Keep the Fire Burning

by Maria Theresa Maggi on December 14, 2013

stove glow 2 original watercolor by Maria Theresa Maggi

It’s true every picture tells a story. But it’s also true that sometimes the picture gets painted before the story even happens. I have been wondering if there will be a story that goes with this painting of the fire in my masonry stove, and this week, it came to me in that surprising way experience has of delivering up little victories I never could have anticipated.

The first part of December has been bone cold here in Moscow. Days of barely reaching the teens, nights in the minuses. For the time being we’ve gotten some more snow, and warmed up to the balmy 20s and even low 30s, but this particular morning it was still in the teens and had been in the single digits during the night. Definitely weather for a morning fire in the masonry stove.  Though I had joked about “a weekend of frozen nose hairs” and relished how deftly I made my way on the icy sidewalks with my Yaktrax on and Romeo at my side, this kind of weather  is, to turn a phrase, “Bette Davis weather”–it’s not for sissies. Just getting the basics done can be like running a gauntlet.

As an aside, I should add here that the masonry stove does not heat like a conventional wood stove. Its firebox is made of very absorbent clay bricks, which then form a 28 foot labyrinth of chambers to hold the heat. These bricks are then faced with conventional bricks or plaster. Mine is faced with recycled bricks in the pattern you see in the painting. It was a labor of love some 15 years ago when my dear friends who had built one in their own home (which they also built themselves) built one for me.

masonry stove core in progress

Here I am back in 1999 hugging the “core” of my masonry stove, with our golden retriever “supervising”.

Masonry stoves are meant to burn a fire efficiently, hot and fast. Then all the dampers are closed down and the absorbent clay bricks heat up and slowly radiate heat throughout the day and night. It’s highly efficient, burns clean after about five minutes, and uses about half the amount of wood a conventional wood stove would during the Winter. It’s like having a big warm rock in the middle of the house.

Because of this style of efficiency, you can imagine my dismay, when I opened the lovely but heavy iron door to start another fire that morning and the pin inside the top hinge plinked down onto the hearth, leaving me with a heavy door half on and half off. Perhaps the extreme cold had unsettled it somehow. I carefully managed to place the door back where it could be latched shut and no more of that precious heat could escape.

This had happened once before last Winter in similar weather when the bottom pin fell out. At that time I could not reseat the door myself and latch it shut again as I had been able to do now. Luckily Clark lived just half a block away  then and he came over and helped me seat the door again. The pin fell out again when we tried to put it back in. The friend who built the stove came over the next morning and fixed it with a shim. He is so famous for solving weird problems with shims that sometimes I have taken to calling him “Shim” instead of his given name (which rhymes with “shim” ).

But this time the problem was different.  The pin would not go back in all the way. And the door was too heavy for me to hold open and keep trying. I didn’t want to risk hitting it in crooked either. So I called “Shim” and his wife, who helped him build the stove. They were in the midst of a race to get their teenage daughter out of the house in time for school and said they would call me back.

I took a deep breath. I really wanted to make a fire because I was damn tired of the house being too cold. I had had a window in the kitchen that had refused to shut all the way, making being in there at night cause for shivering, and in exasperation I had finally taped it shut with masking tape (which worked amazingly well). So I didn’t want to lose the  momentum of gathering heat. But I also wanted to keep my slow miracle “cool.” I decided to put on my boots, coat and hat and go out  into the barn to get the mallet and let it warm up in the house while I did my yoga. Even though this was something of a crisis, I decided that was exactly the reason not to skip the yoga. I knew it would help.

I had also called the friend who comes over to help me clean, to alert her that we might be trying to fix the stove door if the problem hadn’t been solved before she got here later in the morning. After the yoga, I went about fixing my breakfast.

When I came back from the kitchen with my morning bowl of fruit and kale I saw that I had a message on the phone. The teenage daughter had been launched to school, amid much ringing of hands and scraping of ice off the car she was going to drive. “Shim’s” wife and I discussed the problem so she could visualize it. As I described it to her, I realized that the pin might have a chance of going back in all the way if I could hold the door open at exactly the angle it had been at when the pin fell out. But it was too heavy for me to do that and also place the pin and try to tap it back in with the mallet. Shim’s wife said they would be over within the hour to help me fix it.

This little victory over MS isn’t like the one in Zen Chores, when I celebrated my new found bad-ass ability to lift a 3 gallon jug of drinking water and pour it into my water crock myself. That kind of thing isn’t what happened this time. Something I consider even MORE miraculous than that happened instead. I didn’t panic. I didn’t indulge in a “what-if-the-door-falls-off-while-the-fire-is-going-even-after-we-fix-it scenario, I didn’t skip the things in my  morning routine that are essential to my well being. I didn’t feel helpless either.  And apparently I didn’t completely give up the notion that there might be a way for me to fix the door myself, even if I couldn’t lift it.

In the newest “definitive” version of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards has a wonderful section about  how developing the perception skills necessary for drawing also helps with creative problem solving in general. She says that the “right” brain will come up with a solution if we don’t constantly worry the details. It’s best to walk away, do something else, let things gestate in some unseen place. She gives an example of a designer laying out his concerns to himself, then going skiing for the weekend and asking his brain to give him the answer by the following Tuesday.

I’ve never been that scheduled about it, but I do know that leaving something alone, giving up on looking for something, and just relaxing in the unknown brings about surprising results. Lost objects suddenly appear, and so do answers to unsolved problems.

So as I was eating my oats and distancing myself from the any potential anxiety that it was taking my friends so “long” to come over (which would delay my fire making and thus slow motion house heating and my walk with Romeo and my whole day’s schedule on a day it would be dark by 4) I suddenly had the notion that I needed something to prop the door open at that critical angle. But what? Something soft I could squeeze under it at just the right height. Towels.

I went into the bathroom and came out with several bath towels I use to dry Romeo off. One was just right when folded a few times. The mallet was now room temperature and easy to hold. I dropped the pin in the same way the lower pin looked like it was going so the “top” was on the “top.” It stopped going in about half way. So I tapped on it with the mallet a few times and it started to go in. I tapped some more. And some more. And it went right in. And stayed. I had fixed the stove door. Myself. 

In the fifteen years since the stove was built, there have been times I could not even get to my knees at the hearth to build a fire. It was too painful and exhausting. Someone else had to come over and do it. There were long long stretches of time, two whole Winters, when  I could not sit in front of the fire anymore because the heat was too painful for the nerves in my face, much less sit there to paint  a watercolor of it as I have done this past Fall. There have been many many times I worried over who would be around to bring the wood in so I could have the fires I needed to have. Many many friends and neighbors have helped me over the years. Some still do. But if no one is around, I can now bring some in myself.

But I never thought if something happened to that door that I would be able to fix it. And without brute strength. Just enough calm for a little ingenuity to occur to me was all that I needed. That would have simply been unavailable to me before eating  whole food and plant-based because the calm that allows it was not so readily available. Likewise the eye-hand coordination to tap in the pin. So apparently, in my slow miracle way, I have healed enough to handle an elemental crisis that is beyond my physical strength to solve.

I can’t say how significant this is. Over the years of my illness and most of my life, really, having been born with the  CP, I have never been a particularly strong person physically. And after the MS, it came to seem like those who could lift a box of wood or pour 5 gallons of water into the crock, or turn a whole garden bed over, had super human strength.

Not all of us have that. I don’t, though arguably I have more of it than I’ve ever had in my life. But when I don’t have quite enough, what I do have, and what eating this way has returned to me in full force, is a trust in myself and my creative way to problem-solve in a difficult situation. The interest that creative part of me has in such matters, if given the chance, can override the panic that might otherwise result. Many a creative inspiration has come to me while doing my sun salutations each morning, too, which I attribute to the sun itself. So perhaps the the sun salutations helped too. But I wouldn’t  be doing those either, if I wasn’t eating whole plant foods. To eat the way I eat is the first sound choice on which all the other ones rest.

By the time my friends arrived, I had a fire going in the stove, burning brightly, door secured. They were driving up as I went to call and tell them what I had accomplished. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so instead of managing a crisis, we had a really nice visit. We laughed about my creating a large, soft, “shim” with the towel. Everything in my schedule happened later, but it didn’t matter. What mattered is that rather than saving me from my helplessness, they shared in my triumph. Perhaps, after all the years they’ve helped me with various things around my old house, they were a little astonished. And “Shim” asked me to save him 5 of the Stove Glow 2 cards. He wants to buy them to send to special people who know and appreciate our stoves. Watching Neanderthal TV, we call it. Bringing the fire to life.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep my creative fire burning with whole plants, to see how much more brightly I can make it flame. I continue to be amazed how I don’t see the limitations I’ve had to live with in such a clear light until they have been burned away.

Maria (moonwatcher)


Leave a Comment

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicole O'Shea December 14, 2013 at 9:30 am

Wow Maria. What a wonderful and remarkable story! This is huge. I mean, even thinking straight when it is so ridiculously COLD is an accomplishment! I love this so much. Thanks for sharing this and a that you give us here on this blog!!




2 moonwatcher December 14, 2013 at 9:40 am

Thanks so much, Nicole! Couldn’t do it without fabulous readers like you. 🙂 And yes, this IS huge. Thanks for celebrating it with me!


3 Nicole O'Shea December 14, 2013 at 10:46 am

You bet! And you know, when I first read this this morning, in my sleepy fog I FORGOT that this all happened in the context of all the OTHER big things you’ve got going on right now.not just huge, GINORMOUS, as some NYers say 😉




4 mary taitt December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am

I’ve been enjoying the art, cooking and various successes large and small. 😀


5 moonwatcher December 14, 2013 at 11:38 am

Thank you so much for letting me know, Mary!


6 angela December 17, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Bravo Maria : ) What an amazing feat – wonderwoman strikes again

Love Angela X


7 moonwatcher December 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

Thank you for your kind words, Angela. It was indeed a “wonder-full” experience. 🙂


8 Veronica December 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Maria! I have no words, but a simple congratulations. My soul is smiling for you. 🙂


9 moonwatcher December 18, 2013 at 11:19 am

Dear Veronica, thank you for the simple congratulations and the beautiful soul-smile. I feel it, and am smiling back. 🙂


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