Tending the Fire

The house is chilly when I walk out to the living room, pulling my gray bathrobe over my pajamas and stuffing my hands into its thin pockets. It’s the kind of cold that needs a fire.

I shuffle out onto our deck, still in my slippers, to grab the two buckets I need — one to fill with ash, one already full of kindling. I pull a small stack of newspaper from the closet and grab the lighter from up on the mantle. It’s high enough I have to rise up on tiptoes, the first stretch of the day.

Easing open the glass door to the fireplace (quietly, the baby is still sleeping), I pick up the small metal shovel and begin to lift piles of fluffy ashes out of the firebox and into the waiting bucket. The spent pieces of fuel fall apart at the slightest jarring, sending puffs of white dust into the air and across the hearth. Scrape, scrape, thud. Scoop after scoop goes into the bucket to make way for today’s fire.  

Carefully, I stack kindling, crumpled newspaper, and a couple of thin logs in the center of the firebox, making sure to leave space around and between for the air to circulate and give the fire it’s fuel. Brushing the bark residue off the arm of my robe and into the box, I straighten up to admire my handiwork. Click, the lighter starts and a tiny flame leaps from the end of it onto the newspaper. I move quick to light another spot, and then close the door and throw the vent wide open for air to carry those flames through the box.

Yellow-orange wisps erupt from the pile of newspaper and wood, circling and consuming what I’ve placed there. It’s sudden and big and surprising to me, even though I’m the one who made it. In a few minutes when I look up from pouring my coffee, I do a victory dance, thrilled from the deepest parts of me that I have triumphed.

I have made a fire.

And just below the surface of my triumph is the knowledge that it might not stay lit.

Sometimes the fire takes off on the first try, but other times, it sizzles out, out of fuel too soon, not enough long-burning embers to keep the flames rolling forward. It might need a little more help to consume the near-frozen logs that have been sitting dormant since Scott stacked them on the deck in September. So I’ll try again. I’ll add more newspaper and shift a log forward or backward so the fire can breathe a bit better. I’ll crumple more newspaper and watch the fire again take off.

For now my job is to tend — to add more fuel when it starts to look low, to let it rest if the house gets too toasty. There’s a sacredness to heating your home with a fire, to doing something so elemental with your hands. It takes effort and intent.

I’ll get called away to tuck a baby into bed and stir a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll need to step out of the house and head to the mailbox, making sure to add a log or two before I go so that I don’t come back to a too-cool home. This preparation for time away takes a little practice: a few too many times I’ve gotten absorbed in daily life or online life and let the fire die without ceremony. Coaxing it back to life takes a bit more effort than tossing on another log in plenty of time for it to catch and carry the fire onward. It takes a bit more intention and certainly more time to build it back up to what it was.

This particular morning, I sit in that gray bathrobe on my red couch, a cup of warm coffee in hand, willing my small child to stay asleep just a few more minutes so that I can sit in this silence in front of my fire. And I think: what if I treated myself this way this year? Like a fire that only needs a little tending?

I sit down later that same day to write, crossing my ankles on the edge of our fading coffee table. The beginnings of eight different essays are scratched out in shorthand on paper, snippets of things tucked away as notes on my computer, each of them going somewhere, destinations undetermined. I stare at a mostly blank screen, the cursor blinking at me and my inability to move forward.

I’d been agonizing over what to write about for a week, a total lack of inspiration keeping me from writing at all, a deadline taunting me from the weekly spread of my planner. I have pages to fill, a deadline to meet, and no fire in my soul. I’m out of words, and it’s not even halfway through the first week of January. I glance up at the fire, at the wood stacked neatly out the window on the deck.

My husband likes to work with his hands. He’s good at it, making things. He doesn’t question his ability or ask if it’s the thing he should be doing; he just identifies an idea, a need, a gap, and starts filling it. When something breaks, he fixes it. When the fire dies down, he adds another log.

I wish I had that discipline, the ability to not overthink things.

To my still lifeless essay, I add sentences, delete others. I rearrange and restart, realizing that this phrase will work better here, that this sentence should move up to introduce that one. I coax words across the page like I do flames every morning, willing them to stay lit and keep burning onward. It’s harder to do this when I’ve let that fire die completely, when I’ve ignored it for too long and the entire firebox has grown cold. Then I have to sift through ash again, to build a new foundation rather than just toss on a little more fuel.

As I tend my small fire, I’ll be called away by things that can’t wait and have to work a little harder when our woodpile gets soaked by the rain, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to keep our house warm.


Words by Abbigail Kriebs.