“Your house is on fire….”
These are words I never wanted to hear.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I got the phone call to let me know that my house was burning. I was in San Francisco at the time, enjoying a relaxing solitary dinner at a favorite Mediterranean restaurant on Church Street, eating lentils, sipping mint tea, writing in my journal.
Life was good. I did not want any trauma or drama.
I had spent years recovering from trauma, in fact, and was finally at a happy and peaceful place in my life. I did not want to hear from my neighbors that my house was on fire. I did not want to move back to New York to deal with the aftermath of a house fire.
But I did, and it changed the course of my life, and enabled me to live some dreams that I had held close to my heart for a long time, including writing my book.
The Opening Words
Those in fact are the opening words of Chapter 1 of my book, entitled, “Five Words That Changed My World Forever.” The title of the book itself is Burning Down the House. The two inscriptions are, “Barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon,” by the Japanese poet Masahide. And, “What is to give light must endure burning” (a quote from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning).
Last week, I heard the words I never wanted to hear, again.
I was working in my home office, typing away, when I heard the sound of glass smashing next door.
I heard a woman scream, “What are you doing?”
And I heard someone say, “Get out of there lady! Your house is on fire!”
Dear God, I thought. Please, not again.
Dreams Go Up In Smoke
I headed into my bedroom to look out the windows, overlooking my neighbors’ house and garden next door, and sure enough, it was on fire, with smoke billowing out and seemingly dozens of firefighters in their yellow hats and coats milling around, a few up in the air on the ladder truck.
How had I possibly missed the sound of the sirens? Living in a city, hearing sirens go by all day long, I must tune them out.
Shaking, I headed outside to evaluate the extent of the damage.
My neighbors were on the sidewalk, sobbing, watching the chaos, windows being smashed by the fireman’s axes to let the heat out, smoke thick in the air, the flames in the basement making their way up the walls until they were shooting out the roof. The community had gathered in force to watch, comfort, gasp.
We held my neighbors in our arms, and held our breath, and hoped against hope they would put this brutal fire out, fast.
Time Slows Down When Dreams go up in Smoke
It took hours. And I went through a strange kind of deja- vu, witnessing a house burning down. When it was my own house, I was living across the country, saved by grace. I didn’t have to watch the devastation.
The thick orange hoses curved like snakes across the garden, as the firefighters frantically tried to extinguish the fire that had started in the basement. The firefighters on the ladder truck aimed the stream of water at the roof, where orange flames were shooting out. We all watched, helpless, aghast.
In the end after a few terrifying hours the fire was extinguished. The third floor tenants’ dog, who was trapped inside throughout the fire, miraculously survived, and the whole crowd cheered and cried for the “miracle dog” when a handsome young firefighter carried him out in his arms.
All the residents of the building survived, except the owners’ beloved cat, Jack. The damage to this beautiful historic brownstone home, built in the 1800s and meticulously restored by its own owners, was incalculable.
We See How Resilient We Are When our Dreams go up in Smoke
My own house fire a few years back taught me a few things. One, I learned my own strength again, and found that I could conquer any obstacle with faith, help and friends.
Two, it was a powerful reminder that people and love, not things, are what matter most.
Three, I learned that I was not exempt from “bad things” happening to me just because I was on a happy spiritual path, and had remade my life after years of trauma. Life itself contains disappointment and loss, sorrow and heartbreak as well as joy and laughter – no matter how much I sit on the meditation mat or go to yoga class.
Finally, I learned that there is an upside to any situation, no matter how tragic it may seem. I ended up moving back to New York state thanks to the fire, and that brought countless blessings to my life, from my best friend, who I met after I moved back, to the love and support of the community there, to being closer to my family in Massachusetts. And, with the encouragement of family and friends, I finally found the courage to write my book.
Turn the Ashes into Something More
Of course, I did not realize I would ever have to experience the horrors of a fire firsthand ever again. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
And yet I am already learning from it. My neighbors are beautiful, spiritual people who have already found the “blessing” in this tragic fire. They have been stunned by the incredible outpouring of community love and support. They understand now how very loved they are in this small upstate community, where they have been active for years.
Burning down of Dreams Teaches Us Who We Are
A few days after the fire, my neighbor Joyce wrote on Facebook,
“We want everyone to know that we are tired, but we are fine. We are alive, well, and feeling very, very blessed… We know this experience has come to bless us. We are committed to taking the experience and creating a beautiful outcome. We are honored and energized by the community of friends and family who will walk together with us in the days and months ahead as together we create amazing new possibilities!”
This from a woman who had just survived a tragic fire, on her (and her husband’s!) birthday no less. The resilience and optimism of this family is astonishing.
I am thinking that I am going to add an addendum to my book, which is after all a “”Phoenix rising from the ashes” redemption story, about the second fire that happened on my street, impacting my neighbors, my house and my life.
There was minor damage to my house as well: a broken window, some smoke and water damage. Nothing major. I have been through one major fire, and this in comparison is nothing. Compared to what my neighbors are going through right now, it is nothing.
My book demonstrates that “going through fire” can turn into a rebirth. A fire can be a cleansing, a chance to start over.
It is still heartbreaking. It is still loss on a scale inconceivable to most people when you in one fell swoop lose everything, as my neighbors and their tenants did.
And yet even in this there is a way to find the silver lining, to move forward with strength and courage.
After Dreams burn … the Next Steps
For me, the next steps are dealing with the minor damage to my house, and helping my neighbors in the aftermath of the fire. And of course, moving forward with my dreams, including getting my book published. My manuscript is currently being edited by my writing coach, who will then help me find an agent. Onward march!
My neighbors who survived the fire are interestingly enough in the middle of promoting their first book, called It Went Without Saying, about the family’s struggle with their daughter Jamie’s drug addiction. Jamie, who is also a dear friend of mine, has been clean and sober for eight years now, but the family went through hell together. They told their story in a book that incorporates all three voices: Jamie, her mom Joyce, and her father John.
They will take a break from the post-fire drama tonight to give a reading for their book.
Life is crazy. What are the odds that next-door neighbors, myself and the Chupkas, would each endure a house fire, would each publish a book about our paths recovering from trauma, and would each be out there living our dreams, despite all we have endured?
Whatever your challenges are, believe your dreams are possible. When things “burn down” in your life, know you will rebuild. Trust in your own strength to overcome any challenge. Let me know how you are moving forward with your dreams this week!
Lisa Powell Graham
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