Fire and Life Transformation

At the age of 8 years, a fire burned our home and many others in Santa Barbara, California. The experience significantly impacted how I see the world. Hillman (1997) says traumatic childhood events like fire are clues to understanding an individual’s character and calling in life. The following paragraphs explore a telescoping scale on two topics. One is vocation, or life’s work, starting with an individual life, expanding to the family, to community and, finally, to the country. The other topic is home, beginning with the imagination and body as home, then the built environment, and ending with the great outdoors.

There is a relationship between the two topics of home and vocation that is physical and psychological. The Long Shore: A Psychological Experience of Wilderness (Wheelwright, 1991) illustrates this through stories from a mother and daughter, both Jungian analysts, who inherited a huge family ranch. They began to see the land was their shared mother. Both grew up without a strong human mother presence and came to realize their emotional attachment to mother earth when they had to sell the ranch. Contemplating the relationship, Hollister (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991, p. 24) says, “Was I discovering that our great Earth Mother, concentrated as a total force in every small plot as well as in every great estate, had bound us with an umbilical cord without our knowledge?”

Hollister (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991) is referring to a psychological attachment that can limit a person’s ability to grow freely as an individual. Related is Hillman’s (1997) acorn theory. That theory is, “each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived” (p. 6). In acorn theory, it is Hollister’s fate to be mothered by wilderness and also her fate to experience the loss of it. Physically we all leave our mother’s womb at birth, but the psychological attachments are harder to detect and painful to lose. I believe it was my fate to loose my home at a young age, and as such learn the benefits of unexpected loss early.

My childhood reaction to the house fire was different than you might expect. I did not mourn long over the loss of melted toys, as see in Figure 1. Excited for new things, I was happy everyone in our family was healthy. Schmidt (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991, p. 86) speaks about her experience with fire. She said, “The fact of the wildfire in our Sierra foothill region made our subsequent moving away from there much easier.” Loss highlights shared values, of things previously taken for granted, allowing differences to be put aside and renewing connection between the estranged.

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Figure 1. Photo of melted toy from my childhood home.

While natural and man-made worlds appear to be at odd with one another, they are interdependent. Moore (1994) says, “Ecology and economy, both from the Greek oikos, have to do with ‘house’ in the broadest sense” (p.189). The economy is the blood of our cultural exchange, and its continual flow is needed in order for people to live. “Money is not just a rational medium of exchange, it also carries the soul of communal life. It has all the complications of soul, and, like sex and disease, it is beyond our powers of control” (Moore, 1994, p. 190).

Emotions and thoughts are also seemingly beyond our powers to control. Hollister (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991) asked herself a question during the long process of selling the ranch. She said, “How often does one have to go through the sense of loss, I wondered, to make it one’s own in order to grow beyond it?” (p. 49). Hollister is hypothesizing that a mental shift can occur that allows people to grow past an unknown limiting attachment. Such growth in perspective would be miraculous and difficult to achieve. People have been working on ways to go about making such a change, on a soul level of being, for centuries.

Earth and fire play important roles in such a tradition called alchemy. Alchemy predates modern chemistry and was a method used for manipulating the world. A goal of alchemy is to turn lead into gold. Theoretically, if you have what you need and know the recipe the gold is within reach. However, alchemy is also a mystical of soul transformation for immortality, and the process is famously thwarted by countless unseen challenges. Moore (2009) uses the alchemical methods as metaphors to talk about the mystery of work and life purpose.

Moore (2009) said, “The mystery of love, the mystery of the universe, the mystery of marriage and children, the mysterious life of animals, the mysteries of death—all of these give human life its infinite depth” (p. 169). To live a full life is to experience the depths. I do not believe people need to actually loose their home in a fire to learn how to value life. There are ways people can learn to value wilderness and civilization without having to live through a horrific event as I did.

One method to experience life’s mystery is through play. “Sports are games of life. In our games we live out symbolically the challenges, defeats, and success that are part of the bigger play of life, and therefore sports are important at a deep level” (Moore, 2009, p. 107). Another way to explore the depths of life’s mystery is creativity. Moore (2009) said:

G. Jung once wrote that creativity is an instinct, not an optional gift granted to a lucky few. If you don’t find a way to be creative in life, that instinct goes repressed and frustrated. You feel its loss as a deflation, the spirit leaking out of your sense of self. You feel empty, disengaged, and unfulfilled. (p. 2)

My life’s work involves mixing the elements of nature, home, creativity, economy, ecology, imagination, education, play, and sport. In an alchemical sense, my life is a container in which these elements interact. Moore (2009) said, “A friendship, a family, a community a church, a club, a conversation, a diary, a dinner, a walk with someone–these can all serve as vessels for the stuff” (p. 610). I believe my business, Foreverbird Studio, is also a container for these elements. However, I need to add more stuff to these vessels to transform lead into gold. This stuff I need is in the form of money and community.

There are two grants that I am applying for to get the stuff I need to move forward with my own life transformations. Grant one is for community and grant two is for money. Grant one requires me to develop a creative workshop for the 2016 Burning Man event (Burning Man, 2016). Grant two, The Ella Lyman Cabot Trust (2011), is awarded to individual to do pioneering work in the fields of, “medicine, social work, ethics, education and religious studies.”

For both applications, I am drawing on existing materials from the game I invented called Original Odyssey—beautiful artist puzzle. I see the game as a container for transformations on a soul level too. The workshops are based the same principles of containing and creating space for imaginative play. Psychoactive elements of sport and creativity present and demonstrate the options available with which to explore the scary depths of life in a symbolic way.

Burning Man is a perfect place for this workshop for several reasons, and the most critical is the location. The event is on a wilderness land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. It is a federal organization responsible for managing natural resource values (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012). The wilderness environment is conceptually important because it is an unbounded natural landscape that reflects back the potential inside of every individual. Burning Man is also a gifting community, where there are no commercial transactions, and this pricelessness is also an important concept in soul work. As Schmidt (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991, p. 80) says, “The buying of land is a contradiction to the infinity of nature and the Self.”

The second reason it is a perfect venue for the workshop is because of the creative community. Burning Man is full of alchemical vessels of various shapes and sizes that facilitate the transformation of soul. I have experienced the power of Burning Man firsthand by participating in art, sand storms, dance, and music. Schmidt (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991, p. 187) says:

We need to merge with the whole environment, whether it is experienced through immersion in the wilderness, in intimacy with the process of the psyche as found in the sanctity of the psychologist’s consulting room, or in the container for the heart and soul that a church or temple can provide.

Schmidt (as cited in Wheelwright, 1991) and I share the experience of merging with Great Spirit in its beauty and its destruction. People that visit Burning Man also report having mysterious spiritual experiences there. Known as a transitional event, many participants are modern pilgrims who seek spiritual guidance. One feature of the city, a particularly important place, is a large building called the temple. People write messages on the walls to love ones who have passed, and the structure burns on the final night in silence. The ritual of fire, something I experienced as a trauma in childhood, allows people to honor their loss and move on with their lives in a new way.

The workshop proposal for Burning Man is to introduce individuals to the magic of collaborative play by teaching them how to predict the future. It will use esoteric divination props, like tarot cards, to call forth inherent creative abilities for the improvisational play. In the improvisational play there is no “right” way. It is part puzzle, part conversation, part reflection, and part imagination.

As I mentioned, the idea for this workshop is growing out of work I have done inventing a unique set of playing cards, seen in Figure 2. I have been slowly developing workshop ideas for the cards while building up video tutorials and reference material on a website (orginalodyssey.com). I am adapting my existing research on the benefits and methods of interactive play to fit the proposal specifications in the Burning Man 2016 grant application. The environment and audience at Burning Man present unusual challenges that impact workshop design options. I am also collaborating with others, and the process is unfolding in the moment, and even as I write this paper, its final form is a mystery of collective effort.

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Figure 2. Original Odyssey—beautiful artist puzzle cards.

I believe the world is a better place with people who know the magic of focused imagination. For a moment, pretend you are inventing a product, decorating a room, shopping for a new car, writing a thank you note, or suffering from a summer cold. Can you focus in your mind’s eye and create what you want? Detailed imagination is helpful for achieving goals in the real world. For example, I sketched what I saw in my imagination for the workshop in Figure 3. The Burning Man proposal must fit within the theme of this year’s event, Da Vinci’s Workshop. I envision a theater container, designed to look like a renaissance alchemist’s medical academy. The lead alchemist teacher performs on patients, on center stage, while simultaneously educating the audience about the subtleties of the techniques by a live demonstration.

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Figure 3. Collage of sketches and photos for alchemy workshop.

As an artist, I have used many tools to help accelerate my productivity and creative vision. None have been more powerful than creative collaborative. I passionately believe that the world is a better place with people in it who collaborate and support each other. I learn a great deal about collaboration in my work as a freelance designer. I also learn a lot working with friends and family. Last year was a bike art performance for Burning Man. This year, my eighth year at Burning Man, the creative work continues to expand with this workshop proposal. Accelerated by the collaboration, this is unique because it is the most ambitious art project I have attempted to plan so far.

My hope is that the Burning Man workshop project will reinforce my application for the second grant, The Ella Lyman Cabot Trust (2011). This grant is for personal development. It focuses on the importance of character development in the life of an individual. If I am to make a difference in society with my work I must have the skills and capability required to reach a large audience. By developing and teaching workshops I hope to gain valuable leadership skills. With stronger self-confidence and familiarity with group management I will have the skills to grow my business. In the near future the plan is to offer the creative play workshops, with the Original Odyssey game, that fit the needs of existing organizations in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. I have existing connections with over a dozen art education nonprofits that I can approach.

For The Ella Lyman Cabot Trust (2011) application I will focus on my personal development goals and the relevance of the cards in my life. The card game is a reflection of my life journey so far. Original Odyssey cards, in Figure 2, are different from standard playing cards. They are square, 3” x 3” with colorful images. The cards divide equally into 3 sequential suits of 11. The suites are inside, outside, and art. The backs of the cards are puzzle pieces that assemble neatly into a clever map that you can color.

The coloring book puzzle map pieces are the most unique part of the game design because they invite the player to customize the design. The map is inspired by a life vision board (see title of below) project that I was taught at a pivotal moment in my life. I was in a workshop called, Women in Transition. At the time, my focus was finding a job, increasing income, and building a home. A recent college graduate then, I did not know how to set long–term life goals. The vision board life (see title above) map keeps me focused on my inner progress and goals in challenging times. I refer to my vision board when I feel lost, I add milestone events, and contemplate the meaning of the changing images. The positive impact of this one workshop on my life inspired me to produce Original Odyssey.

The tone of my work is lighthearted and fantasy. It calls for a child-like attitude, gives participants permission to just have fun, and also reminds adults of life’s limitless potential. Played alone the game focuses imagination, a second player turns the game toward communication, while additional players require greater collaboration skills. The trifecta of imagination, collaboration, and communication, coupled with the highly visual angle of the play, are part of the essential functions that can increase quality of life and health regardless of a player’s age or artistic ability. We often hear that the key to staying sharp includes physical exercise, healthy eating, and mental stimulation, but how many times has the doctor recommended creating art, having fun, and playing social games? With the recent study linking making art to preventing cognitive decline, however, we may have a new excuse to spend time creating and playing games (Cropley, 1990).

I envision each workshop having three sessions. Each one starts with a lecture to introduce the topic and a short demonstration video. Next, the participants play for practical experience with the cards. Finally, a short group discussion allows students to reflect and share. The three sessions are as follows: Collaborative play is about adapting existing card game rules to work with the unique Original Odyssey deck. The suggested card games are Speed, Go Fish, and Memory. Imaginative play is about thinking through possible life events. The play is based on historical divination questions like Past-Present-Future, Yes or No, and Oracle questions. Creative Play is the final session and includes creative activities. The basic options are storytelling from a card prompt, pick a random art card challenge, and coloring the map puzzle.

The connections between the world of our imagination and real world can be difficult to find. Negotiating the priorities of these two opposing perspectives is no easy task. Balancing inner and outer demands requires the skills of a politician. Perhaps for this reason, I was attracted to Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America by Bruce Babbitt (2007), the former Secretary of the Interior for the United States of America.

Babbitt (2007) discusses struggles between local, state, and federal institutions over the management of land. He highlights where the federal government has been successful and unsuccessful in land conservation efforts. I do not want to go into too much detail about land use, but I want to mention it here because overwhelmingly the political climate influences the outcome of land conservation projects. The national perspective dramatically shows how local beliefs directly impact real-world progress on important efforts to understand things like water pollution and species extinction.

In conclusion, on the relationship between home and life purpose, they are one and the same. To be alive is to be at home. Tending to home is the work, and it has an infinite variety of tasks to choose from. In this paper I have shared two of my possible future tasks. One is to fulfill my life purpose by perusing a grant for personal development and inner work on leadership skills. The second is a grant to build an alchemy workshop at Burning Man and support others on their journey. I know that whatever the outcome of the grant applications, approved or rejected, something will be gained and something will be lost. A final thought: Babbitt’s (2007) audio book was released on my birthday in 2010; perhaps it is a sign that it is my fate to be Secretary of the Interior.

References

Babbitt, B. (2010). Cities in the wilderness: A new vision of land use in America. Retrieved from http://www.audible.com/pd/Science-Technology/Cities-in-the-Wilderness-Audiobook/B0039MR5OA

Burning Man. (2016). 2016 Guild workshops: Request for proposals. Retrieved from http://burningman.org/event/brc/2016-guild-workshops-request-for-proposals/

Cropley, A. J. (1990). Creativity and mental health in everyday life. Creativity Research Journal, 3(3), 167-178. http://doi.org/10.1080/10400419009534351

The Ella Lyman Cabot Trust. Application guidelines. (2011, June 5). Retrieved from http://www.cabottrust.org/general-application-guidelines/

Hillman, J. (1997). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. New York, NY: Grand Central.

Moore, T. (1994). Care of the soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Moore, T. (2009). A life at work: The joy of discovering what you were born to do (Reprint edition). New York, NY: Harmony.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management (2012). The bureau of land management: Who we are, what we do. Retrieved from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/About_BLM.html

Wheelwright, J. (1991). The long shore: A psychological experience of the wilderness. San Francisco, CA: Random House.

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