Looking Back – Dreaming Ahead

“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress.
Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”
― Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika

Dear Friends,

Well. It’s Labor Day, the third anniversary of the fire, and here we are, three years later. So much has happened, so much has changed, and I have so much to tell you. Not all at once, of course, but over the next weeks and months, as the book progresses, and the blog continues, and life evolves, and the tides of life ebb and flow.

My dog Nellie and I are currently on vacation in Port Townsend, Washington, a tiny town of ten thousand people at the tip of Washington State, surrounded by the sea. Each morning we wake up to foghorns, gently “mooing” in the distance, and the clang of buoys in the bay, and we are far from fire, and smoke, and ash. We have spent most of the summer here, and while it has been somewhat cool and rainy back in Colorado lately, in the past three years we’ve seen the worst wildfires in the history of the state.

In June, over five hundred homes burned down in the Black Forest Fire. Shortly after the fire, I got a call to come down to Colorado Springs to help counsel people who had lost homes. Of course I said yes, even though I had just returned the night before from my mother’s funeral. “Are you sure?” asked the coordinator, “It sounds like this might not be the best timing for you.” “Oh, yeah,” I replied, “Just let me get a dog sitter, and book a hotel, and get someone to water the new plants in the front, and…” I sat down, exhausted at the thought of making the arrangements, then driving for two hours into a smoky disaster area. I called her back and said, “Maybe not,” with a mix of regret and relief. “Maybe someone else can do that,” I said. That’s become my new mantra, “Maybe someone else can do that.”

It’s hard to say “No” to helping someone else, especially other Fire People. It goes against all my upbringing, all my beliefs, but at some point you have to say, “Maybe someone else can do that,” and go take care of yourself. That’s what I’m doing here in Port Townsend – taking care of myself, trying to remember what I like to do for fun (what a concept) and sitting and staring at the ocean. A lot. Waves come in, waves go out, crash, roll, exhale, stare at the horizon, inhale, exhale again… Repeat, over and over,  “Let someone else do that.” I am healing, letting go, adjusting to this new rotation of life after the fire. It is taking, I find, rather longer than I had expected.

I walk the beach each day, and in this small town other beach walkers say hello, and come up to pet Nellie, and chat. There are lots of writers here, and when people ask me what I’m doing in Port Townsend, and I say I’m writing, they often say, “Me too!”

I recently met a woman who is writing a book (based on her blog) about her husband’s death and what she’s been learning from that profound and difficult loss. As we walked, we talked about the challenges of writing a memoir. Which stories do you include? Which do you leave out? How does the overall story shape itself as you write? It’s such a mysterious process, and it was a treat to have someone to talk to about it. I asked her, “What’s your ending? How are you going to finish the story?” and she shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Everyone wants a Happily Ever After ending – I find a new passion for life, I find a new love, things are better than ever, and we all live Happily Ever After.” “Is that true?” I asked, “Is that what happened?”  She said, “Yes, I found a new love, but he’s not my True Love – that was my husband. How do I write about that?” I nodded. “That’s a different story,” I said. “More complicated, less satisfying, but a lot more real.”

Real stories are like that, I’m finding. We want the happy ending, the happily ever after, the silver lining, because it tells us that no matter what we’re going through, things will get better. We’ll survive this tragedy and come out the other side stronger, better, happier. What I’ve learned is that there is no “other side,” there is only More Life, with all its challenges, joys, heartbreaks, and changes.  Yes, I am stronger, better, and happier than I was before the fire. Life is so much richer, so much more meaningful, so much more interesting. (And friends, I had an interesting life before the fire, so that’s saying something.)

But it has not been easy, and this new life has come at quite a cost. All Fire People know this, I think, as does everyone who has lived through a major loss. We rise again, and we are changed, and no one really knows what that’s like unless they’ve been there. Sometimes that makes us feel very alone, and at other times, deeply connected.

I was having tea the other day at Pippa’s, a cute tea shop in Port Townsend, and the owner (Pippa) and I got to chatting. When she found out I had lost my childhood home to fire, her eyes sparkled with tears. “So did I,” she said, “When I was twelve.” Twelve – the same age I was when my house burned down the first time.  She said, “I’ll never forget seeing it after; it was just a pile of ashes. All I had left was my Barbie doll, my best friend.” It took me right back to the same scene in my own life, looking at the rubble of my childhood home as the sun rose over the smoking ruin, my mother in deep conversation with the fire fighters as I stood in the driveway alone, twelve years old, staring at my charred and melted toys, the shell of my bedroom, the end of my childhood. Pippa and I, total strangers, found that we were both Fire People – changed by fire, bonded by common experience. We exchanged that knowing look, that visual hug, and then email addresses.  Fire People have to stick together, you know.

These days when I talk to non-fire people about the fire, they first offer sympathy, and then get that wistful look I know so, so well. It’s that look that tells me they’re about to say something like, “But aren’t you sort of glad it happened? Isn’t your life actually better now?” They’re about to wax philosophical about the “transforming power of fire,” and how they feel so burdened by all their “stuff,” and how they kind of wish it would happen to them. They’re about to make me want to smack them, frankly, because I swear to God I can see it coming a mile away, each and every time, and I am really, really sick of hearing this. But here is what I tell them:

The day my house burned down, Labor Day of 2010, I was spending my last vacation day in Port Townsend. I was walking the beach with my dog, collecting sea glass, and the biggest thing on my mind was whether to schedule a massage on the same day I got home, or to wait and get a massage the next day. I’m not kidding, that was my biggest worry. It was a beautiful sunny day on the ocean, and I had a great job, and a great dog and lots of friends, and I was the happiest I had been in a long, long time. As I walked the beach, my life was in the process of exploding, and I didn’t even know it.

What I tell them is that if I actually had a choice, option “A” being life without the fire, where everything continued along as it was, and option “B” being life with the fire, I’d actually choose Life B, hands down. But there are days when I would literally give anything to be that girl on the beach again, and to have that day back, that life back, that carefree, bullet-proof life where It Will Never Happen to Me. Now I live in a world that is uncertain, but just like my friend’s non-happy ending, much more real.

When people tell me that my life is so much better now and they wish it would happen to them, it is well-intentioned, of course, and comes from a place of deep longing, I think. It is that longing for simplicity, that longing for the freedom of youth, when we had no “stuff,” and few responsibilities, and lots of dreams. What I believe is this – We all have a “house” that needs to burn down. It’s the house of bad relationship, or dead-end work. It’s the house of too much stuff and not enough joy. It’s the house of dreams deferred. If we could just burn that house DOWN, we think, we could get on with the business of life, with what we were really meant to do. If that house burned down, we could live our dreams now, instead of later.

What I have learned, really learned from all this, is that there is no “later.” Later is a myth, a fairy tale, a bill of goods we’ve been sold. We’re told to be good, to be patient, to work hard, and enjoy life “later.” We have Bucket Lists, retirement plans, five and ten-year plans and you know what? That’s just wishful thinking. Life proceeds apace, and it changes on a proverbial dime. What’s here today is gone tomorrow, and all that’s left are your dreams and energy and God-given talents, so use them now, live those dreams now, don’t save them for the mythical “later.” Tony Kushner writes, “Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.”

Let nothing stand in your way. Burn down that house, whatever it is. Choose Life B, and get on with it. Time’s a wasting my friends, there’s a match being lit somewhere, and we better get ready.

Speaking of that, I’d better get going. The tide is going out, and Nellie and I are heading down to the beach, where Pippa the Fire Person and I are going to walk our dogs and talk about fire, and our lives, and where we are now. It’s a beautiful sunny day on the ocean, and I have a great job, and a great dog and lots of friends, and I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long, long time. And later on, no kidding, I’m going to get a massage. The house burned down, and the beach is still here, and it all comes around, and life is good. I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep walking through all of this, a day a time, an hour at a time, a moment at a time. And, of course, I’ll keep you posted.

Sending you so much love,

Andi

Nellie on the Beach

 

 

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54 Responses to Looking Back – Dreaming Ahead

  1. maggie says:

    Happy to read this beautiful post, Andy. I would only add that sometimes burning down that “house,” whatever it is, does not result in something better, only different.

  2. Yes. We want happy endings and hope and to honor those who sacrifice so much – like our firefighters.

  3. Cheri Hoffer says:

    Wow, being reminded of that Labor Day, 2010. My massage table was set up in front of my living room windows–a fourteen foot wall of south-facing glass with a stupendous view for many long miles down the valley and well beyond. It was the only time a massage therapist has ever come clear up here to my mountain perch for the luxury of working on me at home, but she made an offer to all of us in a Friday Leads group that was too good to pass up. She talked a lot; too much really, but at one point she commented on this strange anvil shaped cloud over mountains in the distance. We looked, and looked some more. Then with goosebumps we figured out it was a big fire and my best guess with binoculars was Left Hand Canyon.

    So much changed so fast and I can barely believe it’s been three years. These posts of yours, Andi, are always helpful to me and certainly to lots of others. This one came with surgical precision in terms of timing for my life. You write, “Maybe someone else can do that” with regard to coming out to help, but here you are, showing up again. Many thanks. You deserve a book

    • Andi says:

      Thanks so much, Cheri. I’m so glad the post came at a good time and was helpful. And I LOVE that you said, “You deserve a book!” I think I’ll write that on a big piece of paper and stick it on the wall, to help me when I’m down or “stuck.” Thanks for that lovely gift, and for helping me re-seed my land in the pouring, freezing rain two years ago. You’ll have to come up and see the results of your handiwork!

  4. Linda Weber says:

    Thank you for this, Andi. You put it all so well. I spent yesterday, Labor Day, remembering the fire, thinking on and off about the way it was three years ago–the smoke over the hills to the west; being packed and ready to evacuate even though I live in town(!); the ominous updates about wind and weather; imagining fire coming into Boulder; not being able to fully imagine any of it. As much as we learn from the shocks and disasters of our lives, the actual experience is just plain awful. I can’t even stand the smell of my neighbor’s outdoor grill smoke, not on this day. It reminds me of too much danger. And, if that’s how it is for me, I can’t really imagine how it is for you. Thanks again for helping people as much as you are, and for your beautiful writing that lifts the spirit. Best of luck with the book!

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Linda. I think it’s good to remember the fire, even three years later. It was a sea-change for the whole community, and the whole state. Thanks for your kind words, and your wonderful support these past three years.

  5. Cathy Eppinger says:

    I felt a sigh of relief reading this. And I kept thinking of the events in my own life lately. I am not a Fire Person. I could easily be where I live. But life itself has created a Fire in the last few years that is ongoing. I can relate so well to much of what you said in this post. I, too, will embrace Plan B. Thank you Andi and Nellie.

  6. Nancy Sloane says:

    The tears are welling up inside and I’m not quite sure what wound you’ve touched with your words. Maybe many different memories of loss and the sadness that bubbles up, the awareness that’s generated, and a deeper gratitude for the stuff of life – good or bad. Thank you for continuing to share your insights Andi. I love your writing.

  7. Shelly says:

    Gosh I love how you say we all have a “house” we need to burn down and to choose life B. This is the hardest thing in the world to do, and the most freeing. You have written beautifully and meaningfully, I have a lump in my throat. Your book will be awesome. In the meantime, enjoy those beach walks and your many adventures.

  8. Mary says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and wisdom in such a real way. I look forward to reading more in your book.

  9. I have “Note to Andi” written on my calendar for 9/6, but I’ll write it now. As much as your friends could do so, we shared your shock, grief, pain and renewal — largely because you have been so forthcoming and eloquent on this blog and in person. I have admired your insights, your candor, your grace and your humor even in the darkest of hours. If I had not experienced the onset of pain that eventually resulted in back surgery just when you needed help with straw and seeds and whatnot, I would have been there too. If you ever name your home, it will have to be Phoenix, because it rose from the ashes, lifted by your spirit.

    • Andi says:

      Dearest Claire, you are such a wonderful friend. And you have “been there” in so many, many ways. The house does have a name – The Little Ship – Since it sails along through the clouds. Many folks have suggested Phoenix or Phoenix House, and that’s actually a popular name for drug and alcohol rehab centers (!) so, nooooo. Not this time around! Sending you lots of love.

  10. You continue to just pull me in with everything you write. And while I can’t say I know how you feel losing your home and rebuilding the way you have, your words throughout the years have somewhat pulled me closer to the emotions that you have gone through.

    Have a great time in Port Townsend – it’s a beautiful place that I’ve visited a few times. Take a walk on the beach for me and let Nellie take a dip in the water for Dirk – our 7-year-old chocolate lab who loves the water!

    Cheers!

    • Andi says:

      Hi Kristi, I’m so glad the writing “pulls you in,” ( I love that description.) And Nellie will splash around for Dirk!

  11. Rosie Piller says:

    Another beautiful post, Andi. So true. There’s a match being lit somewhere, and whether it’s in the form of a fire, a medical condition, an accident, or any number of things, our lives could change in an instant. We should live our dreams now, and not let fear or busy-ness get in the way!

  12. I’m so glad that you’re at the ocean–a place that is indeed very nurturing and reflective. My favorite part is:
    “What I believe is this – We all have a “house” that needs to burn down. It’s the house of bad relationship, or dead-end work. It’s the house of too much stuff and not enough joy. It’s the house of dreams deferred.”

    Thanks as always for your deep and meaningful insights!

  13. Gail Storey says:

    You keep sharing deeper and deeper insights, Andi, and they were profoundly meaningful to start with. I love what you say about simplicity, and living in the present. So vital, in every sense of the word!

    • Andi says:

      Thank you, Dear Gail. You have been such an extraordinary support since the fire. Best of luck with your book tour, Babe! (Gail is the author of “I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail.” Everyone, go buy a copy! Gail is a great writer! :-)

  14. Sue Lion says:

    Andi, you always give us something to chew on – thank you!

  15. Lisa Jones says:

    what a gorgeous piece of writing — it transcends loss through fire, and addresses loss in general, and is hugely relevant to all of use — thanks andi!

    • Andi says:

      Coming from you, Mizz Lisa Jones, that is high praise indeed! Thanks so much for reading and for your supportive comments.

  16. Maggie says:

    Andi,

    What a real and challenging post! I’ve been on a purging binge lately and think a lot about making choices based on surrounding myself with quality…quality people, experiences, and “things.” It seems related to your assertion that everyone has a house to burn and that finding a way once that house is ashes can be fulfilling but fraught with challenge too.

    Thanks always for sharing!

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Maggie, I love your idea about “quality” people, experiences and things. After the fire, when people asked what I wanted, I said, “small, beautiful things.” That’s pretty much what’s in the new house, as you know! Thanks for reading and commenting. *(Readers, Maggie took many of the beautiful architectural photographs of the new house – I will post more later.)

  17. Hilary says:

    Thanks so much for writing this post, Andi. It made me think of life in a different way; you have such a beautiful way of writing about your perspective. I’ve appreciated your documentation and thoughts throughout your ordeal of survival–the tough times, the better times. Thank you so much. I also liked your Plan B, but as Maggie says, sometimes it’s just different–not better or worse.

    I can’t wait for your book to come out!

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Hilary, I’m honored that it changed the way you think about life; that’s a great compliment. I’ll keep you posted about the book!

  18. Leslie says:

    Thank you for the reminder of 3 years ago. I remember, trying to vacuum my car (near the reservoir)and having ASH falling in all directions. My life was imploding at the same time as yours, in a different way, but I remember being uncomfortable together. You in your fire way, me in my kid accident way. I am sure I was one of the people you wanted to Slap! But I watched you and read your words, and they were healing to me. I held your hand and watched you cry. I watched you take your GRACE and walk through this. You Lost everything, but you still kept walking. And you are right, there is no happy ending, Just more life and more and more. But those who keep walking WIN! What do they WIN. Just Peace of Mind. That is all. But OH how sweet that is. You Rock on! I will cry with you anytime, about the past or anything else. Love to you and Nellie. Glad you are able to leave and actually go on vacation! Happy new HOME, happy life, just plain HAPPY!

  19. Beth Partin says:

    Maybe the next time you get one of those comments, you could ask, “When would you like me to come over and burn some of your stuff?”

    Thanks for this post, Andi. It’s so difficult to get away from the “later” mentality.

  20. James Buehner says:

    I owned a home in Summerville, a geodesic dome, that I built in the 1970s. It was lost, I am told, in the fire as well as the landmark Elsie Trask house, a two-story log house that was the largest in the Summerville camp. Though I sold the place in 1980 something, I still feel its loss. I have followed your grieving and recovery with interest. In a few weeks I shall be driving from Maine to Oregon and plan to visit the old stomping grounds that was a big part of my life then. A closure sort of thing, I suppose. I feel I must see the empty space and then move on.

    • Andi says:

      Hi James, I also lived in Summerville, in one of Elsie’s houses, in the early 1980′s. Most of Summerville burned, some of it survived. When I finally drove up there last year it was really sad, as Elsie’s was one of the first homes in Boulder Canyon. I was told that Elsie came to Colorado in a covered wagon! She was something. Glad you’re going to pass through again, and thanks for “stopping by” the blog and commenting!

  21. Adair says:

    You are a wonderful writer, Andi, and I believe this is really important, resonant material. How apropos your quote from “Angels in America” (I used to use Harper’s monologue as an audition piece because it always made me cry). Fire people are like a shamanic tribe, and the lightening scar is unmistakable to anyone else who’s been through one. Yes to “more life!” And yes to burning down whatever house no longer serves you. Thank you for writing an ongoing guide to such transformations. I well know the patience, faith, endurance, and heart ache that comes after the fire, along with untold blessings.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Adair, I’m so glad you started reading the blog! Kushner writes in great detail about how “L’Chaim,” which is usually translated as “to life!” really means, “More life!” He uses the phrase quite often, so I’m indebted to him for that (and for so many other great ideas, along with his stunningly fabulous writing.) Keep visiting, and take good care.

  22. Carol Grever says:

    Andi, I loved this reminder to live fully in each present moment. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about impermanence and the preciousness of ordinary tasks–weed the flower bed, cook a savory soup, hear the wind stir aspen leaves, or watch a hawk circle in a misty sunset. Despite inevitable pain, life continues and it’s good to notice the details that, together, create its meaning. Thank you.

    Carol Grever

    • Andi says:

      Thank you so much Carol. I love the peaceful images you evoke here – the “preciousness of the ordinary.” I have come to really treasure the “ordinary” in the past few years. Thank you for your kind words.

  23. I love everything about this post…someone said it read like the end of a book and I absolutely agree. I can’t help but think how many other non-fire folks you’ve touched with your stories of loss and renewal–the themes (and lessons) are so universal, despite the differences we all face.

    So much to be gleaned in this piece, particularly in “letting someone else do it!”

  24. Andi,

    So glad to hear your writing on this will be getting a larger audience. It soooo resonates with me, having struggled mightily in recent years with divorce (and what preceded), worries about my kids, layoff, reinventing… Definitely would re-choose this path, and this inspires me to keep going, and go deeper!

    Thanks, Susan

  25. hairball_of_hope says:

    “Maybe someone else can do that.” In the business world, that’s called delegating, and it’s seen as a positive attribute for managers and leaders. In the personal sphere, it seems so much harder to utter (and carry out) those words. A tinge of guilt grips us (“Am I being selfish?” “Am I letting someone down?”), but then we let it pass and let go.

    Letting go is good for the psyche and soul. We take care of ourselves by letting go. Letting go of “stuff.” Letting go of tasks and habits that occupy and complicate our lives. Letting go simplifies our lives.

    You’ve done more than enough, Fire Warrior. You will always do something, but you don’t have to do everything. Let go.

    Take care of yourself, and finish that book. I will read it, and await the film version with Meryl Streep playing Andi. I think you should get a cameo in the film; I can envision you as the police officer in the county office who evicted the nosy and thoughtless Fox reporter, it seems like a fun and satisfying role.

    (… goes back to singing, “What a long strange trip it’s been…”)

  26. Candice Miller says:

    Thank you for the
    opportunity to contribute to you; you have done so much for me by voicing your progress and process.

    Fire was first given to humans as a gift, so the Greek and Roman myths tell us (and others prior to those).
    When a pot is “fired”, it is purified. When one considers going through “the fires of Hell and coming out the
    other side”, one addresses how cathartic fire can be. However, when a fire strikes a family’s home or when
    a firefighter gets killed in action, it is difficult to consider the positive aspects of fire and what it can bring.

    I met Andi O’Conor almost three years ago, shortly after her house burned down. We met over breakfast several
    times to consider her house plans, as my background is in architecture and design. Each time we met, I
    was touched by how articulate she was about her situation, and how conscious she was about addressing
    her process. She was so cognizant that she had this opportunity to begin again, to simplify her life, to have
    what she really needed in terms of living space, as her insurance did not allow her to build a home as large
    as the one that had burned down.

    She healed through words. Later, she started her blog, then a certain momentum in her healing was
    apparent to me. Having her house burn down when she was 12 and, later, when she was in her 50s,
    has shaped her life significantly and in ways that I cannot imagine. What I do know is that her attitude around
    her loss has always stuck with me as one of fortitude, of gratitude, and of supporting her healing by remaining
    in communication with others. As such, she has gotten beyond herself and has allowed others to heal as well.

    Andi’s story is a powerful story for several reasons, it seems to me. First, she can articulate the acute pain and
    detailed memories of what happened to her after the Four Mile Fire. One example is that she took the few pieces
    of colored glass that remained after the Fire, and placed them into the wet concrete in her new home’s foundation.
    The site of this placement is in her garage closet, not hidden away as much as protected from the elements, and
    in a private place of remembrance. A second reason is that her story is willing to be told. A third is that her pain is
    not overriding her drive to make a contribution from her losses in a soft-spoken, compassionate manner.

    So many have suffered the results of vast wildfires over the American West during the past three years. It seems
    to me that this book will not only be poignant and real, but also articulate and haunting, and also funny yet ironic.
    It is clear to me that her literary training will shine through for her readers. Likewise, when she promotes her book,
    she will speak well and will represent any publisher gracefully and intelligently. And those last reasons will allow her
    words of healing to “spread like wildfire”.

    CL Miller, PhD
    Longmont, CO

  27. Margaret says:

    Now when Boulder is flooding,” I am reading your blog about fire. What a world!

  28. Caring Fan says:

    Andi,
    I know the Four Mile area was hit hard in the flood and was wondering how you are. Really hope that your hillside fared OK.
    Thanks for your writings and your perspective. For many now, it is not the match being lit but the deluge arriving and washing everything away. Would that we could get to the essence and a real and true “Life B” without that trial by fire or flood.
    Let us know that your house on the hill is still fine and that you & Nellie are well and happy.

  29. Lori says:

    Wow. Where’d you go? I have truly missed your blogging. I guess life does move on! Wishing you well whatever you are doing. I am in Plan B and beginning to wonder if a Plan C needs to be formulated. Getting much better at not looking back. What a process. Pre-disaster I was so unconscious and naïve that I was the poster child for “ignorance is bliss”. Life seems a lot more real now. Not as much fun, but real.

  30. Jen says:

    This is beautiful Andi

    “We rise again, and we are changed, and no one really knows what that’s like unless they’ve been there. ” very nice!

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Jen! Are you writing from Australia? If so, glad you’re reaching out across the ocean! All the Best, Andi

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