Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Possessions Would You Take if You Only Had 15 Minutes?

Mother Nature has blasted her fiery wrath in California and Colorado this week -- leaving a wake of blackness, and heart breaking lessons on the impermanence of our "stuff." A massive fire in San Bruno California burst out of nowhere on Thursday evening, sparked by a broken 24-inch natural gas main. Scores of residents were forced to flee as firefighters battled the ferocious blaze, leaving six fatalities and scores of injuries.

According to the Mercury News, two brothers, Bob and Ed Pellegrini, live near the house at the center of the explosion, and thought an earthquake had rattled the Bay Area. Then they saw the flames outside their window.

"It looked like hell on earth. I have never seen a ball of fire that huge," Bob Pellegrini said.
It was too hot to escape out the front door, so the brothers ran out the back and up the hill, the fire chasing them. It felt like a blowtorch on the back of their necks, they said. Then they saw that their house and four cars were destroyed in the fire.

"The house is gone," Ed said. "I have nothing. Everything is gone. We're homeless."

A few days earlier, the worst fire in Colorado history consumed 169 homes in the mountains west of Boulder. I used to live in that neighborhood, and have been viscerally affected by the image of sacred land being charred as far as the eye can see, and treasured friends literally losing everything they have. Over 7000 acres burned, and the fires are still not fully contained.

Bestselling author Joan Borysenko is one of the lucky ones. Her home lies in the very heart of the blaze, and was spared, while scores of neighbor's homes were burned to the ground. She writes on Facebook,

"Apparently, just as our home did catch fire, the wind, gusting up to 45 mph shifted direction and miraculously the fire fizzled out. (We) found out firefighters saved our house with water and by cutting off burning part of deck, and are grateful to the amazing firefighters and volunteers."

Lydia Gracing shared her experience of waking up on a beautiful Colorado morning to the news no one ever wants to hear. "A sheriff came to our house and told us we had literally 15 minutes to take what we can grab and get out." Imagine. Whether it is the heat of flames or the swirl of flood waters, or wrath of a hurricane -- losing one's home and surrounding land is a shock beyond comprehension.

Here is a clip of a Lydia and others sharing their reactions in the heat of the moment while the fires were just breaking out:

It is so easy to take our lives and our homes for granted. If you only 15 minutes or less to leave your home forever-- what would you grab by first instinct? What would you later miss the most? I posed this question on Facebook and had some great initial responses:

John had a classic "keep it simple" response: "My wife and kids. And my homeowners insurance policy."

Lisa joked on the lighter side: "My purse that has everything in the world and then some in it!! Could live out of it for a while!"

Amy offered a more introspective response: "I have often wondered about this. Obviously my pets and people, but after that I would attempt to gather family treasures -- photos, books, etc. I could care a less about 'Important documents,' you can get a new Social Security card; you can't replace Grandma's recipe box.'"

I think any tragedy that causes loss always makes you grateful for what you were able to salvage, particularly if there are no injuries, and later rue those things that were lost, regardless of what they were. I suppose I would be particularly sad about those things that would be too difficult to take in a hurry: special furniture (my great great grandmother's hall tree), things that are buried in my basement (like my wedding gown) and children's baby things."

Rochelle shared: "Live alone -- no one else to worry about but me -- however there is a picture of my grandmother that hangs in my kitchen taken in the 1920s, she looks like a flapper, and a few other pictures on my walls I would take. And my laptop -- everything else is insured."

Interestingly, many of the comments that came in listed their computer as one of the items to take. It is sort of astounding to notice how our lives and our treasures have evolved. It is as if a small electronic box has become the heart of our lives, the center of our memories, the safe box of our paperwork and an attachment we cannot live without.

When we all take a moment and imagine losing everything in the matter of seconds, life's priorities automatically shift, don't they? The little fight with the kids seems silly, the worries about how to get that project done on time seems less intense, and the temptation to get sucked into political mudslinging downright ridiculous.

What really matters to you in the inventory of your life? What if you could only take a single item -- what would it be? I sat at my desk and really thought about this. Surprisingly the one thing that floated to the top is an antique fountain pen that sits on our piano and holds a treasured family story. My father in law used the cap to hide a special diamond inside when he immigrated to the United States from Poland. The diamond was purchased with all of the money they could scrape together as Holocaust survivors after the war, and represented everything they had, and is an ultimate symbol of love, survival and faith. The diamond sits on my finger now, and will sit on my daughter's one day.

The Buddhists say suffering expands the heart and quickens compassion. If your home is safe and dry, recognize the blessings you have, and allow that gratitude to open your heart. If you are moved to help the victims of these fires, do so. Give money, time, clothing or whatever you can.

For California residents and friends, The Red Cross has a receiving center at the Church of the Highlands 1900 Monterey Dr., San Bruno. And Levi Strauss & Co. announced a clothing donation program for victims to receive a $250 gift card for Levi's(R) brand clothing.

If you live in Colorado, a new store is literally opening up offering anything and everything for fire victims -- bring some of your "stuff" to help another, or contact the American Red Cross at www.denver-redcross.org or (303)772-7474.

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