I was pretty lax about the fire for its first few weeks, despite living a quarter-mile from Gibraltar Road and having a next-door neighbor with a U-Haul waiting outside his house. Having grown up in a place where we were constantly trying to get out of the rain and snow, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea of my home being imperiled by a fire 30 miles away, being combated with hundreds of firefighters from all over the state. But then a friend told me the story of the Painted Cave fire, how he was at a neighborhood barbecue one minute, and driving all his valuables and pets away from 80 mile-per-hour flames the next. Then a fellow customer at a coffee shop loudly announced to her companion, “If you get within 500 feet of that fire, it’ll burn the flesh right off your face.” When I got home later that night to a house that smelled like World of Wood having a bonfire, I began to think that getting serious about an evacuation plan was not such a bad idea after all.
After I put a flashlight by my bed and a bottle of water in my car, I grabbed a couple of grocery bags to fill with things I didn’t want to lose. First off, I packed up my six or seven journals from the past four years, several old notebooks filled with lists of books to read and isolated beginnings of stories, and the fifty or so photos I have from my entire life. (I keep them in an old Godiva chocolates box.) I dropped all my important papers and IDs on top of that. After that, the “packing up essential items” part got a little washy. I threw my favorite pair of boots that I’d bought in a Brooklyn thrift store for ten bucks into a grocery bag. I added my favorite vintage dresses for good measure. I began going through my closet, thinking things like, “Those pants were always too baggy at the top anyway,” and, “That skirt does go really well with the boots:.”
Clearly, I had lost track of my original purpose, and had instead gotten caught up in playing the game of “What can’t I live without?” After doing a clothing inventory, I decided I needed to keep all of my grandmother’s old jewelry – even though I never wore any of it – all the mix CDs my friends had made me, and the ever-important merino wool underwear.
When I woke up the next day and saw my three grocery bags of “things I couldn’t live without” sitting by the front door, I felt a little silly. My evacuation plan amounted to salvaging $10 boots and vintage dresses? Even that first bag of essentials was not actually essential, in the literal sense of the word. I thought of the time my bags were stolen out of a Barcelona hostel, and how I was so devastated to lose my journal chronicling the previous six months of my life. But years later, when I remembered the angst-ridden study abroad student I had been, treating the entire continent of Europe as if it was there solely to alleviate my existential dread, I was partly relieved to have lost those words. I’ve written other things about my time in Paris since then, tempered with the insight of distance.
Even if I were to lose all of my journals and notebooks, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. So I’d have to start over. I’d have to think of journaling as an act of solace and clarity-seeking in the moment. Some of it later becomes fodder for essays or stories, but a lot of it is, in the words of Smog, simply “getting off on the pornography of my past.” Plus, losing all my possessions in a fire would give me a hell of a story to write, and I could let go, once and for all, of all the stories I’d never found endings to. As for my clothes, well, the world is full of thrift stores and vintage dresses.
It happened that I was moving to a different room in the house the following day, and had to leave the room I had been in spotless. I was aware of the irony of spending a day schlepping my stuff around, when I had spent the previous night accepting the possibility of losing all of that stuff – I mean, how irritating would it be to spend all day organizing and cleaning one’s belongings, only to have them reduced to ashes? Being aware of that possibility – however remote – encouraged me to enjoy the task for its own sake, not as the means to an end. I made some more iced coffee and turned up the Frank Black CD I was listening to.
As I trekked armloads of tank tops up the stairs, I found myself thinking, “When is the last time I’ve even worn half of these?” Since I move a lot, I frequently go through my clothes and give away unnecessary items. So these were all clothes that I had, not long ago, consciously decided to keep. I was probably never going to wear that blue tank top I bought from the Limited Too with my own money in sixth grade, or the numerous hand-dyed t-shirts I bought in India for 50 cents a piece- now all faded to the same shade of mustard.
I didn’t even want to own these things. I just couldn’t give them away, having bought into the conventional wisdom that objects have sentimental and reminiscent value. But I remember India perfectly well without ever so much as thinking of those shirts. And I buy clothes with my own money quite frequently at this point in my life. I remember how exciting it was when I was eleven, but isn’t it perhaps time to move on?
Thinking of all this in the light of day (with the hundred-foot-tall bonfire smell temporarily lifted) led me to the real answer to the question, “What do I own that I can’t I live without?” The answer: nothing.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t shed some tears (probably while beating the floor with my fists and shrieking a whole litany of profanities) if I really were to lose everything I own. Plus, I’m only 24 and my room full of possessions is nothing compared to my neighbors with the U-Haul, who have lived in that house since their now-grown children were babies. It would be unnatural if they didn’t have numerous things they wanted to preserve. Still, is it possible we all hold on a little too tightly? At the risk of sounding really annoying (which I find difficult to avoid anyways), I have to ask, “Is it possible we might feel happier with less stuff?”
This is not even a question of not needing certain things. The vast majority of Americans have tons of things we don’t need, and if we’re going to be literal about the whole (quite admirable) “not taking more than we need” teaching, we’d all live like monks, with no possessions except a robe and a bowl to eat out of. What I’m talking about is the possibility that most of us have lots of things we don’t even want, and yet we’re so entrenched in owning and valuing objects, we’re not even aware we don’t want them.
There is a sense of guilt in letting go of mementos, for instance, or plates from Russia that could – maybe, maybe – net hundreds of dollars on Ebay someday. But isn’t it possible that lugging around our dead grandmother’s broken typewriter makes a lot less sense than recycling the typewriter parts and keeping the memories of the grandmother?
It’s interesting to consider that burning is nature’s way of clearing out the forest to allow fresh plant life to spring up against the backdrop of the natural urge to salvage our possessions. Even this human-started fire is a natural occurrence, if we consider that it was started by accident and humans are part of nature. The latter being the case, it also makes sense that we have thousands of heroic humans fighting to put out the blaze and keep the rest of us safe. But, on the off chance that the fire does spread, I’ll see you all down at the beach, where I can’t think of any logical reason not to have a great time – we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by emergency workers who will ensure that – no matter what things are on the line – our lives will go on.