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These past 20 months since the wildfire that burned our home, I have kept life in my handbag.

I don’t carry everything in the world in the bag, just everything that inhabits our world. Before the fire I was a minimalist. I was the woman on the plane that arrived with a buttoned up briefcase and a 20 inch roll-a-board suitcase for a three week trip. After the fire my handbag has been a revolving chaos holder of this post-wildfire recovery life of ours.

The bag itself was saved from burning since it was the bag I was using the day the fire came. It was not one l particularly liked since it has a cheap looking strap on it. I had several bags and I don’t remember why my stuff was in that bag the day of the fire.

Looking backwards I can trace our recovery from the fire by what has been in my bag.

The first few months after the fire in June 2012, I carried the wallet, my key ring that still had the keys to the burned house and burned Subaru, a lipstick and a poopie bag. I always carried a packet of identification and important papers and I carried USB drives. Lots of USB drives. When we were evacuating we got one computer and part of another but we saved all of our electronic data from the fire. After that we experienced some post-fire strange behavior about our data. My spouse bought a bunch of hard drives so we could make back-ups with spare back-ups and I carried in my purse a score of USB drives I had scraped off my desk minutes before evacuating the house.

Starting in the fall of 2012 following the fire in June of 2012, we went though what I think of as the “suspension phase.” We were suspended in mid-air supposed to be recovered but not recovered but feeling like we were recovered and knowing that we were not recovered but not knowing what to do to make things different. In my memory it is like a photo taken with a cell phone when the light is bad. You can make out what it is but you don’t exactly know what is going on. I carried on with selecting and purchasing things for our “replacement house,”  getting clothes and insurance paperwork done. At that time you could find invoices and insurance documents in my bag along with the poopie bags and my wallet. Looking back I remember not having a lipstick, probably because I just felt too tired to even want to use one.

Starting in the early spring of last year, 2013, we have what I think of as the “heavy-hearted” period. We began building a house we really did not like all that much and we were confused in general. I don’t remember carrying much in my bag during those days except for medications. Tons of medications. I was ill and even in the hospital.  Looking back I don’t think the house made me sick but I do think that being sick was a metaphor for the house. We abandoned rebuilding our burned house after we laid the foundation. We had loved the house that burned and the land that it was on but after the fire the ties were achingly strong but no longer healthy.

In the early summer we experienced more health and vocational setbacks on top of trying to recover from the fire. We decided enough was enough. We decided to retire and restart our lives in a new place rather than replace our old life that had been burned away by the wildfire. I think of that time as relief. A decision was made that got us out of the box we were trapped in. During that period my bag still carried medications but I added back a lipstick since we were feeling stronger.  There were the ever present poopie bags. I carried maps, brochures and real estate books in my bag.

The period after that, I think of as the transition. After we moved from Idaho to Montana, in the late summer and the fall my bag carried potatoes, a leg of lamb and carrots and garlic and other vegetables from the farmers market in our new community. I carried plans the house and a lipstick. I carried a measuring tape. My white wallet was there too but the dirty edges were from dirt at our building site, not ash from the fire.  I finally took the old house key and the burned Subaru keys off my key chain . And, of course, there were poopie bags.

Since the beginning of this year when our house got weathered in, I started carrying tools and building parts. We are just coming out of the “how much longer” period. We have been wearied by moving in and out of holiday condos and hotels and warehouses but we could taste how close we were. Because we have been moving from here to there and back, I carried food. I had poopie bags and I paint chips. I always have a tape measure (or two). You could find nails, screws, drills, door stoppers, lunch, drawer handles, a saw (small) and other building things.

Our life in my bag reached its nadir two weekends ago when I was finally moving us home to the Cruise Ship, our basement apartment in our still under construction house. The day of the move I was fighting with moving in an awful snow storm. I was at our little warehouse and could not find the key in the bottom of my bag. I stated pulling stuff out and putting it on the dashboard so I could find the key. I found the key but as I was pulling stuff out I embarrassed myself at what was jammed in my bag even though no one else was there. I took a photograph to document the strange event (see below). I am not sure what I consider the strangest, personally. It might be the heavy lithium cordless tool battery. Perhaps it is the two tape measures. The unwrapped bagel and thankfully wrapped boiled eggs were snagged from the hotel breakfast and eaten for dinner the night of our move. The blue color on the paint chip on the right is perfect in our new apartment. The beige color on the paint chips to the right is on the bedroom walls but is far closer to band-aid than the cappuccino I had hoped for. Right after the fire I bought the white wallet and though I got ash on it I never could clean it. The wallet is on the left, finally cleaned. It will never be white again but it does have a second lease on life.

photo of things taken from a woman's purse including white and pink wallet, lipstick, dog poop bag, building supplies and pens

Left to right: keys, wallet, black door stops, brass door stops, a fork, a bagel, a drawer pull, a sharpie, two hard boiled eggs, two pens from our new bank, a lip gloss, a pink tape measure, an orange tape measure, a rechargeable lithium tool battery, two poopie bags, paint chips and a to-do list.

Since we have moved to our home–for now in the apartment in the basement of our soon to be finished house–my bag is nearly empty. Our house is beginning to hold the things of our life. I do not need to keep our life in my handbag anymore. I have a wallet, keys, a lipstick and a poopie bag…and a few paint chips and a drill bit or two.