Sometimes, change sneaks up on you. Sometimes, it comes like a sprite in the night, urging you to pack your bags and move to Sedona, Arizona. Sometimes, it saunters in like an unemployed hustler in cowboy boots and has its way with you. Not being a particularly subtle woman, I got the version of change that hits you over the head with a frying pan and squawks, “Yoo-hoo! Move your butt!”
There I was, on the verge of the second half of my life, with only the youngest of my four children still at home–my expectations clearer, my doctoral dissertation almost finished, my life settling into comfortable routines. And I got this wake-up call in the middle of the night, in the middle of autumn, in the middle of my 50th year. My house burned. Not down, exactly. More like up.
One quiet Sunday evening, I went to bed in our comfortable old house, completely engrossed in my ordinary, albeit frenzied, life, replete with shoulds, musts, and highly significant ought-tos. My appointment book rested on the nightstand, brimming with expectations. A few hours later, I was bedless, clothesless, homeless, and appointment free.
Have you ever thought through this possibility? I had. Here’s how my plan went: First get the kids out, then the cats, the dog, and the turtle. If there’s any time left, go for the photo albums. Now, “save the photo albums” sounded simple. I’d always pictured tucking them under my arms and running out of the house. Well, I had to think again. I’d been raising four kids and various honorary stepkids for 27 years. That’s a lot of pictures! Sixteen photo albums don’t fit easily under two arms.
I stood in our smoky upstairs hallway, having already called 911 and gotten my husband, our 14-year-old son, and the pets out, with one album tucked under each arm, and 14 to go. But where? I took a step toward the still-unburned guestroom and stopped. What if the whole house burns down? Dump them out the back door? Naaa. The fire hoses might soak them. Finally, I turned, raced to the back door, dumped the recyclables out of the bin, dragged the bin into the house, loaded in the photo albums, and dragged the bin back out into the yard.
What to save now? It was the middle of the night. Volunteer firefighters were tromping around upstairs and clambering all over the roof. In my big rubber boots and surprisingly calm, I went back into the smoking and burning house, to our untouched, still-normal, downstairs music room. I turned toward the shelves of books and it hit me: I’m going to lose all of you. My life was in those shelves: books on childbirth, gardening, the environment; an entire shelf on Waldorf education, women’s issues, and healing guides. Native American religion, a huge collection of fairy and folk tales, another of poetry. Biographies. And the novels! The ones I loved and read to my sons and daughters: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Siddhartha; Grapes of Wrath; The Bean Trees; A Story Like the Wind; House of the Spirits. I took a deep breath and whispered, “You were terrific. I’ve loved you. Now I bid you goodbye.” A feeling of floating free crept over me. All those books had accumulated a great deal of dust.
“What are you doing in here!?” said a fireman, making it clear that I was no longer wanted or needed in my home. I spent the next few hours on our lawn, shivering in my sweatpants. I imagined setting forth into the rest of my life, free and unfettered, with nothing to tie me down and fray my soul. Before that night, I had so many clothes I couldn’t decide what to wear in the morning. I had too many electrical gadgets: toasters, juicers, waffle irons, boom boxes, and answering machines. These things weren’t me. I could do without them.
If I were a bona fide flower child, the story would end here, and I’d be living in a yurt on the ashes of my house with a few charred pots and a warm sleeping bag, dispensing wisdom in short, easily digestible sentences. The truth is a lot messier and less picturesque. As the new day lightened the sky, the firefighters let us back into our home. It hadn’t burned down; it had merely burned. It hadn’t turned into purified dry ash to blow away in the wind, but into sodden, reeking mess. The alchemy failed. My lead didn’t turn into gold, it merely melted into clumps. The tin roof of our house and its eastern walls were gone. My books were still in the living room, now wet and smelly. My life wasn’t liberated and simplified, but complicated and inconvenienced.
“We’ll live simply,” my rather simple-minded husband said the next morning, over instant coffee with our son and me at the motel we’d checked into. “We don’t need much.” Explain to me, I thought: how to live simply with three jobs, two offices, doctoral thesis deadlines, volunteer responsibilities, three rental units, a hungry teenager, two cats, a dog, and a turtle? Someone better break it to him gently: those carefree, Woodstock days are gone. I’d been close to the final approach on my doctoral thesis. To this glorious end, I’d amassed a three- foot stack of photocopied research articles sorted by categories. Most of these survived the fire (Yay!), but not the fire hoses (Boo!). The next night, the man at the next booth in the sushi restaurant told me to put them in the freezer. It would stop the rotting process and buy me some time.
Thank goodness for friends! I arrived at Jane’s house that night dragging two garbage bags filled with sticky, crumbling papers. They fit perfectly between the pop tarts and the turkey in her basement freezer. There they waited for weeks until we settled into a rental house with an oven. I then began peeling and baking my papers in small slices. Just as with pancakes, the skill was in the flipping: not too soon, or the dampness will cause mildew, and not too late, since the smell of charred paper doesn’t whet the appetite. If you open my office closet and inhale, you’ll find my resurrected research.
Friends asked us how our 14-year-old son was doing. I didn’t know. After surviving the first confused weeks sleeping in motels and at the homes of various friends, he seemed completely unaffected. He was involved in his own life and his home’s burning didn’t seem to place that high on the Richter Scale.
Then one day almost two months after the fire, he said, “You know what I really miss?” Oh boy, I thought, here it comes at last. He’s buried this for so long.
“No,” I said, sitting down gently next to him. “What is it, honey?”
“Tall glasses,” he answered from the depths of his soul.
“Yup. The glasses here are too small for a good drink.”
The writer Annie Lamott says that courage is fear that has said its prayers. Maybe 24 years of family songs and prayers, tears and laughter, joys and sorrows under those 250-year-old living room beams had counted for something, because we never felt afraid. This isn’t the story of tragedy. Tragedy is babies suffering. Tragedy is mothers dying young. Tragedy is planes crashing and buildings crumbling. The fire wasn’t a tragedy. I keep searching for a word that’s stronger than inconvenience, but less than disaster. Instead I’m left with the words of a well-fed bear: “O, bother.”
Our fire was a wake-up call. I’m wide awake now. I’m paying attention. I see the friends who rallied with food, blankets, and all their extra attic furniture. I see our family unified and ready to celebrate. I see my husband, who makes each drama into the latest new adventure. I see blessings everywhere I turn. I see how transformation creeps into the roofless house of my being and pushes me out to greet it.
J. Eva Nagel is a therapist in private practice who runs a summer youth leadership program in upstate New York.