A fire destroyed everything we own. Here's what I learned.

“We regret to inform you there’s been a fire on board the lorry that was carrying your shipment to our warehouse in Scotland. Your belongings are destroyed. I’m afraid we’re looking at a total loss situation.”

This was the email I received on Thursday 12th August, from the moving company we hired to ship our worldly possessions from Montreal back home to Scotland.

I blinked in disbelief.

The vintage tiger print coat I’d pictured my future daughter borrowing…

My fiance’s Magic the Gathering card collection that’s worth more than my old car…

My first edition copy of Seven Experiments that Could Change the World signed by Rupert Sheldrake…

My fiance’s Kung Fu grading book from when he was a kid…

The art deco print I’d bought on a trip to Miami with my brother…

Gone.

Our belongings were on the penultimate leg of their journey, sharing a truck with the possessions of two other families.

Whilst on the A14 motorway outside of Cambridge, motorists noticed smoke billowing from the hold of the truck. Several cars pulled up in view of the driver’s wing mirrors and flashed their lights to alert him of the danger.

He pulled over safely and bailed. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

It took thirty firefighters several hours to extinguish the blaze, which was caused by a flammable object that had gone unnoticed and unchecked among one of the other family’s belongings.

Needless to say, this is a slightly less than ideal scenario. In fact, it is the cherry on top of a difficult 18 months.

As gluttons for punishment, my fiance and I sold all our stuff and moved to Montreal to start a new life in February 2020. Two weeks later, the pandemic dropped and everything went into lockdown.

We turned our empty glass box in the sky into a comfortable, cozy and elegant home with great difficulty. In addition to the worry and fear of being in a new country with no support during a global pandemic, we had nothing to sit on for 7 months due to manufacturing and shipping delays caused by covid.

Around October 2020, we realized that we really missed home. We had moved to Montreal with visions of hitting the ground running. We would get set up and have friends and family over to visit asap. Besides, we could visit them every six months, spending Christmas in sunny Cape Town. But when the pandemic hit (and we realized it cost $5000 to visit Cape Town at Christmas), the reality of how far we were from those we loved hit home.

It had been stressful selling all our stuff in Scotland. I couldn’t imagine doing it again so soon, a mere 7 months later, this time in French. Besides, we had spent thousands of hours, and thousands of dollars, creating a comfortable home from scratch. With only our sentimental items, and a full house of furniture less than a year old, we decided to take them back to Scotland with us.

We carefully packed up our things and waved them off on 31st March 2021, expecting to see them again on 12th August.

But it was not to be.

I want, I need, to turn this total loss around - to pick through the metaphorical wreckage and look for anything true and useful that can be salvaged. It’s not that I’m materialistic, but I am a complete homebody - domestic disruption sends me into orbit. The only thing tethering me to earth is my scheduled writing time. From 9am-12pm Monday to Friday I know where I am and what I need to do. I need to put my butt in the chair and finish writing this for you.

I have learned a great deal from losing everything in a fire. Please permit me to share my realizations with you. It’s a cooling salve to the burn.

Insurance is a rip off until you need it. Then it’s a god send.

Don’t be cheap with yourself. I remember humming and hawing about whether to take out insurance, and whether to insure our belongings for ‘total loss’, or whether just to insure a few key pieces in case of breakage.

I remember thinking how ridiculous it seemed that there would be a ‘total loss’ of our things. I joked with my fiance, ‘should we insure this in case it sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic?’

I gritted my teeth as we totted up the cost to replace our stuff in the unlikely event that an asteroid or something equally unlikely annihilated it. It took my breath away when we paid the premium, thinking it was money down the drain because losing all your stuff at the bottom of the Atlantic doesn’t happen.

Asteroids, icebergs, fires - unlikely events do happen. And this time, it was our turn. I’m so glad we insured our stuff, I only wish we had paid double. This goes for other areas of life too. If something is truly valuable to you, invest in it and do everything you can to protect it.

Planning for the worst is a form of self-care.

Don’t let toxic positivity make a naive fool of you. It’s not ‘negative’ to plan for the worst happening in the future. Start an emergency savings account. Get life insurance. Fix that smoke alarm that keeps beeping at you. No one likes to be a Debbie Downer who only focuses on things going wrong. However, those of us - myself included - who are naturally optimistic, can often self-neglect out of the belief that bad things don’t happen to us. I have long believed that the Universe looks after me, but sometimes, the Universe can only look after me if I take steps to look after my damn self.

Don’t self-abandon because you’re uncomfortable thinking about what might go wrong. Thinking ahead and taking action to protect yourself ‘just in case’ is a form of self-care.

Living only in the present is risky. One day, the future will become the present. Although there are no guarantees in life, taking care of your future self is a way to help ensure that when that present arrives, it’s as steady as it can be.

Compassion can turn a disaster into a minor incident. A lack of compassion can turn a minor incident into a disaster.

Prioritize people and businesses who have compassion at the core of their value system. And put compassion at the core of yours.

We Googled ‘removal truck fire’ and were faced with high definition images of our life incinerated and scattered across the motorway. We noted the date of the article: 5th August. It took the moving company an entire week to tell us that our belongings had been destroyed in a fire. And they told us via a cold, curt email. It made me angry. This complete failure of compassion made things worse. A lot worse. It made me feel that the moving company were being strategically adversarial instead of putting themselves in our shoes. They knew the day it happened that our possessions were destroyed. If I had been in their position, I would have called the customer immediately to let them know there had been an incident, and I would have personally kept them updated as soon as more information was available.

I called the journalist who wrote the article to ask for more photographs to confirm that the burned mess was our former life. She was more empathetic and concerned for our wellbeing than the moving company. Gemma Gardiner at the Cambridge Independent went out of her way to comfort and console me, and put me in touch with Cambridge Fire and Rescue who owned the photographs. As a result of her kindness, I was able to pull myself together and make the phone calls that I needed to make. There are compassionate people out there. Be one of them.

Invest in gratitude and it will pay out in times of suffering.

It’s hard to accept, but many good things often come out of bad events. There are blessings in any tragedy if you’re trained to see them. My fiance and I have long practiced focusing on what is going right, what we love about each other and our lives, and what we are grateful for. Our many ‘gratitude rehearsals’ came in handy. A grateful mind helped us see that if a fire MUST happen, it happened to us in the gentlest way possible. No one was hurt; we had insurance; and we had already gotten used to living without our stuff. We still had each other, and we had packed many sentimental items in our hand luggage so there were still photographs to kiss, and touchpoints of our past to anchor into. Train yourself to think in this way, and it may lessen the blow when things go wrong.

Don’t hold on to life too tightly, practice letting things go.

Before we moved to Montreal, we Marie Kondo’d our entire existence. We thanked, we purged, we let go. I remember sitting holding the last item of clothing my Gran bought for me before she passed away. It was worn out. I wasn’t going to wear it again. But it was hard to let it go. I clutched it as if she were in there. I went back and forth for a few days before I was able to thank the item (and my Gran) and let it go. Practice losing things. Find a way to be ok with it. In one sense, we will all, eventually, lose everything. Last to go will be the knowledge that we had anything (or were anything) to begin with. It’s pretty much the only thing that’s guaranteed in this life.

It often costs the same or less to replace your belongings using local businesses and makers.

One of the blessings of losing everything is that we can rebuild our life in alignment with our values. I love shopping locally - we already get our food from local farmers wherever possible. I will apply the same philosophy to rebuilding our home. Avoiding 7 month shipping delays sounds pretty great right now. And there are so many talented makers in Scotland creating wonderful, unique objects that no one else has. I live for people asking me, ‘where did you get that?’, and I love to be surrounded by beautiful, cosy things. I want to support local businesses to recover after covid by buying from the super-talented, hidden-gems in my own town.

We loved our bed and our mattress, so it was disturbing to see it burned and buckled in the middle of a road (RIP). But we are so thrilled to be having a bed made that will last a lifetime, from local, sustainable wood, and for the same price as it would cost to buy one from a store.

Time wasted is not necessarily a waste of time.

Although I am sad that our possessions are gone, I do not regret the time I spent gathering meaningful objects and feathering our nest. I loved decorating our place - it represented my fiance and I building a life together. We will always have the memories of being on our fourth cup of tea and playing Tetris with our TV unit, thanks to the gibberish instructions. We will never lose the memory of the laughter and strange looks we got taking our huge Christmas tree home on the subway. We will always have the joy of bouncing on mattresses all over town trying to find the perfect one. Although we did not get to enjoy these things we lovingly selected for very long, the happy time we spent selecting them is ours forever. And that was time well spent.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What lessons did you take away from a loss or a tragedy? Please share them in a comment.

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