It is still winter here in upstate New York, in every direction. Winter is a constant houseguest and topic of conversation and so I continue to make fire after fire after fire, because when it’s cold outside, what else is there to do but build a fire, make heat, draw close.
Some nights friends are here, and we spend long evenings watching Rick and Carl fend off zombies, Lady Mary navigate a life without Matthew, and Sherlock be his amazing self and tease us to wait another 24 months before we can see his face again. Or we sit still and talk for hours about how life is changing and we cannot stop it, and the fire roars quietly behind us, the wood snapping and popping with each new rise of flame. Some evenings it’s just myself, the quiet of a book, the lazy sounds of Billie Holiday and a red and black flannel blanket covering every appendage.
But every night, it ends the same. It’s part of shutting down the house in the winter. Pull apart the smoldering logs. Shake out the flames. Listen to the coals as they settle on the cool brick. I cannot help but notice, most nights as I follow this routine, there is music in the fire. I hear it in the wood coals when I’m kneeling close to the logs. The small red chunks of wood are glowing bright, and they ring with the sound of glass bells.
George Meredith said, “Not till the fire is dying in the grate, look we for any kinship with the stars.” And yes, quite right, I say. As the fire is dying, it feels a bit like the heavens here on earth. I think I begin to understand the end of things and other mysteries glow red in my living room.
Maybe that’s why I am so taken with the fire, the dying ones at that (which really, aren’t all fires living and breathing, then dying in some way?). The sound of the heat. The breaking of the tinder. The music of the consummation. The story of life lived and warmed through the heat. The soundtrack of time. The color of caretaking and story nurturing. It’s all here, fireside.
Last night, my daughter and I stood in the snow-covered driveway and stared at the stars. All of these billions of tiny lights, dying fires, shining toward our small planet. She pulls at my arm to just stop and look up, so I do. While the cold bites at my cheeks, I know my place here. I know my place under this sky. I know that millions of people sit under these stars, and that makes us all the same in so many ways. I can say what I want about theology, doctrine, justice, right and wrong and so on, but at the end of the day, when the fires are dying, it’s clear we were all created by One and placed on one earth, under one sky, on one planet. Not one of us will ever have the upper hand in knowledge, in insight, in truth. The perspective of the Heavens levels our playing field, indefinitely. There is only one man who came to this earth, and was not entirely made up of the stuff of this earth, and it’s Him that I want to get my fire from. It’s His light I want to see in the stars; his stories that were told fireside that I want to find in my own.
In the stars, I see story.
In the fire, I feel kinship.
Wasn’t it just last summer, when we sat around the fire pit and our voices disappeared into the dark blue sky, along with the orange sparks that splashed into the star-lit ocean? Wasn’t it the Adirondack pines that sheltered us as we listened to music and he laughed, and she sighed, and they drew closer, and we let the flames simmer down until sleep called us? Wasn’t it the heat of August when we circled around and asked big questions, knocked sticks against the stone and pulled out some pieces of ourselves there under the arc of earth? Hasn’t it always been the fire we surround, the fire within us that draws us to each other, that burns us, that reveals us, that rings within us the fragile bells of need, love, fear and doubt with one another?
I’m carrying a story within me today. Stacking wood, crumpling up words, lighting kindling, and breathing into the places where it’s starting to get hot. I told a friend recently that sometimes I feel less-than because I don’t write about theology, major cultural issues, or hot topics that bring the “traffic”.
“I don’t know how to be that kind of writer,” I told her over breakfast. I snapped my bacon in half and shrugged, feeling defeated by the whole thing. “I only know how to tell stories — my stories, the ones I see, the ones I hear. That’s all I know.”
She shrugged, “You’ve never endeavored to be any other kind of writer. I don’t know why that suddenly bothers you now.” And it’s true. I feel the fire in me come alive only when I sit knee to knee with friends and strangers and share the things that are common to all of us. Fireside, whether under this sky or by the pit, is where we’re all the same and we’re all in need of the One who lives between both worlds.
Maybe the best stories and things we can tell and write are not unlike the hottest flames. The truest ones burn hot and clear. The ones that go in deepest and catch us on fire with them are the ones that have been tended, stoked, watched. Patiently built, they catch and beg for community and someone to draw near to share. They reach toward the heavens and find that Heaven has been sending the same fire back for countless ages, and we find in the middle the perfect place to be. We find here that the best and truest things are the ones made of dust and Heaven and in that, I see Jesus and the Gospel.
In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “A friend of mine, a fine story-teller, remarked to me, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.”
And maybe this is where I find my place. Not trying to figure it all out, but finding Jesus under this sky of fire and at the fireside.