What comes after the fire

Flames don’t burn forever.

One of the things I’ve missed most this year is reuniting with my hiking buddies—the group of high school friends dubbed “the Sunshines.” We’ve been keeping in touch through monthly Google Hangouts, but nothing beats being out in nature with dear friends, exploring a brand new section of the Appalachian Trail.

On our first hiking trip in 2018, we trekked through a section of trail that had been the site of intense wildfires a couple years prior. It was a difficult and depressing stretch. The landscape was colorless, the altitude was punishing, and the leafless, skeleton-like trees provided little shade. 

Despite how bleak it looked, the charred environment still offered some hope. At least that’s what Sarah, our trail leader and an ecologist, told us. She explained that longleaf pine forests, like the one we were walking through, benefitted from frequent, small brush fires. Of course, the Western North Carolina wildfires of 2016 were bigger and hotter than a brush fire—a result of climate change and humans suppressing smaller fires over the years. Nonetheless, we could already spot signs of regrowth. Sarah would crouch down and point out the tiny wildflowers peeking out of the ground, marveling at how nature always finds a way to bounce back.

I’ve been thinking about that section of trail a lot lately. I would be so happy to get to spend some quiet time in nature right now—away from the sounds of civilization and close to the things that make me feel grounded. Instead, I’ve spent almost all of my time indoors—a result of the pandemic, a heavy workload, and my late stage of pregnancy. While we’ve done a lot to make our house feel more like a calming oasis this year, it can sometimes be a difficult place to find the peace I crave. 

That’s especially true when the onslaught of terrible news seems never ending, and a screen to consume that news is always within reach.

The wildfires raging throughout the West Coast are devastating. Millions of acres have burned in three states. Dozens of people have died. The photos of orange skies, smoke-filled air, and ash-covered streets are otherworldly and unsettling. It feels futile to try and find a silver lining amid such a massively terrible situation.

Still, I have been looking for reasons to hold onto hope. Some days, hope is the only thing that keeps me going.

During our first hike together, we Sunshines gave each other trail nicknames. Sarah, the ecologist, was dubbed “Lightning.” She’s the fastest of the group, always at the front of the pack. We called Yasirah, “Machete,” after the blade that she insistently carried in her backpack. Katie S. earned the title “Sunshine.” Among a group of cheerful women, she is by far the most cheerful—the one who keeps us going when we start to drag. Finally, I was bestowed the trail name “Phoenix.” 

Although I didn’t see it in myself yet, my friends had faith that I would rise from life’s ashes. It had been a little over a year since Jamie died, and I was still raw from the devastating loss. My life felt empty and colorless, much like that charred stretch of trail. Even then, there were small signs of hope. Whenever I laughed, I remembered that lightness was possible. Any time I managed a good night’s sleep, I felt a little more whole. And every step I took with that crew on the Appalachian Trail represented a bit of forward momentum. I was moving away from the fire that consumed so much, and closer to a place of regrowth.

Just months after Jamie’s death, Sarah wrote a blog post about the wildfires and the parallels in my life. Her words were a balm. They were a tiny glimpse of the direction that I would eventually find:

We all experience life’s forest fires. Sometimes the fires help us grow more brilliantly than ever before. Sometimes the fires fill our meadows with meadow beauty and butterfly pea. But sometimes the fires are all too harsh. Sometimes they are so intense they make us into something new, something unknown, something entirely different than what we ever used to know. I do not know what this fire means for my dear friend. I know she hurts, and I know the healing will take the rest of this lifetime. But I have hope that she will be okay. That she will be made into something different but beautiful, that her taproot has made her strong and that she will be made stronger in the enduring. 

This year has brought blazing fires to so many of us. There have been literal fires and figurative infernos. We have lost lives and homes, jobs and plans, routines and comforts. 2020 has all but burned our sense of security into ash.

These fires have been overwhelming. They have left scars. They all will take time, patience, trust, and faith to recover from. 

Like Sarah, I don’t know what the fire you’re experiencing means for you. What I do know is that fires don’t burn forever. As improbable as it may seem, the flames will eventually recede and make room for beautiful regrowth. We will all be made stronger in the enduring.

It may not seem like much right now, but there is a bit of hope out there. And sometimes, hope is the thing that keeps us going.




A moment to breathe

I’m currently in the middle of one of my busiest workweeks of the year, and have decided to give myself a break by not sending out a subscriber-only post this Thursday. I’ll be back in your inboxes on Tuesday, September 22.

Subscribers, enjoy having one less email in your inbox this week! Maybe use this as a sign to take it easy if you need to, as well? xo

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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is holding her dear West Coast family and friends in her thoughts.

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