When the Fire Came

I survived a fire. It was many years ago that my apartment melted away. I was attending college and working at a fast food restaurant, barely making rent each month. I was struggling to make a home with my boyfriend and two cats in a cheap roach and mouse infested apartment above a flower shop next to a loud college bar. Snow blew in around the window frames in the winter, and the summer heat from the street below made its way into the small windows, raising the temperature to stifling. I hated it, but I loved it because it was my own home.

This was long before minimalism. I was 21 and struggling to figure out what to do with my life. Having not yet developed gratitude, I felt dissatisfied… and I worried. I worried about paying the bills, choosing the right career path, losing weight, and figuring out how in the world I was going to be “successful” (aka achieving all the materialistic milestones). A dependable job, reliable car, and a house with a yard all seemed too far away and that gave me plenty to worry about. I also made time to worry about my relationships, my job performance, doing the “right” thing, and most of all, wasting time. It seemed that the years were ticking by and I wasn’t accomplishing anything.

Then the fire came. We weren’t woken by the thick layer of smoke collecting at the ceiling, or the emergency vehicles pulling up out front. We were woken by our neighbors, kind enough to bang on our door on their way downstairs. The alarm system failed to work in those early morning hours. The subsequent events remain a bit of a blur. I remember the feeling of panic, scrambling to catch our cats who, also in a panic, fled each time I tried to grab them. I remember fire fighters yelling for us to get out. I remember crying hysterically in the street as I watched the flames rise. I thought about all of the things I was terrified to lose. I was very attached to the material things in that flaming apartment. As the hours passed I began bargaining with myself. I began to let things go. Things like the second-hand dishes in the kitchen, the many clothes in the closet that never quite fit right, and the well-used television no longer mattered. And soon, even items like my beloved books seemed like acceptable losses if only I could somehow save what was most important and couldn’t be replaced. I clung desperately to the hope that my sweet cats and my most treasured possessions would survive: my photo albums, Christmas ornaments that had been gifted by family and friends, and my violin.

Amazingly, both cats survived. I found them a day later at the local animal shelter. I was told by the Red Cross that a couple of cats had been brought there by fire inspectors who had been surveying the damaged building. Several cats called our building home, so I had no idea which cats survived. But my fur babies were alive – hair matted, covered in black soot, and terrified. As the days passed, we also managed to salvage some soggy and sooty possessions, including my violin, photos, and some books. Unfortunately, the Christmas ornaments didn’t make it.

You might think that this was the event that brought me to minimalism, but it wasn’t. I had wonderful friends who held me as I cried on the street, who opened their homes to me, my cats, and the dirty and soggy bits of my life. The Red Cross helped find us a new apartment, and amazing family, friends, and strangers donated money and household items with which we built a new home. I experienced compassion. We quickly replaced what was lost and moved on. Or so it seemed. Now I see that the fire affected me more than I realized at the time. I struggled to go to work and school and I had difficultly focusing on anything. I woke in panic every night for months, and then intermittently for years, believing that I smelled smoke. I would get up and wander around the apartment to make sure that nothing was burning before I could calm myself down and fall back to sleep. In the first years after the fire, I clung tightly, too tightly, to what I had and my tendency to worry became full-blown anxiety.

Eventually, I healed and realized that the fire changed me. It was my first lesson in impermanence. It taught me that everything changes. There is destruction and there is rebirth. And many years later, when I was ready to understand, I saw that the experience had given me strength and clarity, leading me to decisions that shaped my life and put me on the minimalist path. Over time, stuff came to mean less and less and the worry faded.

There’s a great project out there called The Burning House where contributors post a photo displaying the items that they would like to grab if their house was burning and they had to leave quickly. It’s a great question to consider. What would you grab if your house was burning? As someone who lived through a fire, I can easily answer that question at any time. Being able to do so makes it very easy to let go of the rest.

[“Bonfire” – Photo by Ron Phillips (https://500px.com/wrongzilla)]

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