Test by fire

I live in the mountains fifty miles east of San Diego, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. People are often surprised to learn it snows here in Southern California – not a lot, and not as heavily as twenty years ago – but we’ve had a couple of good storms over the years, and I like to name them. The Blizzard of ’06 dumped nearly two feet of snow overnight, downed every power line within five miles, and burst my water pipes. I had wine and a wood stove and didn’t have to go “down the hill” (as the locals say), so I was fine. That was an adventure. Other issues about living alone in the boondocks? Not so much.

The Cuyamaca Mountains are deadly firestorm country. We made national news in 2003 with the wicked Cedar Fire, which ignited in the Cleveland National Forest and burned everything in its path, from the desert to the coast. I packed my car to the hilt with stuff I thought I couldn’t live without. I watched the flames approach along with thousands of other terrified refuges, finally making my way to friends an hour closer to the coast – but not until the fire had threatened them and passed on to destroy precious lives and hundreds of homes.

It was the single most terrifying rollercoaster week of my life, beginning with the first report of smoke. I didn’t know my little cottage had survived for several days after the fire passed through this mountain community. It was a like a whisper from an angel when a friend on a cell phone a hundred miles away told me her husband (who snuck past firefighters) was standing in front of my cabin, and it was intact. Many of my neighbors were not so lucky.

I’ve evacuated at least three more times since then – all scary, and luckily, only one episode as horrifying as 2003. Every time I leave, my car is a little lighter. Finally, with my last decidedly un-panicky retreat, I simply looked at the dog and said, “Let’s blow this hotdog stand.” Homer, who passed away in ’08, was always enthusiastic about going for a ride.

In the car went my laptop and backup drive, a few pictures, a plastic container of mementos and a set of pre-packed files that comprised my entire financial history (however meager). Along with those items I stowed dog food, dog bed, leash, bowls and (human) clothing for a few days. And with that retreat, I didn’t cry. I didn’t look back. Everything I loved the most and needed to survive was either with me or already out of harm’s way.

And that is the most important lesson I have gleaned from my personal “test by fire.” Living with the certainty that everything could be gone in a virtual flash has taught me to be prepared for change, and to detach a bit from inanimate things. I’ve learned to be more flexible, to be able to set up shop and function in an unfamiliar place. I’ve learned to focus on what really matters; to be grateful for what I have, while I have it. And I’ve learned to say goodbye. I’m better at allowing people and things to pass through my life and not wail – so much – about their absence.

Fortunately, these lessons have translated well to writing a novel. As an author, I’ve been asked to delete scenes and characters and entire chapters that don’t move the story forward. Authors also need to set up shop in an unfamiliar place and function well, specifically, inside a character’s head so unlike ourselves.  Our characters take us in unexpected directions and our stories are set in unfamiliar towns, cities, countries we’ve never visited. Our protagonists are successful in jobs we know nothing about. We learn to take all these new ideas on until they become part of us.

We cut, we revise, we rewrite over and over until only the essence remains, and we’ve said – through the folks who populate our stories – what we really want to communicate. We learn to say goodbye to what didn’t work and to be grateful for what we have left, which is sometimes even better than we planned, or could have imagined.

Through this process, just like other life experiences, we drive to the heart of what is most important. Writing is a mirror of a good – and challenging – life, and if we pay attention as we practice, the act of writing will be more than just an outpouring of what we hold inside, it will also point us in the direction of the people we want to become.

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19 Responses to Test by fire

  1. Jacqui Murray August 8, 2011 at 1:08 am #

    Hi Molly, we’re almost neighbors. I’m up in south OC. I love the author info box. Is that something I missed that’s offered on WP.com? I put mine in manually each time, but yours looks professional.

    Nice post!

    • Molly Greene August 8, 2011 at 1:21 am #

      Hi Jacqui – I know you felt the repercussions from the Cedar fire too – re: author info box, WP populates this for me but so non-techie I couldn’t tell you how. Either from “About Me” section OR my gravatar profile, both are the same!

  2. Christine Nolfi August 8, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    Molly, I adore this post. On a spiritual level it seems so many of us–perhaps all of us currently living in the world–are being tested by fire. It’s a gift to recognize how little the material world matters, and live your life centered on love, laughter and light. The next time you blow a hotdog stand with a dog in tow, I’m coming along for the ride!

  3. Lane Diamond August 8, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    Excellent metaphor for the trials and tribulations of the writing life.

    • Molly Greene August 8, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

      Thank you Christine and Lane for the read and comments – I appreciate it!

  4. Phantomimic August 9, 2011 at 3:49 am #

    Great post Molly. When we live close to the edge and away from our comfort zone we acquire certain skills and an outlook of life that helps us in many other issues. Life affects our writing but then our writing affects our life.

    • Molly Greene August 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

      Thanks Phanto! I agree, life and writing are entertwined – if we’re paying attention!

  5. Peabea August 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    When seeing the fires or the floods and the people who live in those areas that return time after time, I am always amazed at their strength to do that. When watching, I feel as if I would probably just give up, but your post makes me think maybe not if I were actually in that situation. I love the analogy that you share here. Great post.

    • Molly Greene August 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

      Sometimes I wonder about my sanity re: staying here. A lot of people have left. I’ve just come to know that whatever happens, I’ll be all right. Thanks so much for your read and taking the time to leave a wonderful comment!

  6. iwanttobeagrocery September 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    I’m a little frightened by how often I end up reading this blog. Love the voice. Love the subjects. Relate to it all. Thank you.

    Lesli Muir Lytle

    • Molly Greene September 29, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

      Made me laugh, Lesli! Thanks so much.

  7. R.S. Guthrie (@rsguthrie) October 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Great blog. I envy you your remote (beautiful) locale. Not the fires, so much, but we always pay for the things that make us the happiest. In one way or another! Cheers, Molly.

    • Molly Greene October 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

      Thank you so much! Love it here, will love the next place just as much when it’s time to move on :-O

  8. Karen A Einsel February 3, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    So happy that everything turned out good for you. I remember those fires one of my rental car customers had to sleep in the car on the freeway coming back from Diego. because they had to shut the freeway down in both directions, I live about 30 miles south of Big Bear and remember seeing the first plume of smoke rising from those mountains. I think the fires in Oct. 2003 have been the worst for southern CA. And yes, writing is a lot like that. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. laura thomas February 3, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Believing you have lost so much and still being thankful for what you have taken with you is amazing. So happy your lovely cabin was still waiting for you, your dog, and your writing.

    • Molly Greene February 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

      … and I deeply appreciate your lovely comment. Life is good!

  10. Debbie Vega August 5, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Here in Florida we have hurricanes (though dry winters can result in serious fires, too). I’ve also been amazed at how people recover from total devastation after a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina hit our neighborhood and destroyed a lot of trees. We thought that was horrible–until we saw what happened to the Gulf Coast. We also got hit with Andrew, but were just out of the zone of total devastation.

    I also wonder sometimes why people don’t leave danger zones, but when you think about it, every place is some kind of danger zone. Something to always keep in mind, in life and when writing.

    • Molly Greene August 5, 2012 at 9:55 am #

      Perfectly written, Debbie. Life itself is a danger zone, and every place we put down roots has the potential to harm us in some way. Thanks so much for the read and wonderful comment!

  11. cindy December 6, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Not just what you said, but the way you said it, was simply beautiful. You’re a wonderful writer, Molly, be it blog post or novel:)