Coming home on the train, I read the news: a man had doused himself in gasoline and self-immolated on the Washington Mall. I smelled smoke and wondered, is it my imagination, or is something on the train burning? No one else seemed to notice. By the time we got off the train, however, it was clear: a major fire burned close. Smoke filled the whole East Bay, brought by strange winds. Our noses scorched. The October day was hot.
I sent out a small message:
“Sometimes I think we are all on fire. Sometimes I see us quietly burning.”
Saturday I heard the news the man had died. I also heard something that deepened my disturbance: across the country, in Houston, another man had doused himself with gasoline and prepared to set himself alight. People got to him before he could strike the fire.
Two men. Different parts of the country. Doused in gasoline, ready to burn.
Unrelated events, except all events are somehow related. There are threads that catch and join us, one to another. Those threads are everywhere. And so we burn. We feel the heat rising.
We feel the heat rising from a confused young mother, driving into a barricade, surrounded by police, shot dead as her one year old baby sits in a car seat, watching. We feel the heat rising from the police who pulled the triggers.
We feel the heat rising from Capitol Hill, from a government ground to a halt. We feel the heat rising from the houseless and the unemployed, wondering what they will eat.
Sometimes I think we are all on fire. This is one of those times.
The heat is rising.
Sparks are catching, everywhere. I can only hope this fire will burn us clean, so we can plant anew. I can only hope that things we value are not too badly burned along with the dross that must be cleared.
All fires are naturally occurring phemomena. Sometimes the nature that starts fires is human nature: a match, a word, a spark. Sometimes fire is wanton in destruction. Sometimes fire is necessary. Something is coming. I do not know what it is. But things are changed by fire. Things are always changed by fire.
In these days, let us remember: all events are connected. In these days, let us remember to be kind. In these days, let us challenge the old order:
When lightning strikes the Tower, we come tumbling through the air into the arms of God. And by God, I mean, each other.
note: I edited my original which incorrectly stated the man in Houston had doused himself the same day as the man in D.C. The events were a week apart.
After I posted this piece, I happened upon an excellent article on self-immolations around the globe, all tied to desperation about the economic and political crisis. Written by Sarah Kendzior, it puts these events into a helpful – heartbreaking – frame.
Edit October 8, 2013: the man who self-immolated on the Washington Mall was John Constantino of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Age 64. What is remembered, lives.