The Poetry of Loss

October 4th, 2010
Four Weeks After the Fire

(After reading a previous entry, someone remarked, “You are a Poet of Loss.”)

Hello Friends,

I am looking into the closet of my tiny bedroom in this tiny cottage, and counting my clothes. I have four shirts, and a pair of black pants. On the shelf, a pair of tan pants, and a t-shirt. On the back of the door hangs a long blue nightshirt. There’s a story behind that one.

When we went up to check the house after the fire, I absent-mindedly stopped and opened the mailbox. The only thing inside was the nightshirt, back ordered from Orvis, wrapped in green plastic. Somehow the shirt survived, completely intact, oblivious to the inferno all around. Such are the strange gifts of fire.

In the kitchen I have a cup that Rosemary gave me at the potluck, brightly painted with words of friendship and flowers; a coffee maker, and a few utensils. Most of the other cupboards are bare. There is an elegance to such sparseness; a poetry to this bare bones existence.

In the bathroom I have a small collection of tiny travel shampoos and soaps and toothpaste, which I got at the Free Store. The young women there had wrapped up toiletries in small cellophane bags and tied them with ribbons for fire survivors. When I bent down and picked one up, there was a small note tied to it with a shiny pink ribbon. It read, “Always thinking about you. Stay strong.” This made me weep on my friend Matthew’s shoulder, right there in the store. Taken aback once more by the kindness of strangers.

At the Free Store I found a long wool coat made by Jones New York, a couple of pillowcases, and some boots for winter. “Are you sure this is all you need?” asked Matthew, who flew all the way from Chicago to help me for a week. “Yes,” I said. “That’s it for now.” There were so many donations, such an outpouring of clothes and books and toys and food… I could hardly take it all in. “Is that all you need?” Yes. What do I need? How much “stuff” does a person need? This has been a contemplation all of my adult life.

When my house burned down at 12, my father shrugged and said Good Riddance. When he died at 62, he owned exactly four suits, a couple of golf outfits, two sets of gold cufflinks and a sports car. My mother used to say that if he ever decided to leave us, he could pack in five minutes. I don’t know if he was trying to keep the freedom he felt from losing everything, but after the fire he never really bought things again. And if people gave him things he merely gave them away. “You don’t own things,” he would say, “They own you.” And so we all became purveyors of freedom rather than of possessions, mastering the art of moving around, cutting ourselves free, no “stuff” to tie us down.

And then, at 40, I bought a house, and it began to fill up. Clothes, shoes, books, papers, exercise equipment, linens, collectibles… Each spring I would clean house, up there in the mountains, and fill boxes and bags with things for the annual Sugarloaf Garage Sale. I was ruthless, giving away books that had overflowed the shelves, clothes I hadn’t worn in years, kitchen utensils that I rarely used. I would go through files and dump papers, throw out old photographs, pare my memorabilia boxes down to a minimum. And yet there were times, late at night, when I’d walk around my spacious house and feel like a prisoner of all my stuff. “Who needs all these dishes?” I would think. “Why do I have closets and closets full of clothes?” At times I wanted to get rid of it all. But not like this; not all at once.

There is philosophy and there is reality. Deep down we sometimes wish we were free of all this stuff, that we were twenty-two again, and everything we owned fit into the back of an old Honda Civic. But then we realize that, for the most part, we need stuff to make a life. And when it all goes away, we are plunged into a strange and spinning place, with nothing to hold on to — no house, no home, no stuff, no clothes, no papers, no books, no clutter. Nothing to own. Nothing to own you.

My next door neighbor here in Chautauqua also lost his home in the fire, and the other day he came home with a bag of new clothes and sighed as he carried them up the stairs of his cottage. “So it begins,” he said sadly. “I was just beginning to relish the freedom of no-things.”

The freedom of no-things. Who are we when we have no “stuff?” Can we then become somebody brand new?

Yesterday in the mail I received a card from my friend Ellen. Tucked inside it was a small piece of paper with the following poem written on it.

The Guest House – by Jelaluddin Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Such is the poetry of loss — It is an invitation to see what lies beyond sorrow, what sits just on the other side of pain, what sun rises on the horizon of despair. It will pass, as all such experiences do. The edge will dull, the memory of “no-things” will blur. I will shop, and fill this tiny closet with the things that make up a life. I will once again own things, and try not to let them own me. I shall do my best to “meet them at the door laughing” — the things, the feelings, the crowd of sorrows, the unexpected visitors.

We will dance together, in a new place, a new home, with room for us all.

Wishing You a Good Night,

Andi at the House Site

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18 Responses to The Poetry of Loss

  1. Brooke says:

    I have that poem hanging in my office. Perhaps that’s how you found me! I admit though that I do not always meet them at the door laughing.

    I can’t believe you’ve been through this twice. It’s my worst fear. Before though, my worst fear was going through it once, so it’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose!

    And the question of STUFF has plagued me since the moment I lost it all. I want to shout from the rooftops (because, you know, I have one now), “But it was MY stuff damnit. And I liked my stuff.” Our memories are so inextricably linked to our stuff. There is no way that you can possibly hold the contents of your life in your conscious memory, and it’s usually by finding a note or a trinket or a piece of tape that you remember the most mundane but important of memories. There is a degree of losing memories that happens when you lose your stuff. And it amazes me that people aren’t more conscious of this… or maybe their brains are bigger than mine.

    Thanks for finding me. You’re linked up in my Google Reader now!

    • Andi says:

      Hi Brooke,

      So nice to have another Woman Who Has Walked Through Fire on the site! I was thinking that in Tolkien’s most popular novels, his characters have to face fire to complete their quest (dragons, fiery volcanoes) so perhaps we are epic heroines after all :-) Or at least Tough Little Hobbits!

      Rumi is amazing – he always seems to open new doors of perception for me.

      Thanks so much for visiting the site and commenting. Your own journey is inspiring, and gives me hope.

      Be Well,

      • myrn says:

        I was led to your site – looking for meaning in our fire – the Deckerville Fire of 2015. You have captured my struggle – the loss of things, culture, status, – and the ambivalence in replacing all – the over-abundance, the gluttony of it all. . . and truly the freedom of having two or three t-shirts, and a couple of pair of jeans, and being able to borrow my husband’s sweat pants to wear while I am here on the place, trying to do what I think I must: make lists for the insurance company to replace the tons of accumulation – holding on – or letting go. There definitely are major lessons to be learned. Thank you for sharing. . .

        • Andi says:

          Myrn, Thank you so much for your comment. I’m so happy you found the blog and I hope it will be helpful. You will get through this – one day, one hour, one minute at a time. It’s a long tunnel, but the light at the end is bright. Hang in there and hugs, Andi

  2. Gail Storey says:

    This is maybe the most touching blog I’ve ever read–I’ve subscribed and am avidly following each of your posts for the next revelation of your amazing journey. Thank you, Andi, for sharing the experience of your home burning down with such honesty and emotional insight, in your remarkable voice.

    • Andi says:

      Gail, Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. I believe you were the first subscriber, so when you see me you can say, “First!” And you are first in my book, gal. Hugs and Love to you and Porter.

  3. Priscilla says:

    Andi, I am sending heartfelt hope to you in that “strange and spinning place”–the best four-word description of grief I have ever read. That Rumi poem is one of my all-time faves, and of course one I fight with too, because who after all wants to welcome the unwelcome guests?

    • Andi says:

      Hi Priscilla, Thanks for making such an insightful connection. I can’t remember if it was Rumi or Pema Chodron who said that when unwanted emotions come up, we should open the door and say, “Ah! You again!” I will always remember that, and try to practice it when I can. Take good care.

  4. Amy Katchur says:

    The Rumi poem is so beautiful and true. I’ve been thinking about you lately. Hoping you are starting to heal from your great loss, and receiving tons of love and support. Thank you for sending me your blog…………….
    Love to you and Nellie,
    PS…….I’m really not quite sure how blogs work, so, I hope this gets through….

    • Andi says:

      Thanks so much, Amy! Sending love to you out there in California. Say hi to the Great Mother Ocean for me, and take good care. I hope all is well.

  5. Now that I’m reading your essay, I feel so burdened by stuff. Yes, there are plenty of material items that I treasure–that complete some essential part of myself. Yet, the other less-necessary things weigh me down.
    I’m thinking of the Hindu goddess Kali, who I have sitting on my desk. She is a Destroyer; she burns away illusions. She wears a necklace of skulls around her neck. Why do I have such a garish goddess in my house? Because life requires death; something must disappear in order to make space for new creation.
    No one needs or deserves to lose their home to fire. Yet here you are experiencing the freedom of no-stuff.
    I thank Kali this fire has not happened to me. And I pledge to clean out some cabinets and a closet. Soon.

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  7. Andi,
    when I read this: “he owned exactly four suits, a couple of golf outfits, two sets of gold cufflinks and a sports car. My mother used to say that if he ever decided to leave us, he could pack in five minutes”, I realised that I am the same.

    I’m 57 and I own 2 pairs of shoes, 1 suit, 2 pairs of jeans, about 10 work shirts and 10 ties, some undies (but not many really), a robe, a laptop computer, about 10 music CD’s, a couple of Movie DVD’s and a mobile phone – and that’s about it. I don’t even actually own the house I live in as it’s in my wife’s name – as our two cars.

    ‘Stuff’ has never really been something I have focused on and I don’t really know if that a good or bad thing. All I know is I don’t want for much – and I suppose I’ve never really been ‘trapped’ by stuff.

    Anyway, I hope all is well with you now and that things are on the up and up for you.
    God bless,

    Strata Management

  8. Andi says:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Michael. I appreciate hearing about your relationship to “stuff.” I think a lot of folks would envy your freedom and detachment!
    Take good care,


  9. Jake says:

    I have to be honest, I didn’t read the poem but I did read your story and it touched me. I’ve lived that way myself, never gathering things, or “nesting” as my ex would say. I’ve never put a picture on a wall, or signed a lease beyond 6 months. It’s a lousy way to live, and I don’t think I could change it…I’m sad

  10. monique hersh says:

    My daughter sent me your blog the other day and said,” Here, read this.”
    We lost our home and six family pets to fire a year ago February 18, 2010. I had left my ancient mother, who was living with us, with a caregiver for a few hours and I too got that call while on the road, stuck in rush hour traffic. ” Monique, I’ve got your mom and the dogs in the car and your house is burning. Call 911.” I’ll never forget those words as long as I live. They made it out but we lost six pets, one of which was our sweet lab Ruby, four sweet cats, and an old parrot, Poco. Lost also forty plus years of collections of primitive furniture, amateur works of art and folk art. All my photography, all my slides. All the writing and poems. Not to mention the house we had built and lived in and loved for ten years. Th0ugh we have rebuilt and dealt with the insurance company I feel like I am spinning around in useless circles even now, almost two years later. Shattered and scattered. More than anything we suffer from fatigue. I’ve never been so tired in all my life. Your words about looking for faucets and other plumbing supplies were my words verbatim. I too drive down the road and sob from some deep down place I never knew before. And when finally I find that joyful moment, I almost feel guilty and wonder do I dare allow myself to be so frivolous. And yes, I’ve gone for therapy. Her advice was to go home, throw on some black and learn how to grieve. And so I did. She’s right, we no longer find the time for grieving in this hectic and too fast paced electronic age we live in.
    Your blog on stuff and the Rumi poem….thanks so much for sharing. Since the fire I find that shopping wears me out. We had gift certificates from caring friends and family and yet we felt uncomfortable in the stores and couldn’t wait to get out.
    What caught my eye in Rumi’s poem were the lines “He may be clearing you out, for some new delight.”. I thought about that so many times, especially right after the fire, when trying to wrap my head around the the loss. I even consulted with a very well respected psychic a couple of months after the fire as there seemed so many unanswered questions. Then nine months later we became grandparents for the first time to twins, a grandaughter and grandson. The phoenix, rising up out of the ashes. We’ve never known such joy! I look back and think, wow, what a yin yang year it was. Rumi was right, “some new delight”! Eli and Ellie are a year old now and when I am with them time does stand still and all else fades away into nothingness.
    It has been an interesting journey in so many ways. We live on a small horsefarm. The morning after the fire I drove up to the barn to feed horses. It was still dark and 3 dgrees outside. I wore what I had on the day before, jeans, turtleneck, socks, clogs and a sweater jacket, a sterling silver bracelet with turquoise and sterling earrings. Dressed for town, feeding horses. A car drove up our long driveway. It was a neighbor from down the road who had horses at the thoroughbred training center across the road from us. She had seen our barn lights on. She asked what could she do for us? And I began hesitantly, ” Well, I really don’t know. Not even sure how to put one foot in front of the other right now. All I do know is that we are going to get very, very busy and here I am with my 82 year old mom with her walker, the clothes on on backs and I don’t know how or where to begin.” After which I’m sobbing and apologizing. Then as if a star fell from the heavens above she tells me that she and her husband are in the nursing home industry and that she will make a few calls. So I go on feeding horses while she sits in her car making calls. Twenty minutes later she comes into the barn and tells me that she has found an apt. for my mom at an assisted living facility, and that if I am okay with it she will follow me back to the motel and take my mother to this place, get her settled. She’ll be safe, warm and cared for. And so I let this almost stranger take my mom and get her settled in. My mom is there today, living at an assist level one, very content with her life and at peace. She has lived to see her great grandbabies. They are the apple of her eye, so to speak. I always think back to that morning in disbelief. It was the greatest gift ever. People really do reach out, even perfect strangers, when tragedy strikes.
    Your blog certainly does hit home. Even your photos. I’ve written some here and there since the fire but mainly I have documented with photography. Some of your photos were like mine, especially sifting through the ashes. That is how I found Ruby. We weren’t sure if she had gotten out or not. The caregiver insisted that all five dogs had gotten out but Ruby was missing. Six weeks later as spring temperatures warmed the earth I could smell her. With rake and shovel I worked in the area of debris where I knew she had been, the mudroom. I realized one day as I was driving that Ruby didn’t run out of the house with the other dogs because it was feed time. She often stayed behind in the mudroom while the other dogs would follow me out to get their food which we stored in the carriage house. The house burned down around feed time. So she succombed to the smoke, as did the other pets mentioned above. I found her, almost perfectly preserved by the ashes around her and the cold. This all while sobbing . I hauled her out on our plastic worksled, by myself, (I weigh about 104 soaking wet) and called a good friend of mine to come and help me bury her.
    I could go on and on, the thougths come like unwanted flood waters though I try and keep the flood gates up most of the time. I’ll never ever forget. The fire was caused by carelessness on the caregiver’s part. An unthinking moment, that is all it took, ” a stupid mistake” as the detective called it. So much devastation and pain. And then the long journey ahead. I had certainly never intended to ever build a house again. It’s a lot of work! Sometimes I question having rebuilt. But we love the farm and it’s a great place for kids and grandkids. I have fond memories of my own grandparents farm and want our own grandbabies to have that experience too. And the horses, amen for them. They and the routine chores are what grounded me while going through this ordeal. I even managed to plant a garden during the summer and set up a home office in a little room off the carriage house so I could stay on the farm during the day and oversee the building and the farm when not on the road. One foot in front of the other, that’s how it gets done.

  11. Jared says:

    I think you made a very insightful point about “The freedom of no-things. Who are we when we have no “stuff””. In one sense of course why should need the material items of life, there is truth to that, that our lives and relationships and a greater purpose are most important. However, life on earth is a physical, material existence and therefor “stuff” is meaningful and important in a real and spiritual way as well. I can’t imagine experiencing what you have experienced, I hope your life becomes better and better in a real way.

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