Suppose you had just handful of minutes to gather what was really important to you, what you couldn’t imagine living without? Suppose you had to fit it all in your vehicle with your family, your dog and cat, and water and food and clothes and boring-but-important papers. What would you take?
I know what I would take. Photo albums.
Really. That’s about it.
On Sunday night when my family and I (sort of) went to bed, a wildfire was devouring brush in the foothills that line the horizon outside my kitchen window. High winds were already fueling the thing and we knew we would not sleep. We knew before we turned out the light that San Diego County would be in the line of fire for the next two days. No pun intended. Santa Ana winds, which had already reduced the relative humidity to single digits, would rip across the tinder-dry landscape over the next 48 hours feeding the fire like gasoline feeds a sports car.
By dawn Monday, the Witch Creek fire – one of several in San Diego County – had raced down the foothills and devoured hundreds of homes less than eight miles away from my house – many belonging to good friends. At 2 p.m our power was gone. At 4 p.m. we were evacuated. The fire had turned south and east. Towards us.
We packed the cars with the essentials for the unknown. Would we be able to stay with family in southern Rancho Bernardo or would they be evacuated as well? Would we end up at Qualcomm Stadium? After we packed what we had to take (clothes, water, food, bedding, towels, important papers), we packed what we wanted to take – in the tiny amount of space left to us. For me, it was the photo albums.
As I ran out to my car with my hand over my nose and mouth to keep out the choking smoke, this is what I carried. The box of photo albums.
The proof that I’d had a blessed life.
Funny, I didn’t grab the CPU for my computer. The back-up flash drive in my briefcase was enough. I didn’t bring the first copies of my published works, nor any of the hundreds of books I own. I didn’t even bring my address book or business cards or Rolodex. And that surprises me because I actually had room for those. I brought the Josh Groban Christmas CD I had just bought and hadn’t listened to, the library book I am reading for book club on Friday (I am not even sure we will still meet) and my photo albums. And that’s it.
I am back at home now. We were allowed to return today and our power has been restored. The worst for my family is over but I am very aware that for others, the odyssey is just beginning.
When you are forced to reduce your possessions to that which you would carry in a shopping cart if you were homeless, you find out some interesting things about yourself. You find out what defines you.
I guess when it’s all said and done, I want to be able to remind myself I have memories no fire can steal and here they are in this box. They are mine. They are me.
And I suppose if I didn’t have the photos, I would still have the memories, but I know how fragile we are. I know a tangible reminder of what has made life rich and meaningful -like a box of photographs – is sometimes what keeps us from slipping off the edge when it seems like we’ve lost everything. Know what I mean?