I finished modifying two N95 breathing masks to fit my childrens’ small faces. This week their school re-opened. The principal emailed parents, suggesting we pack masks in our children’s backpacks for them to wear during recess if we were concerned about the smoke from the wildfires that burned up our county. We were told to mark their names on them.
My husband walked by me. I looked up from the hot glue gun and the stapler lying beside the masks and sighed, “This is so weird.”
I think, at this point, we all can say that.
Everything about living in the shadow of a wildfire is weird. Trying to keep your kids from wiggling out of their breathing masks outside is weird. Haunting Costco for more shipments of air filters is weird. Stalking our computer screens to learn if it’s now our turn to evacuate is totally weird.
It can really mess with our brains trying to make normal life happen in an abnormal situation. I still have to be a mom to my young kids. You still have to go to work, or school, or whatever. It feels like everything should just stop: like we should all put on comfy socks and crawl into our blanket forts with a bag of cookies and a flashlight. What almost seems as weird as having wildfires upon us, is still living our lives under the smoke, with time ticking on.
I called our pediatrician yesterday to get a prescription for an ear infection my daughter had. I asked how the medical staff were coping with everything. She said, “There definitely is a collective trauma among us right now. A quarter of the staff lost homes in the fire.”
I think she speaks for all of us. As a region, we are carrying a collective trauma upon our shoulders.
I hear so many people lamenting how they just want a glimmer of normal life.
A few days ago, my friend and I watched her son run in and out of the house, playing with boxes of toys first, then joining the other kids rushing outside to the swings. Her family joined us at my sister’s house in the mountains a few days after I myself arrived from our smokey home. She looked at him with an aching love, and sighed, “This is just so normal. He hasn’t had toys or friends for days.” I thought about the string of hotel rooms that they had checked into down south on the coast, trying to keep his little inflamed airways in fresh air. But when the smoke blew down to pollute the sea air as well, they drove east to the Sierra Nevada’s. Watching her son play, she found her normal for an afternoon.
Normal is a comfort.
Yesterday, the winds shifted. I did the dishes in my kitchen with my windows open, the fresh air and blue sky blowing in through the open window. It felt magnificently normal.
But after a disaster, there is a new normal too. My mother-in-law, a retired police chaplain, says that when we feel like we are acting strangely in a crisis, we are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
It’s normal to feel jumpy and agitated with adrenaline. It’s normal to sink into a depression, as the adrenaline wears off and the crisis stretches on. It’s normal to snap at your loved ones – but it’s best if you apologize. It’s normal to feel more emotional. Let the tears come. We have all been through a lot.
It’s good to be generous and band together to help those who lost everything. But, pay attention to yourself. It’s okay to stop giving too.
Out of the thousand messages we hear to give give, give, we all need to hear a message to stop giving too. It’s okay to say no, if you have nothing left to give. We all have a finite amount of energy, time, and money. Think of it like cash. Once you’re broke, you’re broke. You can’t spend anymore. There are no credit cards of emotional capital. If you over-give, then you will begin to feel like you had better get “paid back.” It’s a funny little thing called co-dependence, and it’s done by the most kind-hearted people, myself included. Limited means are a part of normal life. Spend yourself wisely on what is most important to you. Then rest.
As the fires are extinguished and our N95 breathing masks fall into disuse, We will have a new kind of normal life. We will not be shopping for evacuation shelters. But we will greet our neighbors with a more familiar expression, after having stared at the skies shoulder to shoulder. We will not manically check Facebook for press-conference updates. But we will know what our bald and brave sheriff looks like very well from each day that he stepped behind the microphone. Our normal will be a people walking out of a collective trauma. We will all be exhibiting the 5 stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance. But as such, we will be joined to each other in solidarity of experience: an entire region with a collective story to tell. Perhaps our normal will be a deeper regard for the life that was spared, as we will always remember seeing all the rest blow to ash.