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The Strange Appeal of the Firepit During the COVID Era

Making fire is eons old but it took a pandemic for my family to light one.

Scientists are not certain about when humans starting using fire intentionally. According to a 2018 Time Magazine article, “clear evidence of habitual use of fire comes from caves in Israel dating back between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago, and include the repeated use of a single hearth in Qesem Cave, and indications of roasting meat.”

I, on the other hand, got the idea from a Facebook post. I commented on how tired I was of coronavirus isolation. One of the comments said to just go get one of those firepits from Home Depot, a bottle of wine and a few friends.

The thing is, that’s great, but it’s not us. My husband, Ned, is a 58-year-old computer geek and my 31-year-old son, Nat, has very involved autism. I’m not all that different from them, under the surface. I like my space, my quiet, my laptop. I’m not that good at calling people up and saying, “come over with your wine glasses.” No, the three of us have become even more the way we were during these nine months of quarantine. We have become such a unit that I can’t remember what it used to be like when he still lived in his group home.

I never thought we would gel the way we have. Throughout his life, Nat has been a challenge to live with. His inability to process language quickly enough or accurately has often led to meltdowns and bouts of aggression—to others or to himself. Twenty-eight years ago, he would lunge at people, pulling hair, smacking their heads or pinching them, and got thrown out of his special school program. During his late teen years, we moved him into his school’s residence so that he could have professional attention 24/7. Aggression has reared its ugly head on and off over the years, and we rarely know precisely why.

What would it be like this time, bringing him home to protect him from COVID, which has been known to ravage places with congregate living? We didn’t know, nor how to engage him the way his adult programs could, but we had to do it to protect him.

To our surprise and delight, Nat seemed perfectly happy to live here with us, as long as we could explain to him, over and over, why he was here and that he would go back soon. “Soon” became “next month,” then “spring,” then “summer, definitely,” and by the time fall rolled around, Nat had stopped asking.

The three of us had developed extremely well-oiled routines by late fall. Nat and Ned would take longer and longer walks in the morning, working their way up to six miles. When they got back, Nat and I would eat lunch at 11:30, once his second online class had ended, and then we would bake.

But man cannot survive on bread (or cookies) alone, and this routine was proving a little stale for me after a while. I was a little bored, and so I blew off some steam on Facebook. That was when a friend mentioned gathering around a firepit with friends.

The firepit idea spread like, well, wildfire in my mind. I realized I had always been envious of my neighbors who had built these professional, beautiful granite circles with matching Adirondack chairs clustered around, both welcoming and excluding at the same time. And more and more people had them. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Homeowners are scrambling to cold-proof their outdoor spaces as a Covid winter approaches. Over the summer, people turned their backyards into open-air living rooms as they hunkered down at home and took advantage of the lower risks of outdoor coronavirus transmission.”

A great idea, sure, but these elegant, expensive stone scapes did not look like something we three could pull off. You’d need the whole lifestyle that went with it: lots of lighthearted friends, an interest in craft beers, the money for a huge bluestone playground. And when did Adirondack chairs become $400 investments? The well-crafted casual catalog-perfect air of the firepit people just completely eluded us, three strange nerds with weird walks and fake bakeries.

And yet. I went online to look at firepits and saw that it wasn’t that hard to have one. You could basically buy what amounted to a three-foot-wide steel bowl, put some sand in the bottom, and that was that. “Hey look, Ned,” I said when I found a fairly charming black one for $35 from Home Depot, “this doesn’t look so hard.” To my surprise, Ned agreed. We were going to try something new, after months of careful routine.

We decided to try our new firepit the night the election was called. The strangeness of the day was eerily reflected by uncharacteristically warm weather. From what I could see on social media and around town, everyone was overcome with new hope and happiness about the new president.

Ned and I found the best spot to put the thing. The most level and most private spot was just a few yards from our cars in the driveway. We had no Adirondack chairs, just wicker ones from the porch and an extra side chair from the shed. I collected s’mores supplies. Ned brought over a bucket of water just in case. Nat did most of the carrying.

And there we were. I wondered what Nat would think, and how long he’d want to stay out there with us staring at the fire or up at the stars. With no structure other than the steps to making s’mores.

But Nat was into it, all of it, even after the last of the graham crackers were eaten. He took the afghan I’d brought outside and wrapped it over his legs. He stared at the fire. So did I. So did Ned. The smoke rose into the pine tree next to us. The flames seemed almost alive; they stretched thin and yellow-tipped, giving us just enough light to see each other. I joked that we probably looked like hobos illicitly camping out on someone else’s lawn.

But it was no joke, actually. It was heavenly. It was the three of us, still a bubble, still a nerdy unit, but now with a new place to be: our yard, outside. Warmed a tiny bit by the orange magic in the black cauldron, and as happy as if we were the first cavemen to discover fire.

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