How My House Burning Down Saved My Life
Three days after our house burned down, I was at my usual manicure appointment with Katy, making a numb effort to get back to something called normal.
My husband and I had completed a country get-away house about three months earlier. We were excited about having a huge party, inviting over 100 friends the following week, when the house
was struck by lightning.
After looking for years, we had found the dream weekend spot, a cozy cottage in the woods around a lake with a community of people who had fast become more like family than friends. While we loved its bones, the house needed a major facelift that included lots of repairs, and a few additions to the floorplan to get it exactly the way we envisioned. My life, my brain, and nearly every waking minute had been consumed with getting it all done, in this tucked-away location more than an hour and a half from our Dallas home base. Dealing with the workmen and the widgets, and the paint and the tile and the windows and the zillion or two details …..making certain every bed had luscious linens and every towel was just the right amount of fluffy, was uppermost in my mind. It was a juicy, wildly creative project AND it was also grueling and relentless for more than 18 months.
The fire tower, manned by the forest service, spotted the fire first, as multiple lightning strikes continued to ignite fire to more than 100 trees surrounding the house. Alarms went out to the local volunteer fire departments but by the time they arrived, driving down remote country roads and getting past our neighborhood security gate, 90% of the house had already burned to the ground. All they could do was contain the fire from spreading further.
So, as I sat down for my weekly manicure, I tried to hold it together…..but the big gulping noises, runny nose, and immediate uncontrollable torrents of tears gave me away. As I sputtered and blubbered my way through my story of what had just happened to us, Katy visibly brightened.
Now THAT just shut me right up. She was actually smiling from ear to ear.
I had been seeing Katy, once a week, for over ten years. We had really gotten to know one another in that time. I was certainly NOT expecting this reaction from her.
“WONDERFUL, THIS saved your life! What a blessing!” she said, still beaming.
Because I had always admired Katy, even though I was stunned and put off by her glowing smile, I was willing to hear what she had to say. In her relatively short life, she had lived many chapters. Growing up, one of nine children in a horrendous and harrowing Vietnam, she had made her way to the United States and put herself through college, working nights in a factory. She owned her own home and was raising two children as a single parent. She was kind and elegant and proud of her career and the business she created. Her book of clients always had a waitlist and her employees radiated the same kindness and professionalism, inspired
by her example. Katy was also a devout Buddhist.
As she explained to me, with total conviction:
“When we lose the THINGS
we have become attached to,
ONLY THEN, do we FIND OURSELVES”
As a late-in-life seminary graduate and Christian minister myself, I thought I had that concept pretty well incorporated into my life. My first reaction to the news about our house, which was delivered by way of a phone call from friends who were living at the lake full time—-was the gaping hole of immediate grief——not about the house itself but for the massive amount of time and energy and effort that had gone into making it a home.
Again, she spoke…..
“Your house was taken away because
it had begun to take away
YOUR LIFE FORCE and YOUR ENERGY.
Now that your house, this THING…is gone,
YOU ARE FREE.
You can now become the person you are meant to be.
My tears went away that day. In the time it took to polish ten nails.
Katy was right. Who knew so much WISDOM could come with bright red POLISH?
After the fire, but particularly after Katy’s words jolted me into an entirely new perspective, so many deeper realizations and truths emerged…..
+++ Maybe divine forces were at work, freeing us from MORE THINGS in order to find MORE OF OURSELVES.
+++ After the fire, we realized the things we missed most were the photos of family, the awards we had won as kids, as scouts….my Girl Scout badge sash, and his Eagle Scout medals we had framed. A pillow I had needle pointed. Drawings the kids had made. A rocker my husband made in a woodshop in high school. My grandmother’s Bible, with words of wisdom and love, in her own hand, in the margins. My other grandmother’s 50-year-old cookbook, with crunched and yellowed pages, smeared with the residue of many meals made with love and vanilla and butter and flour….with her tips for do’s and don’ts to enhance her favorites.
We began to realize all the things that we had considered “the little things” took up the most space in our hearts when they were gone. We cried over so many of them but never shed a tear over our designer sofa.
+++ We got it. Really got it. That life CAN turn on a dime. Every THING can literally go up in smoke. Poof. Just like that. Along with that realization was a greater, deeper appreciation for every single day. Being alive.
+++ Ordinarily, we went out to the lake house separately, on a Friday. I went first and opened up the house….got underway on meals and plans for us and the friends who usually came too. Then, I stayed over on Monday, by myself, until around noon, to close out the house, getting it cleaned, and ready for the next weekend. That particular weekend, we had been away at a funeral. Lightning struck the house on a Monday morning, at a time when my husband would have already left early and I would have probably still been in bed. Later reports showed that the house was struck nearly simultaneously in 4 different places. Basically, it had exploded into an instant fireball. Not being there saved my life. I am sure of it. I still thank God for that “coincidence”.
+++ Going forward a certain feeling of freedom really did show up. We did create another country home. When the time came to make a major lifestyle change, it was easy to make the decision to put the house up for sale. An offer came in but only if we were willing to sell the house with every single thing….I mean from Q-tips to Christmas decorations….we were supposed to walk away within 10 days. We did, save one piece of art…..and we drove down the driveway, completely free to begin a new chapter, without another thought.
+++ Had our house not burned down, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We might have never seen the light of our personal truths or the paths our lives were really meant to take.
+++ I might not have found this calling to share my stories of surviving and thriving beyond life’s challenges or to look for the blessings and lessons that come from EVERY experience even when it seems like life is breaking my heart.
+++ I would have never grasped the concept that while life can only be lived forward, it is only fully understood backward. I know that bone-deep now. And knowing that truth has served to increase my faith exponentially….that a deeper understanding of everything and everyone will come. I will see the lessons and the blessings from every situation….eventually, if I will only trust the process.
Had our house not burned down, I would still be deciding who was coming for the weekend. Stressed over which activities would be fun, and menus everyone would enjoy, and whether the toilets were being cleaned to perfection. And, while that might be the perfect lifestyle for others, I might have continued to feel weighed down by so many things that were distracting ME… from “becoming the person I was meant to be”.
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