I was in elementary school when I caught fire.
The morning started out like others in the nearly unheated two bedroom house I shared with my mother and older sister. Every morning during winter I did the same thing in my completely flammable pajamas. A bathroom metal gas heater heated half our house, running through the night until we left for school.
Blistering hot by morning, everyone knew to not touch it. But the house was cold. North Louisiana winter winds blew under the pier and beam foundation and penetrated every nook and cranny of the old bungalow house. No insulation to buffer us.
My morning method was to hold up my nightgown over the heater, warm up, then hurry to dress. Until that morning.
The heater itself was once white, now aged to ivory from heat. It had oval slits in the front of it like scary eyes lit by orange and yellow gas jets. Somehow one of the flames lept forward, or the artificial fibers of my gown combusted. Flames lept up my pink flannel nightgown; I began to scream and run in circles.
My mother heard my screams and saw the glow of flames reflected on the painted bathroom wall.
I was in full panic. These were the days before flame retardant sleepwear and “stop, drop and roll” safety. Mother caught me, smothering the fire by rolling up the fabric tightly with her hands.
That cold morning we escaped with minor burns and stayed home in shock. I crawled into bed dressed in a fresh nightgown and didn’t get up until supper. I didn’t sleep. There was no sleeping when the acrid smell of burnt clothing and hair resisted the cold fresh breeze squeezing in the windows.
My perennially absent father was a welder, a union pipefitter. He constructed trifold heavy-duty steel mesh screens to keep me from any more flames or gas heaters. Not that I was getting within a mile of them after what had happened. The screens were useless for anything else, and after a while was relegated to a space in storage. When my mother passed away fifteen years ago I almost brought them home with me.
I left them there. My father had made incredibly heavy and strong, not something one would find a use for in an ordinary life. They’d either remain intact, repurposed until the world ended or pitched in a scrapyard. I didn’t need a reminder of how quickly a quiet, very cold school morning almost became the last day of my life.
I grew up in north Louisiana, an area of Louisiana settled by Native Americans, African Americans, and Europeans, specifically English and Scottish. Many people are under the impression Louisiana is or was French speaking from its early days as a French colony to now. And those people would be wrong.
From almost midway in the state, approximately where Alexandria is located, the culture changed dramatically. To the north Louisiana was much like Mississippi, Texas, and other states below the Mason-Dixon Line. English speaking, Protestant, and a cuisine most Southerners would find familiar. Cornbread, grits, turnip greens cooked with pork chops, etc.
To the south of Alexandria, many cultures thrived, most famously the descendants of French speakers forced by Great Britain out of Canada, the Acadians, or “Cajuns”. The Cajuns, despite popular culture telling you otherwise, have not populated the entirety of southern Louisiana, including New Orleans. Au contraire. There were Native Americans, Creoles, French natives, Spanish natives, Italians, Germans, Sicilians, and more. Southern Louisiana, especially New Orleans, is more of a gumbo of cultures than just one.
One of the north Louisiana colloquial expressions I grew up with was “fish or cut bait.” There’s another one with the same meaning, but it’s rather disgusting, so I’ll not use it. My interpretation is to do or get out of the way. It might have a different meaning in other parts of the South, but that’s what it meant to me. Fish or cut bait was a pretty black and white way of saying get on with things. No more lollygagging or procrastination.
I’ve been doing a lot of lollygagging lately. Part of it’s related to a health issue I have that leaves me exhausted and uninspired 24/7. It’s a project and ambition killer for sure. And a memory killer, remembering anything from one moment to the next sometimes is a challenge.
And that’s where I am and have been, for a while. My projects have been left by the wayside while I catch up on lost sleep and get life in order. My biggest goal was to jump start my writing while my husband attended a weeklong music festival this month. Instead, I found myself exploring the culinary limits of food delivery in my area and binge-watching Outlander. I found wild success at both.
Another success was finding an app called Productive, which helps establish positive habits and routines. For those of you gifted with an organized brain, Productive may not offer you a whit of help, but people with memory issues can benefit greatly. For the first time my husband has left town on trips, my house didn’t become a scene from Hoarders, and I went to bed on time. Well, most of the time. When he returned home, the house was tidy, and I wasn’t a wild-haired semi-recluse.
I also spent that week on computer work, putting off writing, mostly because of the discouraged frame of mind I’ve been in. Chaos and disorder are not a writer’s friend, and I’d been mentally living in them for a long time. A book I happened upon also helped bring about good changes. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, is a fascinating view into how we create a habit and how to change.
I highly recommend it to anyone. I bought it in audiobook and listen attentively while doing mundane tasks.
It’s sort of like the old joke about the patient complaining to her doctor about something hurting every time she did something. The doctor simply says “Stop doing it.” Easier said than done, right? But obsessively checking Social Media, Emails, binge-watching TV shows, ruthlessly comparing ourselves to others is not easily stopped. But we can.
I also disengaged myself from Facebook which opened up hour after hour of pleasure in other things. Before leaving it, I “unfollowed” people who “friended” with the sole intention of selling or publicizing, and left groups that ate time and emotion. It also helped with the relentless and destructive self-comparing. There’s nothing constructive about comparing yourself to a writer further along in their journey. We all get there by different routes, routines, and techniques.
Now I have to practice what I preach and use all this new-found time and energy creatively. If not writing, then something else that makes me happy.