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Notes from a Wildfire Evacuee

How Gratitude Can Transform Even The Most Traumatic Events

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I sink my toes into the wet pebbly sand. The tide of the Strait of Juan de Fuca comes in, covers my feet, splashes up my ankles. It’s cold, my toes are turning blue as I huddle in my coat and hat. I’ve taken off my shoes to do some “earthing”, a practice of keeping oneself connected to the healing properties of the earth. I need it now more than ever.

Nearby Atlas, my lab, and Baby, my friend’s corgi, roll and jump and pace. They’re excited to finally be out of the car. The two dogs and I are wildfire evacuees. We’re on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, after nearly seven hours in my small car.

For every molecule of this sea and sand, I repeat low under my breath. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Gratitude is needed now more than ever. Gratitude is the only thing that will save us. I pull on it for sustenance, for hope, for survival.

It all started eleven days earlier and hundreds of miles south. My best friend passed away. She was Baby’s human. She was found in the horse stall with her beloved Arabian. It was her happy place. It was the best place I can imagine for her to pass on.  Just days later, as we were managing her house and her animals, as I was figuring out how to re-home her corgi, dramatic burnt orange clouds started to overwhelm the sky outside my office window. The wildfires that had haunted California were now consuming rural Oregon.

We had to run for our lives.

As I stand on the beach at Ebey’s Landing, my feet in the salt water, visibility is only about 30 feet. Just down the beach, a fisherman is lost in the fog as he casts his line. If you pretend, you can imagine it is fog. But it isn’t. The smell is strong and it sits like grit in the throat. It’s not just California and Oregon being consumed by fire. Washington state has it’s own wildfires, and winds have blown the smoke from all three states up north and over the island. Still, the smoke index is three times less here on Whidbey than it is back in my rural town of Estacada where I live. CNN and the New York Times have both featured my tiny adopted town (population 3,770) because for a few days it had the worst air quality in the world.

“Gratitude for the present moment and the fullness of life now is the true prosperity.”

– Eckhart Tolle

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I repeat as we turn into the road that leads to our temporary home.. A good friend and a bit of luck landed us here at this empty rental cabin. It was open for two weeks between long-term renters and was given for free. It was exactly what we needed, surrounded by a garden, apple trees, open land — and only a few minutes from the strait. It’s not just that gratitude makes one feel better. Gratitude begets generosity like this.

Really, it all started decades ago, this gratitude.

In the late 1990s, I was going through a dark night of the soul, a phase I fictionalize in my most recent novel, WATER. I went to see a healer. This excerpt from WATER is what she said to me:

“…We’re going to reconnect you with your body. So you’re going to take a bath, and in the bath, you’re going to touch your different body parts and thank them and tell them you love then. Touch your toes. I love you toes. Thank you toes. Your feet, ankles, calves, all the way up the body. I love you scalp. I love you eyelashes. Thank you for what you do. That sort of thing. Can you do that?”

Even though the novel is fiction, this is real and it was the beginning of gratitude for me. Prior to this I’d been a journalist in London and I was jaded, enraged, a big brain on a too-skinny body. I wanted a different life, one full of hope and not hate. Gratitude changed my life. Gratitude began with my body.

As the years passed, I would go in and out of this gratitude practice. Righteously indignant at the toxicity of the world, sometimes I stayed in the rage. It made me sick. It made me unhappy. I so wanted a different life.

Only in the past seven years have I taken on the daily practice of gratitude. When I go to bed every night, I task myself with naming ten things I’m grateful for during the day. Then another ten. Then another. Let me be clear, I don’t mean being grateful for things that are not real, or faking it. I mean to really think: What felt good today? 

I learned: You have to build the gratitude muscle so that it’s with you when you really need it.

When I lost my friend, all I could think about was the joy, and how grateful I was that we had those seven years. When the wildfires hit, I stayed in the now as much as possible, and at every turn, thanked the things right in front of me. The sea. A fresh picked apple outside the front door. A safe place to stay with the dogs. Meeting interesting and generous people.

We came home to a house that was smoke damaged, neighbors who had lost everything, and a small town in shock. Along the way, Baby and I bonded deeply and she became part of our little family. (Thank you!) Yes, I am grateful for the fact that my house and art studio yurt were spared by the fire. And I’m beyond appreciative for the numerous organization that have stepped in to help.  

Something in me shifted with the death of my friend and the wildfires — I could no longer play small. I could no longer play by anyone else’s rules. It was time to fully own my wild, metaphysical, artistic self.

It’s taken decades to get here. How could I not be grateful?  

Something in me shifted with the death of my friend and the wildfires — I could no longer play small. I could no longer play by anyone else’s rules. It was time to fully own my wild, metaphysical, artistic self.

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