Labor Day, Five Years Later

Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers
but to be fearless when facing them.
    –  Rabindranath Tagore


It is Labor Day weekend, the fifth anniversary of my house burning down. It’s been five years since I lost everything, five years since so much of my world changed forever.

I have friends who are no doubt reading this and thinking, “When is she going to stop talking about these anniversaries?” and my answer is, I don’t know. Maybe some year Labor Day will come and go, and weeks later I’ll think, “Huh. That one went right by me.” Maybe the weekend will lose its significance. Maybe. Or maybe not.

For the most part, I feel like I’ve “recovered” from the Fourmile Canyon Fire, but what does that word really mean? Re-covered, just covered up the feelings and moved on? Recovered as in taken back – I’ve recovered what was lost? Um, nope. That’s never going to happen. I think it means I feel steady on my feet again, like I can trust the earth beneath me, that the ground doesn’t feel like it’s always shifting and changing, ready to swallow me up. I’ve recovered my balance.

After my house burned down on Labor Day, I became a bit superstitious about the day, and for the last four years have spent it away from home. “Labor Day is for travel!” I would chirp, “Let’s go somewhere!” Last year I was in Tofino, British Columbia, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, about as far from drought and fire as I could get. I listened to the ocean pulse and crash all night, and dreamed about dolphins and whales and breathing under water.

This year I decided to stay home. I took a breath – up here, above the surface, in real time, not the dreamscape – and looked my fear in the face. When fears get a hold of me, I try to reach out and grab them, give them a shake, and send them on their way.

I learned how to do this from Mrs. MacKinnon, my occasional nanny when I was a child.  She was a big, soft, grandmotherly Irish woman with a heavy brogue. “You’ll be wantin’ to come get your dinner now darlins,” she would say, “or the Wee Folk will be takin’ it right off your plate before you get here.”  We’d all thunder into the kitchen, afraid that the Little People would swoop in and leave us hungry.

One night when I was about five years old,  I woke up sweating and terrified, startled by the shadowy threat of monsters under the bed, and went crying to Mrs. MacKinnon’s room. She hugged me, and asked, “Did the Little People come to bother you, now?” and I nodded, tears streaming down my face. “Well then,” she said, and picked me up and carried me back to my own bed. She sat down and said, “Now, my good girl, I’m going to tell you something. You, darlin’, are a hundred percent Irish, descended from the last Kings of Ireland, and that’s something special indeed. It means you have the courage of your ancestors inside you.  So when the Elves and the Fairies come to try to scare you –  and they will, believe you me – here’s what you do. You look them straight in the face and say, “I’m a hundred percent Irish and you CAN’T HURT ME,” and then they’ll scamper away like nobody’s business!”

I went to bed that night with a new feeling of power and safety. In the days that followed, when the night terrors came, I would do exactly what she told me to do. I would sit up in bed, and look out into the darkness, and say, in the strongest voice I could muster, “I know you’re there, but I’m a hundred percent Irish, and you CAN’T HURT ME!” And I would feel the monsters recede, backing away from the thousands of ancestors, royal and otherwise, gathered around me in that moment. I was no longer a scared little girl, I was a warrior princess, with armies of fierce, fearless Mrs. MacKinnons to call on at any moment. I knew I would never again be alone in the dark.

These days, fear and fire and difficult anniversaries are my gremlins. This year when Labor Day was looming again, and the Wee Folk began to whisper, “This is a Bad Luck day, time to be off somewhere,” I decided to look them straight in the face, and stare them down. And away they went.

I’ve had a really fun weekend at home. Like most folks, I’m taking a little break from work, swimming and reading and hanging out with the people I love, and squeezing out the last moments of summer.

Instead of avoiding Labor Day, I am celebrating. Celebrating all the love and support I’ve received, and the amazing new people I’ve met in the five years since the fire. Celebrating the miracles, small and large, that have happened since I lost everything. Celebrating what I’ve lost, and what has come in to take its place.

Labor Day will probably never be just another holiday for me, but each year it will be less of a heartache. And perhaps someday it will come and go, and a few weeks later, I’ll say “Huh. That one went right by me.”

According to Mrs. MacKinnon, I’m an Irish warrior princess with an army of angels around me. So come what may, I’ll take a deep breath, and look the fears and the gremlins straight in the face, and send them on their way.  And I’ll pray, again and again, not to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.

Wishing You and Yours a Wonderful Labor Day,


September Sunset at My House

September Sunset at My House


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10 Responses to Labor Day, Five Years Later

  1. We’re in Paris, where the first Monday in September is just another late summer weekday. Your eloquent (as always) essay took me back to that awful weekend in our corner of Colorado. Mrs. McKinnon certainly schooled you well.

  2. Greg Wright says:

    A beautiful and powerful story – I feel like Mrs. MacKinnon was talking to me, too. Your courage and grace – and your wonderful ability to tell a tale, are inspiring and assuring. Thanks for making Labor Day more special to me!

  3. Ann Cairns says:

    Beautiful, Andi! How ironic that you are celebrating at home this year while fires burn in the Pacific NW. Enjoy your day.

  4. Adair Rowland says:

    Oh, Andi, you got me on so many levels with this post. First, the anniversary memory which is so real. The same clock in your head that you can program to wake up on time also sounds an alarm on trauma anniversaries.

    Mine became more faint after the seventh year, when all our cells are supposed to have been renewed, but you’ve got a holiday weekend to keep the date in mind if not in your body. And you get to be okay with that.

    As to the demons and shadows, I wish I’d had your Mrs. McKinnon! I did have my grandmother who had me learn “Little Orphan Annie,” (“and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out!”) These fear rehearsals remind us victory is possible, whereas the politically correct prefer the lie that you can be sheltered from the frightful and random. After my home invasion, I acquired a German Shepherd puppy and called her the name that came to me in a dream, Sigren. It was several years later I discovered it was Gaelic for the rune of victory!

    We know so much that we don’t know we know. The slings and arrows (and fires and crimes) of our lives allow us to learn how wise we can be. Sharing stories accelerates the process. Thank you for continuing to do so!

  5. Thank you, Andi, for this most beautiful, affirming, and strengthening piece! And for the prayer! And for the sunset!

  6. Candace says:

    So good to “hear your voice” Andi. We lost our home to wildfire on August 24, 1996…19 years ago. I have not forgotten the date nor “re-covered” although life has gone on and I have much to be grateful for. I believe that the experience has both softened and strengthened me. I hold “real fear” but am more fearless than before. I too am an Irish Warrior Princess (albeit not 100% Irish) and accompanied by an army of angels. All blessings to you as you continue your journey and thank you for saying what is in my heart.

  7. Kathy Kaiser says:

    Facing fears–that’s what it’s all about. thanks for your beautiful essay.

  8. hairball_of_hope says:

    I wondered if Andi would post on the anniversary, and did she ever! I’m not an Irish warrior princess, but I’ve got an analogous mantra I say aloud when faced with fears and challenges, “I am Iron Woman, I can do anything!” It’s also been known to live on Post-It notes placed in strategic locations, such as the alarm clock, bathroom mirror, and computer monitor.

    Blessings to you Andi, and hope the book is coming along nicely. I fully expect Meryl Streep to play you in the movie. Pick out a fun cameo role for yourself, perhaps the cop who throws the Foxnews reporter out of the county office.

  9. Marian Thier says:

    So apt as I sit in the lounge in Dublin airport returning home after two glorious weeks in Ireland.

  10. Exquisite piece, Irish Warrior Princess. Beautifully written. And I felt your journey. Fearless when facing the fears, or maybe okay with the fear that arises when facing the fear, and okay with that too.

    I too stayed home all weekend, doing things around the house, sucking the last drops of nectar from our glorious summer. It is all so precious.

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring, heartfelt words. Loved reading them and look forward to more.

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