“You have too much fire,” my acupuncturist announces, reading the signs. My flushed face, burgundy tongue, rapid, jittery pulse. I pull off my shirt and lie face down on the soft cotton sheets of the treatment table. Lightning quick, she flicks tiny needles into my skin. Pinpricks of electricity zing the top of my head, back of my neck, along both sides of my spine. Then the webbing between thumb and forefinger, and the space between ankle and Achilles. She lays a cool hand on the small of my back and breathes, “Rest. I’ll be back later.” I exhale deeply, savoring this pleasure on the knife-edge of pain.
When I was small my father taught me to extinguish candles with bare fingers. I learned young to reach for flame.
A childhood of summers spent at sleep-away camp sparked an affection for the dry snap crackle of campfires. Eastern white pine, red oak, and paper birch. Charred marshmallows and crispy black-skinned hotdogs. Sitting cross-legged on pine needles, I leaned toward the flames, staring, as if determining whether friend or foe. The bold scarlets and ochres drew me in; the elusive cobalts and violets kept me there. Unable to look away, though my eyes burned.
There were other fires of childhood, stoked by a father who hit a mother. By a mother who wailed. By nights spent wide awake willing myself not to listen to the screaming. Acid burned in the pit of my stomach.
When I was five I shattered the glass of the front door with my fist. I wanted out.
Eighteen years later, when I did get out, fire stayed with me. I moved west, found the incense smoke of juniper, fir, and cedar. Wild singing fires, ardent laughing fires, and fervent naked dancing fires. Outdoor school naturalist fires I arranged with my own hands, then lit and supervised as if they were unruly children. And the cleansing fires of prescribed burns.
Adulthood ignited other flames. Sensual heat of skin on skin. Men. Women. Spring fevers, summer passions, fall restlessness and winter smolderings.
I learned to create fire without matches. That with the right fuel and fortitude, friction transforms wood into smoking black dust, a dust that when added to tinder, I could blow into flame. The combustion of my own breath.
With creation came destruction.
Mysterious hives, inflamed joints, explosive anger, mania. A searing rage I tried to cut out of me with razors and shards of glass. The same burn drove me into tattoo studios to endure hours of needles drilling colors into skin. Inky flames forever on my back.
I watched a fuming father drown in whisky. Saw the spark go out in his eyes. His heart. His body. Until he was extinguished.
Not everyone can take the heat. But I learned young to reach for flame.
I fanned my own fire. I stalked it, moved wherever it led me. Zigzagging across the country, I zip-lined off bridges in New Hampshire, banded raptors in Nevada, tended bobcats in Florida, massaged at a hot springs commune in Oregon, taught fire ecology in the Colorado Rockies, and learned wilderness survival in Washington.
I sought out the cleansing fire of a New Year’s ceremony, a community bonfire fed with offerings and prayers. The leader raked the day-long fire into glowing coals as twilight advanced. That frozen day, too clear and cold to snow, I removed boots and wool socks, rolled up pants, scrunched up long underwear and stepped toward the glow. Then walked calmly, almost floating, onto the coals. I felt only a tingling ache in my toes and the ecstasy of a phoenix resurrected from her own ashes. My feet turned black, but did not burn. The key is to keep moving.
She comes to take the needles out. Flicks them out of my feet, hands, back, neck, and head. I sit up and pull on my shirt, breathing evenly. Calm for now. She tells me to go easy on spicy food, beating sun, scalding baths. To avoid stressful situations. I smile and say nothing.
I will always reach for flame. The ache on the knife-edge of ecstasy. There is no other way. There is no such thing as too much fire.