Eastern Washington is in the grip of several terrible lightning-sparked wildfires this week. The largest in the state’s history, the Carlton Complex fire, has destroyed at least 200 homes and burned an area 4 times the size of the city of Seattle (maybe more, as I edit this post several days later). One person has died while protecting his home. My friend’s in-laws lost 2 homes and a mobile home park they owned, while another relative’s house right next door was untouched. Many generations worth of memorabilia and belongings were lost to the firestorm.
I was watching a TV news story about the fire destroying the home of a 93 year old lady, a home her family built 71 years ago, where she had raised 5 kids. She never believed it could burn down, but the family was forced to evacuate when they heard the fire was approaching them fast. Almost nothing remains.
“Everything in a matter of minutes just went up,” said her daughter-in-law Mary Campbell on King5 news the other night. “It is everything, everything. Every memento, every memory, everything that makes you who you are is in five minutes, gone.”
The 93 year old Twisp woman escaped with just the clothes on her back, but some of her granddaughters were able to load up a vehicle with pictures and albums. The fire destroyed her home and the home of another family member, but skirted the house of another.
I don’t want to deny the terrible pain of losing 4 generations worth of belongings and mementos, or how much this pain will resonate through these people’s lives in the future, probably hitting them hard at unexpected moments for the rest of their lives. I can’t imagine how terrible it would be to have everything lost so quickly.
But I noticed something. Nobody in the family was crying. I imagine they were somewhat numb, although they didn’t seem numb either. The 93 year old said she hadn’t been back to see the property yet, but when things cooled down she would go and see what was left. The family seemed sad, and maybe annoyed, but not devastated the way they should be if what they had said was actually true – if they had lost every memory, everything that made them who they are.
I think we believe that our possessions are more valuable to us than they actually are. We tend to believe that our memories are contained in the things that trigger them, the things that remind us when we haven’t been thinking about them.
But fortunately our memories are stronger than that. All kinds of things can trigger a memory – a sound, a smell, a story. If we make an effort we can remember things we would never imagine are still in our minds (something that people find if they start to write down the story of their lives). Spending time telling stories with family members and friends can bring countless memories to the surface, including many we would rather forget.
Of course, no one wants to lose everything. We all want to have a certain amount of stuff around us that reminds of where we come from and who we think we are. But if the worst happens and some or all of it is lost, be assured that life will go on and there will be chance to reconstruct the “memories” lost and make new ones.
Which reminds me, scan your photos and back them up externally – print them, send them out to family and friends – spread the wealth! Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But also, play with them, look at them, write about them, talk about them – cement the best of them in your memory. Put them up on your walls where you can enjoy them. Also, check your insurance coverage.
I certainly don’t mean to deny the loss that these people have suffered. I have been lucky so far in my life to have not suffered this way. Touch wood, my luck continues. I know a couple of people who have lost almost every Thing they owned, and it’s really sad to consider. I think it’s worth giving a thought to though. Nothing lasts. But they go on with the support of family, friends, and community, and the knowledge that they are not what they owned.
You are more than your photos, more than your china, more than your books, more than your treasures. Your memories are a part of you even if your Things are gone. I have read many a biography or memoir where people lost more than I could imagine a person could lose and keep on living. I think of war and Holocaust survivors who have lost their Things, their homes, their countries, and most of their family and friends, and yet, they go on. This kind of resilience is amazing to me. I have another blog post in the works about that, about what makes our lives meaningful, based on the work of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. It’s taking me some time because it’s such an important topic and it is becoming more than I intended to write about when I first started the post. It’s funny that this was one of 3 related posts I drafted this week – topics I didn’t actually notice were related until I started fleshing them out.
See you back here soon? …if you can handle a little more philosophical stuff before I get back to the Project 333 and Project Life…