What would you take if your life depended on it? Five minutes. Two minutes. A fire is sweeping toward your home, and whatever you can carry may be all you get to keep.
What do you grab?
It’s an unsettling question. Not as unsettling as the flames that are destroying thousands of houses in California’s wildfires. Not even close. But a question that makes you think.
The New York Times ran a video recently with testimonies from victims of those fires, already the deadliest in California’s history, dozens killed and entire neighborhoods reduced to ash. At some point, these residents all beat a hasty departure. The Times asked what they salvaged.
“I gathered my guitars…family photo albums that my wife had kept for many years…and then the cat,” said one Napa resident. “And that was it.”
“My boyfriend grabbed all of his mounts off the wall,” a woman stated.
“My son had hit a grand slam on Saturday,” a mother recalled, through tears, “and he just started crying because his ball was (still) in the house.”
What we carry. What we leave behind.
What would you save?
As I write this, I sit by a desk that is crammed with favorite books, important papers, a (relatively) expensive computer, backup hard drives, a pile of crayon-colored, thank-you notes from Haitian orphans, a funny photo from eighth grade, framed pictures of my family, and some dolls that a little girl, so precious to us, loved to play with.
And that’s just within arm’s reach.
Does all this stuff matter to me? That’s why it’s on my desk. Would I grab any of it if my house were about to burn? I’d want to. But I might be too busy trying to salvage something else.
This question “What would you take?” was actually posed a few years ago by a blogger who turned it into a book, traveling the world and interviewing various people. Called “The Burning House,” it features the name, age, country and job description of each respondent, along with a photo of the things they would rescue.
It’s a fascinating study of priorities, ranging from the practical (passports, hunting knives) to the personal (teddy bears, a favorite belt) to the professional (MacBooks and iPhones) to the profound (a photo of an infant, with the words, “Everything is recoverable, except my daughter.”)
It goes without saying (I hope) that all living things take priority. And if there is only time to save children and pets, you do that first.
But after that? How do we prioritize? What could we really do without?
Or is it what would we miss?
In the end, it’s just ‘stuff’
The comedian George Carlin had a brilliant routine about “stuff.” He said, “That’s all your house is — a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house…
“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it….a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.”
Funny. Sad. True. And, for some these days, tragic. If you are blessed enough to own a home, look around right now at the things you have filled it with. And ask yourself what is really essential. What would you truly miss? I bet it’s only a fraction of what is there. But even a fraction can be beyond our ability to save.
I suppose I’d take memories: things that could not be replaced with a newer version. Photos. Childhood drawings. Things my parents or grandparents gave me. Wedding mementos.
But then you think of documents: deeds, wills, ownership papers. Then one-of-a-kind books. Then the guitar you played as a kid. …
You see what happens. It’s difficult enough to choose in the abstract, let alone when flames are licking through the nearby hills, sirens and smoke fighting for your focus.
I remember seeing a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi’s possessions when he died. Two pairs of sandals, reading glasses, a pocket watch, a book. It could all fit in a shoebox.
A life that free of material goods is something few of us reach. Then again, Gandhi’s items wound up in the hands of a collector, who auctioned some of them off for a lot of money. And you wonder, wherever they are now, if someone would run for them in the event of a deadly fire.
What we carry. What we leave behind. We can only sympathize with those having to make such difficult choices, and pray that if we ever find ourselves in such a position, our values guide us wisely.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.