A Year and Three Months After the Fire
It does not matter
how slowly you go,
as long as you do not stop.
Last week I had a meltdown in the parking lot of Ferguson’s Plumbing in Denver. I walked out of the store, got in the car, put the key in the ignition, and promptly burst into tears. I put my head down on the steering wheel and sobbed those long, choking sobs that come from pure grief, from a place so deep you can’t even name it.
When I realized I couldn’t stop crying, I started punching numbers on my phone, and finally got a hold of my friend Karen in Dayton, Ohio. When she picked up the phone, I sobbed, “Karen, I’m in a parking lot in Denver and I can’t stop crying.” She said, “Oh, sweetie, what is it?” “Everything,” I said, “It’s just everything. I’m doing my best but I feel like things are going so fast and I just can’t keep up. I want to get off this roller coaster. I just want to GET OFF. And I can’t believe I’m crying in a plumbing supply PARKING LOT for god’s sake…”
So what brought on this recent meltdown? What traumatic experience made me sob in a parking lot on a sunny Tuesday afternoon? Was someone mean to me? Did I get some bad news from the insurance company? No, it was picking out plumbing fixtures. That’s right, I completely lost it after looking at too many faucets, toilets, sinks and bathtubs.
I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, people are starving and out of work, and she’s crying over faucets? Get over it, will you?” Well, as I’ve said before, it’s all a matter of perspective. Building a house from the ground up, all by yourself, on a limited budget, is a daunting prospect, especially when it’s not something you ever wanted to do. In fact, many people from the Four Mile Fire opted out of rebuilding – the very thought of it was so exhausting that they cashed out and found another place to live.
Building a house is a hopeful endeavor, to be sure. Watching my house literally rise from the ashes has been amazing. Seeing the first walls go up took my breath away, and brought happy tears to my eyes. But now that the house is being rebuilt, everyone asks me, “Aren’t you just having fun with it?” Having fun? Not exactly. As I told an interviewer recently, there are moments of fun. But the overall process is frankly overwhelming and exhausting most of the time.
It’s a huge and complicated process – one that involves making hundreds of decisions, and choosing things that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life. The human brain is wired to make lots of decisions quickly in times of crisis – I remember the overwhelming amount of details my mother had to deal with after my father died – but we’re just not built to do this for months and months on end. We get tired. The hard drive that is your brain starts to beep and say it’s “full.” And then you melt down, right there in the plumbing supply parking lot.
So, back to the plumbing supply store. When I drove out there that day I was full of enthusiasm. I walked in and met the very nice saleswoman, who pulled out a sheet of paper and said, “Where do you want to start?” I looked at her and said, “Uh, I dunno…” Keep in mind that I have never so much as remodeled a bathroom in my entire life. I have never chosen a paint color, or a sink, or even a towel rack. My home was completely redone right before I bought it twenty years ago, and my concept of remodeling was to paint all the walls white and call it good. “Where do you want to start?” That’s a huge question. My enthusiasm started to wane. This might be a little harder than I thought.
She saw the look of panic on my face and said, “How about the master bathroom? Want to start there? Let’s start with faucets.” Okay, I said, that sounds easy. So we walked over to where the faucets were and I found myself facing three entire WALLS of faucets. Just faucets. Oh my god, I thought, I’m supposed to pick ONE? “Well,” said the cheerful saleswoman, “What do you see here that you like? Do you want single handle, double handle, wall-mounted, or touch-free?” I looked at them and just blanked. There were flat faucets, curved faucets, gooseneck faucets, faucets that looked like Japanese bamboo, tall and short faucets, modern and classic faucets, chrome, brushed nickel, antique bronze, and colors that I don’t even know the names of. Walls and walls of bathroom faucets. And some of those faucets cost FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. And I was supposed to sort out what I liked from what I can afford, try to imagine what my future bathroom is going to look like, and then pick one that I can live with for the next twenty years? One faucet?
The Little Voice of Panic that lives inside me popped up and whispered, “You are never, never going to be able to do this.” Then my other voice, the Irish Warrior Princess Voice, told the Voice of Panic to Shut the Hell Up, and then said, “Just take this one faucet at a time.” I took a breath. Okay, one faucet at a time. We proceeded to walk around the store, she with her clipboard, me trying to breathe, and I looked at the walls of bathroom faucets, and kitchen faucets, and tub fillers, and shower fixtures, and hand-held sprayers, soap dispensers, kitchen sinks, laundry sinks, laundry faucets, bathroom sinks, vanities, toilets, bathtubs…it seemed to just go on and on and on.
After two hours, the list wasn’t even half finished, and the cheerful saleswoman was frustrated and burned out, and I was exhausted. She had another appointment, and I had only a rough idea of what I wanted. She looked at me and said, “According to your building schedule, we really need to get these choices to the plumber, so you’ll need to come back again really soon.” That meant making the hour and a half drive, each way, all over again, taking time out from work, and from all the other house decisions I have to make, to look again at walls of faucets and sinks and toilets. “Okay,” I said, “I can come back day after tomorrow.” I smiled and shook her hand, and then I walked out to my car, got in, and started to sob uncontrollably.
I did finally get my meltdown under control, and my friend Karen made me laugh again, and I hung up and started the long drive home. I was way out past the airport, on a little-used highway at the edge of the city, out near the eastern plains. As I drove toward Boulder I watched the late afternoon sunlight paint the Rocky Mountains pink. I popped in a CD with a talk by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, who spoke about staying in the present, and how most of our troubles are brought about by dwelling in the past, or fearfully anticipating the future. I took a breath, and tried to forget about faucets and sinks and hurried salespeople and plumbing schedules, and focused on the moment.
In that moment, I was driving an empty Colorado highway, on a winter afternoon, with beautiful mountains in the distance. Around me, the lights of houses were starting to come on; houses full of people who were already home, people with their own problems, many of which were surely greater than mine. I was on my way back to my little rented cottage in a beautiful park, where a small, furry bundle of love was waiting to greet me, tail wagging, full of joy, as if I were the Greatest Person on Earth. I had loving and faithful friends who could talk me down from silly plumbing meltdowns and make me laugh again. And because I had parents who told me I could do anything I put my mind to, I had an Irish Warrior Princess inside who was going to cheer me on, every step of the way.
As I drove, I felt a smile creep over my face. “I’m going to do this,” I thought. “I’m actually going to build an entire house, and I’m going to pick all the damn appliances and faucets and light switches and doors and plumbing fixtures. And then someday I’m going to be home again in a beautiful new house, and it doesn’t matter if I’ve never done this before or I don’t have a lot of money or I’m doing it alone. I’m going to do this. One faucet at a time.” And I smiled, and turned off Eckhart Tolle, and turned on the radio, and started to sing.
Sometimes, after a great loss, the strangest things send you over the edge – an unkind word from a stranger, or dropping your favorite cup and gasping as it shatters on the floor. And sometimes it’s the smallest things that get you through – a beautiful sunset, a talk with a friend, a little dog. There is so much grace in our lives, and there are so many small things waiting to lift us up, and talk us down, and help us breathe again. Each day I’m reminded of the great paradox of our lives on Earth – how each day brings so many challenges, so much heartache, and also so much unexpected joy.
Each day when I open the door to go out into the world, I know that there are traps waiting for me – mean people, bad traffic, and tiny, sharp hurts. Life sometimes feels like wading across a river full of piranhas; it’s not the big shark bites that get you, it’s those hundreds of little nibbles. And there are also gifts waiting around each corner, little acts of love and kindness – a card in the mail from a stranger, a friend who calls out of the blue and tells me she’s thinking of me. Each day, it seems, is the Best of Times, and the Worst of Times, and it’s all part of this great Dance of Life. I think the important thing is to just keep going, to get up each day and go out that door, and peek around that corner, and see what’s out there. It might turn out better than you think – even the plumbing.
Wishing You Days of Joy, and Hopeful Prospects,
The House in the Snow, and Kenda, Jerry the Contractor's Cute Dog