I met a woman once whose home had burned.
She’d used the image as a metaphor for so long that it took some time to understand it had actually happened, it had happened to her, the fire; and that’s no metaphor, that’s about as literal as it gets. Her home had burned. She was in the building when the fire took hold, having dinner with her husband and their two children. It wasn’t arson or attempted murder; it was, rather, the most ordinary of tragedies, the result of a faulty electrical wire.
They lived above the art gallery where she showed her work. She collected found objects along the beach and added them to paintings. The fire started down there, among the pieces of shells and the sea glass glued to bright acrylic oceans, and it spread upward.
It was disaster on a domestic scale: no one died, no one was hurt, no one burned. The family got out in an orderly way and sat on the curb across the street watching the firefighters as they doused the flames. There was a paragraph about it in the local newspaper, and the insurance policy paid out enough to manage another roof over their heads.
But then, she told me, there was the odor, the odor that would wake her for years afterward in the night, the odor she thought would never leave her. The odor of the end of things. And she saw it, too, saw her home burning, over and over and over until she begged her doctor for sleeping pills, anything to let her move beyond that moment, beyond repeating that scene night after night in her dreams.
“You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire,” wrote Charles Bukowski in Factotum. He was talking about writing, about giving one hundred percent of oneself to the craft, but it always seemed to me that nights flaming with fire would be the least of it all. Keeping going once the flames are out, whether with writing or with life: that’s the tricky part.
It wasn’t the fire that was this woman’s real problem; it was its aftermath. Even though it was her living destroyed in the gallery, it was her husband who took to drinking too much, to long bouts of self-pity, to lashing out in anger at everything around him, howling at the unfairness of the loss, of the pain of starting over. “I had to guide him through it,” she told me, “and so I didn’t have any time to guide myself.” And then there were her children who needed constant reassurance, constant care, constant attention to their own fallout: bedwetting, fights at school, oppositional behavior. And she was expected to be the one to hold them all together.
I wrote a poem a while ago, and it wasn’t until I finished it that I realized I was talking about her and not myself. I was remembering selling my house, a house I’d loved and hated leaving; the sale forced me to make decisions about what I owned-keep this, give that away. I titled the poem The Things We Cared About and put my experience in the context of a different event, one that would make those decisions, finally and irrevocably:
These were the
things we cared about before
and then the fire came, flames over those half-remembered moments
bright and hot and teaching us quickly
what was the unsurvivable loss, and how little we did care about
in the end, when it was too late
… to give it all away.
Is that what nights flaming with fire teach us? That being owned by objects and things and memories is the least enduring of ownerships?-or that ownership is itself an illusion? And what loss is survivable, and what loss is not? I took it all to heart, realizing with a slow dawning delight that the less stuff I had, the happier I became. I’d been forced by economic necessity to do something that I should have done decades before: Understand what matters, and—perhaps more importantly—what doesn’t.
I think about that woman and I think about what she lost, and it wasn’t about ownership at all. It was life she lost, it was everything: her relationship with a man become a stranger, parenting two children suddenly scarred and frightened and difficult, her ability to pick up her career and carry on with it, all of it wiped out when her night flamed with fire. Everyone expecting her-the woman, the mother, the wife, the keeper of the hearth-all of them expecting her to take care of them.
Well, there’s the metaphor. You knew it would surface again somewhere, didn’t you? The flames as metaphor for everything that happens to us, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, and then-with the aftermath of the fire-what we do with it. Or what we’re expected to do with it. Or what we can and cannot do with it.
The tricky part.
I’m starting to figure it out, that tricky part. I’m figuring it out in my writing, as I pare stories down to their essence, to their real meaning; and I’m doing it in life, too. Keeping the friends who make me smile, letting others fall by the wayside. Living in a smaller space with fewer amenities and more flexibility. Not waiting until my night flames with fire to make the choices myself.
Finding freedom in flames of fire or moving away or losing a loved one-the lesson is the same, isn’t it? It’s moving beyond, beyond others’ expectations of us, and our expectations of ourselves, into a space that we alone can create.
I met a woman once whose home had burned.
Originally published at https://www.jeannettedebeauvoir.com on May 8, 2019.