invited here tonight. Is Minnesota, U.S.A. the only place on earth where people arrive a bit early to make sure they’re on time?

I make my way, with some trepidation, down the staircase toward the gathering. As I approach I notice a person sitting on the sidelines. His brown shirt, pants, shoes, and stocking-cap blend with his skin. He’s invisible. He notices me and says hello, then smiles a mouthful of white teeth. He’s no longer invisible. He assures me that this is the right place and invites me to take a seat on the platform with the holy men.

Holy men are scary. They shouldn’t be. I’ve been hugged by an ancient holy man who was about a foot shorter than I am. But in Balinese hierarchy, a holy man is at the very pinnacle of authority.

with holy man

One of the men in the circle has noticed me. He nods. I nod back and smile. The next thing I know he is beside me, asking my name and where I’m from. This is standard procedure anywhere in Bali. Siapa nama anda? Di mana?

Pak Ketut takes me under his wing and informs me that this ceremony honors the Hindu diety, Agni, the fire god. The priests are busy preparing the altar, which by now is covered with flowers and fruit. I’m surprised we aren’t here to ask the blessing of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and the arts. I ask Pak Ketut about it and he explains that Agni burns away all that is unwanted. The intention of this ceremony is to clear out whatever stands in the way of a successful, 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival.

While I’m engrossed in Hindu Ceremonies 101, a few others straggle in. They join Pak Ketut and me and get the same questions, Siapa nama anda? Di mana? There is a woman from Singapore, one from Borneo, an Australian chap, and me. This time when invited to join the holy men on the platform we do so.

It’s 9 p.m. when the 8 o’clock ceremony commences. I should know this by now. Bali operates on jam karet, rubber time. Nothing ever starts when it’s supposed to. When time is attached to an event it’s a mere suggestion.  The Balinese possess an innate knowing and always appear en masse at the precise moment things commence. Or maybe things commence when the Balinese appear en masse?

There isn’t a full gamelan orchestra, but one of the men has cymbals. Another has a rattle. I notice now that all the holy men have some type of instrument. The officiating priest rings a bell and it begins. There is a cup of water and a folded banana leaf in a dish in front of me. I watch as the others dip the leaf in the water and pour it on their hands, cleansing them. Suda, sitting beside me, tells me if I touch anything besides rice during the ceremony, I must wash my hands again. I am reminded of this every time I take a photo. Suda points to the water and I dutifully wash.

There is a bowl of dry rice and a banana between us.

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A low tinkling begins. The priest chants in Sanskrit. Those in the group who can, echo the response. As the volume builds the fire is fed and becomes a dancing apparition in the center. The sound ebbs and flows. The music stops. In a grand finale lasting at least fifteen minutes, the priests incant. The sound crescendos to an abrupt halt and we all grab a handful of rice and throw it on the fire.

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The chant resumes and this performance is repeated over and over and over again. The rice in our dish is replenished many times. Then it stops.

We stand and form a circle. Very slowly, clapping a rhythm, our intimate little group of about twenty people, circles the fire. Then one-by-one we approach the holy man. It’s my turn. I kneel and incline my head toward him. He dips his finger in a mixture of oil and ash from the bowl sitting in front of him and with one finger, puts a dot of black over my third eye. When all have received their mark, food is distributed and it’s party time.

We open our neat packages to explore the contents. My new friends poke tentatively at the food while I dive in with my fingers and gobble the delicacies. Yum. We say goodbyes then Pak Ketut is there. “What do you feel about this ceremony?” he asks me as he makes a circle in the air with his arm then pats his chest. “What do you feel in here?” I pause. What do I feel? How has the night impacted me? And how do I communicate that with someone whose English is minimal. I open my mouth, not sure what will come out, but the words are there. “I feel special,” I said. “I feel special and blessed.” Pak Ketut beams. “Yes.” he says.

Together we have fed the fire. Bushels of rice and bananas smolder in the embers. Agni’s tummy is full and so is mine. Let the 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival begin!

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jessa Walters
    Oct 10, 2013 @ 21:22:53

    Wow, Mom!! Amazing experience! Thank you for writing about it. Agni…that fire in the belly (solar plexus) that one of my teachers instructed me to cultivate all last winter in my home yoga/meditation practice – through specific postures, breathwork, visualization and mantra (sound). Through that practice, my embodied understanding of the power of the fire (courage, strength, empowerment, will, transformation) deepened immensely. I imagine it would be a powerful, intense experience to be present at an Agni ceremony in Bali. I am so happy for all the choices you made throughout your whole life that led you to Bali. It’s so clearly your home. It matches your spirit.

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    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Oct 11, 2013 @ 04:48:58

      I tell the story over and over again of my first trip to Bali with you. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask, “So…what brought you to Bali?” Today was no exception. Yes. The experiences here are beyond belief. If I had tried to dream up the most amazing life imaginable, I could not have conjured this. I have no frame of reference. Can’t wait for February when you and Dan will join me for the Retreat here! Yay!

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