Lessons from fire

January flu. The fever isn’t that hot. I’ve had worse. But the aching, my chest, my back, my gut, my arms, my legs, my head. Every thing hurts. The fever is burning me alive. I writhe in my bed, tossing from side to side. First the covers on, then off. Then I’m up, walking around the chilly Kiva. Then back in the bed. The contrasts, hot to cold, cold to hot, seem to help me endure this ordeal. 36 hours it lasts. The cold sweat signaling the end of the fever is a welcome relief.

I know how I caught this flu. Almost by intention, not caring for myself, eating too many sweets, not sleeping, stressing about changes, about not enough, about what if’s and when will’s and why me’s. Learning to care for myself is still a new thing. My adolescent rebellion has lasted far too long, resurging during the last decade of my life. Rebelling against all I know I’m supposed to do. All to hurt – myself. To garner sympathy? Attention? Pity? Or simply to numb. To turn myself off. My dreams long thwarted. My hopes. My passion. Grown cold in its tomb. Buried. Lost. Forgotten.

Until an illness four years ago woke me up from a long slumber. Same condition: flu, then bronchitis. Weeks in bed. Then upon waking, my legs seemed to twitch. They were telling me they wanted something: to ride my bicycle. So I did. Picked up my cycling again, touring within months. Took that first tour in a decade, down the coast to Los Angeles. Like Rip Van Winkle, I found myself almost dazed and confused: where am I, how long have I been sleeping? What has changed? I kept riding, hoping the answers would come.

Four years, four bicycle tours later, I’ve returned. Back to the mountain retreat, the watershed. Back to the cob Kiva I build in my last passionate outburst, year 2000. I wanted to build a sanctuary, a place for healing. Then promptly left it, swept up into the restaurant project, disappearing into the stress and chaos and addiction that threatened everything I held dear. Four years of cycling, 14,000 miles. I stumble home to Corvallis again. Reluctantly. But also inevitably. I know what I need to do. I know where I need to be.

Back to the Kiva, cracked cob in places so large my arm fits through the wall. A night at first, sleeping in front of the hearth. Then I fire the rocket stove, a mass heater which puts out more heat than any wood stove ever could, and stores the heat in the cob floor to be released for hours after the flame dies. I am entranced, experiencing almost for the first time, this massive building of my own creation. Warm and cozy against the chill mountain air. Rain falls above the roof, making the sense of warmth an even greater blessing.

I’m still running back and forth, getting swept up in the restaurant drama, wandering around town, wondering who I am, where I’m supposed to go. Each night, I drive back up the hill to the watershed. Fire up the rocket, feel the heat almost immediately cut through the chill, pant legs warming quickly by the drum of the stove. When I lay back in the loft bed, a deep rest falls upon me, a comfort I’ve missed. For so long.

Loneliness still visits, but not as sharply. I’m learning to enjoy my own company. To belong in my own space. And to be wary of my impetus to seek companions who may not honor the solitude as I do. I already have sent away a tenant who was invasive, caught it before it became a problem. When friends have come, I feel a welcoming within me, that I can be the host I never could be at the restaurant.

The fire is blazing in the rocket heater. Lessons are sharp, and long. Wood is a precious resource, something the timber barons who stripped the land at the bottom of the road cannot understand. Trees to them are only profit margins, maximized by destroying entire forests and ecosystems in a swath of clearcuts.

Building a fire takes care, just as building a house, building a career, rebuilding a life. The fire needs air. And, ironically, heat. If the wood is too far apart, the fire cools and dies. If the wood is stacked too close together, the fire smothers from lack of air. I resist imposing this metaphor onto life, relationship, self. But obviously true. We all need heat, and air, and just the right amount of closeness. And not too much of a good thing. Or I may end up flat on my back burning up with fever again.

The errors of past relationships visit, constantly reminding me, questioning me, prodding me, goading me. When will I open my heart again? Become intimate again? Without burning up. Without withdrawing so much I shiver from the cold. Without opening up too much, so that I suffer from overexposure. I long for the companionship, for the blazing passion, for the warm cuddle of bodies together, for the clarity and connection of shared stories, emotions, dreams, space. I see the path ahead, revealing itself. Yes, I can begin to walk forward again.

Another piece of wood on the fire. Crackling, hissing, blazing, glowing. Heat warms my face. My heart is waking. My passion returning. The fire within.

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