I got a call from a friend this evening. “Do you have a minute?” She was calling from her cellphone, on her way home; her husband had just called to say their house was on fire. It is, now was, a beautiful Queen Anne style three-story house, built in 1900 with a turret and a big curved west-facing porch, which was apparently where the fire started. Fortunately, the two of them were at work and their two youngest children, college students, had left the house to go canoeing. Even the cats were outside. Still, the enormity of fire, its erasure of their material past, the blackened clapboards dripping with water, was startling and a bit other-worldly.
The family has lived in their small New England town for at least three generations and the father was recently elected mayor. A huge crowd turned out and watched from the schoolyard across the street. The couple who own the house were stunned into a kind of gaiety, making jokes and soldiering on while people around them were in tears. Firemen came from all the nearby towns and from towns 20 miles away. A firefighter explained that the firemen get so hot and tired from putting out fires they need other firefighters to spell them while they recover. They had a big board on an easel to keep track of which group of firemen were in the house at any given time.
The evening was windy and fresh breezes periodically fanned new flames into being and the fire–which had apparently started around 4:45 p.m.–was still being confirmed as out as night came. People were exchanging phone numbers and figuring out a place to drop off food and clothing, offering the family to stay. One neighbor bought take-out submarine sandwiches for the family; another brought the parents a really stiff drink.
It was sobering; we have so much stuff that we count on staying still for us when, of course, it’s as subject to physics as anything else. There’s a Zen poem about a hut burning down and how clearly the poet can see the stars now. I have heard someone say that having her house burn down was a kind of blessing, because other people were so extraordinary, so generous and good-hearted.