Everything's On Fire, All The Time
In Jonathan Griffin’s slender volume On Fire, he compares fire to time in a way that resonates with me:
And he’s right. When a studio or a home goes up in flames, it feels like a catastrophe. And in the immediate sense, of course, it is. But the truth is that everything is trapped in a slow motion fire, everything you’re working for and everything you enjoy and everyone you love and even you, your very self, will be gone in an instant. This may not be that instant. But like Winter in Westeros, that moment is coming.
Time is a medium we’ve all only ever existed within, and it can be hard to grasp what life would look like outside it, if life could even exist outside it. Fire merely speeds up a process that’s already occurring, albeit on a scale that makes it easy for us to forget that it is.
I’m reminded of Sam Taylor-Wood’s exhibition at MOCA in Cleveland in 2008. She showed a series of gorgeous and grotesque still life videos of fruit and animals rotting in timelapse. The colors, the textures were reminiscent of oil paintings, and watching the subjects undulating, expanding with gasses and collapsing, slowly growing a furry coat of mold, becoming engulfed in maggots, was like watching a bonfire. Simply changing the scale at which the viewer perceives time, we were able to see two weeks of truth in 90 seconds. It was exquisite, and heartbreaking, and seared me in the way that really great art sears a person.
So, what do we do with this knowledge?
Personally, I don’t see the point any longer in groping at the unknowable, in worrying about what comes after the fire. It seems there will be more than enough ‘time’ for that then. But regardless of your leanings, yearnings, and searchings for life after this one, we can all agree that we are here, now, and that there are some better ways than others to spend this time that we do have, though not in infinite quantities.
For me this knowledge is clarifying.
Think about when you talk to sick or older people, and they’re very direct, and they’re less worried about societal nonsense or decorum and focused instead on imparting specific messages to specific people. They communicate with purpose. I want to be like that.
Think about how when you do a thing and it wasn’t perfect and at the time, it maybe didn’t feel like success, but you look back and realize it was. That your biggest failures were the attempts you didn’t even make. I want to remember that.
I want to be direct, and dive right in, and approach what could be a funeral like it was a bonfire. I want to survey my life and see it for what it really is, a house engulfed in flames. I can save one thing today. What will that thing be?
When I approach my life this way, it turns out I do have time for the things that are most important to me. Unfortunately, some days, the laundry does have to be the thing I hold above all else. But not today, laundry, not today.
Below is a full video of A Little Death by Sam Taylor-Wood. It is hard to watch, particularly if you’re a fan of small animals or can recognize the fragility of your own life and identify with other living beings. But it is also truly beautiful, the way nature takes care of itself, the way the peach does not rot. It is another clue about time, about how tragedy is always happening simultaneously with joy.