May 15th, 2006

cocked and loaded


A child's toothbrush, a pair of sunglasses snatched off the hall table, and the pajamas they were wearing. That's what our neighbors saved from their burning house.

I think of all their history, their shared memories, the scrapbooks, the photo albums, their daughter's crayoned scribbles melted to the charred husk of the refrigerator.

It's all just stuff, isn't it? But it's YOUR stuff. If it went up in flame and ashes, do you think you would feel freed? That you were winnowed and lightweight and had a free hand to start over; a clean slate? Or would you perpetually be mourning your past, your lost life, the sooty residue that smears and crumbles under your searching hand?

They built the house before they had a child, before she was even conceived, and 2 years later were already lamenting that it was really a bit too small. They were thinking, maybe they could raise the roof, add a story beneath the eaves, a playroom perhaps...a bedroom or two. Instead the roof crashed in, crackling with flame and now, someday after the blackened timbers are removed and the lot is swept clean, they can build again, a bigger house; a better one.*

We built our house at the same time, a bit later perhaps, but within the same rough time frame. We built our house precisely BECAUSE our last house was really just a bit too small. We wanted a playroom, another bedroom, a bigger yard.

You look around at these solid walls, the vents that let in air, the windows that let in light and you wonder what would you snatch up and cradle to your chest as you hurried and herded your children out the door? A pair of sunglasses, a teddy bear. There isn't time to think or rationalize. There isn't time to SAVE. There isn't TIME.

Martin and I walked past the house today, but we didn't stop to gape. It feels as if we would be gaping at the ruin of someone's life. The urge to slow and stare is nearly overwhelming, and it seems as if the reason is because of the awfulness of sympathy and horror that rises up like bile in the back of your throat. When you stare at a burnt-out house, or a car wreck as you inch past on the highway, you are not just gaping at the ruin of someone else's life. You are gaping at yours. What if that was ME? What if that was US? Was OURS? What if time had stopped and the roof had caved in? Would the ruin of our life look like this? How would we go on? How could we ever get up off our knees?

I think about my books, my artwork, the baby keepsakes carefully packed away in my children's closets, the careful accumulation of years. I think about the things I've saved and the things I love rising ashes on the spiral airstair of flame. If we got out, amid the crackle and the terror, our children's hands clutched tight in ours, bare feet cool in the early morning lawn, if we only got OUT. Ultimately, no one gets out of life alive, but if we got out, this time, a neighbor's pounding fist on the door, breath caught and awful realization and then the spare horror and relief of safety, there would be all the time in the world.


*The family is living with friends in a nearby town. The house is already being dismantled, and a shiny rental car was parked next to the burnt-out shell of their former car today. The neighborhood is taking up a collection to give them a gift certificate for furniture and household items. They're out and they're alive and they'll rebuild, in time.

Check it out! Mosaic Minds: Anticipation issue is up! I'm pretty pleased with the masthead, if I do say so myself, and for this issue the muse struck and I pulled a poem out of my, erm, head, as well.