The Stouts Fire near our home in Southern Oregon simmers now, sometimes turning the moon back to a fire orange glow, but mostly a charred landscape with a few hot spots. The fire that started from a lawnmower on July 31st will smoke for weeks, we are told. A few hundred crew members will take turns monitoring the last embers until the rains and time put them out.
MY HEART GOES OUT TO THE FAMILIES STILL FACING WILD FIRES.
Like my neighbors and friends I feel lucky but also sad. I watch the news of California and the more than 500 homes destroyed by fires there. I am relieved it is not us but wish it was not them either. Their fear and loss burns on while my family and my neighbors were able to go home.
It was not always that way for my family. I know how a fire can singe a family’s soul.
YOU WILL CREATE JOY AGAIN
Our home burned down in 2004 while we were at work. We raced home to find only flames and a heap of blackened timber.
For days we felt surreal and out of sync with the people and events around us. Why were the mountains still standing? Why were people shopping with smiles on their faces? Why were people complaining about not getting a parking space close to a store?
It is a feeling I wish I could spare our California neighbors.
I also know, and want them to know, that they WILL find their way through the loss. They can create joy again in the land of after the fire.
THE WORLD MAY SEEM LIKE A STRANGE AND DANGEROUS PLACE AT FIRST
It will not be easy in the beginning. The unexpected and uncontrolled nature of fire leaves one vulnerable. Even now I physically can feel what it was like the day I and my family stood on the edge of the burned ruble of our family’s memories.
I felt stripped of any illusions of control and security. I imagine my California neighbors understand that too well.
THE CHARRED SHAPES CAN BE BOTH TOO REAL AND TOO UNREAL TO COMPREHEND.
I have seen photos of families going back to what is left of their homes. You can see them bending to pick up items and using their feet to push aside broken china and bent metal.
It reminds me of looking at the strings of our piano and broken pieces of clay hand prints made by our children in elementary school. That day we just stared at the bits of “things,” uncomprehending. Where did our life go?
THE NEED TO FIND SOMETHING FROM THE PAST
Like the people in the photos I tried to find some concrete connection to the past amongst the burned bits of cloth, paper and photos. I did find scraps of Bruce’s letters he sent from Vietnam. I picked them up from the muddy ashes but then dropped them in the grass in numb disbelief.
THE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE FUTURE CAN WEIGH ON DROOPING SHOULDERS
How would we cope? We were under-insured. It was winter. What would we wear? Why did I wear my ugliest outfit and now my only outfit to work that morning? How did this fire happen? Why us? Where was this family memento or that one? Where would we sleep?
No one died and of that we were glad. Still our grief was deep. More than three decades of family treasures were gone. It felt like another kind of death. Maybe it was the death of innocence and the birth of the unpredictable void.
I look at the faces in the photos from California as they face their own seemingly unpredictable void and I ache again for them.
THIS IS WHERE THE STORY CHANGES
There is something infinitely humbling to be needy and without.
We were without pots and pans, beds, clothes, toothbrushes, flour and sugar, bras, socks, alarm clock, spices, soap – all the things people collect over time to run a house.
We were without all the treasures we saved to remind us of who we were and of our lives together.
We were living on our land in a tent with clothes and bedding given to us by friends and cooking on a camp stove bought by the Red Cross.
The life of “before” was forever over and the life that would be was yet to come.
THE GIFT OF DISCOVERING WHAT IS TRULY IMPORTANT
There was not conscious plan, but in that time of after the fire when we had nothing, we had the space and time to discover what was truly important to us.
It was not just deciding how to spend the little money we had, especially when none of the basics were on hand. You cannot imagine how many times I reached for kitchen tools before I realized, oh yeah that burned up.
It was not just figuring out how to get ready for work when I had to bathe in water first heated on a Coleman stove – while it was snowing outside the tent.
It was mostly about challenging our old vision of our strengths and our passions. We were undefined, a family without a home or a tangible past. Who we were was a new canvas and we were the artists. It was a new landscape and we were the gardeners. It was a new book and we were the writers.
FINDING SIMPLE WAYS TO HEAL
We found healing and joy in planting flowers where the fire had scarred the land. We would one day have another home, but we needed to see life and beauty now. Our friends and our sons created a raised-bed garden and brought in starter plants. That bit of color and life drew our eyes and thoughts away from the fire each morning as the sun opened the flower petals. That they opened in the sunlight seemed a miracle.
FINDING HUMOR IN THE HARDSHIP
Laughter became even more important to us. We found that we were our own entertainment. Who needs HBO when you can giggle at morning hair and smudge faces?
I like that my sons could tease each other and their mom and dad. Sometimes we took turns being the silly one or the “up” one. We balanced sorrow with goofiness.
One of the funniest images I still have is of my husband Bruce sitting on the path, in the dirt, under a tree, on a rainy day, talking on the phone. The phone base, by the way, was nailed to the tree as we had no home to put it in. The person on the other end must have asked how Bruce was for he answered, “staying dry under a tree.”
PRACTICING INTENTIONAL GRATITUDE
Soon after our home burned down, a friend shared with me the concept of intentional gratitude. It was not a completely new idea. We had raised our sons in a simple life style so often they were grateful for things other children their age took for granted.
As youngsters our boys appreciated a trip to the movies for they had no TV. They were excited about going to the swimming hole or hiking a trail. An ice cream cone was a real treat involving a 30 mile trip to town.
That simple lifestyle helped us when the house burned but the level of gratitude needed was far deeper and required intentional practice.
We intentionally took time to look at the wild flowers growing in the forest.
We daily stopped and appreciated the strength of our sons and the willingness of our friends to help us clear the land.
We intentionally cherished our grandchildren, listening to them, playing with them, holding them.
Some days I needed to actually make a list, writing down all that added to the quality of my life. I sat in the tent writing by Coleman light while the sound of the creek harmonized with the wind. At the top of my list was family.
We all were intentionally grateful for the time we had together and for each other.
It is now 11 years since our home burned to the ground and I have come to see it as a gift. The lesson we learned about focusing on simple things, finding humor in life, intentionally being grateful and cherishing family have stayed with me.
I know how quickly life can change so I work at being aware and grateful for every moment.
The wild fires in California are tragic and scary and new. The time for reflection is maybe weeks or months off for the families there. They are coping moment to moment and they should be proud of themselves.
In time, I know, they will find their own gifts and lessons from this sorrow they face. Until then I send them my wish of strength, peace and family. You will make it through.
For updates on the fires that have now taken more than 500 homes Reuters updates on the fires in California
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