I once spent a night alone in a biologist’s cabin in Garden Valley, Idaho. It was January and the entire valley was padded with a foot of powdery snow. I was doing a clinical rotation in that small town and the doctor I worked with had an arrangement with the family that owned this cabin, that it could house PA students during their clinical rotations, when it was not otherwise in use.
My 1998 Saturn SL with bald tires couldn’t even make it through town without getting stuck, much less the one-lane mountain road on which the cabin stood. The doctor drove me to the cabin in his Suburban, handing me a key and pointing me to the porch of the snowy structure before driving off into the dark. There was no cell service.
The cabin felt lived in. The bed sheets carried the scent of the last sleeper. Personal objects were left about in a way that suggested someone would be back soon to resume their use. A layer of cat hair rested over the couch and carpeting, but it was interspersed with downy feathers. The owner was a falconer—at least I knew this much to explain the mice in the freezer.
There was an electric heater in the wall of the kitchen that ticked and clanged softly as it warmed and then cooled and then warmed again. The thermostat read 50 degrees—certainly warm enough not to freeze, but not warm enough to be comfortable. I worked on that thermostat attempting to adjust the temperature up, but it would not respond. So I cooked my ramen noodles and stood over the counter eating them while dressed in my coat and hat. Standing while eating a meal at the kitchen counter, or over the kitchen sink, is a lonely way to dine but somehow feels less lonely than finding a seat.
When I finished, I set out exploring the space. I found a wood stove off of the living room in the back of the cabin and there was some wood stacked neatly beside it. I had some experience with wood stoves so I thought I could probably get a fire going and that might keep the space more comfortable until morning. But I couldn’t find an axe or hatchet to hew the quartered logs into kindling. I knelt on concrete, pulling and willing pieces of wood from those logs, praying for the crackle of a fire to break the silence of the alien landscape. I worked and I prayed and I struck matches and watched them burn out.
There would be no fire that night. I would unroll my sleeping bag in the bedroom nearest the kitchen, and therefore the warmest, the one that smelled most strongly of cats. I would dress against the cold in my heavy sweat pants, jacket and hat before zipping myself in. I would lie awake in the dark smelling the absent cats and listening to to the tick, tick, tick of the electric heater and then the deafening silence, until I wandered into a dream and onto the cold, morning light.
If fire represents spirit (think Moses’ burning bush or offerings consumed by flame), isn’t there a similarity happening this time of year? Each year, as darkness overtakes the land, a stagnation, a silence settles in me, like ice on the pond, and I can’t imagine Spring because I am entombed by the layer crusted overhead.
I guess we have different words to describe this, like “seasonal affective disorder,” “winter depression,” or just “hibernation.” To call it a disorder has always felt a little unfair to me. After all, isn’t there a rhythm to existence that nature consistently bends and sways with, but we, as humans, do our best to ignore?
When I consider the way humans have lived through most of history, without magical boxes in the walls that produce heating and cooling, it seems obvious we’ve moved away from the natural rhythm of life. Especially in December when all the world is shutting down but we are rushing to buy gifts, make charitable contributions to offset taxes, and fit in last minute medical and dental procedures because we’ve met a deductible.
But what happens to the home fires with all of this rushing around? I have a good friend and a sister with only a wood stove for heating their homes. They must think about the fire before leaving the house if they want to return to warmth. And when the fire goes out, it takes time and energy to heat the space again. Keeping the hearth fire going, or at least having the ability to make a fire when needed, was a critical job throughout most of time.
I remember the cold of that night when I couldn’t start a fire and I wonder now, how do I tend to the fire? Now that darkness has settled in. Now that the chill of night only gives way to a stiff wind and puff of rain. How do I nourish myself and others? How do I generate warmth and light?
Joseph Campbell wrote, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again. You really don’t have a sacred space, a rescue land, until you find somewhere to be that’s not a wasteland, some field of action where there is a spring of ambrosia—a joy that comes from inside, not something external that puts joy into you—a place that lets you experience your own will and your own intention and your own wish so that, in small, the Kingdom is there. I think everybody, whether they know it or not, is in need of such a place.”
We all need a place, a designated time and space, where we can tend to the hearth of our creative spirit. We need conversation with our gods, whether they be personal values, ethical codes or actual deity that influence life here on earth. After all, our relationship with the spiritual is a reflection of our relationships with each other.
But, as that cold night reminded me, fires built without ignition must be built with the tiniest pieces first. Lying bits of wood and paper, gently blowing and then feeding, blowing and then feeding, laying a foundation from which to coax the flames into a roaring inferno. The creative life is no different. There is something very beautiful about putting a spark to the cold ground, protecting it, feeding it, as it grows slowly to the point where you have an actual fire in your life—an understanding of your purpose here, your inspiration, your selfhood, your meaning.
There is nothing more fulfilling or more important than building such a roaring flame, if for no other reason than when it goes out, you know how to bring it back.