Monday, February 28, 2011

My History of Fire

What qualifies me to talk about it? Perhaps it is the fear of it--a fear I have for no good reason. If only my fears were reasonable. There weren't any childhood fires. That's not exactly true. If memory serves, there were conflagrations, but they weren't of the actual sort. Let's just say, I never got burned.

Sure I played with it. Who wouldn't? It's so beautiful, burning like anger, burning like hunger. Burning like. Burning like.

Burning like a burning, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes I held the magnifying glass. Other times, I was the ant feeling the heat.

Most of the time, however, I played it safe. I kept it contained. In the stomach pit. In the fireplace. A letter charred and sifting to the sink's bottom.

But we don't always burn our letters in sinks. Sometimes you need a forest. Tender tinder of trees, swaying, and a breeze to help it along.

That's not my story.

In order, here's what I knew to be true: Pine pitch chews like gum. You can't wield the axe; you can only look at the axe. It's your job to stack. Don't bother a sliver; it will work its way out eventually. On the mantle, there's a starburst clock that radiates its own heat. The Sunday paper may be thick, but it's the daily doings that catch best. If it isn't old enough, it will smoke. Pull the damper out, or it will smoke. You can buy powder that teases a rainbow from fire. When the electricity goes out, the fire is the only God you pray to. Chimneys eat smoke and send it skyward, so long as it burns clean. The smoke will break from the house like an SOS. There are things that look like smoke but aren't, like the queen bee and her minions who abandoned their meadow boxes. The fire smelled like honey for awile. The volunteer fire department will burn the chicken coop down and then fight it for the practice.

And then you grow up.

Fires are few and inbetween. You live your days in front of a furnace. Forced air heat. Forced.
You romanticize it. In your mind, the campfire blazes, and every ember pop is an opportunity. You think you love the one who can build a good fire. The skies grow dark every summer. You can't breathe. You're told not to go outside. You are in a valley, and you are fully engulfed with the idea of being swept away by fire. But the fires are burning miles away. The lingo is acres, helicopters, buckets, retardant...and then it's gone.

The fires you know now are the stuff of 6 o'clock news. They are neat. The fires fit tidy between sports and weather. Hardly anyone ever dies. You light candles with an apparatus that may as well be a third arm. It keeps the flame far from you. Fire comes in a jar, sits obediantly on the wick, and sizzles out when you're sloppy with the bath water. You don't know when you felt a burn last, and because the mind likes it and knows it more than the skin, you fear it.

Your heart beats faster when something on the burner begins to smoke. The alarm sounds, and you beat it with your open palm and scream, "Shut it! Shut it! Shut it!" How do you extinguish it? Salt? Throw a towel over it? Water? Water and oil don't mix. Don't give it air. Yet it's over before you need to choose. It's always over before your knowledge is tested.

And what of that fear that makes you go back and check over and over the burner that is always
never on?


Maya Angelou said anger is fire.

Winston Churchill invoked fire when he said anything that attempted to fly should be set on fire.

Thomas Jefferson used fire as a means of talking about war and being tenacious about defending ourselves: "If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it."

Benjamin Franklin realized that what makes a home is "food and fire for the mind as well as the body."

He also found fire a necessity in terms of finding a life partner: "Never take a wife till thou hast a house (and a fire) to put her in."

"Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself," said Mark Twain.

"As soon go kindle fire with snow, as seek to quench the fire of love with words. " --William Shakespeare.

Mae West said, "A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him. "

"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice." --Robert Frost

George Washington said, "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

"Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience. " --George Washington

Napoleon knew of trial by fire. He said, "When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes."

Emily Dickinson used fire as a means of describing poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.

T.S. Eliot knows that history and its ghosts speak louder than the living: "The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living."

"We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it. " --Tennessee Williams

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." --Victor Hugo

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. "

"Every idea is an incitement... Eloquence may set fire to reason. " --Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. " Jorge Luis Borges

"Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell," said Joan Crawford

"So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us." --Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard

"To cause the face to appear in a mass of flame make use of the following: mix together thoroughly petroleum, lard, mutton tallow and quick lime. Distill this over a charcoal fire, and the liquid which results can be burned on the face without harm." --Harry Houdini

"Eating coals of fire has always been one of the sensational feats of the Fire Kings, as it is quite generally known that charcoal burns with an extremely intense heat." --Harry Houdini

"Fire has always been and, seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of the elements." --Harry Houdini

"I'm cautious about using fire. It can become theatrical. I am interested in the heat, not the flames." --Andy Goldsworthy