Two Minutes to Go

Elle Jane Townsend, U.K.

When There’s No Time to
Pick What You Really Love

Few events present a more dramatic picture of the absolute temporality of our experience on earth than the eminence of an unavoidable disaster. Except, of course, the moment of our last breath, in which case, such concepts as time and disaster are really beside the point.
Otherwise, at that crucial realization that we must get out in order to survive, our very next thought may be about what to take with us. Not being quite our final trip, we may be allowed to pick some beloved possessions before we go. But how to know what that would be?
Naturally, the Internet is full of disaster preparation guides, designed for those who’d rather be on the lookout for a possible early call towards destiny. Those who live in areas prone to ‘acts of god,’ in plain insurancenese, may be familiar and even have already a kit, with a few necessary items to take.
We’re not talking about that sort of situation, which in most cases can be well addressed with a simple permanently packed suitcase. What we mean is the kind of unexpected catastrophe that, ironically, would give you just enough time to go insane, imagining what you’d really need to take with you.
For most of us, it’d be a losing proposition, and we’re bound to choose exactly what we’ll never need. In a hurry, we most definitely forget a number of irreplaceables, which we’ll spend the rest of our lives regretting having left behind. If we’re lucky, eventually we may learn why those trinkets were so dear to us, and why it was all so silly.
At the same time, we may find ourselves treasuring previously useless items, such as a pair of socks only heaven knows why we actually took the time to salvage, almost as a reminder of that aforementioned temporality. Who knows? We’re supposed to learn something with everything, but in actuality, rarely do. Or something like that.

The Web is full of that other kind of preparation kits, too, exactly the kind we agonize over when disaster strikes. Or should. Most of them come from people who experienced the heart wrenching event of losing their homes, or almost everything but their lives, and came out with a few tips of their own.
Like The Burning House, for instance, a site where we found some of the pictures illustrating this post, that people took of the things they’ve managed to save from disaster. Neatly placed, they hardly convey the chaos and heartbreaking decisions that led their owners to choose them over others, but they nevertheless tell their stories.
Even more dramatically to the point of this post are the Time pictures of families who gathered at the San Diego Qualcomm Stadium, in 2007, while wildfires ravaged the homes they left behind. The visual essay portrays them still stunned to regain their dignities, and the objects they saved, with poignant quotes summarizing their brutal heartbreak.
‘What They Saved From the Fire’ presents the expected and the pragmatic, documents, family photos, children games and, of course, their pets. But among them, photographer Jeffrey Lamont Brown captured a woman looking intensely to his lenses, who took pains to rescue ‘a bible, a purse, a pair of (pink) shoes, a diploma and her Baby Phat phone.’

For the record, we came to the Burning House site through a Katie Haegele story on Utne Reader, Two Minutes and a Suitcase, a name which is highly suggestive of what actually it is not. That’s because the author uses the format to talk about her passion for vintage, i.e., used clothes. There’s a clever rationale behind it, something to do with recycling, but we digress.
A more precise synch between title and content is What I Saved From the Fire, a public forum, open to contributions from anyone. Participants offer a brief description of what they saved and why, and some of it is quite revealing about them, and about our own hypothetical choices, when and if the moment arrives.
It takes us back to the theme of our ever fruitless attempt to hold on to what we’ve so easily accumulate in life. Someone salvaged his collection of Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia. Another writes about how (presumably) ‘she’ would go back to save her Ike Dress, a vintage ‘circa 1952 or 1956,’ that says a lot about this person’s set of political allegiances.
Two things stand out, however. One is a rare Georgie Hyde-Lees photo of W.B. Yeats with his cat on his deathbed, 1939, with a cross-reference to Leonard Cohen. And the other, in what we can’t quite figure whether it’s intentional or a mere typo, is the subtitle of the blog: ‘A Multi-Media Pubic Forum.’

2 thoughts on “Two Minutes to Go

  1. eremophila says:

    For many years I’ve lived in bushfire prone areas, so this is a topic I’ve given much thought to. On one occasion, on a day of extreme fire danger, I had the car packed with all the recommended essentials – water, food, clothing, etc, pets ready to go, and still my vehicle was half empty…… I wandered around the house trying to decide what I valued enough to pack….. and in a flash of insight I realised that none of it was important….
    That shook up all my former ideas, as I’ve struggled to get the things I own, but made me realise that I am ‘not possessed’ by them 🙂
    They are not my possessions…..


  2. I would take my cat. He is my responsibility.


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