Watching the Flames: Slowing down and focusing in a pandemic

words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.

A decade ago, my life came to a screeching halt—followed by an ever-so-slow release on the brakes. Parents of tiny new children, my husband and I put our former selves entirely on hold to focus on their needs. With no social pressures luring us away, no deadlines inducing stress, we gladly hermitted ourselves away. 

We planned and tended our garden. Sat by the fire, read books. Changed diapers and soothed tears. Took long hikes and leisurely bike rides. Cleaned finger-paint disasters. Read more books by the fire. We had few places we needed or wanted to be, really, but home.

The hazy, soft-light glow of that period intrigues me, not only for its fat-cheeked nostalgia, but as a kind of goal, a hope to return to that easier state, that pace of life. To a time when we had fewer outside commitments, less distraction, more focus.

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Fire, the gathering place of our ancestors, reminds me: We relocated for community, a connection beyond a few close friends.

Now that we find ourselves at home again—this time as an entire society, isolated—I’m filled not with fear or panic, but gratitude. Guarded gratitude, with a bold asterisk of concern, but gratitude nonetheless. The longed-for pace has returned.

Living room forts, homemade pasta, family drawing sessions. The daily dog run in the woods, once so easy to procrastinate, has returned. Now we hike together. And, with no schedule to rush us, we linger. We pull dry tinder from our packs, gather wood, start a fire. We sit and watch, we listen. How is it that, only a week ago, we could find no time to listen?  

The lapping flames bring to mind not only the crayons and the crying, but the impetus for our departure from that earlier time. We humans are a sociable bunch. We rely on one another for companionship, for care, for our very survival. Fire, the gathering place of our ancestors, reminds me: We relocated for community, a connection beyond a few close friends.

There’s something reassuring in a campfire. Photo :: Kristin Schnelten

Our circle now is so broad and rich, so welcoming and encouraging. 

For the past few years, our tiny house has literally overflowed at times. Elbow-to-elbow we sat, stood, sang and played our guitars, shouting above the din and passing drinks over heads, too tightly packed to deliver a pint any other way. The warmth and whoops were our fire, a full-participation round of “The Weight” our version of an ancient, forgotten chant.

What brought us together—besides the music and the beer—was our collective spirit, our passion for both the people and the place that create our community. 

If I do worry now, it’s over the sudden loss of these connections. And how essential they are for our well-being. How long will interaction via screens suffice? 

There’s something reassuring in that fire, though. In the hope that our community will survive, that we will again gather. Around the table, the campfire, the trailhead. Together. —ML