lighting me on fire
I lit a match and placed it under a balled-up newspaper, reading the headline – Arctic Blast Expected – before inky green flames engulfed it. The fire spread across a network of newspaper balls I had stuffed under a pile of firewood and began to lick at the teepee of split firewood. I paced around the fire pit, balancing on the river rock rim and hugging my flannel close. It was past peak autumn and the wind crackled in the bare branches above me. The dog sat stoic twenty feet away, her breath forming clouds as she watched for deer in the cornfield beyond. Within a few minutes, the logs crackled in a healthy blaze.
Next to me, a stack of mismatched notebooks collected ashes on a rusted lawn chair. I pulled one from the top. Stiff work gloves made page turning awkward, but it didn’t matter. I knew what they said because I wrote them, and the entries were always the same. I read a line from the open page – “I need to get my shit together, finally start contributing to society” – and tossed the open book into the fire.
It burned slowly, edges curling up with the heat as the thick cover protected the core. I grabbed the next one and opened to a page in the middle. “Panic attack. Another one – the same old kind. I had to come straight home. I’m really sick of this and I don’t know what to do. I need to start eating better. More veggies, less processed crap. Drink less, be more discerning. I’m anxious because I’m making shitty choices. I can fix this.” The book hit the fire with a hiss.
I reached for the next journal from the stack. It had a magnetic closure and a picture of a fairy sitting daintily on the edge of a crescent moon. It was from college, with lots of entries about too much indulgence in too many bad habits. It crashed into the embers with the others. A book with a green cover like a pool table held accounts of trying and failing to spend less money. It landed on the coals with a sigh, and a hundred pages of angst and sadness went up in flames.
I’d brought the stack to the firepit that morning. For decades I’d made space for them in closet corners, convinced they held the makings of a worthy memoir. I believed the scribbles of my past would unlock my future. But when I finally felt ambitious enough to open the box, I discovered that a collection spanning 20 years was less charming coming-of-age tale and more chronicle of self-hatred. It was time to shed their weight.
The fire snapped and pages dissolved, floating upward like black snowflakes in reverse. The fire was hungry and I had more to feed it. In the middle of the stack the books got bigger, the handwriting swoopier – we were going back in time. I cracked the spine of one with wide-ruled pages and flowers in the margins. Only the first few pages had been touched. “It’s going to be different when I move. New school, new me. I’ll make friends if I stop being such a weirdo all the time.” Into the fire with the rest of the conditional promises I made to myself.
The next one had a black cover and black pages, a remnant of the bygone gel pen era of the late 90’s. Briefly I transported myself to the halls of middle school, where girls flaunted gelly-roll hand tattoos with stylized cursive letters of their names and their friend’s names intertwining among floral designs in bright pastels. I’d found a knockoff version in a drawer in my dad’s desk and pocketed it, with my cool black page journal in mind. The first page is a written testimony of the pen’s death, illustrated in increasingly weak lime green ink from one line to the next. A bright first line fades into a spotty second. The third line holds black indentations of letters and at the bottom of the page there is only a colorless burst where I’d scraped the dry pen against the paper in frustration. The rest of the book was blank.
Several of these books were mostly blank. A hundred sheets of pure potential tacked on to a few ranting, paranoid pages begging the reader to stop and put the book down. Not at all the stuff of Pulitzer-winning prose. But the pattern told a story that the words did not, about a girl who didn’t even trust her journal to hold her inner thoughts.
I remember getting new notebooks as gifts. People knew me as a bookish kid with a reputation for wit. I’d peel off the cellophane and spend an hour deciding on a pen before tucking into the fresh new pages. Sometimes, I would save an untouched journal for the next time I moved or changed schools – a fresh book for a fresh life. So it wasn’t just a place to put my thoughts, it was a pledge to never return to what I’d left behind in the old journal, town, school. Now, everything would be different!
The novelty alone would carry me quick and buoyant like a leaf on a stream. I’d commit to write every day! And I would, for a day or two, then I’d stop. On the next birthday or Christmas or back-to-school sale, I’d get a new journal and begin again, leaving a trail of barely touched notebooks that had become unusable, tainted by a few days of humiliating, grandstanding excitement and then hastily forgotten.
The first page was always blank. It was a decoy. I assumed the lazier prying eyes would give up immediately after seeing an empty first page. On the second page, I’d devise my cover page, with my name and the approximate timing. Whitney, Summer ’96. Then, a stern warning – PRIVATE PROPERTY, KEEP OUT!
Scrawling the warning had a reverse effect. By the time I’d written it, I would become convinced that writing my private thoughts on paper was simply too risky.
I imagined someone slinking into my room while I was at school and following clues like a TV detective to find where I’d stashed the book between sweaters in the closet or among stuffed animals in a box under the bed. They’d instantly navigate through my attempts to keep it hidden and dine like kings on my most personal thoughts. And then, I thought, I’d be exposed. All the sick, sinister ideas, all the anger and frustration of being a kid would be out there for all to see and use against me. They’d penetrate my secret code of names and identify my crushes instantly. “So,” they’d ask casually over hard tacos at dinner, “who is this young man and exactly why is he so dreamy?” Then they’d throw their heads back and laugh in unison as my gaping emotional wounds bled all over the table.
I was sure they’d scold me for using foul language or wishing harm against my brother who tortured me to make his friends laugh. They’d want to discuss the boys I liked and the girls I fought with. They’d sit me down and try to have some awkward earnest conversation about doing my best. I wanted nothing to do with it, so I never let the journals truly exist to be found.
But none of that ever happened, and not because my wildly effective security measures. It never happened because no one in my family would have ever thought to read my journal.
They would never come into my room.
And even if they had, they wouldn’t snoop around.
But if they did snoop around, they wouldn’t look long enough to find my carefully hidden journals.
And even if they had found them, they wouldn’t have read them.
If somehow they had snooped around, found my journals and read them, they wouldn’t have understood the cryptic secret codes I’d developed to talk about my friends, enemies and crushes.
And even if they had taken the time to decipher my personal language, they would not have cared.
I’m 33 years old and am just now realizing how I was never even close to being “in big trouble” like I thought I was. Because I was the youngest, most expendable member of a family that, to describe it in nature terms, was not a forest or a wolf pack or a proud range of mountains. We were an archipelago – a chain of islands, connected by climate but never to meet.
A busy-minded, imaginative little one, I created characters for each of them, made mostly of TV stereotypes and pasted onto the real versions like dresses on paper dolls. And when we interacted, and they failed to deliver on their lines the way I expected them to, I would simply fill in the blanks with my mind. When thinking stopped working, I turned to drinking. Spending money. Working endlessly. Traveling extensively. Which changed the scenery but never the thoughts.
So I devised the plan to ritually sacrifice old thoughts, behaviors and connections. Into the fire they went, one by one, transmuted from dense pain to ashes, floating free.