I came home from work today and built a fire in the backyard. Cheryl has one of those little steel fire-bowls. She's had some pretty big limbs in her yard that blew down months ago and there was something in the chill of the wind as I arrived home that made me think, "It's time to stare at some flames."
Staring at fire is good for people. At least, it's good for me. I find it almost impossible to watch flames dancing without opening a floodgate of memories. My memories today were mostly of Greg Hungerford, my best friend, who departed this world a few months ago. Greg and I lived about a two hour drive apart for the last five or six years; our time together during these years didn't involve much in the way of setting fires. But once... once...
For several years, I lived on the outskirts of a little town called Stokesdale, NC. I had a two acre lot near the end of a dead end road, and at some point before I bought the property a storm had torn through a stand of pine trees behind a huge shed and knocked over a dozen or so of them. Pretty much the day I moved in, I invested in a chain saw and some cinder blocks. I used the cinder blocks to form a large circle to serve as a firepit behind the shed, and set to work clearing out all the fallen trees one bonfire at a time. Some of these were party events, attended by dozens of people. But, most of them were just me, going out behind the shed in the evening, with a chainsaw and an axe, turning a half acre of fallen trees into an slowly growing empty space.
Back then, Greg lived only ten miles away, so at least once a week, sometimes more, he'd come over in the evenings and we'd stand around the fire, arguing politics and melting things. Glass bottles melt up nicely in a hot fire. And, if you get a fire hot enough and big enough, you can stand out in the woods in the middle of a fairly decent snow storm and still stay warm and semi-dry.
Something about standing in a small, hot circle of light in the middle of a dark winter night is conducive to honest conversation. Greg and I were both going through some struggles back them. My marriage was falling apart. He was a single father with a young daughter and was having trouble back then holding down a job. Both of us were in that phase of life where it was getting harder and harder to pretend we were still young men just starting out in the world. We were in our late thirties, and beginning to become aware that maybe we hadn't accomplished all we wanted to yet, and were somewhat at a loss to say where things had gone wrong, or even, truth be told, what it was that we had wanted. Clear goal setting wasn't a particular strength for either of us. Even a month before he died, Greg was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. I, on the other hand, have known since my mid-twenties exactly what I wanted to do with my life--I wanted to be a novelist, and to make a living at it. I just have never quite figured out the sure path to get there. The whole writing the books part... that I've got sussed. But making a living at it? Still a mystery.
So, Greg and I would talk about our doubts, as well as our dreams, as we turned pine trees into ash. And, I know there are people who go to therapists to talk through their problems, and some people who turn to religion, or even medication, to find a little peace. But, I really believe that what kept Greg and me sane through those tough years was the ability to go out and start a fire. There's something very primal about tending a fire beneath the stars. Something that connects back to the deepest human roots, reminds us of how we have pulled ourselves up out of animalness, that we are not just creatures of instincts and urges that we can't understand or control but are, in fact, masters of our world. We have the intelligence to build a fire, a dangerous, destructive thing, and keep it safely controlled, and take from it light and heat and memories.
Of course, eventually, with all fires, there comes a point where you've burned up all the fuel, and the embers that remain begin to smother beneath their own ash. Perhaps that's true of life as well; all that brightness and warmth must inevitably turn to cooling, ashed over cinders. You can't burn forever. But sometimes, even when the fire has died down to flickering wisps, you can still stir the ashes and send a shower of sparks heavenward.
Tonight, my memories of Greg are such sparks.