We are not okay.
I had a brief moment of relief and hope in November, 2020. Until this sank in: 74 million people in this country thought that four more years of the Florida Man was a good idea. And now, rather than gleefully believing they were “owning the libs,” they were furious and increasingly unhinged from reality.
Then, 2021 opened with the January 6 insurrection. With everything that happened during the former president’s 4 years in office, and with everything that has happened since, democracy is failing in the United States, the supposed bastion of democratic principles, the shining beacon on the hill. It’s a frightening time to be an American. But so many are so bogged down with other crises (many a result of “American Exceptionalism,” like can’t get a job with a living wage, bankrupt over medical bills, can’t afford to go to college, can’t afford maternity or paternity leave….) they can’t even find the energy to shrug a shoulder over it.
In March, a mass shooting in Boulder at a King Soopers I sometimes shop at. Gun sales and gun violence skyrocketing in a country where millions stand against any reasonable gun laws, for no reason other than, “Fuck you, I like my guns.”
We are entering year three of a pandemic that has changed everything, but hasn’t seemed to change the things that really matter, like working together, caring for each other, using and trusting our amazing technology and science and medical advances to get us through. Or working to change systemic issues like a for-profit health care system that leaves out our most vulnerable, or how racism and poverty impact health outcomes.
Then, December 30. Both my husband and I had early morning appointments, and the kids were home alone for less than an hour, but still, the thought of what could have been haunts me. I got home and we decided to stay inside for the day – the winds were freaky strong and our house felt cozy and safe. But 2021 had another gut punch in store for us. The Marshall Fire ravaged my hometown, destroying over 1000 homes. It feels wrong to bury this story in paragraph six. Community trauma on top of community trauma on top of community trauma, add in personal traumas that so many of us are processing, too. It’s hard to know where to begin.
My sweet little town. We’ve traveled very little this year due to Covid. No international travel, no visiting family in France. And each time we’ve left, I’ve ached to get back to my bubble. The country feels more hostile, less safe. People are on edge, angry.
But not in Louisville, Colorado. Here, we feel safe. We are surrounded by a community that cares about each other and supports each other. And now, that community has been forever changed. Who knows what the future holds as we begin the process of cleaning up. Some will rebuild. Some will move away. Will we retain this sense of community and love and support for each other? How do we ever feel safe again?
Like everyone in Louisville and Superior, we evacuated quickly. I didn’t believe it was real, that we were really in danger, even though the air outside was filled with ash and smoke that whipped at my face and nested in my eyes as we tossed our quickly thrown together overnight bags into the back of my car. It all felt too surreal. I thought – we just need to not breathe this in. We’ll be back by tomorrow. I grabbed none of the things I was so sure I would grab in an event like this. My scrapbooks. Baby books. The journals that I’ve filled for 4 decades. Watercolors by my grandfather-in-law. Letters from the kids.
But I had the kids. And our beloved dog, Charlee. And my husband was in Denver, on his way to meet us in a safe place.
We spent the afternoon and night of the fires anxiously checking our newly installed Nest camera over and over and watching the news. Desperate for information, unable to turn away, wondering if our home was still there. Texts, emails, calls from family and friends poured in, checking on us, and I felt surrounded by love while at the same time devastated by the violent destruction we were seeing, helplessly watching the flames tearing apart our hometown, thinking about the things I wished I would have grabbed and hugging my husband, kids, and dog far too tightly.
Our house survived. We returned in disbelief coupled with relief and not a small amount of trepidation, realizing that the fires had come within a few blocks. We drove through neighborhoods that looked like a bomb had been dropped on them. We had piles of ash on our front porch, and some came in through our windows. We found charred papers in our yard that were most certainly on fire when they landed here. We’ll need to do some minor work to clean up soot in our attic and garage. As I swept the front porch, it hit me – these ashes are my neighbor’s homes. Their lives. The remnants of everything they had. And I sobbed. I’m so lucky, but my heart aches at the near miss, and my heart breaks for all that my friends have lost.
Twenty percent of my kids’ classmates are without a home. The devastation they are faced with is impossible to comprehend, and yet there they are, my friends and their kids, still showing up, even smiling through it all. Reassuring us that they will be okay. Because that’s what people do. I want them to know that they don’t owe us this, that they can break down, cry, scream, rage, and feel whatever they need to feel right now.
Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. My 9-year-old son commented, “I feel happy that I still have a home, but I’m so sad for my friends and I don’t feel like I should feel happy when they aren’t.” We feel an urge to help in any way we can, but right now everyone is so overwhelmed they don’t even know what they might need. I remind myself that help and support will be needed for months, years even.
Our community has come together to support each other – because we are an amazing community. So many restaurants giving out free meals. Clothing drives, gift card drives, toy drives, book drives, fundraisers – it seems there is more than enough to go around, and help is still pouring in from locals and from around the country.
We drive by a destroyed neighborhood, past National Guard vehicles, on our commute to and from school. I still can’t quite process it all. Is this real? It’s hard to reconcile in my mind what I’m seeing with my eyes and smelling with my nose, juxtaposed against what it should be. It doesn’t get easier, and I’m already starting to forget what that beautiful, vibrant neighborhood used to look like. I think of the families I know that live there, and how on nice days we would bike alongside this neighborhood and exchange cheery hellos with friends as we all made our way to school.
I’m not one for toxic positivity. Right now, optimism is hard to come by. A small billboard outside of our school got painted over the weekend, a blue background with the word “hope” written inside a yellow heart. It felt good to see it, and for a brief moment it did penetrate deep into my soul, where my resilience currently lays dormant.
My kids, at their young, raw, vulnerable age, are having to endure things that I, as an adult, with the reserves and experiences of a longer life, feel beaten down by. I try to reassure my kids that there are good times ahead, even if right now feels awful for so many reasons. That together, we’ll get through this. That we need to keep our own “buckets” filled even if right now it’s with the smallest of things – a hug, a smile, a good book or a fun show. Or my favorite, a delicious taco from one of our favorite restaurants. I try to reassure myself of this, too. Because this is how we move forward. This is how we find strength. And with that strength, we will be able to help our friends and neighbors who need us right now and every day, moving forward.
But, it’s okay to admit, too, that we’re not okay. And right now, that’s where we are.
*Note – there are many pictures of destroyed homes in our town circulating on various news sites. I’ve chosen not to include photos of burned homes here, as those feel deeply personal and this is a personal blog, not a news source.