I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.