This is The Motherhood Letters #11, previously published by Mothering Arts.
Dear Matt and Peter,
Thirteen days ago, the town where we met back in the late 90’s changed drastically overnight. Up the hill, Paradise roasted in flames from the Camp Fire as Chico sat close-up watching, in shock. Thousands of jaw-dropping stories rolled down social media streams. Friends lost their homes as parking lots turned into donation centers and wind blew toxic smoke to Sonoma County where I live.
After eight days of unhealthy air, I’d had enough. I needed to get my child out. We drove up into the Sierra Nevada mountain range on Friday to find you waiting.
For two nights we stayed with you Matt, and your daughter and son. For the next two nights we stayed with you Peter, and your two daughters.
I could breathe. My child could breathe.
In Tahoe’s fresh air, 7,000 feet above the smoky valley, my heart and lungs felt relieved of the physical and emotional intensity they had been holding for a week. My child and I were gifted “tribe time,” four unexpected days and nights with you and your precious, fast-growing babies, who I adore deep in my Tia Jess bones. I watched my child run, giddy, with your children. My own dull-aired living room more than 200 miles away, I exhaled deeply, gazing out the window at redwood trees as I listened as your child read books to mine, chased her around like a wild tiger, helped her feel like family.
And we are. We are Soul Family. We chose each other. And we still choose each other.
All three of us know we are fortunate to have had those days together. We all know we are fortunate to be alive, with homes intact.
What I mostly want to tell you isn’t “Thanks, Again.”
What I want to tell you is that I’m floored by your fathering.
I’ve been watching you parent for a decade. As your children were born and grew into toddlerhood, I watched you. You have always been good fathers. Yet this time it was different. Somehow, the beauty of fatherhood has seeped into your skin in a way that’s left me feeling really, really fortunate to know you.
You know I revere children. Watching you with yours was like seeing the future treated with the dignity it needs to become bright.
You weren’t like a magazine of picture perfect fatherhood. You did your own thing as they did theirs. But all through those high alpine moments, your voice for them was one of Love. Both of you, in your own ways. How could I not notice that, as a result of a devastating fire, I got to witness two spectacular fathers, one after the other, each for two precious days and nights? This isn’t the norm. Great fathers aren’t everywhere. How could I not be head-shakingly grateful that you are two of my dearest friends? In so many ways, you shone the light of powerfully loving fatherhood upon those days.
When your children needed boundaries, you set them. You named them, you clarified them, you checked in with your children, you listened with your heart engaged.
You didn’t make demands; you made requests. Do you realize you might have prevented a future mean-spirited boyfriend or girlfriend from violating your child, because you’ve shown them that somebody who cares for them will not try to control them?
You didn’t use fear to force them to comply; you used a strong, loving voice to show them the limits.
We’ve had some wild times together, having known each other since college. The men I see now aren’t the same men I met 20 years ago. Your children have offered you a chance to expand into a fuller, more step-up-to-Love’s-plate place within yourselves and you accepted. You stepped right up to that plate. Far fewer fathers do that, than children deserve. Watching you father your children makes me love you even more — did I just say that? Was that even possible?
Deep bow to you both. Thank you for all the stretching you have done over the years to evolve into such beautiful fathers. This is not easy work. Parenting well is high service to humanity — nothing less. What you are doing for your children is the greatest work there is, and I admire you with all my Tia heart for it.
Last Thursday morning my daughter and I were headed to stay in Chico for three nights with my core tribe, my people. It’s three hours north and we go regularly to bask in the sweetness of friendships I’ve put 20 years of myself into. As I sipped my morning Earl Grey, a text came in from Serra who we would be staying with.
“Are you gluten and dairy free right now? Thinkin’ of an old awesome mac n’ cheese dish for Saturday dinner.” Or something like that. Her two small kids were reading and playing in their morning way, and she was checking in with me about dinner.
Ten minutes later, she called. Frantic, frenzied, breathing fast. “Jess there’s a fire. It’s big. I might have evacuated friends staying here. Can you check in with me later?”
“Forget about me,” I told her. “We’ll stay home.”
For ten days now the air has been gray-orange where we live. Wind has blown some of the most toxic air south, 160 miles from the fire. Hundreds of texts have flown back and forth between me and six of my dearest friends there, as they watched Sheriff fire alerts on Twitter and friends’ posts on Facebook. They packed their belongings. Sent photos of a dark smoky sky that turned red in two days’ time.
What do I do?
What do we do?
Bewildered, we ask each other. We ask ourselves.
I turn to the place in me where the spirit of the great Fred Rogers lives... What are people feeling? That will help us know.
In canyons and up and down steep hillsides, that fire moved so fast, swallowing so many homes. Is this really happening? Shock runs deep in people’s traumatized bones. Suddenly our lives and bodies feel so fragile, even or perhaps especially for those hundreds of people who just escaped driving through miles of flames.
Disbelief in my blood. All my children’s things are gone? This cannot be. To the pure part of our mind that knows we are eternal in Spirit, this is unreal.
Is this the new normal? Fires strung across our summers and now a smoke-filled Thanksgiving, with air too hazardous for kids to play outside? This feels like war. Have years of drought and irresponsible human behavior really led us to a place of survival, where we’re making sure we can breathe, scrambling to provide clothing, food and beds for those suddenly homeless? Schools closed for weeks. Taping the leaks in our old window frames. Saying “I love you” more than we ever did before.
So what do we do? There are thorough lists like these from Daily Acts, a group in our town offering support for last year’s massive fires nearby. They group the first of two lists, Daily Actions to Reduce Toxics Exposure, into five areas: 1) Reduce Exposure, 2) Nutritional Support, 3) Herbal Support, 4) Gentle Detoxification, and 5) Self Care.
Love, as vague as that one word may sound, is the only thing that heals.
Love expresses itself in endless ways. In each moment, you choose what feels like Love to you. I aim to choose Love over its alternative, fear, as often as I can. We all slip. Then we recover. This is leaning into light.
Broken down into three parts, here are the top three ways I can suggest for responding with Love to the disaster we’ve named the Camp Fire.
1) Feel it all.
Waterfalls of tears and shock can be painful. Ouch to the heart, ouch to the mind. So. Much. Sad. Yet tears and shock will not kill you. If you feel all the horror, sadness, confusion, the sense of being lost…
Letting these feelings be felt through you will expand your capacity to feel — and feeling is the most powerful thing humans can do.
Ultimately, we are usually sad because of Love, because of love for what was lost. Trauma like this surfaces all kinds of feelings. They don’t need to “make sense” to your rational mind, for you to honor them by listening to them and letting them move through you. Anger, blame, it’s all worth listening to because it can all lead you back to Love if you let it.
A short video from Megan Devine on How do You Help a Grieving Friend? offers clear, powerful guidance for being in the presence of feelings this big and painful. It is an animated guide to healing for self and other.
2) Offer and ask.
With so much loss and need, step in and give. Extend Love; that is what Love naturally does. And your giving isn’t better or worse than anyone else’s. Love has no degrees; Love is Love.
Whether you offer free coffee from your RV window early in the morning, or volunteer at an evacuation center, or sit and listen while a grieving friend spills out her sheer despair and soaks your sweatshirt shoulder in her tears — your offer of Love creates a world with more Love in it. And if you’re like me and not in the belly of the disaster, instead a distance away, extend Love however you’re guided to from there. Call someone, tell them you’ll listen. Ask what you can do.
If you lost your home or a friend, the practice of asking for help may have gone from zero to 60 overnight. Let’s put it this way: Don’t rob others of the opportunity to show you love. It is life’s greatest honor. And you are a splendid person to love — always have been.
For others who are not in the heat of the trauma: That doesn’t mean your rights are less valid than anyone else’s. Ask for what you need. You matter. Our air quality has been awful; our house didn’t burn down. I didn’t lose my daughter. Yet still my feelings matter, and the needs of me and my family are as real as anybody’s. Five days into awful air quality, my eyes scratchy and with chance of migraine increasing, I asked my husband to buy us an air filter. Two days after that, I asked which friends we could stay with at Lake Tahoe where the air is cleaner. Ask for what you need, and let Love in.
3) Express gratitude.
We cannot live in two moments at the same time. If you didn’t lose your home to the fire, how fortunate you are. If your child, grandfather or best friend is still alive, there is wow in your world to be grateful for. There is always something. Focus on that for a moment. Bask in the shower of light that is gratitude.
Here in the west we walk around pretending our bodies won’t die. If you've been to India, you've seen that they accept the fact that we all die. In the west we live in deep fear and pretending. Times like these, however atrociously unfortunate and sad, can help us remember the most important thing: In this moment, show Love. In the next moment, show Love.
A week after Donald Trump was elected. I walked into the café, ready to order my cappuccino, and there you stood.
Rather than sharing café small talk, you asked how I was doing and I knew you didn’t want to hear, “Fine.” You didn’t want to hear an answer that superficially informed you of where I was going next. You wanted to know how I was really doing, and it showed in the warm presence in your eyes and the spaciousness in your heart.
That’s just your way. You actually, really care.
I had been numbing myself. Until that morning when I saw you, hiding in my own escapist ways from the shock of what had just happened on the national stage. Suddenly, in your presence, the tears emerged. Standing there by the espresso machine, I cried out some of my despair. It needed to happen.
Within minutes, thanks to that moment of opening, I made a decision that led to the biggest adventure of my life so far. My family and I would move to Sweden for a year to be near my husband’s family in his native culture. Your open heart, attentive eyes, and deep capacity for listening were the container I needed to really hear what wanted to happen. Looking back now, almost two years after that café conversation, I see that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’m not putting you on a pedestal. You wouldn’t accept that from me. I’m not saying you made the decision for me.
I’m saying that in your strikingly beautiful presence, I was able to live my truth in a way I might not have been able to without you. Every mother needs this kind of presence in her life.
Think about it. Right now there is a mother reeling from last night’s drunk abuse, somewhere in America. Right now there is a mother whose child is dying in a hospital bed. Right now there is a mother so lost and lonely she doesn’t know if there is a way out. In fact, there are millions of these.
All these mothers could use a presence as spacious and honest as yours. Thank you for being the way you are. May all these mothers find — now — what you showed me that morning.
And may I be a sliver in life, for others, of what I find in you.
In deep respect,
Our featured free recording for September is a 35-minute conversation with mailman Sean Lanham called Mailman Magic and the Power of Letters. You can listen here!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.