Watching Things Burn and Defying the Dark: Thoughts on 2020

Once upon a time, in the 1980s, I lived in the Stone Age. I didn’t use a time machine to get there, but only technically. 

I was 11 or 12 or 13 then, on the cusp of adult awakening, and I vanished from the land where Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and Olivia Newton John’s Let’s Get Physical with their deliciously lascivious lyrics played over the speakers at K-Mart, whisked away by my parents to a literal jungle in the Pacific where women tied strings around their waists for modesty, and men used dried squashes as clothes, and tools were fashioned from rocks and sticks, and everything smelled like barbecued sweat except when it smelled like monsoon rains as if the air had congealed into liquid, breathable earth.

Life was… more real in the jungle. Less pretend. And I was at ease on mud paths beside thatched huts in a way I wasn’t with the material girls and fluorescent lights of ‘civilization.’ Perhaps that’s how it always feels to come of age, though. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the jungle was where I started to feel more at home in my own skin. Perhaps it’s always in a jungle of sorts where people discover themselves, and mine just happened to be literal.

We lived, by local standards, a life of outrageous luxury. Our floors were made of wood, not dirt, and our walls were preserved with used airplane oil, slick and black and less likely to rot. We cooked on a cast iron stove which vented outside, instead of over naked fire in a haze of smoke like the neighboring tribe. We had gravity-fed water on demand—except when the pigs uprooted the pipes—and a tiny propane heater to light for hot showers in our single bathroom. And we shared a diesel generator with five other aristocratic families which meant electricity nearly every afternoon and into the first couple hours of darkness. It was, in Bokondini, Papua, the lifestyle of the rich and famous. 

At 11 or 12 or 13, I was an avid reader, and I preferred trashy novels, the smuttier the better. Also at 47. But in the jungle in 1980-something, book-beggars couldn’t be choosers, so I used my electric hours to read a few dog-earred Grace Livingston Hill romances (sadly lacking much smut at all) and an enormously thick Victor Hugo double-feature hardback housing both Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In a pinch, I pulled out The Encyclopedia Britannica and scoured it for anything salacious, with little luck. And when the evening electricity died, I defied the night with the battery-operated light over the kitchen table, reading to the background music of rats thundering through the rafters, a sound that strikes me only now as one that ought to have been unsettling.

My job during the late nights when I was 11 or 12 or 13 was to stoke the fire in its compartment of the wood cook stove.

Before she went to bed, my mother laid the logs for the next morning in the oven. Then she rose before dawn, a good Proverbs 31 wife, and used the baked, dried logs to kindle the fire again to boil the water to make the coffee to fuel my father’s day, flying humanitarian aid and missionaries through the villages of the Papuan highlands. 

It was a system that worked until it didn’t, because one night I stayed awake later than usual and although I was  studiously lazy and pointedly unreliable about chores at 11 or 12 or 13, I was, for whatever reason, diligent about stoking the fire. I stoked and stoked that night. And stoked and stoked. And instead of keeping the fire at a low burn, I managed to raise the heat enough to set the logs in the oven on fire. 

Our little oil-soaked cabin filled with smoke, and I thundered down the hall to my parents’ bedroom, a sound no doubt unsettling to the rats. “There’s a fire!” I yelled. “In the oven!” And my father leapt from the bed, naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden, and neither of us cared as we otherwise might, my father in his 30s and me at 11 or 12 or 13 confronted thusly. There was a fire. A hierarchy of needs. No time for modesty or embarrassment. He grabbed a robe and threw it on as he followed me back down the hall, tying the sash, peering through the smoke.

And then he snagged the logs, one by one, whether with tongs or magic or his bare hands I don’t remember, but I do remember he carried them carefully—so, so carefully—past the oiled exterior where he laid them on the rocks where they burned and glowed and eventually sputtered and died, my dad watching for stray sparks while I shook and cried and said, “I’m sorry, Imsorry, Imsorry, Imsorry.” 

We tell the story now with humor. HAHAHA REMEMBER THE NIGHT BETH ALMOST BURNED THE HOUSE DOWN BECAUSE SHE LOVES TO READ? It’s part of the family archives. The sacred texts we pass along, generation to generation. Our oral history. And I laugh along with everyone else when we, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the sages and crones, sit by the figurative hearth and spin our tales to the youngers. But at the same time there is a whisper that flits through my mind—a tiny ghost on a figure-eight infinity loop from brain to gut, crossing always through the heart—pressing the story deeper. Compacting it. Condensing it. With children, with their every failure, imagined and otherwise, we have the opportunity to build trust or rob it. And that night when my father could have railed and stomped and unleashed the fear of his family burning in the night—when he could have said, “what were you thinking” and rightfully so, since I was old enough to know fire begets fire—he said instead, “It is not your fault. It’s mine. I should’ve told you when to stop.” 

That night when I was 11 or 12 or 13 was stillness first, a tiny light in the dark, then panic, then relief, then shame, and finally one of the great miracles, Shame Absolved, when my father, standing by the embers, proclaimed me innocent, though I’d nearly burned our house down in the middle of the jungle. 

All of which is, I suppose, the long way around to say I don’t take power for granted. Not the power of fire. Not the power of a parent. Not the power of crafting relationship, building a child. Not the power of a pandemic. Not the power of the people rising. Not the power of a year upended. Which I know is a jumble, but bear with me?

The 1980s are history, as is the version of me at 11 or 12 or 13. And my parents in their 30s, drying wood and building fires and putting them out. And that life in the jungle full of days and nights and defying the dark but at a cost, whether of fuel or battery or danger or mental health. And now 2020 is gone, too. Past. Final. Done. Over. With all its complexity. With all its angst. With all its sudden danger in the night. And stillness. And scurrying. And rats in the rafters. And watching things burn. With its costs for defying the dark.

We’re a few days into a new year, and I keep trying to make sense of the year gone by, as though it’s a substance to be neatly packaged and shelved. I sat down at my desk today to do just that. Wrap up 2020. Stow it and look forward. But instead of writing something simple—something linear and defined—I keep thinking about fire and power. And jungles and privilege. And about how nothing is simple, especially not a fresh start.





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8 responses to “Watching Things Burn and Defying the Dark: Thoughts on 2020”

  1. When I clicked on this offering, I thought you might be referring to the events of 06 January 2021. And then I read on carefully, with that day in mind, and see that your words transcend the dates. I do wonder what children coming of age right now will think back upon in future decades.
    My memories of that age also include reading several Grace Livingston Hill novels. My grandmother enjoyed them and passed them on to me, so thank you for jogging my memory of a woman who passed on from this life before I could properly know her.

  2. This gave me the chills and the tears tonight. I read it after a day of fretting about the democracy and what my children’s future holds. And I’m reminded that I am power in my child’s life too. And that makes me feel better.

  3. Your post seems extra prescient at 7pm ET today… as we both celebrate and mourn democracy on this fateful and stunning day, and face the grim reality that, for now, 2021 is groundhog year. For now.

  4. “Perhaps it’s always in a jungle of sorts where people discover themselves….” I will be packing this little phrase into my mental suitcase to carry forth into the unknown. Delightful!

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