tending the fire

i asked tom, my therapist, what’s on the other side of the precipice.  a yawning cave?  a sheer ravine?  utter darkness from whence there is no return?  because i go to the edge of the precipice.  more often than i’d care to admit.

sometimes i approach gradually, gingerly.  on tiptoe.  (not that i can actually tiptoe.)  i sense the darkness on the other side as i slowly skirt the edge, as the tears slide one by one down my cheeks.  i feel the cold mist on my fingertips as i drag them along the invisible dividing line between order and chaos, skimming one by one a long row of imaginary fenceposts damp with dew.

and sometimes i arrive suddenly.  unexpectedly.  in a rush.  in a buggy drawn by a horse that got spooked.  hauling on the reins and skidding to a halt.  not a moment too soon.  at those times, the out-of-nowhere loss of control is accompanied by tightness in my chest.  panic that starts in my lungs, rises through my esophagus and sticks in my throat, threatening to come out as — what?  a scream?  a sob?  a plea?  make it stop.  let me out.  give me back my life.

according to tom, not many people actually find out what’s on the other side.  “you know, most people are resilient,” he said.  “they find ways of going to the edge and coming back.  or they find ways of never going there at all.  everyone’s somewhere on the continuum between acceptance and denial.”

i like resilience.  i like the way it sounds rolling off my tongue.  i like the way it feels when i type it.  i like the images it conjures.  rising from the ashes to rebuild.  as many times as it takes.

so i asked tom about my relationship with the precipice.  what should it look like?  how close should i allow myself to get?  how often should i go?  how long should i stay there?  should i take anyone else there with me?

i told him that i don’t want to wallow in the grief, the permanent grief, the grief that will never leave, will just ebb and flow and will finally crash into the shores of my death.  but i do want to be present in my grief.  i want to accept it as part of my experience, part of my life.  i don’t want to shove it back into the darkness by itself to putrefy — to transform into a fungus that will rot my soul.

so tom suggested that perhaps i tend to it.  tend.  hmm, yeah, i might be able to do that.  what are the types of things one tends to?  a fire in the hearth — adding new logs, shoveling and sweeping the ashes, prodding it to coax a flame.  ok, so that’s what tending a pretty, little indoor fire looks like.  but what about tending a forest fire?  a fire that has the potential to become a wildfire — to burn ferociously, indiscriminately, destructively.  a fire that has the potential to cause lasting and irreparable harm.

tending an outdoor fire is conducting controlled burns on a regular basis.  it’s clearing out the dead undergrowth that could catch a chance spark and blow the whole place to bits.  it’s digging trenches, setting boundaries, ensuring that helicopters with large tanks of water are at the ready, should something go wrong.

the thing about tending, and about controlled burns, is that they are hard work.  they are hot and sweaty and painful.  your eyes sting from the smoke; your hair and clothes are invaded to their very last fiber; your face burns from its proximity to the flame.

but they’re infinitely preferable to the alternative…to a rampaging wildfire feeding on the dead undergrowth that’s never been cleared out.  so, my marching orders are to acknowledge and accept the fire, to be present with the fire — and to tend to the fire so it doesn’t get out of control.  that, i think i can do.  for i, too, am resilient.

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