(This photo is of a leaf found 10 miles from the Wine Country Firestorm)

“Has life gone back to normal for you?”

This is what I was asked a number of times three plus weeks after firestorms ravaged lives, homes, pets and property here in the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa and 3 surrounding counties. On October 8, 2017, the biggest firestorm ever recorded in California history began, and the costliest in U.S. history. In these two counties, 43 people lost their lives, as well as untold animals. 4,658 homes in the Santa Rosa‑area alone were destroyed, along with schools, parks, businesses and landmark centers and hotels.

Living ten miles from the fires, inundated with smoke, we were repeatedly asked to not drive and clog the roads. I felt helpless to figure out how to serve in the first days of the fire. My business office is only a mile from where thousands were evacuated. Safe at a distant, I spent countless hours online reading FB posts to see who of my beloved friends and clients were OK.

Normal? No more normal, as we knew it. A new normal, yes. In time.

Joy in times of tragedy is like the small far off rain clouds that first appeared on the edges of the not-yet-extinguished firestorm. At first the clouds were hardly noticed while at the same time we all hoped/prayed for a big rain. When rain came at last, a collective sigh fell over Sonoma County where I have called home for 30 years. This relief, this break from the terror, this moment of hopefulness, this sense of something positive for the common good IS the definition of joy.

Joy is a brain state that creates a moment of openness, of relaxing the guardedness and possibly filling you with a sense of inner peace. Even if it only lasts a moment.

When you look everywhere for small moments of peacefulness, connection and calm, you can see that each one begins to add to another until a jigsaw puzzle of joy begins to fill in from the straight edges to the center.

In your own life these moments may come as you pause for a heartfelt hug, appreciate a kindness or natural beauty, cheer heroism. One day you will, like a jigsaw puzzle, come together inside yourself with a sensation you recognize as “joy.” Your version.

In our crisis, joy began to show up immediately in the endless ways people expressed their gratitude for heroic actions. The courageous things that make someone a hero were humbly dismissed as, “I just did what was right.” This lack of acceptance of your own goodness can be a block to joy. Recognize that your letting someone merge into traffic in front of you is a kindness that makes a difference. Each small action is a puzzle piece toward the big picture of joy. For everyone.

Here are the many things I have heard that show that Joy was a partner here in the wine country tragedy.

  • Signs popped up on freeways, cars, lawns, advertising, thanking the first responders for their bravery.
  • “My house is gone but my family and pets made it out with me.”
  • “I lost my home and my car but I do work that makes a difference.”
  • People donated gas cards to help drivers who were donating their car and time for food deliveries.
  • Fundraisers every day somewhere in the county – many!!
  • “The smoke is gone, we can breathe again.”
  • 5,000 people contacted the Red Cross in the early days to volunteer. Most were turned away because there were too many.
  • The shelters put up signs, “No more clothes are needed.” The outpouring of goods had been enormous.
  • $100,000 per HOUR poured into the Redwood Credit Union fund for Fire Victims in the first few days of its inception.

What I saw is that joy comes more quickly when you accept that you are in the midst of something terrible. Not by trying to think positive thoughts, or pray for calm, or do anything but let the pain wash over you, flow through you, land for a few days. THEN and only then is it available for you to begin to release. Grief comes in waves. Enjoy the days where you begin to feel better, connect with people you care about, allow your laughter to return. If the next day or so, you feel sad or lost or fuzzy again, remind yourself this is a wave of grief. This is when it’s useful to join a community grief ritual or fundraiser or prayer gathering.

As best you can, become a good surfer and ride the waves of grief as they ebb and flow.

Look for the joy in all the sacred moments that still, and always exist, the glorious vineyard colors, the cooling rains, a smiling face, appreciating the quirky behaviors of those you love, gratitude for the quiet nuances of life, as well as, the bigger communal efforts; a dollar here, a million there raised by us for us.

Together we are strong.

And Joyful!