In times of crisis, I’ve noticed there’s everything and nothing to say.
Here’s what happened: early Sunday morning, my little town, a friendly and generally trusting—and trustworthy—place was deeply shaken when, for just over an hour, a string of arsons swept through town. Houses lost, cars torched, and two lives lost. The arsonist or arsonists still unknown, the magnitude sank in over the course of Sunday: first, it was news heard via Facebook, the neighborhood list serve and an early morning phone conversation of a couple of car fires in the neighborhood, and then news of a house and then another house, two fatalities and links to news stories cropped up and by afternoon, Governor Deval Patrick appeared beside local fire department and law enforcement during a press conference (photo, thanks to Paul Shoul). By evening, I’d gotten an email wondering whether we were okay from a friend who’d glimpsed a snippet of the news on CNN and I realized this counted, and not just to us, as a big deal. This was, in its way, a story.
In a small enough town like this one, it would seem that everyone you talk to has a connection; they either knew someone affected or at the least has a friend who knew someone affected. There are ever only a couple of degrees of separation around here. This is why tragedies seem to strike smaller places harder in some ways than in larger ones; everything is personal.
That was certainly the case for me. What was preoccupying me was feeling upset for friends whose house had burned down. A few years earlier, other friends lost everything to a fire in the neighborhood of a small apartment building, and the trauma, even at the remove of it happening to someone else and not us, even safe in our house, was so palpable that with this fire, fear and sadness gripped me again with the resilience of a strong reflex. I could not will that terror away; it simply returned.
Beyond that, the day’s events were sufficiently terrifying (and unsolved) to stir up—like ground bees’ swarms buzzing madly in spring—my kids’ fears. So, anxiety, and not just the adults’, gripped the house (buzz-buzz). Ezekiel, at fourteen, just now old enough to start to experience magnitude and finality and fear differently than he did as a child, was really shaken (and his recent obsession with the crime procedural Criminal Minds may not have helped). When the household is filled with children rather than single child, that eldest child’s concerns seem to have added weight, not gravitas exactly, but they are amplified so that the younger kids hear them better (and often hear them over any words the parents might employ to quell them).
Our friend, Ilana, staying in her parents’ house, was also shaken. The evening’s sensation: a touch of people on a lifeboat. The kids clung to wakefulness; they were afraid to go to sleep. The kids wanted the guy to be caught, thinking, once the mystery is solved, they could rest easy. Upon walking downstairs after finally sleeping, Lucien’s first words were, “The house is still standing. Did they catch him yet?” Yes, I replied, still standing, no other fires and no, no criminal yet apprehended.
Earlier in the day, and days before during Chanukah, with all that menorah lighting, things like getting to strike the match or the candles was so exciting. Fire is this magical property. I just read Remy Little House in the Big Woods, and throughout the book, fire is what assures the essentials of heat and food. Fire is so pretty, so mesmerizing, and then so frightening, so powerful, so especially terrifying in the wrong hands, so sinister even. I just kept holding these ideas about fire in my mind, the blue dance in the orange flame, the purple streaks. Danger and necessity, devastation and salvation, fire is constantly something to revere and to respect. And the violation on a person’s part to intentionally destroy property and threaten or take lives, that’s impossible to fathom, really. That’s what we are left with as incomprehensible.
The other part we are left with is this sense of how we buoy one another up through hard times, and if I were to say one reason I love living in a small, friendly, interconnected town it’s that it’s a pretty terrific place, as places go, in which to have a crisis. People want to help (here’s another link to a Facebook group offering ways to help and keep up with the news). They just roll up sleeves and offer up what they have to give (here’s a link to the Red Cross, make sure to specify Northampton Arson Victims). My friends answered my question on email about how people helped them most: “Beyond the comfort and support of friends and family, we are still wearing some of the clothes that people gave us! I think those Northampton gift cards would be great for folks to grab a meal or pick up necessities in town, Target and Whole Foods gift cards were great, as well as special things from your closet or kitchen or garage. Books and music that you make, copy or burn, asking local retailers to make donations or give discounts to families. a friend of ours (after hearing that we lost all our wedding photos along with ALL other photos) asked Shutterfly to give us 500 free prints to rebuild a few of the boys’ baby albums. That helped.”
Nothing that anyone will do to help can erase the losses—two lives, houses, property, or trust—experienced. How a community responds, though, really does have everything to do with how losses are integrated into our lives, and how we carry ourselves forward.