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I went back to the cozy house last Monday. The space looked different somehow. It might have been the first time I’d seen it without snow. The green mulch cannons had disturbed some of the ruins. They must have been fairly powerful. Someone had put an uncharred piece of ironwork where I would find it.

I wept some. I hadn’t been looking forward to going back because I’d been feeling relatively happy. And I’d felt guilty about that, guilty about not visiting the cozy house for several weeks. Of course I hadn’t forgotten. The thought of the loss is with me always, lurking, popping up unexpectedly. But being in the midst of it, face to face with shattered pottery and melted glass and memories lost and those never to be made, tears at my soul. It feels as if, just to the right of my heart in the center of my chest, there is a blackened fist-sized piece of wood. I don’t feel it as much when I’m not at the cozy house, but I know it lives as a part of me now.

In the midst of this difficult day, I found hints of hope.

The tulips that I planted long ago at the edge of the front walkway have come up.
Snail shells are everywhere. I don’t know why. But they’re pretty.
Striped squill – which I don’t recall planting – are coming up at the back of the former greenhouse and on the mound.
Ex-Pat’s first dandelion. Dandelions should be elevated to hardy flower status instead of weed. Then everyone’s yard could be beautiful.
I FaceTimed with K, and she reminded me of this split rock, which marked the resting place of two baby birds that we’d buried there when she was small. A bird had built a nest in an old mailbox on an abandoned power pole at the back of the property. We watched diligently as the babies grew, but before they were old enough, a cruel summer wind took down the mailbox and the birds with it. I remember that we held a solemn little service. That old power pole is now on the ground, burned.
But our flag still stands.
And love still lives.
And while most of us have committed to participating in the town’s clean-up program – which feels like a questionable decision at this point – some who had the resources and wherewithal have proceeded with clean-up on their own, with the intent to rebuild.

We will never be able to bring Original Superior back to what it was. We cannot rebuild history or duplicate our old houses with all their quirks and foibles. But there will be new houses, small ones with character and charm. There will be gardens with hyacinth and iris, with snapdragons and California poppies, with tomatoes and too many zucchini. I don’t know what will emerge from the ashes. But I know something will.

Today’s gratitudes:

  • Lovely neighbors
  • Hawks
  • That vague feeling of spring (though in Colorado, we know it to be false)
  • Calving season

In the cozy house was a little wooden two drawer filing cabinet. In this little two drawer filing cabinet were words. So many words.

I had files of letters from my Mother and Father. They’ve been dead for 16 and 17 years, respectively. It was tough losing them within 21 months of each other. The loss from the fire is the only loss that’s been anywhere near similar to my heart. And I suppose the loss of my pets before Roscoe and Dusty.

My Father in particular was a prolific writer. He sent me newspaper clippings about my hometown or other stories he thought I’d be interested in, along with a little one or two page note, usually on his Duke University notepaper. I kept them all. And now they’re gone.

K has a letter that her grandfather sent to her. I think that may be the only letter left. I don’t know how or why I took that one with me when I left, but I’m glad I did. I have some old files in my basement that may have copies of letters he’d written to others, but none to me. My heart tears just a little as I write that, one more tear that will need to heal over time.

My Mother did not write letters to me often, but those she did are gone. However, she, like me, kept journals. I took all of them that I could find with me. That’s a blessing. I have a lot of her words, her history, her thoughts, even documentation of some of our nightly phone calls. I haven’t been able to see what years are missing yet. I don’t want to know, because knowing won’t change anything and it will just magnify what’s lost instead of what’s left. I don’t need that right now.

I hadn’t thought about the letters and my parents’ handwriting until today, when, while leafing through a cookbook that I took with me when I left the cozy house, I found one of my Mother’s recipes. She always used little yellow lined notepads. Then I remembered. Another memory of what’s been lost.

As many of the people in my community are rebuilding their lives, we’ve also been watching what’s happening in Ukraine. For me, that’s raised some feelings I need to examine.

When I saw the ashes of the cozy house and Original Superior right after the fire, the most apt description I could find was that it looked like a war zone. Nothing left intact. Burned and twisted remains of homes. Blackened trees. Ruins. Here we are, nine weeks later, looking at images in Ukraine that look like our burned out town. Except they really are war zones.

I don’t want to watch. I don’t want to see that destruction, just as it hurts me to see the ruins of the cozy house. But I can’t turn away. Why not? That’s where, for me, things get complex and confusing. Perhaps I’ll list it out. My dearest people know that one of my most oft given pieces of advice in times of turmoil is “make a list”.

  • I feel compelled to follow what’s going on, as this is as close to a potential war as I’ve ever experienced in this lifetime. That’s scary, but in keeping with how disastrous 2022 has felt to me so far.
  • These images connect my empath soul to the people who have had to leave their homes with nothing but their kids, pets, and a few belongings, so like what fire victims did. Immersion (for me) opens a connection.
  • I should not be feeling sorrow about my own loss because Ukrainian refugees have it so much worse.

Those first two bullets are things I acknowledge about myself and can process pretty well. It’s the last one that’s the kicker. As compassionate humans, we compare our tragedies with those of others. In times of trauma, this can add guilt to our rich mixture of feelings…”They have it so much worse than I do — I shouldn’t be feeling like I do about my loss.” And that just makes us feel worse.

I have been doing this even before the Ukraine conflict, ever since the fire. Yes, I lost the cozy house and the precious, irreplaceable things in it, but I do have a place to live, and clothes, and cookware. So I don’t have a right to feel such a huge sense of loss. I have not participated in the incredible generosity that the community has extended, except to contribute what I can, because what I lost can’t be replaced. I don’t have the need that others do. I feel I don’t deserve my own grief.

Rationally, I know this isn’t so. We are all entitled to feel how we feel. But it’s a hard threshold to cross, feeling empathy and compassion for those who are suffering in our State and in countries thousands of miles away, and at the same time allowing ourselves the grace to feel our own pain and loss, without drawing comparisons. I guess, in short, we are all human, and all need to treat ourselves and our fellow humans with love.

Today is the 17th anniversary of my Father’s death. Perhaps that’s what started the tears flowing this morning, in the course of which I cried because:

  • a shirt I got for K was maybe too small
  • of Frank Sinatra
  • the middle school boy at our four way stop sign was handing out lemonade for free just to do a good deed for the second day in a row
  • the aspens don’t have leaves
  • of the people ice fishing and dogs playing on frozen San Isabel Lake
  • Whitney Houston is dead
  • it’s been decades since I’ve been to New York City
  • Warren Zevon is dead, and my friend Erik, who always laughed his unique laugh at the song “Werewolves of London”, is also dead
  • I’m not 18 any more and feeling like my whole life is ahead of me
  • I’ve lost my journals to the fire
  • of all of the lies my ex-fiancé told me
  • of how much I love MKL
  • I’ve lost the cozy house
  • of the burn scars near the turn for Florence
  • Clarence Clemons is dead

And all this before noon.

I felt better after arriving in Florence. People there are lovely and real, and I never seem to have enough time there. I picked up a few treasures, but I feel it’s only fitting to share some of the more unusual things I saw.

I wonder who these belonged to. And what happened to the tradition of casting a child’s first pair of shoes in bronze? And who thought of that in the first place?
These are the same blocks I had growing up. They came to me when K was born, but were consumed by the fire. I got a little tearful.
This lamp of a girl eating porridge is not creepy.
Not creepy at all.
Neither was this woman holding a pig.
Or this apparently handless man. But I guess that’s why the woman is holding the pig and not him.
I really think making a candle out of this image is adding insult to injury.
These twin Marys and their respective Baby Jesuses. Note that the Mary on the left is much more disheveled than the Mary on the right.
And while this isn’t the finest picture of her, I got to spend a bit of time petting Ella, who was a complete chonk. Her tongue is always like that because she has no teeth to hold it in.

I’ll leave you with that. I felt better after my excursion. I took some lovely images, as we had a beautiful day. I’ll share those with you tomorrow, as I’m going to be snowed in now for several days.

Living in the Retreat, in the middle of wooded acreage, there’s no predicting fire. Of course after the Marshall Fire, I know without a doubt that regardless of where you are, there’s really no predicting it. No one would have imagined what happened on December 30th.

Surrounded by pines here, it would be hard to see a fire coming. Today on our local news, there was a headline of a wildfire in the Southeast part of our county. I’m in the Southwest part of the county, about 50 miles away from this fire, which is 72% contained. I figured all of this out in about one minute and then I started to cry.

Is this what it’s going to be like? It’s bad enough the I have what I call PTWD (Post-Traumatic Wind Disorder). We have big winds here in the Wet Mountains, big enough to topple 75-foot pine trees onto garage aprons, barely missing buildings. (Perhaps some of you may know of my history of near misses with falling trees.) Am I going to burst into tears every time there’s a fire within 20, 50, 100 miles of me?

Once I got a grip on my silly self, my next feeling was a subcutaneous panic. I had no idea what I would do here, if there were a fire, what I would rescue. I’ve given this considerable thought, obviously, after the loss of the cozy house, but I’m still living in Boxlandia. I have no idea where the journals that I moved here from the Bungalow are. Do I just put all my most precious possessions in a trunk and drag it to the truck in case I need to evacuate? Two trunks? Something fireproof (though that was completely useless in the Marshall Fire, given its tremendous heat)?

I know that everyone who lost their homes or evacuated now has these thoughts, these fears, these plans, and feel pretty sure that I’m not alone in my sense of underskin panic. I wish we didn’t. I wish I didn’t. And I wonder if this is something that will be with me for the rest of my life or if it will find a place to live in my soul where it takes up only the space it needs.

Rescued image. Jost van Dyke, 2004.

I’ve written about losing my journals, my words, those memories. But as a photographer, I’ve lost thousands of images that were taken in a pre-digital era. And that really hurts. I’m not alone in this. The images that I’ve shared of the cozy house were sent to me by a professional photographer from town who also lost decades of her beautiful work.

Believe me, I continue to beat myself up with “Why didn’t I transfer all those images to a digital platform?” Because it took time and money and resources that I didn’t have. “Why didn’t I take those photo albums on the top shelf of the bookcase – there were at least 15 – with me?” Because I didn’t have space for them yet. “Why didn’t I at least take the notebooks of negatives?” Because, and so much of it comes down to this, I thought the cozy house was a safe place. I thought it was invincible. I was wrong.

Perhaps I should have known better.

In 2013, the cozy house was hit by the 100 (or 10 or 1,000 or 10,000) year flood. The root cellar filled with water and the kitchen and two rooms had about four inches of muddy water, but the cozy house stood firm. Some boxes of photos were close to the floor of the cat room at the time. Much later, Ex-Pat brought them to the Bungalow, damaged as they were and I tucked them away to sadly deal with later. I guess today is later.

I brought some up from the basement today. Decades of photos stuck together. So I’ve spent some time meticulously pulling them apart. The mud has acted like glue in some cases, so if I can get a fingernail inserted into a stack, I can flex them a little, then a little more, and then still a little more, until I can gently separate them. Sometimes I lose a little backing. Sometimes some of the photo tears off. But overall, I’m making some progress.

These are mostly images from my travels, and that’s nice but what I was hoping to find are images from K’s childhood. There are some – of her and her best friend at the Renaissance Festival, of her time at Calwood – but not what I’m looking for. And none as yet of the house. I’ve lost my pictures of Scotland from when I was pregnant, and that’s a tough one. That was a very happy time. And the picture of K and ex-Pat taken right after she was born. You’ve never seen any newborn look more like she was saying, “WTH. PUT ME BACK.” She wasn’t even crying, just glaring at the camera from under her tiny knitted hat that hospital staff put on her little head.

On one bright note, I have one box of albums from my Mother (another was lost to the flames). When K was born, my mother asked me to get duplicates of the pictures I took and send them to her. It gives my heart a flare of hope that I have some of those. Now I just have to find the box in our Indiana Jones movie warehouse of a cellar filled with boxes.

A rescued favorite. Tortola, 2004.

Yesterday was another day with hard and soft spots. It was wonderful to have breakfast with dear A, who gave me some lovely art and the good kind of bath salts.

I went to the cozy house in the afternoon as the sun started its lowering behind the mountains, which I can now see clearly since all the trees in town are gone. They had sprayed the ruins with some kind of greenish material to keep the ashes from blowing around in the winds. I knew this was going to happen after the sifting. Maybe I thought they’d let me know when they were going to do so, but they didn’t. Somehow, it made it harder to be there. I reclaimed a few pieces of yard metal and then just sat on the few remaining bricks of the patio by the greenhouse and bawled. I really need to remember to bring a handkerchief. And I really hope the town tells me when they’re going to bulldoze and clear all the debris. I will need to be there for that. It will be a funeral of sorts.

Once again, sitting there, I could see the trees that shaded parts of the yard, see little K running barefoot across the little bridge ex-Pat had built, see my herb garden, my perennial bed, my center bed with the moonflowers that smelled so luscious at night. The circle bed where I tried unsuccessfully to grow honeysuckle but had great luck with Cosmos, California Poppies, Bells of Ireland, and the occasional sunflower and pumpkin before the squirrels had their way with them. The vegetable garden. The new garden with my wonderful hammock. All lost. It’s still so hard. One of those unexpected hairpin curves on the grief road. I’m thinking about just making the space a huge garden until I can figure out this whole rebuilding thing.

Since I got so very sad, I stopped to visit a dear friend for some puppy therapy and delayed returning to the Retreat until this morning. It’s always nice to take the drive at sunrise. It’s lovely and quiet here and the snow is melting. Spring is on its way. It can’t come too soon for me.

I keep trying to find the right analogy for this particular grieving experience, which is different from any other. Rollercoaster feels wrong because there are no highs. ‘At sea’ works for me often, in part because of my love of the sea and how well it knows me. It is always changing, sometimes still, sometimes raging, always beautiful and unpredictable. At sea, you don’t know quite where you’ll wind up. The shore is not always in sight. You can be under your own power, at the mercy of the wind, or simply adrift. It depends on the day. Or the hour. Or the minute.

Lately, I’ve felt that my grief is like a drive on an unfamiliar mountain road. I can be cruising along, feeling like I may be okay, like I may have a handle on my emotions, and all of a sudden, there’s a curve. A sharp curve. A curve where, if I don’t take it just right, I’ll crash into the side of the mountain or fly off the edge of the earth. Those signs that say “sharp curve ahead”? Well, I’ve never been one to pay much attention to those, until I’m in the curve and discover I’m going too fast.

Today was a day for hairpin turns. A neighbor a few doors down from the cozy house kindly and at my request shared some images from their Ring camera that gave me an inkling of what it must have been like. I needed that, needed it to try to visualize it. And I was okay with it. Until I was driving back to MKL’s house, along the magic road, and a cloud over the mountains looked like smoke and some piece of music came on the Bluetooth, and I started to cry. Again. How many tears can one body produce over two months? That sounds like one of those word problems from the unforgettably evil little green spiral math book from the 5th grade.

But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m continuing along the road, curves and all. This morning at the Retreat, the sky was so blue that I noticed it and then did a double take to really appreciate it. And I was grateful for it. For me, that’s a good sign.

Two nights ago, I somehow found myself going down an online rabbit hole of the timeline of the Marshall Fire. Maps, pictures, videos that made me sad and shocked. I didn’t sleep that night. I didn’t sleep for 38 hours. This was not my “let’s see how long it takes me to start hallucinating” sleep challenge that I go through too often when I travel. This was just a disturbance in my internal force, one that fed some fight or flight instinct with a weird, insomniac response.

It happened again this morning. I did sleep last night, because there’s only so long a body can go without it, but once again, someone shared on social media the timeline they’d put together on the path of the fire. And they specifically mentioned 2nd Avenue, where the cozy house was, at 2:24 pm, which was shortly after I had hung up with ex-Pat. I know the exact time because I had just messaged a co-worker about it.

I want to ask the person who created this timeline, “What about 2nd Avenue? Did the reports you source mention my house?” A question that they can’t answer, as they are just the messenger who has assembled this data to help them make sense of what happened. I think all of us who lost houses, pets, memories, histories, and futures want to know what happened, want to be able to truly see it in our minds’ eye, so it could make sense. It would somehow give us comfort. Though we certainly don’t need anything to make it more real.

Part of being an empath, at least for me, is the need to completely immerse myself in the experience of tragedy. It helps me understand it and process it. But I have to draw a line at some point or I will drown in this immersion, particularly when the tragedy is personal. Being at the Retreat has helped. It has kept me a few hundred miles away from the ruins of the cozy house, which has kept me from going there and losing myself in thoughts and ashes.

But social media can be a fair weather friend or a horrible enemy. This week, it has been more of an enemy, spitting small knives at raw wounds — burns — that were just starting to scab over. So once again, I go through the painful process of debridement. That’s how the process works. Debridement happens over and over until all the dead tissue is gone. Of course, I could stay away from articles and stories that hurt, but I know me. I know I won’t. I know that for me, it’s part of healing. As a friend says, it’s part of the phoenix rising from the ashes. No one ever said it would be quick. Or painless.

It’s a cold, quiet, snowy day today. I had a few good cries over the weekend over Roscoe, over Dusty, and over the reality of thinking “Oh, I have one of those,” followed seconds later by, “No, it burned up”. On some days, depending on what I’m doing or where my untethered thoughts drift, that last thought sequence can happen a dozen times a day. It makes me pretty sad when it does.

Yesterday was a work holiday and I ventured into in the quasi-big city for groceries. A stop at a thrift store dropped the blessing of a baker’s dozen of books by one of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse. My well-curated collection was lost in the fire, and these were even the same editions. I felt like I was looking at my own now-gone shelves. Granted, I have a long way to go to build back my library of his work, but this gift made me feel that my angels were with me.

When my angels are with me, one of two things happen. If it’s at night, I see twinkling blue lights in front of me. I think of it as the “Blue Light Special”. The night of December 30, when I went to bed, there were so many of them that I was reminded of the fireflies in the backyard on summer nights when I was young. During the day, the angels let me know they’re with me by a tingling on my scalp and a warm gentle feel of an arm around my shoulder, or a brush of a kiss on my cheek. All comforts that make my heart ache with joy and gratitude. I have not forgotten them and it’s so nice to know that they have not forgotten me.

June 2022
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