By Ronna Kabatznick
In October 1991, the most destructive residential fire in U.S. history ripped across the Oakland hills. Twenty-four people were killed and 2,991 dwellings burnt to the ground within 12 hours. Eight of the 24 people, including my neighbor, died on the narrow and beautiful road where I once lived. My home was one of the first structures to be consumed by the 4,000 degree flames that jumped from house to house in five seconds flat. By the end of the day, thousands of people were homeless.
"Tragedy" was the most common way to describe the incalculable human suffering that burst forth from that sad day. Some people died without warning. Others were killed trying to escape the mighty flames. A holocaust survivor lost everything he had created since 1945. A retired minister lost his 50-year collection of sermons he was preparing for publication. Professors and artists lost irreplaceable manuscripts, books, and paintings. Children lost their beloved pets. Everything from cherished family pictures to mundane knick-knacks was destroyed without regard to value or sentiment. Grief, usually confined to quiet moments alone or with loved ones, was everywhere.
Meditation informs us that grief and loss are always present. "There is suffering" explains the First Noble Truth. The rise and fall of each breath contains life and death. Things are constantly changing, and the inevitability of letting go is just the way things are. The bold way in which these fundamental truths arose that day left no room for denial. For instance, when people talked about "my house," they were now referring to a pile of ashes. People would say to me, "How sad that you lost your past." Through meditation, we see that no one has a past any more than we have a future. Yet, things like photographs, diplomas, books, and furniture solidify illusions and make it difficult to sustain this comforting insight. The experience of having so many people offering sympathy for something that has never existed made me wonder "Who deserves the sympathy?"
While it's true that "tragedy" is an apt description of the firestorm, it doesn't begin to touch the complexity and richness of this experience. I don't say this from a cavalier or heartless place, as my own losses were considerable. I am an intensely private person, so when the boundaries between public and private spaces shattered that day, I instantly became lost in a series of relentless panic attacks. The day to day experience of dealing with all the bureaucracies, phone calls, and paperwork was maddening. Add to this a general sense of disorientation and displacement and the result felt like another hell realm.. Simple tasks such as replacing my toothbrush and contact lens case felt overwhelming. My sleep cycle was totally disrupted and the cliche "running on empty" took on new meaning.
In spite of of this, I can confidently say that the fire changed and enriched my life. The experience of being burned-out has helped bring my life into a new focus. I look very differently at the concepts of property and ownership, and I know that many good things emerge out of sad and painful events. All of the objects that were once so important to me are not nearly as important as the lessons I learned. Out of destruction has come great beauty along with touching gestures of generosity and loving kindness. The mind's tendency to label experience as one thing or another has never seemed so limited as it appears to me now. During my more mindful moments, I see the fire as no more bad than good, no more a tragedy than a gift. The two stories below are just a few illustrations of the ways in which the firestorm continues to dance its own dance.
Many friends and acquaintances offered to help me after the fire. Calls, letters and packages poured in daily to the well-appointed suite I was living in at the Claremont Hotel, courtesy of State Farm Insurance. I was especially delighted to hear from my old and dear friend Valerie. Since my address book burned up with my house, it would take a long time to find her unpublished telephone number. Before the conversation ended, Valerie insisted on sending me some clothes, adding that she loved the idea of being with me in this symbolic way. Too tired to argue, I capitulated. Besides, I remember thinking, Valerie has lovely taste and what she would send would probably be very nice.
The things she sent were beautiful! Within minutes I went from a wardrobe of two pairs of leggings and some cotton T-shirts to a closet full of floral dresses, silk skirts and shirts, and warm sweaters. Wearing such elegant clothing right after the fire made me feel special and helped give me some of the energy I needed to start rebuilding my life. Trips to the large and dusty disaster center, meetings with my insurance adjuster, and the hours spent filling out FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) application, thanks to Valerie, were all done in great style.
About a year later, I wore one of Valerie's floral skirts to a retreat, and, quite spontaneously, I decided I did not want to leave the retreat with it. One of the Sisters at the retreat center who told me that another Sister goes to Mexico a few times a year with a carload full of resources. All of it is distributed to impoverished people badly in need of supplies and food. According to the Sister, this skirt would be a welcome addition. I like to imagine someone wearing it and feeling as uplifted as I did when I wore it. In fact, during the drier moments of my meditation, I sometimes reflect on an image of a young woman with long dark hair twirling around in her new skirt and, despite the abject circumstances of her life, feeling healed and happy. Because of the Oakland hills firestorm, some woman somewhere in Mexico is reaping the fruits of Valerie's generosity.
After living in the Claremont Hotel for two months, my fiance Peter and I began looking for a summer sublet. We quickly found one that sounded just right—a small, quiet house with a beautiful deck and a Bay view, surrounded by a lovely herb garden. We met with the owners and discussed some simple and predictable logistics—what to do with the mail, how to water the plants, etc. The lease was signed and a deposit was given. Minutes later, we were told about some additional responsibilities including the intricate and time-consuming care of their finicky cat, African frog, and antique grandfather clock. Peter and I were not pleased, as Peter is allergic to cats and we both travel a lot. Peter, however, is a former diplomat and his nature is to compromise. After about a month of difficult negotiating, Peter's diplomacy had reached its limit and we decided to get out of our agreement.
That evening, Peter had plans to meet with a French journalist at our home. The journalist showed up with a young man named Jerome, who ended up offering us his home for the summer at no cost to us—a place that could only be described as a modern mansion, surrounded on all sides by vast colorful gardens, and from every direction a view of the Bay sparkled in the distance. Three days later, we moved in with the few belongings we collected since the fire. That night as we climbed into our new bed, we thanked the universe for its infinite wisdom and generosity.
Technically, the fire left me homeless. There was no structure for me to return to or possessions to call my own. It's easy to believe that things like walls, books, beds, and closets make up a home. But when it all reduces down to a thick pile of ashes, you are compelled to reconsider where your real home is. The truth is, I was never homeless. As long as I am in this moment, I am no more a person without a home than I am a person without a past. Every moment is our true home. The moment is fire-proof. It needs no downpayment, insurance policy, or alarm system. All we need to do is live there.
Ronna Kabatznick is a social psychologist and Vipassana meditator in Berkeley, California.