The forest fires have been upon us for two weeks now in Oregon. If the pandemic wasn’t inducing terror in us then we at least can count on the daily reminder of the smoke outside our doors to do so. Yet anxiety has been a reliable constant in my life and seems ever-present like an invisible entity in our house as we shelter in place for the sixth month. Like the smoke, I wait for it to leave us but I have grown accustomed to its presence as much as it is unwanted. Yet with these circumstances that we’re enduring as a family, as a country, and worldwide that heightened sense of worry is justified and not soon to leave any of us.
I’ll admit, the forest fires typically, willfully, are a distant worry to me. That is until they started this past Labor day and swept through Oregon with an intensity I hadn’t felt for years. I tried not to read about the fires unless I wanted my chest to tighten or the memories to rush back but the smoke has made that reality inescapable just like the loss of life and home to those that have been affected by the devastation.
Fire is a theme throughout my past and it induces a dread that is part horror and part fascination within me like little else. I smoked for many years partly for that very reason and struggled with quitting because of my need to control that little flame. To show myself that I wasn’t afraid, I would hold my cigarette and stare at it one last time before putting it out. Priding myself on stoking fires in our hearth or camping trips (if I was allowed to), always worried that others would let the fire get away from them. The need to conquer something uncontrollable that had decimated my childhood more than once gnawed at me and I would stay silent as others blithely continued their conversation or activities near this source of limitless danger seemingly without care or concern. Like a kid running up to ring the doorbell of a presumably haunted house, I taunt the flames with my
I woke again to the smell of smoke today and the thoughts were back upon me. The smoke seeping into our drafty house here in Portland like the memories of it from my childhood in Southern Oregon. The forest fires then became an annual terror when I was a child and the inspiration for my first panic attacks. Reminding me of our house burning to the ground in front of my eyes at age six. It was due to something sinister and unnatural, my father. Just as threatening as the forests being capable of suddenly incinerating around us his anger would suck the air from the room and he would take the world down with him if he could. All it took was the greed and malevolence of my father in that one criminal act of stupidity. A miscalculated decision with unfathomable consequences much like these fires around us now in Oregon.
The forest fires of the past were early signs of global warming but it wasn’t attributed to it as such when I was a girl. It was blamed on unusual weather, logging accidents, or tourists. Yet the thermometer reached new heights every summer and it was casually dismissed as “record” heat despite that it had become the norm to go over 100 degrees several times throughout that four-month span of summer every year since. It was something in your peripheral reality that you noticed but hoped would magically go away and never come near you like a bully. I pretended it didn’t bother me back then when it was discussed but it did. It did then as much as it does now. The smoke, the memory of my house burning down, the anger of my father, the feeling of helplessness as my world was obliterated around me.
There it is again, the smell in my nose and my heart in my throat. Fitfully sleeping no more than six hours for months now due to COVID worries and now the threat of fire, resisting the urge to succumb to sleep, struggling back awake again and again. Gasping for air each time as if I surfaced from drowning. It’s the suffocation of claustrophobia that binds me tight with its unseen strength to panic me into submission. That sense of being buried alive by circumstances and sometimes physically. Like the first MRI scan, trapped in a dark tube left by the technician who forgot to give me the microphone on the cord to speak to her. Or being trapped in a windowless room with an ultrasound technician, staring at a monitor mounted on the wall like a hotel room, that showed me that my baby’s heart had stopped beating but the radiologist was on lunch and didn’t want to be bothered to come to speak to me. So I sat alone in that exam room waiting for them to eat their lunch as I miscarried and walked back to my car and drove home in a haze. The panicked voice of the radiologist calling me an hour later sounded tinny and distant. They couldn’t believe that I picked myself up and walked out of the hospital without a word to anyone. They assumed I would lay there in pain, waiting, and simply submit to their whims. It feels as if we’re living in a world not all that unlike that exam room. We’re in pain, we’re waiting, and those with the power to affect change believe that we will be patient.
Or the four nights of air splints and being pinned to a bed in the dark alone as I recovered in a hot sticky hospital bed from my son’s birth five years later.
You can’t outrun smoke any more than you can memories of trauma. When you’re reminded so easily by the fog of it hanging outside your every window just like a memory that lingers. I wake and flounder for my phone to have a light. To have a reminder that I’m not in the dream. That it’s a memory and not my present. That my mother has stopped screaming, that I’m not that six-year-old girl standing forgotten amongst the fire hoses and trucks, that I am safely in a bed that doesn’t smell like soot. I touch my hair to reassure myself it isn’t covered in ash and I find a book that bores me to distract myself yet again from the unbidden thoughts. All too often I sleep listening to a lecture or a favorite film because any noise other than a predictable voice of kindness or humor will startle me back awake. The sleep of the hyper-vigilant, someone who knows that the worst can happen and has survived to learn to fear the signs of it returning. Every sound, every creaking board, a whimper, every wisp of smoke.
The pandemic has accelerated my anxiety-driven dreams and now one of my worst fears reminds me every time I look outside that it’s waiting for me. Like a boogie man that you swear isn’t real to your child all while it has hold of your ankle as you turn the light off. My face smiles, my voice is calm, but my organs are buzzing with adrenaline. A hive of pestilence is humming inside my once harmonious body and I am silently screaming behind my eyes in an attempt to jump out of my skin.
I breathe in the fresh air that has been recirculated through our filtration system and I thank all that might be listening in the ether for keeping my babies safe, our house intact, our bodies free of COVID, and this roof over our heads then the next thought brings shame deep into my chest. The need to run away. The need to have all of this over. To not think about how those families that have been left homeless from the fire will still smell it in their dreams for years to come or how they’ll have moments, years later, where they can’t find something and panic that it was lost in the fire. For all of those families, I grieve with you and I wish I didn’t understand but I do.
As a girl, the first time I read the words “rend asunder” an image came to mind of a torn sail being burned and scattered. A boat left adrift without the essential shelter and guidance of something as elemental to its structure as the harnessing of the wind. What are we as humans without our sense of home? What is a sailboat without the wind to carry it safely along the water? You are left with a sense of forever wandering for a safe harbor. For some, they are now experiencing true homelessness in the midst of a pandemic where having safe housing is the difference between living and dying.
I prepare to go to sleep once again. Thinking about my family of origin in their many forms of displacement. How we never truly recovered from losing our home that day. The trauma alone would change most but it marked the trajectory of our family’s history and we never quite managed to outrun the damage of that day. It was as if we were cursed by my father’s neverending mistakes. Not all that unlike our country that is damned by the hatred of the few with means and power.
So I sit and think yet again about my mother in her assisted care home, my brother in prison, my homeless sister, a brother in pain and isolated across the country from me, and my sister recovering from COVID who I was finally going to meet in-person for the first time on March 15th until the pandemic got in the way. The aunt that I wish I could go see who can’t fly any longer. The nieces that I’ve let down by not staying in contact as I should, especially now, and how disappointed and relieved that I am that they will never understand why they are better off not having contact with most of their extended family.
So many stories, so much heartache, not just in my family but so many others. Does suffering serve a purpose? Is there a point to any of it really other than to survive, learn, repeat? We’re all struggling to survive a pandemic amidst fires, floods, and poverty. Will that be enough to inspire all of us to speak out?
I’m grieving for us all and our lives left rend asunder by the whims of politics, the obstinate arrogance of those that refuse to change the direction of our world to repair the environmental damage behind all of these sorrows, and the callousness of those that refuse to give a damn at all. We must do what we can to raise our children to do better than ourselves and hope that we do not earn the mantle of shame that I fear we deserve if we choose to do nothing in response to this all. It hangs on us like the smoke that we’re waiting to clear but the causes will not disappear. To struggle is essential to learning and if we choose not to learn from these events then we are culpable to them repeating.