Wildfires in the Distance
We’ve experienced many devastating wildfires in California, each year worse than the last, so much so that it is becoming horrifyingly routine. This time around my sister in-law's family of eight has been displaced. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this all means for them, I know they are too. But even when we don’t personally know those affected, the cloud of anguish is palpable even to the least sensitive. We feel the suffering of our neighboring communities. Here in the Bay Area this coincides with clouds of actual smoke on circuitous route to the ocean. We breathe air that contains others’ homes, lives, memories and hopes.
When my sister was 4, our family cabin burned down. We were there for Christmas with two other families and though we all made it out in time, the scent and anxiety still lingers with us. My sister saw the flames first and when she reported it to me I didn’t believe her. This betrayal became so deeply etched into her mind, she brought it up each time we attempted therapy together near the end of her life. She found it disturbing that I wouldn’t trust her when it came to something so serious. I have similar fears of not being believed and empathize with how upsetting it must have been for her that I failed to recognize the sincerity in her terrified expression. Instead, I distractedly assumed her early appearance in the doorway was a ruse to cheat at a game us kids were playing. It was entirely unimaginable to my 10-year-old mind that reality could be turned on it’s head so abruptly; that the brand new car, the one that had already been bequeathed to me upon my 16th birthday, would soon explode in the garage, that our carefully put together home-away-from-home would be consumed in flames while we watched from a neighbor’s house, feeling chilled to the bone even while wrapped in all of their blankets.
We knew how lucky we were that this was not our only home. It perhaps made it hard for us to talk about and heal from because "we really shouldn’t be complaining" when almost everything we physically lost was extra, something we didn’t depend on in our regular lives.
But of course all emotions are valid and deserve to be heard. Comparison can be toxic, even when it is because you feel grateful for how much you have. Comparison can twist gratitude into guilt. The multitude of our various experiences of these devastating wildfires need tending to in order to heal. It's a good time to remember that taking care of yourself uplifts the entire community, if only by just a tiny bit. Even if self-care is all you have the capacity to do, you truly are still doing what you can to raise the collective vibration. Sensitives and empaths want nothing more than to help those who are suffering, but facing catastrophes like these is entirely overwhelming. We easily go into fatigue if proper care isn’t taken.
I can see now how the pain of my cabin fire experience was simply clinging, to expectations, to objects. Rachel Budde, a grad school classmate of mine turned herbalist, wrote this beautiful and personal account of fire’s capacity for cleansing and renewal. Amazingly, it seems my displaced nieces and nephews are already far ahead of me in their understanding of life affirming lessons such as how to flow with what comes, to appreciate what you have in the moment and that this too will pass. They are survivors and wise beyond their years in the truest sense.
Fire is violent, destructive and yes, can also be life-renewing. I want to work towards having the latter experience but I’m not there yet. Fire and death share a lot of attributes, chief among them the grief left in their wake. Grief can destroy you as much as it can inspire you. Inspiration and renewal aren’t things you can force into being, but you can create space for them.
Since it is clear that this is now a predictable pattern (a seven year drought means that at the end of the dry season our state is a box of kindling), "Fire season" means you can be somewhat prepared. You can, at the very least, have a self care routine in your back pocket to make sure you are at your best to help those who seriously need you. For the highly sensitive and empaths this is important even if you aren’t physically or emotionally close to those directly affected. You are soaking up the energy of violent destruction and loss and will need extra personal care to bounce back.
Protect yourself from smoke
The air quality index and corresponding health guidelines seem to fall a bit short. San Francisco has been at “Red” for close to a week with the recommendation that “Sensitive groups should avoid strenuous outdoor activities”. Everyone I’ve talked to, sensitive or not, strenuous activities or not, has been experiencing effects of the air quality at this level. It is helpful to note that strenuous activities will have you breathing more air deeply and that this will cause more health problems when breathing unhealthy air, and that sensitive groups will be more easily affected. But much more simply, everyone should be avoiding this air as much as possible.
Here’s what I’ve found helpful.
Wear a mask
It seems to be becoming more common here in SF, but yes, I get it, it’s still weird. There is some destabilization, some lingering stares. We aren’t used to seeing that part of a person’s face covered. The missed social cues we expect from the bottom half of the face cause a subtle confusion and disconnect. The masks signal that something is wrong, that everyone's health is at risk, and we don’t want that to be true. But it is the reality we are in and the correct masks really do help. Your wearing one can protect you while also normalizing the practice for others.
Last year I experienced a bunch of physical effects from the Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa, over 75 miles away. With all my symptoms flaring, we headed to Home Depot looking for n95 respirator masks only to find that the entire supply in the Bay Area had been sent to Sonoma. Which made sense, of course, and it made me realize I could and should be more prepared for next time. I did some research for masks that I could re-use and, so that I would be less resistant to wearing it, ones in which I wouldn’t mind being seen.
These are the two most important attributes to look for in your mask:
To properly filter wildfire smoke, you’ll need a mask rated n95 or, even better, n99. The number refers to the percentage of particles the mask is capable of filtering.
It needs to fit well, fully sealing to your face on an inhale, otherwise it isn’t really doing much.
This is the one I chose last year and am wearing this week. It has replaceable filters and is washable. It seals well to my face when adjusted properly. This took some trial and error over the course of the first day to figure out how to get it to seal on my face. When I got it right I could feel the material flex inward slightly during inhales. For me, fitting properly involved wearing it lower on the bridge of my nose than I expected. This is great because it also helps keep the mask from interfering with my glasses. The occasional glasses fog up I still get does serve well to remind me to adjust the mask to make sure it’s doing it’s job.
Vogmask is my pick for one to try next. They have pretty designs and organic material options. Their masks are washable, no extra filter needed, but they recommend replacing them every 5 to 6 months.
2. Cultivate an indoor oasis
Locate places with filtered air in which to spend the bulk of your time. Here is a map of filtered air facilities in SF.
Ideally, invest in a good home air filter that you can move with you around the house. We’ve had success with BreatheSmart and Molekule. One filters, the other destroys, and combined we’ve got noticeably fresh air inside right now. There is a significant sticker-shock to overcome, but when you think about it, clean air is a very basic health need.
Indoor plants not only filter air but help ease cabin fever as well as depression and seasonal affective disorder.
Be sure to double check that your plants are safe for your family - because as we all know, pets and babies like to learn through taste and mouth feel. The ASPCA has a vast and searchable list of toxic and non-toxic plants. (With a particularly munchy cat in my house, I check this list every time I think about bringing in a plant or cut flowers.)
3. Wash your face
Your skin absorbs pollutants, too. Be sure to shower or wipe off your skin after exposure to polluted air. If you’re not already a neti pot user, this would be the time to start. It has helped me so much with seasonal allergies and I feel instantly better after clearing out particles from heavily polluted air. Now would also be the absolute best time to gift yourself a detoxifying facial mask at home or with your favorite esthetician. While you’re reading Rachel’s experience with fire, be sure to check out Fat and the Moon’s thoughtful line of natural skin care products, I can’t recommend them enough.
Honor the cleansing energy of fire. Flow with it, not against it. Feel the feels, how scary and violent this change can be, let it all flow through you. Write, move, meditate. Get in touch with loved ones. Text or call. Send a card to those not displaced. Write in a journal to the ones you’ve lost, the otherwise unreachable.
Get rid of what no longer serves you, what you do not need to keep carrying around with you. Emotions, coping mechanisms, trauma, old paperwork, clothes, dishes, furniture. Release it back into the universe to be put to better use. Compost, recycle, repurpose and especially at this time donate anything and everything usable to those who are in need.
Find ways to enjoy this time indoors. Blast music, sing, dance. Get around to housework, projects and books that have been set aside. Batch cook, portion and freeze. Bask in your productivity.
Fire, when controlled, also brings us together for warmth and nourishment. This year’s fire season has crept into the holiday season, what better time to gather friends and family, displaced or not, for warm beverages, healthy comfort food and perhaps some therapeutic collaborative crafting.