In his essay, “Fire Makes Water,” which was written for the “Fire” Art Garden in 2002, Brian Higley takes us on a journey through the elemental view of life.
Fire Makes Water
© Brian Higley
There is something inside me that burns. Something just on the other side of explanation, that has been there my whole life. A universal something, not entirely unique to me – it feels primordial, like some kind of fire from the beginning of time, common to all things that live.
A candle burns in front of me and there it is, the very same fire that’s in my chest. It can’t be touched. It can’t be weighed. It is completely alive, but not alive. Pure energy with no solid form, wavering back and forth, seeking… something. Something to grab hold of, something to build on. It wants to be bigger, and brighter, and more than what it is. This tiny little flickering gem is the same thing that warms the planets, and lights the daytime, and has the potential to devour all; It is inside me.
It keeps me driven. When I fall, I can count on it to stand me up, and turn me around. It can burn through layer upon layer of culture’s wet blankets trying to smother me and keep me down. The problem is, it doesn’t stop there. It keeps burning. If I feed it – it just wants more of me, and its appetite is infinite. It keeps me running hard, and doesn’t let my mind rest. The flames get higher and the burning more intense. I start to wish this fire would just go away, and leave me alone.
Eventually, I begin looking for places to escape. Somewhere away from the red hot flames, where I can sit – in cool, restful oblivion. Refuge where I can slow down, notice what’s around me, and watch the graceful movement of my breath as it steams into the crisp, cold air around me. I don’t want to think, or do, or work at anything – But that’s when another fear starts seeping in; A cold fear.
In science, Cold is not described as a thing at all. It is simply defined as the absence of heat. Heat is the thing. A great energy that expands into the empty spaces, turning the nothing into something. The total absence of heat is a frightening concept known as “absolute zero”, a lonely, desolate, theoretical environment of minus 273.16 degrees centigrade. The lowest temperature possible in our universe. Imagine the paralyzing helplessness of being sucked into the vacuum of “absolute zero”.
When there’s no fire, there’s no heat, and I am simply liquid water that can easily be frozen solid, so I let the fire start building again, and the whole thing starts all over.
Life is this fragile relationship between fire and water. It’s a constant battle to keep things between freezing and boiling, but that’s where I need to be, in the middle somewhere, where there is flowing, liquid water. Between solid ice and gaseous steam, there is only a tiny window where liquid water is free to flow. This rare opportunity where water is liquid, is the only place in the universe where it is possible for life to exist.
The older I get, the more I realize that tending this fire is my job; The job of staying in the place of life. I’m becoming more and more accepting of the fact, but sometimes it still bothers me to think that I will always have to work to stay in this special place, and it is rare that am ever exactly in the beautiful middle. It’s usually too hot or too cold, and I’m trying to adjust. The day I stop working at it is the day that the fire will either rage out of control, and I will go out of this world in some giant blaze of glory, or I will peacefully give in, watching the glowing coals as the fire dies completely away. Heaven forbid I get snuffed out by some great puff of wind.
I can’t explain what this fire is, or where it comes from, but it seems somehow to be an infinite collection of all lives combined, past present and future. When I think to look up at the stars, my heart jumps with a familiar sense of kinship as I see the millions of suns fueling millions of other galaxies. As my mind opens up, it is flooded with genuine, intense awe, and I begin asking those basic, ancient questions; How long will the little fires burn? Where do the fires come from? and how did they get started? What makes a heart beat for the first time? The amazing science of it fascinates me, but in the end, I’m always left with something that looks a lot like a very great God.