Controlling the Burn



There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. ― Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

Who lit the match? It must have been my father. He kept wooden matches in a rusty coffee can under the sink with the mousetraps and steel wool. I can’t remember, but who else would know how to safely burn the tinder-stalks and desiccated seedpods dried in the ditches, the craggy stems and root remainders of cultivated grain? He came up on the land; certainly he knew best how to tame it.

Our family’s land stretched from the dark woods and orchards that circled the farmstead down the gravel road to the Lutheran church our ancestors built three generations before. Norwegian settlers. Their belongings packed into wooden trunks like the one sitting Quasimodo-like against a backwall of our basement. No doubt every year there had been miles of burning to do when there were yet no machines to tend the overgrowth, so the farmers burned the fields to prepare for winter. Now we kept our burning to the ditches. I remember us doing so up until my mother died; after, my father, devoured by grief, struggled to caretake us, let alone the wild weeds.

Any Minnesota fall, it wasn’t uncommon to see clouds of dark smoke polluting the blue-skied horizon, farmers controlling the countryside by any means necessary. Fire was more efficient than mowing. Fire was safer than poison. Still, I had been taught that fire was inherently wild.

My father always chose a day when the wind was calm. When the land was dry and the weeds were high. When the risk was low. When that day came, in my no-doubt confabulated memory, my mother, brother, and I stood at the head of the long gravel drive and watched as the fire moved like water along the ditch, believing with a fervent faith that the fire could be put back into the genie’s bottle if it became disobedient. We felt heat and heard crackle.

I expected flames, but instead the dried brush turned black inch by inch, embers scattered in its path like small spring flowers, less a fire than a creeping spread, a greedy tide. Still it seemed to me a precarious undertaking, an event that might end in a mad dash to the house. Maybe I had heard too many stories about engulfed California, but deliberately setting a fire seemed exactly the wrong thing to do.


After Hiroshima dead bodies were found of people who had been wearing printed kimonos when they were killed. The bomb had melted the cloth on their bodies, but the design on the kimonos remained imprinted in the flesh. ― Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

The night after his birth, after everyone had gone home to their beds, and my hospital room was empty, it seemed blasphemous to turn on the television to quell the church-like quiet. I had been awake for nearly 36 hours. And I didn’t know what to do with the inconsolably crying baby I held in my hands, too stubborn or prideful to call a nurse. Sure, I’d held babies. I hadn’t been one of those expecting mothers afraid she wouldn’t be able to care for her own. But at that moment, he was wailing, and, it felt to me, burning.

I was shocked by the heat of his body, the heat absolutely emanating from his still beet-skinned body, burning my hands, burning the skin on my palms, his own self a fireball. I can look at my hands just now and feel exactly what I felt that night, how scorched, how branded, how I knew then, with certainty, that he was me even after he’d exited my body. Some people call the essence of a person their soul, but he was a whole being of newly-born electricity, lightning in a body.

In time, I would know that burning sensation in a different way. I would feel the heat of his skin on the palms of my hands, on the tips of my fingers, when he was in the throes of a seizure, as his temperature escalated and he dropped farther and farther away from me, as his legs twitched and his mouth chewed, as his lips turned blue as smoke, the corners of his lips adorned with beads of saliva, as his brain responded to some invisible chaos, momentarily shutting down the power like we might reboot a modem. Not the proper medical terminology, but coping is never scientific.

His temperature became the harbinger of emergency; my anticipatory fear threatening flashover. My baby’s brain didn’t behave, riffed wildly on the hypothalamus’ wise method of burning away a virus, making the body better. In fact the antithesis: the seizures likely burned away some of his brain over time, maybe even some of his days. Again, what do I know of neurology, but it seems simple enough that malfunction leads to more malfunction. We used drugs to tamp the fire when it burned but we could do nothing to prevent the spark from catching.

Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. Luke 17:33

Imagine this: I am a mystic. I have muttered prayers, and served the poor, tithed my savings and preached my faith to anyone who would stop to listen, and even those who would not. I wear a hairshirt hung with sharp stones to remind me I am of this depraved world, not a blessed being. Each repeated scrape draws blood. I drip with it. I shave my head to remind me of my humility. I refuse food because I do not deserve to be nourished. All the while, I beg–my mouth a constant raving motor: God make my son whole. I beg for him to gain the life he will never know he will never have.

I grind my need between my teeth until it is pulp for a poultice I might spread on my infected heart. Hope pumps in as pure as a cool hand on a flushed cheek, pumps back out as a toxic despair. A civil war rages within me, hope and despair, and I am made sick by the fury of my love. Still, there is no salvation. The seizures happen. My inadequacies mount. My prayers benign. My fear, it raves.

Suddenly, all becomes clear: I have not been selfless enough. I desire a miracle for my son, yes, but I have shown insufficient sacrifice. I still want too much of a life for myself. I am no St. Catherine of Siena, who believed she’d given her physical heart to God and now walked the earth without one. Maybe I am instead Lot’s wife asked to sacrifice what came before, but like me, her nostalgia won out, her wanting won out. She could not help but look behind. Lot’s wife was never given a name, so I will give her mine. In wishing my son healed, I too am longing for what has since passed. Yes, I want him better. I want him more. I want him all. What I don’t say, but God knows, is maybe, sometimes, I don’t want him at all.

But I will not turn to salt, instead to ash. While some saints calmly set themselves aflame in the name of faith, St. Catherine and other such mystics were said to be “devoured by an unassuageable fever for suffering.”1 My self-immolation will be fired not by gasoline but by inextinguishable guilt. As the mother who birthed this child, there was surely something I could have, should have, might have done differently that would have changed the course of his history. Absolution will never be mine. No phoenix, my ashes will take flight on the wind.


“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” ― St. Catherine of Sienna, patron saint of fire prevention

I notice my age most obviously in my hands. As I type, as I cut vegetables, as I stroke my dog’s fur, as I dress my child. The skin over my knuckles puckers now, my nails peel, and the scars from IVs and cat scratches and glass shards are a scroll of memories. My hands are not simply my hands; they exhibit evidence. Soon, they will display age spots on the backs of my hands where, when I was young, my mother placed pennies while I practiced piano. I have gotten old while I was busy not looking.

There is no part of me exempt from this revealing; I just look less often at the rest of my body. Sure, I expected some fallout. Belly that held a body, breasts that fed a baby. But my past self smolders within my body like a burnt-out fire. My hips burn, tight from a lifetime of walking with an awkward gait. My eyes burn from a career at the computer, my wrist too. That place behind my left shoulder burns where my stresses hole up. My skin burns hot in the middle of the night until I’ve soaked the sheets and water pools in my curves.

I have likely crested the apex of my life (years in) and must begin the downhill walk (years out) away from who I once was, only a stranger to become. Child. Wife. Mother. Void. And like the proverbial snowball that accelerates as it gathers mass, life has become a sprint to beat the clock. I must beat the clock. I must beat back the clock. I want to do it all again. Not the years, and not the choices–this is not about regrets–, but to go back to my youth and revel in its intensity, comingle with its brutal panic instead of fear it. Maybe that was what Lot’s wife looked for when she hesitated. She wasn’t yearning for Sodom, but instead she was saying goodbye to the self that had led her to the crossroads between doubt and faith. To look only forward is to look into an abyss.

I have been taken by surprise by the increased heat of my desire. Instead of wanting less from life, I want more. Maybe I want more knowing what my son will have to go without. I want to taste, and touch, and learn, to earn, to feel, to have, to know again the rippling heat of longing drop through my belly. I want to do what I haven’t yet done. Perhaps I should call on St. Catherine after all; she the patroness of temptation too. I thought it might be noble to age contentedly, coolly, without a fight, but instead I want to set myself alight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s