The Saturday night Bonfire Ceremonies held by the Holy Ghost Tribe at Tower 7, are rowdy, primal affairs, something akin to high school keggers without the keg. While the morning gatherings can be somber and reflective, the bonfires are boisterous celebrations, meant to honor those who’ve managed to accumulate time away from their poisonous addictions.
It was a bonfire ceremony that first led me to the gathering, at a time when the beach was dark, and largely deserted because of COVID. It’s an event that from the very beginning excited my sensibilities. The gatherings give me something to get up and go to every morning at a time when I desperately need the structure. The bonfires, I actually look forward to, like concerts. In a society largely devoid of meaningful ritual, they are the very essence of it.
In Hindu society, the Tilak is a mark applied to the forehead for either spiritual reasons or to honor and welcome a guest. The sadhus, or saints, of India, are either followers of Shiva, Shaivites, or followers of Vishnu, Vaishnavas. The Shaivites mark their forehead with three horizontal stripes, while the Vaishnavas employ three vertical marks. Shaktas, or those who worship the Goddess, use either a dot, like a bindi, or a single vertical line.
The marks of the Hungry Ghost Tribe are given, first for each month, then for each year, that a ghost resists returning to the poison that will inevitably send them plunging back down to the Lower Plane. The witch doctor of the tribe, Captain Griff, is an ex-Vietnam combat veteran, who carries a paintbox and approaches his commitment to sobriety with the same dogged determination he once used to fight his way through jungles.
For every month and subsequent year free from poison, Captain Griff applies a signifying mark to the forehead of those with the time. All the marks are placed in the center of the forehead, right above the eyes. The lines are vertical until there are two of them. Then ghosts are free to get creative with the way they wear them. Some make a cross. Some make an X. Some just put them side by side. At one month the mark is red. Two months is gold. Three is green. Four is purple. Five is pink. Six is dark blue. Seven is copper. Eight is two red lines. Nine is two purple ones. Ten is two gold ones. Eleven is two green ones. Twelve, or one year, is a bronze circle. Every year after that it is lines through a circle. At twenty years it is two circles, and so on.
Because I had been so sick when I stumbled across the gathering, it had not been that difficult not to drink once I’d stopped detoxing. It had been difficult to live, yes, and with the way I was stuck, and all the problems I had on my plate, I wanted to die, for sure, but I hadn’t given drinking much thought. I thought I didn’t even care about getting the time, but the night I got my first month, I realized that I did care, that it was actually a bit intoxicating in its own way.
There were about twenty of us that got up that night, and that’s about average every Saturday. When Captain Griff got to me, he made a big surprised look on his face, like, look who actually made it a whole month, but I knew he was just messing around. He stuck his fat finger in the red paint and sent it streaking down the center of my forehead, and I turned and saw my ghosts, my tribe, calling my name and cheering for me, simply because I hadn’t picked up a drink for thirty days.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a little. There were Phil and Shirley, who first invited me to the gathering. There was Santos pumping his fist. There were Christian, Boone, and Doc, the surfers. Only those with a year or longer ever give speeches, but if pushed I probably could’ve stood there and basked for a while, like a first-time Oscar nominee at a press conference.
Riding back along the bike trail that night, I looked up at the stars and it was like I was seeing them for the first time. All those stars had names. Some of them had their own planets. Those planets also had names, and some of them had moons. What did I know about those? What did I know about anything, outside of what was going on in my own head? Come to think of it, what did I even know about that? Maybe it was time to start paying attention.