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Wonder Girl, reignited

| 26 Jan 2024 | 09:29

When I was a kid, I lived in a six story walk-up in The Bronx. It was an arduous 72 steps from the street up to apartment 4A, where I lived in a dank little one-bedroom with my single mom and baby brother. I traversed those steps what felt like a million times a day, bounding up, bounding down, past the sounds and smells of other families, off to school, outside to play, taking out the garbage. Pretty mundane stuff. But in those gloomy hallways, I imagined I had superpowers... I was Wonder Girl, conquering flights in a single bound while vanquishing villains in service to the meek and the downtrodden! I’d leap down two, even three steps at a time, bolting past tottering grandmas, mothers with babies, even the smelly guy from apartment 2B. I was unstoppable, racing down those stairs like my life depended on it, like the very fate of the world depended on it. Out on the street, I was just ordinary me, but in these hallways I had a secret identity that no one knew about. Look! Up on the landing! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s... Wonder Girl! Of all the challenges my shy little 8-year-old self had to face, this was one arena where I ruled supreme.

Many decades later I left my city life behind and found myself facing the challenges of rural life. This was a world of obstacles completely foreign to me. How could I ever hope to master an uncooperative septic system, or vanquish a bear on my back porch? Would I ever be able to crack the code on growing vegetables, or drive with superpower night vision on dark country roads, or leap up treacherous mountain trails on superhuman legs? I was an outsider, a superhero has-been. Country life, I feared, was my kryptonite.

Then my husband and I bought an old farmhouse with ancient drafty windows and a creepy basement. Although the house came with more than its share of worrisome quirks, I sensed the nascent stirrings of my faded superpowers. Within these walls was something I knew I could be good at. Exceptional, even. I wandered the overgrown property and clambered over crumbling rock walls, braved the suffocating heat of the long disused dusty attic, poked into the corners of the gloomy cobwebbed basement searching for inspiration. And eventually, that inspiration made itself known. The thing I had been searching for had been hiding in plain sight all along: a crusty old heap of a wood stove, an inefficient, dirty, cranky beast, the object of no one’s desire. Except mine.

Dominick the chimney guy declared the thing past its prime, with the admonition that we’d get mighty tired of battling the beast. I patently ignored his professional opinion and began my journey towards conquering the wood stove on my own terms. But what did I know of kindling, seasoned wood and flues? The superhero in me awoke from her long slumber, the scent of a challenge in her nostrils.

Day after day, my house filled with choking black smoke. You’re going to burn the house down, my daughter warned, which only had the effect of inspiring me to double down. Fires would start, only to sputter and die. Reams of newspaper, heaping piles of splintery twigs, and warming the flue with a blow torch yielded only burning lungs and a snoot full of soot. Then one frigid February day, I decided to take a more zen approach. I explored the beast, got familiar with its mysterious levers and flaps. I laid my super hands on it and listened with my super sensitive hearing, until I found I could hear what the beast had to say. And then, there it was: at my command was the power to encourage the fire to spring to life, to shrink it back to a wisp. The beast whispered to me when to add more oxygen, or rearrange the smoldering logs so they’d come roaring back to life. I’d squat by the soot crusted window and watch, waiting on messages in secret code, hidden in the dancing flames. We developed a bond, the beast and I, and together we swore to defend the house against villainous chills, to banish the scourge of chilblains and cold feet. I found my superpower hidden away in the belly of a cast iron wood stove, and the world was safe for humanity once again.

Now when friends come by and remark on the toasty coziness of my drafty old house, I shrug and say, we’ve got a good old wood stove there. The beast pops and crackles, and whispers in the dancing flames, your secret’s safe with me.