This morning, my spinning mind won’t let me go back to sleep. Emerging pattern: 3am, I have to pee, then I toss and turn until 5am and get up… No thank you. The fear won’t release it’s grip. Fear that I won’t fit back in to my life – I won’t. Fear that people’s support will dry up – it will. Fear of being alone – we all are alone. Yes, we all are connected, but we all are ultimately alone. It’s PMS time, so my feelings are deeper and more raw. I always have a little of this during my time of the month. I become over sensitive, hyper reactive, thin-skinned and more fun things.
The world is moving on. It has to. Our world is moving, but just not “on” yet. After May 12th, we don’t know where we will be staying. We have been living in luxury through the generosity of our dear friends Lynn and Laurie who offered their majestic log home. We have had the much much much needed space to ourselves. So many thoughtful people offered rooms – and we deeply appreciate all offers – however having our own space is essential for our healing. Not having to make polite – or not so polite – conversation with generous hosts is important. Here, we don’t have to talk to anyone. We can leave dishes in the sink, walk around naked and fart when we feel like it. All very important things. For people who have lost everything, we sure can make a mess. The 6-person dining room table is command central. It is caked with stacks of notebooks for inventory, piles of new receipts as we buy groceries and replace some essential housewares (like a new French press!), as well as cards of love sent from near and far and gift certificates sent to support us our replacement efforts. It’s hard to find a place to sit down.
I have found my spot. A corner in the grand living room with vaulted ceilings taller than my 3-story house where I spend my time. I claimed Lynn’s least favorite chair –a ‘well-loved’ leather recliner with a gaping scar on the arm from her puppy Gracie’s teething period. This is where I now sit in the morning to write – and I return here to consult with my clients (if I am not hosting my coaching calls perched in my car in any multitude of settings). From my house, I carried my favorite blanket – a deep red and purple woven masterpiece. It’s itchy comfort so familiar as I live in unfamiliar settings. I am grateful it was always on my short list of what to take in case of fire.
Yesterday I met Laurel George, a local massage therapist who lost her home in the High Meadow fire of 2000. She reached out to me on Facebook and offered a free massage as well as a glimpse into the future. She chose to rebuild on her scarred land and wanted me to see how that might be.
As I pulled into her driveway, I glimpsed the vast expanse of the burn area. Most trees in that fires path were not spared. They stood as sentries, still holding their place in the world. One of her neighbors for some baffling reason had just begun to cut some down. Even though they are dead, they look better than the vacant hillside. Yes, the grass had returned, but in the harsh mountain climate there didn’t seem to be much else. Our vistas will never be the same. They will have their own beauty, yes, but never the same.
Laurel shared hard-earned words of wisdom. She thoughtfully made notes so she wouldn’t forget to say what I needed to hear. Here is some of her advice:
Prepare yourself for an upwelling of emotion in the least expected places. A much needed home cooked meal in the home of a friend may lead to devastation as you view all their precious items. God forbid someone wants to show you their baby albums; their high school year books; their wedding scrap book cause you don’t have one and the pain may overtake you. That found object with a favorite anecdote attached from a trip to Kauai will remind you that you have no objects to unearth your own memories. Ouch!
Don’t compare your loss to others. It is all relative. Yes, some people have it “much worse”. We can feel grateful that we aren’t in Haiti having lost everything… but don’t diminish your own pain. Your pain is real and is happening to you. Perspective is fine, beating yourself up for your experience, not so much.
Speaking of “lost everything” (a concept I have discussed in earlier blogs), Laurel shared how she finally stopped putting quotation marks around that phrase. Yes, she too had a carload of stuff that she packed for her camping trip, however it belittles our own experience to undervalue the loss. We have no other way to describe it than “lost everything”. I will attempt to remove my metaphorical quotation marks too.
Find or create a support group. Laurel was part of a monthly support group facilitated by a local counselor. A group of women who had lost homes met for years after their event – they swapped nightmare stories, shared their pain, comforted each other as only they knew how to do. It was a beautiful experience for her – one of the best memories of that time.
Don’t cut down all your trees! This wisdom is echoed by Jonathan Geurts at the Jefferson Conservation District who emphasizes that unless a tree is endangering a future structure or is a safety hazard, leave it. Some may come back. I didn’t see many that come back on Laurel’s vista – but still we are instructed not to give up hope. Those that have no needles at all or have brown needles are dead. If there is any green, they may revive. At this point, it’s debatable if any of ours whose needles are hanging on for dear life could be considered to be a shade of green. The needles are frozen from the blast, in a desperate slant away from the approaching fire, as they tried to escape their fate. I am willing to let them be and hope that some find the fortitude to come back.
As we stared off into the expanse off her deck, I asked Laurel how long it took her for everything to seem real. She responded, “Ten…” and in the seconds between her words, I thought, “ok, 10 months, ok, I can do that…” and she finished her sentence “…years.” I burst out in hysterical laughter. “Ah, that’s all? Just ten years? That’s not so bad.” Laurel has lived in her new house now longer than her first. Yet, like Andi O’Conor, at any minute she would trade the new for the old. She still doesn’t know where things go in the new house. She searches to no avail for the holographic drawers and cabinets that hold her lost treasures.
Laurel warns about the duration of time it will take to develop new routines. All routines were smashed when her house burned to the ground. So many of our routines we take for granted. We may consider ourselves to be free yet it’s the little routines that keep us grounded. The pop our drawer where my tooth brush and floss lived. Knowing the right setting on the stove to boil water. How my comforter felt up against my chin. All the essentials for starting the day properly in order to function in society. All that is gone.
Laurel then shares with me a journal she kept during the early days. She offers it gently knowing what it might bring up for me. She has written short prose exquisitely describing her experience. One in particular jumps out:
To heal is To overcome obstacles. To Climb Mt Kilimanjaro To sleep in your own home once again.
This last line is a killer. The grief rushes to the surface. I know it’s ok to cry – but I screamed and cried on the way over and it has tired me out. I save this cry for later.
Thank you Laurel for the gift of your time – and of your heart. You shared yourself completely and without hesitation. There is an instant camaraderie between those of use who have lost our homes due to fire – whether it’s 10 years, 19 months or 3 ½ weeks ago. With no hesitation, Laurel greeted me (a stranger until this moment) with a bear hug. Yesterday, a neighbor who I have never met let his tears come as he shared about his families embrace. There are such beautiful moments in the devastation. We are eternally bonded from our shared tragedy.
Fire changes everything; destroying all in its unpredictable path. And, fire can bond. I see the physical evidence of that in our rubble. I see it in our beautiful handmade front door with the antique stain glass lovingly crafted by Bill and Sandy Fifield. We found clumps of twisted glass embedded in our metal doormat. The elements have come together permanently. Now part of a collection of artifacts. They have been born again with a dark beauty of their own – scarred, mangled, gnarred, yet strong and fierce. There is synthesis from rage of the fire.
I have to assume that is happening to me too. Transformation is occurring. I do not yet know who I will be on the other side. I am in the proverbial hallway between what was and what will be. What will matter to me? How will I choose to spend my time once the vast amount of insurance paperwork is complete? What will my work be? What is my mission? The cloud of grief obscures what is to come. I realize I don’t have to know right now. I attempt to let myself hang out in the unknown. I hope to emerge like the glass and twisted metal that survived: changed, rich in character – and not ever the same.
I spoke to one of my clients yesterday who went through a recent bout with breast cancer. I asked how the experience changed her. Still new in her journey and just finished with radiation, she shared a new level of humility coupled with a lack of patience for B.S. – hers and others’. She laughed and said that she still gets caught up in the small stuff too. We talked about how this is the human condition. We probably won’t ever escape the human condition. Even after a life-altering event, we may still worry about our clogged pores up until we take our last breath. Yet, we are wizened by life’s tragedies – the near brushes with death and the depth of despair.
I choose this path of deepening wisdom. Although, I still reserved the right to bitch about my pores right up until the very end.