When Stuff Really Does Matter

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This week in Colorado Springs more than 450 families are newly houseless due to the smoldering blaze on the north side of town. The Black Forest wildfire has been burning for days; firefighters are still working tirelessly to contain it. Fire departments planned their attack well; over 2,000 homes were saved. (To all you blaze-stopping heroes: thank you!!)  I’m slightly conflicted because Smallish chronicles our journey of learning to live contentedly with less, but in the wake of the Black Forest fire, I’m reminded that sometimes stuff really does matter.

Just a couple weekends ago my parents were evacuated due to a different fire threat, and we were grateful to be able to help them grab the essentials and flee. (It’s cliché, of course, that when you’re faced with 20 minutes to pack up belongings and run, the truly important things stand out crystal clear. But clichés are overused often because of their glaring truth.)

I failed the evacuation test, kind of. After piling stacks of irreplaceable photo albums in the car, I did a once-over through the house looking for small items that my parents would appreciate having in the event the house did catch fire. On the kitchen counter lay a bag of freshly-baked sugar cookies. I wondered if I should grab them. Then I silently chided myself for even thinking about saving the dumb cookies at a time like this. I debated whether or not to take the cookies for much longer than a sane person should have, and in the end I decided to leave the delicious stack of refined sugar and white flour. (In my defense, they were quite possibly the best sugar cookies to ever grace planet Earth. And the boys and all the really-absolutely-important things were already tucked safety in the car, so it’s not like I was deciding between the passports or the cookies.)

Given that very fresh personal evacuation experience, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who lost their homes this week. What would it be like to pack a bag with whatever you could remember to grab and then leave your beloved house, only to later learn on the news that you had nowhere to return to? To see your lovingly decorated home—with all those memories and familiar scents and belongings—reduced to a black pile of rubble? I can just barely imagine the feeling, and it brings tears to my eyes.

You see, I talk a lot about stuff and how living small with less enhances a simple life. And how we really don’t need a lot of the belongings that we own, and that’s all true. But I’m human (newsflash!). And the fact is that humans like stuff. And that isn’t inherently a bad thing.

We transfer value and emotions to trinkets, and those items become cherished reminders. A bottle of sand from the Normandy beaches is a mark of your trip. A favorite cooking dish is a herald for a full family dinner. A great pair of heels is your go-to “feel awesome” kicks. A soft and holey blanket is a child’s security clutch.

As much as we say that things are just stuff and they are not really all that important, sometimes stuff really does matter. Maybe not in the crucial-to-continue-life type of important, but there’s a reason we hold onto many things. They make us comfortable or provide beauty or are a tangible piece of heritage. Sometimes stuff is precious.

When I saw the black plume on the horizon last week, I realized that the smoke wasn’t just from trees burning. It was someone’s long-saved-for bedroom furniture set. It was someone’s favorite floppy stuffed animal. It was someone’s postcard collection from overseas travel. It was also possibly a bag of newly baked sugar cookies.

So to those of you who lost a home in the Black Forest fire: I’m thinking about you, and I’m praying for your family. I’m so, so sorry. The destruction of a home is a terrible thing. I wish I could offer some sort of comfort, but all I can do is pray for contentment, peace and clarity in the midst of rough upcoming months.  I’ll leave the comforting to Jesus, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

Peace be with you in this fiery time.

(Photo credit: Philip Stewart.)

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  • Monica
    June 17, 2013

    Thanks Evelyn for this post.

  • Kristin
    June 18, 2013

    Beautiful and poignant. Really touched my heart.

  • Bethany @ Journey to Ithaca
    June 18, 2013

    Beautiful, Evelyn.

    We’ve been paring down to what will fit in a mini-van sized motor home, and it’s been a difficult and emotional experience! But we have days, not minutes, to do it, and we know that we are moving on to something better.

    My heart really goes out to the families who lost their homes.

    • Evelyn
      June 19, 2013

      Great insight, Bethany. It’s true that the pairing down of possessions can be emotional whether it’s over days or minutes.

  • Jen
    June 19, 2013

    Wow – thanks for posting this. Really, really brought me back to my apartment fire a few years ago. I completely agree with what you said about assigning emotions to trinkets. It wasn’t that my stuff was burned, it was like the memory was also scarred. Thanks for the reminder that sometimes stuff is just stuff, and sometimes it’s not. xo

    • Evelyn
      June 21, 2013

      Jen, I didn’t know you’ve had a real, live fire! Thanks for chipping in, friend. x

  • Britt
    June 24, 2013

    My family faced this issue when we evacuated from the Wallow Fire in AZ. My dad actually packed a lot of pictures and mementos he knew would be irreplaceable. Our home was fine, but it was still an important reminder.

    • Evelyn
      June 25, 2013

      Hi Britt, You know the evacuation feeling, then! I’m glad your home was safe. Thanks for chipping in! 🙂

  • Jenifer
    June 25, 2013

    It is very true. It is hard to lose everything so abruptly.

    That being said, living simply can certainly facilitate this process for people. You know what you have, it’s all organized and you know where it is. It’s easy to find, and you can even evaluate what is most important to you.

    Because we live in earth quake country, we need to have a quick/easy evacuation plan. Not only does civil defense give a very clear list of what a family should have on hand (emergency supplies), but also what they’ll need in a “bug-out” bag.

    I wrote in the tech post about how we prepared if our house was destroyed in the recent storm we had — basically packing the essentials into two suitcases so that we could go. We would have also grabbed our bug-out bag. And we had our rain gear set out as well.

    • Evelyn
      June 25, 2013

      Hey again, you’re so right that living simply with less stuff absolutely helps in these emergency situations. Pairing down belongings, in my opinion, is always a good idea! 🙂 Glad to hear from you!

  • Beth
    June 15, 2015

    Have lost things a few times, wedding pix, high school yearbook and senior class ring, but the thing I miss most is my ginzu knife from 1970s. I miss my dress from when I was sweetheart ball queen and some clothes, like my favorite coat, or my favorite books. It sure is funny what really matters and it is so different for different people.

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