Am I the Burning House?

by Ona Gritz | Reconsidering what it means to be brave.

Am I the Burning House?

It’s Family Day in my son’s karate class and he wants a turn at the front of the room to spar with me. We watch from the risers as other parent/child pairs perfectly mirror the moves Master Steve models, and the spouses and siblings around us snap photos and cheer.

I’m not even supposed to be here, but at the last minute my ex (able, athletic) had to travel for business. So here I am, all the family my eight-year-old has on this particular Family Day.

“Please?” pleads this boy who never asks for much, so of course I take his hand, let him lead me to the floor, helpfully announcing, “If my mom doesn’t do too good it’s because she has cerebral palsy.”

All eyes on us, I throw stiff, oddly shaped punches, answer his foot sweeps and knee strikes with shuffles. And though I tell myself no one gives a flying fuck if I can’t do a roundhouse kick, I time travel to a school gym not unlike this one—That’s a skip, not a run. Bet you couldn’t even catch a balloon.

Later, on our way toward the door, Master Steve, in his white gi, motions me over. “You were really brave out there,” he says. “That was a great thing you did.”

Brave. The word echoes in my mind as my son runs ahead on the cold walk home. Brave, a word complicated by what I know Master Steve’s day job to be: putting out fires, saving lives. I have a sense of how I’m supposed to feel about this. In fact, I go so far as to write a draft of this piece where I claim that stance. Is the prospect of living in a body like mine scarier to him than entering a burning house? Am I the burning house?

But even as I type those phrases, I’m thinking these ordinary acts of ours actually are a touch heroic. Our shame meters are so often off-kilter, heat rising, as it likes to do, right to the surface of our skin.

Ona Gritz’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Brevity, River Teeth, and many other journals and anthologies. Her books include Geode, a finalist for the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, Present Imperfect: Essays, and August or Forever, a middle grade novel out now from Fitzroy Books. Among Ona’s recent honors are two Notable mentions in the Best American Essays series, a Best Life Story in Salon, and a winning entry in the Poetry Archive Now Wordview 2020 project. Learn more about her work at

This essay originally appeared in Wordgathering volume 14, issue 2 (June 2020), and was reprinted in the chapbook Present Imperfect (2021).

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