When I moved to Berlin, I moved here with a suitcase. Like Noah, I brought two of each: two sweaters, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, two shirts. On my first night in my new home, I neatly folded each item on the cleared-off top of a bookshelf and realized I’d never had so few things.
But things have a way of multiplying. It didn’t take long before I purchased a t-shirt here, was gifted a hand-me-down jacket there, went home for Christmas and brought back a few more pieces of jewelry. Eight years and three increasingly larger living spaces later, and I was complaining about the overflowing closet filled with clothes I don’t wear, my inability to get rid of things because it might just be useful someday, and the lack of storage space for all the stuff I have.
Had. For all the stuff I had. Because it turns out the most effective way to clean out your closet is to set it on fire.
Just about three weeks ago, our apartment caught fire. That thing that makes you grumble about overly cautious airline regulations happened in our bedroom, on our desk. The batteries in a pair of wireless headphones exploded, setting fire to the curtains, setting fire to the closet, sending noxious black smoke billowing out the balcony door. The neighbors called the fire department, they ran to get me at the office where I work downstairs, and I didn’t see the burn, but from what I heard, it was a surreal show from street-level: orange flames licking the ceiling, the manicured balcony plants blowing greenly in the breeze.
I have been through all the stages of grief. As they clunked out of the building in their heavy gear, a fireman pressed a sheet of guidelines into my hand and said some things that in my shock I don’t recall. I thanked him for putting out the blaze. “Don’t thank me just yet,” he said, “until you see what it’s like up there.” And first, there is denial. It wasn’t so bad. Just the bedroom was burned. Okay, the brand new desk is a pile of charcoal and there’s no more closet to speak of, but the bed is intact! The books are only slightly charred. The living room is just a little sooty, and okay, maybe the light-colored furniture is tinged with gray, but the printer is fine! The photos are fine!
And the professionals come and point to all the things that will have to be thrown away, and you think, oh, no, we can save that. And then as the days go by, you realize that they were right after all. That the electronics that didn’t melt are slowly sucking soot into their insides every time they’re turned on, that anything made of plastic or wood will always smell like toxic smoke, that cloth that can’t be washed will never be rid of its greasy film of ash, that the metal is corroding in weird ways.
You look at the apartment itself, at the straw poking out of the ceiling, the black rim of smoke lining every single room, the melted doorframe, the smashed windows, and you realize that the three months they estimated to renovate the place is a little conservative. And then comes anger. Anger at everyone who still has an apartment to go home to, while you’re wearing borrowed clothes and imposing on someone else’s space, making a list of all the things you’ve lost, wondering where you’ll live the next few months.
It was hardest then, when the anger hit. Every time I walked into the apartment, I felt a rush of sadness – for the plants I’d raised from little seedlings, to the beautiful paint job we’d done on the living room wall, to the journals chronicling my eight years in Berlin reduced to a wash of blue ink on crisped pages – and despair – for all the work of sifting through rubble for things to salvage, for the endless task of washing soot from what we’d need more immediately, for the stupid work of figuring out internet and chasing down paperwork and scouring our Amazon histories for proofs of purchase.
It was probably for the best that we didn’t have any mirrors during that time, because whenever I caught a glimpse of myself, I looked exhausted, aged. I couldn’t sleep. My lungs chafed from breathing the air in the apartment, in spite of the protective mask.
And in the middle of all that, we took a trip down south, to the region where the German half of my family lives. It had been planned for ages, and we grumbled about the bad timing. We almost didn’t go. But my dad was flying over from the States, it was my aunt’s birthday, a big family gathering on the Eichland had been planned. And so we went.
My grandfather’s house, the forest plot that was my favorite childhood playground, is familiar territory. I have my routines – waking up and unloading the dishwasher, making a Senseo coffee and a slice of toast with butter and my grandfather’s homemade jam while I wait for everyone else to wake up. Slowly, the tiny kitchen fills, and we spill over onto the dining room table for real breakfast, with rolls from the bakery and cold cuts, cheeses, slices of cucumber, more coffee. We putz around a while and then eventually, inevitably drive up the mountain. We start a fire, mow the lawn with the little push mower, my grandpa points out all the trees he plans to cut down this year and discusses the best methods to do so in detail. We walk through the flower-filled meadows, gathering bouquets, we play lawn games and grill slices of skewered pork belly.
Our clothes were constantly filled with the scent of campfire, our hands were sooty, ash flecked our jackets. And yet I think this is where the healing began. The fresh air, the quiet of nature, the joy of being surrounded by family, the sound of singing in harmony – and finally I felt the gratitude of being around the clean up the mess, of having all the things that matter – family and friends and a partner who love me and support me, not just in times of catastrophe, but in all things and in all ways.
This year has been difficult for me. I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety, tackling them in all the ways I know how – yoga, therapy, journaling, antidepressants, meditation. And while these things have helped, it was the thing that took away all my structures and routines, what I perceived as my safety net, that snapped something back in place inside my brain. As if the fire burned off some noxious mental fog, allowing me to finally see clearly all it is that I have.
I am a creature of habits. I like things to be just so. I hate disorder. I love lists and routines. I say it balances and grounds me, allowing my creativity space to thrive. But when everything is a mess and no matter what you tackle first there’s always something equally pressing to do, you have to find the balance inside yourself in spite of the chaos outside.
You can’t say things like, “As soon as the apartment is clean, I can work,” because you don’t have anything to clean it with, or “Once the new mattress arrives, I’ll be able to focus,” because there are forms that have to be filled out before you have money to buy the mattress, or “Once we get the quote from the insurance, we’ll be able to enjoy ourselves,” because the summer is here and vitamin D is everything.
I’m destabilized and a mess, I don’t have a morning routine. I am sometimes overcome with anxiety about whether or not to wash the new bedding or if it will, against all odds, not fit the new bed when it arrives, and we then won’t be able to return it anymore. I am overwhelmed by all the technical, bureaucratic conversations I’m constantly having to have in German. And at the same time, I feel more positivity than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m looking forward to buying matching towels and replacing the IKEA bookshelves with something classier. And though sometimes the thought of being around people is too much, I also feel free to do whatever my gut wants, because the strictures I’ve imposed upon myself no longer have anything to stick to.
Am I glad my apartment caught on fire? No. I wouldn’t recommend this experience or wish it on anyone else. But after anger and depression comes acceptance. And with acceptance is the knowledge that life is a little messy and a lot of it is out of your control, and that thing they say about there being no way out but through feels pretty spot on. But for every bit of messy, there’s opportunity; for every loss there’s joy, too.