LESSONS FROM THE FIRE: “Safe” Is Relative

This weekend’s post for Fine Art Views, a free art marketing newsletter from Fine Art Studios Online

We are never truly safe. And that’s OK. 

It’s been exactly one week since Jon woke me, telling me we might have to evacuate from the now-infamous Santa Rosa Fire.

More manpower and resources, and less wind, have helped to contain the fires. Last night, we finally left our home, together, for a drive to the coast, taking the dogs but leaving the cats (they do not enjoy car rides) for the first time since that horrifying day.

It was restorative, in so many ways: Watching the waves peacefully roll in (unusual for the Pacific Ocean!) Poking around for pretty pebbles. (I find foraging extremely soothing. Hence the thrift shopping skills…) Stopping for a beer at a local pub in Bodega on the way home. (The Casino is an unpretentious, funky little bar and grill that serves some of the best food in the county. Check them out, here! ) To our astonishment, our dinners were free. A gift to our community, the waitperson said. We were only asked to consider donating money to the fire victims aid fund, which we did with gratitude.

Then, just before we got home, we saw it: More flames atop the ridge east of town.

Although this new fire is somewhat managed, with the aforesaid manpower and resources now available, it was a sobering thought: This isn’t over. And for thousands of people, who are now homeless, or out of work, for businesses destroyed, this won’t be over for a long time. That’s when it hit us….

We are never truly “safe”. 

Home again, we toyed with the idea of where we might relocate to that’s perfectly safe. Someplace without wildfires? That would eliminate the entire west coast. Someplace with no earthquakes? Hmmmm…. Someplace with no hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, ice storms, blizzards??

We soon realized the futility of focusing on being “safe”.

There is actually a house in our neighborhood in Keene, NH that was a strange anomaly. It was totally made with concrete, slightly reminiscent of Brutalist architecture. A couple had built it and lived there, the story was, who were extremely paranoid about fire. So they build a house that was completely fire-proof, and felt completely safe.

They died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston, in 1942.

This sobering story is not meant to inflate your fears and misgivings. The thing is, we all walk on thin ice, every single day.  We just don’t know it! Every day, we may get that phone call, that evacuation notice, we may hear the shrill wail of dozens of sirens, or see the very flames that will drive us from our shelter.

But we can’t live like that.

In the middle of all this, I sent an email to someone at the wrong address. Three other people saw it, as they passed it on and on to the next person, before it got to the recipient. I was pretty embarrassed, and wished I’d been more careful….

Until I saw these words in one person’s signature line:

“If only this, then music. If only now, forever takes wing.” * 

In the middle of this conflagration, in the middle of our anxious days, this destruction, a stupid mistake on my part let something heartbreakingly beautiful cross my path.

For me, I hear, “This moment is enough. This experience will stay with me forever, if I chose to see its beauty, and if I hold it in my heart. All we ever have is “now”. Be here for it!”

(You, of course, may hear something different. That’s poetry.)

I’m not to saying, “Don’t worry so much” because that’s not helpful, or even possible. When I wrote last week about finding a tiny space of peace in the midst of chaos, I didn’t mean to imply I wouldn’t be devastated if we actually had lost our home, or my studio. (I keep telling people, I am not the Buddha.)

I just realized that worrying about it was useless, draining, unproductive. It’s just my buzzy lizard brain screaming, “DO SOMETHING! FIX THIS! FIGURE IT OUT!!!”

Our brains are hard-wired to solve problems. We instinctively try to find perfect, permanent solutions to whatever we face in life. Our brain spins and buzzes, trying to do the impossible.

When we recognize that, perhaps we can make different choices. My choice? I went to my studio, and found some peace.

Art and creativity, in all its forms, restores us to our higher selves. 

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I felt restored to my higher self in my studio.

 

If we are granted even a few moments of peace, a sparkle of joy, a ray of hope, it can inspire quiet grace. If we breathe deep, let go of the notion we can control every aspect of our lives, we can be open to those precious moments, those tiny gifts that help us go on.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago, shown a light on people who refused to give up their humanity under horrible conditions, thus giving us all a ray of hope. Solzhenitsyn chose survival. Did that make him less-than? No! Because his choice gave him the chance to share these acts with us. Through his creative work, his voice helped us hear those other voices, which otherwise would have been lost.

Moments of courage and kindnesses, great and small, are found in the ashes of concentration camps. Stories of crucial forgiveness (not excusing, but letting go) allowed for the restoration of Rwanda. In the middle of a firestorm, someone gave a ride to others fleeing the fire. Someone opened their home to those who had lost theirs. In the aftermath, a local pub fed its guests, and even the waiters put their tips into the donation bucket.

Tiny, magnificent acts of grace, and compassion, and courage.

I don’t know if I would have the courage to enter a burning building, or the compassion to give up my bit of food to another, or to let go of anger when someone else deliberately harms me.

But I am grateful for those who do, for those who give me the knowledge that our human history is full of moments like these.

They give me hope. They make me want to be better.

Making my art, and sharing my words, is a tiny way for me to restore me to myself. And in the process, maybe I can give hope and encouragement to others.

The message is loud and clear: Our creative work, the work of our heart, matters. Our art heals ourselves, gets us to our best place in the world. In our ART, we are safe.

And when we share that with the world, it can save and heal others, too.

If you can, go to your studio/kitchen/garden/shop/dance floor today. If not today, then soon. Be fearless with your art. Then share it with the world. Give a little courage, and hope, and solace, today. We need it, desperately.

*Thanks to Cynthi Stefenoni, she graciously gave permission for me to share her words, part of a poem she’s written. (Yes, I’ve been twisting her arm to publish the entire work!)

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More horses, please. And bears!

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September 11, 2009…and life goes on.

I meant to write this on my birthday, September 11. But I spent the day with my family.

Which is the way it should be.

And by waiting a day or two to post, I found that same ol’ three-of-a-kind thread thing goin’ again…. (I mean, sometimes an idea I’m mulling shows up in two or three or four variations in my life, which means I have to deal with it/write about it/ponder it.

I always think about THE 9/11 on my birthday, of course. Not because 9/11 makes me special–terrible things always happen on someone’s birthday.

But when something awful does happens on your birthday, I think it’s natural to think about your birthday in a different way.

I usually I keep my thoughts on that day to myself. I don’t want to sound glib about all those people dying so I can have little “aha!” moments at their expense.

This year, I did want to say something. And I wasn’t sure I could say it in a way that would sound right. So I waited.

Then yesterday I found this lovely article on a friend’s refrigerator. That was the second thread.

And today, once again, I found out that someone who seems to be making my life a little harder, is actually struggling with the same circumstances themselves. Proving once again that when someone says “it’s about YOU”, it’s usually about THEM. (And I say this with compassion today, because I get that sometimes they’re hoping you will figure out what to do about it, so you can teach them.)

So sometimes someone who’s giving you grief has their own bugbears that have nothing to do with you personally. This is the third thread, which ties in so nicely with that second one.

And so all three threads come together.

Because the first thread–what I wanted to say this year on 9/11–is that life….goes on.

Life goes on, even when innocent people die in an unfair attack. Life goes on, even when terrible things happen to us.

Life goes on, even when beautiful things happen to us. I look at my tall, handsome, silent teenage son, and wish I could have one week of his sweet childhood back (and knowing what I know now.) Oh, I would hug him, and do whatever it took to hear his beautiful, bubbling laughter again. I look at our dog, halfway to adulthood, and marvel that only a few months ago, he was small enough to carry in one hand. We want to hold on to the beautiful times, wishing, hoping life will pause, that time will stop. We swear we will never forget.

But life goes on. And we do forget.

Life goes on, whether we are brave enough to apply to art school, ask for that job, introduce ourselves to that lovely person across the room, join that tae kwon do class, learn to ride, climb, drive, sing….or not.

Life goes on, whether we stand up for something, or whether we remain silent.

Life goes on, whether whether we do the right thing…or not.

Life goes on, whether we have the courage of our convictions…or not.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, we get our chance and take it (or don’t) and life goes on.

We have our turn, to be here, to do the good work that is within our grasp, to love the people that are in our care, to take care of the issues in our path. We are given that turn, every day, and the next, and the next.

And then our turn is over.

We know….WE KNOW….the good that is in us, the art that is in us, the music that is in us, the love that is in us.

And we also know so very well the fears, the resentments, the anger, the hurts, the weaknesses we carry, that hold us back.

That’s why Mother Theresa/Dr. Keith’s words resonate in my heart this weekend.

Ten thousand years ago, someone, somebody painted hauntingly beautiful images of horses, bulls and deer on a cave wall in what is now France. We know almost nothing about them, except that they must have had a compelling reason to do that. We only know they were people like us, who had their turn. And then they were gone. All that’s left (and we are lucky to have that) are the paintings.

Hard as it is to imagine, thousands of years from now, we’ll be fortunate if a handful of names–Charlemagne, Confucius, Mozart, Einstein–and hopefully more of those will be names of WOMEN!!–survive as anything more than a hero’s tale, a mythical creature. Maybe we leave a bigger footprint in the sands of time now. But maybe not.

So do it.

Be kind. Love. Do good. Forgive. Make stuff.

Just do it. Just do it anyway, no matter what. If it’s important to you, if you know it’s the right thing to do, just do it.

When you have a teensy glimpse, as I did this year on September 11, the tiniest little glimpse, that what matters is not how we love, or what we love, but that we love…..

That it’s not how good our making/singing/dancing/loving/caring is, but that we do it….

Because yes, there will always be someone to criticize it, to judge it, to sneer at it, to make fun of it (and sometimes that someone is me, I’m ashamed to say. Oh, I am merciless about bad singers. Move over, Simon Cowell.)

But you must do it anyway….because yes, it matters

Then suddenly, and for a moment, it doesn’t seem so very hard after all.

p.s. Yes, I know today’s column is a lit-tle incoherent. But hey, it was my birthday! :^)