It’s been 10 years since I stood in front of my apartment, watching it burn, unable to do anything about losing all that I owned. I stood in disbelief while scanning the crowd that was full of nosey neighbors and news cameras recording while the anchors reported the event emotionless, as if it wasn’t happening to real people. But it was, it was happening to me.
I remember driving to my apartment that morning, I heard the fire trucks and watched them speed by me as I said a prayer for whoever they were heading towards. That was a habit I got into a couple years earlier, never knowing that one day the prayer I’d be saying would turn out to be for me. It’s easy to see ambulances and car accidents and feel unattached. We never think it’s gonna be us, we feel invincible, until we’re not.
I was confused, broken, devastated, and somehow numb all at the same time. I questioned God, I wasn’t angry with Him, but I certainly didn’t understand Him. I couldn’t comprehend how this would ever get better. When you’re in it, when you’re in the trial or the fire (for lack of a better word), you don’t see it ending. And that’s where faith comes in. Can we really say we rely on faith if we’ve never actually had to rely on faith alone?
No one was hurt in the fire, which is the most important thing, but when you’re standing there watching you’re apartment burn, it’s hard to think of the positive side of things. You tend to focus on everything you’re losing instead of everything you still have. And that’s what I did for the next 3 days. I didn’t smile or laugh, I didn’t even try to find any good from this, because I didn’t believe there was any. I was sleep walking through life, everything felt like a dream, or rather a nightmare, and I didn’t see an end in sight. I didn’t understand why this had to happen to me.
The next day I was able to go into my apartment to see what I could save. As of that moment, all I had were the clothes on my back, my car and some essentials from Walmart that I had to buy the night before. You’ve heard the question before, “if your home was burning down and you could only take 3 things, what would you take?” I lived that. I didn’t have the chance to go into my apartment while it was burning, but I knew exactly what I was going to look for when I got to go in to see what could be salvaged. My poetry book that read more like a rhyming journal, my safe filled with my actual journals and my blankey. Yes, my blankey. And somehow, I was able to save all of those things. Maybe I had to lift up part of the wall to find my soaking, ashy blankey. And sure, my poetry book was wet with ink that was slightly bleeding but still readable. And my safe with my journals, well, I actually couldn’t get that. It was melted to the carpet and I was pulling it with all my strength, the fire marshall came in to tell me I had to leave because it wasn’t safe to stay. My steady stream of tears turned into hysterically crying. These were all of my thoughts and prayers and hopes and dreams and words that I had been writing down for my whole life. I told him that I need the safe and he said he would do what he could to get it. I went downstairs, sat on the curb and cried with my head in my hands while praying my journals could be saved. It felt like a movie, waiting for him to walk down those stairs with my safe in his hands… and then he did. And I felt relief. Everything I lost suddenly didn’t seem so devastating because I was able to save what mattered most to me. I still missed everything I lost, but I was so grateful for the little that I did have.
One of the verses that helped me get through this time is 2 Corinthians 6:10. It says, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” “Having nothing, yet possessing everything,” those words would have meant nothing to me before the fire. Once I realized that I had family and friends that were constantly surrounding me, asking me if I needed anything, praying for me and that I still had faith in my God who never left me, that was all that I needed.
Thankfully I’ve lived such a beautiful life that this was, and still is, the hardest thing I’ve gone through, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Even though I know how painful it was, I would go through it all again, over and over. That experience is what made me finally give up complete control of my life to God. That experience is what made my faith stronger than it ever was. That experience is what made me realize that God wants what’s best for me more than I want what’s best for me. It’s what me made trust God more than I trust myself. It’s what showed me that I could survive on my relationship with Him alone. It’s what’s made me never doubt Him again.
That is enough. Those lessons and beliefs that have stayed with me since that day are more enough to make the entire experience worth it. But that’s not even everything. That’s not even my favorite part of the story. My favorite part? The career that I have today, as a portrait photographer, is because of the fire. And I don’t mean in a “look for the hidden meaning” way. What made it possible for me to become a photographer, is a direct result of the fire.
I was 20 when the fire happened, and was able to use my parents’ home owner’s insurance to help me buy back what I lost. After the deductible, I received a check for $3,000, which didn’t come close to equaling everything I lost. Not just because my possessions were actually worth more but because money couldn’t buy back many of the things I lost. But as a 20 year old who had never had that much money at one time, $3,000 felt like $100,000. I should have bought clothes, necessities and things I actually lost that I needed again. Instead, I walked into Best Buy, pointed to a Canon camera and said, “I want THAT one!” I wanted a camera simply to better document my life. I had no intentions of ever pursuing a career as a photographer. But the more I photographed my life and the lives of those around me, the more I realized how much I enjoyed life behind the camera.
Photography was never my dream, it’s stemmed from a hasty decision to buy a camera with my insurance money. But now I know it was a dream that I never even knew I had. It is a passion that I hadn’t yet discovered. I truly believe that I wouldn’t be a photographer today if it weren’t for the fire. There are SO many reasons that I now view the fire as a blessing, and my photography career is one of them!
There is a quote I love by Kurt Bruner that says, “Often the scenes we desire the least, are the most important to the story being told.” I didn’t want the fire to happen, I never would have wished it on myself, but it is what has made me the Christian, person and photographer that I am today. I didn’t want that scene, but God is the most brilliant author who turned that scene into a beautiful, intricate and redeeming story. And I love being able to brag about how God truly does give beauty for ashes.
I wrote this poem below 10 years ago when the fire happened. I’ve always loved writing poetry, there’s something about stringing words together to make them rhyme that makes me feel like it gives the words more meaning and impact. This isn’t the most beautiful poem I’ve ever written, it’s a little messy and unstructured but it’s raw and real. It’s probably the best way I can put into words how I really felt during those days after the fire. I wrote the first half of it the day after the fire happened. And I wrote the second half of it about a week later, after God healed me.
God, I pray this healing process won’t take long
My faith was shaken, but I’m still standing strong
I started to question and I started to doubt
I was trying so hard to figure everything out
Why did this happen to me and why did this happen now
I felt I did something wrong, like this was punishment somehow
I want to know when the pain will stop and when my heart will heal
I need someone to wake me up because this doesn’t feel real
How can I turn this around for better instead of worse
How do I look at this as positive instead of just a curse
I can’t tell if this is a lesson or a blessing in disguise
I miss laughing all the time and I hate these tears in my eyes
I’m trying to stay positive, but all I see is what’s wrong
Like the things I’ll never get back, the things I had for so long
It’s so hard to have faith when everything is broken
And it’s so hard to hear Your voice when so many words are being spoken
Everyday that I live feels so much longer
But I’m coming out of this even stronger
I say I lost everything but I still have what means most
My family, my friends and a faith that I’ll boast
I know this isn’t normal for people to go through
But since it happened to me, I’ll tell my story praising You
I lost everything I owned but gained more wisdom than I had
I gained experience and knowledge for the good and the bad
Ever since the fire, I view life with brand new eyes
I’d never take it back, I wouldn’t even want to try
Complaining all the sudden, is not worth my time
Cause life’s not about where you are, it’s all about the climb
I worship with more passion and pray with such belief
I never feel stress and live life with pure relief
The simple things mean more than they ever did before
I found out that it’s true, that less really is more
So when I can’t see where I’m going, it’s You that pulls me through
And still when I have nothing, I have it all cause I have You