The last time I posted, I was thinking deeply about what it means to accept emotions, even difficult ones. What would it look like to stop beating my head against the wall of reality, and instead accept that what is, is, and what I feel is what I feel?
Little did I know what an extra big challenge lay in store for me.
As many of you know, I live in the western United States. Recently, that has meant wildfire, fast, intense, and many times more severe than the fires we are accustomed to. (Those of you from Australia will no doubt recognize a lot of what I have to say about this.)
There we were, enjoying late summer, out in the garden a lot, socializing (at a safe distance) with neighbors out front in the early evening. Then on Tuesday, September 8, we started getting strange warm winds. They were sort of like the hot Santa Ana winds that are common in southern California, but they are quite unknown farther north, where we live. They were strong, blowing over the beautiful tomato plants I have been tenderly caring for all summer, knocking things over and blowing trash around the neighborhood. And, as it turns out, the same winds took tiny little sparks from lightning strikes and small grass fires and turning them into conflagrations.
In the afternoon, we heard that a fire had started in Ashland–southern Oregon, near the California border–and was headed north from there toward Medford. My son had lived in this part of Oregon for a number of years before everything fell apart between him and his former girlfriend; he moved back home last November, but we have still kept in touch with her and her family. They live in Phoenix, a small town of about 6,000 people just south of Medford. By about 10pm, they were being evacuated by firefighters from their home and taken to the Jackson County Fairgrounds–along with thousands of other people, not ideal in a pandemic.
Meanwhile, there were several fires burning east of Salem, the capital of Oregon. There were also three fires burning to the southeast of our city, and my kids’ cousins who live about 12 miles from us were put on standby for possible evacuation.
That evening, the neighbors still met outside to share information, both about the fires and about safety procedures. Truly, for me, the deeper connection with neighbors has been the silver lining of this whole pandemic nightmare. It’s so sweet to see how willing everyone is to help each other out. One family, a young couple with a toddler son, doesn’t have a car. They do most everything by bike as part of their commitment to environmentally-friendly living. The thing is, evacuating from a fire on a bike, with a toddler, might not be the fastest and safest way to escape. So we problem-solved together and figured out how we would make sure the family could leave safely, if necessary.
I did manage to sleep Tuesday night, but it was hard. I was worried about Andres’ former girlfriend and her family. She has two younger brothers with severe disabilities, a mom who doesn’t cope very well, and a three-month-old baby of her own. They also have eleven cats, but only had carriers to take two when they were evacuated.
By Wednesday, my anxiety was very high, higher than its been in several years. I didn’t really think that we, personally, were likely to be threatened by fire. But the devastation of communities near us, and really, up and down the west coast, was already becoming clear.
Also, our air became thick with smoke. Everything smelled terrible all the time. We shut our windows, ran our furnace on the fan setting. Like others around us, we duck taped furnace filters to the front of box fans and ran them in our bedrooms and kitchen. The air quality index was well over 400 and sometimes over 500 (it should be under 60).
I couldn’t take my daily walk. We stopped meeting outdoors with neighbors. I couldn’t go anywhere; we have just one car, which I usually have twice a week when my husband bikes to work, but of course he couldn’t bike. It’s already been months of limited social interaction, but suddenly I was cut off from everything that was keeping me sane. I couldn’t even spend time in the garden.
And this went on, and on, and on. I tried drawing on my mediation habit, and writing, and talking on the phone. But as the days passed, I felt lonelier, more isolated, more agitated. My husband was gone when I’d wake up in the morning, and my son keeps strange hours, usually coming down for breakfast about two pm. I rarely had anyone to talk to, and when I did, my son was ranting about politics and the most sensationalist possible take on the fires, and my husband, when he was home, was obsessively checking fire and air quality maps.
Bit by bit, I could feel myself unraveling. It started as an inability to stick to my plan for the day. I couldn’t manage to get much of anything done, except maybe some drawing or collaging, probably because I can do that without having to think deeply. I became irritable, surprising my son who expects me to be patient with him (and that’s how I want to be). I started eating chips and cookies at 1am and binge watching TV.
E is on vacation, so I didn’t have her support as a resource. She is supposedly on some long rafting trip down the Colorado River… it’s weird to think she may not even know about the fires back home.
Anyway, the fires in southern Oregon were put out first, but the damage they cost has been shocking. The girlfriend and her family lost everything; the house where my son used to live with them has been reduced to cinders. They are safe though, moved for now to a motel and receiving food and clothing from FEMA and volunteer donations.
It’s a small consideration in light of the thousands of people left homeless, but my son has also lost most of his possessions. When he left them last November, he was scared and unhappy and felt he had to pretend he wasn’t really leaving for good. So he left a lot of stuff down there. We were going to get it in the spring but, you know, COVID. Then recently we said, okay, we will drive down in September, see the new baby, say hi, and get his stuff. That won’t happen either.
He’s fine about it. He tells me, “it’s just stuff, Mom,” and he’s right. It’s clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, a PlayStation and some games, a few sentimental things, a couple pieces of furniture. On the other hand, he is on disability and doesn’t work. So who will replace everything? Mom, of course. I already have bought him clothes and shoes of course. It doesn’t matter, he is right, but somehow it still makes me feel just a bit more stressed out.
Things are getting better, though. Most of the fires are contained, for now. The cousins who live near us are safely back in their home, which was untouched by fire. It rained at the end of last week, so after 10 days of hiding from smoke, we could venture outside again. Going for walks and seeing people outside has helped a lot. Still, I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the insane political battles going on in my country. And even more than that, I’m saddened because I know that the fires will be back. We aren’t doing anything to fundamentally alter the conditions and causes of the enormous wildfires.
When we were blanketed in smoke, a lot of people were using the word “apocalypse.” It didn’t feel like an exaggeration, and even if the worst is past, for now, I still feel I am stumbling along on the edge of disaster. I am not spending much time thinking about acceptance. Instead, as much as possible, I’m trying to focus on this moment and the very next thing I have to do. Thinking much further ahead just invites all the existential anxiety back in.
I’m so sorry Q. Two external disasters at once is a lot for anyone to deal with. I think the one moment at a time strategy can be excellent for such turbulent times. Also, just a thought since I’ve been reading a lot about breath, difficulties breathing are very much linked to anxiety – i.e, feeling we can’t breathe well is anxiety producing. Take care.
Thank you for seeing it as a big deal. I often find that people who aren’t here in the middle of it don’t see how much the fires and smoke can really trigger stress and even despair, whether or not we are the ones whose homes are burning. Just having it all around us, and the uncertainty, and the rumors, and the knowing people who ARE losing their homes, and not being able to get away from it–it is enormous. So I appreciate it a lot when someone sees us, sees me, and how distressing it’s all been.
Yes, not breathing well is anxiety-provoking. I have always had asthma, though it was worse when I was a kid, and I still have to try to stay intentionally as calm as possible when I have an asthma attack. Fortunately with the filters and staying inside, I didn’t have one with all the smoke.
I am concerned though about the people from evacuated communities, who will have had increased risk of exposure to COVID and will have been outdoors more and in the smoke. The smoke can weaken the lungs. I read that a couple of years ago in Montana after a bad fire seasons, months later there were many more hospitalizations for the flu, because smoke had increased people’s likelihood of getting sicker.
It rained a lot today, thankfully, and we are supposed to have several more days of rain. That will help a lot, both with continuing to clean the air and with the firefighting.
Meanwhile, yes, I am taking care. Or mostly. I am still eating tortilla chips, however!
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Oh Q! This sounds awful. As of 2020 wasn’t hard enough already. Sounds to me like you did what you could to get through a very unsettling and scary turn of events. I’d be eating junk and binge watching tv too. What a time for E to be away too. When is she back? I hope you can reconnect quickly on her return and get some necessary holding and containment. X
I’ll see E on September 30, so one more week. I hope we can reconnect quickly too. Right now I feel very distant from her. And knowing she has missed all the fire drama has me happy for her, in a way, but also I’m wondering if she will really get what it’s been like for everyone here. Maybe she will. Most people I talk to here have really gone through the emotional wringer. People I think of as always steady and upbeat have told me that they have had daily meltdowns. So even if she doesn’t realize at first what it’s felt like, once she hears it from every single client, I guess she’ll figure it out.
It’s funny, lately when I think about her, it’s often from the standpoint of expecting she won’t really hear me or understand me. I think that’s related to this period of not seeing her, because we had a very positive and calm session when I last saw her. It’s just when there is a longer separation, I start to doubt the connection.
On the plus side, I’m realizing though that I’m not as alone as I used to be. E is not the only person I can turn to when I am distressed anymore. I have started to learn to be more open with others and that has helped me a lot in getting through this difficult time.