Being in a Relationship is like building a Fire—all we need is Kindling & Oxygen.

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I am a self-professed tomboy who grew up skateboarding and tumbling down streets on BMX bikes with my brother and all the neighborhood boys.

But I am embarrassed to confess that, before this weekend, I had never lit a fire all by myself. I had always had a man around who could do it for me.

If you had asked me, I could tell you conceptually what a fire needs. Kindling, check. Rolled up newspapers, check. Matches, check. But this weekend I decided that it was high time that I actually build a fire myself.

My partner, Andre, and I booked a trip to visit Bowen Island, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from our home in Vancouver, BC for a long weekend.

Despite the fact that Bowen is right outside the city, it is a small community, with just under 4,000 people in roughly the same square footage that Manhattan occupies. Houses and cabins are found nestled in the woods, and there is a sense of calm and lack of commotion that I crave after spending months elbow-to-elbow with my fellow city dwellers in Vancouver. Our friends’ cabin, where we stayed, featured exactly what I needed: a wood stove.

The first night, I watched as Andre set up the fire. He carefully blew on the glowing embers, poked and prodded the logs into place, and it roared to life with ease. I can do that, I thought to myself as I sat back and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

The next morning, I declared that I would build the fire all by myself. Andre sat off to the side chopping kindling as I rolled up my sleeves and set upon my mission to build us a fire.

First things first. Fire needs fuel to burn, so I built a small nest with newspaper, wood chips, and splinters. I lit it with a long match and smiled as it fluttered to life. Before I could start adding longer splinters to build it up, the blue flames had already fluttered out.

I sighed and began again, this time creating a teepee structure with the longer splinters around the nest of wood chips and newspaper. I quickly found that I was piling the newspapers and kindling on too thick, not allowing any space for oxygen to flow through and feed the fire. I started blowing on the embers, but only when I spread them out did they actually catch fire.

“I did it!” I exclaimed, as my first few larger sticks started flicking to life with flames. “Don’t get too cocky,” warned Andre. Silently to myself I said, P’shaw…I’ve got embers, I’ve got flames on the sticks, all I’ve gotta do is throw on some logs. What more does he want? Feeling quite confident, I reached for a log. “Be careful,” Andre said, “you don’t want to smother it.”

This is when I made my next mistake. Using the metal poker, I piled all the embers up into one corner of the stove to consolidate the heat and slowly lowered the log on top. Andre pursed his lips to stop himself from telling me I was doing it wrong. Of course, as any experienced fire starter can foretell, the flames sputtered and went out. The next 15 minutes were spent coaxing the flames back to life, poking the kindling into the right placement, and blowing on the sputtering flames.

I had not allowed there to be any space for the embers to breathe, so this time I spread all the embers out along the base of the stove. The embers faded away before I had a chance to realize my mistake and correct it.

I’m sure the wrinkle above my eyebrow that comes to life when I am stressed was in overdrive.

Finally, I consolidated all the lessons of the past several minutes and put them all together. I piled up the tinder just so, building a foundation of newspaper and small woodchips that peaked to a teepee of larger sticks. I gradually added larger and larger sticks, until I had a good pile of glowing embers that I spread out, with just enough space for air to flow but close enough to each other to generate warmth.

Okay, I’ve got this now.

Only once the embers were sufficiently hot and I had a good flame did I add my first log. When the first log caught on fire, I added the second log, angling it at a diagonal so there would be enough airflow to feed the flames.

And voilà!

After 48 minutes, and through one of the most frustrating “meditations” of my life, I could take ownership over something that my ancestors going back to cave dwellers could claim. This city slicker had successfully conquered creating fire!

Fire is the element of transformation. Of the five elements in Chinese medicine (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), fire has the capacity to transform the others. Fire will burn wood, char the earth, melt metal, and vaporize water.

Because of its capacity for transformation, fire is the element associated with human connection. Relationships are electric and pure potential energy. Like fire, relationships have the power to be the breeding ground of deep learning and transformation, or they have the potential to consume.

However, what we don’t often realize is that in order to cultivate relationships that are warm and nourishing, there will be moments when the appropriate action is to allow for space. Relationships, like fire, must be tended to with attention—but too much consideration can feel smothering. Sometimes what the relationship needs is the formation of appropriate boundaries and allowing for autonomous space.

The lesson that building a fire illuminated for me is that relationships, like fire, require a balance of kindling and oxygen.

Most of us fall into one of two categories when it comes to our approach to relationships—too distant or too smothering. Chances are, we have all heard from our partners exactly which category we fall into (usually this feedback is worded as a complaint).

To apply this lesson from the fire element requires some deep introspection and genuine, vulnerable acknowledgement of the common themes in our relationships. What are the gifts we bring to communication? What are the challenges?

If we come into a relationship with armfuls of kindling, we can give ourselves the permission to create space and allow our partner to be autonomous. If we need a lot of breathing room in a relationship, we can communicate in a way to create space while also making our partner feel secure.

author: Kathleen Lee

Image: Manuel Meurisse/Unsplash

Editor: Kelsey Michal

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Kathleen Lee

Kathleen Lee MTCM, RTCMP, L.Ac. FABORM is an acupuncturist who is passionate about supporting her patients live a wholehearted, conscious, and empowered life. She specializes in fertility, women’s health, and relationship coaching. Kathleen currently practices in Vancouver, BC and regularly leads workshops and retreats. Find her on Instagram.

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Kathleen Ho Lee Aug 20, 2018 1:21am

Thank you for the discussion! I often find that in many couples, there is one partner who brings the kindling and one who brings the oxygen. The solution to many of the dynamics between these two personalities is effective communication that creates security and adds to the culture of the couple as a team. To which you may ask: "Well, how the hell does one do that?". One of the ways is "creating" space instead of "taking" space. The difference is quite drastic in my experience. As the oxygen partner, you may find yourself withdrawing and "taking" space to find your own autonomy which the kindling partner then reads as abandomnment. Communicating and "creating" the intention of the space and a timeline is incredibly comforting to the kindling partner. For example, "We just discussed a lot of really amazing but difficult topics. I'd like to sit with this and marinate and bit before responding. Don't worry, I'm not running away, but can we put a pin in this conversation and revisit it tomorrow over dinner?" Putting the fears of the kindling partner on the table (I'm not running away) will make them feel witnessed. Equally important is coming back to the conversation when you say you will. This will be hard at first, but once a pattern is established, the oxygen will feel more and more like security. Also, this sounds like a really good followup article. Thank you for the question. Stay tuned. Let me think on it and I'll get back at you with a full-length post!

Jennifer Evangelista Aug 19, 2018 9:46pm

Interesting analogy. I will come right out and confess that in my prior relationships, taking space (by either party) was not as much as a challenge as it presently poses in my life. If anything, I was the more attached person. However, being in a situation where my physical presence seems to be a vehicle more for the other person's comfort (nothing wrong with that but it shouldn't always have to require 24/7 physical presence) rather than quality relationship-building time together, has been a challenge. Details of the past of how my requests for space and for my choice over decisions that affect me aren't important, but instead Im wondering how does one revive her own sense of independence without seriously wounding another so that the person doesn't resort to defensive reactions that can be potentially damaging? How does one impress upon another that it isn't rejection, or a threat or really anything to do with him personally, but has to do more with the requester just trying to work on herself? It's sad because even if it's not intentional, like with a fire as you mention, the fire dies without enough fanning of the flames just as much as with too much fanning of the flames. Thank you for this piece.