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If Your Life Caught Fire Tomorrow

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My 3-year-old daughter squeezed my husband’s face in her chilly palms, and screamed over the roar of wind and flame, “Go back in, DaDa, and get my unicorn shoes!” Bright tongues of fire blasted through the front windows of our home, shattering the glass. “Go get them!”

Two weeks before the start of the holiday season (and the Black Friday sales) our home of six years was devastated by an electrical fire. Our landlords, who lived on the first floor, had already left for work when we smelled the smoke. I can’t remember exactly how we got from the breakfast table to the sidewalk, but my husband and I got both of our daughters safely outside, and the four of us stood there, shoeless, watching it burn.

We were lucky. No one was injured, and we caught the fire before it invaded our living space. That left us with half a decade’s worth of toys, clothes, books and more toys, to sift through and assess. Did this doll’s hair smell smoky? How many times should we wipe down a board book before it was deemed “safe?”

“Start over,” my pediatrician said firmly.

Others assured me that if it didn’t smell, it would be fine.

But everything smelled. Toxic, burnt-rubber odors that stayed in my children’s hair for days. Part of me wanted to walk away from the ruins of our life and never look back. But that would be wasteful, and impossible; without renter’s insurance, we were legally, and fiscally, responsible for clearing our apartment. It had to be empty. We had ten days to decide about what to keep and what to chuck, whether we liked it or not.

My husband and I spent hours in our post-apocalyptic apartment, wearing masks and other people’s winter coats, filling contractor bags with what we used to call our life.

It’s shocking to take stock of how much you actually have when you move — the hundred and one scarves, the thousands of plastic bags crammed under the sink. Drawers full of junk you always knew was useless, but kept, just in case.

But moving with two children is facing the fact that you have Stage 4 Hoarder’s Disease. Just imagine how many garbage bags you might fill with small plastic bits and disembodied doll limbs. Hard rocks of forgotten play dough. Toys your children didn’t know they had. Pound of clothes your toddler refused to wear. Imagine the dozens of stuffed bears and floppy-eared bunnies you could never bring yourself to throw away, staring at you now with eyes that seem to beg, Love me.

My husband and I spent hours in our post-apocalyptic apartment, wearing masks and other people’s winter coats, filling contractor bags with what we used to call our life. Books. CDs. Old notebooks. The tiny hand prints my daughter made her first year in daycare, with their stand-out gold-glitter nails. The black Christmas tree I had immediately identified as the work of my child, hanging amongst all bright green glittery ones on her classroom wall.

It felt terrible.

We should feel bad throwing stuff away. The best way to recycle is to reuse. But what about when you have so much that you don’t get around to even using half of it, nevermind reusing? Why do we, collectively, have so much?

Lucky child and the 23 pairs of shoes. Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

In the days and weeks after the fire, my family was held aloft by the generosity of our community. I received so many bags of baby clothes for my 9-month-old daughter, I’ve already donated five to a woman’s shelter. Even more impressively, in a single weekend, my eldest daughter went from owning no shoes, to being the proud owner of 23 pairs. That makes forty-six individual shoes to arrange and caress, and creates an opportunity for enacting a majestic Changing of the Shoes every hour of every day.

I repeat: Why do we have so much?

I’ve joked that if your house is going to burn down, there’s no better time than two weeks before Black Friday. I’d never actually participated in Black Friday shopping before. Not because I’m a good, ethical human being, but simply because shopping makes me panic. The excess of possibilities, accompanied by an uncomfortable awareness of how much I don’t need and how little most of the world has, often sends me racing out the door empty-handed.

But in the age of Amazon and Cyber Monday, it’s easier to buy unnecessary crap. This year was a little different. We do, after all, need things like spoons and beds. But Amazon’s savvy algorithms are far more sophisticated than me. There I was, scrolling through page after page of garbage pails, when an ad caught my eye. An easel for your little artist! One click on the easel and then I’m scrolling glitter paint. Activity tables. Wands.

My toddler peered over my shoulder and squealed. “I want that Mama.”

She was pointing to a toilet plunger (we needed one of those too).

When my daughter crawled in my lap and started flicking at the computer screen (because she thinks the whole world is a giant touch screen) and asking for another pair of shoes, I decided I needed to make some radical changes. To use this experience not only to purge, but to make a real lifestyle shift.

This is not easy! We live in a society that doesn’t just suggest but commands, shouts in bold color and dazzling sparkle, that buying the shoes, the rug, the plunger, will make us feel better. “Retail therapy” is an actual term. Objects may bring a thrill, but they don’t bring real contentment. We know that. Don’t we?

As holiday advertising encroaches upon us, there are impulses, and grandmothers, to control.

In our culture, in many cultures, we mark special occasions with a gift. During the holidays, we make lists of people we barely know but need to buy for, and longer lists of the many things we must buy for the people we do know well. We blow entire paychecks at Bath and Body Works, buying scented lotion for the “difficult” people. And so buying presents becomes an obligation rather than a heartfelt action. For this reason, my husband and I stopped exchanging holiday gifts years ago, and recently, made our daughters’ birthday parties “no gift” events because we want our children to understand that they are just as happy with less.

Regardless of my own struggles, or perhaps precisely because of them, I want my children to know that true satisfaction comes with doing, not consuming. To know it in the way they know that breath is life and food is delicious.

As holiday advertising encroaches upon us, there are impulses, and grandmothers, to control. In an attempt to find balance, I’ve made a restrictive list of presents, because my children are still young enough that I can. Instead of buying my toddler the 74-piece set of plastic food, I bought her the 16-piece wooden set. Because bigger isn’t always better, and more is almost never the path to enough. And let’s be real: half the time, small children are more interested in the boxes than the toys that come inside them.

It’s been nearly a month since the fire, and here’s the truth: although I lost about two-thirds of my stuff, I don’t miss any of it. Admittedly, I’ve felt a few pangs over the loss of the necklace made from washing machine bits that I bought at a refugee art market in Paris. And yes, my heart aches for those tiny handprints. But when we crank up the Christmas tunes and play princess dance party while eating raw cookie dough at 6:30 in the morning, our new home feels suddenly very full. That’s abundance.