Hope for the Best but Be Prepared for the Worst

Or, what to do when your house catches on fire.

One of the key things I’ve realized because of the fire was how important preparation is, and how little the act of wanting matters.

Here are examples: I want to lose five pounds. I want to improve my Italian. I want my house to not catch on fire.

Where my grandmother’s jewelry would have been if I hadn’t prepared to grab it six months before, now covered in asbestos dust.

The very act of wanting-ness doesn’t do anything to the object of my desire. Absolutely nothing. It’s a great and necessary start, but then, in many cases, if my wanting comes from a place of fear or greed or longing, the wanting can actually drive the intended goal even further away. I might feel like the wanting takes the place of doing. If I *want* to improve my Italian, the energy to *want* takes up much of the energy I could be using to *do.* But if I have a desire and I prepare — say, buy Italian books and CDs and set aside a night to take a class or practice on my own — all I need to do is stay open. That’s where the magic happens. Sometimes I feel like my body will start before my mind even knew I was ready.

In many ways, I feel like I’d been preparing for this fire for a long time. Of anyone I’ve ever met, I’ve had some of the best luck and some of the worst luck all wrapped up into one small (heh, heh) life. If you would have asked me two weeks ago if I wanted a fire to start below my bedroom, I’m pretty sure I would have said something to the equivalent of ‘No, I’m good. But you know, hey, … thanks for the offer.’ Unfortunately, my state of wantingness/non-wantingness meant absolutely nothing to that fire.

I sat in my bed last Monday afternoon, sick and in my pajamas, wanting to believe that new smell was my neighbors safely barbecuing 2x4s and fiberglass insulation in the backyard and not our living room wall catching on fire. Jen ran in, with the news that she was pretty sure our house was on fire. At that moment, all the wanting in the world didn’t stop that fire.

But then the desire to save my life and what I could of my possessions kicked in. That I’d prepared became everything.

I’ve mentioned this before and I want everyone reading this blog to go through this exercise now: about six months ago, we had a gas leak outside of our apartment. The firefighters casually suggested we sort of evacuate if we, like, had the time and stuff. We took about two hours to leisurely pack up some things, and discussed it at length afterwards. What would we take if we had one arm-full of time? What would we take if we had two rounds to run in? Where are all those possessions, and how quickly could we grab them? What had we backed up on the cloud?

When the fire started, my mind didn’t have to remember that exercise. I’ll try to explain it in a future post, but my brain and body just knew. You hear that about instinct. Someone takes a CPR class in college but enacts it perfectly 26 years later to save a life. A woman lifts a car to rescue her child. I don’t wish a fire or trauma on anyone, but I do wish this feeling for everyone: of having your monkey mind stop and your instinctual mind take over. (The closest description I’ve ever read was Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight, about a brain scientist’s very personal experience of watching her mind go through a stroke.)

Here’s what I want you to do: Hope your house never catches on fire. But be prepared if it does. I’ll write future blog posts about how to call 911, what to look for in renters insurance, etc. But here’s something you can do today: Sit down with everyone you live with. Talk about what you would take. Write a list. Put it in order. Walk around your house and look at each possession. (Even if your house doesn’t catch fire, this is a fascinating exercise in thinking about what really matters most to you.)

And here’s the key: Physically do it. Walk your body through the steps so it can take over when your mind doesn’t have the wherewithal. What would you grab? Where is it? Grab it, and run out of the house. For me, I had a sudden stroke of insight during the fire to throw my items (purse, etc) into a collapsible laundry hamper, which was outrageously easy to run with. If you have kids, make it a fun game to see who can evacuate the house in the safest way possible. Think of it as mental insurance.

And, yes, I just realized that I do *want* to start doing calligraphy again. Sigh.

4 thoughts on “Hope for the Best but Be Prepared for the Worst

  1. chai bean says:

    OK, two things:
    First thing is a story. A few years ago, (maybe 7, actually) I was visiting my brother in Georgia when Nate called and asked me what I wanted him to pack for me. There was a massive fire in San Diego that got about a mile from our house and he was told to pack up to evacuate. Oddly enough, I told him “photos, poems” and a few specific pairs of shoes and one favorite jacket that I got for $7 at a thrift store. Oddly enough, I could not think of anything else irreplaceable (which is weird, because I have some family heirloom stuff but it wasn’t as important to me as that coat)….
    So when I got home, the stuff was still packed by the door. It took up about 3 crates (2 for photos alone). It’s interesting now that I have a baby and my priorities have changed to do this exercise. And I will do it tonight. Because you’re right – trying to do this just in your head and the “what-if’s” is not the same as physically walking through it. Case in point: I got randomly attacked on the street in San Diego once (I was walking and an escaped mental patient decided to grab me, and punch me multiple times while screaming something to the effect of me being a supermodel with a book on my head)…. at any rate, the ONLY thing I had with me at that moment was my set of keys. And on my key chain, I had an emergency spray bottle of pepper spray. Not only did I not even think of that pepper spray (not for a second), I wouldn’t have known how to use it had I realized I had it, and probably would have sprayed myself in the face. I didn’t realize until after the cops came (mental patient long gone, by the way) that I could have used it had I remembered it was in my hand all along.
    Second thing: I am a calligrapher and used to get commissioned to do jobs. I would love to give you the gift of any motto you want, framed and ready for over any bed you sleep in, organic mattress or not. 🙂 Just tell me if you want your current motto or something else entirely. And where I should mail it or meet you to deliver it.
    Thirdly (I know I said two things, but I changed my mind): Wanted to share my current motto with you, which is: “Live life happily with unresolved problems”. I used to think that I had to wait until x, y, or z changed to be happy. Now I know that happiness is best served when I have problems to resolve, and I have never looked back. Thought I’d share that with you since you shared yours with us.
    Love you!!


    1. pookypants says:

      Omg. I love this. All of it. (Well, except the being-attacked-by-an-escaped-mental-patient part.) So true about living life with unresolved problems. I mean, can you imagine the one person on the planet who’s actually succeeded in solving all of his or her problems? How boring that would be. I feel like a new life motto is going to arise soon, and, yes, I would love to accept your offer of kindness to calligraphize (?) it. (Have I mentioned how excited I am for our sleepover yet?) 🙂


      1. chai bean says:

        Yay! Send me an email with dates when you’ll be in town and ready to come hang out. I have a few visits from family/friends in the next few months, but not nearly as many as the free weekends I have. And when you come, I’ll have whatever motto you want ready for you. 🙂


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