Friday, November 24, 2017

Lessons from last year's fire

Smoke rising from the direction of my home
One year ago today we had to evacuate our home due to fires in our area. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this experience.

People sometimes ask hypothetically: "What would you rescue if your house was on fire?" I faced this situation in reality, and the answer was that I just took my cat, Eleni, in her carrier, and my everyday backpack. I didn't think about saving any valuables, or any items of sentimental value, or even about taking practical things like a phone charger. When I heard that we had to leave, I just took Eleni and left. Since then I have prepared an emergency backpack, which I keep near the front door. It contains things like a change of clothes, food and water, cat food, toiletries, and a spare phone charger. I'd like to hope that there won't be a "next time", but if there is, I'll be better equipped.

The experience showed me something about my personal coping mechanism. When bad things happen, I tend to shut down emotionally and react practically. It's my way of protecting myself from becoming overwhelmed. During the entire experience, I was mostly just thinking about getting through the next few hours and not about the chance that our home and all our possessions might be destroyed. I don't know if this is necessarily a good response, but it seems to work for me.

I learned that Eleni is adaptable and flexible, provided she knows we are with her. During the 4 km. walk to the evacuation centre, the wait there all afternoon, and the night we spent with friends, she didn't panic the way she does when we go to the vet. In retrospect, I later realized that she must have already been deaf, so at least she wasn't bothered by the unusual sounds during this experience. I did realize, though, that things would have been more difficult if I'd had more than one cat! If this had happened a couple of years earlier, I would have been carrying both Eleni and Pandora, in two cat carriers as they wouldn't be willing to share. It did make me wonder if we'll ever have more than one cat again, considering the difficulty of escaping with them in emergencies!

I discovered who my friends are. Throughout the day, I got phone calls and messages from family and friends, and also from people who know me professionally. It was gratifying to know that so many people care about me. We received many invitations to stay at other people's homes overnight. In the end, we chose to stay with Maia and Ben. I'm very grateful for the welcome we received. They took their dogs to stay with relatives because Eleni was uncomfortable with them, borrowed a litter box for Eleni, made us dinner, and were great company, distracting us from worrying about our potential loss. I'm sure other people would also have been similarly helpful, and it's good to know that at times of need we're not alone.

Another lesson was that even the thought of losing everything we own didn't upset me as much as I would have expected. I thought to myself: "we're strong enough to overcome this", and decided that if we'd lost everything, this would be a good chance to start from scratch and live a more minimalistic lifestyle. The biggest loss, of course, would have been all our books. I don't know if we'd ever have replaced the vast majority of them, but perhaps it would have given us the opportunity to repurchase only the most important books. We own so many things we never use and may never use again. This got me thinking about decluttering our life and reducing the amount of possessions, and while we haven't done much of this yet, it's certainly on our to do list.

Finally, the experience of the fire added to my overall anxiety. I've lived through wars, rocket attacks, waves of terrorist bombings and stabbing attacks, other fires, and minor earthquakes. This was the event that came closest to having a major impact on my life. The feeling that something life-threatening could happen at any moment has never really left me, and each traumatic experience just reinforces the sense of fragility of my everyday reality. I don't let it control me, but it has changed my outlook on life. This is just something that I have to accept and live with.