There’s a Fire! What Do You Take with You?

by Belinda Munoz on June 9, 2010


Are you ever struck by an overwhelming need to get back to the basics?  I am every now and then.  It’s a sort of an impulse to evaluate existence as it relates to the bare minimum, without the bells and whistles that modernity, social conventions, and, what the hell, education impose upon us.  If you’re a writer, you may see it as an existential proofreading of extraneous passages that have somehow intruded into the pages of your being and becoming and therefore must be edited or deleted.

I’m never quite sure what will bring this on.  It may be when I encounter something extreme such as when an inexperienced, unqualified and thoroughly risky bet of a political candidate attempts to buy, literally with his/her very own fortune, an election.  It may be a reaction to offensive opulence I’ve recently witnessed.  Or, it could be that cobwebs are forming in my spiritual nooks and crannies and the only spider I’m a fan of is David Kirk’s Miss Spider who throws tea parties for her buggy friends.  Whatever it may be, it’s an effective tickler to re-assess the absolute fundamentals.


It goes beyond cleaning out the closets, the cupboards, the hidden compartments in the floorboards and the drawers full of stuff.  Hard as it may be to stay on top of the kitchen contraptions that seem to mate and reproduce while in storage, I feel that’s the easy part.

Though, even this can be a struggle.

I wonder if you can relate to my just-in-case gene that insists on keeping a few quiche pans (though I’ve never made two at a time).  Echoes of Miss Manners behoove me to have various sets of glassware: for red wine, white wine and water.  Man, those take up space.  And  then there are the plates.  Because we’re on an unofficial entertaining hiatus (since giving birth, yikes), I keep too many plates of the same color for when the time is right to have planned brunch get-togethers again.

As for the closets, well, there’s the athletic, business and play clothes/shoes that, like it or not, take up physical/mental space/energy to maintain.


The physical representations of memories such as photo albums, love letters, journals, scrapbooks.  As dearly as we hold them, so few, if any, make the cut among the things most of us would lug around.  One photograph?  Only if it’s already in the wallet.  A poem or song lyrics written by your dear one?  Chances are you’ve already memorized them, and if you haven’t yet they’re probably not that good.  Journals?  A tough sell what with the inexpensive alternative of running a blog instead.  Scrapbooks?  Only if risking littering your path with random pieces that have come unglued from these pages sounds appealing.  Otherwise, too cumbersome.


These things aren’t all keepers, are they?

There are the things we say we want when we’re engaged in a lightweight chit-chat.

And then there are the things, those which rarely have a price tag, for which/whom we would give up a kidney, our life savings, our laissez-faire attitude, and possibly our life.  These are things we reveal when we’re having a heart-to-heart.

My absolute keepers?  I could never downsize my husband and my son.  If the house were burning down, I’d take them for the most fundamental of reasons.

What else?  For practical reasons, I’d take our car keys, passports/IDs, wallets, phone, maybe a Swiss Army knife if there’s one nearby and, if need be, my rudimentary wing chun skills.  They travel well and come in handy.

But more important than the practical things, I hope I take with me hope, kindness (husband has it in more ample supply than I do so if he sticks with me, I’m good to go), the will to live, and the ability to love and be loved.  Because, really, amorphous as they may seem in the face of mayhem, these  things travel far.  Way beyond where the smoke reaches.  Long after the embers have cooled.


  1. What about you?
  2. If you had to downsize stuff in your life to the essentials, what stays?  What goes?  Why?
  3. Are there any must-have tools we should all have in case of an emergency?


Image by Stacirl

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Tweets that mention There’s a Fire! What Do You Take with You? — the halfway point --
June 9, 2010 at 10:07 am

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kate June 9, 2010 at 7:34 am

This was really thought provoking. At first I did think of the usual, old letters, photos, books etc but realised I have memorised the poignant letters, photo’s tend to make me sad and books (apart perhaps, from a couple of very old ones) can be replaced.
Your comments about your husband’s kindness is touching and yes, people would have to be saved, and, probably my laptop and mobile phone!
Where would I be without my friend’s phone numbers and e-mail addresses? Homeless!!
I have realised over the years that stuff is just that – things you think you could never do without are forgotten when they have been absent for even a short time,
But people and emotion is what touches us forever.
Best wishes,


2 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Kate, I agree that I have some stuff I’ve saved for so long only to find them years later after having forgotten about them. Funny how that works.


3 Alexander Christian June 9, 2010 at 9:11 am

. I like this column because it addresses our need to hoard things . I recently moved – and as I began to move things into storage- I realized that the yearly storage cost exceeded the value of things I stored! So I donated my excess belongings to Goodwill.
I had shirts that I literally wore one time! It was a wake up call to my unnecessary spending – we live in such a consumer driven culture, and many of us fall into the habit of finding comfort in consuming. I feel so much better now that I gave away close to half of my belongings! Thanks for reminding what imatters most in life is the warmth and love we get from our personal relationships with family and friends…


4 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Yes, I think you know a bit about my aversion to the idea of hoarding things. And yet it’s so easy to accumulate and be bogged down by them. I’ve been pretty good at doing a seasonal duming. If only I could get rid of some toys without the little guy noticing…


5 Katie June 9, 2010 at 11:17 am

Great post. You’ve nailed the sentimentals and the keepers. I’d have to say I really like my pillows so I’d risk life and limb for them, and of course, my loved ones. Okay, they should have been first, but my pillows are my little piece of heaven. Beyond that I could start over. Fresh. I’d miss some stuff, but it’s just stuff. And I’d want my spirit to remain intact, my hope, my drive. I’d hate to lose that, but I’ve been lucky not to have very many big fires in my life. Interesting territory to ponder. Love your inspired writing, Belinda.


6 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Katie, I’ve heard others say the same thing about their pillows. I’m both oddly intrigued and yet don’t want to know what I’m missing.


7 Sara June 9, 2010 at 11:57 am

Belinda — I found this post a bit exhausting as I began to think of all the FULL cabinets and closets in my house and what would I give up????

To be truthful, I’m not sure I could walk away and just go back to basics. I guess if I had to, I would, but it’s not a choice I would make willingly.

There are too many things that now are attached to memories for me. I think this happens as you grow older. For example, the old photographs I have my family and the history of the town I grew up in…some of these photos show the town in the early 1800’s. Also, the photos of my children as they’ve grown up and their drawings….I have two drawers full of their childhood creativity and I love reviewing them every once in awhile. It’s fun to see what my now thirty something daughter drew when she was two:~)

It’s easy to consider things that can be replaced — TVs, computers, etc. It’s the stuff that is part of your history that’s really hard to imagine letting go of.

This is a very interesting and challenging exercise. I’m looking around and noticing things wondering “Would I keep this?”

I think I’ll have spend more time on this…perhaps you can revisit this topic — there’s so much to consider.


8 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Sarah, I’m sorry to have exhausted you with this post. I suppose all this stuff we surround ourselves with really do have the power to weigh us down eventually.


9 Keith June 9, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Hi Belinda!

WOW, great post. Really got me thinking. In the end I’d have to say, all the stuff is just that-stuff. I’d want those I love safe. Relationships with our loved ones is really where it’s at.
…….but man, I have to say, as soon as my loved ones were out and safe, I think I’d have to go back after my Martin guitar. =)

Thank you for this post Belinda.


10 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Keith, good point. Music is basic and what could be better than playing some yourself in celebration of your escape.


11 Madeleine Kolb June 9, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Belinda, An excellent post. Having just moved across the U.S., my BF and I have thrown away, given away, and donated a bunch of stuff. When we got to the east coast, we found that we didn’t have enough room for all our stuff, so we donated some more. They say that three moves equals a fire.

We keep some vital stuff, such as passports and back-ups of computer data, in a fire-proof safe. We bought the safe after a neighbor in Seattle had a catastrophic house fire.

And as for must-have tools and supplies in an emergency, I’d say canned food, a can-opener, energy bars, water, medications, a list of prescription meds with dosages, my contact lenses and wetting solution, my prescription glasses which cost a fortune, some clothes, and a bunch of cat food. People with type 2 diabetes just can’t travel light!


12 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Hi Madeleine, great to see you here again. I haven’t moved in many years but I recall the exhilarating feeling of having empty spaces again. As for emergency supplies, we keep an earthquake preparedness bag which is entirely too big and heavy for lugging so I’m thinking it needs a re-visit.


13 Patty - Why Not Start Now? June 9, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Hi Belinda – Oh, I so want to walk away and get back to basics! I’m the opposite of Sara on this; the older I get the more I want to detach from as much of it as I can and travel light. Well, at least that’s what I *say*. Although I do think I have the chops for it, since I spend a good deal of time in a tiny 300 square foot apartment in the woods. And I do not miss all the stuff. So yeah, in case of a fire, just the essentials, including Dave and the cats. Maybe a few pair of comfy jeans too. And definitely a sense of adventure.

Thanks for your wonderful, as usual, thoughts!


14 Belinda Munoz June 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Patty, I get this longing for detachment from stuff. I remember being a young collegiate with nothing but a few pieces of clothes, some books, a stereo and a zest for life. I love that you get away to a 300 sq. ft. place in the woods. I feel refreshed just thinking about it!


15 Giulietta June 10, 2010 at 5:38 am

Hi Belinda,

Great wake-up call post for folks. We’ve been trained to put ourselves in debt to collect all this stuff instead of memories and adventures. Then you need to worry that someone will take/harm it. Why? To keep it looking new for the next owner?

My parents had a living room we couldn’t go in. All these decades later, the “stuff” in it still looks new. What were/are they saving it for?

Let’s see, I’d take my loving husband, my two kitty cats, my newest painting of horses on a carousel cut in close (It’s near the door for a quick getaway), my sense of humor, my resiliency, my sun glasses. my tattered address book I bought in Italy 18 years ago and my purse. (It’s got my library card in it. This will come in handy when I want to read or need a place to just hang out while we wait for the insurance claim to be processed.) Oh and my Mermaid Tevos so I can walk around my new neighborhood without sore feet.

Honestly, we should all live in treehouses!

Thx for the excellent post. Giulietta


16 Tony Single June 10, 2010 at 6:48 am

Belinda, I’m not the best person to be asking this! I don’t have a practical bone in my body, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to part with a single thing! 😛

Back to basics, huh? Let’s see…

Well, Cass for sure. Then my DSi. Then a CD or two or… eighty. Erm… this is gonna be tough. 🙁


17 BigLittleWolf June 10, 2010 at 10:59 am

The whole issue of “stuff” is one I’m dealing with a lot these days (thus a variety of posts on cleaning and organizing… though I’m getting nowhere). Too much stuff – even with sentimental value – and you start to suffocate. It’s hard when you’re the oldest generation left, and somehow the keeper of family mementos. And when kids are still around, there’s all their stuff, even when they head off to college.

I’d happily shed 50% if I could. Part of the challenge is how physical a task that is. It truly requires brawn – and the right mental space – to take it on, and succeed.

Great topic.


18 Justine June 10, 2010 at 11:35 am

Belinda – wonderful, thought-provoking post as usual. I love how you make us think about important things that we should think about but often shelf in the back of our minds either from fear or from our inability to process these situations until we have to face them ourselves. I admit that I have not considered this particular scenario, but now that you mentioned it, your plan seems to be a solid one. I would just add my pets to the list you stated, and I will be able to face anything else that happens thereafter. Or so I hope.


19 Kristen @ Motherese June 10, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Ever since I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I’ve had a mental inventory of the things I would take with me if I had to flee my home. (Uplifting, I know.) My husband and sons top the list, of course, as do some of the essential survival items like a Swiss army knife. But I really like your reminder to take along existential things like hope. I suppose we would need these things as much as the others in a crisis.

(On a slightly unrelated note, I wonder if one might be able to do a major household purge asking herself a variation of the question in your title: if you lost it in a fire, would you buy it again? And if the answer is no: get rid of it! I’ll have to try this on my husband, a notorious pack rat.)


20 Mark June 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

I always love this exercise. You have expressed your thoughts very well. I love how you closed this article. I have gone down to almost zero possessions twice in my life. I have possessions that sit in boxes and rot in the attic and the cellar. If they were gone tomorrow I would not miss them. I am not really attached to anything material for while I enjoy “things” these things do not define me. I know that if it was all gone tomorrow that I would still be me, no less than I am today.
I would take with me all that is within me anything else would be something practical yet not necessary.


21 TheKitchenWitch June 10, 2010 at 1:51 pm

What a timely post. This week, a friend of mine lost everything in a fire. Well, everything but her family and her pet, which was of course, the most important thing. They got out with one credit card, which was luckily in her husband’s pocket.

Family members aside, I’d go for the photo albums, for sure. Practical things like wallet, etc. Otherwise, everything else is replaceable.


22 Davina June 10, 2010 at 10:04 pm

An odd thought occurred to me when I read your questions. I pictured myself packing a bag with a few favourite books, a few pictures, and a journal… and walking out the door; leaving everything else behind and starting from a clean slate. I’ve become less materialistic as I get older. My experiences are more important than my “things”.


23 Tess The Bold Life June 11, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Hi Belinda,
My meds! I would run for my meds. LOL I take them for my ADHD and soooo many people thing people like me can do without them but not me…or I absolutely would and I’d have more money in my pocket as well!


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