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The Way We Burn

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I thought I knew what fire was. I saw the little tongues of it on candle wicks, and bonfires fed on newspapers and the snapped arms of trees, and the forest fires that sometimes broke out on I-95, and I thought: it’s all the same. They all start slow, burn fast, burn hard, burn intense and out of control. I watched the liquid, undulating motion of the flames, and saw only hardness, only raw power, only destruction. And I thought: that’s what I must have. The power to change. The power to move people with my words the way fire blisters skin, the way wind manipulates flames. I thought: that’s the only way.

And I was wrong. In Advanced Placement U.S. History last year, we watched a video on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which one-hundred and twenty-five women burned to death. We saw, in tinny reporter voices and grainy photographs, the girls dying all over again. I don’t know how exactly to explain what I felt then. Horrified. Heartbroken. Haunted by girls burned to death and burned into my mind. I went home and spent hours researching the fire, and when I was done I bawled, grieving for a hundred women a hundred years dead.

I couldn’t understand what was so strong about that fire, that one event, that burned me on contact. It was tragic, yes. But people die. I know that. Men and women and children are murdered every day, and what happened on March 25th, 1911 was an accident. So why did it effect me so deeply? Why did I feel a stab of mourning a hundred and twenty-five times over?

I think I get it now: it wasn’t the women who died—teens my age, girls with beaus, wives with babies—it was the people they left behind. The families that had to rise up from the literal ashes and go on living, reeling and numb with grief. That’s what broke my heart. Not a fire powerful enough to wipe out one-hundred and twenty-five lives in thirty minutes; the dusty, desolate aftermath.
It wasn’t the fire that resonated with me, and it wasn’t the fire that killed those girls. The smoke pushed its fingers down their throats and they choked on it. The asphalt below broke their bodies when they threw themselves from the windows. Fear got them before the fire did. Squeezed their hearts so hard they burst, and all the fire got were shells of girls already gone. Fire has power, yes. But there are stronger things.
I don’t know that I can pinpoint one moment where I changed my mind—about fire, and power, and what caught my breath and made my hands shake. It could be me, slumped in my desk in U.S. History, watching the poor-quality video of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire with smoke pouring into the clouds and my heart in my mouth. It is that. That changed me. But there’re more, too. It’s seeing the look in a man’s eyes when his heart is broken. It’s anger that leaves you cold. It’s looking out the backseat window of a ’94 Toyota Corolla with my girlfriends laughing and singing up front, music making my head throb, and the morbid flash: what would happen if we crashed? Picturing the car crumpled with its belly turned up like beetles long dead and the tires spinning, and me still inside with blood on my mouth. It’s the small moments, insignificant lapses in your day that make you who you are. That take you up and change you, irrevocably, forever.
Power is more than disturbing pictures, fires that only destroy, music that squeezes your whole body. You don’t get power without feeling. You’ve got to feel it in your bones. It’s got to take your breath and hold it fast. It’s got to shake you to the core. A fire’s only fearsome with fuel at its back. I used to think power was an all-or-nothing game. Either you had it—hot, unyielding, all-encompassing—or you didn’t. I was wrong. I know now that there’s more than one way to burn.



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This article has 4 comments. Post your own!

Adventure121 said...
Oct. 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm:
This is inspirational. I especially like the catchy title.
 
katiek. replied...
Oct. 13, 2009 at 4:29 pm :
Thanks a lot!
 
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SteffSilhouette said...
Oct. 10, 2009 at 9:39 pm:
This is probably the most powerful and unique essay I have ever written. And I couldnt agree more with your perspective on it. All I can really say is Thank You.
 
katiek. replied...
Oct. 13, 2009 at 4:28 pm :
Wow, thank you so much. That's really touching.
 
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