Sunday, October 15, 2017

Love Is Thicker Than Smoke: A Personal Reflection on the NorCal Fires

When I see the footage of the devastation, it is unbearable. After only a few seconds, I turn away.

 A wildfire has obliterated whole sections of my city, turning them into desolate places of charred black. An elderly German friend who survived WWII says the area looks like it’s been bombed.

I have questioned my grief, wondering why it has hit me so hard. After all, I haven’t suffered any personal losses—my apartment and my partner’s house have been spared (so far). And I have never been crazy about Santa Rosa, having moved there mostly for financial reasons when my bohemian self couldn’t find an affordable rental in Bolinas. But still, over the last five years it has become my home. I have taken in its beauty from atop Taylor Mountain and come to rely on its subtle everyday communions: visits to the post office, the grocery store, the library; daily drives past neighborhoods and vineyards—a steady stream of ordinariness steeping my psyche in a sense of familiarity that I didn’t even realize I needed. Until now.

The loss is shocking. I feel it in my body as each image of place, imprinted on grey matter and tied to spirit, is burned from my being. With fires continuing to scorch Sonoma County, my shoulders are heavy and my stomach tight with sadness and fear. Worried about my safety and my asthmatic lungs, I flew to Los Angeles to stay with my partner’s family while he gathered our valuables and drove them here. Even though we are now out of harm’s way, I have been racked with stress, unable to comprehend the level of destruction of the land and its people.

Initially, the fire took everyone by surprise, with flames, fanned by high winds, devouring the landscape at hundreds of feet per minute. My boyfriend’s friends, a married couple in their 60s, found themselves fending off thick smoke and falling burning branches as they struggled to make it out of their driveway. They barely got out alive.

Others weren’t so lucky: My heart circles around the older couple who sought safety in a pool, only for the wife to die in her husband’s arms just as the last flames engulfing their house went out. The man who was caught off guard and perished while the rest of his family was sent to the burn unit at UCSF. The couple, 98 and 100, who left this world together as their home filled with fire.

How do we go on, when the lives we have built can be incinerated at any moment? When the walls that have contained us are turned into ash?

It’s no secret that impermanence is an uncompromising fact of life. I know I’m in good company when I say I have a difficult time embracing the fleeting nature of existence. At the risk of sounding like a flaky New Ager or an old hippie (I am neither), over the years there has been only one thing that has offered me any solace or sense of mattering as I ponder our existential abyss: love. It transcends earthly life, connecting this world to the next and us to each other. Love attaches me to place and community. And even though it opens me up to pain, it is also the key to developing the resilience necessary to heal.

Fortunately, Sonoma County has plenty of love to go around. There have been more than $2 million in donations made to the Redwood Credit Union, which has an excellent reputation for putting money directly into the hands of the people who need it. Volunteers are working at shelters, sorting through donations, organizing files, and connecting people with missing relatives. Firefighters are saving lives everyday, working round the clock in unimaginable conditions. And last, but not least, neighbors are offering each other simple comforts—an empathetic ear, words of hope, a gentle hand or embrace.

 At some point, I will have to leave my safe haven and face the decimation I cannot right now bear to see. But knowing that I will go back to such a compassionate community helps me feel less alone. Whether we suffered personal losses or not, this fire happened to all of us. And I know that it is our unity and collective strength that will see us through.

 For ways to help survivors, see http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/How-To-Help-North-Bay-Fire-Relief-Efforts-450142573.html.

1 comment:

  1. As one who lost a home and pets to fire many decades ago, and on my birthday, I understand the incomprehensible loss. I suffered alone, and later wished it had been a complete destruction of my home. Sorting through my mobile home's meltdown, smoked remains and attempting to salvage the unsalvageable was, in hindsight, cruel punishment.

    Thus, I offer the cleansing of complete incineration to ash as solace. There will be no lingering smells or streaks in your clothes that never come out. Nor the book with smoke stains, revealing the open pages being read the night before. Nor the salvaged bed mattress, infused with 'cinnamon' scent to attempt masking the horrible smell of plastic smoke.

    For me, most of my family keepsakes were spared. The majority still boxed since relocating my 1000 square foot 'home on wheels'. Fortunately the volunteer fire department's water spray was confined to my kitchen and living room! Yet I cried uncontrollably upon seeing my lovely new Tupperware melted into puddles!

    Recommendations:
    Memories are stronger than memorabilia. Stay in your heart and those lost treasures will continue to stay alive!

    Resist temptation to go out and replace things. Often, buying things just 'stuffs' feelings. Be with the emotions - and feel them - that is healing! In the beginning of grief, there may be emptiness. That's OK! Before buying, ask yourself if they are truly necessary for your life now, or just repeat baggage of the past.

    Live more simply from this point on. Appreciate the little things. Be grateful for the moment, for one's life and loved ones. And be thankful for those lost, too! For however long you had them, pets too, it was and still is, a gift! Sometimes it takes tragedy to really ground us into appreciation for what is important.

    If one has children, use drawing and coloring as therapy to express feelings and of loss. Adults, this may be helpful for you also. Color, draw - maybe with the opposite hand and let the expression flow! Stay out of the head and just allow.

    Resist temptation to use recreational drugs and alcohol. This is a critical time for healing and renewal. Give yourself some time to NOT do anything! No differently than if recovering from the loss of a parent, spouse, child, or pet. Allow some quiet time (3 days or more) for the grief to pass through. It will move through, like air through a dry sponge. Give yourself that permission to NOT be in your head figuring out next steps. Don't get busy in order to distract yourself from feelings. The only steps necessary now are those in front of your two feet. Be gentle with yourself. Allow the tears! Avoid making big decisions. There's plenty of time later for the bigger stuff.

    If you have faith in a Creator, Higher Power, God - remember that this Supreme Knowingness is wanting the best for you, now and always! Its only response is, "Yes my beloved!" You are loved more than you can comprehend. Stay out of blame for what has happened. Step into love for those who are still with you, and departed, and be the lighthouse for each other.

    I use a simple Mantra when counseling those whose pets are missing or loved ones are ill. It helps to keep one centered and in the Light. Say it over and over and over - upon waking and bedtime, throughout the day.
    Especially whenever you feel afraid, uncertain, or sad for self or a loved one - and it will remind you of the little Lighthouse that you truly are:

    Happy, Healthy and Whole,
    Happy, Healthy and Home -
    (In the Arms of a Loving Mother-Father God/Creator)
    Amen.

    Blessings, Melanie Deason
    505-438-7708 in New Mexico
    Available by phone for free energy work for your pets

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