After the fire

When the flames came over the top of the ridge a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage shed. Folders full of financial paperwork on one side, diaries from my childhood on the other, I was simplifying. Mostly in my mind was this: what can I get rid of?

A few hours later, when it became clear that the fire was going to continue to burn through the night and possibly right down into my canyon, my thoughts began to shift to this: what should I save?

I went first to the obvious — the hard drives and the important papers. In retrospect, I understand the hard drives, but if the house had burned down, I’m not sure that I would have cared that I had saved my old tax forms and bank statements. But these were the first things I tossed in the back of the car.

Then things got more complicated. I began to walk slowly through my house. It was almost like touring a museum. Look at something, some object, pick it up, this carved giraffe from Africa or this jar of sand from the Swiss Alps, consider the stories, imagine its absence, weigh it against everything else in the house, make a decision. The giraffe stays. The sand comes with me.

The diaries from my childhood came too. How else am I to know who I am? The box of negatives from before the digital age overwhelmed us all. I packed a small bag of clothing and toiletries. No sense in having to wear the same T-shirt and jeans for a week if I don’t have to. The laptop, which these days is my file cabinet, correspondence, creative expression, and connection to the world, the laptop came along.

In a burst of faith, I watered the lawn.

It was dark by then and huge walls of flame were beginning to wrap around the canyon. Out my window the hillside across from me was deep orange with the reflected light of the fire.

But there was still time and room in my car. What else? The big things were ruled out. No furniture or appliances. Also no books. If you start to take one, they’ll all want to come along. The same with the music. I took photos of the bookcase and the CD rack.

From there the process started to get silly. That sleeping bag was expensive. And it’s comfy. The sleeping bag comes along. And this pair of shoes. My circles around the house started to get faster and more frenetic. With time and a little motivation, the miser in me begins to come out. 

Finally, just after I caught myself tossing a wine corker (expensive, beautifully crafted) into the car, I realized the slippery slope that I was on. Another half hour and I’d be hitching my car up to the house and trying to drag it down the hill. Then what would I have gained?  Nothing but the same headaches with a crappier view.

I realized then that the fire was doing me a favor. I was seeing more clearly. I was discovering what was most important. I was letting go of what wasn’t. I’ll confess that there was a small part of me that hoped that the fire would come right on down the canyon and take it all.

It didn’t. From where I’m sitting this morning, I can see the blackened hillside where it burned so ferociously. Unpacking the car was harder for some reason than packing was. The giraffe and the jar of sand are reunited again — for how long, I don’t know, but the giraffe is keeping a wary eye on me, our true relationship now revealed — and the clarity of flame exchanged for the ambiguity of life. But the lessons have stayed with me. After the fire, you can’t help but see things a little differently.

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On How Things Are

It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood.

– Soren Kierkegaard, quoted by Joseph Bottum in “The Judgement of Memory”

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Defense

Nevertheless, I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.

– Reverend John Ames in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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