The Fire Next Door

My house still smells from ashes. Out of the blue last week I got a call that the house next door was engulfed in flames and that my home would be next. At the time, my family and I were in Upstate New York and could do little but wait. But what would constitute good news in this kind of situation? What does one hope for, or even expect? Here’s what I’m thinking about today.I don’t know that I learned anything new – like some new revelation about life and death – as much as I witnessed once more the beauty of goodness amid loss. We all have our own stories about such scenes; so I don’t mean to suggest that mine is special or unique, only that it holds meaning. For instance:

1. The neighbor who called-in the fire saw that neither my wife nor I was home. So, she went online to our neighborhood list serve and asked if anyone knew how to get in touch with us. Joan, who lives around the corner, and is a school teacher, saw the message during one of her breaks. But she didn’t have our phone number, so she went online, found the Institute’s number, called, and then had someone here call me in Upstate New York.2. Donald, whose house went up in flames, raced home from work. Throughout the day he talked and commiserated with various neighbors. But what did he say? I’m told he said, “Thank God no one got hurt, or that anyone else’s home was damaged.” I’m told his upbeat demeanor was contagious.3. The firefighters eventually got into the house and salvaged a few clothing items that the two young girls who live there wanted to save. Then firefighters put the clothes in a suitcase and placed it on a neighbor’s front lawn. And yet, later on the suitcase was missing. So yet another neighbor went on the list serve and asked if anyone had noticed if someone had picked up the suitcase. One person did, and she was able, somehow, to trace it to a delivery man who took it. The woman called the man, got the suitcase, and now the girls have their clothes.

4. Donald’s savings bonds, and other important papers, were strewn across our yard as a result of the fire. A day later, someone looking in on our pets called me and asked if I wanted her to go around our yard, pick up the papers, and find Donald.

5. Sadly, weeks earlier, a woman down the street discovered she has cancer. I hear that every neighbor across various streets has signed up to bring food over.

It’s easy to be nostalgic about neighborhoods. But I don’t mean to be. I grew up in two strong neighborhoods, one in New York City, the other in Upstate New York. Both had their moments – I remember vividly the arguments, fistfights, dog fights, and some people who generally disliked one another. But in those places, as in my neighborhood now, people went out of their way to help each other when in need.

Unfortunately, it takes loss sometimes to recognize goodness. Then, the trick is not simply to celebrate it, or try to hold onto to it, but to do your own part, however small.