The Pagan Fire
You see these kiddies who leap from sidewalk-square to sidewalk-square. Everyone knows the stakes: step on a crack and break your momma’s back. And then you see these homeless magi who conduct the cosmic clockwork from a park bench. The sunrise. The sunset. They’re also deeply staked. They know that all it would take for the world to end is one false move. Like crossing left-leg over right-leg, or breaking their daily pigeon feeding routine.
Its funny and not so funny. Personally, I have rarely flattered an artist or a comedian by calling him “crazy.” When you have mental illness in your blood-lines, you develop an insider’s concern.
Imagination is like fire. Only the controlled-burn serves a sane purpose.
Okay. Okay. I live in a rooming house in Philly. I’ve got stories of drifters who found their way back to “reality”, and drifters who succumbed to their haunt. It’s a place for men on the bubble. One could even say that it’s a place for men straddling worlds: the realm of Newtonian physics and the realm of pagan metaphysics. Let me break it down. You have the dominant daily realm of cause-and-effect that makes business and The Golden Rule the “working” mentality. Practical thinking! The Modern Way! Then there is the ancient realm of woof and warp, fickle-fates, and divine humors. That is the pre-Modern way. Even learned Philadelphians, men of science, appeal to the latter when buying lotto tickets, betting on horses or playing an inspired game of poker.
Well, I had a hunch the night before the roaring fire. It led me to YouTube videos of lions devouring wildebeest calves, and then hyenas massing-in-force to drive the lions from their kill. A lesson in merciless nature. I thought about it at yoga class in the morning. I know. I know. I was supposed to be dovetailing into an urbane Judeo-Christian idealist. Lions lying down with lambs from the Old Testament, the meek inheriting the earth from the New Testament, and All of Creation converted into Eden’s long lost twin. But I kept thinking that maybe Nietzsche was right. Maybe we’re not living in a Moral Universe and maybe love can’t rule the field. Maybe the dominant force is Will to Power. Which like fire, can serve or get out of control.
Too much heavy lifting. I was taking a post-yoga nap when the fire alarms rang. Do you ever tire of tech’s stimuli? Do you ever pull the covers over your electro-shocked head? When I finally left my bedroom, there was black smoke lacing the air. Ashen negligees streamed like ghosts in flight. I walked against the current. I went towards the source. I experienced a slow-motion rush as time swirled in a bubble. Meanwhile, the corridors and doorways pulsed as prime archtypical forms: passageway and threshold.
When I stepped into the ol’ cigarette puffers room at the aft end of the rooming house: flames dancing on the bed and blankets, and flames traveling atop the dirty clothes stuffed between bed and walls. Flames that weren’t scary because they were large. Rather, flames that were scary because they were liberated from any kind of man-serving purpose, accelerating with wild abandon, and hypnotically beautiful on their own fierce terms.
Well, this was it. This was the danger foretold by YouTube videos. I might as well have been looking into the jaws of a lion or hyena. There was no moral appeal. There was no petitioning for mercy. And though my physical life wasn’t in danger because I had ample time to flee, my metaphysical life was in danger along with my yoga-mat, my library and my altar that takes me back to the future of Paganism. Maybe a television is your centerpiece. I’ve constructed an altar using the Secrets of the Parthenon: Sacred Geometry, Divine Ratio and all that esoteric engineering that synchs the material and ideal stuff. My altar: a manifest table of visual harmonies that have, at least, therapeutic value. Music for the eyes and a plum composition to contemplate before facing the goddamned mirror. The Big Issue: is it me or the Modern World that’s nuts? Ha. Ha. Not so funny when flames are threatening a pal’s similar, but different, chapel: sports calendar, VFW magazines and beer bottle sentries atop a television with a tin-foil antenna. No mercy. No pity for any man’s stake.
And let me say this in deference to the ol’ Roman Catholic doctrine: the fire was pure appetite. Pure lust. Pure gluttony. Pure self-immolating fire, if you’ll excuse the redundancy.
I fought the fire and the fire won. My deputies were a buck-naked drunk who’d been warned against smoking in bed, and a 50 year old idiot savante with foggy eyeglasses, crumbs in his beard and pee-stains on his tennies. My fraternity. My clique of rooming house insiders. We beat the fire down twice but it continued to travel underneath the surface of things while smoke, the silent killer, poisoned the air. I left for a breather. I returned to get a blast of fire-extinguisher spray in the face. Perfect slap-stick comedy under extreme pressure. It took a cop to pull us away from the madness and, another silent killer, the tug of lost victory. Like gamblers, we wanted to stay. Keep trying. We almost had fortune in hand!
After a round of interrogations on the street, we landed in a Red Cross Shelter in West Philly for a month. They treated us well. I got post-traumatic counseling. The social worker suggested that I write about the burn. Well, okay. I’ve had trouble sleeping. When I turn to the right I’m an hero who contained the dragon until the firemen arrived. When I turn to the left I’m an infernal priest who merely molested the fire, beautiful as it was, with a promiscuous glee. Either way, I survived with questions intact: am I an abysmal loser or the master of my own tragic-comic fate?
I did good? I did bad? I’m on the bubble when it comes to defining reality. And I’m not talking about the Metaphysical vs Nominalist rub between theologians and scientists. Neither am I talking about the Heart vs Mind rub between artists. Or the Lucky vs Good rub between sport fans. I’m talking about the abnormal vs normal rub that blisters deep inside myself.
Happily, fate has put me in my place. I’m back in the rooming house where everything and nothing is understood. There’s a smokey mindcraft here, always on the verge of inflammation, and it feels like my home in the world.