Reschooling Tool #20: Ritual Bonfire

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.


Saying goodbye to the ghosts of boyfriends past.

Saying goodbye to the ghosts of boyfriends past.

Ashes to ashes.

Ashes to ashes.

I let go of my identity as Co-Director of Spark. Goodbye yellow pads, goodbye Rolodex and workshop notes.

I officially let go of my identity as Spark Co-Director. Goodbye yellow pads, goodbye Rolodex and workshop notes. I don't need you anymore.

Isn't it beautiful?

Isn't it beautiful?

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?

Comments (7)

  1. Mr. Hsu

    First off, AMAZING shirt. Simply Amazing.
    Secondly, this post is so inspiring. There’s something so mysterious, so alluring about a fire burning, whether a giant bonfire or the small flame of a candle. For me, fires have especially symbolized a sense of unity and individuality at the same time, so I like how you and Gill made it a shared yet unique experience. I think we all have things about our pasts that we could cleanse; for me it’s nothing tangible that could be burned with a fire, so instead I will let them go by “burning” them inside my head. I hope that visualization can help me progress forward.

    Thank you!

  2. Melia

    Margaret just advised me that “the basketball team goes by Celtics, but the people like to be called Celts in history books, re: your last post.” Haha! In my head I was pronouncing it with a hard C; didn’t even think of the team. Changed it.

    Stephen, there’s definitely something hypnotic about fires that encourage people to stare at them quietly, or to divulge things about themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise. Every time I’m around a campfire, I’m surprised by what I learn about people. I like your visualization. I sometimes do that through breathing: in with the good energy, out with the bad.

  3. Pingback: No Dowry » Blog Archive » Therapy Through Pyromania

  4. Gilliebean

    I love this post. In fact, I quoted you in the post I just wrote about the experience. It felt so good to get rid of that old baggage. I think we should have a bonfire at least once every couple years to clean out the past and move forward.

  5. Melia

    Loved your post. (Check it out at You captured the awesomeness of burning up old identities and painful experiences. SO much better than recycling. Let’s definitely make the bonfire a regular event. I’m already looking forward to our next one.

  6. Gene

    The orange flames licked the corners of the pages and curled up the edges. They began to crumble into black ash.

    Yours and Gill’s entries about this experience was awesome, and those two sentences brought it to another level. Beautiful wording. I got goosebumps that was so good.

  7. Thomas Beck

    I’ve done the same thing. It was a liberating experience, watching all those old memories go up and dissipate in the atmosphere.


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