Some people seek gentle hands to soothe knots from sore muscles. Others get a facial or a pedicure. Still others hold hands and hum around a vortex. In today’s world of indulgence-for-hire and guided leisure, you can practice yoga, Pilates, Nia.
Screw that, I say. Play with fire.
There’s something restorative about lighting a glowing ring of flame at dusk, and staring into it until long after darkness has descended. The brain shuts down. The shifting shapes of sticks and logs collapse the world beyond into darkness. When I stare at a square foot of fire, then look up into the Western sky, the world expands. The universe becomes a flood of sudden darkness speckled with starry fires. It’s a sensation something like reverse vertigo, and knocks the wind from my lungs.
There have been so many good fires. There’s the quiet one I’d hold vigil over alongside my cabin in western Colorado; alone with my dog, the distant sound of coyotes, and the whirring of nighthawks, I’d stare at the flames until the day melted away. Only when the fire began to dim and die would I remember to look up. Above, all the stars aligned, and the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Others include October fires in Montana, built to keep the frost at bay; sputtering flames fighting against monsoon rains in a New Mexico wilderness; smoky refuges from awkward social situations at summertime barbecues. You don’t have to make polite conversation around a bonfire: All you have to do is stare at it.
No matter how many times I do it, I’m always surprised by how easy it is to focus on the flames at my feet. In moments, I forget my career, or the politics of the day, or whatever happens to be chapping my hide. Fire is undoubtedly necessary — if not for food or warmth, then for the restoration of the soul.
Shortly after we moved into our Albuquerque home two years ago, my husband dug a fire pit in the backyard. Mostly, we use it for special occasions. But this spring night, my husband and I are edgy and uncomfortable. It’s been months since we’ve been to the desert. Or the mountains. Or anywhere, for that matter. Work demands the same old obligations from him, and I’m navigating the confusing seas of new motherhood and interrupted sleep. I step outside after putting our 3-month-old daughter to bed; puttering around the yard is my reward for making it through the day.
I stare at the empty fire pit, knowing I should go inside. There are neglected friends to call, dishes to clean, thank-you cards to write, work to catch up on, clothes to wash.
That pull doesn’t come, however. The sky is dark — cloudy for the first time in weeks, months, maybe — and even my once-spoiled, now ignored-in-favor-of-the-baby dog eventually abandons me for his bed.
I dig a batch of newspapers out of the recycling barrel, figuring I’ll light a few to relieve some stress. I toss a few sticks onto the flames. Then, the winter’s firewood pile beckons. Soon, a glow fills the backyard, flickering orange against the fence. The dog comes back. I remove the sweater I’d donned. And I’m not sure if it’s the smell of smoke through the open kitchen window or the glow in the backyard that beckons him, but my husband emerges like a moth drawn to flame.
We stare in silence for a while, as the flames move across the pit, picking up speed, filling the space between us. That silence becomes less uneasy, less a wall between us and more a buffer against the outside world. I know my husband well enough to know that he’s thinking of trout streams. As the fire burns down, we look up at the sky before heading in. It looks as though it might actually rain on this drought- stricken city in which we live.
In the dark morning, when our daughter wakes to feed, I hear the sound of a gentle rain outside, and smell the wood smoke in my husband’s hair.
The author writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.