Not long ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. to one of those messages you never want to receive from a family member: “Please call me as soon as you wake up.” I read the words again, slowly, and looked at the timestamp: 4 o’clock.
I knew immediately that something terrible had happened. But I remained silent and tried to hold on to that soft, dark, still place of ignorance for a few more minutes, and said a few prayer words that called for some strength, courage, and calm. Then I called back and learned that a few hours earlier, in the middle of the night, a relative’s house had been on fire. By the time I heard the news, it had burned down. Fortunately, everyone, including the dog, got out.
In the hours that followed when I hung up the phone, while waiting for daylight to creep in and the rest of the world to wake up, I sat quietly in my living room with my coffee. My mind in a bit of fog, I looked around at the countless books, the small clay figurine I bought in the medieval Italian town of Gubbio, the photos of my mother and grandmother on the mantelpiece, the small antique side table I found and on loved at first sight. Material possessions, but those that symbolize the structure and meaning of our lives.
And as I tried to imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose everything I had, something inside me changed. I realized the thought didn’t feel as unimaginable as it once did. That something like this can happen to anyone without warning.
I wondered if it might be a benefit to keep that horrifying but not implausible possibility in our minds for a while. What would we do with our lives if we really thought it possible that we could lose everything at any moment?
The 1929 watercolor “Pyramid of Fire”, by American artist Charles E Burchfield, exudes a grim and desperate atmosphere. Painted the year the Great Depression began, during a decade of the artist’s realist period, it depicts a wildly burning barn, symbolic of a valuable livelihood that has been extinguished. Roaring orange flames have filled the interior, their long tongues licking up from the disintegrating structure to the smoke-filled sky.
It doesn’t look like anything can be salvaged from this. There is a sense of helplessness evoked by the small motionless group of people who watch the bottom right of the screen, and by three small firefighter figures, tiny to the side of the overwhelming fire that is even beyond the confines of the canvas. They shoot thin lines of water into the building, as if trying to extinguish a volcano with a bucket of water.
Staring at this painting, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would paint such a gloomy scene, and who would want to immortalize someone’s world going up in smoke. But I think it is a powerful work because it forces us to consider the impermanence of our material things and possessions. And perhaps such a reckoning could lead us to a deep question about where we put our stash in life, and what we really couldn’t live without.
The painting captures how the seeming normality of all our lives can change in the blink of an eye, without warning. Our lives and lifestyles may be more fragile and transient than we’d like to accept. But if we had to take that into account, what could we change about how we live now? If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that nothing protects us from the arbitrariness of life’s hand.
It may seem strange, but I really like the 1905 oil painting “Job (from the Old Testament)” by Irish painter William Orpen. It is a striking and poignant depiction of human vulnerability and ultimate vulnerability. Tiled rooftop buildings stand against a background of black and gray. In the foreground sits a naked old man, Job, magnified by his proximity to us, alone on a mound of hay or corn. Cheering townspeople retreat next to him. His wrinkled body has sunk into itself and he folds his arms as if to protect himself from the ridicule of his former friends. A hand is over his eyes, both to keep him from staring at the reality of his condition, and to cover his face with apparent shame, loneliness, and despair.
Orpen painted this dramatic work about the Old Testament character Job, a rich and pious man who suddenly loses everything he owns and his entire family. No one can understand how someone as faithful and good as Job can suffer such a great loss, and he must go through the stages of grief, questioning and despair. His friends start blaming him, trying to get him to renounce his faith, until finally abandoning him. But all the while Job refuses to curse his God.
I am struck by the crowd because I can imagine that part of what fuels their mockery is fear of Job’s situation. To blame Job for what happened to him is to give oneself a false sense of protection from suffering a similar fate. I am also struck by the rooster in the very foreground of the painting, pecking innocently at the floor, a symbol of the mundane and everyday. His presence suggests that there is nothing special about what happened to Job, nothing that could happen to any of us.
At its core, the Book of Job is ultimately about our human struggle to understand our deep losses and to understand a supposedly good deity that allows it. Looking boldly at this painting might invite us to be somewhere on the canvas. Where could we introduce ourselves and why? Don’t we want or can’t imagine sitting on that haystack?
Marc Chagall didn’t have to imagine a loss. The Jewish artist’s life was filled with it, from leaving his beloved hometown of Vitebsk (in present-day Belarus), to fleeing Europe during World War II, to the death of his beloved wife Bella. Even professional success was not a weapon against it. And yet much of his work radiates a deep sense of hope and love amid the reality of loss.
In the 1939 painting “The Dream”, Chagall creates an image of life as loss, as faith, as invitation, as love, as mystery and as abiding hope. The blue and green of the background contain the images of a small village and of a shrine on a hill, a reminder of his beloved homeland and its religious community. In the foreground, perhaps the hope for the future, are two lovers on a brightly painted bed, the only bright spot on the canvas. Literally floating in the space on the canvas between past and future, is a winged angel extending an inviting arm. The only thing that stands between the reality of the past and the hope for the future is the present.
I am struck by the metaphorical idea of inhabiting a present where angels invite us to fully dwell. It’s as if we want to suggest, even in the midst of a deep and personal loss – even the kind that sweep you out of nowhere and take everything with you – that perhaps there is still a grace to receive us in unimaginable ways. A grace that could help us think about what is left, and how we could live in the spaces where there is abundance and where there is apparently nothing at all.
When I sat quietly that morning after the phone call, fresh in the knowledge that my loved ones had indeed escaped a burning house, given all the possessions I had in the world, nothing at all felt irreplaceable. What did surprise me was a sudden jolt of clarity, a powerful sense of prioritizing and doing the things I’m passionate about. And I wanted to say a brisk yes to a few opportunities I’d sat indecisively on. As I sat there, I thought of the haiku composed by the 17th-century poet Mizuta Masahide, “Barn burned down, now I can see the moon.” It felt a little too early for that. But it also felt nice to know that such a feeling was there, waiting to be received.
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