Monday, September 5, 2011



Apparently, this is what one should yell if immediate assistance is required from people who do not know you.  Yelling "help" is like setting off a car alarm at three in the morning--no one hears it and even if they do, it's regarded as an annoyance (those damn kids!) rather than an emergency.

But yelling "fire" is something that will always get your attention.  Why?

To begin with, fire is ruthless and indiscriminate.  Everyone knows that it does not matter how rich you are, where you live or how much insurance you have.  Fire doesn't care whose house it is burning.  The fear of having one's house burned down to the ground is a deep-seated, primal fear that we all have built right into us, regardless of whether we live in a hut or a palace, in a desert or a tropical paradise.

Fear of fire is as basic as it gets, but fear of what fire will do to our possessions comes pretty close.  After all, to have one's house burn down is to experience denial of one of our most basic needs.  Like dying of hunger or exposure, the fear of dying in a fire is primal.  But why?  What are we afraid of, exactly?

What is in our homes--besides life: people and the animals--that is so incredibly important?  Is it our money?  Our jewelry?  Photographs, furniture or clothing?  Food?  Art?  What do we value most?  Given the limiting constraints of pressing time and minimal space, what will we choose to save?

Is there anything in our houses that we would not trade for our lives or the lives of our loved ones or animals?

I don't think so.  It's a cliche to say something like, "material things don't matter.  What's important are the lives of my family and our animals." It sounds hollow, especially on TV with a camera pointed a some poor person who's just lost everything.  At the heart of every cliche however, there is some truth, and the truth of the matter is that we're all happy to make the deal of a lifetime:  If we may live, the fire may have it all.

Oh, and it will.  The fire can and will have all the possessions, the acquisitions, all the inheritances and every bit of stuff that it chooses.  It can have all the tangible bits of flotsam and jetsam that comprise our lives outside of our minds and experiences.  Fire will take all that is mere detritus, just the barnacles on a hull, living with us but not for us.

Fire can actually be a cleansing, a removal of the waste that surrounds us.

After all, things themselves are here only to break our hearts.  Lost, stolen or destroyed, all things eventually fall from our grasp.  Why then do we reach for them in the first place?  What gives us the idea that we may claim ownership of any bit of matter in the universe other than the atoms and molecules that comprise ours cells?

Remember, we are all but renters in the Big City of Life.  Our quarters, however luxurious or spare they may be are but temporary abodes, a small set of things assembled briefly at a set of coordinates in Cartesian time and Quantum space.

Those things are meaningless outside of the context that binds them together--us.

Like pearls on a string, things are someday to be undone.  Some day the knot will break. All those things that seemed so tightly and permanently bound together in our lives will fall and scatter.  Some we will catch and save, but some will roll out the door and into the gutter and thence to the sewer.  Still others will be spotted and claimed by other Magpies, delighted by the shininess and roundness of their being.

Life is a sieve.  Only those bits that are small enough to pass will remain.

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