Starting the Winter Fire

A glittering frost blanketed the world this morning. But the beauty sent me shivering, and thus began my annual pyromania. I love fire; it keeps me toasty and is mesmerizing to watch, even if only on a looping YouTube video on my laptop where I wish a fireplace stood.

I also love outdoor adventure reality shows like Bear Grills, Mountain Men and Alone.  There’s no end to the life-saving skills you learn! I’ve learned several new ways to start a fire when it is most vital & most difficult by watching hulky outdoorsmen crouching in the snow, gently blowing on a single, miraculous ember to bring it leaping to life as a flame to keep them alive through the night. Once you’ve managed to create that spark of life, you darned well better coddle it so it won’t go out.

I needed no help, though, to learn how to start a blaze when I didn’t want to

If you love gardening as I do, it wouldn’t be strange for you to have three cubic yards of organic leaf compost dropped off in your front yard. Or twelve cubic yards of wood chips the following week.  Your neighbors might just be, like mine, accustomed to seeing you in the hot sun, coated head to toe in sweat and biomass, shoveling organic matter from one place to another. But they might be a little curious at the wafting aroma of campfire coming from your yard while you’re away.

How I’d forgotten that small mountains of organic matter like leaf compost can spontaneously combust is beyond me. As a child in rural Alabama, I’d heard about manure heaps that too often caught fire on their own, combusting from the innards of the acrid piles. And it’s downright humorous how long it took me to recognize that it wasn’t steam but smoke rising from the heap, and that every shovel-full was hotter than the last until I could no longer stand to put my hand on it. Doh.

Wish I had a photo of me that moment, standing drenched in the hot sun, smeared with soil, standing dumbfounded and mouth agape at the tendrils of smoke rising from the center of my compost pile, hours to go before it would all be dispersed around our quarter-acre.  Or of me, two weeks later, coming to the very same realization at the foot of Mount Chipperest, the truckload of free wood chips dropped by an arborist on our parking pad.

Only this time, the wood chips at the core had already begun to crackle and turn ashy as embers formed throughout. My Lord, how long it takes to learn. You’ve never seen an exhausted forty-eight-year-old woman dance like I did on the top of that pile, desperately attempting to break it apart so that a dousing with the garden hose would snuff the spontaneously-generated embers.  Acrid tendrils of smoke winding up my legs may as well have been venomous snakes, as defenseless as I felt fighting such a powerful force.

Let’s be honest: Isn’t it easier to prevent a fire before the spark ignites? [Insert Smokey the Bear image here]. To prevent catastrophic blazes, to keep precious things from going up in smoke, you must attend to your surroundings…noticing the guy lighting a cigar where you’re pumping gasoline. We can’t notice details, like the perfect setup for an unwanted explosion,  if our conscious mind is constantly and indiscriminately bombarded by info and we’re racing through our days in default.

To be alert to your surroundings, you must have time to move slowly enough that you can actually be in the moment (thinking on the now, instead of what lies behind or what may lie ahead), and notice what surrounds you- people and other living things, the organic and inorganic. Think it’s impossible? Not at all; and good help abounds. Tristan Gooley, for example, in The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, will bring you up to snuff with myriad practical tips.

But be forewarned:  As you develop the skill of noticing the world around you and what all the signs are pointing to, you’ll also tune your senses to the more philosophical questions of “Who am I?” “Where am I?” and “Why am I here?” This is the stuff for a life coach, and lucky for us, I am one. But consider: Isn’t this the season for asking ourselves earnest questions?

If the late November frost ignites my longing for fire (whether in crackling fireplaces or myriad flickering candles), it also signals Advent, the season of longing and preparing my heart for Christmas. Many of us dread winter, if for darkness-induced depression, the absence of loved ones, or a plethora of other reasons. But in the quiet and the dark are the stuff of real life in all its drama. Avoiding it, covering it up with artifice, leads to a withering soul on a much grander scale.

It makes perfect sense to me that my winter-induced longing for physical warmth comes with a deep reminder to slow down, to notice, so that I don’t altogether miss or lose what is precious to me.  In noticing the things and people around me, in slowing down to celebrate the details and the meaning of my life, is the glittering beauty of  frost and the agony of the refugees and homeless with no shelter. In taking time to be in the moment is the intensity of visiting loved ones and of missiles obliterating homes. Do I dare?

One dreary winter day in Nashville may feel like three days in a pitch-black tomb to me, but I was reminded that was actually the scene of the most powerful life-giving creative force in history.  Slow, quiet action across three dark days meant a profoundly life-giving outcome.

Do we dare slow down? Notice? Ask the questions? The answer is always Yes, and always there, covered and silenced by heaps of cultural trappings and stuff we’re supposed to want. The longing for meaning is unavoidable when we slow the race, ignore the false urgency of holiday commerce. And our longing is met by the unhinderable, unshadowed presence of the loving God who caused our longing and then met it through His Son. He is always here, waiting, longing to be gracious to us, to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18). But if we don’t notice, if we’re distracted by the race we run through our days, how will we ever know Him? How will we catch the spark, fan it into flame?

That spark is a gift, free to every single one of us. It is the spark that deserves our careful, steady attention so that it won’t snuff out. We must move slowly, having the dry tinder of a needy soul ready to receive it. Allowing the noise of man made clutter to cloud the glistening beauty of winter is like turning the garden hose on a smoldering pile of mulch: it will surely snuff out, and it will do so before we realize it was our one chance, as vital as that single spark that could keep us alive for the night on the snowy mountain.

If we’re too busy to notice the tiny golden spark hidden in the quiet- even of the bleak midwinter- that we’ve been given life that sets all life ablaze with eternity, we’ll altogether miss the most important moment of our lives. That moment is here and now; the Advent of God with us, loving us, and meeting all the longings of our souls once for all.





2 thoughts on “Starting the Winter Fire

  1. Thank you for this advice, Laurie — packaged with humor and insight. Really quite profound. The part I need to apply to my life the most is to slow down, to be observant and attentive to the people (and the world) around me. Why has the world become so angry and awful? And what can I do to help fix it? The task seems so monumental.

    I’m too old now to travel to war-torn countries and be a “missionary,” or to launch a major campaign to help the struggling and “forgotten” thousands even within my own state. So instead, I drag out a memory (from the 1940s) of the old Chicago church we attended around 60th and Sangamon Street — now a neighborhood where shootings are routine. We “kindergarten” kids met in a dank, dark basement room, where the paint was blistering off the walls. Our teachers tried to inspire us with bright cut-outs of Moses, Daniel, Jesus and the Apostles — and with cardboard angels and yellow “suns” dangling from the water pipes that stretched from wall to wall above our heads.

    We had “sand tables” set up with tableaux of Biblical scenes, where we could move little wooden characters around to illustrate the “story of the week” — e.g. David killing Goliath, or Joseph being sold into Egyptian slavery by his evil, jealous brothers. (And it just so happened that the week Jesus was being baptized in the Jordan River, we were blessed with REAL water in the sandbox — courtesy of a broken water-pipe.)

    But we sang our little lungs out, having been strongly urged to “…sing so loud that your parents can hear you up upstairs!” One of the songs that stuck with me is this:

    Do not wait until some deed of greatness you can do,
    Do not wait to shed your light afar.
    To the many duties ever near you now be true,
    Brighten the corner where you are.

    Brighten the corner where you are!
    Brighten the corner where you are!
    Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar.
    Brighten the corner where you are!

    I’m sure that the significance of those lyrics was lost to me at the time — or limited to “brightening” the dreary surroundings in that dark and dreary basement. But now — NOW my current little “corner” is calling for some brightening. Maybe it’s a manageable size. I must do what I can to make that corner as big and bright as possible. I need to blow on that tiny spark that you mentioned, Laurie, and pray that it will grow into a flame. God help me.


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