I took a week off from writing so I could “retreat” to the mountains for prayer. I spent five days with 90 of my closest contemplative friends, and yet I was completely alone. Because, of course, the other 89 were far away on Zoom, in their homes or in other retreat settings around the world.
The resort I stayed at was lovely and enhanced by the beautiful setting in the area around Lake Tahoe in California. One thing that was clear the moment I stepped out of the car was the air – no smoke from recent fires, just the clean scent of pine. There have been wildfires in those mountains, but this year has been free from the blazes that have rocked much of California, including the area around my home in Sonoma County.
If you follow my blog, you know that I have only recently moved to California from Savannah, Georgia and this has been my first fire season. People were concerned I might be scared away when the evacuations started, but I am sadly used to evacuations. My last few years in Savannah included one major evacuation and two other threats from hurricanes. I know how to box up beloved possessions and get on the road when it’s needed.
However, what I wasn’t used to was the smoke. One day we woke up at 8 am and the sky was still black. The sun never really rose, but there was a strange orange glow to the whole sky. It looked like a Biblical vision of the apocalypse. I joked that I could actually get people to join my church that day by standing on the street corner with a sign about the end of the world.
After a hurricane, the sky was always brilliant blue. If the children were out of school still, it seemed bizarre to have them playing outside on such a wonderful fall day. But even after the danger from a fire passes, there is still a constant reminder that others are in danger – the heavy curtain of smoke that hangs in the air.
And it turns out, the smoke is more than just a bad thing for those of us left to try to breathe the ashy air. Excessive smoke also grounds the airplanes and helicopters that provide assistance for the firefighters on the front lines of the fires. Their jobs are exponentially harder without this critical air support. So the sound of an airplane in September and October in Sonoma County the last few years has often resulted in a cheer, or a salute, or at least a smile.
While hiking in the woods near Shirley Canyon last week, I heard a plane overhead and my heart again lightened. It took me a minute to realize that it was probably a tourist heading to Tahoe and not a firefighting plane. Then my heart lightened even more – that meant they didn’t need a firefighting plane. There was just an airplane, nothing special.
I think my deepest spiritual lesson in this experience is just how important it is in the midst of so much seriousness around us to have that moment when my heart was lighter. I was able to settle more deeply into prayer, knowing that the burdens that seem so heavy right now are not permanent and can be lifted, even briefly, by something as simple as an airplane in the sky.
But I also took a moment to realize that the Washoe Tribe that once lived without all the tourists and travelers of modern Lake Tahoe would have found nothing “simple” in the dull roar of an airplane overhead. They may have been amazed, they may have been frightened, they may have been angry or excited. But, of course, they wouldn’t have seen it. Their hearts were lightened by other simple things of their own day. And they all were special too. Things become special to us not only by how prevalent or rare they are, but by how they affect us in a moment. California friends now tell me I will never hear an airplane overhead the same way again.
I hope in my spiritual journey to continue to reframe my experiences, so that I can see the “special” in all kinds of things that I never noticed before. Experts say this reframing is an important part of resilience in the face of repeated trauma, like hurricanes and wildfires, like day after day of COVID-19 separation, like political turmoil and ongoing racial injustice. Just making the list has me searching for something “special” to lighten the load.
The fires in our community are 100% contained. They won’t be out until we get rain, but they are contained, so the airplanes aren’t flying. But it is a season for candy corn – nothing fancy, pretty simple, but very, very special.
What are some of the things that are weighing you down right now? Is there anything that happens now and again that lightens your mood? Is it a big thing or something small and simple that doesn’t seem very special to you at first? What kinds of rituals do we have to recognize rare special things in our lives? Can adapting any of these rituals help us lift up more ordinary special things to help us feel lighter every day?
One of the very early steps I took in my contemplative journey was to pray every time I heard a siren – pray for the people affected by whatever misfortune necessitated an ambulance or police car or firetruck. I’ve now added airplanes to my list – even when it’s not fire-related, I find it brings me closer to the world and to the Divine to pray for all those on their way somewhere. If you are interested in exploring how to even start a spiritual journey, consider a free spiritual direction consultation with Openings: Let the Spirit In.