Setting Your Life On Fire
I squirmed comfortably but conscientiously on the couch wrapped in a shell of down blanket, torn between wanting to stay so sweetly held in this tender moment, and knowing that the morning was ever crawling towards me across the horizon. There was too much to do tomorrow. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t sacrifice a night’s sleep for a day’s work. To stay or to go, to sacrifice intimacy or productivity, staring at the fire he’d built in the fireplace to dry my rain-soaked clothes and warm my tired bones.
“Did it ever occur to you” he asked, with a respectful pause, “that you have to live before you have anything to write about?”
If only he knew, I thought to myself, that even now, I am doing just that. I am facing the flame of what to let smolder out. Even now I am grappling with what matters most, and deserves the most stoking: my contribution to the world (my work), or that which I receive inward (love). They are both being put to the fire.
But my mind climbed to stand atop the idea, and realized: it’s as if the whole world is on fire:
Literally: Australian brush fires. This fireplace. The open fire someone cooks at tonight.
Socially: the campaigns. The constant debates of rights and language. Semantics and the future.
Metaphysically: me, my work, my latest commitment to let burn brighter that which I need - and no longer need in my life. It’s all being called into question as to what needs to burn off and go and what needs to be fueled to burn more fervently and thrive.
Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.
And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Fire frees these plants from the competition delivered by invasive weeds and eliminates diseases or droves of insects that may have been causing damage to old growth. Wildflowers begin to bloom abundantly.
First: Look to Yourself. Burn off Expectations and norms
There is a constant concept in our lives that we must continually work to burn off. And not passively, but powerfully. That is: the mile-markers of accepted adulthood. These social normals inhibit our ability to be authentic, individual, and creatively offer our unique talents to the human race. For me, there was an age I hoped to have found my partner, and be settled down. There was a time and place and even a specific article I had aspired to be my biggest accomplishment. There were a million moments and milestones that I or society had pressured upon my life that needed to burn off if ever I was to become and contribute more, ground-breaking original thought. Being successful or having a certain amount of money by a certain age didn’t help, it hindered. They had to go. These expectations had become dead wood I was carrying around in the form of guilt and shame for not having met the mark.
Under the brush of this fire I always find more independence, more self awareness, and happily: the invitation to be more playful in my life. Being single in my 30’s and living alone means the expectations can be only my own. And I’m able to live in a world where success is marked by how exploratory and brave I was in my day’s artistic work, and how honest I was with the people around me.
My work requires undulated presence in the living of my own life, because my life is what I write about. It requires a keen eye, especially on the most painful moments when either the world is burning or something within me is breaking. If I am to shy away from that, I have nothing to write. If I am to turn a blind eye to the pain, I’ll have nothing to reveal from within it. Just as a fire in the forest reveals the more fertile soil, so I am charged with burning conventions of myself and my humanness to the ground so as to expose what makes me, and my story, just like yours. That’s how writer and reader connect.
Second: Look To Others. Burn off toxic ties and poisoned bonds
Because you are linked to someone does not guarantee that the bonds which tie you are healthy.
As individuals and sentient human beings, we crave connection. Yet we must be careful in the relationships we forge and the materials that forge them. Relationships require trust, acknowledgement, mutual respect. And unfortunately, there will be friends and lovers in life that simply do not serve us because our companion is not able to accept our awakening, or acknowledge the needs of our soul. We may call these ‘toxic’ or the person ‘needy’, or a myriad of other terms. The label isn’t important. What matters is how willing we are to accept temporary loneliness rather than let these people burn through us, exhausting our resources and taking over our lives. When put to the fire, when compared to the list of what you bring to the table and require in return, is the relationship in your life serving to better you? There were a few in mine that did not. And painfully, I had to let them burn off. One of which was a friendship that demanded more time and attention than I had to give. I put it to the fire of self respect: standing up for myself and saying what was acceptable and not to ask of me, and found it combusted like cheap gasoline at the flick of match. It easily, quickly, and nearly painlessly burned itself into nothingness, leaving space for me to do what I needed.
Last: Look Globally. Burn off complacency in the name of pushing society forward
There is the fire of character that burns actively. In a commitment to be more honest, more forthright, and accept the consequences of it (as a fire does, not worried about what the end result will look like but instead hell-bent on consuming what is flammable and weak), I took a hard look at my life. Was I living with the integrity and honesty of self? Was I saying what I really felt to colleagues, friends, mentors? Was my lifestyle - my vices, my schedule, my habits - fitting that which I felt was my purpose to create? It is often in yogic traditions that the spirit of universal self be represented by flame: candle, an inward glowing light, a plethora of fire-based imagery. There is a divine reason for this.
All this presents a question of moral significance that pertains to the brevity of life itself. Our time alive is finite. As my loving companion asked, was I living fully? It is easy for me and anyone to hide behind false productivity as self assurance. What about when it’s time to abandon that sense of responsibility in the name of truly living? Experiencing our human selves and the moments around us in their full magnitude, surrendering to the enrapturing heat of them? In this context, was I allowing myself to be loved, was I making space in my life for another person, was I opening up to this even if it burned me and scared me or even went down in flames??
There are destructive forces in life - like fire, like love - that are worth whatever damage they cause, because they make us more alive. Because even if they are to burn everything we think we know down to the ground, it is only then we can rise like a phoenix awakened, anew.
But be careful...not to be too stubborn.
What shows a person’s strength isn’t their ability to throw into the fire what they no longer need. Anyone stubborn enough can throw away people, things, and run away from problems. What is much braver and requires a more careful eye is acknowledging which fires to let burn all the more rampantly.
There’s a fine line in the secrets of this life experience that is truly spectacular: when something is dangerous, maybe even slightly harmful, but makes us better, braver and stronger for obliging it. I can only hope that is what he meant.
To follow the friend into the after hours when you should be at home resting for a big day tomorrow. Taking that last swig before you finally say what moments ago you doubted you had the strength to admit. Crying, vehemently, into the pillow in the moment you realize it’s never going to happen and you have to stop trying (whatever that ‘it’ might be). Quit the job with no backup plan. Buy the plane ticket with no return ticket. Tell them off. Burn the bridge. Walk away. RUN away. With no explanation.
I opened the side of the blanket, inviting him into it’s warm cave, and cuddled up deeper into him, feeling him breathe and accepting that it would be 4:00am before I slept. And tomorrow’s words would surely suffer. But the words that would come eventually from this night would be all the sweeter and more pleasing. This was a fire that was worth letting burn till it smoldered out itself.
I promise you:
it will sell your life incredibly short to not discover the dark magic of distraction.
If a person, a place, an act is destructive but helpfully so - if they drive you into a poetic madness, or resurrect from you something torrid and beautiful, or transport you away from time and place into immersive curiosity, then by God: pour gasoline on them. Let those distractions ignite in you a fire that burns off all else till you must rise like a phoenix from the confines of your own identity. Feed them and indulge them you until you are so exhausted yet so renewed, you cannot help but transform into a better artist for it. When they arrive: surrender your plan. Accept the invitation to sojourn. And let them dance with you.
Any other form of distraction...is wasted time.