Yesterday, I read a Private Lives piece on the New York Times website, titled “What Would You Grab in a Fire?” In it, the author, Megan Stielstra, tells the story of her 3-flat apartment building catching on fire. From the moment their neighbor pounds on their door, they have just a few minutes to consider what they’re leaving with. She tells her husband she’s going to get their 6-year-old son, and he says, “Great. I’ll grab some stuff and meet you in the car.”
Here’s what she wrote about her reaction.
I remember thinking, stuff? What stuff? How do you decide, the clock ticking? Years earlier, I’d made a list of the things I’d grab in a fire: Books. Photos. Art. Back then, objects were sacred; not people. Back then, I hadn’t experienced loss. The question isn’t, What would you grab in a fire? It’s, What has meaning in our lives?
On her way to her son’s room in the back of the apartment, Stielstra pulls on her pants (which she’d just taken off), puts her toothbrush and moisturizer in her pockets, and grabs a hunting knife her father had given her when she’d first started living alone. In that time, her husband grabs their laptops, hard drives and iPads, which is good because although Stielstra’s novel-in-progress is on her laptop, it hadn’t occurred to her to grab it. “What occurred to me was pants, “she writes.”Toiletries. Knife. Kid.” (Though not in that order. Kid was definitely first, just to be clear.)
I was so touched by her story, by the things she grabbed and the things she didn’t, by her husband’s presence of mind and how different it was from her own.
A few months after my husband and I got married, on Thanksgiving morning, we awoke to find our U-Haul moving van – loaded with everything we owned but some pillows, blankets and the clothes on our back – had been stolen during the night. A few days later, the police recovered the van outside the city dump, empty.
It was strange to have the material part of our lives erased so suddenly. It’s not like anything else. When it happened, well-meaning people tried to comfort me with stories about how their car or houses had been broken into. I didn’t tell them about how that wasn’t the same, how thieves are selective about what they steal, but this was everything we owned. I never felt like anyone got it until one day when a co-worker told me about her house burning down, every piece of furniture, every saved treasure, every photo album, every article of clothing. Every everything, gone. Her story was worse than mine, of course; we still had our brand new empty condo, a fact I was more grateful for after hearing her story. But we did understand each other’s loss, the bewildering bigness of it, and also the weird sort of smallness. In the end, it’s “stuff,” after all, no matter how irreplaceable.
That was strange for me, hard to process, the big and the small of it. It was during that time that I learned there is a confusing place inside me, inside all of us, where grief and gratitude can sometimes collide.
But the thing I’ve never experienced is that few minutes that Megan Stielstra writes about in her piece, those precious few minutes when you try to focus your racing mind on “what has meaning in your life.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot. After my people and my dog, what would I grab? My glasses; I can’t make art without them. My cellphone. My pants, I think, if I weren’t wearing any. (Though he too was in his underwear, Stielstra’s husband didn’t worry about pants, a fact that impresses me, though I don’t know why exactly).
I think the question is a fascinating one. I think our answers probably say a lot about each of us, or maybe nothing at all because what we think we’d grab and what we’d actually grab aren’t the same thing. In any case, I’m interested in your answers to the question. What would you grab in a fire? And have you ever been in that situation? If so, how did you decide?
I think it would be really cool to take all our answers and doodle them into a collage-y representation of “What Matters Most To Us Because These Are The Things We’d Rescue From The Fire.” It would look like this, except, you know, with more than just my cell phone on it. It would have all our stuff in it.
If you think a doodly collage would be really cool too, be sure to comment.
In other news, I’m so delighted and impressed by the responses I’ve been getting from people who are doing the 52 Weeks, 52 Ways to Love Your (wild) Self project with me. If you want to play, it’s not too late to get the e-guide and join us. It’s $15 in the shop, and for the rest of this month, you can use the code LOVEYOURWILDSELF to save 10% on the guide and everything else in the shop. Buying the guide automatically adds you to the 52-52 mailing list. We’d love to have you with us!