I’m left-handed. Age twenty-eight, in the depths of my Saturn return, I designed a tattoo. An artist etched the two images I had combined into my skin. From that point on, a black cat in mid-run crosses in front of an enormous red flame on the bicep of my writing arm.
I’m in a fecund writing valley right now, where, at this moment in time (not to be confused with the moment you’re reading this, or the moment after, or the moment after), I’m experiencing publication after publication. I’ve heard a constant refrain from friends and fellow writers:
You’re on fire!
It puts me in mind of the afternoons I face most days of the week, when I’m hoping my toddler will fall asleep for a few hours so I can write. But the truth is, I’m wilted by the two o’clock hour. I am lit by morning fires. The dampened afternoons stretch in front of me. I’m overtaken by water, by mud.
Underneath the cat and the flame is a banner. Former Catholic School students always inquire or guess at its meaning. Latin, it translates to “harmony in discord.”
I interpret this in two ways. One: I have found harmony in discord. This is a legacy I keep. Two: I can transform discord into harmony. This is my life’s task. This is a black cat bounding across dangerous territory.
This is trauma finding its escape valve in art.
Tinder. Kindling. Oxygen. This is how to sustain a fire. Let me translate this into something that can sustain me through afternoons, sustain me through the very difficult dry spells that writing, and publishing, inevitability present.
Plastic. Tires. Treated wood. This is how to ruin a clean fire and make toxic the air around you. Let me translate this into how to care for the body writing its way through fire.
My right arm maintains its über-usefulness by completing all actions other than writing.
At thirty-three, I brought images to the same artist: this time, an anatomical heart and tidal waves. She sketched and resketched. Again she etched the designs into my skin. It was not until years later, looking in the mirror, that I realized I had fire and water on opposite arms.
The unconscious knows.
How to sustain “being on fire”? In this metaphor the subject is hot. Maybe, like the wildfires that come in the wake of Santa Ana winds, the subject is fast-moving, carving its anarchic path through what was once not-on-fire.
What happens after someone sets themselves on fire?
The pain is described as ‘excruciating.’
“Once the burn becomes severe, it’s burned down to the nerves so you don’t initially have any sensation in those burned areas. Then the adrenaline kicks in. It’s our mind’s way to protect us from the tragedy that we went through.“*
My mind’s way of protecting me from any tragedy I went through?
The sign ascending at the Eastern horizon at one’s birth is used to consider how the person presents to the world. One interpretation used to describe one’s ascendant, or rising sign, is the exterior of the house, where the moon is the interior and the sun is the house’s foundation. My rising sign is Sagittarius. A fire sign.
The only other evidence of fire in my chart is not a planet or a star or even a node. It’s Chiron, a comet. The most common interpretation of Chiron’s placement uses the words “wounded” and “healer.”
Meanwhile, my chart is dominated by the other elements — mostly air, followed by earth, then water. Least present is fire. This lack of fire in other areas has sometimes disappointed me. Even my Mars is in Pisces.
Imagine a fighter fish, hiding among the rocks. The moments when I’m not on fire but safe in my cave, surrounded by water.
Inevitably, after several times of hearing and reading You’re on fire! I have to think of Bruce Springsteen.
“I’m on Fire,” 1985.
Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley
Through the middle of my soul
Yes, that sounds about right. That’s what writing can sometimes feel like.
Tattoo guns like a match caressing the skin.
I’ve resolved to remain open to the words that will next appear on my skin.
One word hovers in the smoke but I’m not ready to pluck it from the air just yet. There is a period of waiting, stoking, letting embers fall where they may until the time is right to set another wood on the log, etch another design onto my skin. My forearm’s skin is patient. The blue veins show up just enough that I’ve contemplated blue tattoos following their unique rivers.
How, then, to tend this fire, keep it burning?
Writing, of course.
*Emily Alpert. “What Happens After People Set Themselves on Fire?” 15 February 2012. Los Angeles Times. 5 October 2013