after a fire.

by Michael King

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After a fire, it is human nature to sit, to drape a blanket around our shoulders and stare out and ponder, to consider the days and weeks and months leading in. How did I get here, we ask ourselves, our faces charred by black smoke, our organs recoiling from the flames remembered. We inhale; we exhale. We are never more present in our bodies than when we are healing.

In the days that follow, we find our feet. We stand, unsteady, and we begin taking forward steps. How can we so quickly forget how to be? The hours in the day become a series of steps: Wake up, take a shower, get dressed, get lunch, reach out to friends, clean the apartment, go for a run, consider a haircut, do yoga, try making dinner, order Chinese food, call home, wrap up in a blanket, try to feel, try not to feel, laugh, cry, laugh-cry. Each step requires stubbornness; how was it so easy before? In the days following a fire, every step is an act of self-love.

Stare for a moment, if you will, at a flame. Watch it dance, licking upwards in hunger. Then, without warning, close your eyes. There you will still find it, in the dark, an unnerving blend of blue, green, and black, still dancing. So it is in the weeks that follow the fire. As we become stronger, as we become confident once more to walk, even to run, the flames still stretch through past the surface. Startled, we pause. Old wounds still react. Sometimes, we take it in stride; at others, we submit to the frustration, the pain, the emptiness. We remember the things we lost.

It is a fool’s mission to try and rebuild ourselves into the people we were before. Fire is, if nothing else, transformative. There are pieces of us, things perhaps too heavy or too fragile, that we are forced to leave behind so as to escape. The process of restoring ourselves, of bolstering our bones and reinvigorating our hearts, can only be done with new materials. Some parts of us, the things we grab before we scramble to safety, will always survive. These are our absolutes. Everything else has to be patched in, repurposed, reinvented. We become a blend of the before and the after.

After a fire, we are called to watch the smoke billow into the sky. We consider it, the rising embodiment of the things we lost, scattering to the stars as we sit and feel what it is to be apart. Where in the world do I go next, we may begin to ask.

The question is accompanied by fear, by uncertainty, by a startling sense of smallness in a large world. These drape across us like coats, beckoning us into our bodies. Feel, they beg. More often than not, we relent.

It is wrong, however, to say that a fire only takes. While inevitably there are things we leave behind, pieces of ourselves and our world that we live to see turned to ash, there are also things to be gleaned. The things we picked up in the fire.

We are survivors, those of us who’ve scrambled through flames. We are innovators, rebuilders, champions of the sunrise. We find new strength in our prosthetic limbs, crafted of resolve and self-love, and we surprise ourselves with how tall we grow. We tap into our humanity, connecting to the first humans, the incredible creatures who mastered fire and surprised the universe, shouting into the night and declaring ourselves awake, alight, alive.

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