Lessons from the Ashes – One Year Later

A year ago, while leaving Amsterdam, I received word that my beloved house, my belongings, my books, many of my animals and plants had perished in the Thomas fire.

In the surreal 48 hours that followed, I flew back to California, had a driver take me to Ojai, which was surrounded by fire, talked my way past the roadblocks and arrived at what once was my home, now reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. When I arrived in the dark, the old oak tree was still burning and the surrounding hills were on fire. Crazy winds whipped up embers, the air was thick with smoke and ash, some of my dogs were missing, many of my livestock dead and no electricity, water, gas or internet within many miles.

Adrenaline fueled and disoriented, I eventually gave up on trying to sleep and wrapped myself in a blanket, sat on the ashy ground that once was grass and waited for the sun to come up. I’ll never forget the first light of dawn revealing the charred remnants of the old stone house, the once towering oak tree now grey and broken and the utter devastation all around me. Most neighboring houses gone, the barns, chicken coop, outbuildings and my beloved writing shed reduced to less than a foot of ash.

The next few weeks went by in a blur as we secured the surviving animals and sourced feed, water and basic supplies. What I remember most is the intense smell of smoke and the thick fog blocking out the sun as well as the simple joy of the first hot shower and a pair of clean socks someone gave me after 5 days in my travel clothes.

I had heard it said that moments of disaster reveal the true nature of humans.Overwhelmingly what I witnessed during these first shocking weeks were acts of kindness, generosity, care and moments of sheer grace. Strangers, neighbors, friends and clients rallied and offered support in the most incredible ways.

A year later, as I am ending our teaching year in Amsterdam again, I can say that the experience and all that resulted has altered my life in unexpected ways. Even though I still have moments of utter grief, especially about the loss of my dogs and other animals, I have gained a deeper understanding both personally and professionally.

Here are a few notable experiences and insights I have gained from this last year:

 

The incredible power of community.

In the first few weeks our entire neighborhood bonded by meeting up at the neighbors whose houses were left intact (and who had a generator). We shared food, drank wine, cried, laughed and joked together. Those informal shared moments allowed all of us to cope in our own ways, without judgment or imposition.

 

A greater understanding of how to increase resilience and capacity.

The daily engagement with devastation, while having to provide care for my surviving animals and maintaining an office schedule (and meet a January 15 book deadline), necessitated a constant engagement with life in all it’s forms. There was simply no designated time to stop and grieve, which in hindsight proved very valuable.

Each situation, emotion and practicality had to be addressed right in the moment. This full moment-to-moment experience allowed me not only to stay functional and decisive, but created an emotional fullness and a strong aliveness. The resulting sense of clarity and alive richness has stayed with me all year.

 

Beauty and nature as an antidote to despair.

As soon as the roads opened I bought a few flowering plants and put them in bright blue pots at the entrance of my temporary home. While everything around me was grey, dusty and burnt, those flowers became my “go-to” reminder of renewal and the resilience of nature. Turning to small items of beauty helped me to keep engaged with my senses and body.

 

“Road tested” embodiment tools that work even in extreme conditions.

I used the Non-Linear Movement Method, the movement method I developed in the trenches of trauma counseling and rehab work, several times a day. In the mornings I rolled out of bed and started moving my body right there, before doing anything else. Prioritizing my emotional and physical well being by engaging in continuous somatic release not only allowed me to cope with extreme circumstances, but also taught me new ways to support the nervous system through trauma.

 

The value of “things” as a anchor for cherished memories.

One of the well loved tropes people would trot out to comfort me would be “it’s just things…at least you are alive and healthy”. As much as this might be true from the standpoint of possessions being less valuable, it does not hold true for mementos, items of beauty and power, art and keepsakes. I discovered that each “thing” reloaded a memory, might that be of travels, people I had lost, my childhood or a cherished place. When the items were no longer around, the memories receded from the immediate to the fleeting, which has been the greatest of all losses.

 

Loss and Creativity.

While I do grieve the memories connected with my “things”, I also want to mention that there are definite benefits that come from having very little possessions.

For one, my willingness to buy anything that is not deemed necessary or beautiful has decreased substantially. I am not willing to clutter up the little space I live in right now and feel a strong aversion to “stuff for stuff’s sake”.

There is also a certain lightness that comes with not having to keep track, care for and organize possessions, even the beautiful ones. In the last few weeks I have noticed a marked surge of creativity which has a flavor of freedom and expansion, something I have not felt in relationship to creativity before.

And finally, as the ultimate upside of all this destruction, I get to build a new house, specific to my taste, needs and practicalities. With it comes great excitement as I get to be involved in every aspect of creating a beautiful and functional new home.

As I am returning to California for our winter teaching break, I am bursting with new ideas for projects as well as for my next book. Stay tuned for our new schedule and a few new exciting projects over the next weeks.

I am filled with gratitude for everyone I had the privilege to engage with this year, both in our events and online. Your messages, support, participation and exploration are the fuel for the year to come!

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