Sunday, May 22, 2011

The burning house

A fellow fire survivor alerted me to a website called The Burning House where people submit photos and lists of the things they would save in a fire.  According to Foster Huntington, the website's creator, it's "a conflict between what's practical, valuable and sentimental."  I was asked what I thought of the site.

I understand the curiosity.  The week before the fire, I saw smoke near our house and in a moment of panic, raced toward our house before realizing everything was ok.  I reflected frequently that next week what I would save if, in fact, my house was burning down.  I think it's probably a question many of our own family and friends have asked themselves after seeing our pile of ashes.  I also think it requires people to reflect on the meaning of their things as opposed to being so quick to dismiss it as "just stuff."

With that said, the site disturbs me.  I think it's because the tone is so flippant.  "If your house was burning, what would you take with you?" as though you have time to wander your house casually pulling out all the things that matter.  Maybe it's just me, but that just sounds so calm and dismissive of the drama that is your home burning down.  This site is designed for entertainment, and yet the question of what to take isn't a philosophical one for thousands of people.  It's their reality and causes significant emotional stress.

There's nothing real about a display of someone's soccer shoes and sunglasses, posing perfectly.  The only clothes I got out were the ones on my back, and the smell of smoke lingered in the cotton pores for months.  My wedding dress, the one thing I would have told you I would have grabbed, was indiscernible amongst the thousands of fiberglass particles.  And had my husband tried to get that, perhaps he wouldn't have made it out of the fire at all.  This isn't a philosophical question, Mr. Huntington. 

If your house was on fire, in flames, the responsible action is to get the hell out.  This isn't an exercise in what's practical, valuable, or sentimental.

Can you imagine after Katrina a site that asked what you would grab in a Category Five hurricane?  Or after this year's devastating tornadoes a site that asked what you'd haul down to your basement as the sirens blared overhead?  Maybe a better question to ask would be what are the things you would miss most if you lost your house?  That at least implies loss, which I feel is missing from that site.

This is what loss looks like:

There's my wedding dress, my son's coming home outfit, his crib, the blanket I slept with as a child.  That pile includes my wine flutes from my wedding, the  pictures of my childhood, hours and hours and hours and hours of renovations on our first home.  I don't need to imagine my burning home.  That is it.  Burnt.  Loss.  Destruction.

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