In elementary or middle school you probably completed a worksheet called “Survive the Wild” or “Desert Island.” (And you probably spelled it Dessert Island, which is altogether more appealing.) For the activity, you teacher asked you to find a partner and fill out a list of 15 things you would take with you if stranded on the open sea or on a deserted island. This was all to prepare you for Gary Paulsen’s classic YA novel, Hatchet. (Shout out to third grade!)
You probably began by listing the essentials. You knew that things like water, food (or fishing equipment, if you were clever), a tent and a knife were necessary if you wanted to survive for more than a couple of days. But those things only took up about 10 spots. The remaining five items ventured into the realm of happiness and creature comforts. Would you take something slightly practical but unnecessary, like soap? Would you bring company, like a dog? Or would you bring entertainment, like a book or a sketchpad?
Flash forward fifteen years, and visit The Burning House. It’s the grown up version of that desert island scenario, and it could happen when you’re least expecting it.
The blog-style site, updated weekly, asks a simple question: “If your house was burning, what would you take with you?” Respondents submit their answers in the form of a photo. A bulleted list, sometimes with explanations, accompanies the image.
I could browse this site forever because it features so many things I love. First, it’s pictures of stuff. I love stuff. Trinkets, stationary, dishes, fabric, wacky stuffed animals—I love it all. Second, the stuff is neatly arranged. I’m really into organizing things (if you’re a kindred spirit, go spend an hour here). Many of the people who submit photos are students or artists of some sort with an eye for detail and a good sense of how to arrange a picture. It’s just plain aesthetically pleasing.
Third, people are really interesting. These photos are a sociologist’s dream. Reading what people would save and why is such an intimate peek into their lives that sometimes it even feels like prying. People bring photos of their wives, blankets from childhood, collars from dogs who have died…The Burning House gives us all a chance to satisfy our curiosity about some of the anonymous people we share this planet with.
The site’s ever-present sidebar reads: “It’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental.”
The practical: almost everyone grabs their passport. One girl took her inhaler. Most people bring some sort of backpack or purse—you know, to carry all their stuff in. Cell phones are also very popular. These are the strictly practical.
Almost everything else falls in multiple categories; it’s both sentimental and valuable or valuable and practical. Lots of folks bring their wallets, or just some money—practical and valuable. Possibly the most common item is a camera. Practical because many of the submitters are artists who need the cameras to make their living, but a fancy camera might also be the most valuable thing you own. Many people take their computers or hard drives, which may seem practical, but then they’ll specify that it’s because of the photos or music on those machines; they don’t want to lose the memories.
But then there are the strictly sentimental things. The memories, the items we love illogically. Almost everyone includes at least one piece of clothing. There’s something about a favorite sweater that can make everything feel all right. Maybe you just aren’t you without your old hat or scarf. Women and men alike commonly save their signature perfume or cologne.
Photos are strictly sentimental. So are stuffed animals and diaries and vinyl records and dishes. But these are the things we can’t really replace. Where else will you find a 23-year-old stuffed rabbit with a velvet nose that’s been worn away? How many Polaroids do you have of your dog hiding under the kitchen table? And the books—the majority brings at least one. Sure, you can buy another copy, but was it a gift from your best friend? Have you underlined and dog-eared it?
Explore the site on your own if you have a few minutes. Ask yourself the question. What would you bring? We live these complicated, cluttered, weighty lives that can tend to hold us down. What if all of it was one day just gone? How would your life be different with only one pair of pants, your grandpa’s favorite record, and a cell phone?
“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” urged Thoreau.
“I think one ‘simplify’ would have sufficed,” retorted Emerson.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.