I Lost Everything in a Fire – and I’m Glad

Guest post by Rachel Papworth – decluttering coach and blogger at Green & Tidy, helping people all over the world declutter and create homes they love, homes that support them to lives the lives they want to live.

In 2001, Jim* moved from Bristol to Brighton to be nearer some good friends and his sister, who was ill.

As he drove down the M4 with all his belongings in a hired lorry, ready to move into the place he’d been doing up, he noticed smoke coming from the front of the van, so he pulled onto the hard shoulder and got out.

A couple of minutes later the cabin where he’d been sitting was full of smoke and flames.

The keys to the back of the lorry were in the cabin and, despite bashing at the doors, he was unable to open the lorry to pull anything out. Within a few minutes, the police arrived and told him to move away and, seemingly no time later, the whole lorry was engulfed in 60 foot flames. The M4 was closed in the direction he was travelling, as was one lane of the opposite carriageway.

In shock and not fully processing what was going on, Jim found himself “almost smiling at the situation. It seemed insane”.

Having been dropped off at the nearest tube station by the police, Jim headed for his new home with little more than the clothes on his back, his phone and the money in his pockets. He didn’t even have a front door key, though luckily he’d given one to a friend.

Over the next few days and weeks, his initial ‘crazy anger’ was compounded by the discovery that his insurance policy didn’t cover him because his belongings hadn’t been in either of his properties when they were destroyed.

Though his insurance company eventually recovered a proportion of the value of his goods from the van hire company,  for many months Jim didn’t know whether he would receive any compensation.

He had to face life with almost no possessions.

To his surprise, his fury quickly faded to being ‘pissed off’ and then gradually disappeared until, only a month later, he began to feel ‘cleansed and freed up’.

Suddenly, all the physical ties to his past had disappeared. ‘All those drawers of photos and letters that you open, see and are suddenly drawn back into the past, are gone. And then you can only move forward. You’re no longer pulled back into the past’.

We accumulate stuff as we move through life and it can be hard to part with it, even though it can weigh us down. The fire took the decision-making process out of Jim’s hands.

In an instant, he was free of physical attachments to his past.

Strangely, the fire happened at a time in Jim’s life when he was already on an emotional and spiritual journey. Personal relationships and his work were changing and he’d been studying meditation and Tai Chi, and bringing stillness into his life.

He laughs at the language he still uses to describe the fire. “I always say ‘I lost everything’. No I didn’t! I lost nothing. I lost the smallest, least important things in life. They were just possessions. I realised I don’t actually need anything. We’ve all got everything we need”.

Jim says that, before the fire, his life was restricted by him being a ‘disorganised, messy hoarder’.  With everything lying around anyhow, he couldn’t be productive.

While he has accumulated stuff since (particularly since he had children!), he didn’t seek to replace everything and is more organised now. He’s picky about what he acquires. “I’ll only buy something if I really like it and I’m never tempted to spend for the sake of it”.

He’s always happy to get rid of things. He and his family, particularly his seven year old, love to do car boot sales. Of his current possessions, the only thing he’d feel desperate to save from a fire would be the family photos stored on his laptop though he also thinks, “We all take too many photos anyway”.

When he reflects on what he lost, he can think of only four items he misses: cine film his parents took of him and his siblings when they were young; a chair of his father’s; some photographs; and a painting by his Granny. It’s the cine film he regrets losing most because, “It wasn’t mine to lose and I feel sad for my family. We used to enjoy watching it when we met up once a year and now our children won’t have that experience”.

The thought of losing all his stuff again doesn’t fill him with dread. “If you lose everything, so what?” In fact, he finds the idea liberating. “Suddenly you’re no longer responsible for all that stuff. It’s brilliant. Genius. Everyone should get rid of everything every ten years. Or maybe there should be a limit on the number of possessions each person can own,” he laughs. “If you hold onto something for years and then chuck it out, you can guarantee you’ll need it the following week. Better to get rid of it sooner and forget about it”.

Even despite losing the precious family cine film, he says that overall he’s delighted it happened. “I was lucky”.

(*Jim is a pseudonym. This blog post is based on an interview undertaken on Friday 10th February 2012).

How would you feel if this happened to you?

Maybe something similar already has – how did you feel?

Rachel Papworth runs Green and Tidy. She helps people with WAY too much stuff declutter, and create homes they love, homes that support them in the lives they want to live. Rachel is a trained coach, with a degree in psychology, and self-obsessed decluttering and organising geek, she loves the way decluttering your mind and your stuff is interlinked and the contribution decluttering makes to living a low-impact life. For a free masterclass on decluttering and more tips on having a home that supports the life you want, subscribe to her blog at Green and Tidy, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Photo by Loco Steve via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES –  The Year of Anti-Consumerist LivingMeet Tammy Strobel, 10 Ways to Have Enough Money and Stuff

The Year of Anti-Consumerist Living

A guest post by Robin MacArthur, a writer, mother, and one half of the indie-folk duo Red Heart the Ticker. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Shenandoah, and Orion Magazine. You can read more of her work on her blog at Woodbirdandthensome, or listen to Red Heart the Ticker

A few months back our friends Doug and Erika announced that they were challenging one another to a year of buying-nothing-new.

They posted a link to the rules of a social and environmental movement called “The Compact” initiated and named by a group of friends in San Francisco. The Compact is not extremist; one can buy food and anything necessary for one’s health or safety, essential supplies such as brake fluid and toilet paper, anything second hand, and even download music and keep one’s subscriptions.

Radical but not insane.

I thought, briefly, about joining them. But I excused myself by (quietly) proclaiming that I’m not really much of a consumer, anyway; that I haven’t bought a pair of new jeans in two years; that I can count on my two hands (literally) the number of things I’ve bought new for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter during her lifetime; that it wouldn’t change the world, me not buying the little I do. Plus, I said, also quietly, I have a penchant for buying myself the occasional pretty thing. Don’t I deserve that?

Then, yesterday, I came across an article in the current issue of Orion magazine by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money”. Sanders argues that in order to fix our economy and our environment we need to break our cultural mythology of wealth. He writes: “Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it. Recognizing this fact is the first move toward liberating ourselves from the thrall of concentrated capital. We need to desanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us…We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator or monarch…and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well being.”

Liberating ourselves…desanctifying money…tyrannical power…well being. Those words chilled me.

Sanders goes on to quote Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who wrote, in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction [and] our ego satisfaction in consumption.” Sanders continues by saying that, in the West, consumption has become compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, happiness, and “other fast-disappearing and entirely vanishing boons.”

By this point I knew I was in.

I thought back to my initial reaction to the pact. Sure, I don’t buy much new stuff. But how much to I relish the limited buying that I do? How much do I equate that buying with self-love? How giddy do I become? And fanatic? And confused, and slightly crazed? I realized, reading Sanders’ article, that my resistance to “the Compact” proved that I am, by no means, immune from our cultural materialistic (and corporate-imposed) fetishizing, that my resistance was a sign that my own sense of spirit and ego is, indeed, entwined with consuming, at which point I walked outside and told my sweetheart we were in. No buying anything new for an entire year. Starting next week.

The Wiki for The Compact outlines the movement’s goals:

1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;

2. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);

3. To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)

It also lays out the rules:

“Members of The Compact are only allowed to buy underwear, food, and health and safety items such as brake fluid and toilet paper. During their one-year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. Members of the Compact frown upon material consumerism. However, they are allowed to use services such as movies, theaters, museums, massages, haircuts, and music downloads.”

As I said earlier, this is a radical but not undoable pact. It is not like the sensationalist carbon-zero activists who refused to use toilet paper or take public transportation for a year. It is, instead, a very simple commitment that many of us, without much sweat, could (and can) do. I, for one, am most interested to discover the subtle ways in which it does (or does not) affect me. What will I learn about my own desire? About my attachment to materialistic things and the act of consumption itself? And what are the unexpected, positive outcomes? Already it has brought our household a sense of purpose; this unobtrusive but publicly assertive statement about values is a way to make not-having an active state as opposed to a passive one. A way to affirm and recognize one’s impulse towards simplicity as a choice rather than a result of circumstances.

And it excites, also. When I was a kid I rarely bought new clothes; thrift stores were the treasure troves of my life, a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get my materialistic buzz on. Our household frugality also encouraged creativity and resourcefulness; if I wanted a certain kind of bag, I made it. If I wanted a new bed, or doll house, or desk, I convinced my dad to help me build one. It’s a kind of resourcefulness I want to teach my daughter, and re-teach myself as well; it encourages us to be creative with our materialistic impulses and to alter our aesthetics to match our environmental and social beliefs, rather than having our aesthetics determined by a corporate society we proclaim to hate.

I’m not swearing off buying new things forever—I enjoy and plan on, in the future, supporting my local businesses. But for now I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing. I feel inspired by the challenge of making next winter’s Christmas presents and scavenging thrift stores for a raincoat for my daughter. And I’m excited to discover how the pact will (or will not) effect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.

I have always believed that limitations make us happier people; that the cause of so much of our cultural angst is the limitless possibilities that flower before us at every turn. This will test that theory. I may end up in tears in late winter, crooning after some pretty, spring-escent, aqua-colored dress. But for now I can say this: that since committing, my life feels simpler, saner, more purposeful, more clear, more directed, more exciting, more integrity-filled, more youthful and more free.

Why on earth would I trade a few things for all that?

To join us in this pact, or find out more, visit - The Compact

Similar articles – The Art of Giving Up, Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Buy Nothing Day, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves

Photo by Miguel Virkunnen Carvalho, via Flickr