I can see why the discovery of fire was such a watershed moment in the history of mankind.
Not only for its life-giving (or preserving) qualities – warmth, cooked meat, and protection from becoming raw meat are all good things – but for its mesmerizing abilities.
In the past few years, having moved to the country, built a fire pit, and acquired a wood stove, I’ve spent a lot of time staring into flames. There is a certain magic to the seemingly alive tongues of fire; the dance, the movement, the consumption of material, the production of charcoal, the transformation to ash.
It also teaches a lot of life lessons.
Building and maintaining a fire takes a lot of work. Steady attention. Checking in. One cannot get distracted or fully immersed in some other project. Until it’s rip-roaring, your job is the fire. You must focus. You must settle into that state of mind that allows you to do the task at hand and nothing else. It’s quite freeing, actually. Poking, prodding, turning, and nudging – worries, urges, outstanding obligations fall away in the tedious, tactile action.
As does the guilt that usually accompanies the exclusion of other tasks. While only focusing on one, this task is keeping your family, your house warm. It is providing a comfort, a safe haven – it’s even saving on fuel costs 😉
Maintaining a fire teaches other lessons as well that aren’t as easy or pleasurable to learn.
Sometimes you don’t need to throw another log on the fire; sometimes you need to shut the door and watch the roiling smoke. Watch until it produces enough heat on its own. Watch until the flames burst forth seemingly spontaneously – only they don’t. There’s lots of quiet build-up and warming-up that lead to it – all without your interference.
The agonizing part is knowing when these moments of holding back are needed. Will you lose the fire altogether if you mistake its need? Or will you squander the heat by opening the door and fiddling with it too much?
This give-and-take, this mental questioning seems like the opposite of the mindless joy in minding a fire I described above. But only if you let it be. Through practice, through trial and error, such decisions will come instinctually. And focusing on the fire is always better than obsessing over the machinations of your own life.
Sitting by the fire, the warmest, coziest spot in the house with a cup of tea, has become my favorite spot to be, thing to do (or not do) on these cold winter days. The voice in the back of my mind tries to tell me I’ve fallen into a pattern of leisure that is not good. But a louder, happier part of me thanks those prehistoric peoples who discovered the wisdom of the flames and learned from it.