Doug Bruns

House a’fire

In Family, Life, Memoir, Thinkers, Travel, Writers, Writing on July 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

I recently asked some friends what they would grab from their house if it was on fire and they had only three minutes to escape. This question has intrigued me for some time. I can’t remember when I first thought of it—or maybe it was put to me at a dinner party by a host desperate to get things rolling. Regardless, I am cu

rious about what people find important, and this question speaks directly to the issue. It is too, I confess, a self-serving question, as I am trying to figure out what is important to me and am hoping someone will help me down that path. Anyway, my friends on this afternoon answered typically. Of the four, three said they would grab the family photographs. The holdout said he’d reach for his guitar. Guitars aside, in my unscientific poll, most people say they would most miss their photographs if all their belongings were irretrievably lost.

 Many years ago, I bought a video camera. Of course, with my usual lack of marketplace acumen, I bought a Beta video recorder, not VHS, but that is beside the point. Our kids were little and I felt compelled to record their every moment. It is a phase through which many young parents pass, particularly those boomers raised on “Kodak Moment” pablum. I dutifully fulfilled my fatherly obligation to posterity, recording holidays and birthdays, snow-fort building and summer beach fun. But after a while, a year or two, I stopped cold. I had watched a series of tapes I’d recorded, the kids being particularly little and cute, and it struck me hard and fast: I don’t want to watch this when I am old and they are grown and gone. I sensed a dark nascent warning, a potential for a wet-blanket-smothering depression. These tapes would prove to be an undeniable visual reminder of that which I no longer possessed: my youth and my future. My imagination, in my future viewing, delivered me to death’s door, and certain of the tapes would undoubtedly transport me, Black Dog in chase, across the transom. It is an admittedly contrary viewpoint, probably profoundly irrational, and I will likely regret my decision. But I’m not going to take the chance. No, no more videos. If the house burns, the videos stay. Same for the photos. My memory, unaided by even a photograph, will have to serve, as it should, being that much more exacting for its fragility.

 I read recently a comment the critic Frank Kermode made regarding a collection of his work, the compilation of which forced him to make some difficult decisions. He wrote that he had to confront “what ought and what ought not to be let go.” Precisely—and that is the troubling challenge. What ought to be not let go? To direct Kermode’s challenge to the world of the tangible, What would I pull from the burning house? Though not for lack of effort, I can’t think of a damned thing, leaving me to fear that I exist in a sub-human state, as to be so lacking in sentimentality that no thing has emotional value. Sentiment aside, to plumb the human desire for possession, is there no thing so essential that I cannot live without it? Again, I come up empty handed. The easy answers are not worth risking my life in the burning house. I would want my cell phone, because my wife and children call me on it. I would want my laptop because that has everything–some would say, “my life”–on it. And I would want my current reading material because I am a reader first. But these are all things that help me do the important stuff—they are not the important stuff—and can be replaced.

They are nouns and I long for verbs, active verbs.

I have on occasion lived out of a backpack. There is a wonderful simple elegance in having everything one requires on one’s

Walden, Thoreau

Walden, Thoreau

back. The unfettered freedom is palatable, and it does not surprise me, given the layered complexity of modern life, that backpacking is the most popular and widely practiced of outdoor activities. It is a relic, an unfathomable connection to a time when we as a species freely roamed anywhere and everywhere, Africa to the Bearing Straight, our only possessions the ones we carried. (It is a compelling thought that we, as a species, have walked at some time or another virtually everywhere.) The only thing I recall from my first reading of Walden is Thoreau’s admonition to simplify. (From the second reading, getting to know Henry David better, I thought: What a wild man. He would have been a curious house guest, an experiment of his own making, a site to see.) Buddhist monks are sent into the world with only their robes and alms bowl. That is simplicity.

Unencumbered is the word. An old woodsman I once met out in the Uinta Mountains of Utah said he could not conceive how a person could wake up in the morning and not see mountains on the horizon. He was someone who knew what was not only important to him, but necessary. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” wrote Thoreau. To be so compact and efficient, like a snail, or rather like my favorite amphibian, the common painted turtle, as to travel freely, wanting for nothing extraneous, is wildly releasing–and I think, close to an Absolute Truth, if such a thing existed. It is interesting that the painted turtle’s carapace is keelless, gaining her a range of motion subject to the least interference. The physicist and the code writer strive for the most elegant and simple equation or line. The architect and the draftsman seek elegance in an edge, a bend or radius that bespeaks simplicity in form. It is, I think, innately clarifying that life reflect the same principal. There is an entry in Camus’s notebook, not even a sentence: That wild longing for clarity.

 We have been educated, from Sunday school to Hollywood, that the prophets of old lived simply, by choice or divine edict, scratching out an existence, but living, at least in my imagination, a life of crystalline clarity. “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad,” wrote Hosea. I have visited the dusty expanse of the Middle East. There is good reason the desert breeds visionaries and madmen. Have we come very far? I am a struggling minimalist–they were beggars at the temple gate, voices in the wilderness. Mad fools, to paraphrase Hosea. The man who goes to the Seven Eleven for milk at night and turns up ten years later living on the other coast in another life is, I think, the most creative prophet imaginable—though likely a personal wreck. He starts over, creating a new self, like a snake shedding its skin, with the knowledge of the old, but free of it. I started a novel once whereby the protagonist walked away in the middle of a workday from a successful business, leaving a wild and brief note for his partner: “You’re in charge. I’m out of here.” He disappeared to everyone who knew him. Indeed, he walked right out of the novel and even I couldn’t find him.

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

Though likely the story teller in him, Bruce Chatwin claimed to have telegraphed Magnus Linklater, his boss at the London Sunday Times, “GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS.” I used to illogically figure that if I were ever imprisoned I would be forced to live a life of stark anti-materialism and simplicity. I would become a sequestered monk. It, prison, in this warped fantasy, sounded an odd and freeing experience, albeit a dark one–a place devoid of human vanities and illusions. There is nothing to pull from the burning house where there is no house in the first place. In a moment of introspection, Chatwin recorded this thought: “Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, ‘If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality.’”

 Nature strives to complexity. Organisms, like government, never evolve into smaller, more basic structures. To the contrary. That is the principal of evolution. To strive in the opposing direction, to simplicity, is counter to what our DNA is orchestrating behind the scene. Advertising, Madison Avenue and consumerism aside, this is biology. Perhaps we not only derive satisfaction from the material things that fill our lives, but are also fulfilling our genetic obligation to complexity. Of course this is metaphorical and not what nature had in mind. You will never see a migrating bird with a fanny pack.

 It has been an insidious journey from the backpacking days of my youth. Some time ago my wife, daughter and I went away for a three-day weekend to the lake. They packed a bag or two. I loaded my bike on the overhead carrier, put my fly-fishing gear in the back, along with photography equipment, books, laptop and trail guides. Clothing too. They looked at me, the great yapping minimalist, their eyes challenging. My wife was miffed, my daughter humored. I was embarrassed. I advise against revealing such duplicity in front of loved ones; years of hard-earned respect will be snatched away in instant. Of course I was troubled in that way only self-reflection can trouble one. We can be hardest on ourselves. How had I traveled so far? So began my quest to answer the question of what ought to be not let go.

 In reality, I am no longer worried by my lack of personal interest in possessions, which I believe suggests progress. I am no less human because I have no sentiment for things–in contradistinction, I think I am more so. Maybe our things can get in the way of our humanity. I do have many things still, far too many, but find comfort knowing that none are essential. I relish the freedom I sense upon returning from a donation collected of yet more purged stuff. To purge is clarifying and releasing. When I travel for short periods now I carry everything I need in a daypack. Two recent trips abroad found me managing fine with a simple carry-on. We are escaping the big house and moving to a place with less of a footprint, to use a modern and descriptive word. I struggle to resist consumerism, and have got rid of the big SUV for a small import. I know environmentalists applaud my efforts, and though that is a side benefit, my motives are largely to protect my personal environment–that is, to find clarity in simplicity, and if not find it readily, then carve it out. It took a long time to get to this place from which I must start again, only in reverse.

 The house is on fire. My family and Maggie the dog are safely outside. I am running through the burning rooms one last time, sirens in the background. I pick up nothing but speed, rushing freely and without burden to the open portal.

 

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  1. I absolutely love your writing! This resonates with me…obviously…my tag line “collect experiences…not things”. Sometimes I think–I think too much…perhaps I am supposed to just go with the flow and my main purpose is to have fun and help others when I can. So long as by helping them, I’m not hurting them. 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Sherry. I applaud your thought process, even though it involves thoughts! Living in our head can be quite the dead end at times–I know as a life student who has spent too much time there (in my head). BTW, I like your tag line very much. Thanks for reading and commenting.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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