By Kate Kerry Spencer
Silent Night, one of the oldest carols, tells of shepherds watching their flocks by night—dedicated, determined and vigilant. The recent wildfires in Northern California had such a shepherd too, a four-legged Anatolian shepherd mix named Madison, who lived in Paradise.
When fire roared through Paradise like a monster from hell, there was no time to do anything but flee. In the chaotic flight for life, the dog and its owner were separated. Many people didn’t escape the fire and many who tried to escape died in flight. Those who lived were left to pick up the pieces of what was left of their lives. Madison’s owner was one of them.
While she waited the fire out from a safe distance, Madison’s owner contacted an animal rescuer who spotted the dog near the home. An outside guard dog, Madison was skittish about coming to strangers, but the animal rescuer left food and water regularly.
Madison ate, drank and continued to keep watch over what remained of the home for more than a month. Alone, frightened and removed from almost everything familiar, Madison waited for the return of his human. And finally, they were reunited.
From the ashes of the fire, both human and dog will live on, and through, to a new life. Paradise lost will, inch-by-heart-wrenching-inch, be found. It won’t be the same. Nothing after a disaster is ever the same. The good that remains will be cherished more deeply, and the good that was lost will be mourned with greater heartache.
There are lessons to be learned from any disaster. These lessons can make us stronger at the broken places and more grateful for all that remains in the face of even our deepest losses. And in the good times, these lessons make us more capable of genuine gratitude.
Remember What Really Matters
People literally running for their lives don’t think about possessions, they think about who and what they love and the risk to both. They think about their kids, their family and friends, and the life they share in good times and bad. Yes, they think about practical things too, like their cars that will aid in their escape, but the car in these cases is simply seen for what it is, a vehicle for moving life forward and, in emergencies, toward survival .
Think about what you cherish in life more often. Think about what your life would be like without these touchstones of love, laughter, solace and grace. Decide to consciously think about the value of those people, pets, places and unique touchstones in your life.
Think about the people you love more often, what specifically you love about them, and how well you show that love to them. Think about telling these people about all those good things today. And after you think about doing it, do it.
Accept the Help You are Offered, Give the Help You Can
Like Madison, the dog from Paradise, all of us will find ourselves dependent on the goodwill of others sometime in our lives. Whether it’s a life-saving bowl of food when we are hungry or the help of a neighbor doing chores we can’t currently do, accepting the help of others blesses the receiver and the giver. Decide to be both in this life and then find a way to be that in a consistent way. Make it something that is genuinely doable, sustainable and meaningful for you.
Donating money is helpful, but donating time, care and focused attention brings you closer to the shared humanity of others and your own. In any case, don’t wait for the grand gesture or the wide open weekend. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Sit, Stay, Watch
We are an action-oriented society, with spreadsheets, calendars and to-do lists. Action makes us feel like we are doing something important and meaningful, which we often actually are. But there are circumstances in every life that invite and often demand that we slow down to the reality of conditions that will not change, improve or even be fully grasped without the grace of time, and the time of grace.
The natural world has its own rhythms and cycles. Natural disasters and catastrophic circumstances happen to every generation, and every generation regenerates itself to a new normal. Now, more than ever, the impact of the human mind and heart on both natural and human-made disasters is inestimable, both for the better and for the worse.
What we do with our intellectual and emotional intelligence directly impacts the world like no other creature and with enduring consequences. Making the time to sit, stay and watch over what is priceless in our personal and collective lives is part of the work of creating a sustainable world for those who come long after us.
Never Give Up
As long as we are living, there is hope for a new day. As long as we are caring, there is a bowl of food and a place for healing. Humans have an innate ability to spring back, rebuild and reset to a new normal. Sometimes it takes a fire to bring the rain.
The old carol tells of a silent night where all is calm and all is bright. While that may still be a distant dream for many, both in Paradise and around the world, never forget that it remains a possible dream for all.
Tonight, go outside and look up to the sky. Whether or not you can see them, the stars are there. Acknowledge their presence and give them some thanks for their sparkling presence in the dark sky. Put your hand on your heart and with every inhalation, silently repeat to yourself,
“Let there be peace on Earth.”
With each exhalation, silently repeat to yourself,
“Let peace begin with me.”
Let the night sky be a canvas of your brightest dreams. Think about how peace might begin with you, right in this very moment.
Kate Kerry Spencer is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and publisher. Learn more about her upcoming memoir, Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Cigarettes.
Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For this mother and daughter it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love.