Burning

by Lexi Lerner

Like twins, light and heat are born from the same flame. Each has an attractive and destructive force. For light, it’s illumination and blindness. For heat, warmth and burning.

What you experience when you approach a flame is a matter of proximity and duration. How long will you keep your eyes there, keep your hand there? To be a guest in this house means to know your place.

Yet like moths, we cannot help but be drawn in. It sounds hedonistic, but oftentimes it’s sacrificial, to throw ourselves so passionately at what can enlighten or smite us.

Perhaps self-indulgence and self-sacrifice are of the same coin. Perhaps we transgress what nature warns us because it’s what our nature instructs us to do. Maybe we dream of limitlessness, to benefit ourselves or others. The sun spots, the burn blisters, melanoma down the line – mere slaps on the wrist, limitations of our anatomy. We need not be bound by that! We watch Icarus drown – even chide him while he’s sinking – and continue to play with fire.


It’s an endearing foolishness. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer established what we call today the porcupine dilemma: we want to huddle closely in winter, but can’t because of our quills.

It’s frankly a miracle that on an interpersonal level we still attempt to fan each other’s inner flames, even with the risk of getting singed. Or that we cuddle at night when there’s nails and fists and teeth and kitchen knives and drawer guns and just the right words to end each other in a heartbeat. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That all that is possible… and yet we still. It wouldn’t be worth it if it weren’t really worth it.


I also say it like I know better than to approach the godly lantern. I’ve heard countless stories of seekers losing parts of themselves in the process: Icarus, his wings; the Elric brothers, their bodies; or so many others, their minds. And recovery isn’t a rewind. But I don’t know better. Because it’s not just about light or heat, of course. It’s that the burning of the wax around the wick isn’t only on the table. It’s also inside us, consuming and fueling us. And that common metabolism is the fatal attraction. It’s what we crave in each other. The burning that reminds us why we’re alive.


A fellow writer here, Leanne Ogasawara, recently elaborated on a concept from Japanese tearooms, ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会), which I learned as “one moment, one experience”:

Life is, after all, constantly shuffling the deck, and each and every tea gathering was precious and unique; a once in a life time combination of people, utensils and experiences… [I]t was all a unique moment. A heightened moment. A perfect unfolding of “now.”[1]

How do you reckon with the anxiety that accompanies that knowledge – that sacredness arises from unrepeatability?


“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.”[2]

Once I read a short story about a man who, every waking hour, involuntarily destroyed everything outside his field of vision. Whenever he looked away from something, everything there died: quickly, violently, and completely. Buildings dismantled, bodies extinguished, blades of grass atomically exploded. If the man glanced over his shoulder, he’d see for just a moment the wrecked world rebuilding into its exact same structures. The buildings would then appear fine, but the sentient beings would be shaken. Too terrified to weep. Looking around like they were gasping for air with their eyes. Like they had lost something they could feel but not say. It became normal and he became numb.[3]

One day the man meets a woman in a bar. He doesn’t take his eyes off her as they go to bed that night. Almost a year later, a baby presents itself on his doorstep. The man tries to stay awake as long as possible so as not to kill the baby. But when he falls asleep, the baby of course dies. Every night. A new baby reappears (regenerates?) each morning on the man’s doorstep. He is not sure if it’s the same baby being rebuilt each time. So there is always a risk that he keeps accidentally killing his child.

He decides on one last baby for whom he will make all sacrifice. The man stays awake for six days straight before his body gives out permanently.[4]


Sure, there are some holes in the story’s logic. But I cannot shake his bloodshot eyes fixed on that bundle that contained everything that ever mattered to him. If anything caused his glance to shift – a loud noise, a slight distraction, a bug on the face – the fragile reality he held in his arms would disappear irrecoverably.


What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.[5]


I’d call it a nightmare but I wasn’t asleep:

A willow tree over the world. Weeping. Millions of swords hanging, swinging by the temptation of fateful wind: a force which destabilizes, which passes fate into the greedy hold of gravity, making each sword more likely to fall. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment.[6]

Yet we lounge in its shade. Call it beautiful. Take pictures. Picnic. Copulate on the soft lawn beneath its umbra. Light, movement in the foliage, an interplay of general, changing impressions that developed through detailed transitions.[7] The chanceness of what (be)falls. The world is always and decisively ending.


I ask Google what the dangling swords of willows are called. It does not tell me. Instead – People also ask: Are willow trees strong? How big do they grow? How long do they live for?


There is something very different about the willow than the cherry blossom. The willow cries yet we delight. The cherry blossom delights and yet we cry. Mono no aware (物の哀れ) – the pathos of things.

Perhaps all men, by the very act of being born, are destined to suffer…[8]

Pathos, pathology and empathy are all born from the same root.


A 32-year-old died in an apartment fire four years ago. She was supposedly asleep when it happened, and it was supposedly the smoke, not the flame. She had been fighting with her landlord and was slated to leave the building at the end of the year.

She wasn’t slated to die from faulty electrical. Frankly, it was a lame deus ex machina to extinguish a person who had wrestled with anorexia nervosa for so long. I imagine she herself would dryly joke that the system was rigged.

She was prideful, some might say, or proud, she would say. But maybe not. My smile is detached; it is part of my job, but I do not join the mirth… I weave a tapestry.[9]

I had to feel close to her from afar. We’ve spoken more in her afterlife than we did before then. Family holidays never seemed like the right place to have the conversation we were meant to have. And I wasn’t ready. The closest I came was in our last exchange, in which I told her I was accepted to university. She told me to believe in myself. You’ll kill it. It carried a certain swagger. At least I think. I don’t remember the words well enough to quote more or describe further. But I remember looking up to her – physically too, since she was almost two feet taller than I was – and feeling blessed to have similar blood in our veins.

She was fascinated with the pseudo-word “incapitated.” Like we were all born decapitated chickens and it was time to sew our heads back on. Incapitated. She even wrote a book with that title. I tried to read it as a tween but wasn’t ready for its self-description as a “psychologically twisted erotic thriller.” The book’s timeline starts when she’s 22, the same age I am now.

It’s clearly autobiographical but she only reveals the protagonist’s identity as her own on the last page. The rest is written in third person, perhaps to be shoddily mysterious, perhaps to expose her truth at an oblique angle. But her choice to give thinly veiled name changes, often keeping the first letter of the person’s name it’s clearly linked to, led to many hissed whispers of selfish, self-indulgent, malicious.

Incapitated. Was it control she sought? Wisdom? What did it mean to her, having one’s head on right?


She deserved better than an apartment fire. She, not the flame, deserved to be spectacular.


Three months ago, I wrote a poem about seeing her –

her doppelgänger, really –

walk into a pizza parlor and sit with me. We talked for a while.

you told me about how bile burns but nothing hurts
quite like loneliness
whisking a finger through the tea candle’s flame
told me you would sacrifice a lot for warmth

That was the last stanza.


It might be over soon (two, two)
Where you gonna look for confirmation?
And if it’s ever gonna happen…
Within a rise there lies a scission
It might be over soon…
[10]

“22 stands for [the songwriter]. The number’s recurrence in his life has become a meaningful pattern through encounter and recognition… The reflection of ‘2’ is his identity bound up in duality: the relationship he has with himself and the relationship he has with the rest of the world.”[11]


I feel like a child sitting here. Yet there are spider veins creeping up my ankles. Cellulose congealing my thighs. Two gray hairs on my head. Cavernous pores, flabby arms, pudgy belly, decaying vision, receding hearing. Constantly checking my wrist for the time. Both time’s up and it’s not time yet. I still don’t know enough. Ask questions. Change my mind. Read and reread. Don’t sleep. Try. Pray. Learn. Fret. Ache. Burn.


The Tower, the sixteenth Major Arcana card in tarot, is a tragedy to pull. A lightening bolt arrow strikes the monolith’s crown off its head. Two people plunge from the windows; they won’t land on their feet. Only flames and lightening illuminate the night.

This is a card that follows a few after Death (number XIII) and emerges right before the bright celestial bodies (the Star, Moon, Sun – XVII through XIX.) It is the darkest depth and most cataclysmic time-splitter of the 78-card series.

There is no consensus on how to read the Rider-Waite-Smith deck upside down, however. Is a card’s meaning weakened, negated, soured, sweetened, slowed, inverted?

In the Reversed Tower, the two people ascend to a ceiling of solid ground, arms upstretched angelically.[12] Gravity swoops them out of electric danger. The flames of hell lick their heels, but these sinners-turned-saints keep floating.

They still look blankly unhappy, frightened. The crown remains knocked off its monolith. The tower burns.


Reversed or upright, the Tower never comes along without good reason.[13]

And staring at the Tower, I can’t help but think – at least they have each other.


Between the two worlds he was suspended… One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness.[14] The nature of this darkness is a lack of coping, a split within the individual that makes for many difficulties,[15] for the bifurcated man who has one eye on the future and one on the past, the present is out of focus. He belongs in every time but this one, in every reality realer than what is here at hand.

I heard about a doctor who was disappointed with his residents; so one day he brought them into a hospital ward and locked them in as patients for a week. “You can’t be a good doctor if you’ve never been a patient,” he said. I agree: the best doctor is a bifurcated one, an amphibious one, who’s experienced both the wisdom of pain and the innocence of health, who’s communed with the harbingers of death and life. The new phase and the old phase exist simultaneously in him, and together they render him an experienced psychologist, a keeper of his brother’s conscience.[16]

The word “duality” is exactly one word. But bifurcation requires a person who’s whole to balance on the edge of a knife. Can he handle it? Or will he slip?


A Rinzai master once instructed that breathing is not a cycle of inhalation and exhalation, but rather one prolonged exhalation that keeps turning over on itself, like a leaf flipping along a road, or a wind spinner.[17]


Are we fish hypothesizing that water isn’t the only thing, even if we’ve never experienced an air bubble or an oil droplet? Is it futile to think there is anything else beside this?

And if, as fish, we find ourselves not just swimming but swimming in water, will we drown?


Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him… For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valour. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time… “A long, curved band of color… stretched endlessly in either direction… [the people] were living at the very moment with great emotion, in intricate detail, in their individual times and places, and they were dying and being replaced by ever more people, one by one, like stitches in which whole worlds of feeling and energy were wrapped, in a never-ending cloth.”[18]

His soul expanded. But for a moment only.[19]


There seems to be a danger that the very thing whose value we have undertaken to assess may slip completely through our fingers.[20]

A scuba diver at 30 meters underwater may have 45 minutes of oxygen. At 60 meters, 25 minutes. At 100 meters, barely 7 minutes.

In writing this, how long do I have before the bush burns and blinds me, before the flame singes my wings or takes my body or mind, before exploring heights or depths causes me to black out –


The true sin is forgetting.[21]

A woman is crying but forgets why. A man looks at the television, but a buzzer implanted in his skull goes off, painfully wrenching him from thought. The death of their son is being broadcast on the news. But, matherogod, was he a sensible man or was he not? And how could this terror throttle him like this when he didn’t even know what caused it? And would he just stand here like a jittery ninny or would he pull himself together and be reasonable? For after all was he a sensible man or was he not?[22] Sharply he turned away.[23] “That was a doozy.”[24] And thus everything is in order. He is past the “crisis,”[25] feeling better… right as rain.[26]


Once you told me that when you gained awareness of your own breath, you couldn’t breathe involuntarily anymore. You had to forget it to stay alive.

Yet to tell me that story, you had to remember a little bit. Just enough to remember that you were supposed to forget it.


Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.[27]

She watched the willow tree caress the wind.

Her tears were in front of her eyes. The only thing preventing them from spilling down her cheeks was water’s cohesive property. But cohesion causes tension. She changed the subject.

“This is distraction,” I said.

“No,” she responded. “That’s the point.’


[1] Leanne Ogasawara, “Report From Salzburg,” 3 Quarks Daily, 2018
[2] Fight Club, 1999
[3] Shep Jones, “When I Turn Around You Will Be Gone,” 2015
[4] Jones
[5] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990
[6] Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1965
[7] Ernst Jünger, Eumeswil, 1977
[8] Weil
[9] Jünger
[10] Bon Iver, “22 (Over S∞∞n),” 2016
[11] Commentary by Trever Hagen, Bon Iver’s friend
[12] “The Guide says there is an art to flying… or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything, 1982
[13] David Cady, “Change You Can’t Avoid,” 2016
[14] Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940
[15] Czesław Miłosz, “The Pill of Murti-Bing,” The Captive Mind, 1951
[16] Miłosz
[17] “The alternation of day and night… Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy?” Augustine, The City of God, 426 CE
[18] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974
[19] McCullers
[20] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899
[21] Eliade
[22] McCullers
[23] McCullers
[24] Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron,” 1961
[25] Miłosz
[26] The Matrix, 1999
[27] Virgil, Aenid, 29-19 BCE

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