Deciding to Live with Less and Other Minimalist Lessons Learned from Fire

I live near the ocean in California in a canyon area below the foothills in a high fire danger area. We’ve had a number of fires over the years that burned deep into our neighborhood. So far we have been lucky and our home was spared.

There is a part of me that wants to move away, but we live in a wonderful place when fire is not present. And there is a greater part of me that wants to let go of my attachment to things. To enjoy what I have, to deepen my spiritual understanding with an awareness and mindset that if it were lost, it wouldn’t be the end of me. I’d be sad, deeply sad, but I would rise again.

I’ve lived side by side with neighbors and close friends whose homes did burn, and they rebuilt their houses and their lives. When I stood beside them I never imaged myself as that strong.

The first time we had to evacuate with a fire looming nearby we were given about an hours notice. I had three small children at the time and my first and only thought was to get them safely in the car. We gathered the dog and cat next, and then the police came to tell us not to leave yet, to wait until they came for us because they were escorting families out since the road way was jammed with traffic. My husband sat in the car with the kids and suggested I run and grab a few necessities for the children, and get some of our “special” things. But when I went back into our house what we had previously viewed as special, looked unimportant.

What should I save? It was in the days prior to digital photography so I grabbed the photo albums. Next I walked from room to room surveying our belongings. I had a nice house filled with lovely things, but all of my prized positions looked like junk. In that moment I understood that what I appreciated most was the washing machine, our beds, the bathtub, the refrigerator. And our kitchen where hours earlier I was happily preparing lunch, unaware that by dinner time we would be in danger of loosing our home and possibly our lives.

With each fire and forced evacuation I always manage to see the upside, but I also began to gain a sense of urgency, and went into a deep primal hunter and gathering, survival mode. It came from having to leave the dinner on the table one evening when flames were spotted nearby, and from having to comfort hungry children throughout the night. Four years later when the next fire occurred I evacuated with food supplies.

This year the drought in California is severe, and once again we are facing extremely high fire danger. Yet I’ve begun to feel something settle down inside me. There is a quiet calm born of knowing that I no longer think of my possessions as an extension of myself.

A few years ago I joined a growing community of women and men committed to reducing the amount of clothes we buy and wear. My goal to cultivate a small wardrobe led me to Project 333. Once I had tamed my closet and rid myself of excess, I began to examine and re-evaluate my shopping habits, and my consumptive nature in other areas of my life.

While I will never be a minimalist in the sense of living as sparse as possible, I’ve come to understand that I enjoy the minimalist lifestyle of owning less. It provides me with freedom, calm, enhances and gives me greater satisfaction than owning an abundance of things ever did.

I’ve also begun to understand that living with the threat of fire for the past 25 years has taught me valuable life skills, and I’ve learned good habits.

We keep the dog leash by the front door. The cat carrier is in an easy to reach location. I’m careful to keep my car keys, cell phone, charger, my glasses and my purse organized and within easy reach. Gone are the days when I plunked things down without thinking about where I put them.

There is this “idea” that when fire threatens, and given ample time and safety permits, a person would want to save the valuables. But in my neck of these city-woods we have learned that what’s most valuable when you are homeless is a pair of jeans, shoes, a jacket, a blanket—and a car that is not stuffed to the roof with useless belongings. Because chances are you will need to sleep in that car, along with the kids, the dog and cat.

From needing to leave quickly to evacuate multiple times the lesson my family members, neighbors and I have learned is that when your closet (or your entire house) is jam-packed, it is impossible to quickly pull out a few necessary key items. And if you are given the luxury of time and safety, with fewer belongings it is much easier to find and grab what you need, and run out the door.

I never imagined that I would grow to view fire, as a wise teacher and that I would embrace her lessons. Yet each time I clean and de-clutter my home my motto is, if I’m not using this item, then it is better to give it to someone who will. Because I won’t have a second chance to give it away if the fire takes it.

I’ve also grown more aware of the right use of world resources, and the exploitation of garment workers and manufacture workers calls me to reflect deeply.

Before purchasing or acquiring anything I’ve begun the habit of asking myself:

How much do I actually need it, in comparison to what it has taken from the planet and from workers, and from others in order to produce it?

How often will I use it, and how long will it last?

When and how will I dispose of it?

I know for sure, though, that you don’t have to experience a fire to learn the value of deciding to live with less. Yet for me living with fire has been a lens through which to examine my own life.

Some day I will move away from this canyon area near the foothills, with skies filled with Red Tail Hawk, Owl, Golden Eagle and Raven. But I must keep my lens wherever I go. I must remember to see with fire eyes.

Author's Note
This essay was first published in the The Huffington Post and is part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.

Copyright © 2016 Terra Trevor.