Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. ~Frederick Buechner

This is not the next post I expected to write, and it’s certainly not the post I want to write. But you dear readers have followed my journey here in sunshine and in shade, and I feel the need to bring you into the latest development of our story.

Let me begin by saying that Philip and I are well and safe. But over Memorial Day weekend we experienced a devastating house fire. Even typing the words sends a thrill of panic over my heart, like a nightmare I long to wake up from. But the sad truth is that our beloved home, our farmhouse, our place on earth, has been ravaged. My kitchen is a charred ruin; the beautiful bookcase in the den that Philip built with his own hands is gashed with the horrible scars of flame; a hole gapes in the second floor, and the destruction throughout the house is astronomical. Thank goodness the fire was contained to a few rooms, but there’s not a single item in my home that’s untouched by smoke or water. Each time I walk through the rubble there are more losses to grieve, more mangled remnants of the life we’ve built together. Honestly, if Philip had not acted with speed and presence of mind, our house would not be standing at all. As it is, for the foreseeable future, we’re essentially homeless. I now know what displacement means; I now have a small window into the horror and darkness of what it must feel like to be a refugee.

I really don’t know how to begin to describe what happened that night, or what’s happened since—and I realize I don’t have to. But even the effort is cathartic, and though my brain is utterly rattled and my attention span is close to zero, I know I need to make that effort here, howsoever feebly. The fact is, for the rest of my life I will never un-see the image of my home in flames. I will never get over the horror of realizing that all five of my cats were inside (thank God Philip grabbed me as I was trying to run in for them), or that, while I knew our Australian Shepherd Bonnie was safe, I also knew that Flora, my darling Great Pyrenees, had bolted in panic. When a woman from Animal Control showed up an hour later with Flora’s collar in her hand, I nearly collapsed with the grief of it all—it was just Too Much. Someone had hit her—and left her—on the four-lane near our home. With my house still on fire, my kitties unaccounted for, and my husband on the way to the hospital with burns, I felt like I was being torn in four.

It was, without a doubt, the worst moment of my life. But I want to use this space to witness to the fact that in that moment, as I stood alone in the predawn hours, watching my house burn, with dozens of firemen and paramedics swarming about, a single thought burned white-hot into my shocked senses: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I knew, as well as I was standing there, that God had not abandoned us, and that He was not going to let us walk through this literal and metaphorical fire all by ourselves.

And here’s another thing I know—I know that He’s not going to waste an opportunity to make something beautiful out of brokenness and ruin. I’m not talking about looking for silver linings, or “blessings in disguise.” I’m talking about beauty for ashes, which is something only God can do.

“Keep some of the ashes,” a precious friend urged the other day. “Remember, the ashes of the fronds that are burned from Palm Sunday are the very ones that are used to bless on Ash Wednesday.”

I will.

And I will likewise keep a heart-full of mercies, moments which, for all the trauma of their setting, I never want to forget. Like the fireman tenderly administering oxygen to my beloved kitties Josephine and Balliol, who had succumbed to smoke inhalation. Like Wemmick, and then Lucy, creeping soaked and sooty out of the ruin and into my arms after the fire trucks had left. Like walking through the house the next day and seeing my favorite little bird vase a beloved friend brought me from England, sitting there unharmed in a charred and shattered cabinet.

I’ve always called this piece the ‘heart’ of our home. It was made by the son of the man who built our house in 1851. It will bear its scars, but we’re determined to restore it.

It is an absolute miracle that all of my cats survived. But we had to have Flora put to sleep—there was nothing they could do. I got the call from the vet in the burn unit of the hospital, and I just stood there sobbing, telling God over and over again, “I can’t do this—I just can’t do this. And I can’t do it alone.”

Philip texted from his hospital room where he was being treated for his burns (he’s really all right—he was only admitted for a few hours, and he’s healing nicely) that his brother was on the way to meet me at the vet. And, friends, I’m telling you, there is absolutely no greater gift that one soul can give another than presence. I knew then that God meant what He said to me—we really were not alone. Kneeling together, weeping together, as my brother-in-law and I said goodbye to Flora was one of the most beautiful and excruciating things I have ever experienced. Flora had placed her paw in my hand as soon as she saw me; the moment she was gone, I knew it. (And I think you all know what I believe about animals and eternity…) To have someone beside me in that moment who not only understood but entered into my sorrow was an unspeakable gift.

That afternoon, darling friends helped me smuggle five cats and a dog into a two-pet hotel room. And that night, other dear ones knocked on our door with overflowing baskets: homemade soup, fresh cherries, olives and nuts and cured meats, Bordeaux and the mixings for gin and tonics.

Covert Cat Op

“I don’t know how to be me away from my place,” I said, gazing around at my friends. “I feel so lost—like everything that made my life my life is gone.”

Our supremely eloquent friend Luke lifted a glass to Philip and me, to our place, and to the new thing God would make of this terrible mess. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but his words rang true, and they settled deep into my heart. And as I sipped my drink and looked around that room, I thought, This is my life. These are my people. And, as Jayber Crow would say, it’s good, good, good, good, good.

For the past year, the theme that’s been igniting my heart is the essential sacredness of our physical spaces—not only for what they point to, but for what they are in a very practical sense. I believe that houses can have callings just as people do, and I’ve always felt my home’s vocation to be intensely, deeply maternal. For 165 years, our old farmhouse has sheltered, nurtured, beautified the lives of its inhabitants. This house has mothered me, shaping me in ways that another place could not have done. And as we embark on the long journey of restoration and rebuilding, we realize that we—and our house—will never be the same. In a way, that’s yet another grief, partly because we’re not sure what that means. But this story isn’t ours to write. As a beloved friend and mentor reminded me yesterday, it’s not about where we’re going—it’s who we’re going with.

Jesus and each other. And our dear, dear people. We could not have better traveling companions. And when the way gets dark and bewildering and terrifying, you know that Who you’re with is all that matters.

Over the bookcase in the den I painted a motto years ago, my life verse, the story of my walk with God summed up in seven words:

The Wilderness Shall Blossom as the Rose.

Gazing up at it the other day, smoke-dimmed but blazingly intact, I blinked over a burning rush of tears. I wanted to stamp my feet, rail at God, ask why. I was tempted to wonder how that could still be true. When God gave me that promise years ago, I never dreamed that it meant barrenness, bereavement, and ashes.

But it also meant roses—where roses ought not to be. It’s meant weddings in my backyard; Christmas feasts crowded with people I love; house concerts and answered prayers and wonderful neighbors. Fruit, redemption, abundant life. I believe in those roses, friends, because I’ve seen them with my own eyes. And in them I’ve had a flashing glimpse at things too good not to be true.

Roses in the desert. Beauty from ashes. And a God of Impossible Things.

When I went to the house the day after the fire, I noticed that a wren had started working on a nest under the eaves of the porch. Such a powerful symbol to me.

I intend to keep you updated on this new chapter as it unfolds. I don’t have many coherent words right now. I certainly don’t have any answers, or even any expectations. But I do want you to know that God is with us, and that He is holding us in an entirely unprecedented way. We’re overwhelmed and we’re brokenhearted—but those are two conditions in which He promises to be near. And even though I can’t really see it, or even feel it right now, I’ve known Him long enough to know that He’s as good as His word.

Two quick things in closing:

  1. Firefighters are SUPERHEROS. Next time you see one, give them a salute. Or kiss their feet.
  2. If you ever find yourself on the lam in a hotel room with five cats and a dog, bring your own vacuum cleaner.

Four of my five miracle kitties. (Balliol is hiding under the bed.) They all have smoke inhalation issues, from pneumonia to actual burns, but they’re all going to be all right, thank God.