I’m writing to you today with a new unwanted title – Fire Refugee. Yesterday morning we awoke to a smokey cloud that you see in the photo. It was evident, as we took the dogs for their morning walk, that the Caldor Fire was approaching our little haven in the mountains. We returned home and began slowly packing things we’d put aside just in case one of the many fires burning in our region came too close. Within the hour that precautionary move became mandatory. Officials sent out their Red Flag warning that our community would have to quickly evacuate.
First into the truck - what was really needed for us and our dogs. Then, sentimental things that are irreplaceable. The 1920s black and white photo of my grandparents in its oval brass frame. A large painting done by my 6-year-old grandson and his dad. A portrait of myself by a noted painter whose work hangs in museums (and served to embarrass my son during family dinners). I ripped some family photos off the walls and grabbed my violins and Irish flute.
At 11 in the morning, we joined a chain of cars and trucks heading down a winding four-mile road to the nearby freeway, a trip that usually takes about eight minutes. It was an hour before we saw the fast lane to safety. We landed at the vacant home of a family member who immediately offered us shelter. We are anxious, tired, safe, and grateful.
In an odd and unfortunate way, our August emergency seems not as overwhelming as it might be when taken into greater perspective. Consider (as I know you are) the relentless pandemic. A doomsday report from the United Nations specifically detailing how life as we know it is over. Countless thousands of families in Afghanistan surrounded by terror and fear at the hand of humankind. People in Haiti struggling to endure the most violent acts of nature. We all react to what we’ve been given to bear in order to just survive.
Under such intense and extraordinary pressures, handling so many things well out of our control takes a toll. Before the last 18 months descended, I only had a vague understanding of anxiety. But now, thoughts about what could happen, what might happen, filter through my mind unbidden. This unwanted voice becomes loud enough to drown out far more useful thoughts – like where did I leave the car keys, where are my glasses. Did I shut off the stove?
I’ll walk with purpose out of one room and into another without the vaguest idea of what I meant to do. Of course, at a certain age, one wonders if this is some foreboding of mental decline. But, thankfully, Google has this issue covered, and the culprit is Cortisol.
High anxiety conjures up this hormone in excess. While healthy levels enhance memory, an overload has the opposite effect. With so much worry about so many things – from health to weather, war and peace, and thanks to the UN report, a glimpse of a gradual apocalypse - Cortisol shows up to help us deal with imminent danger. It crowds out practical memory to make us ready to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ in the face of danger. It’s not me or you that’s failing to remember what we were doing – it’s human evolution and survival kicking in.
I checked all that out in exile at our temporary home today, awaiting the next move from an unpredictable fire. So, rather than move on to searching online for more fire updates, I decided to stop and write to you. The act of sitting down and thinking, creating a thoughtful message that I can share with you, puts me back in control of that hormone, looking for a reason to shoplift my brain. The same is true for me when I sit down with clay and make something with my hands – concentrating on a vision that I can make into a sculpture with work and time. Or when I use my modest talents to help a community effort reach its goal. It’s not things I do, but why I do them. It’s personal for me, as it is for you. When I’m engaged in my here and now, I’m temporarily free of the intangible ‘maybe’ that bursts to life with anxiety.
Dr. Robert McCarron, a psychiatrist, and professor at U.C. Irvine, says this approach can help us quell anxiety – even in this ‘Age of Anxiety. “Between current foreign affairs, raging fires, and a seemingly unending pandemic, life can be especially difficult. Now is a time to care for ourselves, loved ones, and even strangers,” he says. “One way is to monitor our mood, sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. And, consider looking for even small ways in which we can add goodness for our family, friends, neighbors, and society.”
We can take conscious actions to get ourselves grounded when anxiety seems overwhelming and when that helpful hormone turns harmful. I’m telling myself this as we face the prospect of an angry fire consuming our home, reducing our community to ashes. And, thankfully, with effort, I’m able to see this personal threat in the context of what others in our roiling world must endure. Perspective helps. Writing for you helps.
I’ll update you in my next blog, hopefully, written back home under healthy cedar trees, with only the rest of a tumultuous world to worry about.
Today, more than ever, thank you for subscribing and reading. I would be interested to know what you do to deal with anxiety - please shoot me an email - firstname.lastname@example.org!
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