Sleep When the Dogs Sleep

I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know how bad until the sting of smoke woke me at 12:30 am on Friday. It wasn’t faint, it was the smell of someone lighting a fire right outside my window.

The windows, are they really shut? If they were I wouldn’t be smelling this.

We were finally receiving the days of smoke gathered off the coast west of the Cascades, nesting until the winds shifted east. The nearest fire was 10 miles away and not expected to come to us. We were surrounded by fires, some small and close, others massive and 20+ miles away. For a week our skies had been mercifully clear. Now it was all coming in to roost.

I checked every window in the house – all but one had to be adjusted in some way to get a perfect seal. Now for the doors. I’d set aside painters tape just in case I needed to seal all the doors to the outside. I ran my nose along the floor, trying to see how bad it was. I definitely needed to tape them now.

It didn’t take long to make the seal I needed. I could see the smoke was as thick as London fog outside. I pulled out my laptop to check the Air Quality Index (AQI) for our town: 610. I thought the charts only went to 500. I double checked. Yep, they only go up to 500 – the most hazardous. We would hit 637 before the day was over. West of the cascades would hit 700. Really, 700 is probably just the upper limit of the meters.

Shit. We’re not ready for this.

I put off getting air purifiers for the house, it was on the list but it was after new bedroom furniture and a weekend at the Ocean. I thought we could cruise until next fire season. I dug into savings and ordered them that night. Wouldn’t get here on time – probably. Best to do it anyways. Nothing to do now but try to sleep and be ready for the kids tomorrow. It was the last weekday of their summer, distance learning starts in three days.

I learned how to make myself sleep with stress when Terry was sick, its not great but it helps. After a few short chunks of not-relaxed unconsciousness I got up to do 15 minutes of yoga to try and get centered before the kids woke. When they finally staggered out their rooms they looked out the windows with open mouths.

“Woah.”

Time to pretend to be in charge.

“OK guys, we can’t let any of that smoke into the house. You two shouldn’t go outside for any reason. I’ll take care of the animals. When I let them out I’ll go into the garage and close the kitchen door behind me. Then I’ll let the animals out the back garage door. That should keep most of the smoke out. We cannot have both doors open at the same time. Ever.” They were remarkably OK with my new orders. I guess our Covid quarantine had acclimated them to degrees of isolation. They were ready to hunker down.

Next we established a baseline for blood oxygen. I had a clip on tester in my box of leftover medical equipment, it still worked well. We were all within normal. This was especially important in the coming days when the air inside was stale and I came close to panic a few times. Breathing is one of those tricky things; the more you worry about it, the more stressful it becomes, and that makes you worry… I figured if nobody is showing any symptoms (including cats, dogs, guinea pigs and kids) and everyone’s blood oxygen level is within a normal range, then we’re OK. Nothing to be done about the fine particulates until the air purifiers get here.

Madras, a few towns over was still below 100 AQI. Maybe we could find some clean air even for just a day, we could mask up and make a break for it, spend the day just hanging out. First I needed to get through True’s tears and Tadgs fears.

“So we’re just going to leave the cats here?” Tadg is in fact part cat, I was asking him to abandon his children.
“Its just for the day, I’m only packing a bag in case we get stuck out for some reason.”
He was not buying it.
“Besides, I still can’t get Tigey in. I’ve tried and tried and he just won’t let himself be found.”
True emerged from her room covered in tears.
“Can’t…I…bring…the guinea pigs?” She was crying so hard she could barely breathe.
“No honey, its not good for them to be out in their little cases all day. But we’ll give them extra extra food and they’ll be OK.”
She deployed her puffed out lower lip and stomped back into her room.
“Alexa, play songs by My Little Pony!”
She would emerge an hour later remarkably composed, her two guinea pigs having been well cuddled.

Tadg came up with the idea of setting the cat door so the cats could come in through the garage but not leave the main house. That gave him comfort enough to try to make a dash for clean air. We hustled Bella into the truck and piled in. The world was very, very quiet. The winding roads were dark, there wouldn’t really be sun for days to come.

Visibility was maybe 30-40 feet. We made it about a mile before Tadg started to sniffle and complain about a headache. I’ve been in the car a few times with Tadg when mucus, an aching head and nausea all start to snowball. Its never worth the journey.

“OK buddy, we’ll head back home.”
And thats where we stayed, for about a week.

I put on a pot to steam, dropping in mint and eucalyptus oil every few hours. At first Bella begged to go out, but she soon understood. 30 seconds was enough time outside. I ventured out calling for Tigey every ten minutes or so, but he wasn’t coming in. I awoke that first night to discover him at the foot of the bed, more by smell than anything else. He reeked like a smouldering pile of charcoals.

“Papa, what are we doing today?”
“I don’t know…” {find some peace of mind} “cleaning, catching up on chores.”

I really had to work at staying calm those first few days. Breathe, center…you can breathe, don’t worry. On about day 4 I discovered the walk in closet had remarkably fresh air. I dipped in for a quick breath from time to time. One of two air purifiers arrived (unfortunately the smaller one.) It made a huge difference. Still my body wanted to move, wanted to clear out some of the muck building up in my system. When the garage became the middle ground between us and the smoke I abandoned my movement circle and practice. I would break away and go into my bedroom every day or two, but it wasn’t the same. I limited yoga to short spurts of easy stretching.

Smoke and stale air really starts to wear you down. It gets into every cell, turning flow into sludge. I noticed the animals were sleeping more, during the day, several times a day. I started to join them in naps. We were puppy sitting during this process, sneaking over to the neighbors house to pick up our feisty fosterling before his owner went off to work fire dispatch. One day I noticed he and Bella just clunked down in the middle of the day. I did the same. Following animal wisdom.

Time to work on surrender, sleep like a puppy after a long day of play.

The TV reminded us of how many had fled, with little notice, as these fires wiped their towns away. And of course the loss of human life as well as the many animals killed or displaced by vast swaths of fire stretching up and down the coast. These burn scars are visible from space. Millions of acres laid bare, raw, red.

I spent a lot of time working to go beneath the stress, finding the breath in the deepest part of my belly when my chest felt tight. The peace there did not desert me, for that I am very grateful. I worked on resting in kindness so True and Tadg would feel supported. Its so easy to see thats what they need from me.

Just let this week go, thats it, the whole week.

I cleaned out my linen closet for the first time since we moved in. They turned the new pile of giveaway sheets into a giant prison mountain. Tadg seemed to be the chief prisoner, True the cruel warden. She tortured him for hours, the laughter was bottomless.

Their happiness did not break stride once this week. Thank you.

How many times has their joy saved me? Too many to count. It reminds me of how important its been for me to build a home and a life for us here. If I can give them just that, I know they will do well. I guess I didn’t realize how much of their own happiness would make up our home, how much it would feed everything.

After almost a week the smoke began to ease in waves. It would dip into the 300’s for an afternoon, then back up to 400. Back and forth until a good breeze came in. We drove through town in the 200s, families displaced by the fire were sheltering, moving through. U-haul stepped up and gave away 30 days of free storage to fire victims. Their trucks were the new gypsies in town.

Many people lost everything. You could see it in their bloodshot eyes while they ate lunch in the park, sat on the bumper of a trailer smoking. Some had insurance, many did not. Everything was gone.

True played with their youngests at the park, again, children’s laughter is the medicine.

Just before the smoke hit we joined a climbing (bouldering) gym in Bend. We had been aching to get there. When we finally drove up I could feel how deeply the week had settled into my cells. I felt like I had spent two days crawling from one end of a smoke filled bar to the other, surviving on pretzels and shots.

But when we walked out, we all felt reborn. We had to move.

Today I stepped back into my circle for the first time, calling the Swan out from my spirit, and moving again, if somewhat timidly. I realized that I really don’t have a choice when it comes to my practice. It is in fact part of how I breathe here, part of my pulse now.

Things that are essential:
kindness to my children
clean air to breathe
a safe home
food for my soul

The fires near our house are still not contained, a massive fire was only %15 contained last I checked. But the wind still favors us, and a change in the seasons is keeping things moving.

We still have time to dance and play, pray and grow as a family. May it continue to be so. Disasters are starting to feel more and more like a part of life. Raising kids on the crumbling edge of this civilization will not be easy. But I think if I let them lead just the right amount, we will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

We’ll see.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.