My wife and I and our two dogs are living in a room offered us when we drove away from fire and our home. We are gratefully living in that room and very much aware of the desolation many others less fortunate than we face today. Many have lost everything. Fires continue to burn. We’re still in a pandemic. Shops and restaurants have folded. Differences of political opinion have become fraught with danger. Oh, and the entire state is suffocating as the smoke turns the sky yellow, orange, or brown, if sunlight penetrates at all.
There’s nothing funny about it, but the standard measurements of air quality no longer really apply. For example, there’s no problem at all with pollen today, that’s good news, but the little mascot/logo that delivers the degree of toxicity is a beaver wearing a mask and a miner’s helmet, eyes crossed, screaming It’s Really Bad!! We’ve had serious smoke issues in the valley before and have developed shorthand for the degree of discomfort in breathing. The index of air quality has been described as a thermometer that offers a range of 0 (Fabulous) to 500 (This Is Really Bad). The air quality in my town this morning is 596.
When all of this has fallen away and my sense of humor is fully restored, I may write about the disconnect between conflagration and the local news channel’s decision to run a trivia contest rather than cover the progress of the fires. The trivia question? “What do women spend 11 minutes doing every day?” The crack news team debated the issue for fifteen minutes before I finally snapped and shut it down. So, now not only was I without essential information, I had that moronic question rattling around as well. I reacted with even less grace to a novice weatherman rattling off the sort of trite pablum that does not land particularly well in the moment. “There’s a plan for everything. It could be worse. It’ll get better.”
I was better off thinking about the 11 minute obligation facing women.
Until two very different voices got through.
The first, and most unlikely, emerged in the middle of a television show we had watched just before the winds started to blow. An endurance athlete in the midst of a series of soul crushing tasks admitted that he had taken on these challenges to find out who he was when exhausted with work left to do, and further, to find out if he liked the person he saw.
The second arrived in an article asking what philosophers might have to offer us in these hours of uncertainty. The author of the article found particular connection with Seneca and Epictetus, as they reminded him of two observations I admire but forget on a daily basis. Seneca, did not have an easy life or an easy death. Facing the sort of dislocation we are experiencing, he suggested that well being does not come from possessions or pleasures, but in pursuing a life of virtue, knowing the right thing to do and then doing it. Epictetus had a life that may have been even tougher than Seneca’s in that he was born into slavery, but in describing, stoicism, the philosophy that he thought of as a way of life, he touched on two principles that I ought to have tattooed on the back of my hand. The first is that many things are out of our control, and the second that what is under our control are our thoughts and actions.
Let me be clear. Without instruction and frequent jogging of memory, I would be shouting that everything that is happening around me is unacceptable. The more graceful response is not, “It is what it is,” but what does all that is happening around me allow me to see who I am in this moment. Do I like the person I see? What is mine to do and what is beyond my control? What right thing can I do ?
We are now under Red Flag warning. If the winds carry embers, the valley has fuel enough to feed another fast moving fire. We’re packing up as if the next evacuation is likely. Right now, it’s what is in our control.