Yesterday was a beautiful and sunny day here in Oakland ~ I ran some errands with a friend, surviving a Saturday stroll through IKEA to help him pick out a few furnishings for his new apartment ~~ to endure the IKEA experience, we kept quoting our favorite lines from one of our favorite movies, Fight Club:
The things you own end up owning you.
Tyler: Do you know what a "duvet" is?
Jack: It's a comforter....
Tyler: It's a blanket, just a blanket.
Now why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is?
Is this essential to our survival?
Fuck Martha Stewart. Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic.
It's all going down, man.
IKEA is only part of yesterday's equation, though. I got home at 5 pm and sat at my desk to check email (...the things you own end up owning you...); my windows face West and so the sun was low in the sky, streaming in through the curtains ~ but this huge black cloud seemed to pass over the sun, blocking out the light ~ and the third time it happened, I looked out to see the apartment building behind mine on fire, and suddenly I noticed all the fire engine sirens which had a moment ago just been background noise I was ignoring. At first, the clouds of smoke didn't appear so large, so I figured, well the firefighters are here, it's under control. Then suddenly, the clouds of smoke were huge, black, pungent, and filling the air ~~ so I watched as three or four firefighters climbed up on the roof.
I haven't been this close to a home burning down since I was 14....when my family's house burned to the ground, everything lost, on Christmas Eve. The smell of the air yesterday and the sight of black clouds darkening the blue sky stirred this eerie memory in me; and so I stood on my balcony and watched, unable to walk back inside and forget the fact that right in front of me someone's home was being lost. And then I heard a woman crying and shouting.....I thought it was a tenant maybe, down on the street ... but I looked across the way and saw that she was trapped on the top floor corner apartment, pressing her face to the window screen, shouting for help. The firefighters on the roof couldn't hear her because of the noise from the sirens and fire, and because they were in the middle of the roof, several yards from her corner apartment. It was awful ~ she looked right at me, shouting for help and crying, as the black smoke billowed out of every window ~~ faster and larger and darker. People on the street and I started shouting to the firemen and pointing to where the woman was trapped ~~ and I watched as one fireman walked over on the roof in the direction of the woman's apartment. With complete calm, and keeping his eye on the area where the woman was trapped, he said, "We have a rescue situation over here, guys." I mean, he was amazing ~~ utterly calm. The fire crew put up a ladder on the side of the building and a fireman climbed into the apartment to help the woman get out through the part of the building which, although filled with thick smoke, was not yet in flames.
I grabbed my keys and walked around the block to go to the front of the building. Five huge fire engines filled the block, massive water hoses snaked up the hill, TV crews were arriving, and several police cars were zig-zagged on the street. I watched the growing crowd of neighbors watching, and recognized the expression on each face, each thinking two things: (1) Damn I'm glad that's not my apartment; (2) God, that could have been my apartment. When I was 14, I sat in a neighbor's house across the street from my family home and watched my neighbors watch my house burn down, with that same expression. I hadn't been this close to a burning building since then and part of me wanted to turn around and go back home yesterday ~~ to turn away, like many of us want to, from something so painful to watch, and feel, and remember. But I stayed, and watched the fire ~~ within 7-8 minutes it was huge ~ we could feel the heat down the street and the apartment where the fire started was literally gone within 10 minutes. I wondered why the firefighters weren't yet spraying water into the burning apartment ~ instead they were pouring water on the neighboring house and on the light pole right in front of the burning apartment, which was on the top floor. The sight was amazing. The sky was cloudless and a calm blue, the fire ladder was sticking straight up, extending as high as the light pole, the violent orange flames were kicking and screaming as part of the roof started caving in, and as the water shot up onto the light pole, a bright rainbow formed around the entire scene.
I finally realized that the firefighters were waiting for the fire to die down in that apartment, which it began doing once everything inside was completely destroyed ~ they were simply containing the fire to one spot and then controlling it to go in and fight it once it died down. The fire crew began shooting intense streams of water into the apartment from all sides and for a minute we all thought it was under control. But then something "popped" in the apartment underneath and within seconds that one was engulfed in flames, too. Gawd, all the noise! The firefighters had a chainsaw and axes; the sound of water rushing down the street and parts of the roof hitting the ground added to the controlled chaos. A woman next to me was on her cell phone, telling her father-in-law on the phone, "it seems to be under control, your apartment looks ok...." and then calling him back to say, "no, it spread, your apartment is on fire." I watched the firemen go into what remained off the first torched apartment and begin tearing down the roof above them ~~ chunks of debris, still in flames, were crashing down all around the firemen ~ we all watched in awe at what firemen do....and I thought of the taxes I am more than happy to pay to keep our fire houses fully staffed. Within an hour, most of the fire was controlled and contained to one corner of the building, although you could see that smoke and water had caused heavy damage to the entire building. The smell of water-soaked ashes began filling the air, and I couldn't bear the memory anymore so I walked back home, thinking to myself, "I better get renter's insurance".
On my street, many of the neighbors were out on their balconies, talking to each other, and they asked me if I knew that the electricity was out on our street. It was 6:45 and the sun would be setting soon, so I went to my apartment to get candles and find a flashlight. I thought I should go out, go somewhere and maybe watch a movie while the electricity gets fixed. But, I was pretty shaken up by the sight of that woman clinging to her screen window, shouting and crying. My street was pitch black and silent ~ I live at the top of a hill, on a dead-end street, so the quiet around me is intense sometimes. I decided to stay home and finish reading The Alchemist, surrounded by candles, and with a little flashlight streaming across each word. If you have never read The Alchemist this way, you should try it ~ it's stirring and emotional and intense. I thought about the new stuff my friend had just bought and the reasons he had an empty apartment that he now needed to fill with new "things". And I remembered how my family lost everything (well, material possessions) in that fire when I was 14, on Christmas Eve no less ~ and how I stopped believing in God that night, as I slept on the floor of a relative's home, wearing borrowed pajamas; and how many years it took me to start believing in things again, to start having faith in people ~~ and how often and strongly that faith has been tested. I realized how much like "home" this apartment feels to me ~~ "home" because I know many of my neighbors, there are often people out on their balconies chatting with each other, when my neighbors go out to the store they often call me and ask if I need anything, I have keys to three of my neighbors' homes and everyone knows my telephone number in case they have an emergency, and because the people on the street in front of the fire expressed genuine concern for the neighbors left homeless by that fire.
I thought about the things I have lost. And I went back to reading about Santiago's journey in The Alchemist:
Late that night, after the lights came back on, my Mom called me. She was at a conference in Anaheim and was sad there had not been time for me to fly down and see her over the weekend. Sometimes my conversations with my Mom can be very touching because she gets so damn sappy with me (now you know where I get my sap-factor) ~~ I was a terrible teenager daughter, we clash often; but when I told her about the fire in the neighborhood, well she knew without my describing it how the sight of the fire affected me ~ she soothed me with her words and funny promises of sending me more tamales by FedEx and some HerbaLife protein powder because, as she said, that's the only way she can "nourish me" right now since I am so far away. And we talked briefly and cryptically about the difficult year I have had ~~ not saying too much, just enough to know she still believes in me, even if I don't. And then I went back to re-read part of the story I had just read:
So, I made a chocolate shake from the stuff my mom sent me and I stayed up thinking ~ I walked out on my balcony to look over at the broken windows of the burned apartment building and could smell that unmistakable wet ash. All types of metaphors filled my head ~ if you knew what I have been going through, you could imagine the sensory overload I was experiencing.....and I tried to come up with a plan to master some lessons. It's interesting that when the fire started yesterday, and the clouds blocked out the sun momentarily, I thought it was a solar eclipse (until I realized it was a fire). This month, there will be a partial solar eclipse on the 13th/14th and a total lunar eclipse on the 27th/28th ~~ you know how I am, always seeking out the meaning of everything, the mystery behind omens ~ and I read this, a sappy article about the "spiritual renewal" marked by these eclipses. So, maybe I will incorporate that theme into my master plan ~~ or maybe I will burn some memories, who knows......but I gotta do something.
I think that begins with remembering my family's fire, something I have tried many years to forget, despite the clanging that clouds my memory every time I hear fire engine sirens. My father had designed and built that house from scratch ~ we had moved in only nine months earlier and thought we were "all that" with the "fancy" two-story home, each of the four kids with their own room (finally) and preparing to celebrate a big Christmas with lots of presents. The entire house burned down because that winter, Houston was the coldest it had ever been and the water pipes had frozen ~~ there was no water in the hydrant to fight the fire; all we could do was watch helplessly, waiting only for the damn thing to die on its own. After the fire, being told we'd had no insurance, we moved back to our tiny 3-bedroom/2-bath home (all 6 of us) in the same neighborhood, two streets away. We would drive by the remains of our new/destroyed home, walking around on the foundation, nearly paralyzed with grief over all the hard work my father had just seen go up in flames. But not my Dad; he got right back to work ~~ he drew up another set of blueprints, he saved up money, and he re-built the damn house within a year, right on the same foundation ~~ for my Dad, that thick black smoke that symbolized the destruction of something he created, it didn't choke the life out of him but rather breathed fresh air into his lungs, new life, new perspective. As a "joke" he added a swimming pool in the backyard, "just in case we ever need water again to fight another fire." Besides, he added, the second time around he could re-position doors and cabinets the way he "really wanted them." This time we didn't fill the house with the fancy furniture we'd bought the first time, we had not much money left. So we just filled the house with US ~~ loud and loving and crazy and fighting and shouting sometimes, but a stronger "us" built on the same foundation. Sappy, I know ~ but true; unless you've seen what you think is your life go up in flames, then you can't imagine what I mean here. Like my Dad, I need to draw up another set of blueprints; like my family, I need to reclaim the foundation I thought had crumbled; like my Mom I need to have faith that homemade tamales and love via FedEx are plenty of nourishment.
Anyway, I thought about all that last night on my balcony. And again this morning as the wet-ash-smell lingered in the air. And I guess I'll keep thinking about it until, like Santiago in The Alchemist, I realize the buried treasure is right where I am standing.