After the Fire

I did not mean to take a two-week break from “Vessel.”

I started this blog for two reasons:

One, to get my work out and force myself into a weekly deadline in the hope that this would impact my approach to my memoir-in-progress.

Two, to give you a glimpse into my life as a writer.

I have to admit, I don’t feel like much of a writer these days. I still carry a journal in my purse to jot down lines of dialogue borrowed from a couple at a neighboring café table or images that strike me as I’m driving. I still write in a journal almost every day, but my long, quiet mornings feel like a thing of the past. And my writing coach is traveling. And I am not in grad school anymore. And I am teaching four workshops a week. And I don’t live alone anymore. And I am up against, well, actually, long past two important deadlines.

So this post comes, not on Thursday, June 3, or even Saturday, June 12 as I’d hoped, but today, as Henry and our neighbor Joseph harvest sweet peas, and the coffee I drank over the weekend surfaces on my calves and torso as itchy raised bumps, and I think of confessing, yet again, to my acupuncturist that I have failed to follow her strict guidelines to avoid the “heating” foods that irritate my digestive system and skin. Chile, coffee, wine. There is a long list of other foods, but these are the three that matter most, the three I find it most difficult to extricate from my life. She assured me the change was temporary, that once my body had cooled itself, I could return to moderate consumption of my three favorite food groups. But it’s been three months, and though the rash has cleared from my back and arms and no longer wakes me at night, it still hasn’t disappeared completely. So now it is time to acknowledge something out loud that I have known for several months: the fire is still in my body.

No hot flashes or night sweats. That’s just the thing. The heat is trapped. I picture blood vessels like the faulty wires in the walls of the unit where the fire started, sparking and smoking beneath the surface, weeks, maybe months, before the heat grew so intense that the walls combusted.

When I was in sixth grade, I discovered a Time/Life book series hardcover called Mysteries of the Unexplained. I don’t know how the book came to our house, if my parents were swayed by its inclusion in a subscription package or if one of my brothers had brought it home from the library. But there it was on the living room couch, the book jacket gone, only its black cloth binding with silver letters embossed on the spine and front to beckon me into tales of Siamese twins, haunted houses and UFO sightings. But the stories that haunted me most were those of Spontaneous Human Combustion, the term used to describe the alleged burning of a human being with no apparent source of ignition. The book contained eyewitness accounts of men and women who were going about their everyday activities when, suddenly, they burst into flames, leaving behind only black smudge marks and the odor of singed hair.

I lived in fear of Spontaneous Human Combustion. It seemed a horribly unfair way to die. I paid close and careful attention to Sister Rosalie when she visited our Wednesday afternoon catechism class and warned us of the myriad roads to hell. Even a good kid, like me, could get hit by a car on the way to confession and end up in the wrong place. I reasoned that I could use extra caution when crossing the street to St. Ann’s, or better yet, get my mom to park on the church side of the street, so I wouldn’t have to cross at all. And even if I were to get hit, surely I would have time to pray an Act of Contrition before my spirit left my body. But Spontaneous Human Combustion! What’s a paranoid, Catholic, twelve-year-old girl to do?

From Wikepedia: “While there have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years, most of the alleged cases are characterized by the lack of a thorough investigation, or rely heavily on hearsay and oral testimony. In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred ‘spontaneously.’”

That might have helped.

What helped more—then and now—is faith, which feels easy when people are not spontaneously combusting. It felt easy before my apartment burned to the ground. Faith felt easy before Henry, before I loved someone enough to really want this to work—and to question what it really means for a relationship to work.

Here is what I did not know when fears of Spontaneous Human Combustion and neglectful drivers in front of St. Ann’s inhabited my mind: Faith is not something we either have or don’t have. It does not leave us in moments when we fall short of who and what we were put here to be and then magically return as we step into a church. It must be cultivated, tended. Mass helps. Confession helps. Rituals that remind us who we are and put us back on the path we were meant to walk. Therapy helps. Acupuncture helps. But if I’m going to get this fire out of my body, I need some traditional Mexican medicine. It’s time for rosemary to sweep away this susto. Time to call my curanderismo-practicing comadre. It’s time for a limpia.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 8:24 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Please don’t worry about the date you post your entries. I know I’m not alone in saying I’m glad to read your entries whenever you can put them up, Michelle.

    Sorry, though, about the rash. Nasty business–when our very own body seems to betray us.

    Hasta la proxima,

  2. It’s been three weeks, will the blog survive?

    • Thanks for the prompt, Fred Mertz! Look for a new post tomorrow (Thursday) morning at 8.

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