by Susan Cruickshank
Newfane Hill is the magical place that I come to write and house sit twice a year. As I began my morning writing, fingers poised on keyboard —ready for the word gods to whisper— the cold of the house moved into my hands, leaving them stiff and slow.
I knew I would have to build a fire.
Fire is primal and raw, powerful and mesmerizing— and for me, an elusive, antagonistic teacher whose wisdom has not been shared easily. I can light a fire; I can get it going, but then….smoke.
I would have given up my pursuit of fire building long ago if my need for a healthy fire hadn’t been critical for daily life. Forging a relationship with living flame has been an ongoing effort. But as my commitment has deepened with this living light, I have discovered that its lessons have permeated other parts of life and illuminated them as well.
Fire-Starting Wisdom for Everyday Life
After the flash of fire and the subsequent excitement that comes from bits of kindling and newspaper burning up in a fireworks display, no matter how tempting it might be to throw a giant log on the flames and go make coffee, don’t.
The flames of the fire, a misleading distraction to the unrefined eye, only make it look like a fire is established. Bright, superficial flames do not mean the heat of the fire has pierced the interior of the log and taken hold, which is the key to success.
In life, experience has taught me that anything which looks grand and slick often ends up not to be, and conversely, the things which don’t look like much at the beginning are what have proven to be my greatest treasures. Fire has reaffirmed this lesson.
Along with my premature practice of throwing large stumps of wood on my fledgling fire, I also would add too many logs at once. My poor fire had no room to breathe, no space to circulate oxygen, to bring fuel to its flames because I had placed my logs too close together.
Every aspect of life requires air and space to grow. No writing project, relationship, or garden carrot can hope to become the best version of itself without space and oxygen.
The younger version of myself, thought if close was good, then closer was better, and if a little was good, why not have the whole thing? Apparently, I brought this ‘more is better’ attitude to my fire building. I had yet to learn, in this different arena, that space and air are critical ingredients to an effective outcome.
The first time I house sat every morning I would clean out the hearth. Ash and bits of charcoal, even live embers, everything was cleaned out. I left nothing but the cinder blocks, which cooled rapidly without anything to cover them. The hearth wasn’t clean enough to eat off, but it was close.
It seems silly now, but my fear of out of control fire burning down the house, was real. Last winter when I returned to Vermont, it occurred to me to do it differently.
One morning as I was scooping the remains of the previous night’s fire into the ash bucket, my eye caught the glow of a live ember. Seeing the glowing coal, I considered that it might be a good idea to remove the ash and leave the embers.
I left the wood stove door open a crack while I went outside to dispose of the ash to give my baby coals some air. I felt panicky the entire time I was gone, worried that the wood stove doors would burst open because of backdraft and by the time I returned, the house would be engulfed in flames. I was gone less than a minute.
When I returned with the ash bucket, my little coals were glowing back at me, warm and cheerful, ready to be fed a healthy portion of kindling.
Fire taught me that if I wanted to make something easier, I would have to make myself a little uncomfortable. I must feel the fear of uncertainty and take a risk.
The symbolism of the embers was also a rich find. These nuggets of heat, a representation of the past, the concentrated reductions of a person’s history, have the potential to help us in our now, if we remember to bring their teachings with us.
However, if we throw them out, then the pain and joy of experience is all for naught, meaningless and cruel. But, if instead we carefully fish these tiny embers out from the ash of our past and breathe life into them, feeding them a bit of emotional kindling too, they will bring light and warmth to our present moment.
My most recent discovery has been the benefit of ash. I have returned to Vermont to do another two month’s house sit.
The householders had not shared my pristine care of the hearth and so on a cold evening when I went to build a fire, I discovered it was filled with the ash of long ago heat. My discovery was due to my laziness — never underestimate the value of a little lazy. It’s often misunderstood, but the seeds of creative juice sit in the silence and inactivity.
My fires are typically finicky at the beginning, like a colicky infant needing to be held and fed slowly. Ash, however, has brought a whole new dimension to my fire-starting skills.
As I went to start my evening fire, I could feel my gut tighten in anticipation for another stretching experience. I crunched up newspaper and laid a bunch of wood chips on top, bigger pieces of kindling and smaller logs in the ready, to be added in sequence. I lit the match, kaasshhh, and in no time the fire was ready for the kindling and then, holding my breath, the fire accepted the small logs and then the larger ones. Voilà! I had a roaring fire.
It was the ash; it had to be the ash. All of this time I was cleaning out the very ingredients I needed to make a successful fire. The irony was not lost as the warmth from my newly built fire radiated out to warm me. My fire teacher had revealed another gem for life.
It had made sense to me that we bring the positive aspects of our past forward, our shiny embers, but to bring our ash? Yes, it is absolutely necessary. The pain, the junk of yesterday that we have burned up and transformed, into the dust of experience. It is this dust, the stuff of our biggest heartbreaks that is the key to bringing life into our present, rich with vitality, that doesn’t take ages to build.
A clean hearth may look pretty, but it’s cold. True, it will eventually produce a roaring fire, but it takes a long time. Better to embrace our past’s pain and find the courage, the strength, and the chutzpa to actually incorporate it, not siphon it off and use it as a lifetime excuse. But mix it into our present, those places where we want to cringe, bow our heads in shame and forget, if we bring it — strong and brave to our now — it is fire.
I still like a clean hearth, but discovering the benefits that ash brings, creates a balance to my fire making that wasn’t there before.
The fire is now pumping out heat, and the tip of my nose is no longer cold. I have a feeling that my fire teacher has other lessons to reveal and I’m looking forward to discovering what they are.