I almost burned the house down.
Years ago, when we lived in Auburn, Alabama. Every morning I would light a candle or some incense in the bathroom. One morning, when I scratched the strike anywhere kitchen match against the box, the head of the match broke off and went sailing into the trashcan. I paused and peered inside, looking for the match head amongst the wads of tissue, gobs of hair, and other junk. Seemed okay. Went on about my business.
When we got home that evening, the house smelled like smoke. Oh shit.
We went to our bedroom and the doorway to the bathroom was sooty. Oh shit.
Looking inside, we found the shower door shattered--pieces of glass all over the floor, in the tub, the sink, everywhere. Oh shit.
The trashcan had caught fire and lit a towel that had been hanging on the shower door. When conflagration reached some critical temperature, the glass exploded. That’s what put the fire out. That’s what prevented our house from burning down.
I don’t remember when I stopped breathing. Maybe it was seeing the smoke damage on the ceiling or the blistered paint on the wall. Maybe it was the smell that trapped my breath in my body. And I was clenched tight, ready to accept whatever angry tirade my husband gave me. I deserved it. It was all my fault.
My beloved turned to me. I’d never seen his face more serious, never in the almost ten years we’d been together. He looked deep into my eyes and said, “No more matches in the bathroom, okay?”
And that was it.
No flames singing my eyebrows. No screaming. No profanity. He just gave me a hug and that was that. And he’s never brought it up again.
But deep down, I expected anger. Not just from him. From just about everybody. You see, I’d grown up with flames all around me. My dad was a rage-a-holic.
I’d never really considered how that formed me, my daddy’s rage and all that flame throwing, until after he passed away. It had never occurred to me that I’d lived practically my whole life clenched, braced, tensed for the next tirade, the next spewing lava hot screaming fit. Every night now, I wake up and remind myself to relax. It feels weird to first realize that I’m jamming my jaw shut or digging my elbows into my ribs and then to feel the relief of letting that go. Over and over again.
There’s a lot to let go of.
Metaphorically, this summer, my house burned down.
My business partnership broke up. My dad died. All my sources of remuneration went up in flames.
The place in my head where I lived, the possessions I deemed important: my dreams, my ambitions, the plans, the trappings of my image of myself--all are in ashes, white and powdery, scattered across my inner landscape.
David Whyte, in his incredible audio book, What to Remember When Waking talks about the necessity of this sort of cremation, one that’s required to reach the ultimate authenticity, the deep sound of your genuine. “What’s called for,” he says, “...is a radical form of simplification. That whatever complications you’d arranged for yourself... there’s the eye of a needle that you have to pass through... and that many of the things you were wearing or carrying or you had as a burden on your back, have to been unfastened or dropped aside.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the sadhus of India. These are holy men and women who take on extraordinary acts of religious devotion. Some of them live in the cremation grounds--and they go naked and smear their bodies with ashes. Supposedly, this is meant to signify the transience of our earthly existence. But I see their practices somewhat differently now.
“We are frequently tempted to censor difficulties, to hide them even from ourselves,” writes Monsignor Massimo Camisasca. But self censoring becomes a “diabolical act,” an act “born of the fear of losing the positive image that others have of us. ...to hide your own limits, your own problems, really doesn’t make any sense. You do not find freedom from your own miseries by censoring them but by handing them over to Christ, which is to say, by letting him embrace them.”
Or, in my case, immolating them, a burnt offering. Burning down the house.
With everything burned away, there is great freedom. Smeared with ashes and reeking of smoke, there is no concern with reputation or image. All the dross, the trivial, the mundane is scorched off. The tightness, the grasping, the clenching--all released. With nothing left to lose, there is nothing to protect and nothing to fear.
And what remains after the conflagration is the essential.
Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. And a faint fragrance, a sweet whiff of might be frankincense or myrrh.