Hold Fast: Some Thoughts on Fire


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.

Hold fast. 




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.

21 Responses to “Hold Fast: Some Thoughts on Fire”

  1. Kathleen Carter

    Really wonderful metaphor from a horrible tragedy. You rock Thorn

    • Thorn

      Kathryn, thank you. I had several links open and grabbed the wrong one. Correction made!

  2. Syrbal/Labrys

    The news the last week reminded me of how horridly distorted life is when fear is in the driver’s seat….the police shooting that young mother, doubtless terrified her careening car could have been explosive-laden. And the man immolating himself, oh, that broke something jagged in my heart….I recall too well the pictures from Viet Nam of a monk in flames. There are fires that cleanse, and then there are fires that merely destroy. We have to choose our flames wisely; and wisdom seems so hard to come by as one looks across the country.

    • Thorn

      Yes. And we must continue to help one another in the midst of this – to become our own leaders, from within.

  3. Katie Rose

    Your offering this week has coincided with some heartrending research that I’ve been doing regarding self-immolation in Tibet since 2009. I had the privilege of traveling to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Sichuan in 2007 as part of a research program, bearing witness to the heavy police state in Lhasa as well as tensions throughout the deeper countryside regarding the regulation of pilgrimage sites and monasteries, land rights issues and forced removal of Tibetans from traditional herding routes into government roadside settlements, intensified logging and mining operations that have impacted communities downstream, the influx of tourism as a foothold in control and ethnic representation, etc. The multi-generational wounds of oppression and violence in Tibet run deep, and as my experiences there touched me deeply, I feel this flame in my own heart and mind. Due to the silencing of news regarding immolations in Tibet (and abroad), the list of names at http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/ is only mostly complete, yet bears witness, which I believe is a strong motivator in this act of ultimate urgency: a plea for soulful attention. There is more here than I can hold, but I can cast my eyes toward it and not look away.

    A poem by Tibetan blogger, Sengdor, published online in October, 2011

    The sadness of living is more painful than death
    […] Look at the smoke rising from the monastery’s golden roof
    Look at the doors of each monk’s cell
    In every moment
    After a storm bursts on one grassland Another storm bursts on the other grassland
    Following the direction of the wind
    Dark shadows move accordingly

    “To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” ~Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in a letter to Dr Martin Luther King, 1965

    [Self-immolation] expresses the dual hope that the self-immolators’ sacrifice will lead to their religious realization of ultimate reality, through burning away ignorance, and also ‘burn away’ the conventional reality of oppression.” (excerpt from “Storm in the Grasslands: Self Immolation in Tibet and Chinese Policy” by the International Campaign for Tibet

    • Thorn

      Katie, heartrending is the word that keeps coming up for me.

      Your idea that “there is more here than I can hold, but I can cast my eyes toward it and not look away” is powerful. I think sometimes people feel overwhelmed by it all, on every front, that they feel they can’t look at all, or they look so hard they drown in it.

      Thanks for the list of names, as well. Every month, I and some compatriots stand in front of the Oakland Police Station and read the names, and what stories we have, of those killed by police in Northern California. There is too much there to hold as well – too many systems at play – yet just witnessing a fraction of the names feels important, at least for now.

      May we all learn to burn away oppression. Together.

  4. Sasquatch Jones

    Perfect timing for me. I am currently doing a year long study of elemental rituals, I will be starting Fire on Samhain. It and the Tower have been coming up in many places lately. Thank you for this. Efallai y bydd y duwiau bendithia chi.

  5. Yankee Bruja

    Thorn, Thank you so much for this. As I spent this last week vacillating between being furloughed and being recalled to work with a nebulous promise of pay I read way too many articles that were either finger pointing or fear mongering. This post is a breath of fresh air. In a reading I did last week, the Tower was my outcome card. Not surprising really. Thank you so much for summing up this chaos and bringing it into perspective!

    • Thorn

      Good luck to you! May the Tower bring you needed renewal – the clearing of what doesn’t serve so you can build what shall.

  6. David Salisbury

    In DC I am honored to be part of a community of people who are doing what we can to bring kindness and helpful energies/actions to the District (and in turn, to the country). But sometimes it feels like we’re just a few people spraying children’s water gun towards a monstrous blazing inferno. Its so sad that my home is quickly becoming thought of as “that place that causes everything bad in the country to happen” rather than a place of rich history, activism, and community service.

    I see the goddess Columbia, on her perch atop the Capitol dome and I wonder, what must she think of us? Is what is happening part of a bigger plan that I can’t see because of my perspective down on the ground? It can be hard to discern if she wants me to take action, or act as a grounding anchor. Or maybe it’s both at once.

    • Thorn

      David, the small acts of kindness and connection are partially what I am relying upon in these moments. There are so many things at play right now, at have been building for so many years… I am listening and waiting. Something will happen, but I don’t know what that will be. Meanwhile as many systems of mutual aid as we can support will help us now and with whatever may appear.

  7. Fourge

    Marvelous! Stupendous! And something we as a culture should really be talking about and thinking about more often, as hard as it may be to hear and think and talk about. Too many people these days talking about it and wanting to get their point across, and no one listening to one another. May the flames that are our souls dance to the drums of our stars above.

  8. Lindsey H.

    “Sometimes fire is necessary.” First of all, I love the way you wrote this post. Very poetic. Secondly, you have a great point. It’s so strange to see the thread of things once you start paying attention. I agree. Something is going to happen and let us pray that is the cleansing we need.

  9. Occult Connection

    Love it.

    Although… I wish, that this cleansing happens on the spiritual plane and doesn’t manifest too violently on this one. Alas, that rarely happens.

  10. Sea Serpent

    Again, this is also wonderful. Thank you.

    It seems this society tries to keep us from seeing the bigger picture with their sensationalist, often hysterical-sounding news media. I’ve certainly fallen for these tactics myself by being too reactive. One way that helps me stay in touch with the bigger picture is figuring out what they’re not saying. I’m sure this is not the only way.


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