On Observance

The mind is composed of frames. Like reels of film, the mind churns at the tempo of frames per day, per hour, per minute, and per second. In a churning world where turbo speed is required, milliseconds per each frame, observance is the practice of pausing. By dissecting each frozen frame, one’s conception of time – and of life – is no longer a straight, one way arrow. Time curves. Einstein was right when he argued his “frame dragging” theory. The same sixty minutes allotted in each hour become an eternity for some, and a blinking stoplight for others.

Choice cuts of pork shoulder, thinly sliced fatty brisket, top blade of beef, whole mackerel, white shrimp (with their heads in tact), bratwurst, and spicy Andouille sausage. As a matter of human nature, these aforementioned items sizzling on the grill makes it almost impossible for one to think twice about the flames amidst the glowing charcoal. In retrospect, yes, one does think about the flames and the charcoal, and does so precisely and carefully, for the level of activity of the flames and the state of the charcoal is what determines the end quality of the protein suspended above. But, as a matter of human grilling nature, all attention is poured exquisitely on precisely that, the art of grilling.

Campfires are different. Smoring activities aside, building and enjoying a campfire is about the flames – the conception, the juvenile flickerings, the sweeping, roaring peak, the gradual decline, and the ultimate, flameless glow. After a marathon grill session featuring meat as varietal as the animals boarding Noah’s Ark, I stacked a few logs, allowing plenty of space and air between them. Starting the fire with only a few dry twigs proved a challenged, so I cheated and lit a kick-starter; and kick-start it did. As the crescent moon started to ascend above the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah Valley, I plunked down in a lawn chair, fresh coffee in hand, and observed the fire. Sip of coffee. Feed the fire with dry twigs. Throw my head back and look up into the sky, and become mesmerized by a sea of stars, the sheer vastness surprisingly suffocating. Sip of coffee. Repeat.

Flames are part of a collective entity – fire. Flames slowly subsume their surrounding, inch by inch. At its conception, and during its immediate gasps for air, it seems like the fire burns uncontrollably, leaping beyond its reach, frantically twisting and twirling in and through the stacked wood. This initial chaos is the fire gasping for oxygen, as a newborn lets out its first cries after taking in its first gasps of air. But after the flames settle, the fire becomes grounded, and its energy is harnessed, controlled in its center. At times, individual flames attempt to jump out alone, in search of uncharted wood, only to fizzle out in no time. Individualism has not place in the world of fire. It breathes as a unit. The flames slowly advance, retreating sometimes, yet returning again, crawling, creeping.

“Now he could hear the continuous rumbling of carts as they left the markets. Paris was chewing over the daily food of its two million inhabitants. The markets were like some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city. The din was as if made by colossal jaws, a mighty sound to which each phase of the provisioning contributed, from the cracking of the big buyers’ whips as they started off for the district markets to the shuffling feet of the old women who hawked their lettuces in baskets from door to door.”

In his classic impressionist manner, Emile Zola, in “The Belly of Paris,” paints the Parisian marketplace Les Halles in the wee hours of the morning, comparing the bustling market to a heart pumping blood to the rest of the city. As the sun began to hide behind the slopes, the fire too resembled a central organ, pumping miniature flames left and right, incessantly burning brighter and brighter, not too fast as to fizzle before its time, but not too weak as to put a gap in the supply of red, orange and yellow. Its flickering veins stretch and contract, hissing at the wood, licking the air in unpredictable randomness. Chaos is no more, as the steady supply of energy from the grounded center reigns in the flames as if they were on chained leashes.

Fire is flexible. Its power comes from its flexibility. Flames do really dance, bending with the wind, riding the wind. They glide on the logs’ surface, morphing from one amorphous shape to another. Rigid flames would be short lived, broken. Survival calls for wind riders, adapting to the ebb and flow, using the oxygen from the wind to burn brighter than before. While one may think that the ferocity of a fire is a defiant act against the wind and the elements, it is quite the opposite. Fighting the wind makes no sense for the fire. No matter how ferocious the fire, it dare not pick a fight with the wind, for its flames cannot char the invisible. The fire’s dance is that of a skilled boxer, light on its feet, jabbing, shifting, ducking. Its dance outlines the contours of the wind; the invisible becomes visible through the dance of the visible. The wind actually feeds the fire. With every jab, left hook and uppercut, the flames kiss the wind and suck the oxygen, retreating shyly, only to return once more for another lick.

Smoring activities subsided, the coffee long gone. Served me well to bring along the Bialetti moka pot; dense, concentrated cup of coffee to match the dark of night and the billowing smoke from the fire, its rich Guatemalan flavors permeating my immediate vicinity. My longing for a wolf howl was not realized, and the stars shimmered brighter as the sky took on deeper shades of black.

The longer the fire burns, its flames become embedded into the glowing logs. The thicker of the dry twigs have not yet turned to ash, their vitality measured by the occasional hisses and crackles. The glow of the firewood is the beginning of the end for the fire. Older flames now vanish inside the logs, as if a persistent vacuum sucked them whole. The disappearing flames resemble the work of old women divers on the coasts of the Korean peninsula. Now an almost extinct profession, women would free dive into the depths of the freezing water, twenty, thirty, forty feet at a time, to pluck sea cucumbers, abalone, seaweed and other goods to be sold at the nearest market. The work is treacherous and painful, yet the remaining divers – most of them in their fifties, sixties and beyond – have kept up their livelihood. The manner in which they dive is reminiscent of the disappearing flames. Silent.

Like a small pebble dropping to the depths, no splashes are made, no fanfare. One moment the diver, in her black body suit and goggles, is there, and in a flash, she quietly disappears beneath the waves. Minutes later, she resurfaces, again silently, holding in her hand precious gems that would put food on her table later that night. Like the old divers, the flames, after traversing through the bright glow of the wood, burst out at the first opportunity, licking the surface once more, kissing the air and smoke. The process is repeated all around the logs, flames disappearing into glowing sinkholes, the wood, now almost an ashen gray, blinking brighter and brighter, and the flames poking their heads out once more, with the same vitality.

As the once vibrant campfire slowly subsides into a pile of glowing ash, I now wish I had just a few sips of Ethiopian Sidamo, just to get its dancing flavors to last a bit in my mouth. The clock has almost struck midnight, yet the hours spent observing the fire’s timeline culminated in a craving for coffee. Fire and meat earlier in the day, fire and coffee late at night.

Wrapping up the evening, I traced the fire to its origin. The kick-starter birthed this fire. The kick-starter speaks. Like an opportunity of a lifetime, it burst into flames the moment I clicked the lighter. The kick-starter was seemingly self-sustainable, as it continued to burn brightly on its own. The surrounding logs did not catch on instantly, while the kick-starter continued its self immolation, extorting energy. The logs eventually caught on, and the small, non-sustainable flames of the kick-starter rode the logs, spreading rapidly, crackling louder than ever.

Even with the world’s best kick-starter, the campfire would not have come into being if the firewood was wet. “Unprepared” logs would not have caught on, and the kick-starter would have burnt itself to the end, the flames fizzling out in the same vicinity as its birthplace. Readiness, then, is a must to start a fire. Kick-starters, in various forms, present themselves in one’s life. Like golden stars in a Super Mario game, they offer opportunities of a lifetime, something that will light that spark needed to get the fire going. But unless the wood is prepared just right, kick-starters are useless, and opportunities will pass by showing no signs of remorse. To catch the spark at the right moment, readiness may take time, patience and perseverance.

The “readiness” of the wood is also useless unless the logs are stacked as to leave some void space between them, creating enough space for oxygen to travel freely. The best wood, with the best kick-starter, will not produce a long-lasting fire if it is not fed with an abundance of air at its conception. In similar fashion, one must create and maintain a certain inner “void” to harness the fire, to ground it. One must not smother one’s inner self, and not fill it to maximum capacity. Ten logs stacked like bricks may never catch on fire, while three logs stacked carefully like a pyramid will burst into flames as soon as the kick-starter hits its peak of self-destruction.

No fire is sustainable with no void. This inner void is a mental room that allows creative thinking. Stuffing one’s mind with knowledge and experience only takes you so far. To sustain creative, meaningful output, a vacuum is needed to fuel the thought process with fresh oxygen. The void, in Zola’s terms, is the organ pumping fresh blood to the veins stretched throughout Paris. The void pushes the flames out, reigns them in, allows them to travel through the logs freely. It is not the amount of information one stores that determines success; it is the ability to harness that information, to channel it, and to sustain it in the most flexible manner.

Dance like the fire.

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