On some hill of despair
the bonfire

you kindle can light the great sky—

though it’s true, of course, to make it burn

you have to throw yourself in …

from “Another Night in the Ruins

by Galway Kinnell


Before my alchemy image-making group got together last week, we were encouraged to think about Calcinatio, the alchemical process of burning, and what might currently be “on fire” in our own lives. We considered fire as life energy, fire as a purifying force, fire as a cooking process that changes one substance into another.

When we began making images, I wanted to make something with two pieces: one permanent, stable entity and one entity that would burn. I constructed a frame to act as a sort of fireplace and decorated it with a woodburning tool. I liked the idea of the stable portion being decorated with the marks of past fires. The wood for the frame was a sunbleached white driftwood the group had decided looked like bones, giving my frame a skeletal look. For the burning portion, I thought of ceremonial kindling bundles and decided to create something similar, so I wrapped charcoal in burlap, supported it with a frame of sticks, and tied the ends with string. When I finished, though, the kindling bundle was larger than the frame of bones I built to house it.

I thought of what fire had looked like when it showed up in my life in times past, like sickness, sometimes, more often like being lost. I thought of what seemed to be burning up for me now, old plans and visions for the future, the illusion of thinking I know where I’m going. I read Galway Kinnell’s poem about kindling a fire that could light the great sky, and I considered the care I’d taken in constructing my kindling bundle, how I wanted to be intentional about the bonfire I started, how and with what materials I would start it. I did not want to wait for illness or lostness to burn away what I no longer needed.

When I looked at my Calcinatio image again, the kindling being bigger than the fireplace felt like the punchline to a joke.  Of course, I had built the frame of bones first. Of course, the kindling for the fire was far too big to burn inside that small frame I had taken such great care in constructing. You have to let the self start the bonfires that will break the bones of the ego, if the kindled fire is to light the great sky.