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It’s a cold, quiet, snowy day today. I had a few good cries over the weekend over Roscoe, over Dusty, and over the reality of thinking “Oh, I have one of those,” followed seconds later by, “No, it burned up”. On some days, depending on what I’m doing or where my untethered thoughts drift, that last thought sequence can happen a dozen times a day. It makes me pretty sad when it does.

Yesterday was a work holiday and I ventured into in the quasi-big city for groceries. A stop at a thrift store dropped the blessing of a baker’s dozen of books by one of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse. My well-curated collection was lost in the fire, and these were even the same editions. I felt like I was looking at my own now-gone shelves. Granted, I have a long way to go to build back my library of his work, but this gift made me feel that my angels were with me.

When my angels are with me, one of two things happen. If it’s at night, I see twinkling blue lights in front of me. I think of it as the “Blue Light Special”. The night of December 30, when I went to bed, there were so many of them that I was reminded of the fireflies in the backyard on summer nights when I was young. During the day, the angels let me know they’re with me by a tingling on my scalp and a warm gentle feel of an arm around my shoulder, or a brush of a kiss on my cheek. All comforts that make my heart ache with joy and gratitude. I have not forgotten them and it’s so nice to know that they have not forgotten me.

As I was trying to cook and not set the Retreat aflame, it occurred to me that I’d always thought I’d wind up a wizened and mysterious old woman, living in my little white house at the edge of town, growing flowers and tending old dogs and cats, and all the children would think I was a witch, which would make them a little hesitant and very curious and then they’d discover how wise I was. Now the the cozy house is gone, what am I to do?

I was born only a few miles from the house I grew up in, the house my parents lived in my whole adult life, the house in which my Father died. As I’ve said, it’s what I truly thought of as home. My Mother sold it about 10 months before she died, about 5 months after my Father died.

I wanted that sense of security for K. I could see the cozy house’s lights from the room in hospital where K was born. It was always her home, even after I moved to the Cottage and then to the Bungalow. Even after she went 1,000 miles away to college, and then 500 miles away to start her grown-up life.

I have often talked with her about the concept of home. Now my heart breaks that she has suffered this loss of home as a place, a concept, and a heart, just as I have now done twice. She’s too young for this loss.

Several sisters of my heart were raised differently from me, being from military families. They moved often and far. One has wondered why I left so many things I treasured in the cozy house. She was not attached to much and was ready to pick up and move when the family needed to, never leaving anything behind. Another has found herself more attached to things since she had to pick up stakes so often.

My Mother was the child of a somewhat nomadic father, and she loved moving. She loved the new towns, new schools, new people. Her lack of attachment to things, as I discussed yesterday, was also most obvious to me by the fact that she sold her wedding dress. She didn’t think about the daughter she might have someday who might want it. She did save a silk chiffon scarf that she wore on her wedding day, that I wore on mine, that is now ashes.

My Father moved, but most of it was for education. Kentucky, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and finally, North Carolina, where my childhood house was the first and only house he bought. But despite all those moves, he had a family home to go back to in West Virginia, where his Mother was born and lived until she could no longer live alone, which was in her mid-80s. While we never discussed it, I think he had the same concept of home that I did.

Of course, all of this is completely contradictory to the me that I know that wants to travel until the end of my days and beyond. Or is it? Does my wandering soul just need to know that there is a home, a sanctuary to return to? I welcome your comments here. They help deepen my thoughts about this topic that has been a lifelong wonderment.

A house that was a half-time home two decades ago.

How many times have I sat with grief before? I have lost count. But before, it has been grief for people, for relationships, and for the futures that are lost along with them. The number of people that I have lost is severely disproportionate to my years. Unfortunately and mysteriously, K seems to be following a similar pattern in her quarter-century life.

But I’ve never lost something so tangible and with so many intricacies and layers. Something that was primarily composed of things, and that was a thing itself. I’ve lost gloves and iPods and earrings. I’ve broken favorite coffee mugs and Christmas ornaments. I’ve lost fuzzy pink sweaters and high heeled booties. Reading glasses and birth control pills (!). But this loss and the grief of it is so very different. While, yes, we have lost things (I cannot think of the loss of Roscoe and Dusty right now), we have lost more than that. I am grieving the loss of what my heart felt was a surety, a safe place, a place that would always be there if I needed it. The very definition of home.

Having a place become home takes a long time. For me, it takes a very long time. I was in the Bungalow for ten years. It felt much like home, like the place I yearned for after a long day, but my feelings were more centered around attachment than safety. I’m not sure that makes sense, yet I know it to be so. The cozy house was mine for 30 years. It had earned its place as home.

When I’ve longed for home, I’ve longed for the house I grew up in, which my Mother sold before she passed. I know it’s not the house itself that I yearn for as much as the feeling of safety and being cared for, of someone making everything better so I didn’t have to do or think about hard, sad, bad things. The longing for being a child again. I’m still salty about my mom selling the house, and saltier still about the buyer who cut down all the beautiful old pecan trees in the front and backyards. This loss — my loss — of the cozy house has forced me to confront the feelings of losing my childhood sanctuary. I have now lost yet another sanctuary. Perhaps sanctuaries are temporary. Perhaps they are illusions.

So I hole up in the Retreat, beneath blankets and blue skies. I tell the cozy house’s story to the man who comes to plow the driveway. I bake brownies because no Southerner allows a loss to go unmarked by home-baked goods. I sit side by side with my grief, watching it turn and transform in the changing light behind my eyes. My friend, my enemy, my companion.

The cozy house.
Photo credit: Megan Williams

Fire and I have had a lifelong complicated relationship. Actually, it extends into a past life relationship, but that’s a little too woo-woo for me to get into just now.

Growing up, the fireplace was a focal point in my parent’s house. A cord of wood was dumped in the garage (which was never used as a garage) every year and my dad would stack it and chop it as needed. When it turned cold, we’d stack wood in the basement to avoid having to go outside to get it. Kindling came from the pecan trees, supplemented by newspaper, of which there was no shortage, since my dad took at least six papers. While we had a furnace – a big old scary roaring cast iron thing in the basement – my parents, being depression era children, always kept the house cold, using the fireplace as a major heat source.

We had a fire almost every night from Fall through Spring. Little me learned how to tell if it was smoking into the living room and point that out to my dad. Bigger me learned how to fix it when it was smoking. On cold mornings, I would scrape the ashes looking for some extra warmth from the coals like Cinderella. Scraping through the ashes of the cozy house, even 10 days after the fire, I found warm spots that reminded me of my Cinderella mornings.

E-Bro melted the soles of numerous pairs of shoes reading on the floor in front of the fireplace. One summer morning, when I was very small, my parents tucked him just a tiny bit up the chimney in a Santa Claus costume and surprised me with Santa’s visit. I still remember how thrilled I felt.

The chimney caught fire once and the fire department came to put it out. I was always nervous when we cleaned out the chimney after that. One day, after a night where the fire didn’t draw well, my sixth grade English teacher took me aside and asked me kindly if my home had caught fire because my hair smelled so much like smoke.

In college in Boston, I made the decision to leave as I stood at my window and watched the building across the street from my brownstone dorm go up in violent flames, set alit by an arsonist terrorizing the area. As it burned, I thought, “I am too young for this.”

In college in Boulder, I lived on the top back room of a rooming house that was otherwise occupied by six guys of questionable character in their 30s. One morning, after being awake for 48 hours between work and disasterous midterms, I was finally sleeping when someone pounded on my door. I was charming and cursed at them and told them to go away. This person said, in exactly the tone you would expect, “Well, EXCUSE ME, but your house is on fire and I THOUGHT YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW.” Which it was. I struggled into my red and white striped robe, stumbled barefoot down the stairs past the quickly charring door of the room on fire, just missing the explosion of the front window. Someone gave me a pair of tennis shoes since I was barefoot on this November morning. Turns out one of my fellow tenants went to the Mental Health Center and told them he’d just set his room on fire and there were people sleeping in the house. The Fire Department got the fire under control, though that tenant’s room was completely destroyed. The firefighters had kicked in my unlocked door and checked to be sure the fire hadn’t breached the walls. I didn’t have much, but everything I owned smelled like smoke for weeks. I moved my bed into the empty attic and left my clothes outside in the cold to air them.

After college, still in Boulder, ex-Pat and I watched smoke and ash creep towards our North Boulder apartment over Mt. Sanitas. It was nerve wracking. I went through a small phase of insanity in which I’d chase wildfires when I knew they were burning in the hills. That stopped one day when my truck got stuck and I watched a ridge across from me burn, the fire’s fingers greedily creeping toward me. It was a miracle that I got myself unstuck. I was in the application process to become a wildfire fighter when I broke my foot, dashing that goal.

In the cozy house in Superior, the fireplace took up half of the living room wall. It was romantic at times, comforting at times, frustrating at times. I learned how to build a good fire. I chopped wood without losing any appendages. There was always a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, just like we had in my parents’ house. Ironic that the chimney is the only thing left standing. The fireplace felt like the heart of the house.

Living in the Cottage, I watched the Four Mile fire consume familiar hillsides. I watched the Colorado Springs fire on TV in the Bungalow and have never seen anything that more closely resembled what I’d imagine Hell to look like.

Until now. I still can’t visualize what the hell of this fire looked like but I can see the hell it has left behind. The loss and heartbreak that it has created are our own personal little hells.

I worry that the Retreat might be subject to fire. It’s in the woods, in the mountains, almost to be expected. MKL is wise to tell me not to think of it so I don’t draw it to us. But I feel like fire has licked at my heels my whole life. It just hasn’t gotten me yet. I really hope it’s done trying.

I got a letter from Anna. (Hi, Anna – I love you.) She’s someone I think of as a real writer, as opposed to my aspirational self, because she’s taken the risk of submitting work for publication and actually getting it published. She’s faced the fear of rejection, which is paralyzing for me, and met it head on. And defeated it, though I suspect its spectral form creeps and lingers every time she hits a submit button.

Her letter was handwritten, several pages, on thick cream vellum, the sort I imagine Jane Austen using to write to her sisters when she was away. In it, she advised me to write about the now-gone house, to go through it room by room, recording the memories housed in each, the appearance, the items, the events, the plans. Recreating it through words. I love this idea. I want to hold onto all of it, every carpet fiber, every window smudge, every seashell. Anna is a wise woman.

Writing here has been a comfort, an outlet, a place to spill my feelings when I’m spilling tears onto the floor or into one of MKL’s bandanna kerchiefs. I’ve also been writing in a journal, purchased especially for the purpose of recording thoughts about the fire. It’s turquoise, the color of my spirit. I opted not to get the orange one because I’m calling it The Burn Book (yes, a tiny homage) and I thought orange would just be overkill. The color is also slightly triggering just now, and I’m not a person who really buys into triggers. But here we are.

So I will likely use The Burn Book to capture the essence of the cozy home that for so long held my heart and dreams, writing when I am in a quiet place of solace, though that’s hard to find beneath the pain these days. And I will treasure it, protecting it as one of my prized possessions, because my fear of losing journals and books to flames is more pronounced than ever.

I wake each day hoping that the ache will have eased just a hair’s breadth, hoping that the flow of words and the busyness of living will help all that’s happened and all that’s been lost find their places in the mix of cells and stardust that is me. I’m sure one of these days, that will be true.

I am a visual person, which means I need to see something in order to have it make sense, in order to integrate it into my being. When ex-Pat used to describe something he was planning to build, he’d get frustrated with me because I’d need him to draw it for me. This is causing me not inconsiderable anxiety as I struggle to understand the fire.

I’ve seen pictures of the smoke. I’ve seen pictures of the flaming shed on the Twelve Tribes property. I’ve seen videos of people driving through ash. I’ve seen images of the fires after dark. And I’ve seen what’s left. But I need to know what happened to MY house.

I’ve heard things. A 100 foot wall of flame. Sustained winds as strong as a Category 3 hurricane. So much speed and power that the fire developed its own weather system inside it.

But how did it approach? Did the smoke envelop the house before the fire? How quickly did it roar through my property? What did all those trees surrounding the house look like on fire? Giant candelabras? What burned first? Did the walls collapse? The roof? Did Roscoe and Dusty just have one smoke-filled breath and pass out? What made it stop so that the house across the street is untouched? What did it look like as it was happening?

Unless some heretofore unseen video pops up, I doubt I will ever have these answers. I wonder if it is actually a blessing that I didn’t see it, that I can’t know. It might be just too much to bear. The limit of what I can stand or bear or survive has been stretched mighty thin these days. Hugs and closeness and lots of blankets and what I’m calling my emotional support wine bottle have helped.

The only thing that I know is that had I been there, I most likely would not be here. I have a long, complex relationship with fire, something to be explored on another day. I am also stubborn to a fault, and would have fought to save my cat, my dog, and my house, regardless of logic and circumstance, until the bitter end. As I’ve been wont to say of late, I’ve had a good run. So even though I may not feel very enthusiastic about being here right now, I’m still here. For the folks who love me.

It’s that faraway stare. I don’t think “faraway” is usually one word, but it feels fitting. I had started to call it “vacuous” but that implies a detachment, and this is far from detached. This is a survivor’s stare, one I engage in when I’m sitting on the remains of a brick wall amidst the melted glass that used to be my greenhouse. When I’m seemingly looking at a patch of unmelted ice or something beyond the sky.

Behind my eyes, I’m seeing the golden knotty pine of the living room walls. I’m seeing us rolling a ball from one side of the light lavender kitchen floor to the other, to verify the slope of the room. I’m seeing myself painting the cat room a lovely peach color. I’m seeing K’s blue carpet and sunny walls and the abstract statue of a mother holding a child – a statue my mother gave me, to represent us – that was on the shelf above the desk in K’s room, the desk that has been my grandfather’s. I’m seeing the corner of the garden where the moonflowers bloomed.

I’m seeing what was and what might have been, while looking through what is as if it isn’t. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me.

Amber the Bloodhound came out with her handlers, Duffy and Brittany, to look for Dusty. We’ve concluded that my sweet little snuggle bug did not make it out. But the fire was so fast and the smoke so dense that it was likely only a single breath, and then peace. A small comfort but right now, I’ll take any comfort, no matter how small. As soon as they left, I found what looked like the tiniest glass paw print in the ashes. Thank you, Dusty, for letting me know you’re all right.

Not a lot of words today. Just a lot of frustration and emotions.

I dug today, alone for the most part. The snow expected last night held off. I told myself I’d only do it for an hour; suddenly, four hours had gone by. I think I’m focused on trying to find whatever might be left of my Dusty. The vertebrae that I found today was too big to be his; I’m assuming it belonged to one of the raccoons that were frequent residents of the attic.

I am surprised that none of the neighbors are combing through the rubble. I’m certainly not the only one with wreckage to search. Are they waiting for someone else to do it? Are there just too many other things to attend to? I suppose that’s it, because ex-Pat is tending to things like insurance and contacting the bank and finding a place to live, along with other practicalities. He is not the sentimental kind, so this division of labor makes sense. But he tears up when he experiences firsthand the kindness of strangers and the generosity of the folks who have given to the “Go Fund Me” to help him or offered other assistance as part of the beautiful community.

Digging through the space that was K’s room, I found some old coins, a metal wolf sculpture, the remnants of a sword, and puddles of molten metal that were once her many Hot Wheels. Even in this dark time, my mind tried to find some humorous retort the the universe about “hot” wheels.

I scraped through the ashes with a gardening hand tool with a handle that kept coming off. To my unending fascination, I kept hitting dirt or rocks at much shallower depths than I’d expected. It has made me think about the foundations on which we build our houses, our families, our entire lives. Are they all this tenuous, this deceptively shallow, and we just don’t know it until something explosive comes along to disrupt it, changing everything in a single hour? Another answer that I don’t have. There are so many of those just now.

I so wish I had some closure or sign about Dusty. It got very cold as I stopped for the day and it started snowing in earnest. We have reached out to someone we’re calling “the Bloodhound Lady” in the hope that she might be able to find a trace. Even though I have some skill as an animal shaman, I have not been able to settle my mind enough to see what I can find. In this circumstance, I cannot be the hollow bone, not yet.

My heart hurts a tiny bit less today. Hunting through the ruins is good for me, I think. It keeps me busy and connected to the energy that still exists in the battered outlines of my house. I get dirty and sore and occasionally nearly forget why I’m doing it, and just feel like I’m hunting for buried treasure. Which really, I suppose I am.

June 2022
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