Wednesday, July 21, 2010
There’s nothing like a near-disaster to spur us to push the reset button on what really matters in life.
When fire struck the apartment next to mine two weeks ago and I was ousted from my pad with no more than a moment’s notice, I put myself and a few others through days of bedlam, stress and upset. Now that I’m neatly installed in my sleek, furnished condo for the summer and the dust has begun to settle, I can see a little more clearly. I learned a ton of things from the experience, but here are my top ten:
1. What stuff is really important.
Upon realizing that the fire was sneaking from the guy’s apartment next door towards mine, I yelled down to a fireman to ask if I had time to grab my cat. He looked at the plumes of smoke billowing out from between the bricks above my window and said, “Not really.” I did, of course, dragging her from under the bed by one leg and stuffing her into her cage while speaking in that fake hysterical-soothing voice that one tends to use on children and pets when all’s gone to hell yet one is trying to convince them that Everything’s Fine, We’re Just Playing a Game.
I scooped up my purse and left. That was it. A) Fur-child, B) purse with credit cards and other ID-ish stuff. It’s amazing what we put in priority when the chips are down and the smoke’s pouring in. I don’t know if it’s normal but I didn’t think about all the photos (everyone says they do; I didn’t), nor my computer, which is maybe odd since that’s how I make my living. A pair of shoes would have been a convenient thing to pick up. I very secretly hoped all the clothing would go up in smoke. It didn’t, and I was allowed back in later to gather some more stuff before evacuating for good and so grabbed my laptop, a few shorts and tees and toiletries and my insurance papers. And a pair of flip flops. In the 2 minutes I had, I couldn’t think of anything else that really mattered.
I had clothing; I knew I’d have shelter and food (thanks to insurance). My friends were at the ready to support me. And that’s the sum of all I really, truly need. The rest is just stuff.
2.Sometimes, drama increases in direct proportion to how much energy you dedicate to it.
Drama can be like a fire: The more you stoke it, the bigger it gets. When we put a lot of time and energy into recounting / augmenting / building our stories of personal tragedy and hardship, either to ourselves or to others or both, the stories and issues become seemingly more real and more difficult and more insurmountable, and that serves no purpose. The flames become visible from outer space and everyone feels the heat.
Turns out I’m a great fire-stoker (figuratively speaking of course); which is not news to those who know me well, but which is a big realization for me personally. I tend to make situations pretty dramatic.
It’s important to try to keep things in perspective, especially when they’re going awry; and that even when we think we’re doing just that, to look again with a different lens and see if the stories we’re telling ourselves about a given situation are really true, or just that – stories. Flames can get out of control quickly, so be mindful of how much you throw on there.
3.Get over it.
Goes hand in hand with the fire-stoking. Yes it’s stressful and upsetting when stuff goes wrong but once we’ve confirmed nobody’s been hurt, it’s important to try to look at the bigger picture. Things could be a lot worse. I could have been the guy next door, whose fault the fire was and who escaped his burning apartment with only the shorts he was wearing and nothing else. His two cats perished in the blaze.
Lots of us need to throw ourselves a pity party from time to time. Let’s make sure it’s got a short shelf-life, and then move on.
It took good, honest friends to remind me of this. My best mentor for this is my friend D, who has been through a crapload of hardship in recent years but who doesn’t subscribe to self-appointed pity parties, ever.
4.I still have too much stuff.
Since I quit my corporate job and sold my house over 2 years ago I’ve done at least 3 full edits (“edit” is a soft way of saying “sell / donate / toss out”) of all my belongings, if not a few more. Watching the movers pack everything into a billion boxes after the fire, all I could think was Holy crap, who owns all this sh*t? Surely not me?
My things and clothing are now all either in storage or being de-smoked. The condo I’m in for the summer (hopefully longer...it’s so beautiful here!) is furnished with the basics (plus a bit more) of the essentials one needs for daily living. I’ve got jeans and a coffee pot and a desk and music and a wine glass and a bed.
I feel the same now as I did when I first got back from traveling and the contents of my house were still in storage: I don’t really want to see it all again.
A frequent and hard look at what we really need as opposed to what we just want, or perhaps even don’t want but accumulate anyway because we’re scared or bored, is as freeing as it is essential.
When I move back into my apartment, it’s time to purge again.
5.Who your real friends are.
Despite my exaggerated drama, there were those few friends who stood steadfastly by my side for whatever I might need during the ordeal and who continue to do so today. It’s reassuring and grounding to know that they are there.
Who are your real friends, who will be there for you without question, even if you’re standing in a pile of poo? It’s a good thing to know.
6.We are resilient.
As long as we have our health, we can endure a tremendous amount of stress and hardship. Whatever’s gone screwy, we’ll always be ok eventually. Important (but difficult) to remember when we’re mired in the thick of it.
7.Change is hard but builds character.
Being uprooted again was the last thing I had planned right now, but it’s also been an awesome reminder: I’m still mobile. Instead of feeling weighed down by a lease and bills and belongings, I can choose to remember instead that I can still pick up and do what I want, go where I want; life is fluid. Maybe it’s a message from the universe that everything has ended up back in storage.
I’ve had to get used to a new neighbourhood and start to figure out a new routine. There’s always a tremendous amount to be learned from how we react to new situations and new surroundings. If you’ve experienced a sudden unforeseen change in your life, watch and observe your reactions and see what new discoveries you can make.
8.How nice people can be.
People from every relationship level (friend, business, acquaintance, almost-stranger) materialized to offer whatever they could to help out after the fire, from furniture to a place to sleep and lots of things in between. I didn’t need any of it, fortunately, but it was great to feel supported and cared about anyway. People like to help when someone is in need and it’s refreshing to have that reminder. It makes me want to pay it forward.
It won’t hurt any of us to be a little nicer and as my friend Sarah reminded me once, we can all be a little more generous.
9.People have their own crap to deal with (see points 2 and 3 above)
It’s not that people don’t care about what’s happening to you, but everyone’s got their own problems and daily life to tackle. As my friend Deb reminded me, if you could throw your problems into a hat with everyone else’s and then pick out any ones you wanted, chances are very good you’d take back your own.
We shouldn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for us, step in, help, worry, call, text, or visit. Just do what you need to do, keep calm and carry on. Some of my clients barely batted an eye when I told them my story (which perhaps I shouldn’t have done, I realize now); pausing only briefly before saying, “So does this mean I won’t get my document today?”
Life and business go on. Don’t feel wounded or wronged by peoples' lack of sympathy or reactions to your situation. Just get on with it.
10.Life is precious and things can turn on a dime.
Not news to anyone, but it’s always brought into stark relief in these situations. Watching the man from the burned-out apartment sit on the grass, smudged with soot and crying like a baby, repeating over and over, “I would have never imagined. I would have never believed it could happen,” as he mourned the loss of his two cats and everything else he owned, I realized it just as easily could have been - could one day be -me. Everything was fine at 5:45 am. By 6:00 am it was all up in flames. I would never imagine it either. Seize the day.
11.(Bonus) It pays to have lots of home insurance.
I cannot fathom having gone through such an ordeal with no access to extra funds or without any special services to fall back on. Thanks to what some might think is way-too-much-insurance considering what I have and how I live, I’ve barely had to lift a finger throughout this whole process. The insurance people mobilized a veritable task force to pack me and move me and send me emergency money and clean my clothes and furniture and find me a place to live.
Insurance is like a parachute: Better to have and not need, than to need and not have.
“You should treat all disasters as if they were trivialities but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster.” Quentin Crisp
Posted by FiredGirl at 10:17 AM