Over the past 21 months since we lost our house to the wildfire that took most of our neighborhood where we lived in the summer of 2012, we have had multiple opportunities to experience feelings of unease, disquiet, and discontinuity.
I specifically do not use the words anxiety and stress because they are not specific nor are they quite what I feel we have experienced. Of course, there have been enormously stressful times and at times we have experienced sincere anxiety about things such as where we were to live next or dealing with my health issues.
As I write this I am unsure among, unease, disquiet and discontinuity, which is the most concerning. I suspect that disquiet rings the bell for both my spouse and for me. Feeling uneasy might have a nebulous cause but over the past nearly two years for us uneasy had a direct link to something. We felt uneasy about spending money. We have felt uneasy about how to talk to people about the fire. We have felt uneasy sleeping in new beds yet again. We have felt uneasy driving our replacement Subaru. We have felt uneasy relying on our 2005 car as the “new one” since it is front wheel drive and has gone far beyond the call of duty in bad road conditions it is not a four wheel drive. We have felt uneasy about leaving behind friends when we retired moved. We felt uneasy making decision after decision in the crashing, thunderous, chaotic early post-fire recovery time. We have felt uneasy about our eating habits that waffle between excellent and horrible when they used to be excellent.
Discontinuity is easy to understand for us. The continuity of our lives and three generations before us was well established in our home before it burned. We lost all of the things that connected us to our past and to the history of the things we loved to collect. The continuity of our lives going from hotel to 6,000 square foot house to ski condo back to the huge house, to a vacation condo only to move out to allow the owners to vacation, move back in while they were gone, then move out again to a hotel while we waited, still, for our own place to live. Now that we have some sort of continuity since we are living in our own house but only in the small part of the basement while the house is built around us. We have an ongoing crisis of discontinuity trying to find things that are in our warehouses. You would think it impossible to lose so many things when you lost everything just 21 months ago. I am still confused at how we have so much stuff, and how we cannot find what we know we put there when we go to look for it. There is discontinuity in part because we started building one house, when we were still working, in a town in the high mountain desert with an eye toward selling it within two to three years and now we are retired living in a house we want to stay in and it is in the wet, gray Pacific Northwest. When we packed our lives up to move from Idaho to Montana, more than two thirds of what we brought were building materials. We are still hunting for things. Some things ended up in boxes that were nothing like what you would expect them to be in. Other things ended up smashed in the back of a 30 ft long warehouse and we just could not get back to them. Some things we have not found yet. This is discontinuity.
Disquiet. The thesaurus says it means the same as unease and even anxiety. Perhaps that is true but I think the quiet part in the word is important. We are, by nature, quite people who spend time with close friends and family. We don’t go to parties much. We watch home videos and don’t go to bars. We go camping and hiking rather than to amusement parks. We share with others but mostly we are happy to be with each other and to be quiet. The fire has forced us into living differently. For the first few months after the fire everyone was looking for the “fire victims.” The looking ranged from genuine concern and a desire to help the victims to outright voyeurism. Regardless of the quality of it, we were on display. We learned that we needed to let other people experience the fire though us and that it was very important for them. It may seem odd but many times our process and our fire became the crisis of someone who was in relationship with us even if it was a casual conversation in the waiting area at an airport.
I don’t know when we learned how important it was to slow down and let people have a moment when they found out about our house burning. We have lived with our fire for 638 days. To us it is factual history in our family. It is something that just downright sucked but for us it is not today nor was it yesterday or last month or even last year. For someone who just learns of our fire, the moment is fresh and right then. We tend to say, “Oh, our house burned down so we are building a new one now. We are so excited about the new house. When it is finally finished we are looking forward to spending more time together and just taking it easy in our retirement.” To us the focus is on finishing the house and stopping the constant busyness of building the house. To the listener the conversation suddenly becomes one of “They lost their house to a wildfire.” We have to stop and let people catch up with us. We become the nurturers and they the ones who need to be reassured in their horror that the scary things they read about or hear on the news have happened to someone they meet. The scary things suddenly become more real.
We appreciated and have depended on the caring that people have given us, and still do. Because of my work in traumatic stress, I know how important it is to understand and respect compassion. It is the stuff of hope and the stuff of forgiveness and of the redemption of hope. If someone else existence is vitally touched by our experiences we are genuinely touched. We also want to be respectful of the gut-sucking moment that comes with considering that something really bad could happen to you. Meeting people who have had those really bad experiences makes the bad really real. Sometimes people already know that really bad things are real and in the the interaction with us we may accidental make them experience their own stories.
We don’t feel uneasy about that when it happens. We don’t feel discontinuity. If anything we feel continuity through peoples lives as they share their their sorrowful experiences with us and we with them. There is a continuity of story that speaks to the bad things that happened and the human will that responds to it. For better or for worse, the responses are of a whole. They are about us as humans trying to make meaning in our lives.
Mostly at this point we don’t live with the fire. We live with the life we have gathered about us in the past 21 months since the fire. Not everything is new anymore. We have to replace things that have worn out. We don’t smell like the fire and we don’t still smell the fire as we did for so many months after it came. Our life as a journey from the fire to the new house has continuity. It is a continuous story punctuated by things that we lose, that wear out or we don’t like.
The past few weeks our remembrances of the fire have been heightened by the impending move upstairs from our basement apartment to a house that is all our own and not inhabited by work crews. In these last days we have done multiple-hour major reorganizations of the warehouses. We are looking for the final building things. The warehouses are emptying out. As we do these major reorganizations, it runs through our minds that this might be the last time we rearrange boxes before we move all of our things to the house. It is a sharp catching of the breath here at the threshold of moving from the burned house to the replacement house. It is a strange bittersweet sorrow of yet another change. That is disquiet.