A Lesson in Spontaneous Combustion
A glittering frost blankets the world this morning. But the beauty sent me shivering, a spike of cold quaking up my spine and down my extremities; and thus began my annual bout of 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 gleaned 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 by which said burly men may stay alive through the night. Once you’ve managed to create that vital spark, you’d best coddle it so it won’t go out.
Once, though, I started a fire I didn’t want. In truth, it started by itself, and threatened my home and my person.
If you love gardening as I do, it mightn’t seem strange 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.
“…I’d forgotten: organic matter (like leaf compost) may spontaneously combust.“
It’s beyond me, how I’d forgotten: small mountains of organic matter (like leaf compost) may spontaneously combust. As a child in the rural Lowlands US, I’d heard of manure heaps that too often caught fire on their own, combusting from the innards of the acrid piles. It’s pitiful (or downright hysterical) how long it took me to recognize that it was not 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!
Oh for a photo of me that moment, standing drenched in the hot sun, smeared with umber, 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. What you can see (below) is a pic of me coming to the same realization just two weeks later on “Mount Chipperest”, the truckload of wood chips (12 cy?) dropped off by an arborist…out of the ‘kindness of his heart’. Argggh. This time, though, the wood chips at the core had already begun to crackle and turn ashy by the time I got to it; embers formed tiny re-orange fingers 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.
I’m thinkin’ it’s easier to prevent fire before a spark ignites. [Insert Smokey the Bear image]. 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.
“…when we slow the race, ignore the false urgency of holiday commerce, and recognize the real urgency of our deepest need…”
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 recognize the real urgency of our deepest need. 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 golden spark tucked in the dark, quiet folds of life- even in bleak midwinter- we’re just too busy. Awaiting searching eyes is the gift, the spark that sets all life ablaze with eternity; if we miss it, we’ll miss the most important moment of our lives. That moment is here and now; the Advent of God with us, loving us, ready to meet all the longings of our souls once for all, and make all things right and just in the end.