Cleansing by fire
I had a very special 21st birthday. It did not involve drinking margaritas and mudslides until the next day slid to the floor and just sort of stayed there in a stupor of sugar pounding hangover while I hung on to the ground. That happened later. It’s so good to have friends who take care of that sort of thing. ’Cause it looked like I wasn’t going to get to have that kind of 21st birthday. And that would’ve been a shame, wouldn’t it?
In my 20th year I was living in Santa Cruz on Broadway Street. Broadway was about a mile long I think — a very ambitiously named little street. A block away was a grocery store that had been there for something like 120 years. That’s probably an exaggeration, but not by much. And when you’d watch the butchers cleave and slice on their two foot thick butcher blocks, saddle shaped from years and years of pounding the protein, you could easily believe that their grandfather’s and theirs before wore the same apron and brought their blades down in just the same practiced way.
You know, it only just occurred to me that for decades and decades the inhabitants of that neighborhood had been slowly eating those butcher blocks, chopped into their lamb chops and flank steaks bit by bit, until those block tops dove and swaled like surreal topologies of some esoteric geometry. I hope hard-wood maple is nutritious.
We lived in a hundred-year old house. No exaggeration. It was beautiful — a Victorian with 12 foot ceilings and lots of windows that wouldn’t open. And a couple that did. I was working as a cabinet maker at the time. I had been attending UCSC a couple years earlier, but I got tired of changing my major and wasting my parent’s money. I had no clue what I was doing or why, so I decided to become a cabinet maker — why not?
My grandmother was the only one in the family who wasn’t surprised. Apparently there are quite a few carpenters and woodworkers in my ancestry so it made sense to her. Good thing, because it didn’t really make sense to me — just felt like a roll of the dice.
That was my first flirtation with creative visualization. I had decided, for whatever reason, that I wanted to try cabinet making. So I went to a cabinet shop just off Hwy 1 on the north end of town and talked to a guy there, just trying to find out, you know, how do you become a cabinet maker anyway?
He told me about how you start as a sander and what that’s like. His name was Rick.He was from New Zealand and he looked EXACTLY like you’d expect a Master Woodworker from New Zealand to look. I mean exactly. Go ahead and picture that. I swear you could talk to a police sketch artist right now and come out with a drawing that would’ve gotten him hauled in.
A couple days later I got a phone call from a totally different guy I’d never met. “I hear you’re looking for a job as a sander?” He asked. (So… note to self, if you want something, go have some random conversations about how people get that — you’d be amazed at what can come from doing this.) That was Eric. Eric owned a cabinet shop and took a chance on me as a sander. He and Rick were close friends, and had come out from Boston together where they had been doing nefarious woodworking (yes, there is such a thing), and they were both brilliant woodworkers. I remember Eric showed me a couple of ball and claw chair/table legs that Rick had carved. They were eagle legs with talons grasping perfect spheres. They were amazing adventures in detail.
Eric once let me see the hope chest he had made for his wife when he was much younger. Such a touching bit of tradition that. The top was a carved pastoral scene of beautiful abundance, just extraordinary. Those guys seduced me into loving wood and I still do. I learned more from Eric than I did in those first two years at UCSC. Including how to sharpen my chisel to a razor fineness that bordered on fetish. Ok, it was fetish, but that thing was f&*$% sharp.
Very soon after I started there I was sanding some drawer parts or something on a corner of a big table that was all cluttered with crap. They were big tables — like 6 feet by 10 or something like that — so they could really stack up. He came over walking fast (he always walked fast) with a sort of smile that said, ‘oh jeeze’ and said ‘First thing you do when you set out to work is clean your space.’ Then we took all that stuff off the table, and HE SANDED THE TABLE. Took about 90 seconds and it was like breathing mountain air after that. Well, not really, because the air (and my contact lenses) were full of sawdust all the time in there, but it was so much easier to think and work after that. Great efficiency tip — always work in a clean space.
Anyway, I shared that house with Ann (my girlfriend), Brandy and our cat Amanda. Ann’s birthday was (well, still is…) the day before mine. Along with the 12 foot ceilings that old house also had an old floor furnace that hadn’t been cleaned in 50 years or so, and about midnight between Ann’s birthday and mine some lint or schmutz or something down in that furnace caught fire and drifted up on the draft and caught the back of our couch on fire.
Ann had (well, probably still has…) an extraordinarily sensitive olfactory sense — lucky thing. She woke up smelling smoke, saw the fire and woke me up. I yelled to wake up Brandy while Ann started trying to open windows to get out of the building. There were five windows in our bedroom and only one on the end opened. She started on the other end. Adrenalin. It’s just not your friend when deliberative thinking is called for.
But she saved our lives that night. The firemen would later tell us that for this kind of thing they generally expect to be pulling body bags out of the building. (Tip for any firemen reading this — don’t say this kind of thing to us. It might be cool from your POV but… it’s just not what you want to hear right then, ok?)
You know, I don’t think I ever explicitly thanked her for that. Ann, thank you so much for saving my life, for saving all of us. Everything that I’ve had since then, everything that’s happened to me — it’s all your fault.
That was a weird night. I remember standing there looking at the fire. At that time it was just on the couch, the flames about five feet wide coming off it about 6 feet up, short of the ceiling. And I’m thinking, “It’s just the couch… can I flip it over or something?” Then some kinda switch flipped in my head and I was like “Just get out! Get out!” So I ran outside with a long-sleeved red shirt tied around my waste (I slept in the buff). We couldn’t find Amanda and were terrified that she couldn’t get out (she did). Then I remembered that my synthesizers, my most prized possessions, were on that couch and I went back in the house to get them.
I made it about four feet past the front door. Don’t ever do that by the way. Not for anything that isn’t alive. And if you do — if there’s no other choice and you have to — …for god’s sake duck. Get real low. The room had flashed over — that is, the temperature had reached the kindling point for the walls, so the back two walls of the living room were entirely sheeted in flame all the way to the ceiling, which was also a giant sheet of flame. I got one lungful of that smoke, and we’re talking burning TV’s, records, rugs, curtains, paint, and it sent me reeling backwards out of the house stumbling down the porch stairs. I couldn’t laugh for a week — just a Quasimodish hiss.
Then the glass started exploding. Glass, it turns out, can explode. Who knew? When it gets hot enough in a house fire the combination of the temperature and air pressure makes the windows explode. All the glass breaks at once. It’s quite a sound. Even now if I hear glass breaking just right it still brings it back.
About this time we heard the sirens coming and saw the fire truck in the distance rolling up Broadway from the north. Then they drove past us.
I’m a pretty tall and gangly guy — and I was much more so then (more gangly, not taller). I was also naked except for a barely adequate shirt/skirt that at that moment probably looked more like really slutty cocktail wear and I was dancing around in the middle of the moonlit boulevard yelling at the blaring fire truck that had just driven by my burning house. Hopefully that image provides you some amusement. At the time I didn’t find it so amusing.
Turns out they needed to turn around for some reason and they could only do that at the next intersection so they came right back and in the next few hours put out the damn fire. Those people are freaking angels and heroes I swear. If you’ve never had the misfortune to need their rescue just know that when you hear those sirens very often someone else does right then, and there are people trying to run into the fire to get them. Unbelievable. So pull over for god’s sake.
I don’t remember how we got to the next day. My wonderful friend Michael and his incredibly generous family took us in after that — we might have gone there that night, I can’t remember. But I remember coming back to the house the next day. It was still standing. 12 foot ceilings have some real advantages. But it was gutted. We had lost almost everything we owned to the fire or the smoke.
It was a surreal experience. The heat differential in a house fire is intense. The smoke line was about two feet off the floor. On the bathroom window sill the plastic whatsits were totally melted. On the counter 6 inches below they were intact. My Raybans (Blues Brothers style — couldn’t not have Raybans, right?) had melted into a perfect oval with the two lenses intact and the little diamonds sitting symmetrically along side. My synthesizers were melted twisted skeletons looking like fossils from some crazy prehistoric birds. It was like Salvador Dali had attacked our home.
Everything I owned was gone. 200 tapes, 100 albums, my stereo, TV, shelves, furniture, all my books, my keyboards, my bike, my clothes, my childhood knick knacks, memorabilia and little past prizes. My baseball mitt. My shoes. All my drawings. Everything I had ever written… everything was gone.
But I was still there.
It was exhilarating. Looking around at all this stuff that I thought was me. I thought it defined me, I thought it WAS me. And there it was, a pile of ashen slag in the middle of the room, and me, light as a feather, looking at it in amazement.
Things are little anchors, little ties and bits of chain that hold us in place in time. That bind us to some past version of ourselves. That protect us from the uncertain mystery of our own unfolding, from the discovery, as we slowly, inexorably become something else. Could there be anything more frightening than finding out that you are not who you thought you were?
I had never felt so free in my life, so grateful in my life. It was an amputation, a lopping off of all that fear. Nothing to protect, anymore.
After that I wouldn’t keep more stuff than I could fit in my little Mazda pick-up truck. When I’d move, if it didn’t fit, it didn’t come with me. It was probably 15 years before I started accumulating things again, and still I don’t have many things today.
Now, I’m not saying heap all your stuff in the yard and burn it, or give it all away to folks more needy than yourself. But do me a favor, take a look around you at all the stuff you have, and think about all the other stuff you have that you can’t see right now, and just for a minute or two, know that you COULD. You could watch it all walk away… and be just fine. Maybe better than fine.
Maybe there is, even now, a newer you, looking out of your eyes that doesn’t care about that stuff at all — that is entirely occupied with something new, something next, something now. And if it all did walk away, or if it was taken from you by fire or force, what would be freed in you? How would you want to greet the next day?
Try that tomorrow.
Maybe you can have a cleansing fire without all the fuss of trying to get the smell out of your clothes.
We are so much more than we think we are. We are so much freer than we think we are. We are luminous…
…and for the most part, looking down.
I am certainly as guilty of this as anyone, and it’s helpful for me to remember that time, an anchor to the past that’s so worth keeping, that reminds me to let go –that the miracle is everywhere, right now.
So Happy Birthday Michael — and thanks for the margaritas, the mudslides, the shelter, and the priceless friendship.