If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s how to prepare for and survive disaster.
I’ve spent over 20 years living at elevations above 8,000 feet in places threatened by fire and flood and I’ve had a bit of practice making evacuation’s hard choices: what to take and what to leave behind.
During the 2003 Overland Mountain Fire — then the largest fire in Boulder County history — I loaded a bed and food for my dog, Elvis, camping gear, my chef’s knives and desktop computer, and, a few photos–in that order–into my 4-Runner. Prevailing winds drove the fire hard to the east away from my cabin, but I wanted to be prepared for the unexpected—a shift in wind, another late season fire calved from the first.
I packed for other disasters, too, like The Four Mile Canyon fire, that covered my mountain top in smoke so thick, I had to keep the cabin windows closed in the heat of late summer. Not long after came the Front Range Flood, that washed away much of the small town of Jamestown, my community four miles down canyon.
In between packing for a half dozen evacuations that never came, I was blind-sided by another. A cabin fire burned through everything I owned, including books and 20 years of writing, while I was out delivering mail on a rural route with Elvis, who rode beside me in the truck. The shock of the orange glow through the woods and the recognition of what it meant was nothing next to the shock of the aftermath: waking up in a motel bed without a toothbrush or even a change of clothes, without one thing that belonged to me.
A week later, I’d dig a pumice bear fetish from the ash of what remained. It was a sign to me that while disaster might have reshaped me, it would not destroy me.
In the time of coronavirus, I find myself preparing not to flee, but instead to stay. To home-in. To find safety in the place where I’ve chosen to live. And that’s okay with me. The hard choice now no longer seems hard at all; it’s the choice to shelter in place, to do what is being asked of us all.
When word came that my university classes were being moved online, I’ll confess I was thrilled. Being home suits me just fine. Not only because as a loner and introvert, I have a deep need for solitude and space, but also because I’m a writer and hanging out all day with unbrushed hair in a boxy sweater and a pair of Uggs contemplating space is my sweet spot.
I’ve always considered the real work of my life to be telling stories. Now I have all the time in the world to do it.
It’s curious to me that a pandemic has given me space to do the thing I most want to do. I’m surprised at how quickly the condition of surviving becomes a condition of thriving.
I know the pandemic is bad and will likely get worse. The daily news is almost unbearable. But I also know now is the time to think of not only of the challenge of the present moment, but the opportunity of it. I am not alone in breathing a huge sigh of relief at being asked to stop going out, to stop doing, doing, doing. Americans, especially, are used to running our lives at warp speed and now we can’t.
If there is a silver lining here, and I believe there is, it’s this: Now is the time to cultivate stillness and appreciation, to “spend” your time slowing down, in sitting still, in welcoming the moment. If you’re like me, you have more time to read books, to cook, to exercise and practice yoga, to meditate and take baths, to walk the dog, to watch the birds and the sunset, to see what’s popping up in the garden or watch the latest snow.
If you’re going stir crazy, here’s your chance to develop new interests, to create new habits.
Having more time has led me to be deeply grateful for the life I’ve cultivated with my artist husband, Greg, in the mountain home we share outside of Rollinsville. Instead of haggling for uninterrupted creative time or squabbling about chores or who will walk the dog, we’ve become more kind and forgiving. Deep down, we both know we’re lucky to have our health and an income (for now), a beautiful patch of land, and each other.
These things have always existed, but the shift to bigger, longer days together, coupled with slowing down and paying attention, has allowed us to appreciate our lives and each other more. We’re no longer rushing to fit everything into the day, the week, the month.
Yesterday we made bagels together, a milestone because we’ve had a bit of trouble sharing kitchen space in the past. Then Greg made pizza dough that I stretched out into individual pies. We’ve never cooperated so well.
Honestly, I could not be happier. And therein lies a choice and the challenge.
The hard choice of these days is not to do what is asked, but to change the way we see and experience our lives. Instead of thinking of what’s been taken away and what might be, can we think of each other? Instead of dwelling in fear and anxiety, can we live in the ceaseless beauty that still surrounds us?
In the meantime, I’m writing and writing, finding hope in the small miracle of each day.
Karen Auvinen is an award-winning poet, mountain woman, life-long westerner, writer, and the author of the memoir “Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living,” a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Award. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and Lighthouse North. More information at karenauvinen.com.