I am writing today with a heavy heart. My beautiful California is burning.
This article is not about politics or environmentalism, these are covered elsewhere. I want to talk about pain and grief, about loss, not just of these precious forests, but identity and heritage, and the need to mourn.
I am a native Northern Californian with a long history in San Francisco so I have been up and down the North Coast all my life. There is nowhere I feel more alive than in the mountains and trees. My pulse skips a beat when I touch the bark of a living thing that can be 2,000 years old. These are our antiquities, our pyramids, our castles, and they are here in my backyard. They are part of me, as surely as the Pacific and the cable cars. I am proud of our woods and forests.
Choking on smoke in my home, knowing that some of my friends are evacuating and waiting to hear if they are ok is heartbreaking. Big Basin is burned, no idea yet about the ancient trees there. So much more; too much to list here.
Everyone has a touchstone, something they feel deeply about. It could be your place of birth, something built by your distant ancestors or a particular animal you associate with your home. It is anything that fills you with some pride, peace, memories, something that embraces your heart.
If that thing is taken from you, if it is destroyed in some way, it can hurt very deeply. It can cut to the core of who you are, and it can indeed cause you to grieve. That is human, it is a human reaction.
And it is legitimate.
As of this writing, 174,290 people have died in the U.S. from Covid-19, according to John Hopkins. They leave behind family, friends, children, people who love them, rely on them, children who are now orphans, scared, and alone. I can’t even conceive of this pain and the bills that go with it.
Chris and I are healthy, our families are healthy, we are holding on just fine. We are not directly affected by the fires other than the smoke. The likelihood that it will his San Francisco is near 0. (I’m not going to tempt 2020.) But that doesn’t mean the pain of watching the state I love, the parks where I’ve spent so much time, the trees I hold as part of my identity isn’t real or less than.
All of our pain and losses can easily be measured against a greater pain, most of the time. My grief is less than a corona virus death. Worry about rent is less than being homeless. Being homeless is less than living in a war zone, terrified every moment, every time there’s the whistle of a bomb, with no idea where it will land. Compared to that, our day to day problems are small.
“People have it worse than you.”
Please stop saying that. It’s hurtful, scolding, self-righteous drivel that helps no one and can do damage. We are all doing the best we can, and we all face hard times. We need to hear soft things if possible, just “I care, I’m here for you, that’s awful.” Later, time can be spent trying to figure things out, fix them or come to peace that there is nothing you can do about it, and try to let it go, try to find comfort whatever that means to you.
As of this writing, there are 174,290 people dead, leaving families to mourn in a way that I can’t begin to understand. So in that respect, “some people have it worse” is objectively true, and I think it’s good to acknowledge that to ourselves, in our own time.
One’s own pain is not less than. Your pain, fear, and stress are real to you and meaningful to you, as mine is to me. It’s not a contest. I’m mourning this loss, even with the knowledge that everything will heal.
We hear this a lot, those of us with a mental illness. “It’s not so bad, others have it worse, just snap out of it.”
I’ve written about this before but with everything going on I believe it’s worth repeating.
Your mental illness is real. It is physical.* It is not something we can “snap out” of or simply change our attitude and be happy. It’s simply not, and telling people they are faking or otherwise demeaning them or diminishing their pain is dangerous. No, it’s not covid. It’s not a child in a cage ripped from their parents. But it is real and it can be debilitating.
This is a hard time for everyone. Fear, worry, the desire to go back to “real life” are all there. I understand and I feel it too, of course. Recently, every now and then, when the wind was just right, I could hear the Golden Gate Bridge scream from some four miles away. Not a sweet, gentle sort of whistle, no. It was a high pitched, piercing sound like a tin piccolo, non-stop, as long as the wind blew that way. (For the record, they had installed some barriers for the bike path, and had no idea they were putting in an amelodic one-pitched harmonica for a giant grade-school band.) It was a perfect metaphor for 2020; even the bridge was having an existential crisis.
I don’t know when the fires will be contained. I don’t know how much we are going to lose. I don’t know when the Shelter-in-Place will finally end, when I can go to dinner and a movie, or travel to another country. But it will end eventually. We will go back to some kind of normal. We really will.
On October 25th Chris and I will celebrate 20 years. I planned to share the milestone with friends and laughter. That isn’t going to happen, but we are healthy and we will share it at home together with our friends electronically. Not ideal, but still a celebration. Life will go on, and trees will regrow, but for now, I mourn, I ache. For now, part of my heart has been bruised.
I personally at 52-years-old have never seen a year like 2020. Not in my wildest pessimistic dreams did I imagine this train wreck. Being powerless is hard but also an exercise in letting go. Honor your pain, it’s real and it matters, but don’t let it own you or destroy you.
Do as the beautiful bridge did…scream, but stand tall, and blare your fog horns when you need to. Ok, that last part doesn’t apply but you know. Fight.
If you are alone at home, please reach out to your friends and family. I’ve included a couple of resources as well if you need them.
* There is always debate about the nature and cause of mental illness. I subscribe to the belief that it is physical and genetic, based on my own experiences, observations, and discussions with doctors.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.