I've always been someone who looks for the underlying message in just about anything and everything that happens in my life. I keep all the wonderful quotes and sayings passed down from family and friends because on some level, I believe they make my ordinary life feel a little more meaningful and special.
Last week I was getting ready to go to Los Angeles for several meetings the next day when a friend called and said she was passing through Montecito on her way home to Carmel. I went and met her for a quick hello in the lower village, and as I was driving back to get my things for LA, I found myself reading a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.
It said, "The best things in life aren't things."
I remember thinking in that moment, "Isn't that the truth!" and I was rather surprised that I had never heard that quote before. Perhaps I had heard it before, but for some reason, this time, at a red light on San Ysidro and East Valley, it moved me enough to actually stop, pull over and put it into my Blackberry.
That evening I met another friend visiting LA from New York for a quick dinner on Abbot Kinney, and as I made my way back to my apartment, I remember thinking how much I would have appreciated a few more hours of sleep! My first meeting was at 7:30 a.m., followed by a 9 a.m. breakfast and an 11 a.m. phone interview. Needless to say, I would not make any of them, but I certainly didn't know that at the time, and I was beyond happy when I finally got into my bed. It wasn't long before I was sound asleep, and off I went to the "other side."
The first thing I remember when I woke was feeling an intense heat by my head, and when I turned over, I saw half of my pillow was in flames. I jumped up and noticed my mattress was also burning. I ran outside and yelled for my neighbor to call 911. The firemen soon arrived and in what seemed like an eternity mixed with the blink of an eye, the fire was gone -- and most of my things, with it.
Before they left, the firemen put the burnt remains out onto the front lawn, and although it was 4 a.m., I was wide awake and couldn't sleep. Everyone went back into their apartments, and I took myself for a walk in the neighborhood in a pair of shoes salvaged by one of the fireman, ironically a pair I no longer wore because they were so uncomfortable. And even with no socks, I can honestly say I never appreciated a pair of shoes so much in my entire life as I did then.
I walked and walked, periodically looking up into the moonlit sky and thinking back on the many years that space had kept me safe, and the wonderful quotes and sayings passed down from my family and friends. That bumper sticker kept going over and over in my mind: "The best things in life aren't things." And yet, as true as I knew it to be, I still couldn't help but feel somewhat sick to my stomach that most of my things were now in a pile of ash.
As the sun slowly came up that morning, I was on my hands and knees combing through the pile of ash on my front lawn, looking for a ring that I had taken off before I went to sleep the night before. I had placed it along with my blackberry and watch on the table beside my bed. It was actually two rings, but one of the firemen had found one of the rings before he left and I was determined to find the other. After a good three hours, I had managed to put most of the burnt pile into about 20 extra heavy bags, and just as I had given up on ever finding that ring, there it was -- shining through the ashes, on the sidewalk in front of my building.
I felt like I had found the Holy Grail, and even though I knew on some level this fire was a lesson in letting go, it did feel good to find that ring.
I was born in July, and one of the traits of a Cancer crab, I am told, is holding onto things. I realized much of what had burned was just "stuff" I was holding onto. I said to my brother that morning, I was probably holding onto things that kept me from moving forward, and that perhaps that fire took from me those very things because without it, I may have never let them go.
It's not so easy to fly when you're holding on to a lifetime of things.
Before I left the building that morning, I stood motionless in the shell of my apartment. I felt frozen and gutted as I stared at black walls and broken glass. Among the charred remains of favorite books and pictures, a million and one memories seemed to evaporate in the quiet stillness of that very moment. My neighbor leaned into the burnt doorway and gently said, "I'm so glad you're okay. I know your things are gone, but there's always something to be grateful for. After all, you could be in Japan."
I turned and smiled and thanked her for reminding me.
I stood there a few minutes longer, in my uncomfortable shoes with no socks, now covered in ash after the fire. The space was burnt and empty, but I was still alive, and grateful. And as a single tear fell from my eye, I can honestly say, I knew and I felt something very true in that sacred moment: that the best things in life are not things.
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