This is the year, with fallen faces, we learn we’re not enough,
This is the year to hold each other up.
The first two weeks after the fire are a total blur to me now. If it weren’t for the incoherent—almost compulsive—scribblings in my journal, I honestly would not remember more than a few searing glimpses of charred rooms, broken glass, and personal belongings strewn strangely all over the yard.
A wise friend sized up my compulsion and my incoherence. “If you can’t write,” she told me, “make lists. Anything to unload your brain now and jog your memory later.”
She was right, and I’m glad I made the effort, howsoever halting. Painful as it is to revisit that time, it’s important to trace all the threads of this story, dark and bright together. As any artist will avow, the shadows are every bit as essential to a painting as the light.
And so, I have a written witness that those weeks were a woven pattern of hope and despair. I can look back and see snapshots of life at its most disorienting and its most lucid.
I can see Philip, after a long and painful day, sitting in a dirty hotel room, patiently administering subcutaneous fluids to some very sick kitty cats.
I see myself, keeping the road hot between the house, the hotel, and the vet’s office, singing along to Ellie Holcomb at the top of my lungs.
(Or lying on an unfamiliar bed in a characterless room with tears pouring down my face.)
I remember the sudden bursts of impossible laughter and the extraordinary kindness of strangers. (Like the cashier at Zaxby’s who pretended to run our credit card and came back to the register with a handful of complimentary-meal coupons. Or the staff at our local Whole Dog Market, who loaded me down with bags of free cat food—not once, but three times.)
I can grin now over the bewildered look on the hotel housekeeper’s face at my daily urging of, “No housekeeping, please!” (Keep in mind that two-thirds of my animals weren’t exactly supposed to be there. I assure you, friends, we weren’t living in total squalor—I actually bought a vacuum cleaner. For a hotel room.) And I can cringe at the memory of the tuba player down the hall, perversely inspired to practice their scales every single time I cast my exhausted self down for a nap.
Those days were punctuated with endless meetings: remediation crews, mitigation contractors, contents specialists, fire investigators and forensic experts. A parade of professionals handing me business cards in a carnival-like atmosphere of unreality. Investigative tape slashed over my kitchen. The hum of a temporary generator outside and the roar of air scrubbers within. Half the time I wasn’t sure who I was talking to, or why—but they all seemed to assure me they’d be back at my place by 9 am sharp the next morning. For what I usually hadn’t the faintest idea.
Fact is, there’s a labyrinthine industry surrounding a house fire. There are people to board up holes to the outside; people to address moisture and mitigate further problems; people to collect artwork and “hard” contents and “soft” contents, and people to determine the exact cause of the fire. Philip and I quickly learned that our situation falls into the “complex loss” category, owing to both the age of our home and the extent of the damage. Which means, among other things, that there ain’t gonna be nothing simple about this process.
By the middle of the second week, the contents removal had begun, which basically amounted to a swarm of (very nice) strangers descending upon my home with boxes and bags and enormous trucks, carting off every surviving possession for restoration and storage. Everything—from the rafters of the attic to the darkest recesses of the basement—it all had to go. The feeling of exposure was enormous: all my most precious things suddenly scattered over the floor; keepsakes and clutter jumbled together in an overwhelming mass. I felt like my house and my insides were likewise being turned inside out.
“You’ve never moved,” a friend gently reminded me.
She was right. I’ve lived in this house since I married, and I’ve never had to sort things so ruthlessly—or so quickly. For a soul as sentimental as mine it was brutal.
That same friend was at my side for days on end, sorting, tossing, labeling and cataloguing. In the heat and the stench, shouting over the infernal hum of those air scrubbers, she labored on, unfailingly cheerful, levelheaded, long-suffering. She made me laugh over ambitious sewing projects I’d abandoned halfway through, and sympathized over the essential oubliette of my mending basket.
“I know why you kept this,” she’d say, handling some memento or superfluous craft supply. “And now you can get rid of it.”
There’s no denying the gift of a lightened load, and I love to think that when we move back into our home, we’ll finally have the chance to embody William Morris’ famous maxim to limit your things to what you believe to be beautiful or know to be useful.
Nevertheless, to process all one’s possessions in a matter of days was a herculean feat, and one I never could have accomplished alone. This same friend has helped me decorate for Christmas, paint rooms, hostess parties, arrange flowers for a backyard wedding—all memories I treasure. But this was an act of extravagant love, a descent into the darker side of life. She celebrates my joys—lavishly—but she’s never been squeamish over my grief. Which is about the truest definition of a friend I can think of.
Finally, after two weeks of kindled hope, disappointed hope, and resurrected hope, we learned that the county had approved our hardship request to park an RV on the property so that we could live onsite during the demolition and rebuild. Within days, our insurance company delivered a factory-direct travel trailer, complete with full-sized refrigerator and washer/dryer option. (Shout-out to Cincinnati Insurance, by the way—they have been amazingly accommodating thus far.) After living in a hotel room, a 36-foot trailer seemed palatial—and gloriously, superlatively private.
The only trouble was that it needed to be stocked with basic household necessities. The aforementioned friend came to the rescue once more, compiling a categorized list, and sounding the word to other dear ones eager to help. The trailer hadn’t been on our property two hours when the first wave of recruits arrived, bearing baskets of dishes, cutlery, pots and pans, and kitchen linens, all new, washed, and ready for service.
I watched them coming across the yard with burning eyes.
This is what an army of saints looks like, I thought.
Cheerful, present, willing to laugh and grieve in turn. And unfailingly, exquisitely practical.
An infantry of women armed with provisions for making a home in the wilderness.
Looking back, I can’t help but think of Elizabeth Goudge’s beloved assertion in Pilgrim’s Inn that “it was homemaking that mattered.”
Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of each society depended upon their quality. And it was no good weakening oneself for the brick-making by worrying too much about the flood.
While I looked on rather helplessly, they stocked my refrigerator (complete with champagne!), my cupboards with glassware and plates, my drawers with cooking utensils, wooden spoons and knives. Someone (not sure who, I’m afraid) placed a fragrant bar of soap in a dish by the bathroom sink; someone else left a lemongrass candle on my desk and a natural sponge hanging in the shower. There was a fern for my kitchen window; a bunch of peonies on my desk; fun, vintage-y mixing bowls; a stack of lovely, fresh floursack towels. One friend even loaned some of her own throw pillows to make the dinette that much cozier.
Before that corps left, the next had arrived, bearing bedlinens, fluffy white bath towels, a bath mat. Within moments the mercilessly bare mattress in the bedroom was transformed into a comfortable nest, soft with new pillows and a downy duvet.
After that came paper goods and food storage, and after that again, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent and a broom. My brother-and-sister-in-law threw in, among other things, cat litter and a scratchy box, complete with catnip.
When everyone was gone, Philip and I looked at each other across the dinette of our new little home with tear-filled eyes. Here was love incarnate, a ground-zero affection that took our breath with its beauty.
A fellowship that would hold us in our worst moments and absolutely refuse to let go.
So much of the pain we experience in life can be covered, like a bandaged wound nursed in private. Grief is about as personal as it gets, and too much exposure can rub a wound raw.
The heart knows its own bitterness, the writer of Proverbs tells us.
Everybody hurts, we tell ourselves. Mustn’t grumble.
But there’s a fine line between honoring the human condition and exalting privacy to the point of pride. Much as my life indicates otherwise these days, I really, really don’t like drama. I like to keep it together, run a tight ship, manage my days with quietness and dignity. The night the fire broke out, I was congratulating myself on the fact that before we’d even returned home from our jaunt to the sea, I’d arranged for the housekeeper to come and the groceries to be delivered. I walked into a clean house, scooped the litter boxes, started the dishwasher and the laundry.
And, well, you know what happened.
Next thing I knew, strangers were inventorying my lingerie and my neighbor was washing my underwear.
“It’s excruciating to be this needy,” I told my friend. “I feel like I have nowhere to hide.”
“If we hide,” she said gently, “we cheat each other out of being the hands and feet of Christ. It’s how the Body works.”
I’ll never forget waking up that first morning in the trailer to the screaming of our peacocks and the crowing of our rooster. To my homesick heart it was the sweetest music on earth. I cracked the blind near my pillow and looked out upon a dew-wet world sparkling in the early sunlight. At the white façade of the house, seemingly unscathed from this eastern angle. At the trellis Philip had built for our wedding reception, through which we’d walked, hand in hand, into our life together.
“Have you named it yet?” Philip asked.
Knowing my propensity to christen objects of import in our lives—from cars, to picnic blankets, to Bluetooth speakers—he fully anticipated a playful handle for this temporary home of ours. But the naming this time was of a solemn sort. I’d have to sit with it a while; pray; let its name seep up to me from the parched earth of this wilderness place.
It didn’t take long. I woke a few days later with a burning but half-remembered text in mind. Flipping through my Bible, I opened at last to Exodus 15:
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter…
The nature of this season blazed before me—in the acrid, smoke-haunted air; in the days of incessant rain interspersed with days of oppressive heat; in the metaphor of this tabernacle of a trailer with the promised land of our house in constant view.
Even in the literal water, pouring from filtered taps.
“I can’t drink it,” I’d told Philip. “It tastes like garden hose.”
Camp Marah it was from that day. Marah—where, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the Israelites were absolutely convinced they would perish.
Marah—where in the miraculous mercy of God, the bitter waters were made sweet.
Inherent in such a name is an acknowledgment of both the difficulty of this time and the promise locked within it: not a promise of “better” than we had before, but more. More grace, more compassion, more space for God’s dreams to grow in our lives.
“You will love more as a result of all this,” a wise one told me the day after the fire. “We only know the love of God as far as our grief has gone.”
My dear friend Sarah sent a wonderful gift right before we moved into this trailer: a loving selection of words and images curated to speak hope to our weary souls. It took a few days before I could peruse them all without weeping, but one in particular shone out like an apple of gold in a setting of silver:
Sanctuary is a word which here means a small, safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert, or an island in a stormy sea. ~“Lemony Snicket”
Philip printed out the series as a visual of truth and solidarity, and I stuck the pages on the particle-board starkness next to the bed, where their witness would confront me morning and evening. I call it my “Wall of Hope,” and the phrases and images have taken turns soothing bruised places in my heart.
But always, right in the middle, there’s the picture of a little girl curled into a child-sized nest, and the words which have come to characterize Camp Marah:
A small, safe place in a troubling world.
There’s plenty to say about the inconvenience of living in the backyard, and of five cats, a dog, and two humans sharing what feels like a shrinking span of 36 feet. (Believe me, I’ve said it. And I’ll doubtless say it again in the weeks and months to come. We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt…)
But difficulty notwithstanding, we’re so thankful to be here. Even in my worst I-don’t-know-how-I’m-going-to-survive-this moments, I cannot deny the gift of this place—our place. There’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be, and when the quarters feel too cramped and the situation too impossible, I close my eyes and picture this trailer as a tiny sanctuary amid a howling gale. An oasis in the desert, an island in the midst of an unnavigable sea.
And the beautiful thing is that the nest is the very love of God, and the twigs and feathers that have fashioned it are the practical acts of love carried out by men and women who bear His image.
Blessed be His name.
to be continued…