Summer Theologica, Part I

In an earlier version of the following poem, which I, ahem, can’t seem to find, there was a line that said, “Television, being neither action nor contemplation, must be sin.” I’ve been contemplating the notions of action and contemplation this week (not so much acting on either notion), so I thought of that now-homeless line.

There is a burning ban in Wisconsin now (I’m scared to use the barbecue grill even), and we haven’t had enough rain for a very long time (and not much rain in the forecast), so even if we still lived out in the country, which we don’t, we wouldn’t be burning trash. The images of cold and wet are comforting to me at the moment:


Burning trash is better on the other Solstice,

December, the colder the better,
And even wind is fine
With enough snow cover.
Deep dark. We pile in
Two months of cat food bags
And Pop Tart boxes, low APR deals
And wadded up rough drafts.

One big blue kitchen match or two
Scraped fast against the barrel,
Which once was painted bright blue,
And the flame touches,
Tickles, dances, overwhelms
The trash. The chemical residue
In the barrels sends up thick smoke, sky blue.

Transformed! Detritus of the modern life
Consumed by fire, condensed to steam
And ash. Another chance to start again,
Another slate scorched clean.

The fire keeps you warm.
On Christmas Eve once, I sang
“Away in a Manger” while burning trash,
cows actually lowing nearby.

Bits of paper rise in the night,
Against the starry sky it’s hard
To keep saying paper, fire, ash—
Orange lace makes more sense,
Flickering warm constellations
In a coldly growing universe.
Our dwindling friend, the past, is receding.
One gust and there’s a gray hole
Where the tiny fireworks had been.

But we keep up with trash better
Spring, fall, summer, letting it pile up
Only if there’s a burning ban, and this summer,
There’s way too much rain for that.

Loading the barrel raises a cloud
Of mosquitoes from the puddle inside.
Die, demons, die, I say,
Lighting it fast. But they’re so thick.
I want to wear a smudge pot
Round my neck, dip my clothes in Deet
And citronella oil, set myself on fire.
At least immolation wouldn’t itch.
At least not at first.

There is something holy about fire,
I think to myself, dancing on the squishy
Ground to dodge all the whiny
Little proboscises aimed at me.
All that was is less.
The volume visibly reduced.
Blue incense rising slowly toward heaven.
Here it is, God, what was, what we no longer want.


This poem is about so many things, and it used to be about so many more. (In that version I can’t find. I don’t think I burned it–I’m just not sure where it is.) There used to be a line in there from a friend who burned trash with me once and said, “I’m the worst person you know.”

There is redemption in burning trash. In getting caught up.

A couple of weeks ago there were three posts that people were sharing on Facebook, all related, I think, to burning trash—at least metaphorically.

First, there was this one, on the potential benefits of procrastination, called “Procrastination Rules.” The only point at which I disagreed was in the penultimate paragraph (most of which I did agree with), in which Frank Partnoy said, “If we aren’t working at all, we are being slothful. If we are working on something unimportant, we are showing bad judgment. But if we are working on something important, then does it really make sense to judge us negatively for not working on something less important? If we put off errands because we are trying to cure cancer, are we really procrastinating? And if that is the meaning of procrastination, why is it so bad?”

Terrific questions, but two other posts were flying around the same day that made it clear it’s not true that we’re being slothful “if we aren’t working at all.”

One was this one, “Why Killing Time Isn’t a Sin,” in which Leo Babauta says “Killing time isn’t a sin — it’s a misnomer. We’ve framed the question entirely wrong. It’s not a matter of “killing” time, but of enjoying it….Now we might spend this moment working if that work brings us joy. But we might also spend it relaxing, doing nothing, feeling the breeze on the nape of our neck, losing ourselves in conversation with a cherished friend, snuggling under the covers with a lover. This is life. A life of joy, of wonderfulness.”

What’s interesting to me is that this seems like neither action nor contemplation to me (I see contemplation as somewhat synonymous to meditation—something requiring focus and effort). This just seems like fun.

And fun, as an anti-dote, can be very powerful, as Tim Kreider points out in “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” I loved how forthrightly he said, “I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know.” But beyond his terrific voice (I’m really enjoying his book, We Learn Nothing), he has some really important points.

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

This is connected to what a lot of creativity researchers talk about in the steps, or stages of creativity (which I covered in my first blog, “Creativity: A Pumpkin Saga”):

“People who describe the stages or steps of creativity use some variation of the following list (much of which comes from an early researcher named Wallas, though he is rarely cited):
• Immersion (where you consider all the possibilities)
• Incubation (where you set your work aside and let your subconscious stew)
• Inspiration (when, like Archimedes, you have your “eureka!” moment—and bathrooms rank high statistically as places where we report getting inspired*, btw. But I shouldn’t say “we” because I would never report that, even if it were true, which of course it’s not)
• Verification (where someone whose judgment matters, for whatever reason, says, “Yes! Tastes great!” or “I’ll publish that!”).”

Procrastination gets you in trouble sometimes in relation to this list, because if you’re working with a deadline, and you spend too much time on the immersion stage, you might not have much time to leave for the incubation stage, and that might cut down on the likelihood of inspiration.

There’s a balance there–as in most things, as in the story of Mary and Martha (tune in tomorrow for that one), as in burning trash–you don’t want to put it off too long, because then you’ll have bags and bags of things to burn and it’ll take forever to get it done. But you don’t want to do it every day, because then you’ll have a tiny little boring fire that will be out before you have time to appreciate how wonderful the moment is, how beautiful the flames, how delicate the ashes are as they lift up and float away.

One response to “Summer Theologica, Part I

  1. In another life I must have been a pyromaniac! Fire has a cathartic and transformative effect like nothing else. Every night for a month after my Mother died I spent at least two hours burning old family pictures and remnants from another life that no longer existed. I only have a handful of pictures remaining from my childhood. Family ghosts and tramas can’t hurt anymore after they are reduced to mere ashes.

    Recently I went through another burning spree when I found most of my old college papers and notes from 1996 onward. I don’t need them anymore and they would never mean anything to anyone else. My husband and I are in the slow eventual process of cleaning out the house we have lived in since 1996 and putting it on the market. There is no way I can take everything with me and I still have a long haul cleaning wise.

    I used to burn trash in my husband’s barbeque grill and an old metal trash barrel when I lived in the country, too. Now I use my livingroom fireplace. I did get some weird looks from my neighbors back in May when I had a roaring fire going inside and it was already in the 90s outside here.

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