The last embers of this solstice fire are burning down. My daughter is upstairs in her own evening pursuits. My son is asleep on the sofa behind me, prey to the sleepiness of stayed-up-late-last-night. My beloved is too far away, like so many who must go where the work is, no matter where the heart is. We are fortunate in the frequency of our homecomings, and too fortunate in this love to complain.
The last half-charred, half-burning logs lie before me, turning to a bed of coals, glimmering in their heat, giving back all that August stored up. I turn the wood like a pillow, putting the less-burnt side to the coals, with the quick reward of a burst of flame. Still, there is the crackling and tinkling of cooling, like superheated glass or an engine ticking as combustion ebbs away.
I think of my mother, the capable fire-builder and -tender of my youth. South Texas nights cold enough for fires were rare, and still the television was a brighter draw for the rest of the family than the fire flickering on the brick hearth. I would sit by the fire alone, with a book and a too-soft apple or a too-strong cup of tea. (I later learned not all apples were mealy as Red Delicious, and black tea did not have to be steeped until actually black.) Every once in a while, my mother would walk through the room, headed for the kitchen, and along the way stir the coals and drop another log on the fire.
Those moments of attention felt too rare; maybe that’s the nature of things between mothers and daughters, especially when there are fathers and brothers involved. Or maybe those moments really were too rare.
It’s a night long enough to try to get such reflections to resolution. Almost. Even such human-sized questions can take longer than the longest night to settle. Much less can even a solstice evening allow for insanely complex questions, like why insurance companies and politicians are allowed to breed perfect storms of mutual profit at our expense. Why we think we must have wars before diplomacy is given a chance. Why churches keep getting bigger, and compassion scarcer.
Too far afield. I return to here and now. I write by the light of a Christmas tree, the extravagance of a tree cut just to celebrate a season. (Another question … why we so often kill something to celebrate life.) Warmed by the glow of a dying fire, I’m aware not only of the old truism that dying fires still give light, but also that this too is an extravagance: a fire for light and heat in a house electrified for sight and gassified for warmth. My only defense is that a fire in the house is too deep a comfort to give up, if it can be had.
Sitting under Christmas trees is an old habit, too. It was an afternoon’s work, stringing the lights along the branches and hanging thin glass balls and tossing strands of silver tinsel up onto the tree. It was an evening’s pleasure to lie under the tree, watching the shifting pattern of soft colors flashing tree-needle shadows on the ceiling.
I have been reminded this week what the tinsel was meant to portray: the unearthly brilliance of sunshine on fresh snow, like diamonds scattered everywhere the sunlight glances. Even in the night the snow seems to give off light, bluish even under a moonless sky, perhaps reflecting the light of the stars hanging so low and bright they seem caught in the pine-tops.
In the early dawn, the soft gray light behind the pines looks washed out, dull compared to the snow, still bright on the ground. How can the snow reflect more light than it receives? I imagine some form of reflection operating through the crystalline structure of the snowflakes lying locked together, bound now in ice. The light is captured in these flakes, photons bounding amongst the miniature mirrors, never finding its way out, leading to a profit of light. A mad theory. But satisfying. Light going on and on, around and around … it’s what light does.
Back to the moment. Time to stir the coals … that they might burn a little more completely. No … no flames left. Only glimmers. Fires are good company, someone once said. This evening I can only imagine one better.
How is it I have fallen so in love with the last things? Autumn turning to winter. Flames flickering down to coals. Gray hair, and crow’s feet around wise eyes. How a candle burns to the guttering end, then winks out. I remember my father’s last breaths. Even eased by morphine and (finally) the removal of the machines, the ragged inefficient breaths kept coming. Living, it would seem, is what we are made for, and it is a hard habit to break. The body wants to go on and on. It’s what we do.
Tonight I feel a matrilineage echoing around in my spirit: for who-knows-how-many centuries, women have watched the seasons turn, watched parents die and children grow, spent the longest night of the year tending a fire and reflecting on the year – and years – past, feeling the quiet accomplishment of coaxing flame to life along woods’ edges, twigs as tinder, logs as unlikely vessels of light, taking strength from that accomplishment for the harder struggles that returned with the morning light.
What energy is stored up in me, ready to give light and heat, should the right spark be struck? Will some holy alchemy allow me to give more than I have received?
Come, fire. Come, light. Come show us what we are for, in the lengthening days ahead, in the turn of the years. Give us this season’s wisdom, and a bit more. Let the fire of our compassion burn longer and hotter than we ever imagined.