Wind whipped through our mountain-rimmed valley on a bluebird day this November. It was the kind of wind that rattles chimney caps and slams screen doors open or closed. It was the kind of wind which, once it starts, we know will likely last three days, flinging most of the sparkling deciduous leaves from their dancing branches to the ground.
Perhaps because I’m a November baby, I used to love this wind for the ways it lifts us and carries us ready-or-not toward winter. I liked windy days for the vip and vim and vigor of them, the clearing of the air.
But not since the Almeda & Obenchain Fires. Even on a clear blue November day, a whipping wind now sets me on edge. I am more distracted, more jumpy, more likely to lose my train of thought, check the landscape out the window, not wanting to commute too far away from my kids or spouse, and have difficulty falling asleep.
Climate danger can be felt in our bodies
In my valley, I’m not alone. Since September 2020, when “red-flag warning” winds fanned the flames that licked up the creek valley floor on an innocent Tuesday morning of COVID-online schooling, we have joined communities recovering from climate-change exacerbated disasters who can feel that climate danger in our bodies. We weren’t the only community in Oregon to suffer from wildfire that record-breaking year, but in the Almeda Fire area near me, more than 2,800 structures were destroyed, most of them residential homes and small or family-owned businesses. Unbelievably, the death toll that day remained just a few. But as in most climate disasters, the poor, elderly, disabled, underinsured, and immigrant communities were hit disproportionately hardest as the fire decimated the primary affordable housing in our valley. A wider circle of people who did not lose property suffered the impact of traumatic evacuation or family separation.
Traumatized bodies refuse to be ignored
Not every disaster, accident, or loss necessarily becomes trauma. When they do, the evidence often appears first in our bodies: the insomnia, the agitation, the pacing when the wind picks up. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score became a pandemic bestseller precisely because these traumatized bodies refuse to be ignored.
At first this can seem like a betrayal. One of my siblings quipped, “It would be easier if my body just forgot the score once-in-awhile.”
The symptoms are inconvenient. But the times I’ve been able to remember that even these inconveniences are my body trying to help me, trying to be “my ally,” as Sonya Renee Taylor wrote, are the times I’ve also found hope in this traumatized body—not despite its symptoms but because of its symptoms and what they communicate.
Working with fire survivors has been an exercise in finding hope precisely in the bodies that can feel broken or irreparably scarred.
What are our bodies telling us?
One fire survivor lived through accidents, losses, disability—even a home robbery—in the 6+ decades leading up to our 2020 fires. He’d built an identity as someone who could take almost any hit and just keep on keeping on. He’d never been one to cry, either. But as he struggled this past fall on the re-traumatizing merry-go-round of fire recovery-involved agencies and case workers, he found himself crying spontaneously at movies or a show and wondering what was wrong with himself, who he even was anymore.
Family members don’t understand. “They just know me as that guy who can do anything,” he told me. “I’m not that person anymore. I can’t do it all anymore.”
“It sounds to me like your body is doing its job,” I said. “Your body knows you can’t do it all, can’t hold it all. That crying is a release valve. Your body is saying, ‘Too much.’ It’s too much.”
“Hmm,” he said. “It’s a release valve. It is.”
Our bodies are our allies. If we can receive what they tell us with compassion.
Stepping forward together in hope
I’m not always very reliable at acting on the information my own body shares with me.
But on September 11 itself this year—the 2-year anniversary of the fire—I took a step in the right direction not only for myself but for the community I support as a chaplain.
A group of survivors and recovery partners met at a local community center and Presbyterian church. It’s an old church, one that still keeps a working tower bell above the white clapboard siding. I’d been asked to offer some kind of grounding exercise, so I adapted “The Seven Steps of Morning” that Joyce Rupp describes in Out of the Ordinary, inviting those in the sanctuary to “walk” with me, taking seven steps forward together with our feet (or with our hands for those who remained seated). One small step is taken for each of the seven words, but it goes slowly so everyone who wants or needs to repeat the word can repeat it as necessary, letting it reverberate through their body before moving on.
“Our first step is that of gratitude,” I said, taking a small step forward and pausing.
“Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude … ” the word echoed in different voices from different corners all throughout the sanctuary. “Gratitude for the gift of another fresh day of life,” I continued. A slow breath in. A slow breath out.
“Our second step is that of love.” I stepped forward and paused.
“Love, love, love” echoed throughout the sanctuary, in English interspersed with the Spanish. “Amor, amor, amor.” When the echo diminished I concluded, “Love for the One, the Source of Life, and all of our dear ones.”
“Our third step is that of hope.” I stepped forward. “Hope, hope, esperanza, hope, esperanza…”
“Hope,” I said, “Esperanza … for the possibility of growth in each moment.”
As each of these words reverberated through our bodies, the sound waves seemed to connect us to one another in that place.
Shortly afterward attendees stood together outside on the lawn in silence as that unmistakable church bell rang out the hour the first 911 call was made in September 2020.
Our bodies reverberated with the shared pain of all we’d lost.
Our bodies also rang with shared hope for how we might move forward together.
Questions for reflection:
- Can you think of a time you felt “climate danger” in your body?
- Whose bodies are you connected with in your community? By shared pain? By shared experience? By shared hope?
- Do you feel like you can “hear” what your body is saying to you? If not, you may want to try one or two guided body scan exercises. These bring awareness to both the ease and the tension we hold in our bodies, and many examples can be found online.
- Where does your body feel most safe and at ease?
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
- Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk