A few weeks ago I was awakened before dawn by screaming smoke detectors. Like literally, they are the photoelectric kind that emit screeching beeps with a voice intoning “FireFireFire” in a way that makes you both want to run the hell away and take a baseball bat to them as you leave. They do the trick: no way are you going to sleep through.
In this case, even at that hour and pulled out of sleep—and in fact at that hour I had overslept— I was not too concerned, sure that this was just one more malfunction, because it’s happened a few times. My older dog is thunderstorm and related sounds (like, gunshots, beeping backup systems that kick in in power outages) phobic, and has clawed through a first-story window to get away, so there are a few levels of emergency going on here.
The detectors are wired in throughout the house so you have to figure which one is being triggered—by a breeze, usually; in the past it’s happened like the morning in question when the windows are all open, it cools down overnight and is fairly dry, and something about the combination of coolness, dryness, air movement sets them off.
Imagine a half hour of beepings and alarming voice throughout the house, with me running between three floors—seven detectors in all, with one at the most precarious height above the top of the stairs, it requires a ladder and a reach that for my 5 feet barely 4 inches is downright dangerous, as a slip would send me flying off the six-foot ladder and down the second-story stairs.
I got that one disconnected by the grace of God. That seemed to be it. Then a few minutes later they started up again, this time with a CO warning. Same voice but now intoning “Carbon Monoxide.” I was ready to get the bat. I managed to find the offending detector, though I had to cut a fuse to stop it, the same that powers the basement lights. Hey, no problem, I have a flashlight I can use down there.
In the week preceding these malfunctions I’d had some pretty dramatic personal situations catch fire, so to speak. So my feet had not touched the floor before I had made the connection between the literal and the metaphorical of any number of houses in my life burning down at that moment.
It was also one of those rare times that I felt acutely the difficulty of living alone in the country with a house, two large dogs, demanding work that involves equal parts hard manual labor, endurance, creativity, and hutzpah. Like, how awesome it would be to have some help.
But you are so damn busy, you have no time to rest there, you just have to go. Extinguish the fire. Shut the damn voice up. Catch your breath before you sprint to put out the next fire.
This got me thinking about warnings, both literal and metaphorical. The in-your-face blaring ones or the ones easily missed, and then there are the ones in between. The flashing light on the dashboard is one thing, but what about the subtle ones? And why do we willfully ignore even the most unmistakeable?
When my son was very young, we lived for a few months apart from his father in a small apartment in Montmartre. Early one morning I integrated the voice of the Slav concierge into a dream, not hearing her calling to me, in her slightly broken, heavily accented French, Madame, madame, feu, sortez!! I did hear my neighbor from across the courtyard when he came to pound on the door, which I flung open, in my pajamas, to see him carrying a bucket full of water, excusing himself as he rushed past me toward the kitchen. I had no idea what was happening, but I ran into Christophe’s room where he was still sleeping, gathered his sweet four-year old body in my arms and ran out, into the street, barefoot. You know when it is time to get out, and I will never forget that feeling.
At the corner café, the adorable proprietors– she petite and red-headed, he tall and with a fantastic handlebar moustache– wrapped us in blankets, brought me shoes– Christophe remained in my arms, I was not letting go– and café crème and chocolat and tartines.
Meanwhile the pompiers had arrived and were extinguishing what was a fire that started from a pipe just under my kitchen window. They told me later if it had been just a few millimeters the other way it would have ignited the gas pipe, and the whole building would have blown.
The redhead came to sit with us a minute, even at the height of the breakfast rush and with the extra excitement of multiple firetrucks on this tiny Parisian street, which really is pretty comical to see. She told me that she and her compagnon, as she called him (I never learned, but always wanted to, their story, as I had the impression that they both had suffered, and found each other, and were in love and living a life they chose) had been in a fire once, trapped on the sixth floor– usually the top floor in belle époque buildings, with the seventh being the servants’ quarters. She described her utter panic, how she could still hear the cries of “Sauve qui peut!” from people fleeing, and how she would have jumped had it not been for him restraining her, and thankfully the pompiers got them out. I have shivers still as I write this, nearly 25 years later, so real was her description to me.
The English expression of Fire, get out! is frightening enough, but the French expression Sauve qui peut!—literally, Save yourself if you can! or idiomatically Every man for himself!—always seemed way more terrifying to me. Like, it was expected there would be those who would not be able to save themselves, which is realistic, typical French, but a bit overwhelming for optimistic, happy-ending loving Americans.
There on the rue Coustou, we returned to an apartment covered in soot but easily cleaned; the relationship with my son’s father, though, was not salvageable, and we would leave, for the second and final time, a few months later.
In the world at large, it feels these past weeks that all the detectors are blaring, on all floors, at all hours. FireFireFire CO CO CO Get Out Now! In the US, terrorism, multiple shootings by police, some perhaps racially inflected, a contentious, highly unusual presidential election season, all recalling the atmosphere of upheaval of the late 60’s. The truck massacre in Nice, shootings and attacks throughout Europe, including the 85-year old priest whose throat was slit during mass. An attempted coup in Turkey. Brexit. Zika and the upcoming Olympics in impoverished Rio.
The world is out of whack. So many people I know are experiencing pretty big changes and challenges. What is going on?
I don’t know. Back in my tiny corner of the world I finally ordered a large bin to hold sugar, up to 170 pounds, for les collines. A nice airtight plastic bin, set on casters to roll as needed. Really, how complicated could this be?
It arrives, with a huge WARNING sticker on top of the box, reading This Item Contains a Material Found To Cause Birth Defects in the State of California.
What???? Are you kidding me?? This is a bin ordered from a restaurant supply company with the sole purpose of holding raw ingredients, like flour or sugar. No place for it in my kitchen with such a warning, supposedly visible online when I ordered, but I did not see it. Thus for this toxic bin I will have to foot the bill for shipping it back plus a re-stock fee. Its toxicity will just go on to another destination. Man, this is just wrong.
I wrote in the Peace Bridge post about this firestorm I feel blowing through the world and quoted the Chris Isaak line about desire that kept popping into my head: The world was on fire, and no one could save me but you. Yup, that’s desire for you, and comes with no warning. Frost’s question of fire or ice comes to mind: personally, I always leaned slightly toward fire.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Will we get a warning, or have we already? Are we at sauve qui peut, or do we still have time? I have the impression we missed any number of warnings along the way. I guess, we are going to find out. Meantime, I sure need to get more canned air and blow out those detectors.