To burn or not to burn? It’s a good day to ask that question, with the latest hurricane-force storm barreling over the south coast of Alaska. Rain hammers the porch furniture. Gusts bend the birch trees. Rain tumbleweeds down the road. Clouds erase the bay. The world is sodden again after two glorious fall days.
Last night, in what’s become a yearly ritual in Homer, under almost clear skies (the storm clouds building to the west, the northeast wind kicking up) over 200 people came together to let go, to watch an enormous basket burn. A basket of remembrance and unburdening is how my friend Mavis, who conceived of this ephemeral art project, describes it. There have been eight baskets built in Homer. Eight Septembers. Last year, I was on Cape Cod, so Mavis asked me to write a poem. She says I’ve participated in every basket since the beginning, thanks to the poem.
The first year of the basket, I was one of three core volunteers (besides Mavis). As we dragged straight, long warp sticks a half mile down the beach to the site, as we dug a deep hole in the sand to set a sturdy log as a center pole, as we drove around town and gathered bundles of blue-joint grass from meadows and roadsides over the course of days, it seemed impossible. A basket ten feet tall? Woven meticulously of grass bundles (chubby bundles Mavis dubbed them)? In six days? It snowed on us. The wind raged. When our hands got numb, we hid out in a purple bus a circus family had leant to the project. Warmed by its small propane oven, we wove decorations out of nettles and spruce cones until restored enough to venture back out to the basket. Evenings, murders of crows landed on it, arguing over its meaning. Strangers drove up to ask us what the hell we were doing. “Building a giant basket,” Mavis said, as if it were a ridiculous question. “Why?” If they persisted, she’d explain the concept of ephemeral, volunteer-created community art. “Is it some kind of pagan ritual?” people often asked. “No, it’s not,” Mavis said. “It’s art. It’s what people want to make it.” On the last day, dozens of people came to decorate the basket with paper cranes, notes to departed loved ones, filling the basket with prayers, scraps of paper, sealed envelopes, photographs, lists of things to let go of. And on the last night, we lit torches and set it on fire.
Now, in our town, it’s like Thanksgiving, Solstice, or the Fourth of July, this Burning Basket of Remembrance and Unburdening. The first basket Mavis dubbed “Adieu.” This one, “Together.” It marks another transition, another September, with its rainbows, howling gales, dark blue skies on still-warm days, first dust of snow on the mountain tops across the bay, bright yellow patches in the forest canopy, with all the birds in town restless to head south: sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, thrushes, robins, Canada geese. As I gathered fireweed from a meadow near my house for the basket’s crown, the woods were achortle with birdsong, and when I walked along the road, robins and thrushes lifted off the ground by the dozens. Staging to leave. It was sunny and balmy, and if I closed my eyes, I could fool myself into thinking it was spring.
Two days before the burning, into the “trilogy labyrinth” constructed by school kids and volunteers in the sand beside the basket, I placed the body cast my friend Deer, on Cape Cod, helped me make before my surgery. It was a ritual of remembrance and unburdening, too. I stood naked with my eyes closed as she laid squares of cloth dipped in plaster onto my torso. Then she peeled off a white cast, which I decorated a few days later, laying on strips of tissue paper in colors of Prince William Sound, blues and greens, invoking the place I’d want my breast to go, if I had an option. The torso cast became an altar piece all the months of treatment, and then I shipped it home. I imagined all sorts of demises for it, ways to let it go, that previous version of my body. The shadow of the tumor reflected in the shape of the right breast. I’d pressed a spiral of feathers into it, circling the breast, then leading away: fly out, fly away. After I put the torso in the labyrinth, I had second thoughts. Fire. My body had experienced enough of that. Chemo and radiation are a kind of fire. Estrogen blocking therapy invites hot flashes, another kind of burning from within. It’s been raining. Rain cools fire. I envisioned the cast in the woods somewhere, dissolving in rain, buried in leaves, then snow, disappearing like the carcass of a deer over the winter, back into the earth. I imagined walking through the woods, stumbling upon the remains. Or I imagined taking it to the Sound, hiding it under a huge tree or boulder. Or I imagined it wedged into the crook of a pair of intertwined birch trees in the woods near my house. Okay. When it gets dark, I thought, the night of the ritual, I’ll sneak into the labyrinth and retrieve the torso cast and take it back home. In the meantime, I gathered a huge pile of yellow devil’s club leaves for the basket’s skirt, extra for the torso cast. I covered the cast almost entirely with those leaves. It felt too naked and exposed out there on the sand for all to see. The covering of leaves mimicked the new vision I had for letting it go.
The night of the burning, I stood with over two hundred others listening as Mavis, standing on a wooden ladder, offered up the basket, now covered with paper cranes, prayers, messages, feathers, ribbons, strips of birch bark, photographs, memorabilia. My friend hung an antique pocket watch from one corner, some mysterious letting go of his own. I looked around, and it seemed so many people I’ve mentioned in this blog had gathered. D (the man with ALS) in his high-tech wheelchair, a blanket draped over his legs. He designed and guided the welding of the two giant fire-breathing salmon guarding the entrance to the labyrinth. (D was a welder and commercial salmon fisherman). Shirley, my 91 year old friend who lost her beloved this summer, was there, in a red woolen cap over her beautiful long silver hair. She put into the basket all of the sympathy cards she’d received, all unanswered; the act of burning them was a kind of profound answer. “I feel a release for the first time since Johnny died,” she said. “It’s not about closure. There is no closure. I don’t know what that word means.” Yes, I thought. As always, Shirley gets it right. She'd tucked into the basket a letter Johnny's daughter e-mail to her. And her own love letter to Johnny. Also there I saw, L, whose husband, the father of their two young daughters, died suddenly of a liver cancer around the time of my diagnosis. I hadn't seen her since. We hugged long and hard. A kind of hard hug that says it’s not okay, but I’m letting go anyway. This is not closure. This is marking something. But not the ending of anything like grief or longing or loss. Like a cairn, it marks a trail, a way station. I’d put some of the same names on scraps of sea paper I’d collected in the Sound as I’ve put into the basket in previous years, and some new ones: Catherine, who died of breast cancer last winter; Trudy, who died of lung cancer this spring; Paula, who died of ovarian cancer a short time after Trudy. And then, my fierce prayer: a spiral of names, including my own name, a circle of friends who'd had breast cancer, who lived forward into a life after. On a big scrap of sea paper I wrote down those things I wanted to let go of. I release you. My fear, I release you, fiercely sings the fierce poet and rock musician Joy Harjo.
Mavis talked about fire, how it both heals and destroys. It is fierce, something inside me realized. Rain is real and gentle and soothing and cooling and healing. But fire is real and healing in its own way. So with a half hour to go, I changed my mind again. Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it. Some shift inside and out changed my mind. No turning back, I went to the labyrinth, covered the torso cast in a shroud of devil’s club leaves (also fierce, bright yellow, gorgeous, but covered in vicious spines), and carried it to the basket. My friend Erin brought a ladder, propped it next to the basket. I climbed up with the cast in my arms, and leaned over the side, placed it on top of the kindling, the wood, the wax boxes, the limbs. I saw other things people must have climbed up to place there: a handmade journal. Sealed envelopes. A burst of ragged sobs passed through me. Not a gentle rain, but a hailstorm, sharp, stabbing, fierce release. Hard like a cough. Like my grandmother beating her breast in prayer. Hard like a certain kind of hug.
Then I climbed back down and stood with everyone else to watch the whole thing burn. The whole basket burned to the ground in a harsh, hot fire, all its messages and prayers blowing west with the rising storm wind as a shower of sparks. The sparks blinking out.
The next day, a massive low pressure system pushed in, hurricane force winds in the Gulf of Alaska. It rained and rained. It's raining still.