The Working Waterfront

Rituals with fire and water

A major age milestone is marked appropriately

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2021-07-21
Last Modified 2021-07-21

So I turned 40.

This was inevitable, and quite predictable—having been born in 1981, I would certainly turn 40 in 2021. But it’s still strange to say: I am now a 40-year-old woman.

I remember when turning 40 was an occasion for doom and gloom. My father’s surprise 40th birthday party at his OB/GYN practice was marked with black balloons, cards sporting an “over the hill” sentiment, and a woman in a gorilla suit.

Fortunately, that attitude seems to have faded away. Turning 40 is a reason for joy—I’ve made it this far! Plus, most of my friends are vaccinated and the weather was nice enough for an outdoor party. I knew exactly how I wanted to celebrate my own 40th birthday. I wanted to light a giant number 40 on fire and run into the sea.

The 40 is welded out of rebar, and each new celebrant wraps it in fabric, douses it with lamp oil, and sets it aflame.

I can’t remotely take credit for the giant 40. Some friends started the tradition a while ago and brought it with them when they moved to the island. The 40 is welded out of rebar, and each new celebrant wraps it in fabric, douses it with lamp oil, and sets it aflame.

But as members of our friend group hit this milestone, it’s seeing a lot of use. As for running into the sea, I’ve written quite a bit about my relationship with cold water swimming. It just seemed right.

Rituals of fire and water are common across cultures. Jewish women may enter a Mikvah, or natural pool of water, in a cleansing ritual. We toss bread or pebbles into the water in the ritual of tashlich, to cast off the sins of the previous year.

Fire has strong implications of transformation and release, and fire rituals appear in many indigenous cultures, among others.

It was a gorgeous day, unseasonably warm. Technically I had been 40 for 24 hours already—my actual birthday had been somewhat chillier, and I had celebrated with one vaccinated visitor, Bill, Penrose, a tray of enchiladas, and a screening of Sisters with Transistors.

For my party, several of my good friends, old and new, gathered at my favorite beach. We had a grill, people brought their most delicious party foods, kids clambered over rocks together. We talked in small groups, marveling at the appearance of the bottom half of each others’ faces, grateful for the CDC’s recent advice that outdoor gatherings were pretty darn safe.

At 6 p.m. all the guests had arrived. I stripped off my outer layers, leaving on my tank suit and some neoprene booties and got everyone’s attention. I lit the giant number 40 on fire and then ran into the sea, just as I had imagined. (An intrepid student of mine, a fellow cold-water enthusiast, was the only one to join me.)

The water was cool, but not icy. A nearly full super moon glowed against the sky, whose bright blue was barely beginning to fade into twilight. I ducked under the water, then swam back to shore.

We stayed until dark, lighting bonfires below the high tide line, eating the delicious hazelnut chocolate cake my friend had made me. One of the kids found a mostly complete deer vertebrae.

A toddler stripped off her clothes and made for the ocean. I put on the warm layers I had brought as the numbness of the water gave way to shivering and stood next to one of the bonfires, enjoying the sound of friends conversing and kids forming their own little fire- and water-based civilizations.

Although the pandemic isn’t over—not even on North Haven—that night felt like a turning point. And as I enter my fifth decade, I can be intentional about the things I want to release and cast off, and the things I want to carry with me.

Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven where she teaches music, theater, and writing and plays in the band Bait Bag.