On Fire

“Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
-Lesley Jamison “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”


When I was in an undergraduate creative writing workshop, the professor was an artist in addition to being a writer. She painted each of us a little card with watercolors and a French word. She said that she had thought of us each quietly and chosen the word that suited us most. She handed out the cards and told each student what their word meant. When she handed me my card, she said nothing. 

I looked at it, and on it was written, “ètoile.” I had studied French, but I didn’t recognize this word. What does it mean? I asked. She looked around at the other students. You know what it means, she said. No I don’t, I said. She leaned in and whispered, It means star. You are the star.

Stars can burn for a long time, but they eventually die. The heat that makes a star burn is what makes us see it in the sky but is also what eventually kills the star.

When I was born on Christmas day many years ago, the stars in the sky were at such an alignment that my astrological chart has more of the element fire than any other element. I have too much fire. My friend, an astrologer, says that my challenge in life is to stop burning so hot.

My friend Rebecca who wrote the previous blog post told me, When I think of you, the word “bright” comes to mind. Your eyes, voice, and colors. You’re a bright spot to me.

I told Rebecca, When I think of you, the word “light” comes to mind. 

Rebecca’s light is the kind of light that I want to climb into. I want to nap inside of it like a cat in sunlight. I want it wrapped around me. 

My bright is the kind that consumes.

Caleb used to say, You excite me. No one has ever excited me like you.

A woman writes me and says, You are the fiercest, most independent woman I know.

A close friend says to me, I can understand why some people question the abuse, only because when I met you, I couldn’t imagine something like that happening to someone so strong.

My father said to me after I left Caleb, I just don’t know what to believe. You have always been a person who seemed like everything was going fine, until it wasn’t.

My mother said to me when I was in high school, It never seemed like you needed our help. Your brother always asked for it. But you? It’s like you went into your room at eleven and never came out. You always wanted to do everything on your own terms.

I wanted to say to my mother, But I needed your help. I needed it.

But how was she to know this? How could she know when I never asked for it?

I asked Caleb for help. I begged him for help. There were times when I was begging on my knees for his forgiveness because I thought I had deserved what he had given me. There were times when I was sitting against the bathroom door with my feet propped against the counter to give me leverage, as he slammed against the door rhythmically. Slam. Slam. Slam. And I begged him to stop.

Some days, I wonder if that door is still cracked open where he banged against it. Some days, I wonder if there are still holes in the wall above the bed from where he threw the bed knobs at me while I shook under the sheets. Some days, I wonder if his new girlfriend sees those holes and those cracks. Some days, I wonder what stories he tells her to explain those things.

Before I moved out of that house, I took pictures of all of the damage. I keep those pictures locked up with everything else that I have locked up. Some days, I wonder how it would feel to set fire to it all?

In the end, I begged him to leave me. I begged him to leave me because it was so hard for me to leave him.

I never wanted to be a beggar. 

My friend Rebecca also wrote about me in her post, That strong, independent woman was always her, and he took that away for some time. What’s real in us stays, even when we have to work to get back in touch with it.

Some days, I am tired of being strong. I am tired of burning so hot. 

I can never say this enough: Strong women get abused. Sometimes, our strength just means we’re able to take it more, and harder, and for longer.

On the day that professor gave me the card that said star, I was not the star of my own life. I was being abused. I was wounded, but she couldn’t see that because I was also the girl who went into her room at age eleven and never came out. I was also the girl who everything was going fine, until it wasn’t. I was also the woman who later heard in the hallway from another creative writing professor, You are always so happy in person, but your writing is so sad.

Lesley Jamison writes that wounds are different than damage. Wounds can have a certain beauty to them, but damage is irreparable. When I read those words, I wonder Am I wounded, or am I damaged?

I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to that question.

Caleb loved my fire; it excited him. But Caleb wanted to control my fire. He wanted my fire to serve him, but fire doesn’t like to serve. Some days, I wonder if I hadn’t had so much fire, if he would have hurt me in the ways that he did, and then I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. He wasn’t allowed to try and break me. He wasn’t allowed to love me in ways that wanted me broken. 

There was no room for any star in our household but him.

Caleb gets to sleep under those holes in the wall now. He was the one who put the holes in the wall, and he is the one who gets to sleep under them. 

But I am the one living with the damage.

Some days I think that my fire is what saved me. 

Some days I think that my fire is what put me in harm’s way. 

I fall in love easily. I’m not talking only about romantic love. I’m talking about friendship love. The other night, I was sitting next to my friend Brad. He sat closely to me, and I put my arm around him. 

What is that for? He asked. 
I don’t know, I said. You sat closely to me, so I wanted to put my arm around you.

Like Rebecca, Brad is all light. I have told them both too many times how much they would enjoy each others’ company. They are probably tiring of this. Because of location, their friendship is unlikely to happen, but I wish for it nonetheless.

I am looking for more light in my life and less bright.

If you are full of light, and you sit closely to me, I will put my arm around you because that is who I am.

Caleb, like me, is bright. And our arms were around each other, but they were pushing as much as pulling.

Brad put his arm around me in return, and we just sat there quietly for a while. Two friends. 

I’m learning how to give my fire only to people who can give warmth back.

I’m not perfect at this, but I’m getting better every day.