On fire in the eye of a hurricane

The photos started showing up in my feed late Monday, neighborhoods shrouded in what looked like dark yellow fog. As the days have gone on, the photos have turned darker and darker, orange skies and thicker and thicker fog that wasn’t fog, but smoke. I tried to take my own photo, but I couldn’t capture it, the eeriness of the light.

It is getting harder and harder for me to hold up my end of the continual conversation I’m having with my daughter in which I argue that it is reasonable for her to have hope for her future.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, hot and strident. Wednesday I had to clear the driveway of branches before I could back the car out to drive my daughter to her new job. She’s supervising two kindergartners and a preschooler while their moms work from home, supporting their online school and keeping them safe. I’m glad she was able to graduate without student loan debt.

Thursday morning the vast expanse of dead lawn in my backyard was littered with leaves and branches. I noticed my neighbor watering his, and I figured I should do the same thing, though it felt like a futile sort of gesture.

I started sprinklers in the morning, picked up the kitchen, and got to work in my home office. I’ve settled into our not-normal new normal. I’ve been relishing what feels like an almost eerie calm these past few weeks. I had a little hiccup the first day or two back, but other than that I’ve been calm like I’ve never been calm in my life. Things that would have set my teeth grinding and my insomnia flaring in earlier years have rolled right off me.

Those things just don’t matter any more.

I mean, I suppose they do. Or they never did. Hard to say. They just don’t matter right now, though.

By Thursday afternoon my house was filled with smoke. My nostrils were parched, and my head felt not achey, but heavy. My eyes wanted to stay closed.

I am not in an evacuation zone, not even level one, but they aren’t far from me. If I lived in my old neighborhood on the mountain–the one in which my children grew through a nearly idyllic childhood, in what I presumed was likely the precursor to a similarly charmed adult life–I would have my car packed with all the things they recommend we pack, ready to go. Or, like some of my old neighbors, I might already be gone, unwilling to risk getting trapped in traffic on the highway that becomes choked with cars at the beginning and end of every three-day weekend.

By Thursday afternoon, I had to concede that our not-normal new-normal was no longer normal. Our school buildings were closing because of poor air quality and the numbers of staff who were in the process of evacuating their homes. Chromebook distribution would have to wait for another day.

And still, I felt calm.

I had a conversation with an old friend, and we talked about evacuation plans, our children’s futures, whether or not we should buy guns and learn how to use them.

If you’d told me even ten years ago that I would think seriously about buying a gun I’d have told you to shoot me now. That I would never want to live in a world where I’d find myself thinking seriously about whether or not I should buy a gun.

But Thursday was the day rumors started to fly that the wildfires in Oregon were set by antifa and BLM supporters (spread by far-right talk radio and dubious web sites and hordes of ignorant, scared people), and I read from a valid news source that our country’s vice president was planning to address a meeting of QAnon supporters as a campaign event, and my house filled with smoke, and our already-closed schools closed more, and it felt like a reasonable conversation to be happening.

“It’s not like I feel like I need one now,” I said to L. “But I don’t think we should wait until we feel like we need to do some things. I think if we wait until then, it might be too late.”

The first thought that came into my head upon waking Thursday morning was that I should photograph everything in the house that I might want to submit in an insurance claim, if we had to leave and the house burned. I know my house isn’t going to burn now, but that seems like it might be a good thing to have.

Still, I felt calm. I still feel calm.

I think Thursday was the day I went over an edge I’d been getting closer and closer to. It might have happened after I dropped my daughter off at work and drove down a street and noticed that the line of tents camped along it had grown over the past few days. Two years ago we reported such camps to some agency, and a few days later we’d see them disappear. Now I can’t remember how long they’ve been permanently there. They are everywhere, modern-day Hoovervilles.

“I think,” I said to L., “that whoever gets to look back on this year will see it as a turning point, the time in which a fundamental shift happened. I don’t think we are ever going to go back to what we think of as normal.”

Some day, if I get to be far enough away to look back, I might pinpoint the Thursday of my second week back to school in 2020 as the day I realized that all of the not-normal is the new normal. Not just wondered if it was, but accepted it, all of it: extreme weather, dangerous divisiveness, failing societal systems, rampant ignorance, growing inequality of all kinds, fear as a thrumming undercurrent of public life.

I’ve never been in a hurricane (yet), so I don’t really know what one is like, but I wonder if, the past few weeks, I’ve been hanging out in the eye of one. I know uprooted things are swirling all around me, just out of view, but I am in a calm place. I made pizza Thursday night and we watched the crime procedural my daughter is currently binging, and I knew that others I know were packing up or already gone from their homes and that whole towns have already burned to the ground, but we had a pleasant-enough evening.

I have been curious about this calm I seem to be floating in. I’ve been wondering about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder how much of my struggle in life has come from writhing around at the top of his pyramid, scratching to gain a foothold in self-actualization.

Self-actualization feels like a luxury these days. I am so damn grateful to feel and be secure right now in the middle of his triangle, grateful for love and belonging, knowing that I am safe and do not (today) have to worry about food and shelter. All of my thoughts these days are focused on love and belonging, identifying my people and keeping them close and caring for them. (But I’m keeping an eye on those more fundamental needs. Wouldn’t it be folly not to?) I miss taking for granted that those things were a given. Maybe, when I look back on this Thursday of the second week of the 20-21 school year, I will realize that what I accepted is that nothing is a given. What I accepted is knowing that it never was, and that I have been living most of my life in a beautiful illusion.

I never watched The Matrix. My children were young then, and the one time I tried to watch it I fell asleep. I know there’s something about a red pill and a blue pill, though, and one shows you reality and the other allows you to remain in some kind of ignorant (but controlled) bliss. Perhaps I’ll look back on this Thursday as the day I swallowed not a red pill or a blue one, but an orange one.

Perhaps the orange pill is the one we’ll need to have some hope for our collective future–one that allows us to see clearly and accept what we are seeing.

I don’t really know, and I’m out of time to ponder it. As my employer told me, school offices are closed, but we are expected to work from home and contact HR if we need to use any leave to deal with evacuation or fire issues. Time to get on with it.

8 thoughts on “On fire in the eye of a hurricane

    • Rita says:

      I am OK, and I have the resources I need to stay safe (though I don’t think we’re in danger of anything but poor air quality where I live). There are no evacuation notices in my county. Fires in Oregon are closer to areas of high density than they’ve ever been, though. The hot winds Tues-Thurs were like nothing I’ve experienced in 30 years here. Climate refugees are not some future problem. We have them now. Our way of life is not sustainable. I know you know that, but I feel the need to say it.

  1. Kate says:

    I had a porch coffee with some friends today. It felt so good to be in the same place with people who say things that make me realize I’m not crazy or alone. But as you talk about being cold, we’re facing our first frost. It was 33 this morning. With a record low high temp. Winter is coming. In a pandemic. I’m not calm.

    I’d say buy the gun. And take a class on how to shoot it. Granted, I’m from a rural Midwest town and (I’m not proud of this) shot my first gun when I was still a toddler, but it’s not a bad skill to have when you’re at the bottom of the pyramid.

    • Rita says:

      Yes, winter is coming. I’m wondering how it’s going to be for all of us when we can’t gather on porches with friends who help ground us. (Not a good time to rewatch The Shining, I’d say.) I don’t know if I’m calm or frozen, tbh. In the sense of fight, flight, or freeze. I know I’m not frozen in the typical sense. I have things to do, and I do them. My focus is primarily on the immediate: What needs doing today? What will be most helpful today (not next week or month or year). Or maybe I’m becoming unfrozen. In the past, when I would read things that made me think some kind of great unraveling was coming, I felt frozen–like, I didn’t have the skills or resources to manage it, so there was nothing to be done about it. I would shut down and turn my attention to other things. What I’m realizing now is that unraveling is not likely to happen in one big, instantaneous event. It will happen in degrees, and we will adapt (or not, I suppose) in degrees.

      It occurs to me, too, that in important ways this has always been the case. Change is the only constant, and all that. Maybe the only thing that really distinguishes this time is the rate and scope of change. Any living person’s world is always ending in some way, right? It’s just that our changes are happening so rapidly and undeniably, and we can’t adapt at the same rate. So we’re seeing a full range of responses (fight, flight, and freeze) all around us. So many people throughout history have had their worlds come to an end, but not their lives. I remind myself of that often, and that the most important parts of mine are mostly intact, so far.

      I need to think more about the gun question, and a lot of others. I’m not surprised you shot a gun as a toddler. Even though I know you only through these words we exchange here, there’s a strong core of “don’t fuck with me” in you that comes through. Not unlike Elizabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting (one of my favorite movies, though I haven’t seen it in years and don’t know how it might hold up).

      I’m thankful to have this virtual front porch, and that you visit me regularly here.

      • Kate says:

        I haven’t ever seen Adventures in Babysitting, but now I think I’m going to have to watch it. Your comment about me in regards to that and the gun, made me smile, because I haven’t always liked that part of me, but lately, I’m realizing it has done me well. And for what it’s worth, I see that in you too.

        I agree with your ideas of change (or the speed) but I do see a sense of calm in the posts and the acceptance that there are things outside of your control and you’re going to focus on what you can control. I appreciate that and when people I respect and admire find that place it reminds me that I can get there again too.

        I need to get back into my yoga practice. A lot of what you are talking about here reminds me that I need to get focused on the present and what I can do in this moment. I’m always better about that when I’m regularly visiting my mat. 🙂

        Thank you for opening up your virtual front porch. It’s always nice to visit.

  2. TD says:

    Hi Rita, I’m glad to know that you are feeling calm. I have seen the orange glows that people have sent into the TV national news station. I thought of you and wondered if you were close to those areas.

    The devastation of areas, homes and people in flight to survive is very similar to the wake of a hurricane. Heartbreaking and some people are never able to recover and rarely forget.

    I cannot explain the calm that you are feeling. Although, I have experienced calm in the mist of being in hurricanes. I have not been able to understand my own calm during theses times, either.

    I’m glad to hear from you!

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