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August 5, 2011 / Caitlin Wheeler

Lighting Up

by Sarah Glady

See. You’re 16. You live in Phoenix. And you’re in love with lighters. Well, more or less. All your friends are lighting up, and lighting up with confidence. Which makes you uncomfortable, because see, you are a conservative republican Christian from a good home.

However, all your friends are Jewish, and if you say anything, that makes you anti-Semitic or more realistically, kind of a stick-in-the-mud-no-fun dick. So instead you start collecting lighters.

Oh, don’t worry; your collection will grow  to be both expensive and extensive. You will have flaming flip flops, scorching Tiki gods, a proper statue of liberty whose torch actually lights the way of liberty, and an ignited Wurlitzer.  Then will come the microphone that lights tobacco and croons Elvis, a wannabe Zippo, (adorned with Athena and her maidens from Greece), a noxious cow, and a giant match stick to name a few. Your lighters will grow to such numbers that rock patrons from around the globe might some day lift their arms, their glowing affirmations of the music and remember your name.  Your lighters, when lined up, will deliver such a blaze of glory that many will fear a conflagration, fear the impending danger of uncontrolled burning of all that is around, a threat to existence by your innumerable lighters. On the 25th day of Kislev, instead of the story of Hanukkah, the story of the candles in the temple for eight days and eight nights, your friends might even tell their children of the miracle of your lights instead! Perhaps not. But right now you’re still 16, and you haven’t even been invited to Passover yet, and you need a lighter to give you some hope and credibility.

Right now, you are 16 and adrift. But you are starting to find these close to perfect kosher friends who will eat lunch with you. They don’t ask about her suicide, and they understand the depression and unwavering anonymity in a school that doubles as a bomb shelter. They get it. Nothing entombs a soul like a school whose outside is synonymous with pre-1989 Berlin. Before you were a year, before you were flame, there was Berlin, there was 1987, and your family’s hero yelled, “Tear down this wall!” You and your friends were conceived soon after.  But, what the hell, you say, clearly the builders of this school were deaf to the end of the cold war. Clearly they missed the tearing down and only caught the building up.

However, they weren’t blind to fire.  Those fears of fire reigning down from the USSR clearly made their way into your school’s protective walls. But no bombs came. Everyone in Phoenix knows about flash floods, about thunderstorms and monsoons, about the wildfires that sweep across your state every year, so it seems so strange that this school is built for protection against bombs rather than the water. But you are thinking, perhaps it was against those strikes of lightning. You know about the Yellowstone wildfire of 1988, the one that changed the National Parks approach to fighting nature and man.

You came into the world that year, with the fire. You know that the Yellowstone fire erupted and grew until it was classified as a firestorm. Firestorms create their own wind and weather systems.  Firestorms take a strike of lightning or pine needle kindling or a cigarette and turn it into a raging force. You nod. That Yellowstone fire was greater than kindling or a crash of thunder; no it was a torrent of energy and destruction. You are 16 and you wonder why this school was built for a damn firestorm. Your school is far from forests, in the middle of a city, in the middle of a desert. All you must fight here you think is the sun and eight days of rain a year. You do not know this yet, but firestorms can be unleashed by people. Perhaps those same bombs your school was built to defend you against, were in memory of the City of London, December 29th, 1941, where the Luftwaffe unleashed thousands of tons of fire and created a firestorm, the Second Great Fire of London.  One day you will be seventeen and learn more history.  One day you will learn that the Germans fought the British, and then the US carved its piece of Germany to protect from what lay behind the wall. You will learn that we are always trying to hold hands and stand against the fire. But you might even take Greek one day, where you will learn that the etymology of “holocaust” is a sacrifice consumed by fire. You came into this world the same year as a great fire, but how many other lights go out every minute? You might learn someday that God came and God left, but then God sent another to dance as flames on the crowns and in the hearts of those still here.

15 and 16 have been years full of suffering. You don’t know it yet, but these dark years, they will grow into 17, the year of light. 16 will change from depression into friends, real friends, and God.

Oh, and 17. Let me tell you about 17. 17 will be welcomed in with glowing trumpets of triumph, with the possession of these real friends and lighters. 17 will mean acceptance around a hookah, a boyfriend with both experience and a skull lighter for a belt buckle, and affirmation in the fires of the candles of communion. And you will dance. Slow down fire. Slow it down to 1000 frames per second, and fire is a graceful whisper, a powerful dance of color and oxidation.

You’re not that different from other people.  If you feel it now, slow those people down to 1000 frames per second. 16 is often described in terms of plant life, blooming, blossoming, withering, or deflowering, it will more or less be the same for you, but those metaphors are not quite right. Maybe those dumb comparisons all burned with the Yellowstone trees. Try on the feel of fire. The cold steel flick of the standard issued Zippo, a slow inhale, and a sigh of smoke in perfect rings. Heat, flame, formation, art in the exhale.

At 16 you will read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Firestorm of creation rising out of the blackness. Heat, flame, formation, art in the exhale. Fire, creation, adolescence, communion, rebirth; 16 is a fire that can handle them all. You and your friends can agree on that.

When you are older, men will light fires that tear at every edge. The far reaches of Arizona will burn, but the familiar will be lit ablaze as well. All of the northeast will turn to ash in the Wallow fire. Your grandparents’ cabin? Barely there. Your beloved summer camp? A teardrop of green in a sea of crumbling embers. Yet those forests will return, the heat opens the pinecones. You cannot blow smoke without first learning not to cough or breathe straight from lungs, and you cannot blow rings without sticking out your tongue. Remember to smile, the process for beauty sometimes means damage or absurdity.

Your heart and soul though? Well, see, you are 16. Turn to your city. Turn to 17. You live with the bird among the embers. You will be destroyed; you will be reborn in the fire.  If you will keep that Phoenix close, you might even find yourself ablaze and ready to fly.

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