ZHENG: Sifting through the ashes

Propergandist

About a month ago in Somerville, Mass., the house that I was renting burned down. The fire spread to five other houses before it was brought under control. By that point, my building and the adjacent one had been so damaged that they had to be demolished the next day. Thankfully, with the exception of two firefighters that suffered minor injuries, no human or animal was hurt.

Xiuyi Zheng_Opinion Portrait

My housemates and I ran out of the house at 6 a.m., and as we sat on the front steps of the house across from ours with arms around our knees, watching flames shoot out of our front windows and firefighters from 15 different fire departments rush to tame the conflagration, I thought about what should have been going through my head at that moment.

During those minutes, I wasn’t thinking about anything — my mind felt like a ship cruising across an endless sea of white. In the middle of all the commotion, my head was somewhere else, and everything taking place in front of me seemed distant and foreign.

As we sat there waiting for instructions from the authorities, my housemates and I joked about a guy from a neighboring house who reportedly made it back inside to save all of his suits. Us? I had only my phone. One of my housemates was barefoot.

Since the fire, many people have said to me, “You must be so traumatized, it must have been a devastating experience.” Yet what has surprised me the most is how quickly my life has returned to normal. I have a new laptop, a new wardrobe and difficulty proving my age at bars, but everything else feels the same.

It’s like when you begin crossing Elm Street, distracted perhaps by a friend or a funny text, and then suddenly a car screeches to a halt a foot away from you. The driver curses at you and you’re obviously shaken, but eventually you head off to class or to your meeting just as you would have otherwise. You tell the story to a few people and refrain from jaywalking for two days, and soon enough you’ll have forgotten it altogether.

The truth is that the events that occurred on the morning of July 24 did not change my life. Sure, replacing all of my belongings was a hassle, and I did feel quite restless in the weeks that followed as I moved from one temporary lodging to the next. Yet deep down, if the fire did leave a mark on me, it was neither conspicuous nor permanent.

Instead of feeling sorrowful for what I had lost, I realized just how simple my life had been up to that point. I was fortunate not to have lost anything truly valuable in that fire, but at the same time, in that house I had nothing truly valuable to lose. My parents were safe back home, and my friends were still in the midst of their summer adventures. Not a single one of my possessions was truly essential, nor was there anything of tremendous personal value.

This was not the case for everyone. Another one of my housemates, a fourth-year architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, had to cope with the loss of all of the models he had ever made, as well as all electronic records of his past work. He told me that he “lost his entire life” in the fire.

Some inhabitants of the affected houses celebrated the survival of what was most dear to them. As we crowded around a fire department officer and gave him our names and apartment numbers, one girl held a slightly frazzled cat tight in her arms. A couple was locked in a tearful embrace.

As I thought about the life I would build after graduation — a career, a family, a home — I thought about all the things that, if lost, would devastate and traumatize me forever. Then I tried to imagine myself trying to cope with the aftermath of such tragedies. I could not.

Yet I know that such events will eventually occur, unless my life ends first. What will I do once they have? I cannot say for sure, but I treasure all the things that would pain me to lose, and I look forward to gaining more of them. Perhaps the fact that we can and will lose what we love is the entire point of loving in the first place.

Xiuyi Zheng is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.

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