I’ve decided that there’s no better way to say goodbye to your past than to commit it to the flames. Ancient cultures like the Celts used bonfires for purification and consecration, and it turns out that knew what they were doing. Tonight I had my first ritual bonfire, and I feel an unexpectedly strong sense of closure.
My sister, Gill, and I are both visiting our parents this week and made a pact to clear the clutter from our childhood bedrooms. Items like clothing and even books weren’t so hard to sort through, but it was the paper clutter that was more challenging to deal with. We each had boxes or drawers full of handwritten notes, term papers, and report cards. Going through these one by one would be time consuming and would bring up old emotions, so we had put off doing it for years. Now was the time.
Late in the evening, Gill and I emerged from our bedrooms with armfuls of papers and stacked them on the living room floor. Gill took a pile of her folded-up junior high notes from friends, skimmed a couple of them, and placed them inside our long-neglected family fireplace. She then struck a match and dropped it on top of the carefully folded pieces of binder paper, watching the paper ignite. The orange flames licked the corners of the pages and curled up the edges. They began to crumble into black ash.
“Ahh, that felt good,” she said. “Your turn.”
I started with old love letters from high school and college. I read through a few quickly and wondering how I could feel so disconnected now from what I felt back then. I knew that I would always have a point of connection to the main characters of my personal history, but any strong emotions about them were long gone. Still, I hesitated for a moment before throwing the letters onto the flames, because the action felt so final. After a few moments, I tossed them into the fire and watched them dissolve. I felt as if I could breathe a little easier when they had disintegrated.
Gill and I took turns throwing papers into the fireplace for two hours, each time describing what we were releasing, until each of our stacks had vanished.
Burning the written documentation of your past is much, much more cleansing than dumping it in the recycling bin, or even shredding it. When the flames consume the pages that symbolize your past, your former self and relationships instantly cease to exist. What remains is nothing, and it forces you to relate to people — your best friend from middle school, or your enemy, for that matter — in a completely new way instead of clinging to how things used to be. You may find it harder than you’d expect to throw into the fire things that once had power over you, but I can all but guarantee that you’ll feel more peaceful after you do.
Read Gill’s account of the ritual bonfire here.
What has been your experience with ritual bonfires? What haven’t you burned yet that you would like to?