Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released in the Fall of 1989. I was 10 years old and did not get it. It had to do with history. Teachers liked it.
A couple decades later, on a nostalgic whim, I bought in on iTunes. It was so much better, musically, than I remembered it. The lyrics have the “100 Years of Solitude” effect. There is so much meaning in every.single.word. It is an onslaught of meaning. You cannot possibly assimilate it all. You are forced into the bird’s eye view whether you want to take it or not. Once you are there it is visceral and certain.
“100 Years of Solitude” elicits, in me, anger. Anger at the waste of solitude. Anger at the loss of the love and connection finally arrived at after 6 generations of solitude. Anger that the mythically feared pig’s tail arrives on the cue of a dark and bleak outlook that haunts a family. Anger that it is the outward casing of a long and complicated genesis story that is really a farce. Does no one else get it? That the moral is that love and connection is all that matters despite the ants?
Living the clarity of visceral certainty is a different story, literally. I listened to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” a lot in 2011. I lived uneasily then. Life was not what I wanted it to be. The refrain reverberated in my head and clung around my chest cavity like unresolved grease:
“No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”
The refrain became like a call to arms.
The part about how I didn’t start it let me off the hook. It inspired me to take some sort of action before instead of after I sorted out all the fears and resentments I held onto like pacifiers. This fire had the whole world in flames! Who cares who had started it when the whole world was in flames? When there is a fire you fight it not sit around figuring out who was responsible for it.
This fire would never be totally put out but that did not matter. To fight a losing battle was something that had never interested me before. Fires spread! I know now from California that you can fight wildfires for months. The fact that it may never be put out does not affect the moral certainty of fighting it nevertheless. Indeed, it increases it.
I was more concerned about the effect of the fire on you than on me. We do not fight fires because we are afraid we will be burned up. We fight fires because we are afraid you will be burned up. We risk burning ourselves in this endeavor. The call to arms freed me up, for a moment, from the self-absorption of fear and resentment for compassion, solidarity, connection, all things I had not even a passing familiarity with at that time.
But, I didn’t know all those things then. I just wanted to fight this fire I didn’t start, whatever the heck that would mean. I felt clear.
The featured image is a photograph taken by me of the spectacular skylight at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.