Question of the Month: Fire

by Susan Henderson on October 5, 2009

Tell me a true story about you and fire.


Wednesday, Dylan Landis will be here to talk about fire, mother-daughter relationships, and her debut story collection, NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Oh, and here’s a link to an interview I did with Rick Kleffel while I was at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. We talk about writing, editing, agents, and publication; and he refers to me as “a fascinating combination of light and dark.” Enjoy!

Let me end with a thank you to the very talented and generous, Michael Hearst, a fellow Virginian living in New York. He lent us an awfully cool and quirky, antique organ, which my son has pretty much played non-stop since we got it.

If you don’t know Michael’s band, One Ring Zero, check out the link. This video’s from the new album, coming in 2010. (Hope you have your 3-D glasses!)

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

kategray October 5, 2009 at 11:15 am

It’s more of an indirect story of me and fire. I was five when the firefighters came to our elementary school, and showed us a film. All I can remember of it is the image of a crib on fire, with the sounds of an infant’s wails added. This had such a profound psychological impact on me that, I’m told, I got home that day, and wouldn’t let anyone rest until they went out and bought smoke alarms for the whole house. I have a vague memory of my father showing them all to me. It must have been significant, since we lived in a rectory, and most changes to the house had to be cleared with the vestry. But nobody made me feel stupid about my fears, which, I suppose, only served to reinforce them. I had nightmares for ages about fires consuming us, about volcanic lava engulfing our camping trailer, you name it, I imagined it.
I’m still paranoid about some things, like campfire safety, but my fears of house fires have waned. And my mother still curses the fools who thought that such a film would be good to show to small children. Like most things, it was a mixed blessing for me to have seen it.


Aurelio October 5, 2009 at 11:22 am

Early one Sunday morning when I was 8 years old, I rumbled down stairs, gamboled through the kitchen, jogged left into the empty dining room (we never had any furniture in there for some odd reason, and always ate in the kitchen), spun left again into and through the living room, left into the entryway, and back through the kitchen. It was our doughnut-shaped racetrack around the house’s central stairwell and I’m not sure why we liked to run around it so much, but we usually did when it was cold outside.

I’m guessing my dad hollered something both times I passed through the kitchen, but I have no idea if he actually did or not, or what he may have hollered; we had all learned to tune him out. Since our mom died a year earlier, Dad hollered everything, and when you holler everything, all emphasis is lost. He was at the stove, I remember, and a waft of raw bacon smell was followed by the sound of a sizzling skillet.

I collapsed on the empty dining room floor and immediately tilted my head upside down, so the ceiling looked like the floor, and pretended I was stuck to what was now the ceiling. It was fascinating to turn the house upside down, and I curled my back and thrust my feet in the air, imagining a weightless world, my feet dangling, unable to walk on the ceiling which was now the floor.

I was there for a while, I imagine, floating above the ground, ignoring the blood rushing to my head. I only snapped out of it briefly when my older brother, Terrence, flopped on the floor next to me, tipped over, and joined my upside-down universe. Terrence was 13, but still managed to be 8 at every opportunity.

We both dangled there, feet floating above the ceiling, laughing. His legs were longer, but he couldn’t reach the floor either, even though he tried. He made me laugh by bicycling his legs and grunting in a vain effort to reach.

Just then, the strangest thing happened: clouds rolled across the ceiling floor. They were a beautiful, flowing carpet of white, like something out of a movie, like watching foam roll in on a flattened beach, and I uttered, “Woah…”

The clouds kept rolling, finally pouring over the short lip of wall between the dining room and living room, darkening, blackening as they did.

“Oh, no!” Terrence shrieked, and leapt up, dashing into the kitchen. I followed him in to see a pillar of flames shooting from the frying pan on the stove, charring the cabinets above. Terrence turned off the burner and tossed glasses of water on the flames. Dad arrived like a close bolt of lightning when the thunder comes with it, and for some reason tossed baking soda on the flames. He wore half a face of shaving cream and boxers, and screamed, “I told you to watch the bacon!” at Terrence, while I ran and hid.

Terrence was never forgiven for burning up the kitchen, but I blame my dad. If he had paid any attention to us, he’d have realized we couldn’t hear him when he hollered.


SusanHenderson October 5, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Running out the door – working the We Are Family Foundation gala tonight, and have to go help set up. But I’ll be here tomorrow and will respond to every story you’ve posted. Thanks for being here!


reneethompson October 5, 2009 at 12:33 pm

What is it about being five that compels a kid to set the world on fire? We lived at Ft. Benning, in Georgia, in a new subdivision on post. Kid across the street, Randy, was my age, and one day we decided to build a small fire in the dirt behind his house. There were other new houses going up here and there, in various stages of completion, and we pilfered a couple of bricks to build a fire ring. I produced a small book of matches that I’d picked up from the kitchen counter at home, and Randy was in the midst of lighting one when his dad caught us. Jerked him inside and ordered me home.

I spent the next half hour worrying Randy’s dad would call my dad. When it didn’t happen, I casually wandered back over to Randy’s place, passing an open window at the side of his house. I could hear his dad beating him; the thwack of a belt against skin, Randy screaming. I scurried home, sick with regret. Sorry we’d done something so dangerous and stupid. Sorry Randy was the whipping boy for something we’d both done.

As an adult I understood the lure of fire, and allowed my own daughters to light an occasional match in my presence, so they wouldn’t feel the need to burn a weed in the backyard. As far as I know, it worked, but then their secrets are their own.


Anonymous October 5, 2009 at 1:54 pm

As a kid, I used to love to burn leaves with a giant magnifying glass. I was smart enough to burn them one at a time, though, in the middle of the patio, so I never created an incendiary disaster. As an adult, this time of year, I live in fear that some other kid won’t be so smart… In San Diego, it’s so dry and the Santa Ana’s are blowing off and on. A few years back, most of our county was burning and I had to evacuate 50 horses in less than 3 hours. I thought I would lose my house and my farm at the same time (and they’re about 10 miles apart), and I hadn’t had time to take anything from my home except the cats and the dog and a single change of clothes because I was in such a hurry to get to the horses. It was a nightmare. We’re on red alert again now. Nothing burning currently, thank goodness, but our rig is at the barn hooked up, and I won’t leave the area without knowing who would do my job evacuating horses if we had another crisis.


Aurelio October 5, 2009 at 6:01 pm

I remember trying to write my name on a piece of wood with a magnifying glass. It took a steadier hand than I had the patience for. It’s amazing how hot focused sunlight really is (and why solar power could solve our energy needs.)


troutbum70 October 5, 2009 at 6:19 pm

I love fire. I am fascinated. I could sit by a campfire everynight for the rest of my life and always fall into a hypnotic state. The way the flames jump and dart and dance across the logs. The way the wood crackles and pops and how the logs move as the ones beneath turn to ember then ash. The way the smoke curls its way to the heavens. I love fire…


kategray October 5, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Oh my god. Reading through these triggered a memory…. A more direct fire experience, and one that is way more funny and embarrassing (at least to me).
We used to travel out to Montana every other summer, all crammed into one vehicle or another. By the 90’s, we’d finally arrived at an actual motorhome (from a progression through tents, tent trailer, pop-up trailer, regular trailer hauled by a converted bread truck…). On our last day driving back, somewhere in upstate New York, we stopped for gas. I decided to use the bathroom in the rear of the vehicle (a real luxury, I tell you, compared to the sometimes horrifying on-the-road restrooms). I’m sitting there, blissfully taking my time, since it usually occupies a full twenty minutes or so to fill a gas tank that large. All of a sudden, the thing starts shaking, from my dad pounding on the sides, as he’s evidently running. “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” That’s all I can hear.

I’m completely confused, as if being awakened from a nap by an blast from an air raid siren. I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I finally wrench my shorts back where they belong, run out of the bathroom, and find my little brother standing there, saying, “I can’t go outside, I can’t find my shoes!!!!” I still don’t know what is up, but we can all hear screeching of tires, from every other car in the place taking off. I pick up my brother, who was probably around 12 at the time, and dash out, unknowingly, toward the station’s convenience store.
By then, my dad had managed to stamp out the flames – that had sparked from the gas hose falling out of the fill on our motorhome, and then that had proceeded to shoot up the side of it. It was pretty spectacular for a few minutes, I’m told. Thanks to quick thinking from the attendant, who hit the cutoff switch, and my dad not being terribly bothered by the thought of being blown up, we all managed to walk away from it, unscathed, with a story for the coming holiday parties.

But I was the only one with my pants down around my ankles.


Ric October 5, 2009 at 8:29 pm

When I was about 10, spent a week at my Uncle’s house staying with cousins, they had a neighbor kid (one of those everything I do turns out wrong, but I keep on doing them and it was your fault anyway, because you went along with me). This kid decided the way to make charcoal was to pour gasoline on burning wood. So he got a china coffee mug, filled it with gas from his Dad’s lawnmower can, and started a fire in the back yard.
When he started pouring the gas out, the flames jumped up, lit the cup on fire and he threw it at me. For some odd reason, in the middle of June, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and my left sleeve was soaked in burning gasoline. I remember running around and seeing the flames on my arm, singeing the hair on my neck, before my cousin grabbed me and threw me on the ground.
After the shirt was cut off, I had a burn three inches wide and ten inches long, which was variously soaked in baking soda, vinegar, cool water and then wrapped in gauze by the doctor. The worst thing I recall was when the bandages were removed and I went outside into the sunlight – it hurt worse than any time before.
I have only a remnant of scar these days, it kept getting smaller and smaller over the years, even though the doctor said it wouldn’t.


billiehinton October 6, 2009 at 8:41 am

Mostly my thoughts on fire center around its role in alchemy and how much it appears in the sand trays of clients doing sandplay therapy when they get to the purification/transformation part of their process.

But… my own personal fire story is my memory of the year we decided to use our Christmas trees in a New Year’s Eve ritual each year. The children were young. We have always put our live tree up the day after Thanksgiving, and then we took it down on December 29th so it would be out of the house for my son’s birthday on Dec. 30.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, we burned the tree in a bonfire as our own transition into the new year.

The first year we did it my husband lit a match and tossed it onto the tree and the entire thing went up in flames that shot up 20 feet high in a matter of seconds. All I could think of was that tree in our house the month before, and candles being lit, and the fire in the fireplace and how terrible it would have been had an accident happened.

We started putting the tree up the second week of December.

Every year though, when we did the bonfire, I got more and more nervous. A few years ago we got an artificial tree. I still love the smell of fresh trees, but after seeing the flames, and the power of the fire, and after feeling the heat so intense we had to step back, I never really could get that out of my head.

That said, I do love our woodstove, and love campfires and bonfires. But we try hard to be very safe.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 9:00 am

I didn’t get in till after 3 in the morning, so I’m going to take a few hours to work on my edits before I stop by to play. Very happy to see all of you hear! Back in a bit…


robinantalek October 6, 2009 at 10:44 am

This past Sunday morning, everyone is still asleep upstairs and I am blissfully alone in the kitchen, having friends over for dinner that night and getting a head start on cooking so I could spend the majority of the day doing something fun… I was making a roasted vegetable lasagna and cooking tomato sauce when I whipped out the emulsion blender to rid the sauce of any “chunks”. I should mention I was also reading a book – not a cookbook – but a for pleasure book since I am incapable of doing one thing at a time. So I plug in the blender and set the blender wand into the sauce ( still bubbling away on the stove, I know, I know I should have turned the burner off but….) and I open the book (Nell Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls if you must know and yes, it is THAT good) and I flip the switch on the blender. It takes a few minutes before I smell a very chemical whiff of something and then I hear a pop and I look down at the pot to see the cord has tangled under the burner and has caught on fire. In turn that fire is running up the cord which is still plugged into the electrical socket. I yank the blender out of the pot ( spewing tomato sauce EVERYWHERE…Hello Carrie!) toss the blender on the counter and without thinking- because really – it is electricity I am messing with here – I yank the cord from the wall and toss the entire thing into the sink and turn on the water. The kitchen fills with spires of grey smoke from the sink. The dogs at my feet raise a snout but finding nothing of consequence and fall back to sleep as I yank open the windows and the doors. No one stirred from upstairs until much later and yes, through out it all, I was still holding the book in my other hand….


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:30 pm

The emulsion blender? What a funny/scary story! I’m glad you were able to unplug it without something awful happening. I absolutely love that you didn’t let go of Nell Freudenberger the whole time. Let me link that wonderful book:


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Oh, I love that tradition, and it would be so great if you wrote a story imagining how very wrong something like that can go.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Do you ever think it’s kind of a miracle you are living to tell stories of your childhood?! Fascinating about the feel of sun on the wound. I hope you write more about this… feels full-bodied.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Oh, God, that’s terrifying! I’ll bet your parents were haunted with what-if’s for years.

Where did you used to go in Montana?


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Me, too. And this pyro recognizes another like that.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm

My uncle had to evacuate his horses one fourth of July, and they freaked out and got out on the highway, where they got hit. It was so awful. I’m glad your story had a happy ending.

Isn’t it scary when you imagine other people doing the same things you did as a child?


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I’m so glad you burned wood and not ants.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Wonder if you’ll run into Randy some day and find out what happened to him.

I tried your parenting method on my kids. I let them light the fires in the fireplace. But then I’ll find things like burnt apple cores in there or a stick outside with someone’s name burned into it.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Ha! I love that you pretended the floor was the ceiling!

And I’m with you. It’s one thing to tell a kid to watch the stove. And it’s quite another not even to be close by to see if he was following through.


SusanHenderson October 6, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Yeah, I wonder sometimes if showing a movie of a baby burning in a crib or kids getting taken by strangers on the street isn’t damaging kids more than it’s helping them.


kategray October 6, 2009 at 1:12 pm

HA! You might think they were terrified by it! Probably my mother was…my dad has more of the laissez faire take on camping mishaps. There was the time the van hauling the trailer died on a highway…going uphill. A mid-70’s Chevy step van does not have that much oomph, I guess. We all kind of jumped out and let my dad back it down the hill.
And then, I wasn’t with them for this (maybe having learned better), but the same motorhome that caught fire, the next trip out, the first day, they were on the highway, when my dad saw something go bouncing past. It was the first rear tire. My brother watched its twin bounce off a different direction (this is a dualie mounted rear). And then, the inevitable: the rear axle hitting the asphalt. This is why I’m not afraid to fly.
The real punchline? They still have the stupid thing. That’s what being a stingy Yankee does for you.

We’d pack up every other year, drive across either the northern tier of states, or the southern realm of the Canadian provinces, and end up in East Helena. If you GoogleEarth 59635, you’ll see it. If you want to get in real close to where we were, add in Matt Staff Rd. as the address.
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding



Lance Reynald October 6, 2009 at 1:58 pm

one of my favorite toys was matches. total firebug as a kid. my faves were the strike-anywhere variety, second fave were the strike on box model and in a pinch any old cardboard covered book from 7-11 would do.

when I was about six years old I got a bit of a lesson about setting fires.

I’d been touring the neighborhood, lighting up the local shrubber. Mini-firs and bonsai like items. Fortune had it that it was still humid enough that none of them caught serious blaze.

My accomplice was a cute and impressionable blond kid, oddly his name escapes me at the moment…but I can see his face so clearly.

One afternoon we had a full day. we’d spent the earlier part of the day playing doctor, an examination process that involved slatering one another with Hawaiian Tropics dark tanning oil and scribbling on each others backside with a sharpie.

the afternoon was set aside for minor acts of arson.

one of the neighbors shrubs was obviously a bit neglected.

it caught and went up in an instant.

leaving a charred scab on the side of the house.

it goes without saying that we both ran home as fast as we could.

an amusing side… the father of my accomplice just happened to be a fireman.

nervously, I suppose the cute blond had confessed all to his father.

His father pulled me aside the next day for a talk in their garden shed.

there was no mention of matches, shrubbery and charred houses. Only the dire warning that his son and I were not to play doctor anymore… there was no way his kid was going to be a fairy.

I was confused and heartbroken, though at the time I never understood what we’d really done wrong.

now, I smirk every time I hear any conversations about anything being “the burning bush”.


Aurelio October 6, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I did learn to use baking soda on grease fires. And I was bummed we didn’t get to eat the bacon.

I think yelling at kids is about as effective as yelling at people who speak a foreign language.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 6, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Fire and I go way back. When I was young, gas was cheap and we were poor. To entertain ourselves in the summer and fall, my parents would take us to watch wildfires in the SoCal mountains. The flames danced like demons around a botanical orgy. We could hear the woosh of the winds and the crackling of the trees snapping in the heat. Unearthly sound. Sadly, we were not the only ones who took perverse pleasure in watching the inferno. There were always cars lining the roads at the baseline, people with binoculars and telescopes fixed on the flames.

Then there was the time my friend Stewart Crump and I set fire to a garage, just because we could. Actually, it was Stewart who started the fire. I brought the matches. I had to go home before we could get the garage on fire. Stewart got in big trouble, tattled on me for bringing the matches. I denied it like a good little hoodlum and got away with it.

Another time I evacuated our six-floor apartment building in Japan on the morning of Christmas eve, when a candle burned down to my very creative pine cone candle holder. BassMan and I were in the bedroom being distracted by each other when the fire alarm in the building went off. We snuffed out the smoldering pine cone just as the very efficient Japanese firemen came a-knockin’ on our door. We didn’t evacuate, just looked down at our neighbors huddling together in their PJs and robes until the firemen gave the all-clear. A panel in the building foyer lit up the number of the fire-offending apartment for hours after the event. Needless to day, I couldn’t look our neighbors in the eyes for weeks.

Fire and I are simpatico.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 6, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Lance, I’m sure we would have been great sidekicks as kids.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 6, 2009 at 11:27 pm

When my sister’s husband was a kid, they lost their home to a fire started with a Christmas tree. He forbids them having a real tree in their house.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 6, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Ah, I’ve done the ceiling is the floor thing also. I still do it when I need to visualize space among my cluttered existence. Really.


SusanHenderson October 7, 2009 at 7:48 am

Write this up and send it somewhere because the Hawaiian Tropic ending is brilliant – and funny, if it weren’t so heartbreaking. xo


SusanHenderson October 7, 2009 at 7:50 am

I hope this is in your book, Carolyn – wildfires as cheap entertainment!

All the stories here are going to give me phobias around Christmas time…


SusanHenderson October 7, 2009 at 7:53 am

That says so much that they still have that old thing!

Thanks for the TS Eliot quote.


SusanHenderson October 7, 2009 at 7:54 am

The trick is trying to find the baking soda when there’s a fire…

You should make bacon for breakfast this morning.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 7, 2009 at 9:56 am

Oh, yeah. I also meant to say that I love how you worked up to the fire. The clouds billowing across your pretend sky was sublime.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 7, 2009 at 10:23 am

I remember that horrible San Diego county fire (I live about an hour up the 15). The hills are still scarred by the flames in many areas. The Santa Ana winds provoke all kinds of ill behavior and brings out the devil in some people. The local Indians called them the devil’s breath for good reason. Joan Didion captured the essence of the Santa Anas in SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM.


SusanHenderson October 8, 2009 at 8:24 am
SusanHenderson October 8, 2009 at 12:34 pm

This is unrelated, but someone on FaceBook had reminded me of one of my favorite books when I was a kid – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. It’s so marvelous, I wanted to link to some of the pages:


Anonymous October 10, 2009 at 5:13 pm

First thing that comes to mind, about fire, are Jeff Probst’s words on Survivor; “Fire is your life.” My strongest experiences with fire occurred during the 10 years I was involved with the Siddha Yoga lifestyle. Fire was used as a tool of ritual every single day. During the times I lived in the ashram, you would get out of bed, light a candle and wave it before your photos of the gurus. You would also do this before you went to bed, and before you would sit for meditation or had special prayers. When people would start a work shift in the ashram candles would be waved before the gurus and bhajans would be sang. There were some ceremonies where women dressed in saris would wave large candelabras blazing with fire before moortis of Hindu saints. All the time we were taught to recognize that these flames were representations of the flames of love in our hearts, not only of love for the guru, but for all mankind.

One time at the beginning of a 4:30 a.m. kitchen prep shift I was offered the opportunity to “wave the flames” before the photos of the gurus. First and last time this ever happened, as I was sort of a back row devotee. A feeling of power seemed to descend upon me and as I looked into the flames as I was waving them before the gurus, it felt like I merged with the flame. Like my being became the flame, like the essence of fire and god consumed me and I felt purified in my identity with the flame, and all that was around me. This experience drew my consciousness deep into my awareness of the events that unfolded that day, as I became a living, breathing, walking flame.

One of the most fantastic rituals performed in Siddha Yoga ashrams is called a “yagni”, or fire ritual. For seven days, Brahman monks chant before a fire pit, feeding it with ghee, fruit, and offerings of the sins of the world. Unfortunately, I was never able to attend a yagni.


SusanHenderson October 11, 2009 at 7:44 am

Wonderful story, Daryl, a back row devotee stepping forward.


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