When my ex-husband visited Fort McMurray recently he commented on how it seemed different. After our divorce, he moved to Calgary and thus was not here as the price of oil slid inexorably down, the layoffs began and the next blow – in the form of a massive wildfire – fell on us. But I knew his sentiment to be accurate, as it would be impossible to deny that the community had changed since that day in May, although I would suggest the changes began long before.

That difference is something I have been carrying with me daily, trying to observe what had changed and why; it seemed the only answer was that we, the people who live here, had changed due to life-altering events and the impact of that change was felt region-wide.

And so it was yesterday I set out on my day, a day I thought would be one of the “new normal” kind of days. But it wasn’t.

My first stop at a local home-based business introduced me to to remarkable entrepreneur who is running a dress shop from her basement. My visit ended with a shopping bag filled with dresses, a tale of a bold entrepreneur and a memory of all the times in my 16 years here that I’ve encountered people like this who shaped our community simply through a new idea or business or adventure.

My next stop found me at the Wood Buffalo Regional Science Fair, a place I know well from the years when my own daughter participated in the fairs. Those projects felt like they took months, although it was likely weeks. There was the one testing glues that ended in every surface in the kitchen being slightly sticky; and from the fossil experiment I still have gobs of hard-dried plaster-of-Paris stuck on my patio. And each fair ended with the exhibition, and I stood there proudly as she explained her experiment to visitors, just as the parents did yesterday as their progeny explained to me their hypotheses and results. I was blown away by the level of intelligence and intellectual curiosity on display; the project on cultural impact on natural disaster readiness in particular struck me as genius. And standing there I knew that these kids were destined for greatness, as I’ve seen so many others from these fairs go on to achieve amazing things (like my own daughter who will begin studying mechanical engineering this fall).

I stood in that room and I could feel myself getting almost tearful without even understanding why; it felt in some strange way like the old Fort McMurray before the fire. I didn’t understand it but I felt it as that youthful energy and exuberance surrounded me, laughter and voices echoing down the hall as I walked away.

And then I visited the Fort McMurray Tourism Spring Trade Show. I didn’t know how I would feel about it, as last year on the final day of that trade show events began to unfold, eventually leading to May 3. The trade show last year ended with a hasty flip from field house hosting a trade show to field house hosting an evacuation centre, and I recalled very clearly how last year I watched water bombers in the sky, fighting the fires popping up around the city. I remember being there as the show ended and walking to my car, finding it covered in ash, and before I could even start the engine my phone rang with the news that evacuees would soon be arriving. For me, it all truly began on Sunday May 1, 2016, as I dropped my purse back in my office and headed  back to the trade show floor, this time not to shop but to set up tables and chairs for weary community members who had to leave their homes. Somehow, my instinct told me that day that things were serious and about to get far more so; it wasn’t until May 3 that my instinct clocked me with an “I told you so” as I fled the city late that day.

So how would the tradeshow feel this year, I wondered? Would it provoke memories of that day and would it take me back to moments in time before everything felt different?

The answer is yes…and no. The trade show felt almost exactly as it does every year, but even better. I saw dozens of people I know and met some new ones, including those beginning new business ventures and taking that leap of enormous faith. And it was packed, the line for admittance backed up just as it used to be, and the aisles in between the booths completely jammed with people, most of them toting various shopping bags. It was trade show mayhem at its most glorious, and what was most striking is how it felt.

It felt like the old days. It felt like the days when opportunity and hope and optimism filled the very air we breathed, and when the beautiful sunny sky and warm weather reflected our attitude. Yes, things had changed and we had seen some dark and difficult times, but the sense was of the future and not the past; between the science fair kids, the business entrepreneurs, the frantic shoppers and the smiles and chatter I found it again: the soul of Fort McMurray.

We talk a lot about resiliency and strength. And there is no doubt it exists here, the kind of true grit that would put cowboys to shame. But the real soul of this place is the unrelenting and undeniable hope and optimism of the people.

That’s what I felt in that basement dress shop, the science fair and the trade show; hope.

It was the kind of hope and optimism that has always been the hallmark of this place, but that over the last few years – and particularly the last few months – seemed dimmed by the darkness left behind by the flames, much like the ashes the fire left behind covering the forest floor. But just as fresh shoots of greenery poke out from the ashes, so too are fresh new glimmers of hope and optimism poking out everywhere.

And I can see them growing and I know they will blossom, both the tender green shoots in the forest and the tender fresh hopes of the residents of this community. As we approach one year I sense a shift, one in which we move to collectively support those still in need and navigating their way through the recovery while we water those hopes and dreams and foster that optimism.

When I reflect on what has changed in Fort McMurray, the obvious answer is I have. And if I have, it seems likely others have too as we each travelled our own path through the unimaginable. I know my sense of hope and optimism was struggling, and on occasion I felt so weighed by the challenges I neglected to see the opportunities. Will Fort McMurray ever be the same? Will I ever be the same?

I don’t think so. The person who existed on May 1, 2016 is no longer. She was changed by the events, and at times the ashes from the emotional fire felt like they would smother her; but they didn’t. What saved her is the kindness of others, seeing their courage and determination and witnessing their unremitting hope and optimism.

What got me through the last year was all of you.

But while I am different – while Fort McMurray is different – I think we are the same, too. We have always been resilient and strong, courageous and tenacious. And we have always known the value and joy of hope and optimism; now we just know that sometimes hope rises from the ashes of what existed before, and gives us the courage to move into a brave new future.

As we head into a week loaded with emotions and memories I find myself no longer dreading it; instead I find myself thinking that we made it, my friends. We did it together and we managed to do it with our hope and optimism intact, as evidenced by my adventure this weekend. That there is still a journey ahead of us is certain. That we can handle absolutely anything is also certain; after all, we already did.

And we did it with the strength, courage, resiliency and unrelenting hope and optimism we have always shown. No matter how we have changed, no matter how Fort McMurray has changed, those qualities? They are as immutable and unchangeable as the flow of the Athabasca and the shine of the Northern lights. They are who we are and what we are; and that will never, ever change.

Fire Woman

I suppose I knew the sheer magnitude would begin to become a bit overwhelming as the date grew closer, but it was not until this week that I recognized I was being crushed by it, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not.

My Facebook timeline looks something like this:

  • Fire, photo
  • Fire, book
  • Fire, magazine article
  • Fire, newspaper article
  • Fire, painting
  • Fire
  • FIre
  • FIRe
  • FIRE

This week it finally broke me. I saw yet another in a long string of fire-related content and thought: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Yes, those exact words, as I often use fairly salty language in my head which fortunately doesn’t always make it to my lips.

I don’t want to make it sound like anyone is at fault, as I know the “anniversary” of the fire is a significant date in many ways; but the truth is that it seems like a mountain that threatens to fall on top of me, the instability likely of my own making as opposed to any fault in the mountain.

Someone asked if I would be watching the impending television coverage, and all I could say is that I didn’t think so; after all, I was here on May 3 and have been here every day since re-entry, with few exceptions. It’s kind of the same response as when someone asked me if I took any photos or videos during the evacuation and I said no – why would I need photos or videos to remember something I lived through and would likely see when I closed my eyes for decades to come?

And someone asked why I have not published a book, a one-year retrospective; and while a book is in the works, all I could respond is that the story is far, far from over. While others tell the tale of the fire, I want to tell the story of the sparks that came before and the slow burn that followed it as a community struggled to recover, and that is a story still being shaped every day.

But as we inch closer to May 3, 2017, and as the fire-related content ramps up in every conceivable way, I find myself shutting down. So, instead of shutting myself down, I am instead shutting it down.

I am not watching the television shows, seeing the films, looking at the photos or paintings or reading the books. I am not saying I will NEVER do those things; I just won’t be doing them at a point when I am already feeling vulnerable and emotional. There may be people who wish to immerse themselves in those things, but I am not one of them.

In May of last year when I was struggling to cope I commented to a friend that I was having trouble with the photos and stories. Their simple question was why I was viewing or reading them, as if I was finding them difficult then I was likely traumatizing myself repeatedly, a form of taser-ing myself emotionally on a regular basis.

And so I stopped.

I stopped watching the news and instead began talking to real live people. I stopped looking at the pictures and focused on real faces instead. And I stopped living and breathing the fire on a daily basis, because the fire was beginning to burn me to emotional ashes inside.

Dear friends, it is okay to step away. There is no requirement to continue to expose ourselves to an experience we lived through if we do not wish to do so; it is not only understandable but normal to want to establish some distance from it at this point.

During that long drive south almost one year ago, I had my satellite radio cranked loudly to an 80’s alternative music channel. The sound was all about mitigating the feeling of loneliness, staying awake and trying to drown out the nervous panting of the dog and the caterwauling of three unhappy felines (that was the drive when I learned why it is called “cat-erwauling” as it is an apt description). After about six hours in, a song came on the radio and I laughed so hard I cried. And then I just cried for a bit, and kept driving into an uncertain future while contemplating how strange life and the world is.

Since that date whenever I hear the song I crank it up, remembering that moment and that time, thinking about how I knew even then that despite the uncertainty I, the people  I love and the place I call home would be okay.  This song makes me laugh for all the right and wrong reasons. It takes me back to that day, but not in a bad way; it takes me back to a point in time when even though all seemed uncertain and unknown and frightening, there was still time to find some absurdity in it all.

And it reminds me that while I might now see myself as a “fire woman” and Fort McMurray might be internationally known as the home of the “Fort McMurray wildfire”, both and I this community are so much, much more than just a fire.

The Road to Recovery, One Year Later

I have been so fortunate to meet so many people during the past year; one of them is an individual who has worked with natural disaster survivors as a therapist and who now is involved in research on the long-term psychological impacts of these events. We have talked many times since May 3, 2016, and in one of our recent conversations we discussed the looming “one year later” date and some thoughts on how this date played into recovery.

There are many different facets of recovery; there is the collective and community recovery, and there is the individual recovery. My friend and unofficial therapist offered me some thoughts on ways for me to cope with the upcoming day, based on things they have seen in the past.

They tell me it’s not a “one size fits all” solution, and that what they offer as advice may not work for everyone. Or that only bits and pieces will work, and that every person needs to find what works for them.

Their one emphasis, though, was the ability to get through this together, as the strength of individuals is always maximized when they have the ability and opportunity to connect with others.

Natural disasters, like any trauma, can be isolating. It is in this isolation that the peril lies, as it can foster feelings of anxiety and depression. Connection, whether with another individual, a group or even nature, can help people to overcome feelings of isolation.

The standard recipe for good mental health still applies: adequate rest, nutritious food and some form of exercise. In addition, though, my friend (therapist? counsellor? recovery guru?) talked to me about the following and how they could play into my life over the next few days and weeks.

I wanted to share them in case others find value in them; that is part of recovery too, sharing what we have learned or come to understand in the hope that it may help someone else.

The primary thing to remember is that recovery comes with no timetable or schedule, and is as unique as we are. Some may find the next few weeks exceedingly difficult while others will not; much depends on our individual circumstances. Again there is no right wrong; there is simply what is.

Here are the 5R’s of Recovery they shared with me:

Respect – Not everyone will want to talk about the day, their memories or their feelings. Respect their needs, as everyone processes these kinds of days differently. And some people may have very different feelings than your own; respect that their feelings reflect their experience and remember that whatever their experience was does not diminish your own. And respect your own feelings – don’t think you “should feel” a certain way. Allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Reach out – If you notice someone expressing thoughts or feelings you share, consider reaching out to tell them you feel the same. The greatest risk is individuals feeling isolated in their thoughts and feelings, and there can be tremendous power and healing in simply knowing that whatever you feel, you are not alone. And if you find your feelings overwhelming, reach out for help. Call someone. Anyone.

Reconnect – Remember all the people you connected with in the early moments, hours and days after the fire? Reconnect with them now, see how they are doing and just remind them that you are there. Keep building those connections. They can fray over time, so this is a good point to renew them.

Reflect – Allow yourself the opportunity to think about the day if you feel the need to. But don’t feel you have to if you don’t want to, either. There is no right and wrong. And maybe you want to paint it out, write it out, sing it out, dance it out…these forms of expressions can be tremendously freeing, even if you have never tried them before. Or just go for a walk, with others or alone. Exercise is a huge stress relief and can serve as time for reflection in busy schedules, too. And if you find yourself wanting to forget instead of reflect, remember the first R – Respect those feelings.

Reclaim – Dates have significance in our memories; and while we cannot change the events of May 3, 2016, we can make new memories on every May 3 after that, and we can choose to reclaim the date. Maybe it’s a family gathering, dinner with friends, a backyard BBQ, a trip out of town, an evening of movies and laughter; however you do it, reclaiming the date is possible if you choose to do so. There is power in countering painful memories with happy ones; if reclaiming the date is something that appeals to you, then look for opportunities to do just that.

There they are. Five very simple ideas, but each with power to help us heal, cope and conquer the next few days.

So if you see me reaching out, reconnecting, reflecting, respecting and reclaiming, you’ll know why. These simple guiding lights will brighten what could be an occasionally darkened path as I approach a date I will never forget. My hope for you is you find your guiding lights, whatever they might be; and I hope you know you are not alone. Just as we were together a year ago but each living a unique experience, so we are one year later, navigating our individual journey but still part of the collective experience. There is strength in that knowledge, my friends, and from your courage, wisdom and resilience I draw my own. I hope in some small way you can draw the same from me and others around you, as we walk further down the road to recovery, one year later.


Let it Rain

“Perhaps if you could shed a tear or two,” he says.

I shoot him a sharp look, likely far sharper than I intend, and say: “I am not so good at crying on command”, and go back to gazing across the river towards the blackened and charred trees on the other side.

I have shed a lot of tears over the past year, but faux tears are not one of the things I am willing to produce.

As we approach the one year date since the fire (do we call it an anniversary? I don’t know, I struggle with using that word for it), I am, like I suspect so many are, deeply conflicted.

There is still a desire in me to tell the story, to share my tale, to tell of the challenges and the triumphs, the moments of sorrow and of joy and the length and breadth of the experience and yet…

And yet in some strange sense I struggle to do so, as I no longer know where to begin or how to end it. Everything is a jumble of thoughts, words and emotions, and as May 3rd draws closer, the jumble tightens and intensifies.

“What will you do on May 3rd?” the interviewer asks.

“Hopefully not spend it driving nine hours down highway 63,” I respond with a small laugh. As I look around at the camera crew, I realize I am the only one who finds any humour in this.

Too soon for them, I guess.

And they weren’t even here for May 3, 2016.

The tears don’t come on command, I now know that. They come at the most unexpected times, like the moment when I am thanking someone for an act of kindness and am swept back in time to the person who tossed a bottle of water into my car while they were fleeing to safety just as I was. They come at times when I least want them, sneaking up on me at the end of movies about tales of human courage and resiliency, humbling me into silence.

And it seems I no longer have the interest or appetite I once had for natural disaster movies. Tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes; I lived through a natural disaster made not of roaring water and cracking earth but roaring flames and crackling trees. Once you have experienced one, the movie set pales in comparison.

I have a lot of words bottled up inside. I wrestle with them daily, some of them struggling to be freed while others elude me with the kind of trickery one expects from things that only want to be glimpsed but not fully seen.

What will I do on May 3rd?

I will get up and fill the dog’s water bowl.

I will pet all the cats in turn, the ones who deign to get up to meet me in the morning and the ones who decline to leave their soft warm beds.

I will drive to work.

I will glance out my window throughout the day, seeing the skyline I have come to love, not filled with skyscrapers and towering offices but with the places that have come to reside in my heart over the past sixteen years.

I will drink my coffee.

I will do my job.

At the end of the day, I will go home and cuddle those cats and that dog.

And I will go to sleep in my own bed, feeling nothing but gratitude for all I have learned and gained and lost and found in the past year.

I will allow myself to feel whatever I feel on that date, but at the end of it all I know I will simply feel happy to be here.

And oh yeah.

On May 3rd, 2017, I hope it rains.

That way when I stand outside and look at the blackened trees, nobody will see the tears.

Leave Them Kids Alone

The whiplash one could get in recent days from following the saga of GSAs, Jason Kenney and Brian Jean is nothing short of astonishing – and painful, too.

Jason Kenney, newly elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, recently came out with a statement that parents of kids who join GSAs should be informed by the school of this, unless the parents are “abusive”. Never mind that the parameters for “abusive” were never defined, never mind that schools have never informed parents when their kids join the chess club or the glee club, never mind that this has the potential to out kids to their parents before they are ready, never mind that this could put kids at risk…and never mind that wading into this was a foolish idea in the first place and he should likely know this, he did it anyhow and the negative reaction, as one might expect, was swift and hard.

It appeared Jason Kenney was not interested in protecting kids, as his interest was in garnering votes, and this did not go down well with many, myself included.

Enter Brian Jean, Leader of the Wildrose Party. Why he would wade into this topic is yet another mystery, as there is clearly nothing to be gained from this topic when one is an elected representative.

Brian’s first response was one that made me incredibly proud. He stated, quite unequivocally, that parents should not be notified when their kids joined a GSA and that this information needed to come to parents from their kids.

I will be very frank. I have not always been kind to Brian, as he represents my community and region and I expect a lot of our representatives. However, I have come to respect his representation of Fort McMurray as our MLA, and his response on GSAs was one I could definitely support and respect as the parent of a youth who co-founded the first GSA in Fort McMurray.

Then came a story in the Calgary Sun, where it appeared he made another statement at odds with his first one. Then, as the brouhaha from that began to grow, he issued another statement, this time on his Facebook page, indicating his initial statement was the accurate one.

Confused yet?

Me too.

And likely so are the thousands of LGBTQ kids in this province and their straight allies, who simply want Gay-Straight Alliances as safe spaces where they can watch Disney movies, eat cupcakes, talk about equality and sing “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga.

It reminds one of the Pink Floyd song:

Leave them kids alone.

My kid, your kid, every kid in this province: not pawns for anyone’s political gain. As Jason and Brian begin their “unite the right” talks I suggest they start with one piece of common ground and very simply leave the kids out of it, whatever their sexual orientation.

During the last two years I have seen some mind-blowing commentary on GSAs, such as:

GSAs are more for the parents than the kids – this one is actually hilarious, as my kid, who co-founded one, had to explain what it was to me when she did. I would bet a good number of parents are similar to me.

GSAs are hook-up clubs for horny kids – this one barely dignifies an answer, but they are no more a hook-up club than the chess club, drama club, badminton club or any other club, and diminishing and demeaning youth in this way just shows how obsessed adults are with sex, not how kids see it.

Parents have a right to know as they own their children – yep. I have seen parents and other adults suggest kids are basically property we own, not actual human beings who might have their own set of rights.

Parents know what is best for their kids – when it comes to being an expert on their own family dynamics and if “coming out” to their parents would be well-received, I would suggest kids know that one far better than any politician does. And kids have rights too, including a right to privacy when it comes to their sexual orientation.

You know what kids don’t need?

Politicians arguing about their rights on the front page of every paper, completely ignoring that those kids can in fact read. They don’t need to have their trust and faith in adults further diminished as the adults who are supposedly our provincial leaders discuss their rights as if the kids don’t even have a stake in the outcome. And they don’t need to be used as pawns in a struggle for political power.

Leave them kids alone.

Let them form student clubs in peace, allow them to support each other, let them bake cupcakes and sing Lady Gaga and watch movies and let them just be kids already, okay? Kids are already throwing up walls as fast as they can to distance themselves from us and our adult obsessions, preoccupations and absurdities. Stop talking about them like they aren’t in the room, because they are and they are watching every damn thing you do.

And some of them, like my kid who is about to turn 18 and enter voting booths and run for political office some day, are taking notes, too.

I would guess a lot of those notes read like this:

“Things not to do as a politician: underestimate kids”.

Oh, and probably this:

“Things to do as a politician: Leave them kids alone.”

Otherwise, all in all you’re just another brick in the wall.