The Strangeness of Flames

Since I shamelessly borrowed Anne Lamott’s quote about drinking gin from the cat dish for my last post, I thought it entirely appropriate to turn to her again for inspiration in this, my next foray into the Bhagavad Gita. And, brilliant writer as Lamott is, it did not take me long to find words of hers that can easily be applied to the Divine Quality of Steadfastness.

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

ANNE LAMOTT

You see, there’s something quite paradoxical about steadfastness: it brings to mind words like immovable, unwavering, unchangeable; yet it requires persistence, tenacity and constant striving. How is it that staying the same requires such effort? And even though steadfastness suggests remaining fixed, doesn’t sustained effort end up producing a necessarily different result or state of being?

Steadfastness is sort of like a flame.

Flames, like hope, begin in the darkness.

Flames stay the same, in that they keep burning for as long as they have fuel. If a flame is given more fuel, it burns with greater heat, light and intensity. And yet – and this, for me, is where the strangeness of flames comes in – flames are always, sometimes imperceptibly, changing. They also seem to defy gravity: you can hold a flaming candle or branch any way you care to, tilting it this way or that, but the flame always burns upwards. It’s almost as though flames are here to tell us in their quiet, beautiful, mesmerising way, that if we persist and put effort into to whatever we’re striving for, we will not only remain alight, but we will also always rise.

I’m reminded, when considering steadfastness, of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance era architect and engineer who managed to build the dome at the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1296 but building work paused for fifty years when the original architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, died. Giotto added the campanile around 1330. The Black Death interrupted construction again in 1348. Finally, in 1418, Brunelleschi, backed by the influential Medici family, won a competition to build the Cathedral’s dome.

The challenges facing Brunelleschi were considerable. With a diameter of 48 metres, the octagonal dome was higher, wider and larger than any constructed since ancient times. Its sheer size prevented Brunelleschi from using rafters or scaffolding, it was not known how the dome could be built without collapsing under its own weight, and the Florentine city fathers had forbidden the use of butresses. Despite these obstacles, Brunelleschi held steadfastly to his aim: he revived old building techniques and invented new engineering technologies, he used his intellect and intuition to solve complex structural problems, and he employed hundreds of workers to transform 37,000 tonnes of material (including 4 million bricks) into a dome that rose steadily skyward from 1420 to 1436. Construction of the lantern at the dome’s apex, also designed by Brunelleschi, began shortly before his death in 1446 and was completed in 1461, before being topped with a copper ball and cross in 1469. To this day, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline of Florence.

You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

There are many kinds of steadfastness.

Steadfastness in Brunelleschi produced an architectural marvel. Steadfastness in a parent ensures a baby grows into childhood, and beyond. Steadfastness in a friend or life partner allows a relationship to weather the storms of life. Steadfastness in a gardener enables flowers to bloom.

Steadfastness can be found anywhere you need to show up, over and over again, even when you can’t immediately – or perhaps ever – see the results.

Steadfastness knows the dawn will come.

The dome will rise skyward.

The flame will always burn upwards.

Rise

Iman B&W

Iman…supermodel, entrepreneur, wife, mother, photographed here in 1977 by Francesco Scavullo.

About eighteen months ago I started following someone on Facebook — a celebrity, no less. I am not usually one to click the Follow button simply because someone is famous, but there was something about what this person was posting — consistently — that often made me stop and consider. Or smile. Or laugh out loud.

That person was Iman Abdulmajid.

Of course, in the light of her (monumentally) famous husband’s death a month ago, the quotes and thoughts that Iman posted over the past year or so no longer surprise me: she knew, even though the world did not, that her husband of more than two decades was dying of cancer.

Looking back, the posts now have an added poignancy that I don’t think the passage of time will take away. In the week before her husband’s death, for example, she shared quotes like, “Life isn’t about avoiding the bruises. It’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it”, and a thought from the poet Rumi: “Do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

But during the past year, in between sharing incredibly beautiful fashion photographs and promotional material for her husband’s Blackstar album, there were also thoughts that made me chuckle, such as “Sometimes you have to burn a few bridges to keep the crazies from following you”.

Overwhelmingly, however, there were messages of hope, of faith, of gratitude, and of determination to overcome. And the majority of the thoughts she shared she tagged with a single word: Rise.

Iman & DB

Iman and the inimitable Mr Jones in 2003, from a Tommy Hilfiger campaign styled by Edward Enninful.

It’s a powerful concept.

Rise, every day. Rise, above adversity. Rise, to the challenge — whatever it is.

Rise.

And, just as her husband appears to have made very conscious decisions about his approach to death, Iman seems to be approaching the transition to life after his passing with the same hope, faith, gratitude and determination to overcome that she has displayed over the past year.  Today, she posted a quote from Rune Lazuli: “Each tear is a poet, a healer, a teacher.”

Despite her grief, which must be as raw as it is real, there is true graciousness in the way Iman has responded to her husband’s passing. There is also humility, intelligence, and — like her husband — a considerable amount of style.

There is, I suspect, a lot I could still learn from Iman Abdulmajid — not least of which is to rise.