My Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire flames vertical

The first magical bonfire I experienced was at Girl Scout camp in Arizona, back in the late 60s.  I was probably eleven or twelve years old at the time.  We sat in a huge circle in the dark, wearing our official camp t-shirts and little pseudo-Native American headbands.  While directed to keep our faces facing the fire, the camp counselors crept around behind us and tapped us on the shoulder to let us know we could step into the circle to receive our next feathers of accomplishment to stick in our handmade headbands.

I thought I had made it to my second progression on the trampoline and horseback riding, but I wasn’t quite sure.  Tap, tap, tap.  Wow!  Achievement!  This feather-dispensing went on for a quite a while and the sparks from the bonfire flew high and wild.  Better than an Oscar.

Then there was the mandatory singing of Kumbaya by us mostly pre-pubescent teenage girls.  I say “mostly” because there is always one nine-year old blonde girl nicknamed “BJ” who had boobs when she was seven, don’t ask me how.  (Of course, her nickname would forever ensure her popularity in high school.)  But mostly I just remember the sound of the wind in the pine trees, the flames reaching for the stars, and my new feathers.  Bonfires were magical.

For us adults, great bonfires are rare things, mostly.  Maybe once or twice a summer, when it isn’t fire season and there is actually enough dry wood around, we’ll make a big bonfire.  Time stops, like it does when I have a martini.  We still argue whether smoke follows beauty or not.  Mostly I think smoke follows me, so I think the beauty theory has some holes in it.

If that bonfire is hot enough, it’ll burn most anything.  Years ago, when camping with Gary, his boys, and his dad, Milt had enjoyed a few single-malt scotches and then admitted that he had always hated the sweater that his wife had bought for him at a thrift store.  He ripped it off and slammed that ugly blue cardigan (that only Fred MacMurray would wear, see below) into the bonfire.

Fred MacMurray in a blue sweater

As the acrylic fibers hissed and melted, we screamed that he was just throwing money away.  So, Milt grabbed a $20 bill out of his wallet and, much to our collective horror, threw it in the fire.  He giggled like a three-year-old, watching it singe and glow like the eyes in a demonic Halloween pumpkin.  He was forever cleansed of a piece of Depression-era poverty mentality that night.  The power of a bonfire…

While hardly traditional, blazing bonfires can even be built inside, some nights.  You might disagree and say that bonfires are, by definition, outside, and you are right.  But if you’re lucky, the feeling and joy of an outdoor bonfire can be generated indoors.  For example, every summer, I join my good friend, Judy, at her mountain cabin.  Built in the late 1920s, this place is steeped in the memories of four generations, with no phone, Internet connection, or computers to dull the senses.  Instead, we dull the senses the old-fashioned way:

Martini at Karney

After a couple of Ciroc vodka martinis and a heavy nosh on cheeses with calorie counts in the thousands, we make s’mores in her ancient fireplace.  The heat from the fire has already warmed the bricks on the floor in front of the grate, so placing the graham crackers there with the Hershey’s chocolate on top is perfect for achieving the gooey goodness that will soon meld with the toasted marshmallows into heaven.


There are no calories in these s’mores; they are consumed with complete childlike glee, late in the evening when the world is still and our cares have burned away.  The comfort of a bonfire built on friendship and hedonism.  Nothing better.

But the bonfire I feel like starting today is outside, in our lame little fire pit from Home Depot.  I look around my home office and realize that a bonfire could solve many of my problems from The Past.

Decades of diet, health, and exercise books that I want to burn but won’t (I mean they’re books, for crying out loud; I only seriously consider burning books written by politicians once they reach the 60%-off table at Barnes & Noble).  Envelopes full of receipts from three years ago for things I didn’t need.  Little tiny pieces of paper with snippets of ideas on them, most of which I can’t piece together for the life of me.  Crap I’ve written that I will never and should never finish.  Gardening catalogs for gardens I will never plant and, even if I did, I would forget to tend.  Addresses of people I swore I’d keep in touch with, but never will.

I’m just getting started, but you get the idea.  Maybe a bonfire can cremate the ideas, successes, and failures that I no longer want to think about at 3:00 am; no good can come from that.   A bonfire would surely help.

Burning the past to let go

I guess this would be my “Bonfire of the Vanities,” not to be confused with the various novels and bad movie of the same name.  By definition, the fuel for this type of bonfire should be objects that would tempt one (aka me) to sin, including vanity items, immoral books, manuscripts of secular songs, as well as other sin-inducing forms of artwork.  However, I have to admit that there isn’t one piece of artwork or a song (unless you want to count Maria Muldaur’s classic, “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” but even that’s a stretch) that would really tempt me.

And I guess, in my opinion, we’d really have to get into a very long discussion about what constitutes a sin…or not.  I am pretty open-minded in the sin department, even though I throw the word around willy-nilly all the time.  “Oh, that cake is sinful!”  “Is it a sin to have a beer before a half-marathon?”  “Yes, I took this pen from the car wash…is that a sin?”  You know, things like that.

Big sin stuff?  Well, I’m a Big Chicken when it comes to the Mortal Sins, but I am more familiar with some (OK, all) of the Seven Deadly Sins.  This is why I never embraced organized religion per se.  Too many categories and details to worry about.  Mortal, Deadly…it all sounds the same to me.

But the third definition of sin I am familiar with is:

“any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense”

So, I guess the only thing to do is to build my Bonfire of the Vanities and hope the symbols of these sins will burn, baby, burn:

  • The Christmas letter from my college roommate that I can never open because she brags so much that I always feel like I’ve never accomplished anything by the time I’m done reading it
  • My oldest, ugliest, largest pair or “fat-girl jeans”
  • An unused container of dental floss (‘nuf said)
  • A “idea” notecard with “the unfairness of chopsticks” written on it.  What did this mean?
  • A leaf of kale (Does kale burn, or does it just cry?)
  • A token receipt for one purchase I shouldn’t have made: Jillian Michaels CDs
  • That last piece of Halloween candy that I’ve been saving – a symbol of the dietary downslide that starts on Halloween week and ends on January 14

I think that should do it. I release you; I am done.

And while I’m on the subject of bonfires, what about this:

“How is it that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?”  (Author unknown) 

Thanks for reading.  I know how busy you are.


4 thoughts on “My Bonfire of the Vanities

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