Don’t you hate when your worst nightmare actually occurs? I’ve been fumbling along with this new housemate situation, watching all my oldest childhood triggers being triggered: my conviction that I’m not “allowed” to take up a lot of room, express a need, or make a mistake. And yesterday, having finally arranged my room in more or less the fashion I want it, I affixed a brand new extension cord to the space heater that my house-owning house mate had provided, and started answering my morning e-mails. Deeply absorbed, suddenly I thought, What’s that funny smell?

That was when I looked toward the window to see a bit of hazy smoke, shot out of my seat, and saw that the extension cord was literally melting. With gauzy white curtains mere inches away. With the cords to my laptop, printer, desk lamp etc. lying alongside. On the hardwood floor of a huge, lovely bedroom. IN SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE.

I would literally rather suffer third-degree burns myself than burn down someone else’s house. I’d already turned off the space heater, and I immediately also disposed of the offending cord and yanked open all the windows, praying the smell would dissipate, but of course the noxious odor of melting plastic woke my housemate and the poor woman padded down in her PJ’s to investigate. To her unbelievable, everlasting credit did not freak out but calmly examined the situation with me, said maybe we (i.e. I) should plug the space heater directly into the wall, and to my amazement, did not evict me on the spot.

So against every fiber of my being, I went out half an hour later and had breakfast, chatted, took out the recycling,  asked if there was anything else I could do, and then went about my business for the day. One of my power-of-positive-thinking friends thinks this experience of living in some rudimentary kind of community (after so many years alone) is meant to “prepare” me for a “relationship.” But as T.S. Eliot said, “Wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” I don’t wait any more for a relationship, but I do think this experience will perhaps better prepare me for “relationship” with everything and everyone. Which requires accepting that people–even me, especially me–make mistakes.

The house could have burned down–I, too, could have lost most of what I own, including my writing–and I am so, so grateful it did not. But I couldn’t help thinking of how in the blink of an eye, everything can change. I couldn’t help thinking of the ones for whom the curtains did catch fire–too soon–and this poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska:


The cemetery plot for tiny graves.
We, the long-lived, pass by furtively,
like wealthy people passing slums.

Here lies little Zosia, Jacek, Dominik,
prematurely stripped of the sun, the moon,
the clouds, the turning seasons.

They didn’t stash much in their return bags.
Some scraps of sights
that scarcely count as plural.
A fistful of air with a butterfly flitting.
A spoonful of bitter knowledge—the taste of medicine.

Small-scale naughtiness,
granted, some of it fatal.
Gaily chasing the ball across the road.
The happiness of skating on thin ice.

This one here, that one down there, those on the end:
before they grew to reach a doorknob,
break a watch,
smash their first windowpane.

Malgorzata, four years old,
two of them spent staring at the ceiling.

Rafalek, missed his first birthday by a month,
and Zuzia missed Christmas,
when misty breath turns to frost.

And what can you say about one day of life,
a minute, a second:
darkness, a light bulb’s flash, then dark again?

Only stony Greek has words for that.

–Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)



  1. Anonymous says: Reply

    In the blink of an eye everything can change…sometimes for the better as well.

  2. Anonymous says: Reply

    Here's my favorite Szymborska:

    "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself"

    The buzzard never says it is to blame.
    The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
    When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
    If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

    A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
    Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
    Why should they, when they know they're right?

    Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
    in every other way they're light.

    On this third planet of the sun
    among the signs of bestiality
    a clear conscience is Number One.

  3. Thanks, both of you. It's good to remember that grace, as well as tragedy, can come in the blink of an eye (sometimes in the same blink, actually).
    And I'd not seen this, as always, heart-stopping Szymborska. Reminds me of a documentary I once saw of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All the Nazis in the photos looked very very certain, and Bonhoeffer looked very fragile, human, and uncertain…

  4. All will be well, especially once you leave the shallows and get out into deeper water in this "relationship." You have a great landlord it seems. Her reaction should give you comfort.

  5. Thanks for this, Heather. I agree with Frank, your landlord seems pretty good. She doesn't react, she remains matter of fact. This is excellent.

    And I'd never heard of WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA because I am a Cultural Philistine, but thank you for exposing me to her.

  6. Fires are scary

    Welcome to the Catholic Blog Directory. I'd like to invite you to participate in Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival. We are a group of Catholic bloggers who gather weekly to share our best posts with each other. To join us, please go to http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com/2010/09/sunday-snippets-catholic-carnival_18.html

  7. All the love for Szymborska is great! She is the best. I was so inspired hearing her poetry that I wrote an entire album of songs based on her poems. If you are a Szymborska fan, you won't be disappointed!


    Thanks for taking a listen!


  8. whoa, good for you, Kevin–always lovely to meet another Szymborska fan–nice work and I'm sure she'd be honored…

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