“There’s this shape, black as the entrance to a cave.
A longing wells up in its throat
like a blossom
as it breathes slowly.
What does the world
mean to you if you can’t trust it
to go on shining when you’re
not there? And there’s
a tree, long-fallen; once
the bees flew to it, like a procession
of messengers, and filled it
-Excerpt from October by Mary Oliver
The streets are desolate. Businesses are dark and shuttered. There is no traffic, no transit, no pedestrians. This is Boston. This is New York. This is Portland, Maine. Every city emptied out overnight. Civilian life pushed back like an invasive species. Coyotes and bears circle the perimeters of our villages, closer than ever before. Essential workers in hazmat suits tend to our ill and dig mass graves. We form “family units” and reject those “at-risk”. We lock up our doors, our homes. We stockpile supplies and acquire guns. Suspicions and fear run rampant. …
“Do those bells always ring?” I ask. It is turning six, and my time is up.
My therapist looks up from his iPad and smiles, “Only this time of year, you can hear them better.”
“They sound so clear,” I say.
The church isn’t far away, just a block up the street. I am embarrassed by my lack of awareness. I’ve been seeing this particular shrink for over a year, and never once noticed the bells that ring timely after each session is through.
Jack is kind enough to assure me I’m not the only one who hasn’t noticed the bells. That he, himself, can’t hear them most of the year when there are leaves on the trees. And it’s not until after the leaves have fallen, do the chimes actually resonate with him — filling the air with a hopeful tune, during a season that sometimes feels unapologetically bleak. Still, it is my second winter of not noticing the beautiful-sounding bells, and somehow it feels inexcusable. …
I can tell you what I am afraid of, but first, let me start this fire. After all, in stories about creation, there is often some reference to the important part fire plays at the beginning of a story.
Last night my husband, Nick, filled the wood box so I need not concern myself with such things. He is thoughtful like that — always considerate of others and how he can lessen their burdens.
To start a good fire, one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match. There is an art to building a good fire, which men like my husband take pride in; just like there is an art to the carefully stacked woodpile he tends to every spring in preparation of the next burning season.
Behind the barn and sugar house, row after well-balanced row of cordwood is neatly stacked beneath a tin roof covering, so it has time to cure into fine firewood. More routine than obsession, heating with wood in New England is a cycle that runs parallel to our lives — an interdependency which sometimes feels intimate, when I squat in just a bathrobe in front of the Alpine casting and feel the familiar warmth moving up my thighs and across my face. I rip and twist pages of the Sunday Times or local Herald, and use the hatchet to break up kindling — always with the grain, and never against.
Inside the sooty gut of the stove, I make sure to leave space between the paper, sticks, and smallish logs, to allow for the movement of air; for air is essential in feeding fires. I tend to rely on the classic teepee shape to start all of mine. While Nick prefers the cabin shape, believing it is more structurally sound when it comes to adding another log or two.
As the blaze grows, the door to the stove is closed, but not completely. We have found that if you leave the door slightly ajar, a natural vacuum will occur. And if you listen closely, you can hear the hollow whir of air being sucked from the room, through the stove, and up the flue, making the fire hotter and stronger.
On frigid November mornings, when a dusting of snow has fallen overnight, Nick starts a small fire before he leaves for work. The sun will not have even crested over the valley hills, and I will hear the heavy-handed thump of the hatchet and kindling falling to the floor like the hollow clack of a wooden windchime. Then comes the low rumble of the trusty Tundra warming in the driveway, while Nick sips the last of his coffee, fills his Thermos with his afternoon tea, and leaves a kiss on my forehead.
After he leaves, I can hear the crackle and pop of wood settling in the stove, as I lie in bed thinking about the sacrifices he makes every day in order for me to make art; especially on the coldest days, when his energy is spent trying to stay warm at a job site. He assures me it is not so bad, because the timber frame he has been working on has a small potbelly stove where he can warm up his extremities and his lunch, and the work itself keeps the blood moving and the body warm beneath the layers. But I know metal tools are cold in the hand when you are building outdoors, and that it takes a long hot shower, a good fire, and a warm meal for him to feel like himself again, after a long day’s work.
I can tell you there is nothing romantic about wondering if a job will go as smoothly as planned, whether we will be able to pay our bills every month, or if we will be able to eat well in the coming weeks. Wondering whether the six logs it will take to stay warm while writing a silly essay, is worth it or just a waste of resources and time, is a constant consideration.
“What if it takes a while?” I ask him, worried about my lack of income, my art being decent enough to sell and whether I have the wherewithal to live within these meager means.
“Then it takes a while,” he encourages me. “And in the meantime, we won’t freeze.”
Last year, he ordered eleven cords of log-length firewood — three years’ worth of fuel if our Vermont winters are not too brutal.
When I was three, my father, like Nick, worked various odd jobs so my mother could be home with me and my younger sister, and paint. We lived in a drafty Victorian that had been converted into apartments, with an empty side lot we used for a garden. Across the street was the cleverly-named Frost Free Library, which we frequented, since my father’s salary at the ball bearings factory just barely covered the necessities. Books and new clothes were a luxury, as were most toys.
Beneath us lived a young journalist and his wife, who I suspected never argued about money, or about which one worked longer and harder hours and deserved a drink. My father’s back-to-back shifts kept him away from home for long stints at a time, and when he would come home, all he wanted to do was catch up on sleep. He demanded quiet. And when it became too loud to be inside, I would go out to the yard and find a place to sit outside the window of the young couple, sometimes, secretly hoping they would adopt me.
The memories I have of that time are spotty and sometimes laden with sadness or nostalgia. But what I remember most about that apartment and my parent’s marriage, is the pride they possessed and imposed on that space. Not only did my father somehow manage to get a six-hundred-pound cook stove up to that second-floor apartment and install it, but he also preferred the old-fashioned technology and ways of doing things. If he could not fix it, he did not want to own it. If it was broke and abandoned on the side of the road, it posed a challenge. He couldn’t read, but he had a way of seeing how all the pieces fit together that could never be taught. He also found intrinsic value in being the provider, while my mother wrestled with the roles of homemaker, caregiver, and artist.
I remember drawing and playing in front of that stove. My mother would start a fire early to make us breakfast and then would retreat to the enclosed porch where she kept her paints and easels. Before we were old enough to attend school, my sister and I learned to entertain ourselves with pastels and construction paper on the bare floors of that apartment, understanding that quiet time meant it was creative time, and as long as we had food, heat and a bed to sleep in, there was no reason to long for anything more.
Because of these experiences, I can tell you that I have never been afraid of being uncomfortable. For ten years, I supported myself, believing that responsibility belonged only to myself. Nick was the one who taught me that it is not a sign of weakness to let others lend a hand along the way and that even though I was a self-sufficient individual, I was still capable of sharing a life and myself with him.
But what about rejection? You might ask. Art mimics life in many ways.
I stoke the fire, fight the urge to do a job search, and settle in to write a few thousand words. It is gratifying, but not sustaining. Compromising my relationship in the name of art is what truly frightens me, and that is why I must acknowledge the sacrifices my husband makes every day. The frosty mornings, the frustrations of day labor, and the tired joints and bones are all reasons why I ask myself, each day, “Is it worth it?”
Nick never ushers a single complaint. He checks the wood box to see if it is full, and the woodpile he “did not stack for nothing.” He helps fold laundry and cook dinner. His little labors of love lack nothing.
To speak of all things is to find value in the details that at their most basic level are connected, and therefore essential. These events and decisions that may appear separate and isolated, fold into each other to enrich our lives and give us a more thoughtful resolve as we take on each day.
The vacuum, the air, and the fire — one cannot exist without the other. Just as one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match.
There is an art to building a good fire. …
“Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
— which what? — something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.”
-Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World,
William Bronk (1964)
When I become frustrated or feel uncertain about the direction the publishing industry is headed, I like to think about how my favorite writers and teachers have held strong to their passion for the written word, despite the current climate or state of affairs. Or how others, after witnessing the strip-mining of the creative sphere, have thrown up their hands and walked away thinking, “There is no longer a place for people like me, destined to tell a story.” And the others, who have courageously attempted to make meaning of it all, I wonder how they find a way to sleep at night. …