Close to Home: Wearing the scars of the firestorm

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It is hard to believe that a year has gone by since the wildfires that took thousands of homes and 44 lives. It changed us as a community, a city and a county.

Losing so much literally overnight will have lasting impacts on us, for better and worse. Anyone who has suffered a serious injury or illness knows that it takes our bodies much longer to heal than we would imagine. And so it is with our community as we struggle, moan, fight and stumble toward becoming whole again.

In 1929, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” And just maybe, that is the secret to healing — that we can be whole, with homes rebuilt and lives remade, but the scars of the losses will always be with us. The wholeness we long for seems to elude us. We have changed, we are different, and we will forever be transformed.

But what does it mean to be “made whole”? Does it mean that all will be as it was before? Does it mean that the memories of fear and terror are wiped clean? At some future point, will we be walking through life without any scars?

Life now is different.

Fires are violent in nature. Having experienced that violence as individuals, families, colleagues and neighbors, we now experience life in a different way. Some have lost hope that everything will be OK, a phrase that many of us heard uttered by our parents and something we say to our children when they are afraid. Fear is a powerful force, and it can move us toward safety, but it can also paralyze us and destroy our emotional and physical health.

So how do we possibly live with that terrible, awful fear that we experienced on that night and morning of Oct. 8 and 9? How will we become whole again as a community?

Perhaps wholeness is something different than we thought before. Leonard Cohen wrote, “In the broken places, the light shines through.” Ours can become a community of light. Every kind word lets the light shine through. Every helping hand lets the light shine through. There may be no magical formula or 12-step program that will guarantee healing, and we don’t know how that healing looks for every individual, but we know there are a few things we can practice that might nudge us in the right direction.

Connect. We must come together and not isolate ourselves in our pain. We must tell our stories over and over, no matter how many times it takes.

Listen. We must listen to one another with new intention and ask “how are you?” in a way we never meant it before. Because this time we really mean, how are you surviving this horrible loss? How can we show you that we are here for you?

Care. We must be patient with one another, forgiving and kind, recognizing that grief and trauma are complicated, and we experience a whole realm of feelings in a short amount of time.

We have weathered the firestorm. We wear our scars proudly. One year later, let us honor the pain and loss we withstood by spreading forth kindness and generosity. May we all shine through the broken places together.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a former therapist, experienced personal trauma after losing her husband to suicide. Wendy Wheelwright is project manager for California HOPE, a a FEMA-funded program providing free crisis counseling to those most affected by the Sonoma fires. Wheelwright’s family lost the home she grew up in to the October fires.

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