It’s Only Raining Ashes

Smoke and ash from the Cascade fires color the Seattle sky. No filter, about 230 in the afternoon, water taxi pier, West Seattle.

When I got up this morning, a gentle rain of ash was falling from the sky. The light was the wrong color, an orange and pink that should come from the earliest parts of the day, but continued well into the morning. The glow turned the counters in my kitchen a pale tangerine color. The dog’s water dish was peppered with black and gray flecks. When I slammed the car door — I drove to my meeting rather than riding my bike — there was a swirl of tiny particles both inside and outside the car.

I had been chatting with a friend a few hours before; he’s in Houston demolishing what’s left of his parents’ house. The property has been destroyed by hurricane Harvey. “It’s only raining ashes here,” I typed into the tiny chat window, “also, I hate this Book of Job bullshit.” He sent me a photo of a front yard full of interior doors and a piano on its side and an upside down couch, everything ruined from sitting in the fetid standing water of Harvey.

This is the second time in a very short period our skies have shifted from blue to this sickly brown orange. This haze makes the sun turn a bright red you can look straight into without blinking, without spots. Earlier this summer, an interminable murky week made us all feel edgy and claustrophobic. The weather dragged smoke from British Columbia fires into our city and smothered us in it. By the end of the second day I was angry from the light being wrong all the time. When it blew away it was a tremendous relief, like when you notice a very bad headache is gone, at last.

It has felt self-indulgent to complain about the color of the air when the fires are not right here, and their impact on my life is nothing compared to what those under Harvey are experiencing, or those in the Columbia River Gorge. I went the dentist this morning and she told me they had evacuated their cabin in the Cascades, just 80 miles east of Seattle. She seemed philosophical about the whole thing and went on to tell me I needed to find ways to manage my stress. “Your teeth are fine,” she said, “they look great. But if you’re constantly clenching, that’s likely what’s causing your pain.” I’d been looking for an offline retreat in the mountains. I thought I’d found one but fires are raging up and down the Cascade range. My stress will have to wait.

When there is so much going on, it is impossible to know where to focus not just your energy, but your empathy, too. On this morning with the ugly skies, the news on the radio ricocheted between Harvey, the impending landfall of Irma (the hurricane bearing towards Cuba and then, Florida), the Cascade fires, and the government’s plan to target immigrants who had arrived in the United States as children but have been protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Exceptional young people were interviewed by radio hosts asking them about their plans, their fears, their past, their families, and to a number they said they were more afraid for their parents than they were for themselves, and they would stand up and protest, but they were ready.

For what they were ready it was not clear to me. How they would make their new lives once they were pushed back to countries they had never known? Or how they would disappear into a society that has long been held up by the undocumented but doesn’t admit it? Or… I don’t know.

Just a day or two before our skies turned brown, North Korea had exploded something huge and the US Ambassador to the UN said they were “begging for war,” an alarming turn of phrase when you’re on the West Coast. Can North Korea’s weapons hit us, or will they “just” hit Hawaii? Or will they decide to attack South Korea where there are 20,000 plus US troops, so it’s effectively an attack on the US and our capitalist allies? Dear Leader in Pyonyang might be “begging for war,” while Dear Leader in Washington DC might be jonesing for the hit of absolute power he seeks. Why not pick a fight with an unstable mad man with big guns, given that you value the world and those in it so little already? What have you got to lose? Why not cue up 99 Red Balloons, smoke a bowl, and watch the sickly red sun drop into the horizon, the line of which is absolutely the wrong color? “This is what we’ve waited for, this is it boys, this is war…”

All this is before you get to my personal worries, which feel so trivial in the face of a world on fire, under water, living in fear, and on the brink. Where do you find space for your own petty concerns in what feels like an onslaught of Old Testament level scourge and despair?

I am carrying my uncertainties quietly right now. My coping strategy is to think very, very small and look at what I have done for the day that was good, at what else happened that was good.

Today I walked my weird little dog; he has learned so much that I can now listen to podcasts while I walk, before, I had to be all eyes and ears on him all the time. I had a good idea in a meeting with my client. I thanked my government representatives for standing up for a diverse American society. I congratulated a fellow writer on significant work accomplished. I harvested tomatoes from the backyard; they are so beautiful, and they taste so good. I can go back further if I need to. My band played very well this weekend and then, I rode a ferry at dusk. I found I had money to help others in need, so I gave. I ran errands by bicycle. I talked to strangers who were kind.

It’s only raining ashes, that’s all.

For right now, it will have to do.

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