I sweated and hefted a box overhead, balancing it dangerously in the air for a beat.  Then I tipped the edge to meet the shelf, and shoved it into place.  I thought of how some people have spring cleaning.  I, apparently, have fall cleaning.

It was getting hard to walk through the garage.  My husband and I agreed that we should condense the piles, sort them, and bring things into the house as we could.

But there was a problem.  Though we live comfortably in our home, it doesn’t afford much storage space. It’s an older house, before built-in cabinetry became standard.  What cabinets we did have were shallow and small.  It was as if wives of the 1940’s didn’t have anything more to store than a few fry pans and quilting scraps.  The fry pans I own: along with the Ninja blender, the Kitchenaid stand mixer, and extra rolls of wrapping paper from last Christmas. The quilting scraps I do not.

I made it my project, one week, to tackle the job while my husband was at work, the kids at school, and baby napped for an hour or two.  Surely it wouldn’t take that much time to tidy things up.

I was half right.

It didn’t take much time to re-shelve beach toys and lawn chairs that had been taken down and not put back.

But I found it took a monumental amount of time to find a new place for something in the house.  It had to be somewhere where I would find it again, and thus, USE it.  But that meant going through the house cabinets and clearing out space for the garage things.  The surprise was seeing what the heck we DID have in there.  I found more mason jars squirreled away than I could count.  Much of what I found I had forgotten about.  Which is silly, because again: these are tiny cabinets, in my own house.  I realized that I zoomed around the same familiar circles of my home in my daily chores, leaving much of the corners and cabinets un-examined.

Opening their doors, I stepped into another dimension.  I went back to an earlier time: a younger time of intention, of anxiety and sleepless nights with infants.  I went through a process of seeing and touching each item, assessing whether I have ever used it, or would ever use it again.  I suddenly realized I was taking stock of my past and future: my values and direction.  A sense of freedom washed over me as I ordered the things in our house to serve us as we currently are.  Well-meaning intentions of a younger time fell away.  I could feel myself owning who I am now, with who my husband is now, and who our children are now.

It was marvelous:  now in our late 30’s, we have never been this old before, with this much perspective.  My husband and I have found our place with each other, and are carving a place for the kids to grow.  Though it takes far more time than we budget, finding a place is foundational work.  Even after 12 years of marriage.  Even after 7 years of living in this house.

It is the same with finding a place for roast pans and the knitting box.

Hi.  I’m Steph Lenox.  And I’m growing up.

I asked my mother-in-law on her birthday what she liked about reaching her age.  “Becoming comfortable in my own skin,” she replied.  Then she went on to describe how with each decade of her life she relaxed a little more into herself.

I want this too.

So I will find a place for the things we have.

I will clear room for the the things we want.

I will stretch out my arms and legs and take up more space in my own life, surprised to find a place for myself within my own skin.

 

5 Things I’ve Learned Since the 2017 North Bay Fires

The sunlight through the smoke in Sonoma County cast an eerie red light on the kitchen floor last week.  In an instant, it all came flooding back.  I instinctively grabbed my laptop.  I checked Cal Fire, the local newspaper, and the Northern California Firestorm Update Facebook Group.  I monitored the locations, destruction, and percentage of containment for each currently burning wildfire in California.  There at the dinner table, I had set up my own personal “situation room” within five minutes.  Scanning the house, I mentally logged where I kept our boxes of valuables and important documents gathered for last year’s fires.  I stopped short of packing fresh “go bags” for the kiddos.

What just happened?

1. PTSD is real, no matter what you did or didn’t lose in the fires.

I didn’t lose my house in the fires.  But I lost a sense of safety, or at least, the naive belief that fires couldn’t sweep through my hometown.  My senses became razor sharp, my muscles tensed, and I almost stood on tippy-toes, ready to do SOMETHING.  I felt danger, even thought the fires burned outside our county.

Fear was my first response, and that’s okay.  When a triggering event comes along, fear pops up first.  Judging myself for feeling fear doesn’t help.  But after the fear comes up, I do have the power to decide what to do with it.  I get to choose.

Reading through a thread on the Santa Rosa Firestorm Update FB page, someone posted a helpful list of things to do to stop the loop of panic and patrolling the fires.  I tried to find the post, but unfortunately I lost it in the shuffle.  I remembered her recommendations went something like this:

“You can put that anxious energy to work in a positive way.  Walk the dog.  Call a loved-one and talk about your feelings.  Stretch your muscles.  Do yoga.  Put on relaxing music.  Go for a jog.  Meet a friend for coffee.  Play with your kids.  Find a new recipe and try it out.  Build something.  Drive to the ocean.  But whatever you do, turn off your screens, and stop monitoring.  It doesn’t help when you’re triggered.”

Yes, it DID happen.  Wildfires invaded our lives.  But that doesn’t mean it WILL happen again.  Smoke overhead doesn’t guarantee loss of home.  Fires happen every year in California.  I remember growing up, watching flames glowing orange on the hills, right before bedtime.  It’s not an evil force trying to to get us.  Fires are a part of life too.

2. It Will Get Better: It Takes Time

I read a helpful article, Scars Run Deep From October Wildfires, by Martin Espinoza of the Press Democrat.  While our entire region is wading through varying degrees of trauma, his research provided a useful tool toward our future: a distinction between healthy grief over a disaster, and a debilitating mental illness.

Psychiatric Illness VS. Distress

Dr. Carol North, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has spent a significant portion of her career studying the mental health outcomes of disaster survivors. A psychiatric epidemiologist, her work with survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was instrumental in helping some mental health professionals assist survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“There’s an important difference between psychiatric illness and distress. They are very different phenomenons,” North said, adding that most people who live through severe disasters do not develop psychiatric illnesses.

North said those with a history of psychiatric illness before a disaster are at much higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, while those who do not have a mental illness will see a fairly rapid decline in their level of distress. But it never completely goes away, she said.

“It may never go away because disasters are life-changing events, even among the resilient,” North said.

While this is true, people with a diagnosis of PTSD have reason to hope as well.  My search on the subject on PsychGuides.com turned up a description of PTSD.  An excerpt reads:

By working with a healthcare professional, individuals with PTSD can resolve their triggering factors and learn new and effective ways of coping with the stress of the past trauma.

Bottom line is: depending upon the degree to which we were affected by the fires just one year ago, we could still be in the thick of one of the five grieving stages outlines by the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  While we are rebuilding our lives, remember to give yourself, and your neighbor, grace to feel your ways through your processes.  Chances are, your distress will fade with time.

3. Congratulations!  You Are Now an Expert

Think about it:  the fires have given you emergency response training that you never wanted.  But now that you have it, you can use it to help anyone else in this situation.  When it comes to dealing with fires, you have become an expert in your field.

  • You know the location of all the valuables in your house.  You know what to pack and what to leave, should you evacuate.  You’ve evacuated before, or were on standby to do so.  You’ve had plenty of time to think about your go bag since then.
  • You know the importance of homeowners/renters insurance.  Personally.
  • You know the value of N95 masks, Target gift cards, and HEPA filter air purifiers from Costco.
  • You have seen social media shine as the main form of communication in an emergency.  When the cell towers burned, and calls dropped after a few seconds, I quickly hopped onto Facebook to mark myself as safe, as well as communicate with my other family and friends.  This was my main form of real-time communication with those around me.  Many of us didn’t go out for weeks at a time, to keep from breathing too much smoke.  We were told to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles.  Social media and online news outlets were our lifeblood of communication.

4. Clarity of Priorities

There’s nothing like a complete upheaval of our whole lives to shake us awake to our priorities.  This was crystal clear during the fires as our whole region banded together to take care of each other.

For one friend who lost her home in Coffey Park, she said that the experience was like a “Spiritual Xanax.”  She said that after the initial few months had passed, while living in a rental with her family and deciding what to do next, she found that she really didn’t need much “stuff.”  She didn’t miss most of the things they lost in the fires.  All that she thought was valuable to her was taken in an instant, and she was left with what really mattered to her:  her family, her God, and her life.

As David J. Harris Jr. said in the Facebook video he posted of his own evacuation from his Redding neighborhood last week, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.  It doesn’t matter.  This here is the big stuff, but it doesn’t even matter.  What matters is that our family is safe.  We can always, always start again in life.”

If we can use our panic over smelling smoke again, let’s use it to drive ourselves into our loved-ones’ lives.  Let us nurture the connections that were so strong at first in our own trauma.  Let’s remember what’s important.  Cuddle your kids.  Kiss your spouse.  Visit your grandmother.  Send help to the current fire victims, if you can.  Like Harris reminded us, everything else is just stuff.

5. Create New Memories

Vikki Lenox, a Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplain, Emeritus, described a debriefing session she led after the fires with first responders.  These were a group of people on call those first few days of the fires.  All in the room had also lost their own homes.  She was helping them process what had happened, and what to do next.  One woman confessed that she didn’t even want to bring her kids to the burn site that used to be their home.  She wanted to spare them the trauma.  But Lenox suggested another tack: one of creating new memories.

“All you have right now are the old memories of your home as it used to be.”  She said, “But now is the time for creating new memories.  I suggest going to the store and buying a birthday cake. Tell your kids that it’s time to have a birthday party for your family.  Bring everyone to your home site, and there, among the ashes, have a celebration for the ‘re-birth’ of your family.  The old is gone.  The new is come.  Having a ceremony to mark this milestone is a good way to memorialize it.  It’s a way to honor your loss, and look forward to creating new memories.”  She went on to say that creating new memories is a pivotal part of living a life after great loss.  She speaks from experience: having lost her husband of 27 years to a tree accident.  “Grief must happen.  But creating new memories, having new experiences, seeing new sites, learning new things: this is all the stuff of living.  It gives your brain fresh things to think about and hold onto, in order to build a life after such great loss.”

One year later, we are all still fresh from our regional disaster.  Nobody knows what the future holds.  But I have learned a handful of important lessons since the fires.  My hope is that through this trauma we can understand ourselves more fully, make choices based on our priorities, and bounce back into new experiences that will enrich our lives, our relationships, and help bandage the wound of trauma over time – with each other, and with grace.

The irony wasn’t lost on me.

After waiting forever for the tri-tip steak to cook over the coals (as we always do), I sliced up the garlic bread, and tossed the salad.  Calling the kids in out of the pool, we passed around paper plates, and settled in to feast.  Summer was made for times such as these.

We invited them over for a BBQ, our friends: a family that goes to our church, with kids the same age as ours.

The kids finished up, hopped down, and dug into the toybox.  One by one, we called them back, made sure they took their last few bites of salad, wiped messy mouths clean, and let them go.  With a sigh, we leaned back in our seats.  Having caught up on the bits of life that we missed over the past few months, the conversation turned back to the fires.  We are now in fire season again, reminding all of us vividly of the North Bay wildfires last October.  In a sense, it felt right to bring those times up again amid a group of us, like we could face the trauma better together, just as we did when smoke sat heavy in the air, banded together, almost a year ago.

Anniversaries do something to a person.

They’re an inevitable checkpoint, whether we like it or not.

Our region has changed dramatically in many ways.

The October wildfires incinerated over 5,000 home in our area, and everything within them.  Can you even imagine that number?

Some people are rebuilding on their original home plot, amid the scraped empty lots that used to be neighborhoods.  Some people took the insurance money and bought another home in the area, so they can still reach their same jobs and schools.  Some have left for a fresh start in another state.  Rent has skyrocketed county-wide, and many cannot afford to pay anymore.  Some people have been kicked out of their rental homes altogether because the owners lost their homes in the fires, and needed a place to live.

The real estate market is insane.  I just saw a 2 bd. 3 ba. home on almost three acres listed for $1.3 million on Zillow.  Seven years ago it was listed as worth $675k.  Our utility bills are increasing.  People are surmising PG&E is dispersing the cost of rebuilding their burned infrastructure, and the ongoing lawsuits, among those left standing.

This is all secondary and tertiary fallout from the fires, only now coming into view.

We are still here.  Our neighborhood wasn’t burned.  But the we have new neighbors up and down our street:  people who lost everything in the fires, and who were displaced into rental homes in our neighborhood.

We are a region working to piece itself back together.  It feels like none of us have all the parts for the puzzle.

I think that was one reason it felt good to reconnect with friends over the whole thing.  It was a confirmation: “Yeah, that really happened.  We were so scared for weeks on end, while still caring for the kids.  We drove around with our valuables packed into our cars like impromtu armored vehicles.  We skipped town to protect the children while our husbands kept going to work in the smoke, like some weird alter-universe.”

The support of friends is necessary.  Anniversaries of trauma can be surprisingly hard, but not impossible, to deal with.  It’s good to pay attention to it ahead of time, so that we won’t be as surprised by the emotions when they come up.  When they do, we will have the support system necessary to allow them, and weather them, together.

 

I should be sleeping right now.  But I’m typing.

Because, here’s the thing:  I love to write.  I always have.  It’s been my dream from childhood.  Real life dreams can rob us of our sleep at times.  But they feel worth it, don’t they?

Along with writing, I had other dreams.  To my great luck, they have come true.  I dreamed of getting married.  Then I did.  I dreamed of becoming a mom.  Then I did: three times over.  Throughout it all, I dreamed of becoming a serious (or at least, frequent) writer.  To that end, four years ago, I started a blog, and began this new chapter.

What follows are a few pointers I’ve learned along the way – tips from my time balancing the constant demands of a young family, with the solitary pursuit of writing:

  1. Voice text yourself notes.  During the school year, I have a routine.  On the drive home, with the baby in tow, I voice text notes to myself into my phone.  My eyes are on the road.  The baby is looking out the window, or at least not yelling (usually).  I do this to trick my brain.  I talk, and words magically appear in digital print.  This way, when I sit down to write a post, I have a “rough draft” already in place to work with.  I completely skirt the terror of staring at a blank page!  Haha!  Take that, writer’s block!
  2. Don’t take time from your husband.  He works like a dog to provide well for you and the kids.  If he likes talking and connecting in the evening, guard that time.  Manuscripts will never kiss you and tell you it’s going to be alright.  Nurture your marriage.  Whether you wallow in obscurity and rejection letters, or hit the big time, you’ll want your man there beside you.  Don’t neglect him just to double down on your work.  Collaborate with him about when would be a reasonable time for you to write, that doesn’t steal from your first dream-come-true.  If something’s gotta give, just make sure it’s not his place in your heart.  He needs you.  He chose you, just as you chose him.  In my experience, there actually IS enough time in life for him, and for you.  Just keep in communication.
  3. Guard your children’s privacy.  It’s easy to see these funny/mesmerizing/exasperating little people as endless fodder for your writing.  Because they ARE.  But I try to remember that they didn’t choose to have their potty-training escapades and their full given names released into the public domain.  It’s my first job to protect and care for them.  They will grow up into insecure teenagers, and eventually, professional adults.  They have a whole future that I must consider.  In my writing, I try to remember to keep the focus on my own processes and discoveries in motherhood.  When they are mature enough, they can choose for themselves what they want to disclose to the world.  Now is a time for me to protect their privacy, even as I write of my own journey in these rich, intense little years.
  4. Guard nap time.  Yes, everything else needs to be done.  But in our home, when the baby goes down for his nap, the mama flips open her computer.  In the summer, the older kids are home, and play quietly or watch a show.  Just to be clear: every time I sit down to write, it’s a struggle.  I am interrupted often.  I become irritated often.  I have enough practice to know that my edits won’t mind if I neglect them for a time.  However a little heart that I often snap at will scar over with childhood issues.  I have to be a parent, even as I’m a writer.  At the same time, a 6-year-old is big enough to respect mommy’s writing time, and to find her own snacks, and play quietly while baby is napping.  It’s a balance.
  5. Collaborate.  Which is just a word that means: connect with other mommy friends who write.  One of my best friends is a mom and also a YA fantasy fiction author.  Now, I write zero fantasy fiction.  I’m in the non-fiction, christian living category.  But we jive easily about writing, story-boarding, fleshing-out concepts, and all those delicious ideas. Writing is a lonely sport.  When the vast majority of people in your life don’t understand this obsession, it’s a warm campfire to have kindred spirits that do.
  6. Maybe don’t do it right now.  I mean it.  As a friend says, “If it’s right now, it will be right later.”  If you cannot spare even five minutes, then don’t.  These little years are INTENSE.  Mental health is at the forefront with PPD, hormones, sleeplessness, and the great re-definition of life as you know it with tiny people entirely dependent on you.  Something as vulnerable as writing and publishing takes tremendous courage and mental fortitude.  It’s entirely normal to choose to be a private citizen within this cocoon of these little years.  Then, as they get a little older, when you feel like you are surfacing, reasses the situation.  The older you become, I suspect the more weight your words carry.  I look forward to becoming a wrinkly, captivating, prolific old bird.

But as I have to remind myself:  don’t give up on your first dream in order to chase another dream.  Your children and husband need you right now.  They are your dreams-come-true.  As such, they take time, and cold-hard work.  Welcome to getting what you want!  If anything, living with your eyes open to this reality will prepare you for the future.  When you jump from dreaming, to becoming a writer, to writing, then publishing, you will see that a dream-come-true is cold-hard work.  They only difference between a dream, and just a job, is that it satisfies your heart.  But look around you: the kids will not be this young forever.  You will not be building a life with your husband in this stage of life ever again, I suspect.  So if you need to put down your pen and jump into the mix of life with them, please do so.  Writing will always be there when you need it.  This is the advice every old woman and every older writer has ever given me in this stage of life.  So I’m kindly passing it on to you.

I flexed my foot to stretch my calf while we were stopped.  I bent down and fished my water bottle out of the stroller.  My friend’s stroller was parked just ahead of mine.  Our toddler boys reclined in their man-carts, happily stuffing themselves with snacks.   I hadn’t been on our usual trail in a while: the air blew fresh scents of new growth up over the lake dam where we stopped for a moment.  Our run/walk felt good to my legs, but the pressure in my own swirling thoughts was becoming great.  We had been chatting, catching up for a while on the trail.  Now that we had stopped, I looked at my friend.  She was pulling a toy out of the bottom of her stroller for her son.  I decided to risk the question to her:

“Hey, so can I ask you a random question?”  I started.

“Sure, go ahead.”  She replied.

“Well, in your experience, how have you made your major life decisions?”

She was in my same place in life: thirty-something, college-educated, married with a small child, and a mortgage.  I’ve known her long enough to respect her life choices, and trust her decision making skills.  But what were those skills?

I’ve been thinking about this lately: when we’re perplexed about what to do, why do we seek out each others’ stories?  What is this that compels us to ask each other, “Well, how did YOU do it?”

At the time, I was trying to weigh a million factors about some life decisions.  Nothing catastrophic, mind you.  My husband and I were just weighing the wisdom of the right timing for making some decisions in our life.  We both tend to overthink things.  At best, that means our decisions are usually well-planned-for.  At worst, it means our decisions can become endlessly delayed, as we chew over the details like pieces of gristle.

I think it’s a human desire: to try to make the right decisions for all involved in our purview.  These are questions any of us could be chewing on:  Is it time to replace your old car?  It is time to buy that house?  Is it time to take that next step in the relationship?  Is it time to enroll in those new classes?  Is it time to make a career change?  Is it time to move?

Who knows?  There is no cheat sheet for this test.

So we look around us for who else has done this “Life-thing.”  The Bible backs up this wisdom.

Proverbs 15:22-23 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.  A person finds joy in giving an apt reply– and how good is a timely word!”

As she talked, I soaked up her stories.    I didn’t realize how thirsty I was.

I’m not the only one.  When we feel stuck or lonely or overcome by our own confused brains, we need each other’s stories.  We need to hear the answer to, “So, how did YOU do this?”  We need friends and mentors.  We need to risk feeling vulnerable and asking for what actually matters to us.

As I heard her tell her stories of deciding to marry her husband, and deciding to have a child with him, I heard over and over again how God orchestrated the decision with her.  Sometimes He laid out a trail of breadcrumbs for her to follow to the conclusion.  Sometimes He only gave her an inner sense of peace over one choice.  Oftentimes, He gave her the Bible to read, people to talk to, and reminded her that she had a smart brain and the freedom to make her own decisions.

Freedom.

God doesn’t micromanage the details of our lives.  If we earnestly seek his decision on a matter, and He remains silent, it could be that He’s throwing the ball back to us.  Which doesn’t seem fair at all.  But it chases me into other people’s lives to peek in their window and see how they arrange their furniture.

I have never lived this life before.  Neither have you.  We are doing things for the first time, regularly.  It’s a vulnerable and scary thing to engage in this life, to wake up to a new day we have never seen before, each morning.

If we leave our stories un-told, we deprive each other of vital help.  If we leave our questions un-asked, we deprive ourselves of connection and guidance.  The pride of isolation ruins momentum in our lives quite efficiently.

In those moments when we are perplexed and don’t know what to do, we need each others’ stories: to grasp a warm soul in comfort, to marvel at our specific trajectories, and  to share collectively wisdom gleaned in the lonely places of our lives.

 

I remember as a kid we had a crazy dog.  The 4th of July was always disaster with him.  Whatever happened to him before he became ours, I’ll never know.    We lived about 5 miles from the fireworks, at the time.  There were years when we left him in the yard while we drove to find a picnic spot to watch the fireworks.  We would come home to a hole chewed in the fence, and an angry neighbor’s message on the answering machine, claiming he was tearing up their Gladiolus.  The years we left him locked in the house, we would come home to him shivering in the bathtub with a corner of the wall itself chewed out.  This dog had issues.

But he exemplified how the fireworks of the 4th of July could affect a smaller animal – or human – who doesn’t understand what’s going on.  To this end, I give you a few tips for you and your tiny humans this 4th of July.

  • Babies  Lower your expectations way, way down.  Then adjust them a few more clicks.  There were years when I didn’t even see fireworks.  I only heard faint booms from my nursing chair in the baby’s room.  For me, sleep and nursing schedules trumped explosions in the sky, hands down.  In those little years, a well-timed nap was more precious than diamonds.
  • Toddlers – Emphasize to your little person that they are safe.  Formerly rambunctious toddlers will huddle deep into Mama’s neck when they think that they are under fire.  I’ve never met a tiny person who wasn’t inherently gun-shy.  Wrap them in a blanket, and hold them close.
  • Toddlers – Do not shame them about feeling afraid of the whole ordeal.  Their feelings are their own, and are perfectly valid.  Shaming a child by telling them how they “shouldn’t be afraid,” or that they are just being “silly” because fireworks can’t hurt them, doesn’t work.  It does nothing to bolster their spirits, and everything to separate and distance yourself from them emotionally.  Who wants to snuggle into someone who is berating them?
  • Toddlers/Kids – Lead them into excitement about the sights and sounds of fireworks by showing your own excitement.  Let them see the big smile on your face and follow your pointing finger to the colorful lights in the sky.  It really is quite beautiful.
  • Kids – If your child is old enough to play with bang snaps and sparklers, loosen up and let him.  Have the garden hose nearby, keep a watchful eye on things, but let him play.  He will feel proud of himself for overcoming his fears, and thrilled at the experience.  Playing with fireworks produces more of a well-rounded human who can handle loud, bright, explosive things without panicking.  If you let him partake in this fun, he will go from being markedly distrustful and afraid, to a braver and more resilient person.

I hope you enjoy your fireworks this 4th of July with your kiddos, in whatever season of motherhood it finds you.