Fire stories

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A change in perspective - By Paula Spellman

As I sit before my electronic catharsis machine trying to put words to the emotions left by the Thomas Fire, empty clichés drain into and out of my head. Perhaps one day I will feel the solace they are meant to give, but today I’m just content to find feet to put in front of one another and keep moving. 
The Thomas Fire was so named because it started on the grounds of Thomas Aquinas College in Upper Ojai. I’m glad it was Thomas sans Saint because that would have seemed inappropriate; adding salt. No saint should be blamed for any of this. 
The 4th was a bright and softly warm December day that exploded. Fire-thirsty brush from years of drought produced what should have been containable spot fires, but the 70-mph swirling inferno spit embers in all directions. Firefighters played a losing battle of cat and mouse as canyons flowed golden rivers downward to devour home after home, skipping one occasionally, just to show who was in charge. After devastating much of Upper Ojai, it reached the first Ventura canyon before anyone could estimate the acre per second devastation; one of many new records to be set on its way to becoming the largest fire in California. Jumping ridge after ridge to Ventura, it quickly hopscotched from shake roof to shake roof. 
With the Red Cross Shelter directly across the street, I stayed home the first night. The next night I watched flames quickly consume the ridgeline and was reminded of my 1969 evacuation from Ondulando in Ventura and left. 
With dog, dog food and family photos, we left for Carpinteria passing burning edges of freeway lined by fire engines. In the morning, my car was covered with thick ash, so we moved on to Goleta. Surely far enough now? I left Pushinka in a lovely room with amenities for her pleasure, shopped at TJs to avoid restaurant and menu decisions later, bought flowers for the room and the next day had a manicure just to prove everything was normal. I expected this to be a time of reflection and longed-for reading, but TV coverage was too addicting.
The fire continued to follow with polluted air so bad it was impossible to stay outside without a mask, so as soon as the smoke began to clear at home, we returned. Ah, my own bed. I unpacked, crawled under the softness feeling overwhelmingly blessed and began to cry. Pushinka is a good tear licker, but I still felt alone and empty in a way I never had. Two days later anxiety hit full-force and I called my psychiatrist. “PTSD.” But why so deep, so all-consuming? “Cellular memory,” he explained. We talked about 1969; the two evacuations that year. The first resulting from a major landslide due to heavy growth after two-weeks of non-stop torrential rains that took out the bridge between Ventura and Oxnard; a slide that filled our backyard with mud before flooding the downstairs with two-feet of water. “That must be why this evacuation has been so much more traumatic,” I thought. He then reminded me of the recent fire. He explained that the experiences were imbedded in my cells; first Thomas, then Montecito; déjà vu in full force. “Okay, I can understand that,” I told him, “Let’s move on.” Not so. “Now, remind me of the time you thought you might be murdered.” I began to shake. He explained that neurologically the body doesn’t differentiate experiences, i.e. one experience isn’t necessarily any more significant than another. Although I had feared Gordon as a potential murderer, he was a man, not a fire. Thomas; however, was not a man but triggered the cellular memory and my body didn’t know the difference.
     MONTECITO MUD
I watched mud pour over memories and dreams at random, a cruel chaos that instantly blotted out lives, and I relived 1969.  
I took a minute amount of medication to calm the anxiety but couldn’t stay   awake and began hallucinating. I found my car weaving from lane to lane, so I went home and stayed, deciding to “normalize” my life. The overwhelming sleepiness couldn’t be ignored, so I curled up in bed. I tried putting my foot through my eyeglasses instead of my jeans. My guest poured hot water into the jar of instant coffee granules instead of his cup. I decided to stay in my cocoon a bit longer. Everyone I’ve talked to in Ojai feels disoriented, exhausted and grieving because there’s a loss of control, normalcy and innocence. Most are absent-minded, edgy and impatient. This is the new normal “for a while.” 
Since I began writing this there has been a national flu epidemic killing rapidly. In one day, my physician treated 40 patients with it.
This morning there was a tsunami alert along the west coast that was cancelled in the afternoon.
We’ve lost our balance, our focus and our sense of control. Perhaps it will return when we acknowledge that we are not in charge. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and reach out to all with compassion knowing that each of us is looking for the other foot to find stable ground. Our world is unsettled. It’s asking for generosity of spirit. Can we find it? And if so, are we willing to share it?
As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” – Theodore Roosevelt
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