Burning bright

Say what you want — '60s legacy, old hippie shit and all — but the bonfire that my kids have come to expect each December at the Winter Solstice is a pagan ritual that nobody in my childhood hometown would've known about.

Back then it was stone Christianity (Presbyterians and Roman Catholics) and nothing else — with maybe a Jewish family here and there hiding out for the Yule duration, or giving in a little to the rest of us. Certainly nothing weird like Buddhism or Native American lore, nothing that would pull us closer to the earth and sky.

Some friends — a poet and painter couple — build this peaceful fire in their yard every year, inviting over as many members of the downtown art gang as want to fall by. Folks bring dishes of food for the dining room table, and some of us hang out around the fireplace or in the kitchen with flasks of Dewar's or Jack Daniel's while we taste the chili on the stove and gossip about gallery openings, new books of poems, the carpentry somebody's doing.

But the real purpose of this gathering is spending some quality time outside on the logs and chairs that circle the fire. There might be a little drinking going on there too, but not much. People chat quietly, poking sticks in the coals, watching smoke rise up to the hard, bright stars.

A few steps away is a small sweat lodge that the couple has put together. Farther on, an old wood boat is propped up on stilts. And all around us a large spread of trees and bushes makes this feel like a clearing in the woods, not a yard in one of the oldest Detroit neighborhoods.

My boys love this time. It means something entirely else to them than the cash register orgy going on at the malls, or than nativity scenes from someone else's mythology. It brings us all together — couples, kids, individuals — in our stark humanity, for a change.

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