The things we'd rescue from the fire

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!


  1. Mary on January 16, 2015 at 2:18 am

    Last fall, before it got cold, the fire alarm went off in the building.It was evening and I was still dressed so I just had to put on shoes. I also grabbed my cellphone and my laptop which I put in my backpack. I believe I also grabbed my keys. Had it been winter, I would have also grabbed my down coat

    It turned out to be a really smokey cooking incident down the hall. We could see it from the lawn. It actually turned out to be a great way to meet the neighbors. We all chatted while waiting for the alarm to be shut off. But, it all reminded me too much about work where monthly fire drills.are run.

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 8:01 am

      Mary, I love the surprise ending of your experience. I can picture everyone out there chatting, some people meeting their neighbors for the first time. I should have written my laptop in the list of things I’d grab. I think I’d remember it. It even has its own backpack. Though, just to be safe, on yesterday’s Lexi walk with Chad, I asked him to please remember it for me if ever this happens and I’m too freaked out to think of it. ; )

  2. Lucy Pollard-Gott on January 16, 2015 at 6:33 am

    J, this post reminds me that your writing draws me in as much as your brilliant art. You find new, deeper ways to tell the story of life–as simple a that! Such as: “a confusing place … where grief and gratitude can sometimes collide.” I’m thinking about my list, but for now, I want to recommend the film Leap Year (with Amy Adams), in which this question “what would you take?” is pivotal to the romantic plot.

  3. j on January 16, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Thank you, Lucy! There are people who’ve only been with me since I’ve been drawing and painting, who don’t think of me as a writer at all. The other day someone wrote to me that they’d read and loved one of my Huffington Post pieces and they hadn’t realized until then I was a writer. I felt a pang of “hey, wait, I actually went to school for writing,” and then I remembered she was complimenting me, so it’s all okay. ; )

    I’ve never seen Leap Year. I like Amy Adams though… and you. So I will find it this weekend! Try to remember to tell me what you’d grab. I’m about to go post on FB, so you can tell me there if it’s easier.

  4. Pam on January 16, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Hmm…I *think* I would grab my purse (which should have my phone in it), my camera with the case that also holds the chips I never get around to erasing, and probably something from the walls–like the shadow box I made with things from my grandma and one of the nice things I have purchased.

    Love your cell phone doodle! Now I’m waiting for the invincibility app, too.

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 11:03 am

      My purse. See? I’m not even under pressure, and I didn’t think of my purse. My cell phone isn’t in my purse when I’m at home and neither are my glasses, but my wallet is, with all the stuff that would be a pain to replace. Good thinking, Pam!

      And thank you for the doodle love. <3

  5. Toni on January 16, 2015 at 8:34 am

    Our dogs, my purse, my phone, my laptop, our cash stash. Not sure what else. It’s all just stuff that can be replaced, I guess. But that’s easier to say when you still have it all. I do have a small box with some jewelry from my mom and grandma, so maybe I’d think about that, but in the craziness, probably not.

    Although, I was in a fire at work once in a very old building, a renovated turn of the century hotel. Before I left I calmly walked all around the office, put the checks away, locked the file cabinets and turned off the equipment and lights and then walked down 17 flights of stairs carrying my bag, coat and boots. I was one of the last people out of the building. I found out later I’d lost my scarf on the way down but someone found it and put it on our office door. Fortunately, there wasn’t too much damage to the building, just a fire in the basement level kitchens that shot smoke up the elevator shaft and caused some issues.

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 11:08 am

      I am DEFINITELY doodling a cash stash!

      I was thinking as I read the NYT piece that the decision about what to grab has a lot to do with how much time you have. I doubt I’d be as calm as you no matter how much time I had, but if I felt I had enough time, I would probably do a better job of deciding. Like, remembering my laptop, for instance. Not sure why that didn’t make my list above!

  6. Karin on January 16, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Fires, burglaries, oh my…
    In college, fire drills were a regular things (or false alarms, depending on whether the coeds were in the kitchen). Only had time to grab the phone and maybe the laptop, though it became such a regular occurrence I didn’t even bother getting out of bed lol.
    (I hope I’m not repeating this story but it seemed appropriate)– A year after college when I moved into a new town for a job, I was robbed. And the audacity of it all almost paralyzed me. Coming home, see the door cracked, thinking NO NO NO NO NO NO…it felt like our home was violated. They stole the electronics of course, the liquor (now come on, if you’re gonna rob me, leave me something to drink it over with), my checkbook, a few pieces of jewelry, an alarm clock (weird), my SS card, and other random personal items. They had enough time to scrawl some crap on my coffeetable and trashed all our clothes everywhere searching for things. They even stole *ahem* certain intimate items which really creeped me out.
    All of this to say I began to be grateful for the things I had taken with me on my trip home that they couldn’t steal (like laptops, my Kindle, my giant 600+ cd collection, my dog..). If anything, these were the things I took with me that were important on some basis to some degree. It wasn’t as if I knew that we were going to be robbed (though looking back, there were definitely signs) but I managed to keep some of the things that were very difficult to replace.
    Of course most importantly, it was great we weren’t home at all for this to be terrorized by whoever came in.
    I’d probably rescue the same type of things, but include my poetry collection and derby gear. (I’ve actually thought about getting a fireproof safe just to put my journals just in case of fire.) In an emergency, we all have different priorities and those priorities change over the years. It might be my poetry journals this year and kids’ precious items in a few years, etc etc.
    Sorry it’s so long. But it’s definitely a topic I’ve thought about a lot!

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 11:13 am

      Yes, that is one difference between a fire and a robbery. At least with a fire, there isn’t that sense of violation. I felt it too after the moving van got stolen. I irrationally pictured the thieves looking through all our pictures and sentimental treasures. Of course, they didn’t care about any of that. The truly important stuff got dumped and they took what they could resell.

      And you’re so right about our focus changing over time. I’d have definitely saved my journals once upon a time. Now, as we all know, I burn them myself, voluntarily. ; )

      I’m so sorry you had to experience that. It’s so disheartening sometimes, what people can do to each other. Big hugs (after the fact).

  7. Cabocalla on January 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I’m in a constant state of zooming in or panning out about myself and life in general. I see metaphor in everything. So, when I read this I thought immediately thought of other “fires.” Fires we feel, but maybe can’t see clearly. The emotional fires. The cultural fires.

    When your home is on fire, it’s impossible to deny. The unseen fires in our lives are something else. Our ignorance and/or denial leaves us vulnerable.

    When does a culture realize its on fire and decide what to save and to let burn?
    When does a life take inventory and choose?

    This is what happens when I think too much. I always think too much.

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Well, I don’t see metaphor in everything (I am weirdly literal for a writer), but I do muse philosophically over… everything. What conversations you and I would have, Cabot.

      I often wonder about cultures and how sometimes (most of the time) our screwed up stuff is so entrenched it seems like we’d have to completely raze society and start over from scratch to fix what’s wrong. Of course, we are humans, so when we got done, we’d have new terrible shit (and, no doubt, a bunch of the old terrible shit) to contend with.

      And then, when that line of thought gets too depressing, I always just decide to work on me. ; )

  8. Chloe on January 16, 2015 at 10:05 am

    A couple of years ago I was eating dinner with my now-husband and casually glanced out the window to see numerous people running down my street, shouting and pointing. Curious, I followed the direction of their points and saw a house a few doors down blazing furiously in the evening light. Sirens started to wail and as I ran out to see if there was anything I could do to help, there was an almighty explosion and the back windows blew out, immediately followed by showers of glass and plumes of thick black smoke. I joined my neighbours on the grassy area to the front of the row of houses and stared for a minute or two, before coming to my senses and checking to make sure people were ok. I found a heavily pregnant woman, and a man with a young boy who was naked apart from a damp towel (he’d snatched his son out of the bath as the house exploded). Turns out these people lived either side of the house on fire. I took them to my house, found clothes for the little boy, made cups of tea and let them make phone-calls to their loved ones. They were there for hours as the firefighters bravely extinguished the flames. The people who lived there lost everything they owned. Sadly it turned out to be arson – the family’s 12 year old son was having some problems and set his sister’s pillow on fire, put it on his mum’s bed and then scarpered. Thankfully no-one was hurt.
    I spent many days afterwards thinking about the fire and what I would try and save if I could.
    The conclusion I came to was…nothing. As long as my husband and my children were ok, I wouldn’t need anything else – we could start again and be ok.
    If I HAD to choose something, it would be my laptop – for the sole reason that all of my photos are on there, and my photos are my memories. They are the only material thing this earth that I would be devastated to lose.
    Great question J – you always make me think x

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Wow, Chloe, that is an amazing story. It’s hard to imagine the heartbreak of not only losing everything, but knowing it was because of someone you love. Lots and lots to process there. It was a lovely thing you did for the father and his boy, in contrast to the people who stole Karin’s stuff and our moving van. Humans are capable of such kindness and such atrocities. We are, as I always say, complicated beings.

      I have pictures on my laptop too that aren’t anywhere else. Oddly, it’s less about them specifically for me. It’s more about how much of my life is in this laptop – all my work in progress, a great deal of my art, the software that helps me run my business, the keyboard on which about half the letter keys no longer show their letters… : )

  9. Nicci on January 16, 2015 at 10:20 am

    J, another lovely piece. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I was recently in a car crash and still reeling from the sheer luck of how I survived that unscathed. I thought about emergency evacuations and the things I’d take. I bought a fireproof box and stuck all of our important papers & items into it, but first making a copy of it all. For me, our identities are the most important things that could be lost–if only so that we can avoid the red tape that comes along with having to prove who we say we are. Photos & artwork have been scanned onto discs or uploaded online, even photos of the tangible things just so we can claim them if they are stolen and proof is required. Then I arranged anything that was sentimental, like all of my kids’ 1st anything near the front door–hopefully that’s the way out when it happens. I feel a little bit more at ease with that in place.

    I’ve always tried to be a minimalist specifically so I could avoid having to worry about what I would take in a fire. It’s true, though, isn’t it, that years & time have compounded all the material things that we have acquired? Let’s take for example, the little jewelry I have. What once may have just been a new & shiny bauble with little significance have now accompanied me through years of countless celebrations, aligned with many memories. If in a pinch, I would totally leave it all behind but to much dismay. Of course, our memories will live on in our minds but some memories are just a little bit richer when you have some piece of it that you can touch or see. But then, again, my dad likes to remind me that we really can’t take any of those “things” with us when we die.

    On a similar but sideways tangent, my car from my accident was declared a “total loss”, so I had to give it up to the salvage yard. I was out of town when I had the accident and by the time insurance gave me the news, I was back home. It was all very disheartening to me. First, I took a deep breath because the damage to my car meant I could have been seriously hurt and wow, thank goodness I wasn’t, or anyone else for that matter. Then, I was very sad because I was losing my car. I felt a little silly, but my car has been with me for the last 7 years. We purchased it just before my oldest son was born, and I don’t know, it just felt like a part of my family. Now, I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Just yesterday, I received the personal contents of my car. It was all very dramatic.

    • j on January 16, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      Wow, Nicci, you are prepared. All of that is so smart, though I can’t quite figure out where to locate physical items in the house since you never know where the fire might start. I guess avoiding the kitchen would be the best idea. Reading the comments I’ve been getting (here and on FB), I definitely think we need to make better use of our cloud storage (as in… actually use it).

      I love that you feel an attachment to your car. Me too. Her name is Lucy. It would make me sad to lose her in the way you lost yours. Hugs!

  10. Nancy on January 16, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Wow, this is provocative! Needless to say I would probably not be able to save anything other than Ko-Ko and hopefully Boo. Getting hold of Boo and getting him in a carrier would probably mean there’d be no time to grab anything else (thankfully, Boo has made some amazing strides lately; he doesn’t automatically race to his spot under the bed as soon as I walk by). Assuming a miracle, and I would still have time, I would grab my purse (it has all kinds of emergency stuff in it that I carry every day and never use), the urn mama’s ashes are in (I’ve lost her once, I wouldn’t want to lose her again), my laptop or ipad, my phone. Then if there was just one or two seconds left, I’d grab my sunglasses. I can see without my glasses, though I can’t read without them….but I have light issues! And, even in a fire, the sun would come out tomorrow…(I’ll stop there).

    Love this. Like Pam, I am waiting for the invincibility app!

    big hugs, xo

    • j on January 17, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      Yay for Boo! (Let’s hope nothing as traumatic as a fire stops his forward progress!) You priorities seem sound, Ko-Ko and Boo, your mom, THEN your devices. Good girl! Your sun coming out tomorrow, relating to your eyes and not the happy hopeful song made me laugh. <3

  11. J. on January 16, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I lost everything in a house fire once. Turns out I found that everything I really needed was not in the house.

    At the risk of my answer coming off as sullen, you just read my disclaimer:

    In the event of a fire, making sure that every person was safely out of the house, I’d come back for my books, and if I can’t get them all out, then we go out together, my books and I.

    One has to draw a line, and that’s mine.

    • j on January 17, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      Going down with your books, huh? That is devotion. I think I’d have to adopt the attitude that I’m supporting authors by rebuying their books!

  12. Vanessa Lowry on January 16, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    My husband, my cats, my laptop. Since my livelihood is based on my laptop, I sincerely hope there is time for that, but the flesh and blood people and pets are first.

    • j on January 17, 2015 at 6:03 pm

      I can’t imagine everyone doesn’t feel the same way about their pets and people. I’m surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how many of us would save our devices next. I guess it makes sense. Our lives and livelihoods are stored on them, but I thought more people would grab their mother’s jewels or their wedding albums or their journals. But hey, we are 21st century beings!

  13. lunajune on January 16, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    three things….1. my hand made guitar…my smart phone is already in my pocket so I’d never have to save it LOL, 2. my laptop & 3. my back pack, because it contains all the little things I’d miss, everything else is just stuff

  14. j on January 17, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    You have a handmade guitar?! Did you make it? That is wonderful! I want to see it (but I’ll draw it as I imagine if you don’t have a picture). Dillon has a partially finished violin he was making, but he stopped when it got to the part where he needed to buy more expensive wood. ; )

    Ah, and your cellphone in you pocket only works if you’re still wearing your clothes. Better keep it next to your backpack when you put on your pjs!

  15. Nourah on January 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I like the idea of this project!
    Hmmm alot of times I think people question this: What would you take with you during a fire?
    Mine would be: iPhone, iPad, documents (passport, etc.) & my handbag which has some essentials~

  16. j on January 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    I like the idea for this project too. As soon as I thought of doing it, I got excited. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I love the contributions so far. Thank you for yours!

  17. Estrella Azul on January 19, 2015 at 5:44 am

    hey, j!
    I like your list. And it’s an interesting thing to think about, things we’d rescue from a fire… I’ve never been through having all my stuff stolen, or house burn down, so I’m not positive that this ideal list would be the what I’d grab, but it’s what I think of right now, spur of the moment (which is how many seconds I’d probably have to decide anyways):

    Pixel kitty, my phone/laptop bag (since it equals to laptop+charger)/tablet/camera, some clothes and footwear (depending on the current dressing situation), my jewelry case (cause I have quite a few gift earrings and bracelets from friends in there) and some books (The Fault in Our Stars at the least), and my bag.
    (And hope the BF would remember the rest!)

    Truth is, I put sooo much sentimental value in my belongings (yes, even mugs and clothes and refrigerator magnets), that I think I’d seriously suffer if I lost everything I own!

  18. Something Good | A Thousand Shades of Gray on January 19, 2015 at 5:52 am

    […] The things we’d rescue from the fire from Judy Clement Wall. The New York Times piece Judy links to is also worth reading, What Would […]

  19. j on January 19, 2015 at 7:25 am

    Your phone/laptop bag sounds like an emergency exit bag! It has everything. I think we all need a bag like that. Also, super smart to change the clothes in the bag (or at least the footwear) to match the season. I’m impressed. I can barely do that each day. ; )

    I think most people attach quite a bit of sentimental value to their belongings. I’ve even done it over the years since the moving van got stolen, though I think (hope) less than most people. It’s painful to lose it all, but it is an instant reprioritization. I wouldn’t recommend it, but the upside is that there is absolutely no doubt about what matters to you most. Getting clear about that is really the only way to get through it.

    Just got back from your blog. Love your life list. Off to send out my email now. xo

  20. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on January 20, 2015 at 8:52 am

    You’ve made me flash back so strongly. This actually happened to me (with a happier ending). I wrote a blog post about it five years ago: I grabbed my cat (just one back then), my zip drive with my writing, my class ring, and shoes. (I had on pants.) Despite the fact that our house didn’t actually catch fire in the end, the experience — those few moments of tortured decision-making — affected me deeply. I cannot even fathom actually losing everything you own. I’m very sorry you and your family had to go through that with the theft.

    • j on January 20, 2015 at 10:57 am

      I just read your post, Annie. I think you capture the weirdness of those few minutes perfectly. I imagine odd, nearly irrelevant things going through my head, and part of the problem would be sifting through them to figure out what’s important. And like you, this thought has stayed with me. I keep looking at things and thinking, “Would I save this? What about this?”

      And also, the need to become much more organized and move things (like the digital versions of my original art and writings) up to the cloud is clear. Making a date with Chad to work on that this weekend.

  21. Nina Badzin on January 20, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    I loved that piece and all the things it made me think about– the essentials. I cannot believe your entire u-haul was stolen!!! I cannot imagine.

    Love the doodle idea. That is really cool.

    • j on January 22, 2015 at 9:08 am

      As far as the U-Haul, I was thinking last night about how maybe it was a good thing that it happened so early in our marriage, before we’d had much life together. Not sure if it would be harder now, but at least then, we were already in a “beginning” phase. The missing stuff just made us start from a different place.

      And yes, I’ll start the doodle project this weekend. Really looking forward to it. Let me know if you want anything added on.

  22. Joy Montgomery on January 25, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Of course, “my” people if I had any in the house. The closest I’ve come to this was a fire that started in the mobile home next to my daughter’s when she was Assistant Manager at a mobile home park. What we grabbed was nothing from her home. We grabbed hoses and kept it from spreading to any other homes or the forest in and around them until the Fire Department finally showed up (about 20 minutes later). The people who owned that mobile and had left their 8 year old daughter/granddaughter home alone came back from the bar to watch the effort from a distance. Thank goodness the little girl came out of the shower before she was trapped by it and had the presence of mind to run for help. She grabbed herself and her clothes. The mother and grandmother were very relieved that the hose I had aimed in the kitchen window saved a coffee can of money and a case of vodka. They asked the Firemen to bring out the money and vodka after they put the fire out but would not let them back in. The town took up a collection to buy the little girl clothing and toys. The little girl’s aunt came and collected her. She still has custody.

    Our family cabin was sold after my mother died. It went in the first days of the Rim Fire and the fellow who bought it was not there when the fire started. Although the fire was two days away, he was not allowed back in and it was his primary residence. Pets, generations of family heirlooms, his late mother’s paintings, all the “stuff” he treasured was gone. I don’t think he has recovered yet.

    Most people in remote areas have a “go bag” and a good idea of what they will have to leave and what they might have time to take.

    • j on January 28, 2015 at 7:50 am

      Wow! The story of the neighboring mobile home had me on the edge of my seat. So glad the girl made it, and was showered with kindness (and a new home) afterward. I love (and it’s sad) that the mother and grandma wanted their vodka and cash rescued from the remains.

      A go-bag is such a smart idea. I think I’m going to do that too, so I at least have something to wear.

  23. […] my last post, I asked you guys what things you’d rescue from a fire. I got answers here, on Facebook and […]

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