No trespassing

One of the central concepts in Buddhist philosophy is that of impermanence. The Buddha said people suffer because they cling to things, beings, and experiences that pass away. Life is great as long as you have and hold the things you love, but nothing gold can stay. Children grow up and move away, our bodies age and grow old, and even our newest and shiniest belongings wear out and lose their sheen.

Toppled crane

Impermanence isn’t a tenet you have to believe; like gravity, it’s a natural law you’ll notice if you open your eyes. This past weekend, J and I saw the ruins from a massive fire that recently destroyed a luxury apartment complex in nearby Waltham. (Fortunately, since the complex was still under construction, nobody was living there.) It was stunning to see a hulking pile of rubble where there had recently been five multistory buildings.

Singed trees

J and I weren’t the only ones looking at the fire’s aftermath: every car we saw pulling into a nearby municipal parking lot slowed down to take a look as it passed. We all know, intellectually, that we can lose everything we own in an instant, but this lesson doesn’t hit home until you see the charred wreckage of someone else’s dream.

Thank you for sharing

On Friday, J and I had tickets for an afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, so on our way to Symphony Hall, we stopped by the Engine 33 firehouse on Boylston Street to pay our respects at the makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that lost two of its members in last week’s fire.

Two crosses

The pile of flowers outside Engine 33 is eerily reminiscent of the outpouring of offerings left down the street at Copley Square in the aftermath of last April’s Marathon bombing: another pile marking another Boston tragedy. I’m beginning to understand why piles of flowers, ballcaps, handwritten notes, and other offerings spontaneously appear in the aftermath of tragedy. When you first hear that someone has died or been injured, your first human impulse is to wonder what you might do to help. When there’s not anything tangible you can do, you offer instead whatever is close at hand, whether that be flowers, a hug, or a handwritten sign.

Thank you

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva of compassion–Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, or Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean–is sometimes shown having one thousand hands containing one thousand eyes. As soon as one of Kwan Seum Bosal’s eyes sees someone suffering, Kwan Seum Bosal has a hand right there to help.

Boston Strong

So, where are Kwan Seum Bosal’s one thousand hands and eyes? Well, I have two of each, and presumably so do you. Whenever or wherever there is a tragedy—a fallen firefighter, a lost plane, or a town buried in a mudslide—Kwan Seum Bosal’s thousand hands and eyes appear in a spontaneous outpouring of help and support, stranger reaching out to stranger.

Memorial wreath

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatal fire, a fund was set up to help the families of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy: an immediate and heartfelt response, as anyone with eyes in their head can see that families who have lost a breadwinner need financial assistance. But in the emotional aftermath of tragedy, some hands might want to do more than just write a check. A memorial gives people a place to visit, pay their respects, and deliver bouquets, handwritten notes, and other mementos: things a bit more (literally) touching than a donation submitted by mail or online.

Memorial plaque

In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I remembered that one natural part of grieving is the sorting of your world into two kinds of places: the places where you do and don’t feel safe to cry. In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I felt comfortable crying in my car, in the shower, or in front of a sink full of dishes; I did not feel comfortable crying in my classrooms, office, or any other public or professional space.

Eyeglass cases

A memorial is a safe place to cry, even if you didn’t personally know the deceased. A memorial is a place where strangers come together to share a moment of solemn sadness: the common experience that is the root of all compassion. A memorial like the one outside the Engine 33 firehouse isn’t built by any one person. Instead, it’s a communal offering, placed by a thousand hands and wept over by a thousand eyes.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

After the fire

Normally, what would catch my eye in this photo is the lovely example of a shade tree: a tree’s shadow standing on the end of an otherwise quiet home in the otherwise quiet neighborhood of Waban, Massachusetts. Instead, I notice the boarded-up windows and patched roof: all that remains of a three-alarm fire that gutted this otherwise ordinary home on New Year’s morning. What once was a quiet, orderly home is now an empty shell.

After the fire

Reggie and I pass this house nearly every morning we’re in Newton, and J and I pass it whenever we walk to Starbucks, the Post Office, or the T. There’s something unsettling in seeing a house you pass on an almost daily basis suddenly lifeless and abandoned. The fire apparently started around 9:30am on New Year’s morning, and that’s exactly when Reggie and I typically set out for our morning walk: it was brutally cold on New Year’s Day, so Reggie and I took a shortened walk that didn’t take us down Woodward Street. But before we turned toward home, I heard the sound of sirens and saw a police car blocking the intersection of Woodward and Chestnut Streets: a clear sign that something was awry.

After the crash

On Friday afternoon, the day after the New Year’s fire, a car crashed into the Waban Salon on Beacon Street, a stone’s throw from the now-gutted house on Woodward. The owner of the salon was sitting inside his shop, as hairdressers do, when a car pulling into an angled parking space smashed straight through the window, the driver’s foot having slipped from brake to gas pedal. It was brutally cold on New Year’s Day and icy underfoot the day after: in winter, shoes and brake pedals naturally get slippery. The salon owner, news reports say, was “shaken but not injured,” and who can blame him? Perhaps after years of listening to clients pour out their troubles over haircuts and root touch-ups, he’s grown accustomed to disorder?

Newton is a particularly quiet suburb of Boston, and Waban is a particularly quiet section of Newton, but accidents happen everywhere. We imagine our lives to be orderly: we take care to pay our mortgages, tend our trees, and keep our hair neatly trimmed and coiffed. But disorder threatens always, even at the turn of a New Year, when our resolute wills determine to keep our lives under control once and for all, this time. Left untended, order automatically slips into chaos…but even careful tending is itself no guarantee, the inexorable tug of entropy being far stronger than our best intentions.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Disorder. With a topic like that, I simply had to procrastinate posting.

Burning barn

It’s not a scene you ever want to see, and it’s not one I expected on an otherwise uneventful dog-walk. Whenever I hear sirens or see passing firetrucks, I notice whether they’re headed toward my house. Reggie and I were returning from our usual walk downtown when I saw one then two firetrucks racing in the direction we were walking: homeward. This isn’t my house, nor is it is my street, but it’s close enough that when I saw smoke apparently billowing from 8 Grove Street here in Keene, I felt a pang of sympathy for the almost-neighbors who live there.

Amateur videographer

I say “apparently billowing” from 8 Grove Street because those firetrucks weren’t racing like a proverbial house on fire; instead, this afternoon’s fire originated in a barn between the house pictured above and the ivied wall pictured here and here. According to an early report, fire-fighters quickly got the blaze under control, but not before the barn’s roof and part of its second floor collapsed. By the time Reggie and I happened upon the scene, police officers were re-routing traffic, and I overheard one firefighter on walkie-talkie warning another about the second-floor collapse.

It’s not a scene you ever want to see, especially in your own or an almost-neighbor’s home…and yet, I wasn’t the only one who snapped a picture or two before moving myself along. In the few minutes I stopped to rubberneck, I saw one teen-aged girl snapping photos on her cell phone while a man darted across Water Street, camcorder in hand. On an otherwise uneventful day in Keene, NH, a burning barn passes for headline news, especially once you’ve determined that you, your own, and your almost-neighbors haven’t been harmed by fire.

UPDATE: You can see better photos of efforts to extinguish the fire here, on the Southwest New Hampshire District Fire Mutual Aid blog.