Only You

Allison Gustavson
7 min readJul 17, 2020
Elephant Butte Wildfire, Evergreen, CO (Photo: ©️2020, Tobin E. Threadgill)

On Monday, a wildfire burned through fifty acres and required more than seven hundred homes to be evacuated in our small mountain town. With plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky and tanker planes circling above my house as they traveled to and from the lake to replenish their water supply, I struggled to find a proportional reaction: was this time to panic, or to adapt to this particular reality of mountain life? I had no concept of how often winds might shift or how quickly fires could spread, but the burning peak certainly appeared to be unnervingly, viscerally close. Without a personal frame of reference, I found myself disoriented and grasping, like the needle on a guitar tuner flailing side to side in an agitated urge to land on “C”; I was in that strangely heightened state in which the skin on our faces feels pulled tight, our breath is shallow, and thoughts come in disjointed snippets of word, image, and memory. But the situation required adult thinking and composure, so I attempted to play the part.

Mark, my husband, is a Head of School; at that moment, he was in the middle of conducting a meeting with his faculty and staff, addressing the logistics, anxiety, and emotion surrounding the reopening of schools in the age of COVID-19. Storm clouds were gathering, and I saw a post that lightning had struck the mountain, close to the fires, pausing containment efforts on the ground. The seemingly biblical simultaneity of these events — pandemic, lightning, fire — reminded me of the time I found myself covered in boil-shaped hives, in Egypt, on Passover.

I was at home alone with the kids and didn’t want to alarm them; they were watching from the deck and peppering me with questions, of course, which I answered with the reassuring authority that I’ve managed to cultivate over my fourteen years as a mother, particularly a mother navigating the endless and cascading crises of the last decade. My phone, meanwhile, was lighting up with texts from my lovely friends and neighbors, each checking in and comparing her own reaction against updates and guidance from our county’s official Twitter feed. When a friend up the street texted that her neighbor had suggested we pack valuables, important documents, and an overnight bag, I felt the true grip of panic: suddenly, it all felt blood-chillingly real. I got to work — making split-second decisions about which items would make it into the yellow laundry bag I’d selected so as not to unnecessarily alarm the kids with the appearance of a suitcase — and allowed a small corner of my mind to touch upon the unlikely but real possibility that, like so many other victims of natural disasters and unnatural evictions, we might not have a home to return to.

Elephant Butte Wildfire, Evergreen, CO (Photo: ©️2020, Tobin E. Threadgill)

Armed with a breathtaking arsenal of modern equipment expertly commanded by our dedicated firefighters, no lives or homes were lost in the Elephant Butte wildfire. We were spared. When Mark came home, I shared the story of the previous few hours and proudly showed him the chosen contents of my laundry bag. Still jittery from the ordeal and with the fires still burning but no longer posing a direct threat, I sliced my finger while cutting the tomatoes for dinner; later, the whole family piled into our bed to watch an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as we’ve been doing almost nightly for months now. It was a deliciously ordinary evening made infinitely more so by the potential for it to have been so devastatingly, incomprehensibly otherwise. I slept with my phone on low volume (but not “silent”), just in case. But we were fine. The first responders, as always, are our heroes. We thank them, but it’s never enough.

Elephant Butte Wildfire, Evergreen, CO (Photo: ©️2020, Tobin E. Threadgill)

As I sit here on the cafe deck with my laptop this morning, the mountains — having been plastered all morning, as they almost always are, against the backdrop of a glittering, crystal sky — are suddenly shrouded in a cloud so thick that I can only see about ten meters in front of me, just beyond the edge of the railing. The edge of the deck is now the edge of the universe, and my words seem to be coming from a deep and context-less void. Only moments ago, I was soaking up the sunshine in my rhinestone Star Wars tank top, worried that my shoulders would burn as I confronted the blank page and attempted to wrest meaning from the mounting mayhem. Now, the world around me is a dense, milky soup with almost zero visibility, the temperature must have dropped at least thirty degrees, and I don’t have a sweatshirt. The cloud feels neither puffy and benevolent nor particularly menacing; it has simply rolled in, according to its own timeline, and transformed the way everything looks and feels for those of us who happen to be occupying this particular spot at this particular moment.

The arrival of this cloud feels physically reflective of a deeper, more fundamentally felt truth: we are, to state the obvious, living through a time of profound, and almost hourly, change. For those of us whose upbringing and temperament have led to a general predisposition to planning, control, and order (packing a sweatshirt, booking trips), these times are a radical erasure of the structures of our lives, and an erasure, even, of the structures that uphold those structures. From day to day, the cues and benchmarks we use to create and maintain order are being removed and rewritten. Even “back-to-school” — ever the innocent, Crayola-sponsored, relief-inducing parental jingle — has morphed into a terrifying political and existential morass. For me and for many of my friends, the Evergreen wildfire felt less like an isolated event than the next float in the grim, destabilizing parade that has been 2020.

Even as I find myself calling upon deep inner resources to manage the emotional and existential chaos of this unprecedented moment, the white-hot fury and disgust I feel at the blatant and unrelenting cruelty and corruption of this Administration can surface at the slightest provocation: it has no shape, size, or proportion, but immediately fills my inner field as completely as this thick fog has filled my outer, visual one. Just as it galls me that six months of diligent exercise can be undermined by a two-week hiatus, I am also blindingly angry at a grand universal design that would enable things that have been so painstakingly wrought — vases, forests, countries — to be easily destroyed by wobbly toddlers, flippant smokers, and cruel, emotionally-stunted brutes, respectively.

I am devastated that I don’t get to parent my children the way my parents were able to parent me, under conditions (safety, resources, access) finally revealed to me as embodying such extraordinary privilege that it must now be the work of my lifetime to rebalance. In my more exhausted moments, I also find myself drained by a repetitive internal battle with deep feelings of blame towards those whose political apathy, complacency, and negligence made space — culturally and electorally — for my friends and I to inherit a world order collapsing under the weight of exploitation and negligence.

What galls more than anything, though, is the fact that none of these changes are naturally occurring, and — unlike the clouds rolling in on my otherwise sunny, productive day — they are not forces beyond our control. They are all the direct result of greed, and of a sad, disconnected worldview that prioritizes wealth accumulation over the joys and dignities of a life lived in balance with each other and with our natural world.

This is all so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to put it so simply, but in this time of unbearable confusion I feel called, more than ever, to use words to cut through the noise: it doesn’t have to be this way. Society is simply the product of our individual and collective imaginations and our willingness to act upon the visions they produce. If we can imagine a better world for our own children to inherit from us, then we must bring that world into being or live as accomplices to its destruction.

My daughter’s friend has a hilarious t-shirt that reads, “This nap is not going to take itself.” The first responders who so bravely, brilliantly, and strategically contained Monday’s fire did not clasp their hands, furrow their brows, talk to their friends, post on Facebook, and simply hope that the trees’ desire to live would outweigh the fire’s desire to burn. Like my daughter’s friend, they know that this fire was not, according to its very nature, going to fight itself. They coordinated and acted according to best practices. They were trained, they made a plan, they executed upon that plan and they most certainly must have adapted that plan to circumstances that changed moment by moment. They were, thankfully, successful.

While we continue to show boundless gratitude to all first responders for endangering their own lives to bring expertise and dedication to the matter of protecting us from imminent physical harm, we must also shift our own self-perception and recognize that each and every one of us is, in fact, on the front lines of a democracy in peril. If we are not grabbing a bucket, then we are lighting a match.

The deep, tectonic work of rebuilding — and reimagining — what has been destroyed over the last four years will be the work of our lifetimes. For the next four months, though, the work is as concrete and personal as Smokey the Bear’s exhortations for each of us: ONLY YOU.

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Allison Gustavson

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >