Devastating fire drives home the impermanence of things

Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 1:06 PM

Barn’s burnt down –


I can see the moon.

– Mizuta Masahide

My daughter-in-law’s parents’ house burned to the ground during the recent fires in Northern California. Nothing left! I feel close to these people, have had many Thanksgivings in their home and, of course, am tied to them through our kids.

We all saw the scorching news station video of the house ablaze. It was horrific, and the violence of it is burned into our brains.

After four days of anxiety on my part, I settled into great sadness. Sadness for these people and also sadness for other people who have lost their homes in all these natural disasters, for all the refugees who have lost their homes and countries because of wars, and just the inhumanity of the world right now. It feels even more gut-wrenching when we know someone personally – it brings the weight of it all upon me.

I wonder if this strong reaction is because tragedies are happening so much more frequently or if my sense of time is altered because I’m aging. Or, am I identifying with my own house and all that it means? I know in my mind it’s just about material possessions when a house burns down, but in my heart, it’s about all the memories, the family culture, the nurturing space any family feels in its home. A home expresses us, our needs and wants, and is our sanctuary. To have it all wiped away in a few minutes seems so unreal.

Where to go and what to do without any of our usual anchors, things that ground us, or identities that our homes provide?

These people are my age, not 25 and willing to hit the road and start over. Imagine, really imagine, if any of us could open to new possibilities in a situation like this. Could we be positive? Think of it as an adventure? Believe that change can be good?

Or, would we become fearful and untrusting without any home base? “Who am I now that I don’t own any material goods, not even a place to go home to and feel safe?”

Interesting thoughts and perhaps another lesson in our attachments, letting go and the impermanence of all things – even us! Embracing impermanence is a journey that takes us deep into contact with the true nature of things. First, we accept that things around us change. Then, we realize that we, ourselves, are ever-changing – our thoughts and feelings, our attitudes and beliefs, even our identities and finally our lives.

As we age, I think we’re all figuring out what is most important in our lives: how and with whom we spend our precious remaining time. This recent fire, and all the hurricanes and flooding and earthquakes, tells me to emphasize what is invaluable and most cherished and to pay more attention to all the things I love. We never know what could happen, especially now.

What are the most important things? What are the things that can’t be burned down or flooded away or blown to bits? Are we putting enough energy into those things? Making them a priority?

Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and has written the book The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Email her at