This is the third year in a row that I will be writing about wildfires in California and their impact on me and my community.
This year, I don’t have any poetry.
This year, I’m not afraid.
This year, I’m angry. I am very angry. And again, I am awash in the (not so?) mundane concerns that surface in the wake of devastation. I am continually struck by this: the strangeness of the everyday next to the blackened hillside, the restricted access, and soot covered floors—the persistence and tremendous regularity, even normality of the everyday.
My campus was evacuated during the recent Getty Fire. My students walked or drove down a black hillside at 3:30 in the morning, while red flames burned around and behind. I received the campus closure notice right before I left for work. I was showered and dressed at 5:15am when my little daughter got out of bed, crying, and asked me, “Why do you want to go to work while it is still night out?” She asked me if I would be home for Christmas—all of Christmas. I assured her I would. My husband let her crawl in with him so that I could get out of the house. I checked my phone before I went out the door. I took off my work clothes and got back into bed with my family, and my daughter cheered, glad mommy would be staying home.
And life went on.
My school, uniquely, has two campuses.
I will be teaching downtown for the remainder of the semester while MY campus is closed. When I went to pick up my stuff, the cleaning crews were already there washing every window, with fans in every hallway, and small sloughs of ash were piling in the doorways.
We were very lucky.
No structures destroyed.
No lives lost.
And I am learning how to work with my office in my backpack again.
But we are lucky: we have two campuses. And I am faculty, so I have a place to sit. My students lament the lack of place to sit on the one open campus, now over burdened with double the population.
I find that I am struggling with the question: how and what do I teach in the aftermath?
The word I keep using is “displaced,” a euphemism for ‘sorry you don’t have a home anymore,’ even if your home was a dorm, a kind of temporary home in the first place, but still your home. My office was also a kind of “home away from home.” I had a yoga matt and a blanket and everything. I took naps there. I ate two meals a day there. …Well, we have all been “displaced.”
On the first Monday back, I am ready to comfort my students in their displacement. I want to hold space. I let them know how I have been thinking about them. I bring stuffed animals. I am not joking. I bring stuffed animals—probably for me as much as for them. One student excitedly claims and holds the biggest. I hold the same one in my lap in the car all the way home.
I tell one class that I love them.
By Wednesday (my second day back on campus) I feel disorganized. I keep moving my stacks of papers around the cubicles that I share. There are so many more people to talk to everyday. I am eating lunch at 12:30 instead of at 11:30. My commute is about 45 minutes to an hour longer. I had to make eight online “attendance activities” for students who couldn’t make it back to class in the first week. I have rewritten my syllabi to adjust for campus updates three times so far. These are small things. My students keep coming to me with much bigger concerns; and I am trying to make more adjustments for them.
By Friday, I am exhausted. It takes a concerted effort to speak with colleagues—colleagues I like and care about, colleagues who like and care about me. I feel like I can’t completely see straight when I’m talking to them. I have to remind myself to answer their questions. I think that I am anxious. So, during a “working meeting,” I put my headphones on and drown out the chatter with loud music. I take a break to cry. By Monday, I figure out that I am not anxious, I am angry, and it helps.
Like my students, I am so grateful and so angry.
So, to teach them, I try to check in with what they want and need.
One group wants to talk on the first day. Another preferred we just get back to business.
I am starting to identify which students aren’t making the adjustment and checking in with them.
I try to remind my classes daily that we will be practicing flexibility, that I am here to listen, and that I care about what they are going through. I give them as much information as possible, at least about the class itself. I let them weigh in on changes I’m making that I hope will relieve some of the pressure right now.
I ask one class that seems particularly impacted how we can try to support one another better through the rest of this semester. A student asks me what I mean; and I tell her that I don’t know but that I will think about it.
Thinking about it now, maybe there is a way that I can help facilitate their expression of gratitude and anger, of relief and sorrow, of stress and laughter—an expression of these feelings that is or is not about the fire. Maybe I can make room for them to be them by letting me be me too.
There are a number of things I, we, can do.
Thank you for reading.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.