What A House Fire Taught Me

Many people see events as separate dots on a timeline. This is not the way that I view things.  To me, everything connects to everything else. I believe that the world is continually teaching us life lessons, but most people ignore them. This leads me to the story of Mike and the builder.

My father was reasonably handy, but only repaired things under duress. Our house was in shambles.  Although we had a basement workshop, he didn’t teach me the arts of construction and repair. Mostly, he would just tell me to fix things. The results would often be poor, and I would hear about it.

I assumed that by some magic I should know how to do things without any teaching or experience.  This made me a self-starter. It also made me hesitant to tackle significant repair jobs.

I never lost interest in fix-it-up projects, and they still fascinate me today. Accomplishing a small repair can give me a sense of pride and joy.

If you have read some of my other posts, you are probably familiar with my friend Tom.  He is a general contractor, and we are the best of friends. We complement each other in our skills.  There are things that I know how to do that are helpful to Tom. There are things that Tom knows how to do that are helpful to me.  The fascinating thing is that many of the ways that we help each other are not by providing direct services to each other. Instead, we complement each other by our association.

Tom is acting as the general contractor on a home rebuild project.  A fire started in the garage of the home, and in 20 minutes it caused an immense amount of damage.  In 20 minutes the homeowner’s lives were changed forever. Their family was safe, but almost all of the contents of the home were destroyed.  Part of the house will need to be rebuilt entirely. All of the interior walls, floors, doors, and fixtures will need to be replaced. The roof, siding, and driveway will have to be reconstructed.

I have been documenting the progress of the repair with photographs.  This project has been done in short segments. However, recently Tom invited me to spend the whole day with him as he was having his carpentry crew do some significant deconstruction and construction of the house.

He picked me up in his dually from Starbucks, and we headed off to the Naperville site. The house was boarded up, and about one-half of the siding had already been removed. I pulled out my Canon 5D Mark III from my Manfrotto backpack, and I started to shoot.  Soon his crew arrived. A caravan of trucks and vans lined the street. Their contents contained carpenters ready to do battle with a house. This job was too big for one person alone.

Tom’s carpenters are experienced, and they scattered over the house without so much as a word from him.  Soon they were ripping down the remaining siding and pulling off the charred wood. The house started to disappear as pile after pile of burnt wood, siding, and other materials filled the driveway.  As the walls came down in the garage, I could see the destruction that the fire caused. It was sobering.

Tom was now coordinating their activities.  Soon we started a shuttle process. To the recycling center with the siding.  To the lumberyard for lumber. To the garbage dump to offload garbage. To the hardware store to get hardware.  To the grocery store to get water. And so it went.

Piece by piece the garage came down, one slice at a time.  Piece by piece a new structure started to emerge, one board at a time.  The new construction wasn’t rising from the ashes; the ashes had been swept away.  The new garage was rising with careful and methodical planning. The new space modified to improve on the old, but still on its familiar footprint.  A structure connected to the remaining beams that were healthy and strong.

There will be a bigger loft above the garage, better lighting on the adjacent porch, a concrete driveway to replace the melted asphalt one.  The new space will look similar to the old, but it will be better.

The effort will be immense, the cost high. In the end, the owners will have their familiar house back, but it will be improved.  Something good will arise from something terrible.

You may think that I’m am using this construction project as a metaphor. However, I would like to challenge that belief.  A metaphor is typically a word or phrase used to describe something which is not literally applicable. What if these life lessons were utterly relevant?  What if there was a cohesiveness that binds us to our planet and all of its occupants? Like laws of physics, these laws were also constant. If one understood these “laws of the world” he or she could apply them globally to improve other aspects of their existence. I believe that we can enhance who we are, what we do, how we feel. The world around us can be our teacher; we need to stop, look, and listen.

Here are just a few of the things that this house taught me:

-Bad things can happen for no reason.

-It is important to accept things that you have no control over.

-It is essential to take responsibility for those things you do have control over.

-Most events or situations are neither good nor bad. We assign these values artificially.

-We can take good things and make them bad.  However, we can also take bad things and make them good.

-When faced with a difficult task, things go better with friends to help you.

-The homeowners will have a better house once the construction is completed.  They will need to pay for this metamorphosis with discomfort, time and effort.  They will have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty. This is no different than making a change in a person’s life. Changing from an unhealthy place to a healthy one will require discomfort, time, effort, and uncertainty.

-At the recycler, we saw mountains of worn metal that will be melted and repurposed.  At the garbage dump, we saw broken cardboard boxes being prepared to be processed for future use. We also saw garbage that had to be discarded, as it was dangerous and toxic.

We may have parts of us that we think are bad, but with effort, we can make those parts good. Other parts have to be discarded, as they are so broken that they pose a danger to us.

-The fire destroyed some of the homeowner’s garden. For new growth to thrive, the dead plants need to be removed.  

Just like the dead plants we need to rid ourselves of bad habits, behaviors and relationships to make space for good, healthy ones.

These are just a few of the lessons that I learned from a burnt house and a general contractor.  Dear reader, look around you, life lessons are everywhere. Perhaps your clothes dryer is trying to tell you something.  Think I’m being ridiculous? Think again.

After the fire
Removing the bad to make room for the good
Old metal will be melted and become anew
Some things are so toxic that they have to be completely discarded