Last night was opening night of Cirque du Soleil at the Cow Palace here in San Francisco. My family was lucky enough to have been given some tickets to see the show. We had a fun night of dazzling colors and crazy acrobatics. On the drive back home we chatted happily about our favorite acts and how we had to feed my son candy at intermission in order to help him stay awake since it was so far past his bedtime.
As we turned down the street to head to our Mission Street apartment, we were alarmed to see that the whole street was blocked off with police cars and fire engines. The next street, too, was closed. And the next. The entire block we live on, and several surrounding streets were completely filled with emergency vehicles and television crews. We realized soon enough that two houses directly across the street from us were burning. Firefighters were everywhere — in the streets, on those buildings, in those buildings. It was such a scary scene.
We wiggled past all the people on the street in front of our building and rushed inside, into our own apartment, which was filled with the smell of smoke. My heart was beating so quickly as I looked around at everything we owned and petted our two cats, who seemed especially skittish. I tucked Kayne into bed and lay down beside him to read to him, giving him a huge hug. “Wow. I feel really grateful that we’re okay and the kitties are okay. I really hope all of the people across the street are safe.”
The firefighters were able to contain the fire and I read this morning that all the residents got out, uninjured. That part is such a relief. But as I watch out the window as the pile of people’s charred and broken belongings are piled up on the street and as my neighbors are holding one another and sobbing, it breaks my heart to think of so much loss.
I keep looking around at my own belongings, and feeling such a renewed sense of gratitude. That photo of my mother and son, the Easter they painted eggs together — the smear of pink across her hand and the wide smile on his face. My purple glass beaded lamp from the twenties that makes me feel romantic and flouncy whenever I see it. The chalk drawing of Ian and me at Fisherman’s Wharf when we were pretending we were tourists. The oil painting my friend Greggie did of one-year-old Kayne standing wobbly, holding a book. A quilt, crocheted by my grandma. The sparkly hat I got at a humane society thrift store back in 1990, still one of my very favorites.
You could say these are just “things” and that is true in one sense. But in another sense, many of the things we own are reflections of our spirit and connections to people we love. We create a foundation for our lives out of material things that resonate with who we are. My heart goes out to my neighbors for the loss of so many things that gave them joy and comfort.
This is a very urban neighborhood, and I’m sad to say that I don’t know any of the people who live across the street. I keep wondering how I can help them, what I can offer, when I don’t even know their names or phone numbers. But in a similar vein to what happened for me after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I realize that what I can do is offer the world as much kindness and compassion as I can muster. I can give money where it is needed. I can offer a hand when I see someone needs it. I can be as present as possible when I speak to the store clerk or mailman or bus driver, offering them my full attention. I can practice finding peace in my life, so that peace is what I have to give.
I can walk into my own apartment, every single day and fully appreciate everything that I have — the safety of my own family and my beloved belongings. I can remind myself over and over again, moment by moment, how precious the people and pieces of my life are. I can feel that joy. I can share that joy. I can get out of my head and really see the people around me and be available to them in any way they need.
I can open my eyes (and heart) to remembering that anything can happen at any moment. I can strive to live my life with this knowledge in my front pocket at all times, so I can be grateful and not miss a moment of it.
There is a piece of art hanging out of one of the top floor windows where the fire was. It is neon green, pink, orange, and blue and looks like a huge flower that might grow on Mars or that has sprung from the pages of a gigantic Dr. Seuss book. It must have fallen over during the fire and now it looks like some fantastical creature with its head sticking outside, one arm waving. Its brightness and whimsy could seem like it is mocking all of the despair and destruction just below it. But I don’t see it like that.
When I look at that Seussical sculpture, I imagine it is waving me over, whispering to me to pull my attention away from fear and anxiety and pay attention to what is alive and colorful and abundant within me. It reminds me that life is a crazy and mysterious grab bag of experiences and emotions. It is calling out to me to hold all of it at once — the fragility and losses in life. But also the childlike wonder and joy. When I look at that Seussical sculpture, I imagine it is the phoenix rising out of the ashes. And it makes me want to find that mystical bird within me.
May you walk into your home today and experience all the joy and love and gratitude possible for the people and belongings you love so much.
Post script: Since I posted this earlier today, I've gotten some great suggestions on how to help my neighbors. I contacted the local community center and my landlord in hopes that we can pool some resources to provide assistance. Thanks, all!!
Post-post script: Donations to the folks who lived in the buildings can be made via PayPal to email@example.com