To Stare into a Fire

By John Kass

I need a fire. It’s time for me. Maybe for you, too and the weather is right.

A real wood fire in a real wood burning fireplace and a glass of single malt scotch. One for me and one for you. Or, perhaps outside at the firepit, with the scotch and a fine Maduro cigar.

Either way, inside or out, I’ll have the flames to stare into for a while and get lost in them. Isn’t that the point? To lose oneself there and find the place beyond words.

The leaves of the trees lighten and dry, they’re ready to turn. And now the wind shifts with a chill. Betty has arranged the sweaters in the drawers. And the wool socks. She’s put my olive Barbour coat where I can find it in the front of the hall closet. My wife is thinking of stews, and of apples and cinnamon. She’s preparing, too.

A few geese sound overhead, and soon the leaden late afternoon skies will be full of them. And, just a few houses away, I can hear a kid practicing on a French Horn, preparing to join his or her own flock marching on some football field at halftime.

No complaints today, no sadness, regrets, or wistfulness. Only joy. Yes, summer is gone, and winter is coming, but winter is always coming. Right now there’s bright sun on the garden. And we’re all good here by God’s grace, our kids, our health, our lives. We’re lucky to have challenges, but our challenges are good ones and tell us that we’re alive. Hope yours are, too.

The boys are coming over this weekend with their girlfriends, so I’ll get to do some grilling, and happily, if one of them picks up some delicious, garlicky muthawama to serve with the souvlakia, rice and the pita. With the girlfriends coming over, I just might put on the white chef’s jacket for some added and embarrassing dad showbiz pizazz.

Zeus the Wonder Dog and I are outside. I’m typing. He’s sleeping in the sun. The column is doing well, at least I think so, with more of you subscribing to, and I hope you’ll stick around on this adventure we’re on together when the lawyers and web guys give me the green light to begin charging for subscriptions. National advertisers and locals are reaching out to Jeff Carlin to buy ad time on the podcast, which is good news because we’ll be able to keep the podcast free for you, and because Jeff won’t let me pay him out of my pocket. I don’t have a paycheck, so we’ll see.

 The sun is high and warm in a clear sky, on one of those last gorgeous days before the October wind and rains, the kind you want to remember in February.  And I’ve been building a good book list for the winter and the fireplace. A friend just called, Terry, and we were talking about a book he recommends, written by a physicist, a former atheist who found God in the order of things.  And just as a new autumn wind puffed up in the trees, Terry came out with: “Today’s a good day to die.”

He said heard it said in a movie, some proud Native American warrior saying it before battle, and Terry didn’t mean it in the negative. And I didn’t take it negatively. It is a good day. Not every day is like that, but this one is. A day of no regrets. Terry’s absolutely right. We must live our lives like this, not afraid because it comes to us all, but alive and prepared and secure in the preparation.

Terry got me to think about a monk on Mt. Athos talking to a TV reporter from “60 Minutes.” The reporter was academically interested in good and evil, asking about it skeptically, bemusedly, as if there really wasn’t any such thing as a “good” or an “evil,” but just a relentless sliding scale of relative gray.

The astonished monk told the reporter that the battle was raging all around him. Open your eyes, the monk said, and see. The reporter didn’t see a thing. The monk waved his arm at the sky and the trees. Look up there he said, pointing to the wind shaking its angry fists up in the branches. Can’t you see it? The battle is right here, in front of your face. Can’t you see?

Sometimes I think I can see it. Sometimes I can’t, especially if I’m besotted with the news and the barking dogs of the news. There is so much barking, that you can’t hear yourself think, or hear what your soul is telling you. But this was the life I chose when I was young and ambitious, when I didn’t know any better, lured as I was by the great game of politics and all its oily intrigues. There is cost to everything we choose to do. I know that now.

 I can’t say I’m good, but I hope I’m not evil. But it really doesn’t matter what I think, does it? I do know that I’ll be judged.

Right now, though, I figure that the wind will pick up a bit when the sun is about to set. And that’s when I’ll build the fire.

As a boy I read that Jack London story. It was terrifying. Not the man’s death, not even the hungry wolf waiting patiently for the foolish man to fall asleep in the snow. What was terrifying was the man himself, his utter unpreparedness, his sloppy thinking, his greedy, childish excitement about going into the wilderness:

Death by cold, death by wolf, death by barbarism rooted in his own treacherous sentimentality, death by stupid inability to build a fire. I became a Boy Scout for a time, then, determined to learn to build one.

The necessaries are right here with me:  A good stack of dried hardwood logs, a hatchet, and a few yellowed copies of the paper I gave over 35 years of my life and my heart to, until it all turned sour. Still, it burns well. It sends up quick yellow smoke. It catches.

I suppose this is a ritual too, like so many things in my life. I was born into ritual. The setting of the logs, the hatchet slicing off kindling, the paper, the flame. It comes down to the methodical consequence of hands, whether casting a fly for big trout on the river, or preparing the Easter Lamb to turn over the coals, or setting the proper fire.

Then the light.

 And then I pour that scotch.

What do I think about when I stare into a fire, to lose the train of words, of thoughts?  I know what I’m thinking about. And winter is coming. But that’s not the question.

This is a question for you: What do you think about?

What do you think about when you stare into a fire, at the flames, at the embers, to get to that place beyond thoughts and words, and listen to your soul?


(Copyright 2021 John Kass)