The rhythm of time in the US sets aside five full weeks of every twelve months to wind down the previous year, while gearing up for the coming year. During these final weeks of the year many of us contemplate our reflections to set goals and give ourselves fresh starts. As I get older the life cycle events of close friends and family take on greater importance in this process of reflection, renewal and looking forward. This past year we have seen the death of two fathers, a brother-in-law, and a neighbor; the birth of one baby; one wedding; two illnesses (one in recovery); and numerous anniversaries and birthdays, including one especially noteworthy for our little friend for whom each year of life really is something to celebrate. Also this year a neighbor’s house burned. The process of spark, destruction, cleanup and rebuilding that our neighbor and friend has had to experience is both symbolic of the annual change of seasons to welcome the coming light, and a part of the reflections upon which I set my priorities for the coming year.
Like so many life events, the ignition for this fire was nothing more than a combination of trivial circumstances and events. No match was struck. Had any one piece of the puzzle been missing the fire may never have taken ablaze. Combustion required a specific room, with specific construction, and specific wiring, and specific furnishings, with specific activities, followed by sufficient time unattended. It is a reminder that every moment we create and every action we take never stands in isolation, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
Like the butterfly that unknowingly spins a hurricane across the planet when it flaps its wings, we do not know how our routine and unnoticed movements may impact someone else. We cannot live focused on the minutiae, but neither can we overlook the independent details that may coordinate as a catalyst to something else that may change someone’s life. There is skill in being able to detect and sort the micro-context of our existence and adjust to it as it occurs in the background. It also takes human compassion to accept that we can never detect all the details, and sometimes things just happen. Often, a life changing event is a good thing, even when it is unexpected or difficult at first.
The house was not consumed visibly. In fact, were it not for the fire crews darting though the yard and up the stairs, and leaping across the roof it would have been difficult to see that the source of the billowing smoke was not an adjacent structure. I had been behind our home when I heard the sirens blare. It was only when I heard the third signal so close that I realized something terrible was happening to someone on my street. When I ran to the front I was shocked to see six fire trucks with their crews in overdrive, and two more arriving. I asked one of the firefighters, “Where are the people who live here?” He did not know. I looked in my phone, but the only number for the household in my address book was our friend’s wife who had passed away two months previously while we were out of town. I asked two more crew members, but no one knew whether anyone was inside the home. All the while the sound of chainsaws and breaking windows pierced the late summer air amidst the gathering crowd on the sidewalk.
Fortunately, another neighbor tracked down our friend and prepared him to see his devasted home. The breaking glass stopped when there were no more windows left to shatter that would have changed the air flow of the blaze. The chainsaws, however, continued well into the late afternoon. I grew up with chainsaws in the house, but I am haunted by the continuous buzz that was as much a part of the fire’s destruction as the first steps in clearing and regenerating. To save the structure the crew had to damage it strategically. It is another reminder that in life it is important to focus on the end goal and to act on it in relation to the surrounding conditions, even if something might be inappropriate under “normal” circumstances.
The fire trucks retreated. The family cat returned. Singed tea bags littered the front steps. The smell of smoke lingered for weeks it seemed. In the first days the structure was toxic, saturated with fatal soot. The restoration crew removed much of the interior constrution materials. Many of our friend’s personal possessions were damaged beyond repair. Yet, in the grief of his wife’s recent death the process of debris removal has been cleansing. Sorting, reflecting, washing out the soil, and restoring what’s most valuable is an important part of moving on from any significant event. Such cleansing is a way to find meaning and carry forward memories and lessons into new contexts as life marches forth.
The rebuilding process for our friend’s home seems scarcely under way from the street. Inside, as the demolition and removal nears completion and restoration has begun, plans are taking shape for a new vision. As the phoenix rises from the ashes, so too will our friend recover and fly again. It is in this pattern that life cycle events and the cycle of the seasons help us rebuild and start anew.
The transition of seasons as the darkness comes to an end and the sun begins its journey north is not always so dramatic or traumatic. From the lessons of the life cycle of a 100-year old home I set my goals to improve my skill in detecting unnoticable events and the background circumstances so that I can better anticipate their interactions. And I will accept when things happen beyond my control. I will do a better job keeping track of the people around me so that I am not caught unable to reach someone in a moment of need. I will remember the whole picture of anything I am trying to accomplish, and entertain illogical and counterintuitive ideas at individual steps that may help me succeed overall. I will take time out regularly for reflection and renewal, and I will learn at least one important lesson from every experience. I will use my lessons learned to reconstruct my personal vision, regularly.
Finally, I will do a better job honoring the life cycle events of close family and friends. In this effort, I respect the unique experiences of our friend and neighbor’s cycle of life and love, death and loss, and cleansing by fire. Thank you for helping me bring these important lessons and goals into the coming year, out of the darkness, regenerating once again.