My chosen family and I were impacted by the fires in Bastrop County, Texas, over Labor Day weekend, of last year, where 34,000 acres burned to below the ground. It is still difficult to type those words out, the sinking in process over the past six months has been surreal. I couldn’t write about it publicly, afterwards. Could barely talk about it, except in bursts and flashes. There was such loss. Loss of stuff, of course, and loss of security. Loss of promises made to ourselves, loss of past, impacting loss of future. Relationships burned away because of those fires and relationships were forged in that heat.

"Fiery Sunset" by Jonathan.vail, on Flickr.

After a disaster, a tragedy, there is a lot of support. People come out of the woodwork and it’s beautiful to see and experience. The coming together. The friends that took me in. The friends that sat with me while I boggled at the magnitude of it all. The friends who helped clean up the property. The friends who donated to me and to my family. The work doesn’t end two weeks after the event, though, or a month, or even six months down the line. My family is still dealing with the impact those fires had on their lives. I’m still working through the repercussions of that disaster. How do you articulate that much sorrow? I struggle with that, still. I’m not the only one.

My partner and I broke up recently and I trace back the tension to the fires. We’re still family, we still love our children and are committed to co-parenting but the loss of that relationship is something I mourn more than the loss of objects. My tangible memories, my irreplaceable things. Things I miss. My fountain pen collection that I started when I was ten years old. The masks I haggled for in Africa. Wedding presents. The vintage steamer trunk my parents gave me for my 18th birthday. (Yup, my parents gave me large baggage, as a coming of age present.) My letterman jacket. The jewelry box that I got for Christmas when I was six. My journals and poetry from high school (which might not be much of a loss, most of it was pretty terrible, granted.). I treasure what survived, what was stored elsewhere or the ceramics that didn’t burn. That were re-fired.

My pottery that survived. Photo by Gyesika Safety

And that is what I have learned in the last six months, that everything is constantly changing and sometimes we have to lose in order to gain. That some things will survive but not be the same; and some things we will consciously or unconsciously protect. My relationship with my former partner is being re-fired into something new, and that’s scary but exhilarating, at the same time. I am closer to his family than I was before.  My most precious gift, the one gift that I don’t ever want to lose; that for a brief, terrifying few hours I thought was in danger — my children, were protected. They were safe. I never will forget the roiling terror I felt, until we found out that they were. I have learned, on a profoundly visceral level, that life is more precious than any object.

Fire is something that I have never feared. I am a member of a community that celebrates fire, we refer to ourselves as burners. I dance with fire fans. I have always had a healthy appreciation, respect and love of the beauty of the flame. After Labor Day weekend, I lost that love. I became scared. Fire took so much away. It hurt people I love, the people I would do anything to protect from pain. I felt so impotent in the days and weeks afterwards, that nothing I could do would be enough to wipe away the smoke that surrounded the hearts of those affected. I listened and I was present. It was all I could do and it didn’t feel like enough. I remember though, the friend that visited me, the first time I was alone, a week after. I remember that his listening, his presence, was all I needed to feel less scared. Less hollow.

"Resilience" by Phil Ostroff, on Flickr. "A lone fern plant grows out of a landscape covered in pieces of burnt bark and pine needles. Taken during a photo walk through the Bastrop State Park in central Texas. The park succumbed to a massive brushfire in 2011, and is slowly starting the natural process of self-healing, with some human intervention in some places." - Phil Ostroff

It’s been about six months, give or take, and I don’t fear the flame anymore. I’ve danced with my fire fans as my former partner played the djembe I got in Africa. I treasure every moment I spend with my children and I relish the new bonds that have risen up, out of the inferno. I see that though life stopped for me and mine, for awhile, that life also keeps moving forward. I’ve stopped measuring my life as “pre-fires” and “post-fires” and I’m realizing that catharsis is how we grow. I suppose sometimes life has to burn to the roots to create room for the new shoots.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

My father taught me an expression while working on putting together some Ikea furniture in college: faen, a Norwegian curse word, loosely translate by him to mean “bullshit”. We riffed that “It’s all faen”, with the double meaning of “it’s all fine” and it’s all bullshit. Two sides of the same coin, I believe.

I’ve been assessing illusion lately and how illusion can work for and against us. How a life built on bullshit can also be a life that is just fine, thank you very much. There’s a push towards leading an authentic life, a life of truth. I’m beginning to question the veracity of such a life as we use our illusions to create that sense of an authentic experience. Is an experience any less valuable for being bullshit? Depends on the nature of the experience and the quality of the bullshit.

Illusion, by gandhiji40, on flickr.

My grandfather on my mother’s side used to say that “you slide farther on bullshit than you do on sandpaper.” Bullshit is a good social lubricant and it though ultimately messy, a useful way to get our wants (but not our needs) met. There is a balance to be had between sandpaper (radical honesty) and bullshit (social lubricant) and perhaps that’s where the authentic life resides, in the middle of the pendulum between the two. Between it being all fine and all faen.