The turning point from demolition to reconstruction of our home was Thanksgiving, when my brothers Mark and Scott spent a week framing windows with Steve. On Friday I stepped into the hall and for the first time since April smelled the cut wood of new structure, of sawdust not char and mold.

To get here we lost much. Not just stuff but the original house: removed were the wavered glass panes of pre-industry, the iron weights that kept windows balanced. Insulating red brick was pried from nearly every wall and massive beams were sistered or replaced.

We peeled away layers of house to repair fire and water damage only to reveal the desperation of time to bring down the wood, clay, stone, and sand with which this shelter had been constructed so long ago. The pinprick holes and dust remains of a century of insects, mealy cement, and chalky brick, was a call to action. Weeks of raising the house, masonry to repair foundation, leveling, and stabilizing were necessary to repair the core without which it eventually would have succumbed, fire or no.

It was at that moment, when autumn passed freely through a skeleton pulled from the brink, I felt momentum, a quickening rather than despair. People had beat me there; long before I smelled it friends could see the future, gleaming new stuff, light passing as usual. But it was difficult for me to look beyond the past and the removal of it. Those old windows through which a few generations, including my sons’, watched the sun setting now lie one upon the other against our fence, uncertain where to settle. Along with craft, something of the charm and specialness of the house was disappearing.

To see through old glass, to be a little unsure that the leaves and grass outside are moving through the ambiguous medium, was to see through history even if we don’t know specifically what that is. I’ve always felt in old places and things connected by lives I’ll never know, reassured that with each generation new understanding grows. With no record, no retention of the past, we lose more than nostalgia, something more important to our present than reminiscing and longing. We lose what brought us here and so a sense that we, too, bring. I wondered how to hold the past, to allow for its mystery and stories, while letting it go and living forward.

Early this winter I visited the Emily Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Mass. It had been 15 years or so since I’d been there, when the same artifacts, her table, bed, chair were on view. They’d been moved to new locations as renovation had revealed scuffed clues as to their original placement. Her bedroom wallpaper, scraped from layers, had been reproduced and hung. More thrilling though was how the tour had changed. Emily of the late 20th century—somber and isolated, donning white to mark her vow as poetess priestess of self-exile—had transformed with another generation of scholars into a confident, social, dedicated poet intent to “dwell in possibility” of the poem itself. Variants of her poems now teach us of her adaptability, her distrust of being pinned to any one shade of meaning to the exclusion of others. No longer is she sheltered in place or oppressed. Emily is reborn.

While I was anxious to see the last of the damage to our home I didn’t want to be rid of all traces of the past. Alongside its decay was the beauty of 18th century post and beam and of virgin pumpkin pine still warm as that setting sun. I desired to retain some of it as homage to aesthetics and durability, a profound recognition that the old way is in part what saved our lives—fire stops between floors, brick, and body-width beams. Without these and modern smoke detectors we’d not be here.

While from the outside our farm house will look new, I embrace what Houzz calls Transitional style. To weave the past into life as seamlessly as it already is, we restore original pine, move boards from attic to living room, from walls to floors where they will once again bear weight. A swath of carefully preserved brick remains exposed. New windows, while uniform and surgically clear, are larger and more numerous, inviting greater possibility and light.20151213_131013



For a moment, between the chaos and high temper of our house fire, time stood still. This was shock, I suppose—the mind, the heart—needing time to catch up to the happened real. Recovery began in a fugue paralysis of blank stares and hunger for proximity to the living, to those who moved toward us with open hands. All this while life churned on, making its own demands to keep up. I learned to be grateful for that as I learned to hold on less fiercely to the ideas of things and to things themselves, because I had to live more.

On the eve today of 7 months later and life, how lucky, has continued. Recovery, when slow motion and tears ebbed into unfamiliar acceptance of aid, became necessity to assess all that remained, all that was lost. These piles seemed distinct at first. Decimated contents stink as death does, until finally it is returned to carbon. What is worth saving? The smell was a reliable guide, but I had to ask repeatedly and never really knew, not past the fact of us.

We did what is done these days: our best to catalogue every object, wanting replacement. We paid a lot of money to be spared the act of scraping our lives’ garbage out the chute, of pulling apart our precious paper, plastic, leather and the sludge that was all three. We paid others for the privilege of denying that it was still ours, every toxic shred.

Between then and now, every visit home is proof of the force of idea and brawn, of change and the stories time tells whether or not we chose to move on or tell them. I see the necessity of relentless choices to keep living if one chooses to keep living. Life and death are noticeable in every layer we pull back, revealing as skins the muscle, viscera, and imagined organs that for 200 years built and rebuilt and hid doors away.

Layer by layer Steve took our house down to the bone cage that held us more tenuously than we suspected. Torn lath released beams ravaged by powder post beetles long gone, spreading pine wood dust that glittered in roofless light until air passed through what was left like wind in a leafless forest.

In paring down we have found only more: doors, windows, questions. What remains are clues with just enough evidence to tell how  and where but not enough to tell a story. We are challenged to reinvent theirs and humbled by our own perceived intensity. I dream about the men whose muscle and purpose and desire wielded the axe that left the scars on wood wrought from northeastern forest, taken as payment for having come.

And hopefully, despite brevity, we continue to reach for our own relevance and reward, to find then open our own hidden windows and doors. This one to the kitchen now boarded behind clapboard, this wall that was once your floor in its seven coats of paint, this narrow slip of a door that opened from a loft onto the barn, from this cedar-shake side that was once your back yard; even from our front there is still a view on to the road that has disappeared into a field now fence.

So like this was pulling photographs from burnt eves to set them on the lawn and reorder the parts. How now might we reconfigure these rooms, the sequence of events? I have retouched the hair line, made you see more of my thigh, less from behind. My hair is pulled back, the foyer extended. You raised the roof and gave me more air, more light with those dormers, and my back receives you through a new door that gives on to the lawn that once held roses. The peonies of two generations past lie dormant in the onset of winter as demolition gives way to design, to that brief moment when before birth, between chaos and high temper, time seems to stand still.


Stuff about writing

Our house fire in April while devastating also freed me to consider how I think about our stuff. Initially the force that propelled us onto the cold grass that dark morning seemed to take with it any creative impulse I had to continue living as we had before. For 3 months I couldn’t write, garden, cook, dance, engage fully with friends or family. The stasis shifted when after many conversations, open handed community support, and therapeutic care a friend urged me to start writing again.

I have loved to write about stuff since I learned how. It may have had something to do with that big smiley face penned on the front page of my first blue book story, about a panda, but until grad school when I read lots of essays about what motivates people to write, I didn’t consider why it matters to me. A Google search reveals hundreds of reasons, among them Orwell’s famous “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.” There is even a pie chart on the subject:


Rather than rehash the text I’ll attempt to record the thoughts that keep surfacing as we face loss, fear, displacement, gratitude for survival, and restoration. My curiosity about how this feeds the writer in me leads to new attachments, to words about my experience of writing, creative energy, and the courage or maybe faith it takes to let it go.

Since smiley faced feedback from teachers I learned that writing can bring affirmation and more, a profound sense of power (sheer egoism): of having materialized the unformed energy of the body/mind: memories, ideas, dreams, nightmares. Having written is always a relief, an offloading of stuff cluttering my internal spaces, the outcome of which is often perspective and renewed hope in ordered chaos. The process of writing can be ecstatic, a release as in the opening of a flood gate, and it can be tight as a lock, as when writing for deadline, a grade, or when evaluating how it sounds and whether or not it is any “good.” “Good” meaning publishable and more, that it sings or flows, is so much more than the sum total of its morphemic selves (aesthetic enthusiasm!).

When teaching about writing I have been known to say that we aspire to tap a vein. This is memorable for middle school students. Of course I’m trying to make the point that expressing one’s self through writing can be at its best like bloodletting (even more memorable), allowing the force of one’s harbored being an unobstructed escape. Succeeding in the confines of language is improbable and perhaps less efficient than dancing, singing, or love making, for example. But like those, it’s still cheaper and easier to do at home than team sports or car racing, only it comes with the risk of spinning into a neverland of magical thinking inside your own mind rather than a breakaway wall. And that’s the challenge. How do you write yourself without losing your grip on reality, or bleeding out?

Which brings me to consider how writing has always been the excellent challenge of my life, used to both archive my world since first grade (historical impulse) and, hopefully, to reveal more than words can, through story (aesthetics again, more earnest than enthusiastic). Which brings me to the conundrum of my life, how to allow, order, and let go of ideas on the page? How to use the mind as a sluice to craft more than to control the flow?

And then, once having written there are choices: to store, to let go, toss off, scrap, or invite others to read, hoping to give something that is worth their time and maybe even inspires (political purpose). In a previous post I wrote a lot about all the stuff I’d saved and stored in our attic, and that the process of sorting and purging post-fire was gut-wrenching as well as enlightening. When opening boxes upon boxes of journals and essays and fragments of ideas I discovered that I horde words as I do things until some day, when they will surely reveal a story better than the one I could have made (alchemy). Problem being, the more tightly I hold on, the less valuable they tend to be. Ever heard advice to a writer to “kill your babies?” (memorable to grad students), meaning delete the words to which you are most attached, for these tend to be fool’s gold, contrived stuff that leads readers to see the wizard behind the curtain. It is through destruction sometimes that prose has its best chance at survival, of being free.

Destruction and perhaps daring to share, to expose, unwrap, and give away. Hiding my stuff has to do with control, fear of judgment, a desire to safely spin forever in that neverland, which makes the act of offering up my creations feel courageous. In truth, it is necessity. I’ve been piling and shelving and boxing those scraps and journals, even a novel, protecting words in bins like the objects I was recently forced to reconfigure on our lawn. Having seen what happens when you don’t spend or give it away, don’t keep the words moving more like the energy that inspires them than the end product doomed to gather dust, or burn, I realized that sharing while scary is what keeps me grounded. It also completes the creative act and encourages me to privilege the energy that creates over the created, with all the promise of being born. Is publishing then more possessing or letting go? The sweet spot of creating seems to be when I am open to both, at the same time.

The fire allowed me to reframe my narrative and reconsider its future. The energy it took to derail us initially stunned me to silence, and I wanted nothing but to be with my children, stare out the window, sit in the sun. I forced myself to water the garden, harvest, later to cook, purge the contents of our home. Through the generosity of friends I write, connect by tangibly expressing feelings and thoughts and the illusion of a control that I never had. With appreciation for the energy of destruction and creation, for what we lost and didn’t lose and are recovering through the momentum of the living, I invent meaning from the burn pile and omnipresent fear that it can all be taken. With each sentence I am building the courage it takes to keep moving the words, pushing them to fledge even as they settle on the page.

Emptying the house

Damaged OutIn the aftermath of our late April fire we emptied the entire contents of our home. The excellent cleaning and restoration crew, First Service, for nearly 8 weeks photographed and bar coded every object we’d acquired, from the basement up. Unsalvageables were put in black plastic bags by the dumpster in our front yard for us to review and recover or toss. Anything that First Service deemed more expensive to restore than replace was trash. The rest was placed in brown cardboard boxes and taken to their facility for cleaning, after which items will go in white boxes labeled by room to be stored until we are ready for them.

These weeks of both facing the visceral proof of fire and the accounting of our lives through our belongings lent coming home a special kind of pain, with its burn and stale water odors, a film coating every book, decisions to be made: dump or salvage. Our son Kolter noticed how at first we were drawn to the house almost every day, as if not sure the fire had been real. “It’s like ripping off a bandaid,” he said, and every time it gets a little easier. Eventually he just stopped wanting to come, wound healing over. Why there is pleasure in it makes me wonder about how reaffirming our stuff seems to be: Mine. We had developed an attachment to what was ours, and now, to what happened to us, already claiming even this scary part of our story.

The task of sorting a single room can hold the intensity of a life event, something you would approach on a good day with a lot of courage and be done with in one fell swoop,  ready to recover with a hot bath or a dirty martini. But what was left of our house  persisted, oily residue on my hands, the whiff of the destroyed. I was good for about two hours at a stretch and often needed tough love friends to direct me to let go.

Deciding to damage out an item was easiest when for example photographs or camera equipment was fused, scorched, sodden, or shrouded with mold. More difficult were the merely contaminated cards and books and files, shoes and stuffed animals or building blocks. 20150425_103031We worked from the kitchen up, replaceable knives and fridge magnets to burned bedsheets; clothes; and toys; the gerbils’ cage and the life inside, gone; books upon books as we ascended the stairs through bedrooms to my attic/office, command central for my life of the mind, where I faced sadness blooming from ragged holes between floors and soot and more, from what might have been lost but wasn’t. I couldn’t see the full scope of damage for many visits, each one allowing for another loss to fill in what seemed like a gap in memory, a dissociation that initially served me well.

Purging the contents of our home had been on my list. Friends of ours have been doing it since their youngest left for college. I’ve asked plaintively for help. My lament is that I cannot throw things away, that the act of opening a box releases memories in all five senses that envelop me, sometimes inspiring often paralyzing, awakening unarticulated emotions of longing, love, joy, loss, rage, sadness. Instead of making choices to unload, I tend to revel in the cocktail of ethers leading to places not useful in daily life, the sand dollar from a beach where I lay my head on my father’s chest and listened to his heart beating, holding on to that rhythm, his warmth, his allowing me to be so near.

It isn’t a secret that we had had trouble managing the stuff that seems to enter houses under cover of night and camp out on surfaces, somehow out of reach of racing time. I had uncannily said more than once aloud that I wish I could empty everything onto the lawn and return only that which I want. I’d lost control of stuff, our compact 1780s rooms cluttered with CDs, photos, mail, fossils, artwork, flyers, money, Magic cards, coupons, plastic tokens, and balls; shelves rimmed in dust.

20150425_103109The attic, the largest room in the house in which my husband, Steve, crafted my office, sheltered my computer, files, academic texts (gender, feminism, lit crit, fairy tale, dance, dystopia), poetry, childhood books, dvds … an intellectual record of my interests … and became the staging ground for the contents of two eaves the length of the house that kept from daily sight Christmas ornaments and wrapping; air conditioners; artwork and school papers; magazines documenting 9/11; Great Aunt Lilie’s recipes, lace, and newspapers, including the front page announcement of President Lincoln’s assassination; maps; brochures; picture frames; coasters; notes; collections of buttons, seashells, coins, and stamps; writing fro20150425_103153m the year I learned how through published essays; books; post cards; letters from boys and men, lovers and abusers, friends and family; my father’s files on my parents’ divorce. Some say to keep only that which brings joy but this seems a deception, an elision of truth that numbs my sense of having lived fully, and of having won.

One eave burned for about 4 hours, torching tax returns and most of the autodrivermobile racing items that Steve had accumulated during a lifetime of professional racing, from caps and jackets to shirts, trophies, and articles, some of which he’d hoped to sell. There were photos and journals of his childhood kept by the family housekeeper for many years but Steve has held onto very little of nostalgic interest for its own sake: photos, car art, setup sheets, all proof of his reign at the Indy Motor Speedway, of his escape from Duluth.

Deeper into the eave, plastic bins melted and consumed their contents or protected them, such as a delicate coned paper ornament, a gift from my mother when I was in grade school.20150714_155113 Lifting a box from spore-filled water in which soaked our sons’ baby clothes I recovered my great aunt Lilie’s silver, a motley mix of spoons and forks, bread knife and gravy ladles that fell into my hands as cardboard gave way. In the other eave were journals begun at age 7, pointe shoes, my mother’s dolls, playbills, blue books and workbooks, passport, plaster hand prints, and a father’s day card that describes my daddy as “gentel.” The attic in short housed a record of every phase of my and our children’s lives, clues to lives before ours, and proof of Steve’s intelligence, hard work, and passion, most of which burned or absorbed shadows of smoke and 45 minutes of fire hose water.

20150624_133800Everything in the eave that didn’t burn was carried downstairs to the living room, where I began an archeological dig through my life, memories reaching from inside each box like the flames that released them. Taken together from babyhood every item leads inevitably to the person I have become, the person who survived, who achieved her childhood goals of being a writer and a teacher, begging the question, If I am the living product, proof of energy created by interaction with these objects and the people who made them, why hold on?

20150629_115151To look at the object is to remember. That’s all it is. And what’s the point of that other than it feels like coming home. It feels like living yet lies in intangible thoughts of the past. Maybe most of what we are is memory and we reanimate through these things, more equipped to move fluidly between worlds, the objects as conduits for the stories of our lives, a pathway in.

So when it comes to actually throwing away these keys to another world, I often cannot do it. I keep asking why, so engaged as I am in living, do I resist tossing these tangible parts of my past, anything that still releases through smell, texture, pattern a flurry of moving images always waiting in the recesses of my mind?

When my mother and stepfather sold the house I grew up in I packed away every precious thing as if to take each vitrified moment with me, wrapping them in paper towels, laying all to rest in harmony within sturdy boxes. I perhaps believed that one day, if kept safe, they might restore me to a better time, or that without them I was less tethered. It may have been my way of recording dreams, so that they would never be lost. Our objects seem to perform a service, to invite questions and observations that can reveal more than the evidence as it was carefully selected in increments over so much time.

The desire to archive the markers of my life was it seems to me now always present, as important as the objects themselves if not more so. I don’t know why. My brothers claimed it was conceit when they read my diaries, each page marked with my full name and date. Maybe it’s our culture of consumerism, the promise that stuff will fulfill and reveal ourselves to us, or was it the hope that I could later prove that I lived, that I was visible, that I was here? Kilroy. The girl who wrote about love all the time, championing the power of love in crayon on a leather suitcase, on cards to mom and dad, on buttons and T-shirts and plaques.20150425_081909

It has seemed that as long as all of these things are safely ensconced, if I could count and sort and name them I would experience wealth, sit on a treasure to counter childhood deprivation or brevity, the rationing of kindness, the changes that forced themselves upon me with an impartial eye. How does one spend one’s memories, one’s life, after it has been lived? How do we reap the benefits of a life observed and recorded so very well? Again, the dividend seems to be the reification of life once lived, the magic of having once been as seen through the eyes of one who is still becoming.

A friend packed away her childhood things, she remembers, for her future self. We keep the objects like a breadcrumb path to redemption, she says, that will lead us to our whole selves, explaining all. They are precious, possess a “luminous quality because we invest them with metaphorical significance, narrative significance. Writers, artists, are un-materialistic, but we invest great meaning in the material.” This is our richness, our legacy. So what meaning do I make of these things?

Am I piecing together and preserving a chronological narrative? If so, why, and for whom?

What happens if some of these items in the narrative are lost or reordered? Will a part of my story be lost?

And if a part of my story is lost, will a part of me be lost?

In this pbs article: the word “continuity” jumped out: “objects that connect us to events provide us with a sense of our continuity.”

Proof of our being. Longevity, history. Legacy. I presumed to save these things for my children, imagined as daughters interested in claiming their pasts. As I had been the archivist of my family tree, hungry to own our tales, to find connection where detachment prevailed, so would they be interested in revelation. But the detritus in boxes means little if anything to my actual sons, who are so beautifully connected to the now, to shifts in light and flight of birds, to how we affect them from moment to moment: Will we be there or not? Will we see? Will we allow or deny, forgive or ignore?

There was a sense that if I just aligned all these things, set them out in order, dusted them off, that they would reveal something precious, something longed for and meaningful that I’ve needed nearly my whole life, something taken away. It feels like heaven will open up through the keys to this secret garden and I will be transformed, or the story will be other than I have remembered it. If I string them together in just the right way, meaning will speak through them, altered by the ephemeral nature of thought and feeling. I will have changed the material into the immaterial and thereby achieve something else to hold onto, weave a special magic by naming in sequence the unnamed.

I imagine that these old things will in time reveal more about me than I can decipher: the real me, the me who has silently harbored songs. From childhood on, I was quietly collecting things that would some day reveal more than I knew how to, convey more meaning than the objects themselves. I invested them with consciousness, with symbolism and messages about myself and how I understood the world. To jettison any piece of the puzzle is to lose hold of some greater being, some answer to the riddle I cannot or could not in childhood fathom without them.

My job then, in the someday future, is apparently to make sense of things in writing, or in telling, to translate the alchemy of becoming. The purpose is to complete the missing, to voice the unvoiced. The things are my silence beneath the events that led me to acquire them. They must be uncovered to release the lock on the saving, decrease the gap between my interior life—rich, dark, hyper stimulated, hungry, demanding, exhausting, impatient, judgmental, fearful, ecstatic—and the world outside myself, give voice to the memory as bridge to the actual, collapsing the distance between object and emotion. This alone would be magic, but there seems to be more available to us through our things, a synthesis that lies outside the rational ordering of our lives. More than reveal and narrate, things, once they have become immaterial, are free to reconstitute, transform.

Fire compromised my easy, seductive belief in revelation and meaning-making by chronological reportage, purified in the sense of obliterating neatly labeled compartments, forcing detachment. Or is it attachment, for objects also help me to remain attached, assist a poor memory like of toddlerhood where when the doll is taken away she ceases to exist. Memes, worn and familiar reminders of love and ambition, of learning and loss. I didn’t have to have a voice if these objects spoke for me, their swirl of perfume urging me to feel.

Fire disoriented by wiping away the linear, of meaning as understood by telling a narrative of the past. Fire urgently broke my story open, emptied the contents onto the lawn in no particular order. Photographs, baby clothes, crystal decanters ceased to remain in their coffins, fled, melted boundaries, reconfigured into spores, carbon, and air, new layers to line shelves. Is it possible then, that the inert objects I’ve so carefully saved will now change the outcome of the past, the trajectory of the future?

Cut the cord, the rope connecting the self and the chosen object. I lay out the leaves, I take pictures to save in their absence. I go through the motions of separating and attaching myself from and to each one. I revisit the time and place now reconfigured, connections between them newly acquired. Multiple stories unfold from a small collection of books now fuming. My mind races to see as much as I can before damaging out the leaves. Can new poetry arise from this?

20150723_150136I find that I am called upon to reframe all that was, make new sense of it, see it from alternate perspectives as each piece falls helter skelter into my hands, raked from the burn pile, torn and curled. Assembling fragments of x-rays and photos on the lawn I set them at new angles, a breast against the bones of my foot. My body is no longer known; it is separated and reformed as through eyes less reliant on physical time. Handling the material, I don’t know what I will find but the process is motion. Because we are alive here and now we make room for more, we organize. All is shifting contents, though, none of it stabilizing for long. I delve more deeply into compromised boxes, the writing faded: Once I’d thought that saving was preservation and now look, it’s only the affirmation that we don’t last. I’m sickened by the process, by not wanting to let go of that which is gone.

Except for this: Living fully means allowing oneself to feel, and objects can help us feel. In a culture that values acquisition, that promotes speed and isolation, the act of remembering prompted by a ring, a sea shell, a card can bring us closer to ourselves and so to others, connecting our hearts and our minds. If we allow it we day dream, we learn more than we remember, know more than we can make sense of. We smell the first daffodil, hear lyrics long forgotten, and sing. If set free, memory can change the past as well as the now, will invite us to see more, to f20150723_150356eel our own hearts beating.20150723_150902

Why our house caught on fire

Still Standing

The practical and non-metaphorical* reasons our house caught on fire.

* While I usually think that the cause of events lies beyond the physical, earth-bound rules of reason, probably more true is that we are wired to assign meaning after the fact; we make connections, we see patterns, and our story grows beyond the personal, maybe even reaches the universal: a story more colorful for it.

Understanding the objective causes of the fire helps me to recover a sense of control. Writing stitches together what was torn, helps with the work of mending.

Since our fire of April 25, I’ve needed to explain many times the practical, physical matter of how it began, not only for the people who want to know but to try to solidify for myself that it did happen, that human error was involved, that life is uncertain and sometimes unsafe, and that we all survived. These thoughts occur in sequence and seem inseparable.

So, it goes like this: My husband, Steve, procured this kickass wood burning stove four years ago from a Craig’s List guy who’d overheated and cracked the interior. This is the mother ship of wood burning stoves. No Irish parlor stove meant to coax a tale or song or two, this tank sports a catalytic converter that efficiently altered our lifestyle from the first burning log. Once Steve restored and painted it a soulful blue to match the quasi Van Gogh, quasi Karl Larsson tour of Sweden living room decor, built a piece of flooring and backsplash using handmade tile from the Moravian tile works, and assembled a triple wall external steel chimney enclosed in a box, our living room became the heart of our home, a gathering place during and after dinner where we communed in warmth, watched movies, played and argued through board games, worked, and occasionally made food, as when Sandy caused the electricity to go out for several days.

At first the fierce rolling heat of the stove was scary; a furnace of that caliber in plain sight was threatening and we were careful to put it out at night or when we left the house. Assured by its efficiency, the joy it brought, and Steve’s skill we grew more confident in the stove’s behavior and predictability. We adopted ways by feeding it the right wood (ash) and adjusting the air intake just so to keep it burning round the clock if necessary.

The winter of 2014-15, like the one before was bitterly cold for many days. We ate through wood and snow seemed it would last well into spring. April 24 was the last cold night, the last frost date I’m sure. We had all been to the Science Fair at Julien’s school. Knowing that our friend Mary and her son, Steve’s 15-year-old godson, Cobi, would arrive later, I asked Steve to make a fire, the last one we hoped. We’d built a fire a few weeks earlier, the last one we’d hoped. When we got home around 9pm, the living room was beginning to feel cozy. Mary and Cobi pulled in, we talked, watched Dr. Who, and went to bed at midnight, Cobi in Julien’s room above the living room, Mary in Kolter’s room opposite, Julien and the dog in bed with us also upstairs, and Kolter in the living room on a couch a few feet from the stove.

Steve closed the damper all the way to let the fire go out overnight, and we went to bed. A few things haunt me. The worst is that at some point I woke up and smelled something but lay in bed thinking about the familiar smell, like the interior stove pipe and paint when it heats up if the damper is left open. I’ve rushed downstairs because of that smell, and it has never meant unintended fire. Tired, and a little lazy, I hoped Steve would notice and get up. A little while later I woke up again because I was very hot and the smell seemed a little worse. I lay there evaluating whether it really was. My nights are frequently interrupted: busyness, lack of exercise, menopause. I’d awoken prior to this one overly hot, and I was tired. I heard nothing. I did not smell smoke, only hot metal and paint that would surely go away. I didn’t grasp that it wasn’t logical that the stove fire was still burning by then; we hadn’t fed it. Even if Steve hadn’t damped it down, there wasn’t enough wood in there to burn for that long. Almost annoyed but not enough to do anything about it, I turned over and went back to sleep, never doubting that we were safe. I have an excellent sense of smell. Why didn’t I pay more attention, trust it? I can’t reckon with the inertia.

When the smoke detector went off at 3:45am, Steve and I awoke from a dead sleep. He jumped out of bed and flew down the stairs while I lay still, vigilant, until the tension cracked open with his voice: “Oh, Shit! Everyone out of the house. Out of the house.” I rustled Julien and told him to move. Our dog, Honey Bear, followed. While they were descending the stairs in front of me, I turned back to make sure Cobi and Mary were awake. Cobi stood in the hall between the bathroom and Julien’s room. In the moment I didn’t realize that he seemed hazy not just because he didn’t look awake but because the bedroom and hall were filling with smoke. “You’ve got to get out,” I told him when he half turned toward the bedroom. I waited for Mary to start moving from the bedroom doorway where she stood. When everyone was in front of me I followed them down. There was no smoke on the lower floor. Looking to my right on my way out through the kitchen, I paused in the hallway to watch Steve staring at the wall behind the wood burning stove, where there crowned an unfamiliar halo of light: a golden burning ring on the other side of the wall. Kolter crossed the room carrying a pan of water to the stove, and I directed him to get out. Steve followed, then ran to the yard for the hose. Policemen arrived within seconds of his 911 call.

The cold grass motivated me to go back inside for coats, though I forgot shoes, or it seemed they would take too much time. I put everyone in the Prius in the driveway and started the heat. An officer advised me to park on the street, which had been closed off. While police poured in, we waited a half hour for the six volunteer fire departments to show with two ladder rigs. It seemed to take forever of course, waiting for water. I didn’t know until later, when I saw Steve crossing the yard holding something wrapped in a towel, that before the rigs arrived he had run back inside first to recover Zilla, Kolter’s bearded dragon, and Libreg and Cipe, Julien’s gerbils (both casualties). His second trip was for his backup drives and my hard drive, for which he had to go to my attic office, smoke-filled by then. Holding his breath he felt his way to my computer and ripped the cords out of the wall.

Why the fire? The exterior triple-wall steel chimney had a trap with a removable galvanized cap for cleaning. Steve had removed the cap in November or December to clean out the chimney and put it back with what he recalls as enough force to stick it good. Earlier in the season he’d removed a screen at the top of the chimney intended to prevent animals and such from getting in, because at times the screen filled with debris and prevented the chimney from drawing well. He confirmed its removal with someone in the chimney business.

When we went to bed that night the fire soon went out. We know this because there are still unburned logs in the stove. Sometime since the last time we burned, the galvanized plug in the trap had rotted enough to fall out, possibly assisted by the weight of rain water from recent storms. Sparks that would normally rise up the chimney fell into the bottom of the chimney enclosure outside the house and ignited a fire in the enclosure, which, aided by unobstructed air through the trap, led to a chimney fire. The extreme heat from the chimney fire ignited the exterior walls and rushed up to the attic and across the length of the house through the eave, sucking up oxygen. It helps me to think that my inertia earlier in the morning might have been in part because of fumes pulling us toward sleep. We later learned that 15-year-old Cobi, asleep in Julien’s room above the wood stove, had awoken at 2am because he smelled something. When he went downstairs to check he found nothing but Kolter asleep on the couch, so returned to bed. The fire likely started while we were still downstairs talking, then burned for four hours inside the walls and attic before the detectors went off. I still wonder if all of them were working.

Mary, Cobi, Kolter, Julien, and I sat in the car parked in the street, keeping warm. I was restless and didn’t stay for long. Neighbors came from their houses to offer water, kindness. The Perkins invited us inside, where the boys were relieved to watch more Dr. Who and Mary fell asleep. After giving contact info to the police and fire marshal I borrowed a hat and scarf, compelled to get back outside, to the shadows of the street, apart and a part of our now publicized, 2-alarm fire. When I couldn’t find Steve I asked around and a fire fighter pointed him out for me as he emerged from the front yard, darkness backlit by red trucks and white lights. A line of smoke rose from the length of the roof. Steve seemed small, fearful maybe. I put my arms around him and am forever grateful to have said, “This is not your fault.” He leaned into that, relieved.

I stood for a long time as the sun rose on the black scar that revealed our house was burned but still standing. When the fire marshal found me he said that if it had been new construction the whole thing would have gone down in an hour. 18th-century brick insulation, thick wood beams, post and beam rather than balloon construction, and 1950s asbestos tile saved us from unimagineable loss. The marshal then relayed that while the structure was sound, we wouldn’t be living in our house for awhile. In the part of my brain that was working to shield me from the present, I assumed we’d be cleaning all day, getting ready to sleep there again. “PSEG pulled the box,” he said, to reinforce what was. “You won’t be able to move back in until you get a CO.” He watched me as he spoke and then asked if we had a good network of friends, people we could count on in the days to come. I looked at him and thought about how relevant that question must be. He told me that he’d called friends of ours that he happened to know and trust, Glen Carlton and Lynn Taska, and that they would be here soon, then asked how my husband would fare. Not good, I said; he’ll blame himself.

As the sky brightened, he nodded and suggested we go inside for the first time. Our red front hall was marked with black watery handprints; ash and wet plaster smeared glass and pumpkin pine flooring. A camera bag, shoes, and books had been knocked off a shelf as the fire hose was threaded up the stairs. Water streamed from ceilings that hung down in places, dropping small chunks of plaster. Steve walked in from the kitchen side. Char and smoke was raw in the air. The three of us stood close in the dark, damp hall. “Don’t for a minute blame yourself, this is not your fault,” the marshal told Steve, whose eyes filled with tears.

Hello world! Why I am starting a blog

Our house fire in the early hours of April 25 has spored questions and feelings that have outpaced my ability to express let alone understand. I ignore or address them in my mind, in text, and through the conversations so generously begun with friends in the many familiar places of our minds. I force myself to write since I feel no impulse for it, even though I know it helps me. When I do, I am sometimes moved to write in the way I learned, journaling in cursive on good paper, or by tapping out texts, e-mail, Facebook comments, or Word documents. Constantly undecided about where and how best to process, not trusting flammable paper, hard drives, flash drives, or servers that act like clouds; not sure how to move through the wreckage to the other side, I’ve herewith begun my first blog. While it, too, is destructible, the chance that some message or question could alight in another and cause a conversation to grow seems worth the risk, and more durable. Perhaps a blog is, too, a good place to keep track of the sequence, the questions, the insights, while sharing. My goal then is to write to connect, as one of the best outcomes of the fire has been to see revealed the connections I actually have, felt and visible or not.

We suspect that the older we get the faster time moves. One of the ways I’m most lost in living is writing. Thank you Mira DeMartino for reminding me of this. So let’s live.