Burning Down the House

Sunday afternoon my neighbor’s house was on fire.

Driving by I glanced up their long driveway and saw hungry orange flames. It’s funny how long it takes the brain to decipher something unexpected. Wow. That’s an enormous pile of burning leaves….it’s awfully close to the side of their house….no…wait…that’s not it at all…it’s much bigger than that…WHAT?!?



Look again.

Grab my phone.

Jump out of the car.

In the pouring rain we pounded on the doors, called 911, connected a garden hose, and attacked the fire that burned beneath a plume of acrid smoke.

In the midst of the chaos, another neighbor walked by with his dog. Eleanor, who had been standing safely to the side, saw him, ran down the drive and yelled with a mix of adrenaline and fear. He paused, listened to her.

And kept walking.

While we stood, waiting for sounds of the sirens.

Of all the people that day—Eleanor and her capable response to our haphazardly shouted directions; my husband and his rush straight into action; the firefighters and their calm proficiency; my neighbor and the pallor of shock on her face when she returned home—it is the retreating figure of my neighbor with his dog that I keep thinking about.

Why did he walk away?

Why did he see flames licking up the side of the house and not stop? Why did he think this is not my fire to fight?

And when do I do the same?

When are my friends, my family, my kids in trouble and I don’t see it? When are my neighbors, my community, full of adrenaline and fear and I can’t see it?

When do I keep walking?

And why?

Why, I wonder, did he feel so disconnected from the scene that he believed he shouldn’t help? Or why did he believe his contribution so small that he couldn’t make a difference?

I doubt I’ll ever know.

Just as there’s never a way to fully know the impact we have when we do stop. When we turn towards someone and help, instead of walking away. We have to take a leap of faith—we have to trust that our seemingly small actions are too big to measure. Trust that slowing down in the craziness of the morning for our child is immeasurable. Trust that donating our extra food to the person on the corner in need is immeasurable. Trust that contributing to the organization whose request arrives in the mail is immeasurable.

Trust that no matter how small the energy, resources, money, time or expertise we think we are giving, the giving always matters.

Seeing my neighbor’s house on fire wasn’t the end to the holiday weekend I had imagined. The real ending was better. Because the house will be okay. Everyone is safe. And my neighbor walking his dog reminded me to trust that picking up a simple garden hose can change the course of a life.

Because on Sunday, it did.


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What are your garden hose stories? When have you stopped, and turned towards someone in need? We’ve all made an immeasurable difference in someone’s life. You have a story, I’d love to to hear it.

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