Guide Burning Down the House

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So I used to sing in the car, hum in the grocery store, and enjoy the ride most days. I was the Cheerful Girl, and then, of course, life threw me a little curve ball. After the house burned down, every external support I had — my beloved home, my stuff, my routines, my sense of place and safety — crumbled before my eyes, and I stepped into the whirlwind that is a post-disaster life.

Whether it be fire, flood, the death of a loved one, or a bad divorce — this maelstrom of loss is deafening, disorienting, chaotic and exhausting.

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You can barely keep your head up, much less sing. I remember one day in particular, when my friend and massage therapist Dana Wodtke came over to give me a massage. It was so soothing, so lovely. And then… my phone rang, and the answering machine kicked in, and even though the volume was all the way down, we could hear the murmur of someone leaving a long message on the machine. Was it the adjuster, the contractors, the County, a friend, family member, well-wisher, was it the bank calling my loan?

As the machine murmured, my cell phone starting to ring, and then kept ringing, about once a minute, over and over, taking messages. I had stashed it in the next room, but I could hear it buzzing anyway.

Burning Down The House

It will all be waiting for me in a few hours anyway. I started to cry, right there in the car, because I missed the Cheerful Girl, and my previous life so, so much. But I did learn something when I was the Grumpy Girl. I learned that the trauma of loss can also be a tenderizer for the Heart. All that pounding can make you softer, kinder, more compassionate. I felt compassion for the man with the death-grip on the cart, smacking into me because he was so rushed. I hope we all heal soon. A few months ago I did a radio show on public radio about the emotional impact of trauma.

There were three of us on the show; a trauma researcher, a psychologist specializing in post-disaster trauma, and yours truly, the Two-Time Fire Girl. It was a great show, and we talked about the impact of trauma and the process of recovery. When trauma hits, part of you literally goes away.

And then one day, the weather turns, and after months and years of running and fighting and struggling and grumping around, you find yourself smiling, and laughing, and you catch your breath with wonder. Look at that meadow! This is such a pretty place! The Cheerful Girl in her new kitchen, holding her settled after two years insurance claim. But no matter, the road is life. And wonderful.

And strange. The final push to get home was intense, of course.

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What HAS to be done to pass inspection? The most unlikely things are required by building code in order to move in handrails on the deck — yes; doorknobs inside the house- no. So I moved in, without cabinets, or closet doors, or doorknobs, and we declared it Good Enough For Now.

Apparently, this is how it is when you build a house. You get to the end of the project and everyone is exhausted, the money is pretty much gone, and the lease on the rental is up or the goodwill of your friends has expired.

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We came up with eighty-seven things on the Punch List. Yep, eighty-seven. And that did not include anything outside the house like finishing the deck, the dog pen, the garage… And of course, being Neurotically Organized, I had to organize it by categories, with an estimated budget for each item, and an estimated date of completion for each task. By the time we were done with the first draft and I saw how much we still had to do, I put my head down on the cardboard.

And so began what I call the Siege of the Subcontractors. And you know, these guys like to start EARLY in the morning, and I am not exactly a morning person, so this whole thing has been rather a challenge to my sanity. One morning I walked out of the bedroom with a cup of coffee to find three carpenters, the tile guy, the cabinet guy, the glass shelf-installing guys, the appliance guy, plus Jerry and the construction supervisor, in the living room. Saws, hammers, and the endless drone and whine of machines filled the air nearly every day.

What could I say? I wanted to give my friends a break, and not bother them with the noisy, gory details of finishing a house.

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In October? On the weekends, Nellie and I slept. We slept for hours, days, only getting up to eat a little, take a short walk, and then crawl back into bed. I filled my giant bathtub, turned on the jets, and soaked, and then climbed back into bed. I had been to Hell and back, and now I needed to rest. For weeks. And then one night, I started to feel better, and I decided to start the clean-up on my land.

For you see, my land is not doing that well. The fire has left me with three acres of sticky, gnarly, invasive weeds, where there once was a beautiful tall-grass meadow. So I started pulling weeds. Inch by inch, foot by foot, over the course of weeks, I cleared my land. For the first two days, every muscle in my hands and arms ached, but I stood taller, knowing that my land needed me, and I was heeding the call.

And when I would come back, a day or so later, to a place I had weeded, I saw native wildflowers starting to come in. Lupine, harebells, red and yellow blanket flowers — they sprang up and began to blossom. My land, like me, was coming back to life. It was glorious, healing, miraculous. And I grew stronger, with all that pulling and hauling and shoveling.

I sorted and hauled the leftover lumber, shoveled a literal ton of leftover gravel and distributed it around my foundation, and hauled dozens of hay bales and got them ready for re-seeding in the Spring. My friend Matthew came out from Chicago and stayed for a week, and we spent most of the time sorting an entire dumpster full of scrap lumber into piles.

It was looking better every day. When everything was organized, I put a note on our local list serve, saying that I had free landscape rock, lumber, firewood — yours for the hauling. And then another amazing thing happened — I started meeting my neighbors.

Burning Down The House (With a Great Statistic) | Throughline Group

When I moved to the mountains twenty years ago, it was to get away from people, not to connect with them. My life in town was busy and noisy, with students and colleagues and friends and too much traffic in our growing city of Boulder. People wanted to help, to meet me, to talk about the fire and life in the mountains. And to my astonishment, I found new friends, in a place where I had just wanted to be left alone.

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Thanks SO much! Each time someone drove away with a load of stuff, I grinned, my heart overflowing with gratitude. Another step, I thought, in this Long Road Home; the road home to my own heart, the road that Fire started me down, first at twelve, and then again forty years later. For this is the real road we all travel; the road to love, to connection, to community, to deeper meaning. Case in point — a while back, a neighbor I had never met called about picking up some of the landscape rock.

Me, the woman who has been single for years — happily single, fiercely single, guarding her singlehood like a mother bear protecting her cubs — is now dating. Who could have seen that coming? The house and the meadow are blossoming, as am I. As of this week, I am declaring an end to the Siege of the Subs, and calling it good.

The house is as done as it can be, and I have to really, finally, move on. You are my Army of Angels. The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say. I am home. I have gone There and Back Again, and returned to my own front door, and it is all changed. Some people think that Jerry Garcia wrote those famous lines about the road going on and on, but it was JRR Tolkien, a man who saw the horrors of World War I, who lost his true love and soul mate before her time, and who dealt with his grief and loss by telling tales of heroic little Hobbits marching steadfastly into the face of evil and conquering it — but not without a price.

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How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? I have gone to Mordor and back again — a long, slow trudge through jagged peaks and fiery chasms, and finally made my way home to this beautiful house. I have envisioned this house, this day, for almost two years. I have worked every day for months on end, with the architect, the contractor, and dozens of trades people — going over and over the budgets, the design, the energy systems, the plumbing and electric and the thousands of details that make a home.

I have been involved in every detail of building this magnificent little ship in the clouds, and yet I am a stranger to it. It is as if we have just met — we will have to get to know each other now. And I will have to get to know my new life now. For two years I have been a refugee, a middle-class displaced person dealing with grief and loss and more change than I ever wanted to face.

Not a Fire Person anymore, just a friend, neighbor, colleague… What will that be like? Is it even possible?