Burn Baby, Burn

When I was  fourteen, I loved starting fires. I particularly enjoyed pouring gasoline on things, tossing on a match, hearing the “whoosh,” and watching things burn.

(I liked blowing things up too.  But we’ll save that for another blog.)

While aware that my penchant for fires may have been symptomatic of  pyromania, I suspect a fair number of teenage boys go through a faze like this. And I am happy to report that I seem to have outgrown this predilection.

Nevertheless, there is something fundamental in the power of fire.

In the late summer of 1988, a number of small fires in Yellowstone National Park came together to form the largest wildfire in recorded history. The fire raged uncontrolled and unabated for months.  It burned nearly 800,000 acres; over a third of the park.

The park was closed.  Bureaucrats debated fire management.  And with vast swaths of the classic Yellowstone landscape destroyed, there were widespread predictions of economic calamity.

During many of the summers that followed the fire, I drove through Yellowstone on my way to the Tetons. The scale of the devastation was unimaginable:  mile after mile after mile of barren landscape.  Nothing seemed to survive.

Yet it did.  And not only that, it thrived.

In a few short summers, the wild flowers appeared everywhere among the charred remains of trees.  And  soon the scrub brush appeared.  And not many years later, the trees.  And the forest became lush again.  And full of life.

Fire cleans things out.

It is the same in our lives.  The fire of change.  The fire of uncertainty.  The fire of calamity. Things get shaken up.  The earth gets scorched. We get burned. New growth happens.

Fires provide energy. And light. And heat.

Sometimes we need to start the fire. (Or have a fire started under us!) Sometimes we need to mix it up.  We get complacent. Debris clutters our lives.  We become stagnant.

Sometime we just need to be reminded.

Our funny and engaging friend Dan’s all too soon death ten days ago whacked us upside the head and called us once more to ask the hard questions:  Are we living deeply enough, thoughtfully enough?  Are we sucking the marrow out of each day? Are we nurturing the relationships that matter? Are we living our path with heart? And with zeal? Or are we muddling through? Do we know in the soles of our feet how blessed we are? Or are we caught up in our own self-centered kvetching?

Strategic coach Dan Miller asks: “do you need a small fire in your life?”

The mystic William NcNamara writes, “I think of the young novice in the desert who went to the elder, the holy man of God, and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little Rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts.  Now, what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said: ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?'”

There is no time for “little.”

McNamara goes on to say, ” Few of us have the courage to burn – to be totally called, awesomely marked, thoroughly spent, and imperiously sent.”  Because of fear.

We have such a propensity for quiet desperation and mediocrity.

Are we living a life that burns?

Burn with passion. Burn with gratitude. Burn with joy.

Shadows on the Ridge

And in the midst of the garden stood the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

— Genesis 2:9

It was minus 20 and my fingers ached from the cold.

I glanced up at the ridge.  The shadow was still deep. It would be another hour, at least, before the sun pulled around and began to warm the air.

The pack repair I was working on was going poorly. The thin air and low light challenged my patience.

I shut my eyes to refocus.  I longed for warmth.  In a momentary dream, I imagined myself transported from the arctic winter, working in my back yard, in my shorts and tee shirt, the summer sun beating down on me, the sweat pouring off me.  And I smiled.

When I opened my eyes, my fingers were so cold that I wondered if I could ever rewarm them.

A mere three weeks later, I was in my back yard.  The temperature 110 degrees hotter than it had been on that morning in the Genet Basin.  The sweat poured off of me. I was miserably hot. I closed my eyes and pictured myself walking along the Kahiltna again, the wind driving against my face.  And I smiled.

Life in the extremes. Necessarily so, it seems.

Several years ago, I read a fascinating reflection by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor entitled Living With The Devil, A Meditation on Good and Evil.  Batchelor postulates that evil is necessary, that the devil is necessary, in order for us to know Good.  And that only by knowing Good, can we comprehend the devil.  “For just as there can be no shadow without a body to cast it, there can be no devil without a buddha (an awake one) to know him.”

In her fascinating new book Being Wrong, the journalist Kathryn Schulz argues that it is essential to understand – at a fundamental level – what it is to be wrong in order to comprehend adequately what it is to be right; that the study – and implementation – of “wrongology” is indispensable to our imagination and creativity, indeed to our very humanity.

Business coach Dan Miller speaks of the success he discovered only through the devastating losses that he suffered.  That had it not been for his failure, he would not have found the success he enjoys.  “The irony is that, if I had continued on the path I was on…, I would certainly not be where I am today,” he writes.

It wasn’t many years ago that I sat with Peggy, my counselor and friend, filled with feelings of despair and loneliness and hopelessness.  I hadn’t fared well in a number of relationships.  And I wasn’t keen on risking my heart ever again. Peggy, a fan of C. S. Lewis, quoted the final lines from the movie Shadowlands:

“Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

I seem to recall that her cinematic intervention pissed me off at the time.  But she was right.  Oh the joy I came to find.

But how to know it without the sorrow?

The deal is that we don’t really get to choose.

Perhaps our intrinsic predisposition for discontent with things as they are is a genetic imperative to know things as they are not.

Spring flows from winter,  light from dark, hot from cold.  Love out of emptiness. Life from death. And back again. And again. One not possible without the other. Both necessary to make the whole.

Opting for safety doesn’t buy us much. A life of mediocrity perhaps.

“To fuck up is to find adventure,” says Schulz.

Amen I say.

Dream Catcher

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

— Joel 2:28


The  word has a bad rep.  It connotes laziness. Distraction. Fuzziness.  Idealism.

To dream suggests that we are not fully present, that we are somehow disconnected from reality.

“Get real,” we tell dreamers.

And some dreams can be pretty damn weird.

But many are visions, hopes, and aspirations that reside in the recesses of our minds. They may represent things we want to do, to achieve, to have, to be. They can form a mosaic of our lives made whole.

Our dreams are our own silent visitors from an unconscious world that inspire us to create; that urge us up in the morning; that drive us forward.  They are the engines of our heart.

Climbing Denali was a dream for me.  Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to climb The High One: the one that rose up out of the plains with the highest uplift in the world, the one with the coldest temperatures and the the most ferocious winds; the epic storied one that has always challenged  mountaineers from around the globe. Inspired by a book my father gave me, I dreamed of being an explorer;  of walking on Denali’s glaciers, climbing through Denali Pass, traversing beneath the Archdeacon’s Tower,  and standing on its summit.

And I did.

It was a somewhat curious dream.  Not terribly practical.  Or “useful.” Some would say downright inconvenient (Ann), especially as I contemplated the third attempt in eighteen years.

But dreams aren’t always logical.  Many don’t make sense to other people.

But they don’t have to.  Our dreams belong to us.

Dreams are sometimes vivid, sometimes not, sometimes odd, always elusive.

But many whisper to us.  Of  joy, of hope, of possibility. Of life fulfilled.

I love the symbol of the dreamcatcher.  Woven in webs with sinew, The Chippewas believed that by sleeping beneath these hoops, they could sift out the “bad” dreams and capture the good.  

Too few of us capture and pursue our dreams. And time is not our friend. “Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time, ” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  “Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”

Time will rob us if we let it. The clock will run out.

Tony Robbins says:  “We’re so caught up in all we have to do – be sure to take the time to stop, be silent.  Listen to the whispers of Destiny… guidance is waiting.”

The Carmelite mystic William McNamara admonishes us: take long, loving leisurely looks at the real.

We must take the time to touch our dreams, to cradle them, to nurture them, to bring them to life. (No one else will.)

Reclaim Your Dreams is the title of Jonathan Mead’s excellent e-book.

I hear so many of my contemporaries talk of being “too busy,” “too out of shape,” “too old” to do what they otherwise might do. That the time for fulfilling the dreams they once had has passed.

That’s bullshit.

“The best is yet to come,” Sinatra crooned.

“Your car goes where your eye goes,” writes Garth Stein in his beautifully crafted bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain.

Your heart goes if you will but follow.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined,” wrote Thoreau.

Denali was my dream.  (There are more, of course!)

What are yours?

Photo of Dream Catcher courtesy of Todd Louis of DreamCatcher.com.  © Todd Lewis/DreamCatcher