Flames on the mind, thanks to Kerry Washington and our Zeitgeist

For Becky, who likes this blog.

The Artist’s Way routine. Check-in Week 9.

Issues? No, I just keep on going.

Well, maybe there is an issue. The issue of being a white person making art to celebrate Black people (I’m now on “Respect” quilt no. 9). I wonder that today especially after watching the last two episodes of Little Fires Everywhere on TV last night, the miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel (btw: it is carried by the fabulous Kerry Washington, seen above!) I want to remember the wisdom of Washington’s character, the Black single-mother-artist-genius, a gorgeous sexy successfully other worldly Mia Warren, when she pushes the rich white girl Izzy to own her art (and its racist potential). And about what the world according to white people prefers not to acknowledge. And when she tells the world—through a plaster maquette of the entire city—that Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a place of bankrupt, icy-cold hypocrisy. Her fragile white artwork, juxtaposed to the red-gold flames engulfing the rich people’s massive brick house at the end, makes an image heavy with thought.  It lies heavily on the mind.

There is wisdom burning under the emotion.

Synchronicity? Fire runs through the 2019 novel, Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson, too. This book, which I just finished listening to via audiobook, is wonderfully written. I love the authentic cadence, the perfect slang for a 20-something smart girl, and the tiny, occasional second-person interventions, when the narrator talks through the wall directly to us. The audiobook is perfect thanks to reader Marin Ireland who sounds like anybody anywhere in the USA but with just a hint of southern twang as befits a story set in Tennessee. (She won an award for that!) Yet this ill-prepared governess grows into her job with a warmth and intelligence that are universal. The story circles round a couple of children—by the end there are three kids—who spontaneously burst into flames. It is a perfect conceit for showing how kids are permeable and reactive to poisonous adults. These kids burn it off. They emerge unscathed, while their clothing and homes are scorched.

The focus on fire means something. Fire: a symbol for our times, our Zeitgeist*

Little fires = micro-aggressions, resentments that build and build until they become an inferno. Anger between Whites and Blacks, kids and parents, wives and husbands, moneyed and non-moneyed.

Flames burn, destroy, cast sparks, warm the air, generate smoke, and eventually reduce “reality” to a pile of toxic trash from which, over time with patience and ancient wisdom, new life emerges. Tiny green sprouts; lichen; grass. The pinecones heated at last to their breaking point open with a CRACK and their seeds finally spread. (see Keep Moving by the candid Maggie Smith—not the actress—who, devastated after a recent break-up and divorce, alone with two children, casts about for a way forward. For her, the pinecone bursting open on a charred forest floor brims with possibility.)**

This makes me think of Dr. Michele Harper’s book about the lives mended and split open beyond repair in the Emergency Rooms she has known.*** It seems that sometimes great pressure or heat can have beneficial after-effects. Think of the lady with high blood pressure who brought it down almost to normal simply by breathing slowly as she’d been taught to do in martial arts class years earlier. Now our society—think George Floyd’s suffering and death under the knee of a policeman—is close to igniting. Now the very climate of our atmosphere is changing for the worse, to become hotter and more prone to violent storms, floods and wildfires. It is thus unsurprising that now these concepts are creeping into our collective unconscious. Yet the soft flickering glow of a campfire or fireplace is so compelling, relaxing, and mystical, we long for it and can’t resist staring into its depths. And telling stories.


Une amie française qui parle de flammes aussi !

La capacité au bonheur se travaille, se muscle jour après jour. Il suffit de revoir son système de valeurs, de rééduquer le regard qu’on porte sur la vie et les événements… Tout son être s’enflammait pour tenter de me faire partager sa conviction.

C’est un peu le même phénomène que celui décrit par Platon dans son Mythe de la caverne : enchaînés dans une grotte, les hommes se font une image fausse de la réalité, car ils ne connaissent d’elle que les ombres déformées des choses qu’un feu allumé derrière eux projette sur un mur.

Broyer du rose ou broyer du noir n’est pas indépendant de la volonté…(Giordano, Ta Deuxième Vie, 19).****


Reminds me of the “unfamiliar light” or lumière inconnue that confronts the bishop in the early, largely forgotten pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables…*****


What does it all mean? It wants us to keep thinking, keep acting, stay alert.


* Zeitgeist: German for “spirit of the age”. It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitgeist

** Maggie Smith, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020).

*** Michele Harper, M.D., The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir (NY: Riverhead Books, 2020).

**** Raphaëlle Giordano, Ta Deuxième Vie commence quand tu comprends que tu n’en as qu’une. Roman. 16th ed. (Paris : Eyrolles, 2015).

***** “L’évêque en présence d’une lumière inconnue” / “The Bishop in the Presence of an Unfamiliar Light” (Part 1, Book 1, chap. 10 of Victor Hugo, Les Misérables).  I LOVE that part, so much that I wrote an article on it: Les Misérables and the French Revolution: How to Keep that ‘Unfamiliar Light’ Aflame” in Approaches to Teaching Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, ed. Michal P. Ginsburg and Bradley Stephens (NY: MLA, 2018), pp. 129-135.


One thought on “Flames on the mind, thanks to Kerry Washington and our Zeitgeist

  1. I can’t stop thinking about flames. A vow: from now on, every “Respect” quilt will have flames, somewhere, tucked in to stay. They will remind us of these important truths. (see no. 6, pictured, for one example)

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