On Monday, October 9th at 5:30AM, I stepped on my back porch and was struck by the smell of smoke—like a thousand chimneys going at once. I quickly went to my computer to see where the fire was. The smell was so intense I was sure the Santa Cruz mountains were blazing. To my shock, the fire was 2 hours away in Napa Valley. Even more shocking was the news that there were several unrelated fires that all started within hours of each other causing a perfect storm for emergency responders.
Days later, the fires are still burning.
Two days after the fires started, I had a short phone exchange with a close friend who was packing up to evacuate. She planned to go to an as yet unaffected area. She wasn’t sure when she’d be in contact again.
I found myself praying to G-D again—this time for rain. But so far, rain hasn’t come.
Napa Valley is a place people typically dream of escaping to—not evacuating out of. A “happily ever after” place. Just like the Caribbean. Today, both havens, once lush and green, have been stripped of life. Many places look like they were hit with a Daisy Cutter.
I’m writing this from my kitchen table where it is neither too warm nor too cold. Where something to eat or drink is just a few feet away. Where the lights work. Where Keri, our pets, and our chosen life goes on day after day. A blissful island of normalcy.
The events of recent days and weeks have bombarded us—unprecedented tragedies of every kind--have stunned me and those closest to me into an uncomfortable acknowledgement of how temporary everything is. No matter how many times you hear it in meditation class, it all sounds abstract until its right on your door step.
Sitting alone on the edge of the bed, I imagined losing all my possessions and all the trappings of my normalcy—I couldn’t wrap my head around it except to acknowledge it could happen…that it is happening only 2 hours from me.
How do you find peace when the world is literally on fire? How do you find comfort when nothing is coming in the nick of time to stop the disasters happening all around?
In high-school I read The Plague by Albert Camus. The story centered on an outbreak of bubonic plague in a remote French village that started gradually but eventually decimated the population.
Amid the cases of people falling to the plague, the story followed the lives of people and how they responded to living through the plague. Some people despaired to the point of becoming unhinged. Some worked to get ahead of plague and tried to help. Some accept falling ill to the plague and some struggle against it. There are cries against the government that should be caring for them. Some people say it is a punishment for the sins of the town. There is a great deal of appealing to G-D and then appealing to superstition as a means of coping. Eventually people come to understand that the plague comes for the rich and the poor, the faithful and the unfaithful. That all are subject to the threat and there is no knowing of when it will end.
One scene in the book stood out to me. After a day of working hard to help plague victims, two of the central characters went for a swim. The scene focused on how they moved through the dark water, one stroke at a time. The pleasure of a simple swim. There was nothing special except that in the midst of all the loss and difficulty, there was a pocket of normalcy.
The next day they returned to what life had become in the middle of a plague.
One day the plague subsided and all the restrictions and difficulties came with it went away. People went back to their lives.
Despite the return to “normalcy”, as the story concludes, the narrator muses that the germ that started the plague could lay dormant in a chest of linens for years and could come to life again without rhyme or reason. That the potential for the same chaos was still there, just asleep for the time being.
Revisiting the story today against the backdrop of fear and despair that seems to have infected our lives and discourse, I’m reminded of the message that I didn’t appreciate when I was 16.
We have many stories about why things are the way they are—most of them are wrong. We only have control over how we choose to respond and act.
What is useful in times like these?
Fred Rogers had a wonderful story from his childhood—when he would see scary things in the news his mother would say “look for the helpers”.
It might sound trite and simplistic when things are so uncertain.
What I see around me are people opening their homes and resources to help. People trying to understand and act on how they can help. People choosing to make a different kind of paradise—not one you run away to and that is trouble free, but the one you create through compassion, love, and action.
The blessing of the G-D of small things.
I don’t know why all of these hard things are happening all at once. But the potential for them to happen has always been there. We always live with the possibility of the world turning on its head. Even in paradise. Even in the places we dream of escaping to.
Living two hours south of the destruction, I can’t take lasting normalcy as a given. I can only ask, who do we want to be in this temporary normalcy? In this precious and uncertain time, what do we want to do with our lives? And when normalcy is broken, what will sustain us?
Look for the helpers. They are the way.