When I was in my thirties, I regularly set myself on fire while trying to start fires in our family’s wood stove. We lived in a sprawling ranch house in the New Mexico mountains, and although we had modern gas heating, we used the wood stove most days because it was cheaper. The time I remember best was in the fall. The air hung somewhere between summer and winter, just chilly enough for a sweater. I had been instant messaging with a friend when I noticed the temperature was dropping. My kids were playing video games in their bedrooms, which were in the back of the house, and therefore, colder than the other rooms. I didn’t want them to freeze back there.
Long story short, the damn fire wouldn’t start, and since my friend was waiting, I took the coward’s way out. I sprayed lighter fluid on the logs. Apparently, my application was excessive, because when I lit the match, a ball of flame erupted from the stove and engulfed my head just long enough to burn my bangs into prickly wisps. Then, almost instantly, it evaporated, or went out, or whatever it is that balls of flame feeding on fumes and hair do. I wasn’t hurt, but I was terrified. I screamed, stopped, dropped, and rolled, believing my head was still on fire. My 13-year-old daughter Desi, used to the freak accidents that plague my existence, strolled into the living room, her face wrinkled with the mildest brand of concern.
“What happened?” she asked calmly.
“I SET MY HEAD ON FIRE!” I screamed, still rolling around on the carpet like a madwoman.
At that moment, my 9-year-old son Tim joined her.
“What happened?” he echoed, sounding bored.
“Mom set her head on fire again,” Desi said.
“Oh,” said Tim.
Having ascertained that I wasn’t still on fire, even if I thought I was, they left me rolling and screaming on the living room rug and wandered off to continue their video games. Since they didn’t behave like children watching their mother die in an inferno, it occurred to me that I might not still be on fire. I stopped rolling and patted my head. No flames. I was good. Ok. Whew.
After making sure I wasn’t injured, I went back to my instant message. “Sorry I was gone so long,” I wrote. “I set my head on fire.”
“Again????” my friend replied.
I’m not sure that anecdote was the best way to start this blog because I actually wanted to write about what a kick ass fire starter I am, and now, you won’t believe me. But those incidents happened when I was still married and had a very competent husband I could call on to start fires. I didn’t really have to know how to do it. All that changed after my divorce, when I made a string of some of the worst decisions of my life. (There is a reason they tell you not to make big decisions after divorces or deaths. You are insane. Or at least I was.)
My first genius decision was to sell the gorgeous ranch house I had gotten in the divorce and to move myself and my children into a little weird house (it had a spiral staircase and a hot tub in the living room) in the middle of the wilderness.
Bad freaking call. Did I mention its only source of heat was a tiny wood stove? Did I also mention that I forgot to get the well tested and found out only after I’d moved in that there was no viable water source? Did I also mention that in winter, blizzards were pretty much a daily occurrence, and the roads were crap even on a good day? Did I also mention that I gave a con-artist contractor $15,000 to do work on the dilapidated house, and he never came back again? (I was already busy suing for the dry well, so I really didn’t have the gumption to take on another law suit, what with the dealing with the divorce aftermath and all.) We spent most of the four years we lived there snowed in, shivering under blankets, dumping buckets of hot tub water into the toilets to flush them, praying the storm would let up so the water delivery truck could get in.
To make matters worse, my marriage had ended partly due to my ex-husband’s liaison with a much younger woman (though I, of course, played my part too—my ex is a wonderful human, but we were both young and caught up in our solitary miseries), so I cleverly decided to prove my sexual viability by dating a 26-year-old man whose main selling points were his glossy blond hair and his biceps. Of course, I didn’t know I was trying to prove my sexual viability at the time. I tried to convince myself I was in love. But it was hard. Stuart (we’ll call this guy Stuart, though that was not his name) mostly liked to sit on the couch staring at the wall. He refused to get a job, or do anything, really, though sometimes, when he was feeling spunky, he’d fight with my son over video games. Once, while I was chopping vegetables, he came to me to tattle. “Tim won’t share his game with me.”
“Stuart” I said, setting my knife down (as opposed to driving it though his skull, which may or may not have occurred to me) “you need to be the adult.”
“Why do I always have to be the adult?” he screamed.
Moral of the story: stay away from boys with mommy issues. Other moral of the story: he was no good for starting fires.
My kids say they forgive me for those years. I’m big on asking for forgiveness when I need to, and then doing everything in my power to heal the wounds I’ve left behind by my cruelty or recklessness or whatever my sin was (and believe me, my sins are many). My amazing kids respond beautifully to this and always offer clemency, even when I don’t deserve it. I’m not so sure I would forgive me. Not for the weird house. Not for the cold. Not for the water deprivation. And certainly not for Stuart. But they say those years built character. I think they are just trying to make me feel better, but whether or not those years I not-so-fondly refer to as “our wilderness years” built character, they did teach me to build a fire. It was either learn to build fires or die. So now, I’m really good at it.
Which brings me to now. I’m in the New Mexico mountains again, just in time for winter. I don’t officially live here, but I’m hanging out for a while, because I’ve been living on the road promoting my books and seeing the world, and now, I’m tired. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to do anything but write and read and do yoga and start fires. I start fires every day. I never have to use lighter fluid because I know now what it takes to make a really good fire.
And this is what it takes. You need plenty of newspaper and three different sizes of wood—very small bits of wood, sticks, and logs. But telling you that is like giving you a recipe without directions. If you just throw those things in the stove, the fire won’t start. You must place them carefully. You must make sure to wad up the paper, but not too tightly, so air can flow through the empty spaces and get to the little bits of wood you’ve sprinkled on top of the paper. Then, you must make a latticework of the sticks on top of the little bits of wood, leaving plenty of empty spaces between the sticks. And then, you must balance a log on top of all that. I say balance, because you need to place the log so there is plenty of empty space under it. No matter how good your raw materials are, if you don’t leave those empty spaces, your fire won’t start. You are going to have to resort to lighter fluid, and then, if you are like me, your head will go up in flames, and who wants that?
Did you notice what the main component of starting a good fire is? Empty space. I am girl who by nature does not like empty spaces, which is why it took me so long to learn to start a fire without lighter fluid, and is why I set my head on fire so many times. I wanted to wad the paper up good and tight and then put piles and piles of wood on top. The more the merrier, right? It took a lot of trial and error for me to learn that empty space has value.
I say all that to say this. I’m learning that lesson in other areas of my life right now. I’m a girl who wants her life to be full and intense. Sitting still is hard for me. I like to get things done. I like to travel. I like to kiss. I like to dance. I like to make the most of my here and now while I’ve got it. When I was in my twenties, I promised myself while swimming in a Mexican ocean that I was going to do everything beautiful there was to do on planet earth, and then, I set out to try to keep that promise to myself. Damn if I haven’t come close to doing it.
But this year was a big one. I launched two books and then spent an entire year living on the road, promoting the books and seeing what there was to see. I began the year with a raucous wedding in New Orleans and then took it from there. Most of the places I visited, I spoke, taught, or both. Also, I adventured. I hiked hills by the sea in Los Angeles and tripped through the streets of New York, drunk on champagne. I slept in a haunted mansion in Philadelphia. I kissed a sloth in Nashville.
I walked by rivers in Minnesota and saw God in the stars while sleeping in a rest stop in Iowa. I attended more parties in a year than most people do in a lifetime. I saw a zillion concerts. I fell in love so many times, with mountains and museums and ants and dogs and people (and sloths), and I ate every kind of food a human being can eat. Because I am blessed beyond measure with people who love me, everywhere I went, I was treated like a queen, wined and dined and doted on. While I was doing this, I finished a novel, scrawling chapters whenever I could. A paragraph in a subway. Six pages on a beach. Twenty pages in an airport while my flight was delayed and delayed and delayed. And then, I sent that sucker off to my agent. And then I crashed. Hard. And ran home to Mommy.
And I’ve been mad at myself for that. Every day I wake up, wondering what is wrong with me, why I can’t get out there and go some more, why I am not dancing and kissing and fine dining like always. I got especially concerned when last night, my family members suggested I might be becoming agoraphobic. Was I? Was this it for me? Was this the end of spunky, shiny, drink-every-drop-out-of-life Tawni?
The answer came to me today while I was starting a fire, carefully arranging the paper and wood around the crucial empty spaces. Without empty spaces, there can be no fire.
Right now, I need the empty space. This empty space, this moment where I am hiding in the mountains, doing a whole lot of nothing, waiting for my agent to write me and tell me what is happening with my novel, is just as essential to me living a full life as all of the other things I do. The other things are the paper and wood, but without this, without these quiet, lonely moments of nothing, my fire will go out and never start again.
Let the empty space be. Honor its existence. When the time comes, God will whip out a match and set everything, all the things you’ve done, on fire, and then, She will blow softly. A fire will start. But if there are no empty spaces, it will die quickly. And then, She will bust out the lighter fluid.
And I don’t even want to know what happens when God sets her head on fire.
P.S. I always end my blogs with songs. I’ve been on a Sons of Bill kick. I had big plans to go follow them around Europe in October, but then I crashed, so now, I’m enjoying their CDs in solitude. This song always helps me let go and just let things be what they are. I agree with the Thomas James talks about in the video. It’s their best song. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Roll On Jordan,” a song that has saved my soul on more than one occasion.
P.S.S. Wait a goshdarn minute. How the hell did I write a blog about fire, include a Sons of Bill song, and not have the song be “Santa Ana Winds”? Mea culpa. Consider my sin of omission rectified.