Privilege Blog

Invisible Smoke, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:29am

It’s a full 80 minutes drive from my house to the southernmost tip of fires now burning in the Wine Country.

And yet yesterday morning I woke up with a nose bleed. Today again. Our air smells of smoke, is full of tiny invisible particulate, and alternates between Unhealthy and Unhealthy for Select Groups on the Air Quality Index. We bought a new air filter and are staying inside but will want to buy masks if we go out.

I tell you these details of little consequence, in the scheme of things, simply to give you a small and maybe more vivid impression of the Wine Country fires in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County. By the numbers, >5000 structures have burned, >30 people are dead and many more still missing. 340 acres of elegant houses, mobile home parks, agricultural and commercial buildings in ashes.

If we look out further, to Houston’s flooding, Puerto Rico’s hurricane or Mexico’s earthquake, we might feel a larger compassion but also maybe some overwhelm. Natural disasters aren’t new, but in the last century we humans have built more buildings, used up more space and needed more water. Social media and news technology means we now see and hear more details of suffering, we also see how important it is to be able to work as a community.

In 2017 we are both more dominant and more connected, and I don’t think we’ve yet figured out this stage of our civilization.

What’s a Sturdy Gal to do? Focus on that which is in her control and gives her hope.

  • First, she blows her nose and drinks more water.
  • Second, deprived of the Northern Californian’s usual access to the out-of-doors, she vows to dust, vacuum and mop her house. For exercise as well as cleanliness.
  • Third, she donates to Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara charity that passes >99% of donations on to end recipients, rather than paying much to staff. You can even specify the geography you want to support. (She also marvels at the work of firefighters on the front lines and officials managing evacuations. All the planning, the systems, the bravery, the experience.)
  • Fourth, she recommits to volunteering. At the Swing Left site, in the classroom next week. Those of you with different politics than mine must have your own activities in support of a just, effective and compassionate society, do those things.
  • Fifth, she thinks about driving to the coast tomorrow if the air is bad again. Looks like the ocean is still vast and alive enough to bring us clean breath at its edge.

I considered gratitude as an approach, but in times like this gratitude rubs against guilt. Sturdy Gals don’t do rose-colored glasses well, we are better off with a brisk, “Well, this isn’t good, but let’s get going.” I considered dreams of elsewhere too, an escape to Hawaii, but, well, you guys wouldn’t fly away either.

Have a good weekend. Do what you can. share what you’ve got, drink a lot of water. For water I do feel gratitude.


32 Responses

    1. @Mardel, Thank you. We are having a brief break, as the winds change, and our AQI is now Moderate. It feels amazing. And it is horrifying.

  1. The Northwest was on fire for quite some time this summer and I feel for California. We had a lot of smoke with the unhealthy warnings. Of course there was not the devastation that is happening in the wine country. One thing for which to be grateful: don’t get too attached to stuff. It can be gone in no time. Focus on human relationships.

    Hope you manage to have a good weekend.

    1. @MaryAnne, I knew you all had fires, I missed the smoke/AQI warnings. As one often does when thousands of miles intervene. Focus on human relationships indeed.

  2. Good advice. While it’s easy for me to slide into despair, I eventually rally. I always dream of elsewheres, but a good nose-blow and a glass of water go a long way.

  3. I think we are all feeling overwhelmed at the number and depth of the natural disasters. I like the thought process of the Sturdy Gal.

  4. The vastness of your fires and immense toll of human life, and structural damage is hard to conceive. You have a great plan of how to live each day, and I pray for the firefighters, too.
    We packed to evacuate Monday night, at the mercy of the winds, which thankfully died down and the firefighters were able to control our portion of the SoCal blaze.
    We did evacuate during a fire 10 years ago, the kids were younger, my husband away on business. We all packed one car, filled with “stuff”, then spent the night in a senior center evacuation respite. I recall the blessing of breathing clean, cool air, being safe and the army cots being comfortable. This time, everyone packed their own cars, with great calm. I noticed we each took only one plastic storage container. The sense of physical safety and being together was clearly etched in our memories.
    My prayers to all the families who have lost loved ones and those who have lost homes and businesses. So glad you are safe, Lisa!

    1. @Candace, You had to evacuate once? Oh my god. And then pack again this time? Wow. I appreciate that you can think of others even as these memories come back to you. I am glad you are safe?

  5. It’s just been an awful month, hasn’t it? And these fires…the losses are staggering. I think your Sturdy Gal / Small Steps approach is a good one. Fix what we can fix, help where we can.

  6. It’s overwhelming, all these natural disasters. I’ve thinking of you all in California. And, yes, I agree. I like your thought process.

  7. Dear Lisa, I am so glad to hear you are alright. I thought there would be no way of knowing if you weren’t. Your email would just not arrive in the inbox. Although it must have been a struggle (I had no idea what you would write) I thank you for your post. When you think about it, what can any of us do in extreme emergencies? The first responders must respond and then we can volunteer our efforts once the secondary part of assisting the victims comes into play. I have watched those fires on our tv news in horror. We in Australia have bush fires, devastating bush fires, but we have not seen one to the extent of this. So many homeless and a whole industry wiped out. And on the tail of the hurricanes and flooding. My heart goes out to America and her people who are suffering, in so many ways, right now. Xxxxx

    1. @TJ, Thank you very much. We are truly unscathed right now, on my side of the SF Bay. I say right now because given the years of drought, the very wet winter and then very very very hot summer, we too are subject to these Red Flag conditions. I am grateful that we’ve been OK so far. Most of all I’m sad for the Wine Country. It is a unique, multi-cultural, agricultural place that brings people here from all over the world. I think the industry will recover, to an extent, but some damage will be either irreparable, or a long, long time in fixing.

  8. I’ve been thinking about you, Lisa. I looked for your post this morning and when it wasn’t there I worried (not sure exactly where you live). I’m glad to see that you’re all right, at least relatively all right. I had a funny thought today. I wondered whether, if I were making the choice today instead of 30 years ago, I would have children. I guess it’s a measure of the deep pessimism I feel these days.

    1. @Marie, Thank you for thinking of me, We are all right – as I say above – at least right now. And for the future, the children, I admit that I too had a moment of wondering what kind of future is really available. But since I can’t control that, I can control influence a change in the House in 2018, and I can donate, and I can keep writing. So I do that. But I understand your pessimism, even if I’m hard-wired not to be able to sustain it myself.

  9. The fires are horrible…world events just seem to be far too grim these days.
    I am busy this weekend cleaning out our storage space downstairs…my husband is doing the lions share of the work but we are trying to tidy things up, get rid of things we will never need or use and giving the area a bit of a transformation….its exhausting work but satisfying….cannot fathom the depth of despair that so many are living with right now…good for you to donate and take action…I did this when there was a terribly destructive fire here in Canada in Fort MacMurray.
    Any amount helps as it all adds up and better to do something small than nothing at all!

    1. @Bungalow Hostess, I think some of us just try to get busy when things are bad. Glad you get to spend some time decluttering, it is so satisfying to work on something wholly within your control. Especially with good company to share the work.

  10. I’ve been thinking about you, because like Marie I wasn’t sure your exact location but I knew you must be fairly close to these horrible fires. As usual I admire your approach and your processing of the situation, both local and global. Take good care Lisa xx

  11. It is really horrible even to imagine the proportions of the catastrophe and loss
    I hope you’re much better today

    1. @dottoressa, Yes, much better, down where I live, and also, so thankful about this, up in Napa and Sonoma. We may even get some rain this week, which would be amazing.

  12. I read your piece, grateful as usual to find it in my Saturday morning email, but very sorry to read you were experiencing such discomfort. In one of my first forays in months—a mile from where I’m staying actually, so a teensy foray—I was dog-sitting and didn’t have time to respond until this morning.

    The air seems to be generally better on my side of the bay, though we are still in Spare the Air days, and each time the breeze blows the trees against the blue sky, I worry it’s fanning flames in the Northern California fire areas. My house host’s extended family lives in the Wine Country, and two almost lost their homes in the Atlas fire. Many of their neighbors did lose theirs. Multiple friends in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Grass Valley have had to evacuate. Add to that the state of the country and the world and it has been a difficult time. Friday I went to physical therapy confused by how much worse my physical symptoms had become. My physical therapist reminded me that my body is affected by stress. She gently listed recent events to remind me, and I realized she was right. For years I’ve said I can see the advantages of a world where we know less about the things we can’t affect. I do all I can politically and monetarily, but it seems so small in the face of the problems. For some time I’ve avoided all but the most limited news, always read, never watched on TV, so I can keep from becoming overwhelmed. Still, I know about Las Vegas, the fires, Weinstein, 45, the world war zones, the Rohingya…

    I was stressing over not doing enough of the assigned exercises when I’m at home: three days at a gym for 15 minutes, plus a daily exercise routine, and my physical therapist looked me in the eye and said firmly, “You are doing the best you can.” Such a simple idea. So difficult at times to keep in mind.

    Do you know of the podcast series On Being? I listen to it, or, rather, more often I read the transcript, and coincidentally so does my physical therapist (another coincidence, she has also read and loved and understood Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score). On Friday she said she thought my body was feeling “empathic distress,” which is what the Zen abbot Joan Halifax who was interviewed by Krista Tippet on the Thursday On Being episode (a rebroadcast of a 2012 interview) calls “compassion fatigue.” The episode addresses some of what you mention in your blog post. Accompanying the interview is ten-minute guided meditation done by Joan Halifax with the audience at the conclusion of the talk. I thought you and some of your readers might find it of value. It helped me, and I will continue to use it. Here is the guided meditation link, within that link is the link back to the interview. Have a peaceful Monday.


  13. Soon after the election I set up monthly donations to 4 organizations that I knew would be in the forefront of the battle against the dark forces: ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Planned Parenthood, and Pro Publica. I also increased my donations to my charity, Partners in Health, and joined the Young Turks. I am working very long hours and dealing with some personal problems, and free time is in short supply. But donating I can manage.

    1. @Marie, I hope your personal problems resolve soon and well. I feel you’ve been going through this for a good long time, and seems it should be done soon. You are so good to donate.

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