Our old house was in the County. The new temporary house is on the city side of the City/County border. The lot sizes here are quite large. You cannot really see your neighbors which is just fine by us.
Before the fire, our house was situated so that you could see the driveway of one neighbor and the edge of the house of another. The wildfire that consumed the 66 homes in my community consumed the trees so now everything stands out in stark relief.
Like most neighborhoods in our part of the valley that runs between town and the national forest outside of town, houses were not close together and we did not see each other much. At the first County Fire Recovery meeting, groups of neighbors were joined in a strange way. I surveyed the room and saw small groups of neighbors busily typing each others numbers into their cell phones. Over the past month I have heard many fire-affected people jokingly comment that they have seen their neighbors more since the fire than they had in years. The fire created relationships. We each had experienced the same shocking event and found affirmation and reassurance with others who had taken the measure of their barren land; with people who shared the dirtiness of sifting for evidence of their lives hidden in the ash; with those who shared the experience of living jammed in with relatives or into hotel rooms.
Many years ago I completed a dissertation on extremely stressful events. One of the things people reported is what I came to understand as a respect for others that were judged as acceptable people with whom to weather a difficult event. I described it with an old colloquialism of unknown origin, “you’ll do to ride the river with.”It means that the person is trustworthy in risky situations, they are a person who “would do to ride the river with.” Knowing the other person may or may not come into play but trust and respect does.
Dark humor is always part of accepting and describing trauma. Sometimes the humor is funny. Other times it may be perceived as funny by the person making the joke and painful by those hearing the joke. Finding the middle ground between laughing and aching is perhaps a mark of healing.
As we and our neighbors were parting from that first fire recovery meeting, I commented, “We should get together more often. There is nothing keeping us from seeing each other now.” Even a month after the fire I’m still not quite sure if that dark humor is funny or not. Perhaps we will never be certain but I have learned I can ride the river with a lot more people than I knew.