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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FIRE SEASON

UPDATE: I originally wrote this on Monday, October 9. The most damage to Santa Rosa took place earlier that morning. Five days later, the situation is beginning to look better. More people, more resources, and better weather have resulted in 45% containment of the Tubbs Fire. There are new fires further east and south, and we’re not out of the wood yet. But things are looking brighter!

You can read this article at today’s today’s Fine Art Views, or read it here:

by Luann Udell on 10/14/2017 5:01:35 AM
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

All you need is a good emergency to put everything in perspective.

My husband woke me this morning with words I hope you never need to hear:

“Luann, you have to get up. There’s a major wildfire in Santa Rosa, and we may have to evacuate.” 

I’m strangely calm, even as I write this. (Six hours later and it looks like the fire, though it’s already burned thousands of homes and buildings, and 30,000 acres, may bypass our neighborhood. Maybe.)

 

On the east coast, a sky like this means a bad storm. On the west coast, it means a wildfire.

 It’s not because I’m brave, or don’t think it could happen to me. We’ve had our share of terrifying phone calls. Some come in the dark of night. Some come in the bright noonday sun, and yet feel just as horrifying. The one where a hospital calls to tell you there was a car crash… The one from a loved one, telling you they can’t go on….and you are a thousand miles away.

 Why is it that this fire does not rock my soul to its core?

Because evacuation means you’ll have time to get away. You can’t outrun a hurricane, you have no notice with an earthquake. But with luck, we’ll have 30 minutes to get out, and a place to go when we do.  (Afternote: OTOH, once an earthquake or hurrican is over, it’s over. A wildfire just goes on and on and on….!!)

We’re the lucky ones. No knock at the door in the night, with a police officer informing us we have three minutes. Three minutes. Three minutes to pack up your life, and GO. I know of at least one fellow artist on the open studio tour who has lost their home, and their studio. But they are also safe.

No, we’re watching the fire’s progress online, receiving tweets and Facebook posts with emergency updates. We have time to act.

 That means the only thing we’ll lose is the house we live in, my studio, my art, our possessions.

It means we ourselves will be okay, and so will all the critters in our care.

I scrambled awake, and dragged out our cat carriers. Packed up medications, passwords, snagging our “carry case” with important vital documents. I try to keep the car full of gas, so no worries there. I pack a bag with a change of clothes, pet food, a jacket. My wedding ring and one or two pieces of my handmade jewelry.

My current favorite horse, and my wedding ring.​

We’re ready to go. Now all we can do is wait.

There is a simplicity that settles in times like these. There is no way you can take much of anything, no matter how big your car is. It’s impossible to assign “value” to anything in sight. Most people say they mourn lost photographs. Others take precious family heirlooms. Not me. I know it can all be replaced.

I know from selling almost ¾ of our possessions, and leaving our beautiful house in New Hampshire to come west, that most of it will be forgotten, frighteningly quick. Only the photos of what we had bring sadness, and so I try not to look at them anymore.

In the end, all we have is love. The love for those people we cherish. The animal companions who give us unconditional love, and yet depend on us for their well-being and safety. These are the only “possessions” that cannot be replaced.

And so my preparations for the single biggest income-producing art event are shuffled aside, my desire to clean the house, or even my studio, set on a shelf. Oh, I may go down to my studio to WORK today. I can’t think of anything more calming, and satisfying, than to make the work of my heart.

I can’t help thinking how lucky we are.

If we were to lose “everything” (and of course, by now you know there are various definitions for that word), we would have had three beautiful, amazing, wondrous years here in California.

Last night, we took an evening drive through the very neighborhoods that are now burned right to the ground. We were looking for deer, something we simply enjoy, and find restful and restorative.

As we drove by the multi-million dollar homes, beautifully landscaped, up and down the steep, heavily-wooded hills, gazing first to the next valley beyond on the left, and the city lights of Santa Rosa on the right, my husband said, “I love riding my bike up here! So beautiful, and such an interesting ride…” As I gazed at the extremely narrow, winding roads, the steep driveways, the lack of sidewalks, I thought to myself, “But not much fun in an emergency, I bet.” So sadly true.

I’m thinking as artists, we carry our possessions, our wealth, inside us. We carry the eye that sees what so many don’t—the unexpected beauty that’s often overlooked. We carry the skill to capture it, and share it with the world.

We carry the desire to come back to our practice, again and again, no matter how “successful” we are. We keep on making the work of our heart. We never put down the brush, the clay, the carving tool, the sewing needle. We never stop wanting to make stuff.

Today, I’m not worried about where my next sale will come from. I’m not worried about how many people read my article today.

I’m not even worried about what I might lose today: The work of decades, the collections of a lifetime.

 Today I am glad to be alive, to be with someone I love, who loves me. With a table full of cats asking gently, “Are you SURE it’s not dinnertime yet??” and dogs who faithfully challenge every passing bicycle and pedestrian, sure they are “helping” to keep us safe.

And tomorrow?

Whatever tomorrow brings, I will be there to enjoy the gifts that come with it. And then share it, with you. Because that’s my job.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. One of the cats (Noddy!) just discovered the bag of cat food I’ve packed up, and she’s sure it’s all for her.