In the middle of the night before Halloween my first year in high school I stood in my pajamas out in the front yard and watched our house burn all the way to the ground. A hungry spark from a wire in the attic had begun to feed its greedy, licking tongue while a family of eight remained tethered to sleepy dreams in the only peace and quiet there was in a full day.
And that fire…it ate and ate and ate until it devoured the attic of the old house and began climbing down the walls searching for more. Even though it had never occurred to us to practice fire drills, the drive to save your own neck is basic instinct and we all managed to help each other scramble out nearest windows and gather in the red dirt driveway.
The neighbors joined from behind their curtains and we all watched without words the ripples of heat bend the cool night air and the house seemed to suck in on itself until it vanished.
The fire, finally sated, had taken everything except our lives and the kitchen table.
Driving away from the ruins of a whole life’s time that early morning, the smell of smoke and our unasked questions hung in the air between us.
Insurance for the poor is basically the same as a ten day Italian cruise and we had signed up for neither. This left our large family with no clothes, no shoes, and nowhere to port.
A thought parade of things lost in the fire began in my mind like bubbles from a freshly poured coke. I considered the clothes I had laid out for school the night before, a box of treasured letters hidden under my bed, and the robin’s egg I found under our clubhouse tree I was sure I could coax to hatch.
And like coke bubbles tend to do, these thoughts made my eyes water, too.
If we had just enough to get by before, we had nothing now and my heart could not make the ends of any two thoughts tie off into a solid knot of us somehow being okay.
The next day we went to pay our respects to the general area where our home used to sit because that’s what’s expected during the visitation part of laying to rest.
After awhile the adults got boring and the younger ones started poking through the ashes and made a game of identifying melty black globs. We got lost on our own for just a short while until a truck rocked slowly into our uneven driveway. A man I didn’t recognize unfolded from the truck and scooped his hat off his head.
He told us how the church had been praying for our family and they had all pitched in to help us get back on our feet and where did we want him to put all this stuff?
The truck of his bed was full.
For weeks, a truck continued to back right on up to the door of the house someone helped us rent and didn’t stop unloading until our house was full. Clothes, furniture, dishes…anything that can be replaced was.
And then some: I even got my very own water bed.
I had never been rich before.
Watching the little church pick us back up felt to me like trying to fit a very large square into a microscopically, impossibly small round space.
It felt exactly like that.
I understood we were a family more than a strong throw of a stone outside the circle of light cast by privilege in more ways than one. We could never pay anyone back and because we were all like marked POWs in my dad’s war with addiction, we were mostly left alone to deal with the things we all silently agreed were secret.
But the church wouldn’t just leave us be.
In my memory there seemed to be no gap between the warmth of still-seething ashes to the arms of the church around our shoulders.
I was fourteen and I knew we didn’t deserve it and I began to droop under the extravagant nature of this lavish love and giving.
Now isn’t favor we have no way of earning just the warm breath of Grace?
I began to droop and bend under the weight towards the floor and all the way to my knees where I began to crack into what must have been a thousand pieces and eventually broke wide open.
Leonard Cohen sings a song about how the cracks in everything are how the light gets through. I know this to be true but they also let a lot out, too, like old hurts that try for all the years to hide in shadows.
I am ever grateful that old country church didn’t try and cram Jesus down my rebellious throat with every bite of their hot casseroles or split the frog-fine hairs of each other’s theology or debate amongst themselves about whether we deserved the help given the obvious state of our broken affairs.
They showed up and they loved us.
And everything about my life is different now because of that.