Molly Fisk: That We Are Helpless

How do I talk about fire when it’s this bad and there are so many, some with lines holding them back and some uncontained, roaring through neighborhoods and wineries, schoolyards, even Trader Joe’s? When my writing students get stuck, I suggest they get more specific, focus on details.

On the map of our bigger of two local blazes, the red part that indicates active fire behavior was an eighth of an inch from the name of my road, Newtown Rd., down at the end where it tees into Bitney Springs, about five miles from my house. Maps can be so comfortingly flat and you can fold them up into thirds and put them back in the glove compartment or just click “save.”

As I was cutting my fingernails on Monday, the first day of big fire, I forgot one. Spacing out is a common sign of stress and distress, agitation, anxiety, PTSD. I was so surprised to discover it, brushing a lock of hair out of my eyes later, the scrape of one nail being longer. I am usually a fairly orderly person, symmetrical in my habits. Forgetting things used to scare me, but now I understand human nature better, and also have a lot more compassion, for myself as well as everyone else.

A friend just south of San Francisco was amazed that smoke from North Bay fires could be affecting her lungs, but it didn’t surprise me at all. Smoke travels fast, and also can sit like a blanket, immovable, over our heads. It depends on the wind. Weather maps are showing that smoke from these fires has already reached San Diego and the Great Salt Lake, 750 miles away.

I can’t watch the film of burning barns and subdivisions. In tragic situations, we have to balance helping others and taking care of ourselves. For me, visuals stay in my brain for years, so I avoid them. I’m also disturbed by newscaster voices, which fall into two categories at times like these: either more dramatic or more deadpan than usual. The nonchalance seems cold to me, and the melodrama hysterical. So I scroll fast through social media with the sound off, looking for charts of fire containment, lists of shelter numbers and needs that I can pass on.

Helplessness is always with us, but it’s a reality and a feeling that human beings dislike. We will try very hard to avoid it, which is why conspiracy theories pop up at times like this: Who started the fires? How can we explain so much disaster and make sure it never happens again? Who can we blame? We want power to help and change and fix and stop and save. Being helpless feels like death.

It’s good, if you can, to stop for a minute and take a deep breath. Soften your gaze and find something to look at or listen to, briefly, that is alive and well. Half a stick of butter on the counter. A colorful leaf against the gray sidewalk. Birdsong, radio rhythm and blues. The smooth surface of your gearshift, and — perhaps — symmetrical fingernails on the hand that holds it.

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  • Shirley Harrison October 14, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    We in the East are horrified at the fires in your area. Helplessness is a common feeling these days. In more than just the weather. May you get rain pronto!!

    • Molly Fisk October 14, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Yes, Shirley, in more than just the weather. They are saying rain might come down from Alaska at the end of next week, but much wind before that happens. My nearby fires are now out, but we’re all tense about Santa Rosa and its neighbors.

  • Karen Donaldson October 14, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Thanks, as ever, Molly, for your particular voice.
    For me, this is a time of great humility amidst the deep sorrow for all those who have lost so much. An exercise in staying centered when all around sounds and smells like a war zone and keeping the gratitude close for all that remains. I’m praying for the first responders’ stamina and I’m praying for rain.

    • Molly Fisk October 14, 2017 at 2:10 pm