I smelled the fire before I knew what it was. I couldn’t see it or feel it, but the air smelled wrong. An acrid, smoky scent hung in the air as I went about my day, tending to my toddler son.

We’d lived in the house for six weeks. In the garage, an anxiety-inducing mountain of boxes stood higher than I could reach, waiting to be unpacked. When I opened the door, ready to tackle the next mystery parcel (Why didn’t I use labels? Would this be the one with the kitchen utensils? Fingers crossed!) I swore I could taste the burnt metallic odor in the back of my throat. Something was burning, but I couldn’t tell what.

Feeling foolish, I persuaded my husband to call the fire department. I shuffled in embarrassment as the firefighters went from room to room, pointing heat guns at the walls. “Yup, it sure does smell like something is smoldering. Electrical, probably,” said the one in charge. “We just can’t seem to find the source. I tell you what, though, to be safe, we’re going to disconnect your power.” I was relieved to be taken seriously. We’d go stay in a hotel for the night. “Oh, no ma’am,” said the firefighter. “We’d like you guys to stay here so you can be the first alert if anything happens.”

Um. What?

First of all, it was January. In California, granted, but I’m a Hawaiian. We consider anything below 65 degrees to be arctic. We were supposed to spend the night in a house with no heat? Barbaric! “Sure, no problem,” my husband replied. He’s from New York and does not know the struggles of my people. Whatever.

That evening, while I was buying candles and flashlights at the drugstore, Bob called. “So, the burning smell is REALLY strong now and there’s a crackling sound coming from the ceiling,” he said as he cradled our sleeping three-year-old on his shoulder. “GET OUT OF THE HOUSE AND CALL 911!” I whisper-shrieked, so as not to freak out my fellow customers.

A short time later, no fewer than five fire trucks screamed onto our normally quiet street. Firefighters streamed in and out of our home carrying tanks of extinguishing foam and brandishing hatchets. Hatchets? “What are they going to do with those?” I wondered. I was sitting on a folding chair one of our new neighbors had brought. My son, covered in a borrowed blanket, continued to sleep through the sirens and the noise.

When it was all over, the firefighters apologized. What were they sorry for? The house looked fine. Then we opened the door and saw the ruin. The walls and ceiling had been chopped open. Fluffy gray piles of insulation lay everywhere like spilled guts, and ash coated every surface. The fire inside the walls had been sparked by faulty wiring. It had been smoldering for days, undetected. That crackling sound my husband heard was it finally burning through three of the six ceiling joists.

Anger can be like that. It can flash hot and quick, or it can fester quietly in my veins, eating away at my insides. But also – and this is very important – it always has something to tell me. It’s my early warning system. Anger lets me know a boundary has been tripped. It lets me know when I am misaligned, or when something needs attention. It’s a clue to be followed, not a place to stay. And above all, it’s a chance to rebuild, once the fire has cooled.Whenever I feel anger, I know there’s more to the story. Grief, maybe. Sadness. Pain. Discomfort. Otherness. If I can meet it with curiosity and compassion, I can figure out where the work needs to be done.

 

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