One Thing

Our Apartment Fire, Frenchtown NJ, 2018

Remember that game we used to play as children?

You’re on a deserted island. You can only bring three things. What are they?

Your home is burning down. What is the one thing you have time to run in to save?

That was a fun game.

We humans love the trolley problem SO MUCH. I wonder why that is? Why do we feign suffering when we’re not, and avoid suffering when we are? Those kinds of moral/ethical/trolley problem questions always felt like preparation to me. I ignorantly believed that if I could write the script for all the possible outcomes, then I’d be prepared when one of them ultimately arose. I was so cute back then.

Four days ago, a good friend of mine who was (as of this writing) recently evacuated from her home in South Lake, Tahoe because of the enormous Caldor fire texted me: “You’ve been in this before. What are the things you most miss?”

She basically asked: What is the one thing she should save?

Talk about a loaded question.

Even when you’re with someone who has gone through a devastating loss like fire with you, there is something isolating about losing every single thing you own. Part of your identity is also lost. I remember wearing strangers’ clothes for days and being so grateful for clean underwear, but not recognizing myself anymore. And many months later, searching in the closet for a pair of shoes that no longer existed and wondering why I even loved them in the first place. It’s like this with clothes, books, art — even if you don’t particularly miss the items, they were part of your makeup, the landscape of your world. The disorienting feeling is a constant reminder of life before and after, a constant question of who am I now?

Fire is a violent, destroying force, which plays an additional part in the resulting trauma. My experience was so rattling, I don’t know that I’ll ever recover from that humid August night. A huge truck hauling a dumpster ran through an adjacent building, causing an instant explosion and collapse, and the fire that eventually took our apartment as well. I’ll never forget where we were sitting, what we were wearing, (or not wearing as it was 10:30pm), the initial sound — like a plane crashed — and looking out the window at a fireball between our building and the first. Screaming to my husband that we had to get out. Now.

But thankfully, in reality, I don’t sit around thinking about that night on a daily basis. The human brain has the incredible capacity to move on, even when trauma has changed its functioning. To be honest, I hardly think about the fire at all anymore. It was three years ago and sometimes I forget it even happened, or somehow forget it was me it happened to. We had also just been married, that same week, and had returned from Tahoe jet-lagged and euphoric, and perhaps somehow that joy helped balance the trauma.

Ruminating in it now and making myself access the events and emotions of that week and the months that followed, it’s a random Facebook comment some ignorant woman posted that churns up the most primal response. After our GofundMe took off, created by a caring, generous friend that quite literally saved us since we had no insurance, that rude woman’s comment is what comes to the forefront of my mind.

How much money do these people even need?”

Oh, honey. You have no idea how much it costs to replace every fucking fork, pillow, and lamp in your house. I kind of hope you never have any idea. Because you clearly won’t make it. Gofundme or not.

The only reason the fire is fresh right now is because of my friend and her plea for advice. It’s a hard question to answer, especially for someone else. And as I found with a total loss, even the few things you might be able to painstaking clean in order to save completely lose their luster weeks, months later, even as you cling to them and think I have this at least. They end up not mattering all that much.

My husband and I were lucky to get out with our lives. But if I’d had the time to prepare would it be a different story? I’d have choices. Preparation. Maybe even a little acceptance before the fact. I’m not sure.

One realization my friend’s situation drove home is that while I may not think about that night very often, it’s still very much in my body. I often feel it in the pit of my stomach; it still makes me feel alone in some weird way. I don’t think watching fire eat its way toward your front porch minute to minute is any better than being startled by what sounds like a bomb going off outside your window. Loss is loss is loss. And it remains within.

The fire changed me. It changed my perspective on loss and grief, and materialism and permanence. I was never very materialistic to begin with, but now I hardly care about anything I own. I buy and toss with abandon.

I finally give my friend an answer: photos and journals.

My childhood journals used to be one of my most treasured belongings, my personal history chronicled by tiny hands and enormous troubles from age ten. My friend is also a writer, and she’d fortunately already rescued her history. For me, the private canon is lost, and so now my only cherished object is simply my computer. It holds the present, the only thing that really matters to me anymore. Today. But I won’t lie, sometimes it’s hard to hold on to that, because today isn’t promised either. And I miss seeing my child-self, and knowing she was real. Those journals were the only proof and somehow always felt more reliable than my memory. Now my computer holds that privilege.

But the actual hardest part of losing everything has nothing to do with belongings. It was the simultaneous loss of hope and excitement for the future, which I did not see coming. When you are suddenly homeless, even when generous donations are rolling in and someone steps in and gives you temporary housing, you realize how much of your life is out of your control. Security is an illusion. Whereas I used to be the scripter of all possibilities, I lost the desire to plan for anything at all, let alone anything good, because I suddenly had an inherent understanding that nothing lasts forever. I was already of that mind to a certain degree because I’m skeptically optimistic even in my planning, but now I sometimes find myself paralyzed by the idea of a future commitment. It’s maybe akin to being depressed, that apathetic, immobile feeling. But I don’t feel depressed. I sometimes feel defeated, and think: okay you win, without having any idea who my opponent is. Myself, I imagine.

Perhaps it’s part of growing up, also. Naïvely I used to lily-pad from one event to the next, allowing the apprehension of the next thing to both pull me along through my days as a distraction, and heighten my senses as I went. Lily-pad possibility is a drug, and so I set up date after date — a vacation here, a conference here, a new house here, a shopping trip there, here a new degree, there a new degree — and never really took in the journey along the way. I wasn’t really processing anything, I was just doing things. My path looked something like an old tangled cobweb, never leaving the corner and messing up its own art. I never felt failure, but I wasn’t able to truly celebrate success either. Instead, I’d focus on the ‘next thing’ so I wouldn’t have to feel anything at all. Feeling is dangerous. And the next thing is pleasantly distracting and endless. Or so I thought. Covid ended the lily-pad abuse. The pandemic ripped every last possibility out of my hands, leaving me to face that lost, defeated feeling once more.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that when you’re going through hardship, it’s better to sign up for more pain now rather than later, and I’ve been running that idea through my mind ever since. I regret that I still don’t understand it, at least not completely. In theory I think it means that if you lean into it now, you’ll have less pain later. I’m not sure I can buy into that because in my experience, it just keeps coming in one way or another. But my underwhelming and involuntary reaction is be numb, so I’m probably not the best test subject. The night of the fire, and for weeks after, I felt absolutely nothing. There was nothing to lean in to except a void.

When I was younger, I used to have intrusive thoughts of self-harm constantly. I used to fantasize about pressing my palms down on the hot electric burner, or ramming my car into a tree, or driving into a lake. I was afraid of sharp objects because I thought I’d stab myself. I was afraid of heights, not because I might fall, but because I might jump. I had no idea how trapped in my own brain I’d become, no idea that this behavior was as harmful as it can be until the night my forearms whispered, “slice us open so we can breathe.” That was when I finally realized I needed help, that my thoughts were not the silly dark fantasies of an over-imaginative writer, and rather a symptom of a much larger problem. After a period of therapy and intense self-reflection, as well as coming to terms with my avoidance of many issues, I completely changed my life. Those thoughts for the most part vanished, and I’m grateful for the release. But I’ve still never really learned how to feel, how to let the emotion in during the moment it is first felt, instead of dry-swallowing it. I wouldn’t even know how to lean in for more if I wanted to.

Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the greatest casualty of trauma”. I believe this is true. I often think about my very early childhood traumas and how they set me up for a lot of relationship challenges for the rest of my life. My early experiences created a stubborn, distrusting, disbelieving cynic who has little respect and zero trust for authority. (Wow, I sound like a picnic!) Sometimes that makes me angry with my parents, but more often I’m grateful to learn the psychology behind this, to have some framework for understanding why I might do or react a certain way, to know why my body physiologically reacts before my brain catches up. It’s helpful to have some guidelines in working through my own parenting, or partnering, challenges. All of those same experiences have also made me innovative, creative, determined, and hard-working. But I am not good at being vulnerable and I keep most of my empathy closeted so that I don’t have to feel it too acutely.

Since the fire, I can’t even fake assigning attachment to anything other than a couple other people. (Ok, and our furry companions) It’s difficult for me to understand why people place real value in objects, or food, or religious and philosophical beliefs. None of it comforts or explains or erases the circumstances of pain. I’ll never be the type to “seek happiness”, I find that idea ridiculous. I much rather find personal meaning in all the moments that make up my life. Even the tragic ones. Especially the tragic ones. None of this is new for me, but it is far more pronounced since the August night that felt like we were facing down death.

So maybe the fire didn’t change me, exactly. It burned away some of the rough edges, made some new scars, but in some ways ultimately refined me.

Because on the hopeful side of all this struggle, I have continued to hone my craft. I’ve learned the joy of creating something from nothing and watching it take flight into the world and knowing I can do it again. I mother with more honesty, I live with more authenticity, I hope to be better today than I was yesterday. I try to be more generous, more aware, and more willing to listen than ever. I still battle the numb, lonely, defeated side of myself, but good god that is so much better than idealizing self-harm. I never want to go back to that. Baby steps.

I’m not sure I can lean into the pain yet. There’s a real fear of falling too far, being pulled back into a deep hole. But I’m trying to recognize it, give it a name and understand its source. I’m not trying to explain it away as often, or distract myself from it, or stuff it under the couch cushions and pretend everything is fine. I’m dealing with the consequences of telling my truth, and understanding my truth may not always be appreciated. Or actually true.

It’s on days like today, when my heart hurts for my friend agonizingly awaiting her home’s fate, and when my hometown is under water because of the remnants of a hurricane, when a pandemic rages on, and the end of a war causes more destruction, and it’s just a day of so much heaviness. These are the days when I’m reminded of all my own gravity, and when I’m reminded of what is truly important to me.

That’s when her question really bears down: If I had known, what would I have grabbed before the fire? What would I have held onto tightly as I ran out, barefoot, into the middle of that night with nothing but a robe to my name?

I know the answer will always be the resilience to keep going.




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Jess Rinker

Jess Rinker

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