Newly Unemployed Newlyweds and Billy Joel’s Fiery Optimism

And now for an inspired change of pace from new contributor Charlotte Getz: I’ve recently […]

Mockingbird / 11.12.12

And now for an inspired change of pace from new contributor Charlotte Getz:

I’ve recently become fixated on fire – in both its noun and verb form. This preoccupation began when, three days after returning from my honeymoon, ten days into my marriage, I was fired from my position as a first-time 5th and 6th grade teacher. This jarring turn of events has (much like the beginnings of a B-rated rom-com) led to some soul searching. After weeks of crosswords, wedding thank you notes, episodes of Gilmore Girls, and intermittent moments of panic, I’ve landed on Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as an unexpected spring of inspiration.

Fossils indicating the remnants of fire have been clocked at over 470 million years old. Fire, presumably, has been here since the beginning. It keeps us warm. It illuminates dark places. We use it to cook. We wield it from the lonely beaches of deserted islands to signal for help. Fire can be functional in the case of controlled burning, or utterly devastating in its ravenous hunger to devour – like the charred wake of Hurricane Sandy in Breezy Point. When it comes to fire (literally or metaphorically), we are ever at odds. Do we gather chestnuts and roast them nostalgically over an open hearth? Or grab a hose and douse the bastard? This is what puzzles me as a Newly Unemployed Newlywed (Acronym: N.U.N.). When your feet are up against the coals, and the flames are flogging at your very existence, do you run – desperately grasping for the illusion of control? Or do you take a tentative step onto the red-hot embers, and pray for a miracle?

Without going into diary-like detail, my firing was the result of an explanation I gave to a student’s question about the definition of – what we’ll call – an “uncivilized word.” I thought my response had been smart. To be fired for it felt unjust and personal. What I wanted to say upon receiving the news was something like Chevy Chase’s rant from Christmas Vacation: “I want to look him straight in the eye and tell him what a cheap, lying, no good, rotten, fart-flushing, snake-licking, dirt-eating… hopeless, heartless, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm headed, sack of monkey sh*#& he is! Hallelujah! Holy sh*%$! Where’s the Tylenol!?” By the grace of Some Thing, I held my tongue.

But even in the midst of such shock and humiliation, I sensed that perhaps this fire wasn’t the end of something, but rather a lamppost guiding to a better destination. Like the one that led Lucy from the Wardrobe into the mysterious world of Narnia, maybe this lamppost had been there all along. And no amount of verbal poise in my explanation of the “uncivilized word” could have prevented its heated force.

“We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”


Billy Joel was inspired to write this song in response to a comment made about how the world had become such a mess. His point in writing it was that the world had always been a mess. And he hopelessly described its undertones as “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” as if the event of each tragedy was all she wrote. However, as if conflicted re: his pessimism, the music video shows fire (paradoxically) consuming image after image of disasters and evils throughout history – as if to say that fire could actually elicit a new beginning, a resurrection. By this logic, something like the trauma of my own fire could also afford a curious restoration. Like Graham Greene writes in “The Destructors” – “…destruction after all is a form of creation.” We see this in no more profound place than the story of Jesus.

When horrible things happen, whether it’s a global/personal tragedy or the loss of employment, the temptation is often to recoil at the idea of a God who could have “willed that to happen.” But then there’s the opposite notion – a God who just “let it happen” with no control or ability to stop it. If there is a God, then He is GOD (and perhaps it is no coincidence that from time to time He reveals Himself in the form of fire). Thankfully, weakness is not a characteristic of fire. No. Fire is brilliant, hot, raging, bright, mighty, anything but weak, and it burns, burns, burns like a firework show. And like the phoenix, the consuming fire isn’t a sign of the finale, but the mighty instrument of newness that breaks down to build up. We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning.

Although I used to be able to sing the song in German (truth), I really can’t stand to listen to it now. The lyrics are impossible and the beat is reminiscent of an aerobics instructor bouncing on a mini-trampoline. But perhaps there is something to Billy’s can of worms. Perhaps the tragedies of the world aren’t evidence of a powerless God or a meaningless existence. Maybe the “uncivilized word” was, even before my conception, the very word that was always intended to be my undoing as a first-year teacher. In a world at odds with nuclear warfare, Donald Trump firing innocents left and right, and hundreds of homes burned to the ground during the winds of Sandy, it’s difficult (even presumptuous) to purport that a fire could be a good, regenerative thing. But maybe it isn’t bad either… Now, I have a new morning routine. I roll out of bed. I say something snappy and insensitive to my husband. I apologize. I remind (beg) myself to let go of my limited understanding of things. I make my morning smoothie and cry a little while the blender’s going. And finally, with maybe a bit of renewed spirit, I make my feeble, incapable attempt to channel Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, putting my feet into the fiery furnace and walking into the day as something new, my face (singed but in some ways unscathed) uplifted…in search of the way to go.


9 responses to “Newly Unemployed Newlyweds and Billy Joel’s Fiery Optimism”

  1. Excellent (and heart-burning (?)) post, Charlotte.

    Whenever I think of fire in its many forms, functions and meanings, I always go back to the words of the song “The Flame Deluge” by my favorite band, Thrice, on their four-part conceptual album The Alchemy Index. It is one of the final songs that punctuates each set of songs and is written from the perspective of the element (earth, air, fire, water) looking out onto the human race in the format of a Shakespearean sonnet:

    “I feel that I was meant for something more
    My curse, this awful power to unmake
    And ever since you found your taste for war
    You forced me onto those whose life you’d take

    While Guernica in peaceful valley lay
    And Dresden dreamed of anything but death
    The day was turned to night and night to day
    You let me loose upon their fragile flesh

    And so I hid among the smaller things
    You found me there and ferried me above
    The flame deluge is waiting in the wings
    The smallest thread holds back the second flood

    And who will stand to greet the blinding light
    It’s lonely when there’s no one left to fight”

    Thanks for bearing your soul and giving us wonderful insights!

    • Charlotte Getz says:

      Thanks for that, Blake! I actually sort of started a series of essays on the elements (just wind and fire so far). We’ll see if I follow through 🙂 Love the lyric “You found me there and ferried me above the flame deluge.” Good stuff.

  2. Matt Erickon says:

    Nicely done. It is tempting to rage against unfair circumstances. Hang in there.

  3. Ginger says:

    Great post, Charlotte! Looking forward to reading more!

  4. David Tanner says:

    I can’t wait til your next firing line!

  5. Charlotte Getz says:

    Hah! Thanks, David!

  6. MargaretE says:

    Wow! That’s some great writing – and thinking – right there. (I’m struggling with writer’s envy.) Those blinkered school administrators just lost a potentially great teacher… You got burned, but you will rise like a phoenix! Look forward to reading more of your stuff.

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