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Gifts of the Circle

A Chronicle of the Hook Pull performed by Fakir Musafar and Cleo Duboise at Black Rose 2002

Reposted with the author's permission.

I snap awake on Saturday morning of Black Rose 2002. Another night of turbulent dreams. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I start to review the many tasks I must accomplish in the day ahead. It’s November second, 2002 the first full day of the Black Rose festival, a day I’ve been preparing for for months.

This year I’m serving as Art Director for the event, one of the smaller directorships in the BR event staff, but its kept me busy. I’ve got a show to curate, an art room to staff and even been pulled in at the last minute to teach Dungeon Monitor training and to update the DM guide. By far my most important task is producing a featured guest artist, and keeping them happy and tended to on their visit to Black Rose. Somehow I’ve succeeded in bringing Fakir Musafar and his wife Cleo Dubois out to the east coast. It’s been a long slow process, but the hard work appears to have paid off.

I had never met, or even spoken to, Fakir and Cleo Dubois before I cold called them last June to ask if they might , possibly, maybe, consider coming out to be our guests at Black Rose 2002. No one in my club leadership knew them personally. Barbara Nitke put me up to it and I assumed – falsely as it turned out – that she knew them well. To my surprise they didn’t hang up on me, thus beginning a long negotiation involving vendors for their book, dancers for their ritual, drummers for their band, rattles for the spectators, a proper space for the dance, and many other factors. The “dance” was their response to my inquiry about what they would like to present at the BR festival. They have performed “the dance”( or energy pull, or “ecstatic rites beyond play piercing” as the program called it), many times out west (at Burning Man, at Thunder in the Mountain, and up and down the coast) but this will be its east coast debut. Between fourteen and twenty individuals will be given fleshhooks in their chests, and be fitted with reigns. Each piercee will be paired with another dancer (or “helper” or “kaseka”) who will hold the reigns to manipulate the pierced hooks, create new sensations, and generally monitor the welfare and well being of their dance partners. The ecstatic dance will be propelled by a drum band. Video cameras and projectors will allow the piercings and the revelries that follow to be projected onto a larger-than-life overhead. It will be an intriguing mix of primeval ritual and visionary high tech, with big screen astral projections of the piercings and the dance. Similar forms of ecstatic dance paired with bodily ordeal are still performed in primitive tribal cultures, and probably date back to the Stone Age. The American Indian ritual of the Sundance was Fakirs inspiration for his own explorations in the late forties and early fifties when he created huge piercings through the flesh of his chest and hung from them. Similar rituals are practiced in aboriginal cultures around the world. In tribal traditions the dancers see gods, encounter ancestral spirits, shades from the spirit world. Fakir himself has experienced out-of-body states that he has described in paranormal terms. Skeptic of the supernatural that I am, I’m looking forward to finding out what entities we will encounter during the dance later today.

Three months ago Fakir was, to me, a figure I "knew of": someone whose interviews I had read with fascination, whose jaw dropping pictures I had studied and painted from, whose physical feats I had regarded with awe. His lengthy explorations in the greyzone between ancient mystical tradition and contemporary secular bodyplay are the stuff of legend. His lavishly illustrated interview in the Re/Search publication “Modern Primitives” was a foundation text for me as a young dominant, one I had shared with dozens of friends and lovers. Fakir’s contribution to “what it is we do” is probably incalculable. He’s been doing this so long and from so far back (early 1940’s) that his protégés, and their protégés, have often reaped the credit and fiscal reward for his genius. Fakir, through solitary exploration, expanded the range of expression in SM and bodyplay all but singlehandedly creating recreational piercing,branding, cupping, modern fetish corsetry, suspension, body jewelry (he had some help from Jim Ward in this), plus many other practices not yet attempted by most SM folk . Recently Fakir’s public profile has risen sharply due to an exhibit of his photographic work in the esteemed Fahey Gallery in Los Angeles and a lavish new book of his photographs “Spirit + Flesh.” The book, the show and the attention they have drawn to his extraordinary lifetime of bodyplay has made him, arguably, the most important kink artist to hit the mainstream art world since Robert Mapplethorpe’s posthumous retrospective in 1989.

Another major area of contribution that Fakir has made to the SM artform is linkage of the physical world to the mystical. It was his thirst for spiritual experience that drove him to tattoo himself, contort himself, stringently corset himself, thrust hooks through himself, and to hang things from those hooks, including his own bodyweight. And by emulating the rituals of primitive cultures he made a surprising discovery: they worked. Mystical states were attained through carefully executed bodily ordeal. Even stripped of their cultural backdrop and paranormal overlay, even without the native practitioners faith that these rituals evoked supernatural powers, mystical states were still the result. In SM. we have only in the nineties begun describing these states with terms like topspace, and subspace. Fakir has been voyaging to these spaces and others for the last five decades.

And now he and Cleo were here. I still couldn’t believe it. Kathleen and I had picked them up at Dulles airport night before last and driven them home to stay at my cramped red brick townhouse. We had found them as vivacious and engaging in person as they had been on the phone, lovers of cats, excited and curious about DC, focused on making their ritual a success. We had enjoyed a lovely Ethiopian dinner Thursday where they got to decompress, and meet some of the dancers and drummers who had arrived to DC early. They got to inspect the sixty odd rattles Kathleen had helped me assemble to give away as handouts for spectators at the ritual. My cat Charlie (who has a minor drooling problem) slobbered all over Fakir’s hand while he slept.

Me, I’m a skeptic when it comes to the paranormal. I know that SM can lead to spiritual apotheosis; I’ve felt it. However I choose to attribute that to human psychology, biochemistry, and the awesome power of the body’s natural opiates. Still I’d be lying if I didn’t feel that trickster spirits have been running rampant in my life since the day of Fakir and Cleo’s arrival. Within hours of our return from Dulles, the phone went on the fritz, the upstairs plumbing leaked through kitchen ceiling (and never did again after their departure) and my house keys vanished, seemingly, for good. I wont even start about the three hour merry go round that began Thursday morning with my car getting towed, the county telling informing me I needed to talk to the DMV, the DMV (after a 90 minute wait) explaining they have no need or wish to talk to me at all, racing back to the courthouse, then the impound lot, then home, wasting a morning I needed to get my place cleaned up and other chores tended to. And then to the airport to pick up Fakir and Cleo.

It’s only 630 and the sky outside is still dark, but I still have a lot to get done, so I drag myself up and into the shower. When I reemerge, Sarah is stirring, Kathleen, still dead to the world. I have loads of stuff to carry downstairs. Cleo scoured my house for things we could use for the altar: metal candelabras, African woven baskets to hold fruit, a small ceremonial metal table that I use to display my blades . Cleo was initially attracted to a beautiful blue afghan carpet in my living room, but recoiled in shock when I pointed out that it had been woven by Muja Hadim and its seemingly abstract patterns actually depicted machine guns, Helicopter gunships, fighter aircraft, and Stinger rocket launchers. Cleo wanted this ritual to be a dance of peace and the carpet was about other sorts of energy entirely. We left it behind.

One last altar-item I must procure before lunch is white flowers. Where do you find nice flowers in a dump like New Carrolton? Sarah and I get in her car and start driving. We make three stops before we find half decent flowers: a mix of roses, carnations and another whose name I forget to ask. No tube roses of the type Cleo asked me to try and find. Back at the hotel the saga continues. The vases which she assured me that every hotel has, do not seem to exist. Well, they do, sort of. I am provided two by an hotel employee-friend that hold about three stems each. For a moment I’m stuck and then I ask if the kitchen has any spare wine carafes. Minutes later four of them appear and are perfect for our needs.

Kathleen has arisen when and is tidying up when we return to the room. The three of us begin lugging stuff down to the main dungeon where the ritual will occur at two PM. The altar materials, a bag of fruit, and a Santa size toysack containing the sixty odd rattles Kathleen I made from empty plastic bottles, spray painting them, applying tribal abstract designs and filling them with stuff. Kathleen got real eclectic and started filling them with pistachios, gumballs, pocket change, nails. She even filled some with the dried rice and beans that Cleo had recommended. I went a little crazy on the selection criteria, not just little popbottles and beercans but, 40’s, even family size detergent bottles. I’ve grown kinda fond of them. They look good, and make loud unpredictable noises when shaken.

It is still two hours before show time and classes are still being taught where the ritual will be staged. There is a lot to do, I’m not sure how much exactly. We need to put up the screen, seat four hundred people, establish an “operating table” where Fakir and Cynthia (Aka CM Hurt) will execute the piercings. We will need to assemble the projection equipment the video feeds with multiple camaras and video screens distributed throughout.

With nothing to do but wait I decide to get the altar assembled. Blackthorn, the dungeon boss, and I carry a bondage table to the altar site, and I cover it with a white tablecloth. Then I start arranging a tableau of candles, fruit basket and the four vases with flowers. That’s as far as I can think to go. Kathleen and Sarah want to wander, so with the time remaining I start spray paint a few more bottles.

As the morning classes end, we begin reconfiguring the dungeon for the dance. We tug the play equipment aside, and hump the bleachers into position where they have clear view of the projection screen. We then begin laying out the chairs in rows. Greg has appeared and is working with Bill on the projector, video and camera hookups. The ritual, at Fakir’s request, will be filmed and projected onto a video screen. Black Rose decided up the ante and has added video monitors throughout the hall

Fakir and Cleo arrive and we have a pleasant chat. While things have been wonderful between us, there has already been static between them and some of the event organizers above me in the hierarchy. Posters were made from Fakir’s photographs without his or Cleo’s knowledge or consent, a bad tactical error. The program used more images than expected and failed to mention the publisher, also an unwelcome surprise to our guests. It is an awkward situation that I have no ability to solve. Cleo inspects the altar, declares the flowers satisfactory and asks me to consolidate the rattles as she starts rearranging the altar.

Throughout all of this I’ve been asking myself the question “What will I learn from Fakir? Will I come out of this changed? And what will that change be?” I suspect it will have something to do with the primacy of the bodily experience, the nobility of pursuing the ecstatic experience. Perhaps it will inspire me to greater respect for the individual hunch, and the importance of quirky personal vision. I’ve already been going to the gym more, pushing myself harder in an effort to know and expand my own physical limits.

When I return dragging the large plastic bin containing the rattles, the altar is complete and I stop for a peak. Four framed pictures of colorful multi-limbed Hindu gods and goddesses have been integrated with the candles, fruit, and flowers. They must have packed them all the way from California. Though beautiful, they evoke nothing for me. I’ve always found Hinduism incomprehensively complex, with its elaborate stories and massive pantheons of goddesses and gods. Even now I know that the real magic, at least for me, will rise out spilled blood, interaction of human personalities, and the physical movement of the dance.

The stated purpose of the dance is peace, something Washington DC could certainly use more of. Since an airliner plowed into the Pentagon on a clear Tuesday morning thirteen months ago, we’ve weathered bio-terrorism, a plummeting Dow, wars and rumors of war, and a local serial killer team only apprehended within the last two weeks. Peace would do me good as well. This past year has included a major and traumatic breakup, escalating professional challenge, promotion to levels of responsibility I am barely staying on top of, and a warring Black Rose hierarchy with whom I have strained relations at best. The weeks leading up to this event have also demanded a lot of time and energy. With the winter holidays approaching, never my favorite time of year, peace is something I wouldn’t mind a little more of. Even so, I am usually turned off by the exhortations for woo woo gentleness and cuddly love my home state of California is known for. I made a poor hippy as a teenager, and later, a far more authentic punk. Even Fakir, for all his serenity and talk of the great white spirit, scared the pants off the guitar strumming, incense burning, crystal gazing, new agers of northern California with his branding irons, self inflicted punctures, fleshhooks, hand made waist synchers, sacred drag, and whiteboy emulations of aboriginal body scarring, and other rites of passages. Instead, surprisingly perhaps, he found his energies far more welcome among the kink, leather and SM communities.

One work area I can do nothing to help is the video-camera-projection system. I just pray that the techs I have talked to are right when they say its no big deal. There has been a long and frustrating debate about whether we should tape the dance or not. Many, myself included felt the event was too important not to record for posterity but within the Black Rose bureaucracy mine was a minority view. Black Rose has always taken the personal privacy of its attendees very seriously, a good thing. We have historically allowed no photography at the November events outside of specific hours and then in the main dungeon only. One proposed solution was to ask everyone attending the ritual, even the spectators, to fill out model release forms. Sounded good to me, but the higher ups decide it would be too cumbersome. An alternate idea was to configure the lighting so only the dancers would be lit well enough lit to be recognizable. This approach was deemed technically unworkable. One more or less comic argument was that we shouldn’t make a tape because Fakir might use it to make money. (Everybody knows that Black Rose is against making money. Right?) Apparently this argument prevails because although a tape will be made, and later shown in one of the ballrooms, it will be erased after the event. It seems like a stupid waste to me, but it’s a decision made above my paygrade. Still after nixing photography of Fakir’s scene, the higher ups will approve BR staff photographers, who rove the event at will (a BR first) shooting pictures first and asking permission later, driving many attendees to distraction.

The dancers are starting to show up. Now I turn my attention to making sure no one gets their heart broken because they arrive too late to be pierced. Or because people not on the list jump ahead in line. Sarah and Kathleen are nowhere in sight and its almost one: our instructed time to assemble. Somebody runs up to warn me of further calamity, this time something that could upend the book signing to follow the ceremony. It could be serious. I go tell Greg, working on the projector, who snaps at me and tells me it’s under control. Hoping he's right I leave him be.

I get sucked into one last melodrama. The food service people have put their foot down that no one, not even the wheel chair bound shall traverse their kitchen. When I go to investigate I find no obvious work going on. but three angry looking guys defending their turf. Mitzi is on the way I’m told to assist them in holding their ground. I explain that the back door is the only way in for those in wheelchairs but I may as well be speaking Portuguese. I walk outside to see if there are handicapped attendees shivering in the cold right now. Nobody. But my man Erich hasn’t arrived and he won’t make it down the stairs in his wheelchair. When I return inside Mitzi has arrived, and declares the kitchen inviolate. Great. Now Erich will have to come in through the back and pass around the kitchen and through the narrow gap where the alter now stands. I get Blackthorn and the two of us inch the alter, gods and all, three feet to the left hoping we can do it without Cleo noticing but no luck. She is not happy. Blackthorn takes her aside reassuring her in a soothing voice and apparently calms her down. I don’t dare guess how the video projector is working.

Eve, the drum band leader, arrives along with Kate, the first drummer I got on board. My second pick (Whitney) will not be playing as he elected to bear the hooks of the dance instead. I point to where I would guess the drummers ought to go and they begin setting up.

It’s quarter after one oclock and Sarah and Kathleen are still not back. Members of the dance , many of them close friends are arrriving, Andrew, Erich and Liz, Bill…. I try to introduce everyone to Fakir and/or Cleo and tick their names off the list. The list is probably the most important document Ive produced as part of this effort. Fakir and Cleo are used to assembling the list themselves from people they know, and wanted the dance to include a diversity of spiritually plugged in people. Its been trickier to assemble than I thought. My closest circle of friends provides the core, mainly friends from the intersection of the Wiccan and SM communities, and members of the SM spirituality discussion group Nick and I ran for several years. Some like Whitney and Andrew almost wept with gratitude and honor. But some of my first picks, like Elizabeth and Jim, won’t be attending this year. Others after accepting ecstatically later quietly tendered their regrets. One couple will pull a no show and when I bump into her later she’ll say “Oh we just got busy doing something else.” This is a big deal and it appears people want to know they are ready before committing. Cleo tells me that there are four piercees we must add to the list Deborah, Travis and FifthAngel, and a distractingly pretty woman named Margo Eve. When her eyes land on mine it feels like I'm being struck in the chest with a fist.

I can see from the happy emotionally charged faces that this is a pivotal moment for many of the attendees. Its almost inconvenient how many close friends are present because I can’t devote the proper attention to any of them. Cleo gathers us together in back of the video screen and provides an overview of the ceremony. Sarah and Kathleen wander in but I’m still stressing, not that it will do any good at this point. Will we have to turn people away? Will I have to surrender my place in the dance, perhaps even those of Sarah and Kathleen to make room for some poor person who will be heartbroken if they don’t get in? I do a quick headcount and divide by two and feel better. It looks like everyone will get hooked who wants too.

The first half of the presentation will be discussion and films. Easily three hundred people attend, probably more. At the last minute, Caitlin asks if I can give Fakir an introduction. I’ve nothing prepared but I wing it and it goes fine. I take a seat between Kathleen and Sarah and for the first time in days I relax completely and allow myself to be entertained. Fakir begins to talk and starts discussing his fairly amazing history of bodyplay explorations. He shows us a selection of short films and there are no technical gaffes: A good documentary filmed in Indonesia about native celebrations involving mortifications of the flesh, kandavi spear bearing, and hookdances similar to the one we will undertake this afternoon. We see another almost mystical piece about a woman’s ball dance, in which weighted objects are hung from fleshhooks before the dancing starts. A third is arranged as a splitscreen with Fakir on one side talking and one the other , footage (Footage! I didn't know there was footage!) of body play excursions I know only from still photographs. My favorite passage shows him gilded head to toe in shiny paint, wearing one of his eerie self fabricated tribal masks. He dances languidly with a torch, his fingers playing with the flame as though its part of him. He does not appear human, more like a living breathing incarnation of one of the deities pictured on the altar.

We break. The crowd is ushered out and we start clearing chairs, emptying what will become the dancefloor. Bleachers are lugged back. Chairs are stacked in columns. And the next thing I remember I’m watching Line get pierced. The two piercing stations are brilliantly lit, the brightest spots in the dungeon. The tableaux of glittering steel piercing tools and first aid supplies looks like something from a hospital operating room. And now Fakir holds Line’s face in his hands and she smiles beautifully. With a surgeons skill he pierces her cheek with the cheek spear working the back end he pushes it through and then through again. He quickly executes two piercings in the front of her chest. Kisses her and releases her to Chris who waits beaming just outside the cone of bright light. And now its my turn.

For all his wise words, Fakir says even more with his eyes, his breathing, his wonderfully genuine smile. He grips my shoulders and looks deep into my eyes, all but commanding me to be present in the moment. I don’t remember what if anything he says. Now focusing on the task at hand, he dabs my chest with a red syrupy liquid that looks like betadine. His face is expressionless, concentrating hard, as he tugs experimentally at the skin on my chest looking for the right fold of flesh. When he finds it he squeezes hard and his free hand appears holding a big twelve gauge needle, a shiny silver nail. With a searing jolt of sensation he thrusts the spike straight through. He then executes what looks to be very tricky move. Using the point of an eleven-gauge fishhook, he pushes the silver needle through and out, taking its place in the wound. Now the hook sits there, a gleaming steel question mark embedded in my chest and hurting not at all. Watching my eyes and smiling warmly he repeats the procedure on my other side.

Then its time for the cheek spear. What does it feel like? Two jabs of ouch: one entering my right cheek, a second as it leaves punctures the inside of my mouth. He reaches into my mouth grasps it, positions it and thrusts it out through the other cheek. Two more jabs. Yes it hurts, but not like you’d think. He draws it through and affixes a metallic wing to keep it from sliding out. My face is now a shishkabob. Susie Q grins from ear to ear. Fakir gives me a careful hug avoiding the metal spike in my face and hooks in my chest. I’m told, though I don’t remember, that Neptune tied on the nylon cords that Susie Q will hold as reins, and plopped little plastic corks on the sharp ends of the hooks.

One difficulty in writing about the actual dance was my memory throughout seemed to fade in and out. I remember events but not the chronological sequence. I remember watching Kathleen take her hooks. This is a way heavy scene for her, her very first piercings. Fuscia, a student I met at one of my classes last year, is also doing her first piercings today. A lot of firsts today.

I can feel the spaciness settling in and remember a line from Romeo and Juliet. “I am otherwhere.” But you wouldn’t know it watching me. I’m still jabbering about stuff that needs doing. Who moved the rattles? Is the altar okay? when do we need to light the candles? Is the video working? What can I do to help? Susie Q is cracking up, not letting me out of her sight, and repeatedly enjoins me to relax.

I return to the piercing station to watch friends receive their hookings. It’s a heady experience watching the different reactions the hooks evoke. I know from a photo Robin took that I cried out getting mine (Susie Q is in the background cackling). Many accept their hooks with no visible reaction at all. One woman sobs uncontrollably after the first, and is beaming with joy and confidence during the second. Liz appears already hooked with a cheekspear like mine with watery eyes. She, Erich, Kathleen and I share a long four-way hug.

And now it begins. How to describe what follows? The drummers lumber into action. A low primordial heartbeat. The dancers are already paired, kaseka’s and piercees. We walk out onto the circle floor and I’m swaying to the rhythm, Susie Q holding my reins. Cleo moves through the crowd beginning a recital. The smell of incense – burning sage I learn later – rises around us. The words themselves don’t really reach me (ceremonies seldom do) but the dark tonality of her voice does. A line from a song by the rock band, Television, flutters into my mind “You know its like some new kind of drug/ my senses are sharp/ and my hands are like gloves” My senses do feel sharp, but there is a lot to take in: the bites in my chest, Susie-Q’s smiling face, the underwater sway of all the other dancers, the slow thumping rhythm, the amazing facial expressions… so many worlds being changed. Fragments of Cleo’s voice reach through “Welcome home ….A grounding exercise…This a ritual not a demonstration…Presence and light…AUMMMMM…”

Fakir speaks next, his voice musical and expressive, it rises in pitch and volume. He’s finished before I even have aware of the words. “All right drummers.” He almost sings. The drumming rises and the dance has begun. Fakir begins clapping with the beat, his body jerking to the rhythm and then everyone is moving. Around the room the rattles begin blazing along with the accelerated drums. I look around. Yup. Multicolored, hand painted rattles are shaking in every fist. How did they get out there so fast? The air has become a bestiary of sound: spontaneous cries, bird calls, screams and chants that gather voices, rise and disintegrate.

This writing task is complicated by the fact that my memory is foggy for the dance itself and the events preceding it. It goes on forever and it’s over too fast. The chesthooks hurt and sometimes they hurt sweet. I feel close to my friends but wish I was closer. And for the dancers I don’t know well I wish I could stop time walk across the floor introduce myself and with the moment in time stopped, perhaps sitdown, have tea and leisurely discussion. The dancers all seem deep within themselves and yet the dance is a summation of many private pilgrimages. I wish I felt more connected to everyone there but that’s how I always feel. I don’t go to nirvana. or meet ancestral elders nor did I expect to. I go to a place where I see everyone, feel everyone dancing around me, It’s a great latticework of energies, each dancer’s energy unique. Andrew and Scott talk while slow dancing both of them grinning from ear to ear. Some handlers hold the ropes high to simulate the feeling of hanging. Some stand almost motionless. Others leap about. Others engage in vigorous games of tug of war. Some bounce on their heels with arms whirling like windmills. Some, like Fifth Angel to my left, drop to their knees, head thrown back, hanging silently, mouth lolling open, deep inside themselves. Still others appear vividly engaged with their partners like Susan and Lolita, their eyes glinting with pleasure, who appear to be swing dancing complete with twirls and sidesteps. Kari and Leigha yank each other back and forth stretching the skin waaaaay out from Kari’s chest. Travis leaves his black buttoned shirt on, but open, exposing his hooks while Magie holding his bridle sways her hips to the drumbeat, watching with her huge brown eyes. Bill has a spacey dear in the headlights expression I’ve never seen on his face before, and his partner Heidi’s eyes threaten to swallow him whole. Jonathan holds Becky’s cords with fingertips extended like a like a puppeteer; she sways serenely below, eyes closed, mouth open. Whitney wears ceremonial horns on his head and a blissful expression while his partner yanks rhythmically at the hook cords. Sarah shimmies rhythmically as she holds Kathleen’s cords in a single hand. Liz with her enormous cheekspears dances vigorously arms raised, dances before Erich who has her bridle looped behind his head so his hands can dance his wheelchair to the rhythm. As always, his face is amazing. Fuschia sways her hips slowly, looks around blinking as though newly awakened, taking everything in with an expression of unearthly clarity on her face. Sarah J, up from Richmond, seems utterly transformed: lost in amazon space. In fact, it's the amazon energy of the women going deep together that I will remember most vividly. Margo Eve, and Sarah start circling each other growling deep feral growls. They appear to have interleaved their ropes leaving their pullers behind them as they tug against each other. Soon Deborah hooks in there as well, forming a three way cats cradle all facing each other, their handlers shadowing them in back. They rotate in a slow dervish whirl, roaring at each other like she bears in heated argument. Fakir, in his yellow sarong, roves through the crowd, taking it all in, clacking out a rhythm on two loud wooden sticks Whenever he or Cleo appear the energy doubles. Cleo is regal and stately, moving fluidly through the pandemonium like the proud figure on the prow of a ship. Fakir seems more of a mischievous satyr or wood sprite, popping up where you least expect him.. There’s Fakir now! Sweeping past his eyes swiveling around and… locking onto mine. He holds up one of his wooden sticks as a horizontal between his face and mine then whacks it hard with the other stick, again, and again, and again, as though pounding an imaginary nail between my eyes. Each blow is amazing. They seem to plow straight through my head and into my subconscious. And then poof! He’s gone again.

Throughout the dance, Neptune moves quietly through the crowd inspecting the piercings, replacing lost corks, offering to swab wounds. He is a reassuring reverential presence, utterly in synch with the experience. The drum band watch with somber expressions exchanging occasional glances between themselves. Cleo sweeps regally into view and turns her gaze on me. With a glance to Susie-Q, she takes my reins and then tugs steadily upward, raising her arms high overhead. It's an even steady pull that feels really, really good. Then dropping one hand, she spins me to the right. Then to the left. Then right again as though flying a kite or a hang glider. Then rapid fire little tugs and a smooth powerful pull that makes me groan out loud. She hands the reigns back to Susie-Q and moves on to someone else. Clearly there is as much finesse to handling the ropes as there is to handling a four foot whip.

The dance keeps changing, now animated, now slowing, going internal, going external, energies rising, falling, rising again. Couples that were wild and animated fall still. Dancers who have been silent break into sudden animal cries, chanting or singing bits of song. Spontaneous melodies arise dissolve and reform become wordless shared chorals and then vanish.

Kathleen is suddenly next to me, dancing with her eyes closed. Out of nowhere, Fakir’s elfin face pops up bobbing to the rhythm and grinning from ear to ear. I touch her arm, her eyes drift open and she beams with pleasure at Fakir. I glace downward and see his percussive instrument appears to be shape-shifting: first loud wooden sticks, then a large wooden triangle, then a cowbell. Or did I imagine that one?

And where am I in all this? Sometimes my mind going five different directions at once. Is Kathleen okay? Are Sarah and Kathleen connecting? Should I be letting Susie Q lead more? God, Margo Eve has pretty eyes… What in the world is Whitney up to? Sometimes my mind is nowhere to be found at all. There is just the music of my own moving limbs. On the video later I’ll see that Sarah took over my ropes at one point and I was dancing with her. My face looks drugged and far away. I don’t remember it myself. Looking around at one point I flash on the observation that many of the piercees are tops. Odd isn’t it that a community that seems to place such a high premium on ritual, has so little in the way of maturation rites. So many tops, myself among them, spend years searching for the next step, seeking a rite of passage, some dragon to slay, a grail to chase down, a wizard or sorceress to bless us.

What else am I feeling? Distraction, a frustrating sense of impediment, a yearning to go deeper than I am. Close friends swarm around me, some of my closest friends on earth. But I want to feel them closer, their warm presence pressing in on me. I want to feel my blood mix with theirs, theirs running together with mine. I feel like I’m close to something. Almosting it. But I’m blocked by something else. I want it to hurt more. I want pain that will blot out everything. I want to scream the obstruction out. I look into the eyes of Suzy-Q, dancing with my reigns, a woman I’ve known and liked for years, someone I wanted to establish a deeper bond with through this ritual but I don’t feel it somehow, at least not as deeply as I want to. I want to feel her blood coursing through my own veins, feel mine coursing through hers. Maybe I should try being a vampire? But at the same time I want to embrace the experience for what it is, not reject it for what its not. Before this, the two most life altering I ever did took place at BR. Both were beatings I took from my friend Joseph Bean, the closest thing I have to a spiritual master. They were both amazing scenes, by far the heaviest I ever endured (both floggings completely shredded my upper back). The first took a week to heal, the second beating took two. Each created an utterly unique emotional response (triumph and catharsis the first time, agonizing sadness the second). They were both turning points, especially the second. Neither produced at all the response I had expected and both took months before I was able to formulate a try at comprehending their meaning. Is this something like what the dancers seek today ? And if so, will they find it?

A grinning Fakir comes flying around the perimeter pounding a Huge base drum with a meaty drumstick. Where did THAT come from I wonder? I think of the energizer bunny and start laughing uncontrollably. A rhythmic chant is rising somewhere off to the left. All the pierceess are hooking their reigns to a central hub and tugging against one another in a wide ring. Cynthia Hurt and Cleo are hooking people in and Fakir has his own famous hooks (yes the ones from his photographs!) planted in his chest, grinning hugely eyes twinkling with mischievous delight. Cynthia kneels below the hub, her own face pierced through by a cheek spear, methodically reaching out for reigns from all comers clips them and attaches that clip to the central ring. It’s an amazing sight. Everyone bouncing together side by joy and catharsis on many of the faces. Deep joyous chanting of a seemingly spontaneous melody. A joyous moment.

And then its gone. Each couple spins away onto their own orbits. Bill, leaning back motionless eyes shut drops to his knees hanging from the ropes Heidi holds overhead. Fifth Angel so far down he could be dancing a glacially slow limbo dance.

And then it comes to an abrupt halt. We are asked to sink to the floor. It’s a strange transition, very sudden, and I want to keep going but I drop to the floor with the others. Cleo’s voice is reading a closing prayer: “half of heaven half of earth…Give us peace grandmother of the sun… let the dawn come.” Fakir speaks next, his voice sonorous and deep, “The circle is open but unbroken. Morgan lord of mercy lord of queer folk...“. He pauses for a moment and lets his voice trill upwards: "thanks fore beeeeing here!” Everyone cracks up. And then my memory goes blank.

Next thing I know, I am disassembling the altar. My hooks are gone, and so is the spear through my puffy cheeks. The portraits of Hindu deities have already disappeared. I snuff the candles, and place them in my canvas sack. The fruitbasket still holds a banana and one Fuji apple. Seized by desire, I take a moment’s pause to devour them both. I finish packing my stuff, pull back the white sheet, and the alter becomes an ordinary bondage table once again, one of dozens that people will be playing on tonight.

As the crowd starts to scatter, I am already spreading the word about the pizza party in the artroom. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. In the lobby there is already a long line for the signing which goes well. Barabara works the credit card machine (the third or fourth time she has stepped in to save the day). The book signing is a sellout, Fakir and Cleo are happy. Last thing, (almost last thing!) is the pizza and wine dinner in the artroom upstairs. The restaurants in New Carrolton all suck. After years of these festivals I haven’t had one good meal out. I wasn’t sure Cleo and Fakir would go for pizza and wine in but they do (Cleo asks if we can get a salad and we do). The dancers, drummers and friends arrive and we have a nice chill. Cleo is happy with her salad. Sarah is utterly exhausted and - wrapped in her blanket - looks like an adorable sickly twelve year old. She becomes so quiet and small that Cleo sits on her by mistake. The videotape of the dance - soon to be erased - is shown and is spellbinding. I make good on my promise to Glenda and repeat my earlier pitch to Fakir and Cleo about participating in the celebrity auction. I’m prepared to drop it right away but Cleo agrees and Fakir, noshing on a slice, nods his head! Glenda will be so happy!

The crowd thins. I leave to run an errand and when I return find Fakir napping and Cleo talking quitely with one of the few remaining guests. The air is cold so I fetch a blanket from my room and cover Fakir up. With nothing left to do I return to the solitary darkness of the bathroom and look into the mirror I inspect the paired bite marks in my chest, and run an exploratory tongue over the puffiness inside my cheeks. You can barely even see the holes in my face.

Well its done. And it went well. Really, really well. A lot of people were deeply affected. And now, exhaustion sets in. Though I’ve really only played a coordinating role, it has been an enormous outlay of work. There were countless moments when it looked like it wouldn't happen at all. Even after their arrival there were times when it seemed certain to fall through A universal good, yes? A lot of people have been touched. Many of them close friends: Andrew, Whitney, Susie-Q, Bill, Erich, Liz, Don and Bernadette… Many new friends made Fifth Angel, Fuschia. Some I hardly had more of a chance to visit with like Kari, and Maggie. And others like Debra and Susan... “helpers” whose names I hadn’t learned or learned and have alreafy forgotten. People I didn’t know before and still don’t. This hurts somehow, an arrow of sorrow through my chest. What are others feeling right now I wonder? I remember the ecstatic surrender on faces like Liz, Andrew, Fifth Angel. And the ferocious transformation of faces like Sarah, Whitney, Deborah, Erich… lives have surely been changed. For others?" Perhaps, no more than a novelty, a good time, another box checked in the perpetual quest for the new. I know how it's affected Sarah and Kathleen. They are both in bed knocked out cold.

And me? I don’t know how I feel. Tired and oddly confused. Is this the miracle? Not an ascent into Nirvana but a conscious awareness of Doubt? Uncertainty? I knew it would be something I didn't expect. I run an informal inventory of what my life has been so far and all the things I imagined I might be by now. A husband? A father? The owner of a big suburban house like my parents? Recognition and commercial success as an artist or writer? The public status of a wise, and responsible man? Instead I think of what I do have: A career I don’t love. Not one, but two girlfriends. A beat up car. An expensive art collection of art unvalued by the mainstream art world. An overinvestment of time and effort in this frenzied, catty, often wonderful world of SM. And instead of sanguine self confidence I am besieged with questions I can’t answer. With all the books I’ve read, and all the subtitled films I’ve seen, and all the friends who regard me as intelligent and wise, why do I feel so bewildered all the time? Why when accompanied by not one, but two,beautiful women can I be so easily moved by a woman I don’t even know named Margo Eve, with pale skin and dark eyes that burn. Why, as I sit hear writing, cant I produce writings that are likable, cool, upbeat, and arousing. Writings my leather brethren would be proud to read and recommend to others. Why can't I produce works that would get me laid? Why am I always inspired to pick at scabs, and hunt for mummified bodies stuffed under the carpet. Lou Reed once said that songwriting is easy; just open a vein and let it flow. I know how he feels. I look at the dark silhouette facing me in the mirror. Forty one and never known love. Have I? Will I ever? Or do I know love now, but not realize that I know? Have the friends who value my friendship misplaced their trust? Am I a better artist than I was in my twenties when it felt like the whole world was ablaze with rage and desire anf fear? How can I teach classes that others seem to value without having any idea what I need myself? Should my SM license be suspended until I know what the fuck I want? Are all these questions the gifts of the circle. Or have I failed once again to do something right?

I remember the ecstatic faces from the dance. Friends, lovers and strangers, everyone celebrating in a deeply personal, utterly unique way Maybe that’s the lesson. There’s no royal road to spiritual growth. No cookie cutter anything. Is there a spiritual bounty in feeling lost, hungry and small? Heaven knows there is spiritual barrenness in smugness and overconfidence. Didn't Christ, himself, go to the desert, the embodiment of want, to clarify, purify and sanctify himself?

I am too tired to think, so I accept the gift the circle seems to have provided. Starring at the hulking shadow facing me, I manage a smile. Alright then. Viva uncertainty. Long live doubt. Let me know, always, that I do not know. Perhaps that will be the souvenir I take from this weekend as I venture back into the daylight world.

Later, the night will find me in a more festive mood. Kathleen, exhausted by the ordeal will sleep. Sarah and I will escort Fakir and Cleo to the celebrity auctions where they will raise five hundred bucks for a good cause. In the auction I will buy Cleo and tomorrow we will share a fun bratty energetic resistance scene. My friend Eve (not the drummer but my friend Alan’s girlfriend) will purchase Fakir and have a scene as subtle lovely and transformative as the circle was today. Surrounded by a clutch of pretty women I will propose to Fakir that we take them all down to the dungeon and work wicked cures on their bodies. To my delight he will agree! As I unpack, he will stop me to inspect my toybag and describe it as "unusual" (what higher praise from Fakir?) He will spank Sarah’s plush ass to a crimson blush and Sarah will show it off proudly, raising her short skirt to display herself for all who wish to see. When I suggest she get Fakir to autograph it with a Sharpy he actually does! The Polaroid of her autographed bottom sits on my desk at home. It will be a fun night filled with the more familiar energies of topspace, victory, conquest and the spoils of war. Physical joy, emotional fusion, friendships new and old. An evening I will remember for a long time.

But now, with no immediate tasks demanding my attention, fatigue and darkness overwhelms me. With consciousness leaking like blood from an open vein I cuddle between Kathleen and Sarah and sink, once again, into dream filled purgatorial sleep.

2002

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