Thank You to My Everyday Heroes (Phoenix in the Fire)

“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

-Gandalf

The fires are still burning; the west is still awash in flames and blackened embers. And yet, with this devastation, a phoenix was born, rising from the ashes that fell from our skies. I have found hope and love in a world that has gone dark. I found a common urgency for kindness and community as our fears grew. Yes, the fires still burn, and yet our hope has not been extinguished.

California, Oregon, Washington, Montana; all are ablaze and in desperate need of help. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the acreage lost to the actively burning fires stands at 1,652,402- and this number continues to grow every day. That’s not the total for the year thus far; that is simply the large scale fires that are still burning.

I’m in the Pacific Northwest where we are still fighting the Eagle Creek fire on the Oregon side, which has consumed over 33,000 acres of land in the scenic Gorge area. I have friends who were evacuated from their homes a week ago and don’t know when they will ever be able to return. My dad’s house was threatened by a spot fire that erupted when an ember flew from Eagle Creek and landed on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It landed on the same night my dad stayed awake with a hose protecting his home from the embers that fell where he lived. Archer mountain, 4 miles from my childhood home, was dry as a bone and lit up the sky. It’s still burning. It’s tiny in comparison to Eagle Creek; a mere 209 acres at the last update. But it was in my backyard, and when your neighborhoods are being threatened; it doesn’t matter how small that threat may appear; it’s still a natural entity that has more than enough power to consume and destroy everything you care about.

That first day was terrifying; the fire kept growing, the evacuation alerts kept coming, and the damn wind would not stop blowing. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of the fire itself barging down the door- I was afraid of the live embers that were dancing through the air for miles around and erupting into spot fires where they landed. I was terrified of losing my neighborhood, the place that stored all of my fondest memories of the world when it was far less complicated. I was scared of losing my childhood home; the only place that ever truly made me feel like I belonged in it. But most of all, I was petrified because my dad is stubborn as hell, knows enough about fires to be confident (he’s worked for the fire department for over 30 years), and he didn’t want to leave his home. He lives at the end of a dead-end street out in the middle of nowhere; and if the fire came, it’s projected route would cut off his only exit if he hesitated too long.

There’s something insidious in the simple fact that there are situations where you will have no control. There is something poisonous in the knowledge that for those life-altering moments, you might only have enough power to watch the news reports, to follow the weather and pray. This is something our poor friends in Texas and Florida know well. You might have to go to work and explain to your boss why you can’t really concentrate and why you are checking your phone every five minutes, or why you are jumping at unexpected noises- you will explain that you set up evacuation alerts to let you know if your dad needs to leave his home- to let you know that you need to make him leave. That powerless feeling; it burrows deep into your soul; you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t think or talk about anything else. You function under the sole motivation to collect more information. Because collecting is the only thing you can do. It’s a cruel twist of fate for us humans who have a deep desire to play the puppet-master of our own lives. So you pray- you pray to anything and everything you have ever believed in. Because what else will you do?

We’ve had good news this week; our first responders are amazing- there are truly no words for the appreciation and love we all feel towards them right now. They have been everything; our sun, our moon, our stars. They remind me why we all wanted to be like them when we were little; they remind me why heroes claim the name that they do. They saved our homes, they saved this little community of ours. They dug in their heels, they gritted their teeth and they fought with every ounce of energy they possessed. They fell asleep where they sat- for only a few hours before getting up and doing it all over again. It’s because of them that my friends still have their homes. It’s because of them that my dad’s home is still here. It was their hard work that allowed a young mother to finally bring her children back home after their evacuation alert was lowered. It’s because of them that I can finally start to breathe a little bit easier. The fire has grown; but they held the line and ensured that it didn’t grow towards our homes. Since the last time I wrote, they’ve managed to reach 15% containment on Archer Mountain. That’s pretty amazing, given the terrain and less than ideal weather. They’ve been stretched so thin that there are fire burning in our state without crews attached to them- because they can’t afford to sacrifice the resources. They’ve been here fighting for us instead.

There was a shift in the wind that was good for my little piece of the Gorge; but bad for my friends across the river. They have just shy of 1,000 firefighters on their side, including several hotshot teams (think navy seals of the firefighting world), over 100 engines and a small fleet of helicopters; they sit at 7% contained, and expect to be fighting this blaze through October at least. They’ve done an amazing job; over 33,000 acres, and only 3 homes lost. I know I say that like it’s nothing, but I can feel the shot through my heart with those words. 3 homes; 3 homes like mine full of memories and beloved items; a symbol for your life, a safe place that you will struggle to find again. Every loss hurts. Because we’re all here enduring this together; every loss is a reminder that all it takes is a change in the wind or an errant ember to drastically alter our fates and the lots of the things we love. We walk a hairs width out here, but we walk it together. And we have the bravest warriors to protect us. I say only 3 because without these brace souls with their spot-streaked faces, we would have lost entire towns. They did that for us.

There is something that arises from the darkness that we endure; there is a quality in all of us that only seems to show in these moments of distress. While there are still some who will take advantage of the darkness, ones who will do horrible things; like stealing the vehicles and gear of our firefighters- these lost souls are rare. Most people come together, remembering what is important at the end of the day. All of our differences and disagreements fall away. None of it matters anymore when you walk into your personal hell, you cling to anyone near you; even if you were shooting daggers at one another the day before. The world has gone on around us; the news reminds me everyday of the battles we are all waging, the ideologies we are fighting for, the hopes that we cling to. But for just a moment; those things don’t matter- they do- but, our different don’t matter. People don’t ask you who you voted for when you are reaching out for help. They don’t wonder what you posted on Facebook an hour ago, unless you were begging for an update on a loved one, or looking for a place to stay the night. My daily interactions now include people asking and volunteering information about themselves, their homes and their families. It’s found in the traditionally cut-throat litigators at work asking for a continuance on their case because opposing counsel has been focused on protecting his family and his home, which are on level 2 evacuation notices (level 2 means ‘get set’ and be ready for level 3- 3 means go now).

I found hope in places I didn’t expect it, from people I didn’t necessarily see as being as selfless as they were. This is probably a flaw of mine that I need to work on. On the first day a girl I knew who wouldn’t be caught dead out of her designer clothes and makeup was driving up and down the evacuation zones helping people get their livestock to safety. Neighbors would show up to help each other with trailers in tow. So many items were donated that they were running out of places to store them. At some sites simple things like coffee turned into gold. Businesses offered free food to emergency responders and those displaced. People you hadn’t talked to in nearly a decade would reach and ask how you were- because they remember where your parents lived when you were friends back in school. Strangers spoke words of comfort and compassion to me; they shared the stories of those impacted and brought an overlooked issue to people’s attention. I will forever be grateful. People cared. People helped. And they still are.

It’s just like what we saw with Harvey; when it mattered, we showed up. We reminded each other what we are truly about. When everything is done, I am sure we will go back to squabbling about politics and debating lifestyle choices and generally causing discontent on social media. But there will still be this experience between us; these common things that we endured together. We will still remember those unexpected heroes who showed up when we were in need, the ones that remembered where we were from and took the time to listen when we were scared. Personally, I will try to remember that most people are made of tougher stuff than I realized. We found a small patch of common ground; it might be burnt, and blackened, but it is still our ground, it is still the path we have walked together.

Tonight I pray for everyone who’s struggling, who’s fighting, who’s scared. Tonight I pray for our first responders and our everyday heroes who just showed up. I pray for the west with our fires, for Texas who has a long road to recovery, and for everyone being impacted by Irma. I pray for India and the flooding they’ve been fighting. We might be facing different foes; but it’s the same battle. No matter how far apart we are, no matter what we each believe; we are all in this together. We are stronger when we stand as one, when we reach out, when we put our differences aside and look at each other as humans. I will never turn away, I’m still watching, and when the moment comes- my hand will be reaching out to help you the way others have helped me. Thank God for these everyday heroes; they are the best we could ever hope to become. I strive everyday to live up to what they do.

3 a.m. in the Emergency Room

I didn’t expect to find myself dodging the beginnings of a political debate at 3:50am in the waiting room of the ER, but alas, that was exactly where I found myself last night (er- this morning?). Don’t worry- everyone is just fine, all will be well in time. Although I must admit, I am beginning to get a bit concerned with how much time I have spent in these waiting rooms in the past year- I am one flu away from wrapping my entire family up in bubble wrap and locking them securely in a safe until I determine that they are ready to rejoin healthy society.

You never know what to expect when you wake up each morning, what adventures will await you, what twists will turn your personal novel in a new direction? We tend not to think about such topics all that often, because we would simply drive ourselves insane with the possibilities. But five hours in the waiting room gives one time to ponder the questions of life that you typically do not ask yourself. Yesterday morning I crawled out of bed excited that it was finally Friday, and for the first time in weeks, I would be able to make it to happy hour with my friends afterwards. I pushed through a rather dull work day and then enjoyed a couple of drinks with friends at our favorite Irish pub.

After coming home I indulged in a rare treat: a hot bath with my latest book, followed by fuzzy pajamas and cozy blankets. I was just settling in to relax and do a bit of writing when my phone rang. At 10:30pm I left to go pick up my dad and take him to the Emergency Room. Ironically, I had been wanting to go out this weekend to visit with him- but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I didn’t make it back home until 7am on Saturday morning. Personally, I am impressed with my ability to stay awake. You have to understand- I am not a morning person, nor am I a night owl. I’m the type of girl who rocks mid-afternoon, and occasionally falls asleep while folding laundry at 9:30 (that happened to be my Thursday night, in fact). So for me to manage to stay wide away and functioning on a high enough caliber to operate a motor vehicle- for 26 hours straight- that was an achievement. I can’t really remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter. Probably because my poor psyche has blocked it from my mind.

There is nothing more colorful than a late night at the Emergency Room. You have all walks of life. The upset family of the woman that either drove drunk and got hurt, or simply drank so much that she required hospitalization (I couldn’t quite tell, but they were all rather distraught), the older church lady and her calming husband coming in because she broke her foot. The guy who was so high he had convinced people he couldn’t stand on his own two feet- not until he was faced with the prospect of being pushed around in a wheelchair (that was when the ‘miraculous recovery’ happened). The woman close to my age who offered me a page from her adult holiday-themed color book. The political debate that reared it’s head at 3:50am and went on for the next half hour. I was quick to whip out my book and bury my nose in it to avoid that particular hurdle. No good can come of middle-of-the-night politics with strangers. Luckily it was the church lady’s husband who got involved, and he was a pleasant, calming man, who was able to take a fiery debate and get people laughing. Then there was the lady with paranoid ideations explaining how her brain worked- surprisingly interesting, actually. Yes, the emergency room is a colorful clashing of all types, different people all in distress. And yet, they were all surprisingly supportive of one another, all listening attentively and taking turns speaking. Even at 4:00 in the morning.

People never fail to surprise me. We talk so often about the sad state of the world, about politics that divide and conquer, about lines drawn in the sand, biases, discrimination, riots, war, anger, frustration. We shake our heads in dismay. And yet, most people are not that way. Most people will offer a color book page to a stranger, they’ll help a near-catatonic man get up from his seat and get in the wheelchair- no judgment on what substances he put in his body to get him to that point. They just help. They offer condolences for pain, and luck for quick recoveries. Most people are inherently good. Most people will wave a goodbye when you finally are released to go back through those double doors.

Now, perhaps my nostalgic view is partially due to the fact that I got a minimal amount of sleep after I got home- in Washington state, you do not simply sleep through one of the few sunny fall days you are granted. Today is one of those rare beauties, and dang it, I will make it to a pumpkin patch this year without being rained out. So I got up, I got dressed, I drank a cup of coffee (soon to be many more), and I’m ready to push forward through my day. Because life waits for no one. And mid-afternoon naps can be delicious things if done correctly.

So far this weekend has not been what I anticipated, and yet, life rarely hands you the cards that you are expecting to play. This weekend was not what I had planned for, and yet in a bizarre twist of fate, it was exactly what I needed. I have been surrounded lately with friction, with tense moments and frustrated people, with arguments and biting words. I needed a restoration of my faith in people. We discover our humanity in the smallest of moments, not in grand sweeping gestures. It is in a perfectly timed smile, a nod of acknowledgement in a world where we all too often feel invisible. It’s in the few dollar bills it takes for one person to buy someone they don’t know a cup of coffee or a bottle of water. It’s in the straightforward conversations between two strangers on faith, life and love. Even at 4:30 in the morning in a sterile room. It is in the understanding that other’s needs might come before your own- so you wait patiently for five hours and secretly thank your lucky stars that your condition was not so serious to warrant being whisked straight to a back room. It is in the understanding that, after all is said and done, we are in this together. We can lift one another up or watch each other fall. The world is beautiful, even in the starkest of places.

So today I will grab another cup of coffee, I will check on my dad, I will pull on my rubber boots and squish my way through the mud to find a beautiful pumpkin. I will bring it home and decorate it with the family while eating the Halloween cookies that I’ve hidden on top of the fridge. I will make more memories, I will make my mark, and I will smile at the strangers that I encounter, I will buy a cup of coffee for the person waiting patiently behind me. We are all doing the best that we can. Perhaps if we simply decided that the act of trying was, in itself, enough- then maybe we could find some peace with one another.