“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
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,