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copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom


by Lois June Wickstrom

When I was 13, the professors in the physics department at the nearby university announced that they were going to walk on hot coals with their bare feet. I was enchanted with the idea that the laws of the universe could be turned off. And I was willing to risk my flesh to try. My mother wouldn’t let me go with them.

More than 30 years later, I heard about another firewalk, out in Floral City. It cost $50, not an amount I spend easily except at the grocery store. But my mother had sent me a check and told me to buy something just for me. I sent the money in.

When I arrived, the leaders gave me a form to sign in which I promised that neither I nor my heirs would sue if I were hurt. I looked at the words and thought, I could die doing this. I told myself I could have died on the drive up to Floral City. I could have died zillions of ways already -- many of them doing things I didn’t really want to do. And I really wanted to walk on fire. So, I signed it.

Eventually thirty people arrived, only one of whom I had met before.

All day a leader from the firewalk institute led us in games cleverly designed to teach us to trust each other, to become a group capable of purpose far greater than individual intent. Before the games began, we each promised to play 100%. “I intend to walk,” we said. “Yes!”

The games began with us as individuals, living our own private fears. We were asked to think about someone in our lives who had made us miserable. To my surprise, a woman I had not thought of in years popped up. My 7th grade English and Social Studies teacher, Bad Bauer. And in the game that followed, I was able to forgive her for those hours of diagraming sentences and memorizing obscure points of geography, and her interminable boring lectures.

Then we worked in pairs, looking into each other’s eyes, and learning a stick dance, in which we twirled around waving a stick in each hand. In this dance we began the breaking-of-the-rules. Your mother told you not to play with sticks. You might hurt people. Nobody got hurt.

During the breaks, and during the meals the conversation kept coming back to one topic. “Are you scared?” And our fearless leader repeated, “You don’t have to walk.” He told us that if only one person walks, we have all walked because this is a group experience. He said even he wasn’t sure that he would walk, and he had walked in over 400 fires. Each fire is new. Each is a first time.

After dinner, we worked in threes, talking about our hopes, plans and dreams. Then we built the fire. One at a time we took the cedar logs to our leader who laid them out in a ring that grew ever taller as the layers of logs piled up. The logs were thick but surprisingly light weight. Again and again, we lined up at the woodpile, took a log and carried it to the pyre. I commented that it felt as scary as taking off my clothing at the gynecologist’s. A woman near me said, “It’s not that bad. But it’s scary.” Again, the leader told us we didn’t have to walk. He told us he’d seen people’s feet become blackened and blistered; even firewalk leaders had suffered severe burns. He asked us not to walk if our minds were guiding us not to.

While the fire heated up, we meditated as a group. Two experienced firewalkers stayed outside to watch the fire, hose and thermometer in hand. They didn’t need the hose.

After our meditation they brought in the thermometer: 1600 øF. We each took a turn raking out the coals into a 4 foot by 12 foot bed three inches deep, glowing red hot. The heat from the coals was strong enough that many members of our group removed their sweatshirts. We all stood barefoot on the cool grass around the coals, holding hands. This was it. We had worked all day to this point. Either we walked now, or we went home with our fear.

I never truly feel part of a group, even when we are singing or chanting together. There is always that part of me that says I’m different, maybe I don’t belong here, and holds itself apart. This fire was hot. Maybe I’d made a mistake coming here.

Our leader began several chants. My favorite was “My body will do whatever it needs to protect me.” But he did not walk. He changed the chant to a simple “YES! YES! YES!” And a man wearing a “Shut UP and JUMP” t-shirt jauntily walked the length of the coals, smiling all the way. Then our leader walked. A couple danced across. No one stopped to dip their feet in the waiting bucket of water. No one cried out in pain. No blisters appeared on the walkers’ feet. The man in the t-shirt bent down and picked up a red coal in his fingers, lifted it above his head slowly, and dropped it back onto the bed.

An elderly woman walked hesitatingly to the head of the bed. Something in me said, “Now!” I walked up to the woman and asked her to walk with me. She said, “I’d be honored.” We held hands. I made a mental note of where I’d put my tube of fluoride toothpaste that I brought to put on burns. Then hesitantly, slowly, I placed one bare foot onto the coals, thinking all the while if this hurts, at least I’ll only have one burned foot. The group around us chanted. I was scared. I was ready to pull back at any second at the slightest sign of discomfort. Despite the evidence of my senses and the thermometer, my feet barely felt warm. If anything, the rough texture of the coals was more of a shock to my feet than the heat. The woman and I didn’t hurry our walk. We sauntered through the hot coals as if they were a sandy beach in the moonlight. And we hugged each other after we stepped back onto the cool grass. Then the heat from the coals engulfed us.

I felt the same thankfulness that had thrilled me when each of my newborn children was placed into my arms. This time, it was my life that was given me. The woman I had walked with asked if I wanted to do it again. I told her “No thanks. Once is enough for a lifetime.”

New groups formed and pranced through the coals, laughing and singing. Your mother told you never to play with fire. The firewalking stopped when the thermometer got down to 1100 °F, and the coals were nearly covered with black ash.

Afterwards, the leader could not control us. He wanted us to participate in a ceremony with strawberries and powdered sugar, but we ate the berries as soon as he passed them out. He said, “I told you not to eat them yet.” We responded, “We don’t need rules. We have played in fire. After you break that rule, how can a rule about strawberries have meaning?”

I drove home with ashes on my feet to show my husband. He just said, “I didn’t think they’d let you do anything dangerous. Of course you did it.”

But I know that I didn’t do it by myself. The group energy enabled me to do something I couldn’t do on my own, any more than I could have a baby by myself. We stopped the laws of the universe. Life is truly miraculous.