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  • Transcriber: Leslie Gauthier Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • When I was six years old,

  • our house caught fire,

  • and my mother died.

  • It was a cold February night in Michigan.

  • Our chimney had recently been fixed,

  • so we had a warm fire going in the fireplace.

  • My younger sister and I were sitting next to our dog

  • and coloring with a brand-new box of colored pencils,

  • when Mom said it was time for bed.

  • We'd planned to go up north that night

  • for a weekend of snowmobiling and sledding,

  • but it was already dark and snowing outside,

  • so we decided to leave the next morning instead.

  • We went upstairs, brushed our teeth, climbed into bed,

  • my sister's room right next to the stairs,

  • and mine at the far end of the hallway.

  • Our parents tucked us in and kissed us good night

  • then left the door open just a crack,

  • and the hallway light on, as it always was.

  • In the middle of the night, I woke up sweating,

  • confused because I couldn't see that hallway light.

  • I started shouting for my parents

  • until finally, I heard words that I'll never forget:

  • "Dave, it's a fire!"

  • We later found out that our fire from earlier

  • had burned through an unrepaired crack in the chimney,

  • causing the fireplace doors to explode

  • and fire to just pour into the living room.

  • I remember my mom running down to my sister's room,

  • frantically searching for her

  • and finally finding her on the floor.

  • I crawled after her on my hands and knees,

  • trying not to breathe in the smoke.

  • I remember standing next to my sister's room,

  • trying to turn on that hallway light,

  • but it was already on;

  • I just couldn't see it because the smoke was so thick.

  • I remember feeling the heat of the fire on my skin

  • and hearing the sound of it as it climbed up the stairs.

  • My dad ran down to my bedroom window as an escape route,

  • but it was February, and it was frozen shut.

  • Eventually, he broke the window and pried it open,

  • his arms and hands covered in glass and cuts.

  • He lifted my sister and me onto an awning under the window

  • and told us to shout for help.

  • Not seeing my mom,

  • he considered going back into the fire to find her,

  • but after looking at my sister and me huddled together on that roof

  • and knowing that neither of them may make it out,

  • he stayed with us,

  • calling her name through the window instead.

  • After a few minutes,

  • a man driving down the street saw the smoke and fire,

  • drove onto our lawn,

  • climbed onto the roof of his car

  • and told us to jump into his arms.

  • We'd never seen him before,

  • and even though he saved our lives,

  • we never saw him again.

  • We were brought over to a neighbor's house

  • while Dad continued to wait on the roof for my mom,

  • reaching his arms and hands through the window

  • and into the fire,

  • calling her name over and over.

  • He said later that when the fire department arrived,

  • they carried him down the ladder just as a lower-level window shattered

  • and burst into flames.

  • It took the fire department longer to find my mom.

  • She'd been on the floor of my bedroom the entire time,

  • pinned down by a dresser that had fallen on her leg.

  • We think she went back to look for our dog,

  • but by the time the fire department reached them it was too late.

  • She died on the way to the hospital.

  • Dad was in critical condition,

  • with smoke inhalation and burns and cuts over a third of his body.

  • He spent nearly a month in the hospital,

  • unable to attend Mom's funeral

  • and undergoing multiple, excruciating skin graft surgeries.

  • My sister and I stayed with a neighbor across the street,

  • but we would sit in front of their living room window for hours,

  • just staring at the remains of our burnt home.

  • After a few days, it became evident

  • that we would need to go and stay with some different family friends.

  • The next few years were tough.

  • As a single father of two young girls,

  • Dad did his very best to provide for us

  • as we all tried to grieve and recover.

  • We began to move on in this new reality.

  • Dad bought a new house down the street, without a fireplace,

  • and eventually remarried.

  • My sister and I excelled in school.

  • I was a cheerleader,

  • and she rode horses and played in the band.

  • But nothing could stop the gut-wrenching nightmares that haunted me.

  • I would dream of fire,

  • of being trapped in fire with no escape.

  • I remember, and even now I can feel,

  • the sheer panic and the pressure in my chest.

  • Or worse were the dreams where I was outside the fire watching it,

  • trying to save the people inside.

  • I'd wake up gasping for breath,

  • tears running down my face and sobbing.

  • When I was 15,

  • a friend of mine and a very talented artist,

  • painted two abstract portraits for me.

  • One was done in black and white

  • and depicted a scared girl cowering in the corner of a room,

  • shadows surrounding her.

  • The other was a bursting rainbow of color;

  • the girl was in the center of the page,

  • arms open and outstretched,

  • clearly full of joy and happiness.

  • He knew my past,

  • and he knew that I was conflicted and confused,

  • but he had also seen my potential

  • and wanted to show me what he already saw.

  • After a few years, I realized that these two portraits

  • showed two completely different paths before me:

  • a life of fear

  • or the promise and potential for recovery.

  • I had always been drawn to that brighter, more colorful painting,

  • but I wasn't quite sure what it meant for me

  • or how to transform my current mentality into that kind of joy and happiness.

  • So outwardly, I moved on with life --

  • graduated high school, went to college --

  • while inwardly,

  • I continued to bounce between the highest of highs

  • and the lowest of lows,

  • like a Ping-Pong ball between those two portraits.

  • In 2004, I went backpacking through Central America with a friend.

  • We spent our first week on the island of Roatán,

  • off the coast of Honduras.

  • After a few days there, my friend and I realized

  • that one of our new local friends was a fire dancer.

  • Neither of us had ever seen fire dancing before,

  • so one night, we decided to go see a show.

  • We watched, mesmerized,

  • as he and two friends lit these props on fire,

  • threw them in the air

  • and spun them around their bodies.

  • Their moves were deliberate and controlled,

  • yet still graceful and flowing to the music.

  • I was completely entranced.

  • The next day, he offered to teach us how to fire dance, or "spin" --

  • without fire, of course.

  • He showed us the difference between a fire staff,

  • which is a long piece of wood or aluminum with two Kevlar wicks,

  • and fire poi, which are Kevlar wicks with chains and finger loops.

  • After that first time spinning poi,

  • I knew that this was a hobby that I wanted to continue learning

  • in the hopes that maybe one day,

  • I might be brave enough to try it with fire.

  • Now, I can guess what people might be thinking:

  • How was I not terrified and running in the opposite direction?

  • And honestly, I don't know.

  • I think that perhaps being a cheerleader and doing gymnastics and piano

  • while growing up,

  • these activities were very structured and prescribed,

  • whereas this type of flow art seemed like a form of meditation

  • but with a focus on fire,

  • this thing that scared me so deeply for my entire life.

  • After that first time practicing,

  • my friend and I cobbled together our own sets of homemade poi

  • using socks, shoelaces and tennis balls.

  • We did not light shoelaces and socks on fire,

  • we just used it for the practice part.

  • But after returning home to Michigan,

  • we decided to buy our own sets of actual fire poi.

  • And after a few months,

  • we decided that we were ready to light them on fire.

  • We bundled up in cotton layers,

  • got a fire extinguisher,

  • wet a towel for safety,

  • prepared our fuel,

  • gave each other a very energetic pep talk and high five

  • and lit those poi on fire.

  • It was terrifying.

  • Half of my brain was freaking out

  • and thinking, "OK, wait -- maybe we need to think about this.

  • We should probably stop."

  • The sound of the fire as it whooshed by my head

  • was incredibly loud

  • and brought me right back to my childhood.

  • But it was also incredibly exhilarating.

  • The other half of my brain, the creative half, was thinking,

  • "I can't believe it! I'm a fire dancer."

  • For anyone who spins,

  • there's a level of adrenaline

  • or that rush of fire dancing.

  • But as someone whose life had been so greatly impacted by fire,

  • I also felt an immense sense of empowerment

  • at being able to control and manipulate fire.

  • I made a conscious decision to step out of my grief.

  • It was not easy.

  • There's a Nirvana lyric that says "I miss the comfort of being sad,"

  • and that was exactly it.

  • I was in control of my sadness.

  • I knew what it would bring to me, and I knew what to expect,

  • but I also knew deep down that eventually,

  • I had to do that really hard work of trying to heal from my past.

  • So I kept practicing.

  • I took a plastic grocery bag, cut it into strips,

  • tied it to the ends of those poi

  • and used it to replicate the sound of the fire as it went past my head.

  • And I kept lighting the poi on fire.

  • At some point, something shifted.

  • My perspective on fire dancing changed

  • from something that I was apprehensive about

  • to something that brought me a sort of peace.

  • Without realizing it,

  • I had initiated my own form of exposure therapy,

  • an actual type of psychotherapy

  • where you deliberately expose yourself to things that have caused you trauma

  • or scare you.

  • I'd exposed myself to fire in this very unique way

  • and had transformed what it meant to me.

  • My nightmares slowed down

  • and now, years later, have stopped almost completely.

  • I started fire dancing not just for myself but at events and performances.

  • I started a fire troop with friends while living in Dubai,

  • created beautiful art with my sister who became a photographer,

  • taught children how to spin at birthday parties,

  • performed onstage and at festivals

  • and even taught my own children the basics of spinning.

  • And that's not to say

  • that I don't still have an apprehension to fire in general.

  • I can practice a move a million times,

  • but then when I try it with fire,

  • I feel that familiar panic and tightening in my chest.

  • I'm still apprehensive about living in a two-story house

  • or having a fireplace.

  • Every night before I go to sleep,

  • I clear a path between my kids' bedroom doors,

  • our bedroom door

  • and all the exit doors,

  • in case we need to leave quickly.

  • And it's taken me a long time

  • to get on board with the idea of closing bedroom doors at night

  • to slow down a fire,

  • because I'd always thought if I closed my kids' bedroom doors,

  • I might not be able to hear them like my mom heard me.

  • And of course, this is my story.

  • I can't say that I have the answer

  • for someone with a different kind of trauma.

  • If the situation had been reversed,

  • and I'd lost a child in a fire,

  • I'm not sure that fire dancing would be the answer,

  • or if I'd even have the capacity to get near fire again.

  • But what I can say