It's always been there, this burning. Deep in my belly.
I felt it first when I was about five, standing underneath that pine tree in the front yard, its limbs heavy with snow. That day I realized that falling snow makes a sound and that the world opens up space for that whispering. There was a burning then and it kept me warm.
I felt it next in fourth grade. There was a creative writing exercise in which I wrote a fantastical piece on purple snow and how it tasted like grape Kool-Aid. Everyone in my class thought it was amazing but I just scratched my head. But there was that burning again, like a glowing ember.
It was in eighth grade that Mrs. Hansborough taught us the beauty of the essay. I didn't understand why everyone struggled so in that class. Writing the required weekly essays felt like swimming to me. It was the most natural thing in the world. The strokes and the laps were work, yes, but the water felt like home and I was buoyed by the dancing waves.
Mrs. Hansborough recommended me for a writing competition that year and so one day, I sat in a room all by myself with "my favorite space" as a writing prompt. That was easy. Clearly I would write about the tree tops and how they called to me. I would write about the ginko that almost touched the sky and how the limbs grew like a ladder to heaven and in the fall, I stared glory in the face as the leaves dripped gold all around.
But then, I felt it distinctly. There was a tugging, pulled tighter by doubt and questions, and then a surge of cold water rushed in, drowning my head and my heart and leaving me gasping for air. And I fumbled around trying to find that gleaming but it was gone somehow. Drenched by the frigidity of forced air.
So, like a mindless, heartless robot, I wrote something about my dog rather than about the treetops and it was terrible and the whole time I felt like I had a gun to my head. And, of course, I didn't even place in the competition. The girl that wrote a short story about her dead brother, she won, of course. I went home that day and climbed my ginko and let the icy wind blow hard on my belly.
In high school, I caught the scent of wood smoke and I was at once comforted and invigorated. I began scratching out poems ridden with adolescent angst and it was glorious and freeing and ridiculous.
My words became like bellows and I was privately consumed by the flames and I felt like Joan of Arc.
Then came college and, with it, an intense spiritual crisis that would take me years to work through, not to mention the thousands of pages of other people's writing that I was required to read. There wasn't room for the burning in my belly all of those years. Even after I met that girl down the hall with the swinging hair and bright lips who was majoring in Creative Writing, I found myself incredulous. I remember uttering soundlessly to myself, "You can actually do that?!? Major in writing?"
And perhaps that was when the gavel came down hardest, sending coals and embers scattering to the four winds. When I asked myself who I was fooling. When I determined that I was not wise enough or well-read enough or clever enough to keep up the charade. That I didn't drink enough or smoke enough or get around enough to write well. I wasn't grizzly enough or eccentric enough.
This changeling wasn't enough. And that was the end of that.
But that smoldering wick could not be snuffed out.
My life grew and evolved. I walked with intention in the wilderness and the desert. I experienced pain and struggle and exultation. I gave myself away and, in return, I was given a hundredfold blessing in return. I split apart and life was given. I died and I was reborn.
And all of that became like kindling.
These days I find myself a fire keeper. And although some days it feels as if that fire will burn me right through, I step closer.
That fire has grown stronger now that I have joined other wayfarers. We gather around burning barrels for warmth, for light, for connection. Each of us keeps the fire going for each other and sometimes the flames are so bright they singe and crisp. But it is the low, slow burn that everyone knows and keeps alive. A hobo camp we might be, but we take care of our own.
And it is all clear now.
Where there is fire, there is life.