Monday, December 30, 2013


It's been a strange few days. We celebrated Christmas at our house this year. That part was not strange, but nice. My mom and Shaun's folks joined us for crab bisque and church on Christmas Eve, and presents and roast beef on Christmas Day.

My mom left at 11 on the day after Christmas. I didn't think I'd been feeling a lot of stress, but I settled into an instant state of profound "down time." I didn't get dressed. There was nothing that had to be done and I had nowhere to go. I must have been more tired than I realized, because I didn't hear a single siren or notice the smoke billowing outside our windows.

"Our neighbor's house is on fire," said Shaun. I would have said it with an exclamation point, but it takes more than a fire across the street to get an exclamation point out of Shaun.

We have two large windows in our kitchen that look onto the street. It looked like someone was filming a movie outside. The house next to the house directly across from us had orange flames coming out of an upstairs window. The wind was blowing the flames towards the house next door, where our fastidious neighbor (the one who occasionally scrubs his driveway on his hands and knees) was standing on his roof, spraying it with a garden hose.

The fire chief's truck was parked in our driveway. There was a fire engine in the middle of the street exactly in front our house (with two more farther down the street.) A small crowd of neighbors had gathered in front of our house as well. It seemed to take an eternity for the firemen to pull the hoses out and get the water going. We watched the corner of the burning house's roof blacken. Our across-the-street neighbor was asked to come down and his roof was saved by the professionals.

I don't watch the news anymore, but when I did I always felt so bad for the people whose houses were on fire and who just had to stand there and watch with everyone else. You would want to grieve in private, but you can't go in your house. So there you are.

I took a few pictures from our kitchen, but it felt intrusive to take pictures outside. The burning house belonged to our neighbor, S, and she and her teenage son were standing there on the sidewalk with us. They had come home to find their family room couch on fire and called 911. They were watching their house burn. They were crying.

Most of us on our street don't know S very well, apart from one neighbor who works at the school district with her. I hadn't even realized that her husband had moved out of the house earlier this year until he'd stopped by to grab some charcoal out of the garage that morning. But it didn't matter that we hardly knew her, because we were the ones who were there.

Her son had his arm around her, but we came around as well. A shoulder squeeze, a hug, a touch on the arm. Phone numbers and offers of help.

"Is your jacket warm enough?" I asked, because I was cold.

"Blankets! We just stopped in to get blankets and pillows. We were on our way to the beach," she said.

The house doesn't look that bad from the front, but it is uninhabitable. All of the windows on the back side of the house blew out. The skylight melted in. The smoke damage is extensive. We thank God no one was hurt. Eventually family started to arrive, and we neighbors backed off, gave them space. The owner's teenage daughter. Her sister. Her parents. A white-haired woman put her arm around the boy's back just as he'd done for his mother. He cried on her shoulder.

After a while all of the onlookers and even the homeowner dispersed. Only the firefighters were left, laying out and spraying off their hoses. I had no idea how long it takes to clean up the equipment after a fire. Shaun said, "I feel bleh." And of course I thought he meant that he was feeling bad about what had just happened. Because I was thinking about feelings.

But what he really meant is that he was achy and fever-y and getting sick. He's been in bed with a stomach bug ever since. So the days after the fire have been quiet. Very quiet.

I'd been thinking about neighbors even before Christmas, for some reason. Many of the people I love most live far away from me. But the people who are physically near us shape our lives, and we theirs, just because they are there. And thinking about that made me see Christmas a little differently this year.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. - John 1:14a

He made his dwelling among us.

Immanuel, God with us.

Or, as I like to think of it,