This is part of a series of posts about a gathering in Montreal in which a diverse group of 15 people spent four days exploring different facets of thrivability.

On the first morning of Camp, we sat in a spacious circle. Each in turn, we walked to the center of the circle to place an object that, to us, represented thrivability. Mine was a plant, someone else’s a seed. Water was one person’s chosen object. Another brought a photo of his new baby girl.

Two people held out until the end, though, when they each explained that they had struggled to imagine a physical object that could do the job. Maybe it’s air, one of them said. But then, that didn’t seem enough. Maybe it’s fire, I offered, and I told the following story. I share it here because it may have relevance for you, too, if you lead an organization, or host conversations, or parent a family, or just strive to live your life wholeheartedly.

Earlier this year, I was one of six women gathered at the threshold of a ceremonial sweat lodge, a turtle-shaped structure that had been built into a mound of grass-covered earth deep in the Laurentian forest. Our guide was a woman called Kaveesha, a name that had been given to her when she was an apprentice to an indigenous spiritual teacher. She was gloriously beautiful, with a powerful, grounded presence that was palpable. We would stay in the searing heat and darkness of the sweat lodge for four hours. But before we entered, she explained that she was carrying a small bowl of smoking embers to represent the traditional role women play as keepers of the fire. To my surprise, her words struck me deeply. I felt an unacknowledged resistance relax, as individualistic, feminist habits of thought willingly made room for some larger concept of myself. Images of my husband and children filled my mind, and my heart opened to the nurturing role I play in our family. It felt unexpectedly good.

Since that experience, the metaphor has continued to inhabit me, growing richer and more profound and spreading to color every aspect of my life, including my work.

Along the way, however, those feminist, independent patterns weren’t quite ready to concede without a fight. There were times when I thought petulantly: now wait a minute… why should I stay home and tend the fire while everyone else gets to go out and have fun!?

I shared this with my mother one day, who – with characteristic wisdom – observed: “It’s not about staying home while others go out. Fire is a powerful symbol of transformation.” In that moment, I remembered a conversation just days earlier with my seven-year-old son. “Mommy, do you know what plasma is?” he had asked. “No,” I said. “Do you??” His response was something along the lines of : “Yes, it’s the fourth state of matter. There’s solid, liquid, gas and then plasma. Plasma is matter in a state of transformation. Like fire. Fire is matter in a state of transformation.” (I was pretty blown away!)

Multiple facets of my life came into sudden alignment. I could almost feel the gears click into place in my brain.

  • I’m part of a global community of practice called The Art of Hosting, dedicated to “hosting meaningful conversations about things that matter.” As we design and host conversations, we talk about holding space and serving what wants to emerge within it. We are keepers of the fire that is the life and transformative power of a group of people gathered in shared purpose.
  • This concept applies to organizations, as well. More and more people are recognizing that an organization is not a static thing but a dynamic, ever-evolving pattern of interactions. It is people and matter in a state of transformation. What animates that pattern of interactions – and what enables ongoing transformation – is the life we bring to it. With this understanding, our concept of organizational leadership is evolving into stewardship: listening for what is needed; creating the fertile conditions for life to thrive; tending to the living pattern of transformation. As a leader, you are a keeper of the fire.
  • The art of hosting starts with hosting self – hosting the spark of life that animates each one of us:  taking care of ourselves; finding our authenticity; developing presence of mind so that we can serve effectively. I am the keeper of my own fire of transformation.

In each of these circumstances, and in our families, we keep the fire but we don’t control it. Life is too complex for us to be able to predict or control the transformation. We can only tend to the fertile conditions for it to continue and evolve. When those conditions are in place – when the fire is burning brightly – life flows. Intelligence emerges. Creativity sparks. Joy shimmers. And while the role of firekeeper is traditionally held by women, every one of us can embrace the sense of stewardship it implies.

What changes, then, when we see ourselves as keepers of the fire? As stewards of life at every level? What new patterns and possibilities come into view? What habits no longer seem helpful? How do we tend the fire of life in our organizations? In our families? In our own lives?

How does this concept extend to our role in community – to our shared responsibility to ensure that life continues to thrive in our neighbourhoods, our cities, our biosphere? What if our politicians saw themselves in this way? What will it look like when many of us embrace this role, together?

Though we didn’t carry the firekeeper metaphor through the rest of Thrivability Camp, these were the questions we explored. We’ve committed to meet again to continue the conversation. I’m dreaming of gathering around a fire next time.

In the meantime, I’ll share a poem by Mary Alice Arthur, who wrote it as a harvest after co-hosting a workshop on Storytelling & Harvesting with Chris Corrigan and Jerry Nagel:

I will keep the fire in my heart

With the bright face of the moon as my witness
Friends, I promise you
That I will keep the fire in my heart.
I will lean into that fire
Even if it melts the soles of my shoes
Even if it singes my hair and blackens my fingers
I will not stop
For our humanity is at stake.
There, in the centre of the fire, there where we have always met
Are the embers the wise ones have sheltered on our behalf.
What we have always known, long in the forgetting
Is rising through the flames again.
It takes those of us who are the firekeepers,
Who are the rocksitters, who have the circle in our blood and bone
To make the shape that calls the others home.
We have hidden the patterns in our stories, our poems, our songs
In the deepest parts of our being.
And we will speak, we will sing, we will dance our way
Even now the plazas beckon.  Even now the squares call out
For life lived in its fullest expression.
You who have been solitary, you who have been alone
Remember this word:

[Click here to read the follow-up post, The Paradox of Transformation.]
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