Ever since photography became more than just a shared hobby, my partner Paul and I have spent Mondays shooting photos. This particular Monday was a little different – mainly because the weather was foggy, breezy, and downright ugly. We didn’t want to leave our cozy living room, let alone go outside and try to create beautiful photos. Still, we rallied and threw on some sloppy clothes. I put on mismatched socks, threw my hair in a messy ponytail, and didn’t even bother with makeup. After all, we were only leaving home for a little while.

Neither of us batted an eye when the fire trucks came screaming across the bridge; their lights cutting through the low tide fog. Fire trucks are always in a hurry, and in our experience, they always go somewhere besides our home. This time was different. By the time we made it to the bottom of our hill, we could see the billowing white smoke filling the sky. Our street was entirely blocked off, and once we finally found a place to park, we had a clear view of our home -and it was on fire.

That night is mostly a blur. An eager reporter snapped the saddest, ugliest photo of me weeping on Paul’s shoulder. We huddled in the local pottery studio while firefighters chopped big chunks out of the walls and roof, spraying down every inch of the smoldering structure. Volunteers gave us shoulders to cry on and helped us write a list of what we wanted to try to salvage if we were allowed to re-enter. The fire investigator interviewed us, we cried, and we cried some more.

Photo via Portland Press Herald

The rough thing about fire is that it doesn’t act alone in its path of destruction. Smoke and water do plenty of damage on their own. When we finally gained re-entry, it was a disaster zone. The lingering smoke and inches of steaming brown water on the floors and surfaces will haunt me for a while. The ceilings had caved in, and it was immediately apparent that we wouldn’t be able to salvage much. Our home was gone forever.

As you might expect, this story doesn’t stop here. If it did, it would be super depressing, and I’m sorry it has been up until this point. To be completely honest, I didn’t know if I would bounce back from my own shock and misery in the days following the fire. It wasn’t just about losing the place where we lived, it was the realization that no amount of preparation could have prevented this disaster, and nothing we could do would restore our comfortable routines and all the little details we took for granted every day. That chapter of our life was closed firmly behind us, and there was nowhere go but forward.

In the days that followed, I had a hard time communicating, and could barely wrangle my own thoughts. Still, a few lessons became very clear, and I might as well share them.

Get Comfortable with Being Concise and Honest

I didn’t realize my propensity for writing long-winded, formal emails until I needed to quickly tell all of my clients that I would be unavailable until further notice. As much as my heart wanted to write a traditional message, I knew that I simply had to share the facts, excuse my absence, and promise that I would be in touch as soon as possible. In truth, most of my emails had the subject line “House burned down” because there was no time to mince words. Communicating with concise transparency takes courage, but it shows readers that you trust they will react with respect and understanding. They almost always will.

Wear Matching Socks

When you put on clothing, pretend it’s the last outfit you’ll own. Do you love it? Do you feel cute and comfortable in it? Pretend all your other clothes will be destroyed and you’ll have to wear it over and over – because that actually DOES happen. Pretend you’ll be on the front page of the newspaper, because that happens too. My one long fluffy red sock with snowflakes and my short fluffy white sock with pumpkins do not match. My ratty leggings, chunky poo-colored cardigan and bright orange hat don’t look good together either. It’s not about fashion, it’s just about feeling good about how you look, no matter what you’re planning on doing.

Live In The Moment

I have struggled with this forever, because I’m a natural planner and scatterbrained multi-tasker. Still, that’s no excuse. Moments go up in smoke and they never come back. Whether you’re working or spending time with family, you’re doing yourself a major disservice by not being present, focusing, and finding the joy, value, or lesson in every moment. It sounds cliche and extreme to say that any moment could be your last, but it could easily be the last moment of an era, so you’re responsible for using it, appreciating it, and making it matter.

Put Serious Thought Into an Emergency Plan

We used to talk about what we would take if our alarms went off and we smelled smoke. We never once considered that we wouldn’t be home when our home was on fire. Instead of focusing on what you’ll grab, think about where you’ll go, who you’ll contact, and what you can do to make the transition easier. When you work hard, plan obsessively, and pay your bills and taxes, homelessness doesn’t seem like something you’ll need to worry about. Unfortunately, it can happen. Since I own my business and work from home, losing my home also meant losing my office. An emergency plan wouldn’t have stopped that, but a little foresight might have helped ease the adjustment.

There’s no perfectly buttoned-up conclusion to this story. It’s actually just the beginning. We’re lucky enough to have nearby family with a guest room. We have generous friends who are willing to donate. We have hope. 

Things like fire, floods, natural disasters and tragedies – they sneak up on us. We can never truly prepare for how they’ll impact us, but we can do our best to make the most of each and every moment. I know I’ll be doing that from now on; will you?