The Roof! The Roof! The Roof is on Fire!

We don’t need no water…

Folks of a certain vintage can fill in the rest. Recorded 1984, by the way.

So, what if the roof were really on fire?

Thought experiment: Tonight, there is a fire in your home. For this experiment, the type of home doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you own or rent, whether you live in a house, on a boat, in an RV, or whatever. It’s your home, and it burns. Tonight. You and your loved ones (pets count!) escape unharmed. You’re standing there on the curb, or the dock, or at the campsite. You’ve got adequate clothing, so you’re not cold or wet or any of that. Heck, let’s say you managed to grab your wallets or purses or whatever you use to carry those everyday survival items like IDs, credit cards and whatnot. Let’s even say you had the foresight to use a fireproof box to store your birth certificates, titles, marriage licenses, and so on, so you’re not worried about those either. But everything else is gone.

What’s your state of mind?

Of course, we all know what we’re supposed to feel, think, and say at that moment.

“I’m just so glad no one was hurt! Gosh-darn, we were really lucky!”

Right. Copy that.

Now, for realz: How are you feeling? It seems to me that when these situations actually occur, and when the news vultures are zooming their cameras in on the people who experience them, there is always someone there who is in hysterics, someone who, with tears twinkling in the flashing red and blue lights, sobs something like, “We’ve lost EVERYTHING! I mean EVERYTHING we had was in that home! Oh God, what are we gonna do now?”

I do not intend to make fun of anyone in that situation. I have never been there, and I do not want to go there. I do not want to go there mostly because of what leads up to being there, those moments of terror when you and yours are in real, mortal danger. That’s actual trauma. But there are a couple of reasons why I think it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine ourselves inhabiting that moment when, in fact, we have nothing else to inhabit.

The first reason is, that shit can happen.

I have one friend who lost his home in a fire. Thankfully, no one was injured, and today he is quick to say that is the most important thing. I’ve never asked him how it felt right when it happened. I should ask.

I have another friend whose story is so incredible you’re likely to disbelieve me when you hear it (which, of course, follows from the definition of “incredible,” if we want to get all etymological about it). His name is John, and we worked together once upon a time. One day while we were at work, a tornado blew away his home. His wife was in the home. Knowing the tornado was coming, she had gotten into the closet underneath the stairway in the center of the house and wrapped herself with some pillows and an old quilt. John was on the phone with her when the phone went dead. When the tornado blew away the house, it left nothing there but the concrete slab, a few bits of debris (including a bible–which detail they take very seriously), and her. Inside the quilt. Can you believe it? In their case, the miraculous nature of her survival ensured that they skipped right over any silly worries about their possessions and proceeded straight to “Hallelujah!”

Their version of the story, which they see from a very religious angle, is here.

So right there is adequate reason to to engage in this experiment–doing so might help us better prepare for what is a potentially real occurrence.

The second reason is that it provides another lens through which we can view our relationship with our stuff. When we imagine ourselves in that moment of loss, how far are we from that healthy, “I’m grateful” response? If our survivor self is sobbing hysterically amidst the imaginary ashes of our actual possessions, then why?

I’m going to set aside for the moment what I think is going to be the toughest nut to crack, and that is sentimental attachment. Most of us get attached to certain things and probably, if it is owned, to our homes themselves. We won’t find an easy solution to that problem. But putting that aside, why else would we mourn our stuff? I can think of but two possible reasons:

– Either we have a lot of expensive stuff that we think we can’t afford to lose, or (possibly and)…

– We are truly poor to the point where it will be difficult to replace even our very basics: the shelter, the clothes, the food, and the cooking and eating utensils.

If either of these conditions obtain, we’ve got a problem. Both of them are problems that stand in the way of our freedom and inner peace, and since they are orders of magnitude easier to solve than the sentiment problem, we should make their obliteration an immediate priority.

Problem one: Lots of expensive stuff? Insure it. Can’t afford the insurance? Then you can’t afford the stuff. See problem number two. If you’re that poor, your expensive stuff should not have been acquired in the first place, and it should now be on Ebay or Craigslist, not sitting around causing you angst.

Hey, that was easy!

Problem two: Really, really poor? Well then, we need to get ourselves on a program, don’t we? We need to start practicing the frugality tips found at Early Retirement Extreme, or Brave New Life, or Mr. Money Mustache, or, as an absolute last resort, in the pages of Dave Ramsey’s literature. If the latter, make sure you stop listening to him past the point of actually getting out of debt. After getting out of debt, tune him out before he sells you the load of bad investment advice that he dispenses for his kickbacks. Instead, go visit JL Collins’ site to figure out what to do with all that money that is now yours, free and clear (Hint: Don’t buy more crap)(Hint Hint: Vanguard funds).

That solution is not going to be so easy to accomplish as compared with the first one, but at least it is pretty straightforward. There are several forums out there full of people helping each other work through their solutions to the poverty/debt problem, which really is endemic in our nation (debt more than poverty; contrary to the poor of other nations, we’re all in chains of our own making). So go get some support, and get cracking.

And now we get to the really tough problem. What do we do about our sentimental attachment to our things, or to our home itself? Hoo boy. This one strikes close to, um, home. If I knew an easy solution to this problem I would have already applied it in my own case. I’m a sentimental fool, as is my Dear Wife.

I suppose we should start by asking whether this problem is really a problem. So what if you’re attached to your stuff? Well, all sorts of scenarios run through my mind when I think about it, and I can tell you that the scenarios in which sentimental attachment to things becomes problematic are outnumbering the one(s) in which they don’t.

Here’s the best-case scenario for thing-attachment, the one in which I don’t see a problem with being sentimental about some plain ‘ol stuff: Let’s say your personality makeup could be described as something on the order of “Hobbit-like.” Your ideal future state is to be kicking up your feet in front of a long-familiar hearth, surrounded by comforting artifacts of your own life and of the lives of loved ones, near and far, present and departed. You can do so without financial worry whatsoever because you’ve lived a life of responsibility. Your home is of a size that easily accommodates all of your things, and it’s easily with your means to maintain it. You might like to travel, but when you do you like the idea of that old, familiar hearth awaiting your return. You’re very rooted in place by familial and civic ties.

In short, suppose you’re my mom.

You know what? Enjoy your stuff. Make sure your smoke detectors have fresh batteries, and keep fire extinguishers handy. Get your grandkids to digitize all of your old photographs. In the event of catastrophe, prepare to shed a wo/manly tear. That’s about it. Rock on.

On the other hand, here are a few scenarios in which sentimental attachment to stuff is probably weighing you down:

– You’re a hoarder. You’ve got so much stuff you can’t even move around inside your home.
– You’re maintaining more home than you can or should really afford, just to warehouse stuff. You might even (Egads!) have rented storage space to handle the overflow.
– You want or need greater mobility than your pile of stuff allows, either because you want to see more of the world or because your chosen career requires frequent relocation.

In all of these scenarios, some stuff has got to go, no matter how attached to it you might be.

Personally, I’m looking down the road five or six years, when both kids are off to college (after a couple of years of community college), and I’m seeing my family in that third category, with that second one also becoming applicable since we’ll be down to four warm bodies in the house, two of them furry. Hell, when tools are taken into account, the first category might very well apply, at least to my garage.

Yes, we want to be more mobile. My wife would like to spend time in Spain. I’m okay with that. If that’s not doable, I have job prospects that would at least put us in Europe, from which trips to Spain would be cheap and easy. Alternatively, and closer to home, I’d like to spend a few years doing the RV thing, driving around the country at a very leisurely pace with our fur-babies, seeing what’s to see. From there, who knows? Regardless, not a single one of my desired future scenarios requires a 4-bedroom McMansion with dual-zone HVAC and 0.3 acres of grass to mow. And a mortgage. And taxes. And insurance. And maintenance and repairs.

Stuff’s gotta go. How to get rid of it?

Let’s start by asking, how do we get attached to stuff in the first place?

Do we have attachment to travel souvenirs? Screw that. Memories are your best souvenirs, with, in my case, pictures coming a close second (JL Collins tells you to leave your camera at home, but I disagree). Get rid of that crap or, at the least, detach yourself emotionally from it. If it burns, it burns. It’s crap. Next time you travel, don’t buy any souvenirs.

Do we find it difficult to part with gifts? Let’s value the relationship, not the token. Break those emotional ties. Even if the person is deceased. They don’t care anymore. Really.

Do we have things that you think are unique? Check Ebay. You’ll find at least three of them, probably three dozen. Besides, what are you doing, running a museum? Buh-bye.

Aw, but then what about handmade stuff? Stuff you built, or your mom, dad, grandparents, or even your kids made with their precious little digits? That stuff has special magic, doesn’t it?

Speaking of special magic, what about things you inherited?

What about those things that provide you genuine pleasure every time you regard/handle/use them? Perhaps your own use of them has contributed to their patina. Maybe yours is the third or fourth generation to add to their patina.

What do you do with the magical stuff?

Well, small magical items can certainly find their way to your next destination somehow. Or find a home in your RV. So no worries there.

But the big stuff? The furniture and whatnot? I suppose your best bet there is to hope one of your relatives is more Hobbit-like than you. Pass those things along.

Other than that, I’m fresh out of ideas.

We’ll find out in five or six years whether the DW will allow me to put into action any of these plans. Good luck with yours! Meantime, check your insurance policy for fire coverage, ’cause you never know.

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