What a bizarre feeling it was, lying in our tent with my eyes stinging and my lungs aching from smoke, checking my laptop yet again for an update of the air quality forecast. Periodically, I’d then switch to the screen I’d kept open in order to track the progress of Irma, knowing our dear friends in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) were preparing for the Class 5 hurricane that was predicted to sweep directly across their idyllic island home. Meanwhile, I get a text from my daughter in Portland, saying it was literally raining ash, as winds carried in the sooty reminder that most of their favorite natural forest area along the Gorge was up in flames, and moving closer.
I felt like I was in a scene from an Armageddon movie.
We’d been looking forward to our family’s annual camping trip – a week at our favorite high mountain lake. My husband, Ken, and I were going to go set up camp, then a couple days later be joined by my daughter, son-in-law and new grandpuppy. But numerous forest fires in the area had forced cancellation of that plan, and driven us west instead of east, in search of clean ocean air – us and everyone else who’d been planning to go to the mountains! Not to mention those who were apparently making an impromptu Labor Day day-trip to the coast, in hopes of giving their lungs a break from the unsafe levels of smoke that had been hanging around in the Valley for several days.
In the forty years I’ve lived in the Willamette Valley, I have never seen that many people on the Oregon Coast. Again, the bumper-to-bumper traffic was like a scene from a doomsday movie, as everyone searched in vain for someplace they could… well, breathe!
We spent many hours – like, eight of them – driving further and further north, checking out campsites as we went, in hopes the smoke would clear. Though not as thick as we’d come from, even here it was still smoky. Another first for me. I felt a real sense of grief, as my beloved Oregon coast, which had always offered solitude and renewal, was not even coughing up (pun intended) an open campsite, let alone clean air, anywhere!
Finally, after searching in vain all the way up the coast, we headed inland, in hopes of finding a spot at a little campground we’d heard of that was off the beaten path. But after 45 more minutes of windy roads, we discovered not only was the campground closing the next day, but even camping off-road was not an option due to smoke levels, which had gotten worse again as we’d driven inland.
Sparing more detail, suffice to say we ended up in a hotel that night. In Tillamook. (Of cheese fame.) It’s a few miles inland from the ocean. When I asked the desk clerk what the smell was we’d noticed on the way in, (“Am I smelling fish, this far inland?”) she said, “Fish? Nah, it usually it smells like cows.”
Duh. We were in cow country, and yes, of course, now that she mentioned it, even our smoke-affected nostrils could tell it was really cow dung we were smelling.
Grateful for air-conditioned relief, and a surprisingly good Chinese dinner a mile or so down the road (where it still reeked of cow dung), we got a good night’s sleep in what we came to refer to as The CowFish Hotel.
The next morning, after a refreshing swim in the pool and a decent breakfast, we found a nice spot in a really lovely coastal campground nearby, where (despite the initial day of mild smoke and concern for our BVI friends described above) we ended up having a great remainder of the week. As I let go of regret and resistance and fully accepted what was, the rest of the time unfolded beautifully.
Annamieka, Peter and my amazingly cute new grandpuppy, Summer, joined us a couple days later. We hiked, we biked, we kayaked. We plunged in the ocean (which was mere steps away from our campsite.) We read Rumi poetry around a campfire – (fires being allowed again after a glorious thunderstorm and subsequent day of rain!) After the prayed-for rain, it cleared, and we were blessed with a few of the most perfect, warm, sunny, windless days I’ve experienced on the Oregon Coast. We had a really wonderful, renewing time together, having discovered a new spot we might never have found, had Mother Nature not forced us into new territory.
As for our BVI friends: They lived through a record-breaking Class 5 Hurricane. They were right smack in the eye of it. Their home is demolished, its roof having been blown off and furniture and other contents swirled around them, as they huddled in their laundry room, fearing imminent death. They are still in shock. Yet, when we greeted them at the airport a week or so later, they both said they were forever changed by the amazing kindness they had been shown by so many people, mostly strangers, in the aftermath.
Their adjustment to a “new normal” is just beginning. As is all of ours, I think. This is a time of such great change. Unprecedented in many ways. And yet, sometimes being forced into new territory – physically and/or emotionally, mentally, spiritually – having your very foundations shaken, or your roof blown away, can bring with it blessings of equally unfathomable magnitude.
Within the last few weeks, I also witnessed a dear friend go through the process of dying. He and his wife both experienced the full gamut of emotions surrounding his imminent death, including intense fear and anger. Deep, old issues within and between them came up in not always pretty ways. And yet, by the time of his passing, it was as if they’d survived their own Class 5 emotional hurricane, and found its eye of grace. The peace each of them experienced as he passed was indescribable.
This “amazing grace,” this unutterable peace, this state of pure Love is available to every single one of us in every moment. This is the grace I find myself calling on more and more frequently now, as outer storms intensify. Between natural disasters, political uncertainties, acts of terrorism, new nuclear missiles, social justice atrocities, increasing polarization on so many levels, not to mention all the personal hardships of many people I know and love….sometimes it all just feels a little overwhelming.
And yet, what I’m finding is, aided by the smoke for my family and me, the hurricane for my BVI friends, or death itself for the other couple mentioned, life seems to be forcing us all to find new places. Deeper places, within ourselves. To find the place in our hearts which, like the eye of the hurricane, is always a stillpoint, a haven of everlasting peace.
Amidst the outer roar, it gently beckons us. We have but to quiet ourselves enough to heed its call, to deepen our awareness of this wellspring of peace, compassion and grace.
During these times of great and profound change, I deeply believe we must, right now, become the change we seek. If I want to experience peace, justice, balance and harmony in the outer world (in the myriad of ways that I now perceive just the opposite!) I must first create it within myself.
It’s not easy. It takes courage to look that honestly at oneself. But I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that creating peace from the inside out is our only hope. So I redouble my commitment. I forgive myself when I fall short. And I commit again.
Love heals. It is the most powerful force in the Universe. I take great solace in knowing that.
Blessings to us all. We are all in this together.