Fidgeting, I pull my stick back from the fire and stare at the tip – the flame wisps away and the glow quickly fades. The night chill gives me shivers and I pull the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders as I try in vain to ward off the cold in my aching bones. Smoke silently curls up through the branches overhead and vanishes into the dark night sky. Your laugh brings my wandering mind back. Your faces are obscured by the thin veil of smoke that separates us but your laugh reassures me in the loneliness and the cold.
Why do I sit here alone? You are so animated as you talk and engage our friend in conversation by the fire. Lost in my own thoughts I wasn’t listening – you are always talking with someone – showing them the possibilities and hope found in another way. Why don’t we listen to you? Why don’t we follow you? Not just along the wandering dirt paths you journey upon, but your teachings. They aren’t just words, but doing what you ask is so much harder than merely hearing your words. My feet seem stuck in the clay. You are on a fool’s journey trying to share your message of hope and kindness. It’s manna for our broken spirits but your words are so quickly forgotten in the midst of living in this god forsaken place. But there you are, laughing and sharing stories with your friend, enjoying each other’s company, while I sit here and shiver in the cold. What holds me to this log? Why don’t I get up and walk around the fire to join in the conversation with you? What am I afraid of? Is there nothing I could add? Or learn? Aren’t I good enough? You are the teacher, and in the years since we met I’ve listened to everything you’ve said, but it’s all in my head and not in my heart. Why do I “think” to the point where I can’t “act”?
A flame reignites in one small part of the dying campfire and the light briefly shoos away the darkness. I poke the end of my stick into the flame and watch as the tip begins to glow brightly once again and then bursts into a dancing flame. I remember. Slowly, I pull the stick back from the fire and watch as the flame quickly goes out and the glowing tip fades away. Just like this twig that I poke into the fire, my heart warms and glows brightest when I am near you but quickly fades and cools when I turn away. Or sit here on this log. Distant. Alone. Away from you. Watching, but not engaging. Listening, but not hearing. You have not moved away from me – I picked this place. It was my choice, but I can choose another way – right?
Our friend uses his own stick to stir up the fire’s remaining embers and puts a few more pieces of dry wood on top of the glowing ash. You stretch and yawn – it has been a long day and the hour is late. Your arm wraps around our friend in a reassuring way. The fire snaps and crackles as it smolders. The fire finds new life as flames begin to dance and grow higher. I feel the warmth on my face and it slowly sinks into my bones. Your faces, visible once again through the wispy smoke curling up from the glowing fire, are smiling. With so much on your mind, how can you be laughing tonight? People want you dead – our lives are all in peril – but you show no fear. No regrets. You still have strength to share stories and jokes, to help our friend with his worries, and to listen to his concerns. You don’t judge, you put yourself in his shoes. You’re willing to carry his pain so he knows he’s not alone. Along the paths we travel together, as we walk through desolate villages, you stop and talk with everyone you meet. You smile and reassure. You listen. You touch and hug. You care – you genuinely care. And yet you have nothing – no bags, and no baggage. Poor by any person’s measure, but you give thanks for what you have as if you were the wealthiest man alive. A man with nothing who has everything.
Pulling my stick out of the fire once again I watch the tip – the flame disappears and the glow fades away. Life drains out. Hope is gone. Warmth retreats and the reassuring crackling of the fire is replaced by the unsettling sounds of the night. I’m cold. I’m alone. I’m scared. Why do I choose this?
The stick is dead. The tip is cold and black. I tap it on the ground and watch the charred tip break off and crumble into the sandy dirt at my feet. I stare at the stick for a few minutes and then slowly take it in both of my hands and snap it in half across my thigh. I toss the two pieces into the fire. Pulling the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders once again, I get up slowly and walk around what’s left of the fire, toward my friends. A smile spreads across my face with each step I take. I can pick a new direction. I don’t have to be alone.