Returning to Normal

Recovered Items, Henry Rael

I am nearing the end of the long and tedious process of assessing the value of my possessions destroyed in the fire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) publication After the Fire: Returning to Normal is less help than I would like it to be. From the page on “Valuing Your Property,” FEMA states that my personal items such as Girl with an Idea, the first drawing P. ever made for me, “may be difficult to measure.” FEMA says that the Girl with flowers sprouting above her head and P.’s six-year-old signature in the lower right corner, and the letters my dad wrote to me during the two-year stint I lived in Belize, and all my photos and most of my journals may be difficult to measure because “these personal items have SENTIMENTAL VALUE.” It recommends instead that I use “objective measures” such as “cost when purchased” and “DEPRECIATION.” (FEMA likes ALL CAPS.)

After the Fire, Henry Rael

After the fire I kept a Moleskine book close to me and wrote in it each time I reached for something that was no longer there–disappeared by fire, smoke or the force of a water cannon, or buried so far beneath shards of my former ceiling and furniture that I could never hope to recover it. Now these many lists are going into an Excel spreadsheet to be turned over to the IRS before the extension I filed expires and to the attorney who is representing former tenants of the Castle Apartments. (There is a longer story here, one that is still unfolding. I hope to do a blog post when the whole thing is resolved.)

Luz, Henry Rael

Category: Food. Item: Irish Breakfast whole leaf tea. Quantity: 4 oz. Cost: $22/lb. Age: 3 weeks. Place of purchase: La Montanita Co-op. Total: $5.50.

A few weeks after I started “Vessel,” my good friend Andréa the Poet (not to be confused with Andréa the Chicken of earlier blog posts) thanked me for allowing people into my beautiful new life. She said, “I’m so glad you’re writing about the fire because most people probably think you’re ‘over it.'” This was my fear when the credit card offer to greeting card ratio in my P.O. Box returned to normal, and friends no longer asked in that stop-time, look you in the eye kind of way, How are you? I feared I would be forgotten, that I would still need a high level of care and concern long after the proverbial smoke cleared from my circle.

A stack of blank thank you cards sits in the middle drawer of my writing desk, next to the manila envelope with all the good wishes that arrived. I am bad at this, the follow through after an outpouring of love and support. Part of it is that I don’t come from a family, or perhaps even a culture, of thank you card senders. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles gave and received without thinking much about it, as an extension of who they were, because that’s what you do for people you love, people who are in pain, people who have lost something or someone. You give Grandpa a ride to his doctor appointment in Las Cruces. You clean out your closets for someone who lost everything in a fire. You make a pot of beans for the family that lost a loved one. Their thank yous were spoken aloud or given as a close hug or returned over time in big and little ways—a ride, a bag of clothes, a pot of beans.

Michelle Appeal, Henry Rael

The other part, the harder part, is that it is humbling and painful to need so much all at once, to accept not only that I had to start over, but that I could not do it alone. I can’t list the names of all the people who donated clothing and books, who offered a place to live and furniture to fill it, the people who sent words of encouragement and cards and emails and Facebook messages. The people who wrote checks, sent gift cards, or slipped me a twenty-dollar bill. Some of them I don’t even know. The friend of a friend who filled a pink laundry basket with aqua blue jersey sheets and washcloths, measuring cups, and plastic bowls and plates the colors of Life Savers candies. I think she chose the colors because she thought they would make me happy. And they did. The bookstore owner who sent a new copy of Pedro Páramo, my favorite book. The poet who came across a Michelle Fund flier that Henry designed (good p.r. guy that he is), and seeing my picture, thought I might like a hand-woven red scarf.

MO con Guitarra, Juan Abeyta

And all the love and support from good friends and family. My parents drove up from Deming and helped clear a space for me and my writing in Henry’s office. My mom scrubbed the office bathroom on hands and knees (a task never before—or since—performed in that space). My dad dragged a lumpy rug from under Henry’s desk, dusting himself in the disintegrated rug holder. Kristina initiated the “chonie” fund and drove me to the Gap for soft clothes that held me in those first days when I needed delicate fabrics against me. Sarah, Priscilla, Andrea the Poet, and Marisa hosted Fashion Night, transforming Sarah’s backyard into my own personal boutique, complete with margaritas and chocolate. My brother Daniel drove all over southern New Mexico, testing guitars and picking out a lightweight guitar case that is not only easy to carry, but looks fireproof (although I hope this is never tested). The Meganenas held a yard sale. Luci tracked down my senior yearbook and had Deming High School send it to me. It came unmarked, with no note, and for weeks I wondered how they knew.



And Henry. Henry. No hay palabras. I couldn’t have done it without him and P. and K.

August 4 will mark one year since the fire. I haven’t replaced everything on that Excel spreadsheet. I won’t. Trying to reconstruct my life exactly as it was kind of misses the point. Despite FEMA’s assurances, normal is not a place to which I can return. Fire changes everything. The fire changed everything. I can’t go back. All I can do is step into this beautiful new life and say thank you.

Published in: on August 2, 2010 at 7:00 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Michelle, I truly am sorry for all the personal items and sentimental items you lost in that fire. We never really know how much the little things mean to us until we have them no more. I do know that you are very well loved and have a great circle of friends and a great family and I do hope one day you come to find peace out of all you lost. Although it is easier said than done im sure. Thank you again for your blog’s I really enjoy them. God bless you my friend.

    • Thank you, Yvonne. In the year that has passed since the fire, the universe has given me much more than I lost. There are things I miss-letters, journals, a Polaroid of my grandma and me. And (not but) my life is sweet and fulfilling. That’s the thing with being an adult, no? Holding all these truths in us at once.

  2. Michelle, I’m glad you’re placing great value on something bigger than “objective” worth. Though I haven’t been “cleansed” by fire, what you write resonates since I lost everything from my family’s life when I was 15 due to negligence — an undervaluing of the “sentimental.” I found that writing about what I lost helped me claim what I carry inside — which means never having to start over. Beautiful writing (and living)! Thanks for letting us share in your life as it brings you new insights! Abrazos, Yael

    • Yael, life has many ways of cleansing us. And writing has many ways of healing us. You’re doing some beautiful writing and living too, amiga.

  3. Thank you, again, for transforming your very personal, unique experience into the universal–the truth we live so we can know it better.


    • Thank you for your steady encouragement and support, Mary.

  4. Abrazos to you Michelle, for your strength and for sharing that strength, though difficult, with others. This post made me weep, but tears are very cleansing, and I thank you for that 🙂 May you step into your “new” life with as much strength as you have carried from your “old” one. I hope to see you again someday soon, and hopefully in my beloved Southwest 🙂

    • Abrazos to you, Erin. And may your “new” life in California bring you all the beauty you deserve.

  5. You put into words for me how my family and I have always thought of thank you notes. If one of us were seriously ill, another of us would just quit our job & move in. If a neighbor couldn’t, then we just mow their lawn. It’s what you do. It’s so clear from you’d nature that your family is the same. And I’m so very glad they were (wait, are. Isn’t that exactly the problem with a single day’s incident whose effects last a decade?) there for you in all sorts of ways.

    • It’s what we do for those we love, amiga.

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