A Small, Safe Place in a Troubling World

This is the year, with fallen faces, we learn we’re not enough,
This is the year to hold each other up.


~Eric Peters, “The New Year”

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.   

My bookshop (!)

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.”

Demolition underway

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.

An army of saints

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.

A nest.

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…

Camp Marah












  1. Oh, my dear! Having lived through a house fire, I know how devastating it can be. I’m so glad you are safe and trust that you will be able re-build a place of solace.

  2. it’s funny how it can be when we have a moment of feeling that we did everything right/everything is going well that something quite difficult comes. I was so proud of myself for being early to church, so early that I could take light rail and get a bit of a walk in, when mere minutes off the light rail, looking at my map, I failed to see the tall curb end, fell and broke the tip of my fibula bone clean off. My summer was gone instantly. So I can sympathize with feeling so happy about a great return and the utter devastation you had soon afterwards. How difficult. I am so glad you have this trailer, how beautiful it is. Lord have mercy on you and Philip and your animals and your house, your home and your temporary nest.

  3. Thank you again for sharing this difficult journey. It is encouraging to me in my own walk. I love the name of the Camper — it’s so appropriate. I also love hearing about all the people that came around you to help.

  4. It’s good to find you here again Lanier – your written ‘voice’ finding itself even in wilderness of Camp Marah.

    Just last week I came across a little poetry gem in an old and rare anthology “A Threefold Cord: Poems by Three Friends” which was edited by George MacDonald in 1883. Speaking with gentle encouragement to a sister’s voice, it is simply called, “To A Sister.” I immediately thought of your blog – ‘making all its neighbours glad.’ It spoke to me of the sweetness of your ‘voice’ in describing loveliness, but also its humble honesty in speaking of exquisite sorrow, and in finding meaning in all of it. Of special note for just now, in your Marah wilderness campsite, are the fortifying lines of the last two stanzas.

    Here it is (dedicated to you, dear sister in Christ):

    To A Sister

    A fresh young voice that sings to me
    So often many a simple thing,
    Should surely not unanswered be,
    By all that I can sing.

    Dear voice, be happy every way,
    A thousand changing tones among,
    From little child’s unfinished lay,
    To angel’s perfect song.

    In dewy woods – fair, soft, and green,
    Like morning woods are childhood’s bowers –
    Be like the voice of brook unseen
    Among the stones and flowers –

    A joyful voice, though born so low,
    And making all its neighbours glad;
    Sweet, hidden, constant in its flow,
    Even when the winds are sad.

    So, strengthen in a peaceful home,
    And daily deeper meanings bear,
    And when life’s wildernesses come,
    Be brave and faithful there.

    Try all the glorious magic range,
    Worship, forgive, console, rejoice,
    Until the last and sweetest change –
    So live and grow, dear voice.

  5. I wept from the beginning of this, straight through to the end, and even still now. Having walked away from the damsons of my own hurricane ravaged home with only a duffle bag of remains, I know this place well, and I know the goodness of the army of angels sent in the aftermath. Praying for you all as you wait a bit longer in the wreckage for resurrection. It will come. It is coming now.

    1. Oh, Kris. My heart has been aching ever since this comment appeared. I grieve with and for you, sister. I’m thankful that you’ve known your own ‘army of angels’–but I’m so sorry for the loss that’s occasioned their appearance. Know that you are in my prayers, as well, as we both ‘practice resurrection’ in our own places. Every blessing. xx

  6. “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.”

    This is so hard to remember sometimes, and so important. Beautiful. So glad you have a safe place in the middle of this chaos. <3

    Also! I don't think I've been to this new website before… so pretty!

  7. I quit looking at most blogs for months because I thought I was wasting too much time. I finally looked at your website because it was the one I missed most. The day I looked was just a few days after the fire, and I was so sad for you. I have been checking back regularly to see if you have updated. You have always been so encouraging to me in joy and in sorrow. I see that the hurricane may come up through Georgia. I am not sure how that will impact you, but I will be praying for you for this as well. God bless you and Phillip.

  8. I held my breath as I read this, Lanier. Who can bear such a loss, I wondered? Only someone whose feet are firmly planted in another Kingdom. Amidst your loss you always manage to point us there.

  9. Dear Lanier,
    It is such good news to know you are back on your property, in your nest, all together… there are so many losses in a fire, or any accident or natural disaster, each of a different magnitude and meaning. I began writing a story many years ago that begins with a house fire and a tragic loss of life. The title is ‘Providence’… one day I will finish, but I remember having to stop because the writing was so hard. To simply put one foot in front of the next and to carry on–what you are doing–I think this is the definition of personal courage. And your cavalry of angels will be steadfast and encircle Camp Marah wingtip to wingtip with the greatest and most powerful healing gift of all… love.

  10. How good to see you have a desk of your own. Complete with flowers and a little lamp. That’s a beginning, isn’t it?
    I hope your cats are doing fine? Hopefully, they needed this intense care only immediately after the fire?
    Thinking of you and keeping you in my prayers…

    1. Martina–such a late response to your sweet comment, but I wanted to assure you that all of my cats have recovered wonderfully well, and have adapted to our temporary quarters like little champs. I’m proud of them. 😉 Thank you for asking.

      And, yes, flowers and a little desk of one’s own are a beginning, aren’t they? xx

  11. i’ve followed your blog for quite some time though haven’t taken opportunity to comment. until now. this post brought me to my depth and i find myself in a puddle of tears. your words, and the words of others written in the hem of your post, speak to my heart of hearts. your trauma and pain, resultant from the fire, will surely go far to sooth the singed wings of others experiencing their own personal pain. simply…thank you.

  12. Joanne and I enjoyed reading your Journal. You wrote this and it spoke to me: “There’s no denying the gift of a lightened load.”
    Keep writing your story. You have a gift.
    Matt Flournoy, Bocce Man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *