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.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, Love-based leader and eternal fan of Mr. 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.