After the Smoke Clears: November Days of Gratitude

The smoke is still pretty thick ’round here, although the rains have come.  We’re used to the Bay Area having fog cascade over the hills like some magical potion pouring out of a steaming mug, but this daily blanket of smoke has not been the same.  Our eyes have watered; we’ve coughed; our voices have gotten raspy. And yet, more consuming is the knowledge that the air we’ve been breathing contains all the things that have burnt to the ground, all the lives lost — every atom and cell filtering into our lungs. A friend recently said it’s like a communion.  Indeed.

I’ve been thinking so much about this kind of devastating loss.  The kind of loss that makes it hard to breathe, even if the air is clear.  The kind of loss that seeps into your sleep, into your dreams, with a heavy darkness that’s hard to shake.  The kind of loss that knits nightmares together, one after the other.  I felt that when my mother died so young (I was 13).  And I felt it again when my dad died, two weeks shy of me finding out I was expecting our second child.  Just three weeks ago, we lost our yellow lab — as clearly as he was one of our children, the sense of loss has been palpable, but I’ve never lost everything all at once as they have in Northern and Southern California over the last few weeks. That kind of loss is staggering.  How do you recover from that?

What’s been really occupying my attention though is a bird.  A tiny sparrow that keeps tapping on my bathroom window each morning.  The window overlooks Toby’s dog run.  I imagine that after a few weeks, his scent is starting to dissipate and animals are feeling safer to check it out.  In fact, a raccoon was able to crawl into our crawl space from an opening bordering Toby’s run.  Without Toby there as protector, the critter took his chance. (I’ll tell you all about how we evicted Rocky, the raccoon another time.) Now, back to the bird . . .


The other day, I noticed, for the first time ever, this little sparrow sitting on the branches of a tree right outside the window.  Then, in what seemed to be purposeful and with forethought, he fluttered his wings and tried to grab on to the window, his tiny talons looking for a hold. His beak tappped twice — sometimes three times — on the window and then he dropped down — finally perching on the outside window sill.  He repeated that over and over and over.  He was there again yesterday.

It’s late fall — almost winter — so I doubt he’s trying to mate with his reflection (as birds sometimes do).  I do have a few plants on the sill, but in over 12 years, never has a bird tried to get to them.

So, what’s a woman to do?  I went to Google and asked, “why?”  I was certain that there was a spiritual meaning to this little guy’s presence.

I come from a long line of teacup readers and star seekers.  Superstitions run deep on my maternal side and I had aunts who believed in all kinds of wacky wonders.  I carry those genes, like willowy gossamer threads woven into my psyche.  I believe that the dead come back and check up on you.  My mother, after she passed, would appear to me in my dreams, as did my father.  And even now, if I’m walking around a city, I swear I see long lost family and friends walking down the block, too far to yell for, but I know they’re there. I seem to see my mother-in-law driving all the time, my Aunt Mary is always there when I’m on BART (although I’m sure she’d prefer the NYC subway), and my dear friend Kim, a runner, often runs past me, training for her next marathon.  I find comfort in their spirits’ presence, even if I can’t touch them or sit with them over coffee.

So when we lost our dog a few weeks ago, I looked for signs that he might send us to let us know he’s ok, and tiny signs did appear.  His leash fell off the shelf the minute my husband walked into the house as if to remind us of the time of day when he’d want a walk.  His picture would spontaneously appear on my Facebook page.  And where there’s a stack of his towels still on his bed, I see him curled up sleeping when I wake up in the middle of the night.  There is part of him that’s still here, I’m sure, and that is healing.

But this bird!  Out in the dog run, tapping on the window.  Relentless.  Stubborn.  And sweet.  Just like Toby.

I don’t know if this is Toby’s spirit — or if this bird is just a messenger.  I’m pretty sure you’re thinking I’ve gone a little wingy ’round the bend . . .

But when you’ve lost a love, you still find them everywhere.  Their spiritual presence gives you hope.  I don’t know if those who’ve lost everything in these fires can find hope in the ashes, but I know that the phoenix rises.  Through grace and community, love and giving — through the daily presence of holding hands through the storms — we heal.  After the smoke clears, we rise.  And for that, I am grateful.



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