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Preamble

Issues of personal privacy, openness, and freedom were what were on my mind when I woke up this morning. These on the microscale, mind you, not the grand scale of constitutional rights and such. Just little old me wondering at how much to say or to not say, trying to figure out if I’ve said too much or if there is some value to others in it.

That seems to be the key. I’ve written about some very personal things lately and it feels a bit strange, but it is also very freeing. However, that is not enough. What may be liberating for me to say may or may not be helpful to someone else.

That said, I may or may not know what may be helpful to someone else. So I have to take my intuitions on what to post or what not to post with a dose of faith and a grain of salt. The major dividing line seems to be whether or not the theme of the personal story or the reflections that I am relating touches on the deeper issues of meaning that we all share. There are a lot of things I fly right by with just a word, or a sentence or two, because it doesn’t seem that relevant. If someone responds to that in a comment, I’ll go into more detail at a later time.

This morning, I reached a couple of decisions. This is a personal blog. If I get too personal, or if it is of no use to them, people can pass on by with a click of their mouse. If it is of some value to you, welcome. The surprise to me is that I don’t worry so much about what others think, or about being hurt by being open, as I used to. Age and experience do have their benefits. Some personal reflections by way of example:

It’s Just Bodies

One thing you learn working as a firefighter and an EMT – it’s just bodies. Cultural mores and conditioning fly out the window when someone is in pain, trapped, or injured. They have to. There is no time or energy to waste. Yes, you are taught to respect a patient’s privacy and modesty, and you do to the extent that you are able, but above all else it is life that matters. After you’ve cut the clothes off of people a few times, whether exposing injuries for treatment or searching for them, you acquire a certain equanimity about skin and body parts. You get inured to blood, vomit, urine, and feces. It just isn’t that big a deal.

Likewise, a hospital stay can get you over a lot of physical inhibitions. When the nurse hands you that wispy little thing called a “gown,” we are not talking Cinderella here. It’s too short, too thin, and has that damnable slit up the back. I tried to walk around with one hand behind me in an effort to keep the thing discretely closed, but soon gave up. If my butt shows a bit, it shows. We’ve all got one and most people aren’t in the hospital for the view.

They’re Only Emotions

So much for physical nakedness. The very same thing goes for emotions. They are important and they deserve respect, but they are, once again, something we all share and which are pretty similar across the board.

As a firefighter/EMT, I saw people at their best and at their worst. You deal with the permanently psychotic and deranged, you deal with those who are only temporarily that way out of pain, or fear, or grief. You deal with the dead and the dying, the conscious and the unconscious of every age and background. You deal with those closest to them. You deal with the distraught stranger who is trying to help and the stranger who may have caused the problem. Sometimes those strangers are one and the same person.

Anger, fear, guilt, loneliness are there on the scene to be “managed” and “treated,” too. Sometimes they are far and away what needs to be handled most. On some calls there isn’t even anything “wrong” that regular, basic human contact wouldn’t fix. Failure to thrive can arise from the simple lack of connection and touch.

What Really Matters

Over time, you learn how to handle the situations and your own reactions. Like a series of class iv rapids, you run the risk of becoming hardened and cynical and you run the risk of burning out, of succumbing to compassion fatigue. If you successfully negotiate those powerful currents, you discover the middle way. You toughen up a bit, but you also become more accepting of the human condition and less concerned about the ephemera that most of us obsess about most of the time. Stuff matters less, people matter more. Ego matters less, principle matters more. Time matters. Relationships matter, soul and spirit matter.

We come into this world naked and crying, with at least one other person present. For a long time I thought I’d seen too many people go out of this world with no one else there, or with only some strangers in blue in attendance. Somewhere along the way, I realized none of us are strangers.

Separation is only an illusion, and one I can only maintain if I myself close off. There is no other; there is no individual me that stands in opposition to the rest of the world. The only reason even for the perception of individuality is the opportunity for relationship.

I have to cut off my own garments of fear and become emotionally naked to be free. I have to open up my own arms to embrace the world.

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Something clicked in my brain this morning. I was finally able to admit what it is that I miss the most about firefighting. The danger. Or, perhaps, more specifically, the opportunity that danger affords to test myself, my wits, and my preparation. In other words, danger has allowed me to build a warrior’s spirit.

This may or may not sound like that big a deal, but keep in mind that I’m a GIRL, born in the late 1950s, and not encouraged to stretch myself in those ways. Security is what I was programmed to seek and it nearly killed me, and in far worse ways than any physical danger I was ever in, even when my leg went through the floor of a burning mobile home. In too many areas of my life, for too long, I played it safe and tried to meet others’ expectations of me, while my spirit nearly suffocated.

Damn. This is freeing. I’ve danced all around it and made all sorts of other excuses for how I’ve felt, but the truth is I like a good scare. My friend Margie gets hers by watching horror flicks, I got mine going into burning buildings and playing out along the interstate. We even called it “playing,” despite the acknowledged dangers and how hard we worked. Big kids in huge, screaming, red trucks. I watch my new nephews with their fire truck and laugh. I watch my niece with her dolls and wonder how I can plant the seeds of revolution…

I’ve known for a long time that my calling was a sort of “warrior path” that demanded attention, training, focus, and determination. I knew that firefighting and EMTing, for me, was a way of being a warrior without hurting anyone. I loved it and I’d go back to it in a heartbeat if I reasonably could. I have spent a considerable amount of time wishing that I could; I tried to overcome the nerve damage in my legs to that point and failed. For a long time, all I could see was the loss. What I didn’t see was how it was training me for the life I have now.

The challenges have become more subtle. Life is demanding that I move inward and grow in new ways. It’s still all about facing fear and overcoming it. My old post, “It’s Not the Flames That Kill You,” rings even more true to me now. It’s still about pitting myself and my knowledge, skills, and abilities against formidable foes, but my real enemies are fears of insignificance and finitude, doubts of my ability and worthiness, worry about the future and regrets about the past.

I will undoubtedly take a few wounds, just as I will undoubtedly have some victories. We all carry both scars and medals with us through life. In a way, the scars are medals. Funny thing, though, I’m not looking at that so much anymore. Just as in the movie “Michael,” in a silly scene where the archangel come to earth takes on a bull in a pasture shouting “Battle!” at the top of his lungs, I’m rushing headlong into my own personal fray with new enthusiasm. More precisely, I am renewing the struggle and shifting the field to my advantage…this old firefighter learned a thing or two about strategy and tactics along the way.

And you know what? I think we’ve gotten it wrong a lot of the time. It isn’t about the winning or the losing; it isn’t about staving off death until the last moment. Not a one of us gets off this planet alive. It is about the depth and the quality of one’s life. It truly is about how you play the game, or fight the good fight, or any of those other old cliches. Despite their weariness, they hold important truth. It is about your heart. It’s about doing what you were born to do with your whole heart and nothing less.

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The metaphor of skydiving that I used in my original “Jump. Fall. Fly.” post of a few months ago has taken on new meaning. I’ve been hanging onto the edge of the jump door resisting this one for a while now, but the time has come to let go and take the dive. This bird is flying south for the winter, maybe longer.

When I left the “Valley of the Sun” sixteen years ago, I swore that I’d never go back there to live again, but as the old saying goes,”Time changes everything.” There’s a lot that has changed in my life and a lot that has not turned out anything like I’d hoped or planned. I never thought I’d ever look at metro Phoenix and see a place to make a fresh start…

Understandably, when your life falls apart, one’s first reaction is to try and stabilize what’s left. I did that. Then you start to look everything over and figure out what you can do with what you’ve got. I’ve identified what I want to accomplish in what remains of my sojourn here and I’ve started to make some progress towards those goals. However, a lot of what I want to do simply isn’t going to happen in the Flagstaff area.

In the last couple of months, as I’ve held onto the old dream of staying in the high country, a kind of stagnation has started to creep in, despite all of my new learning projects and ventures. I’ve also come to realize that I will set myself up for failure if I get stubborn with my original plan and persist with what I want vs. what the times demand.

It happens sometimes in the fire service that an incident commander will stick with the original plan even when it becomes apparent that things have changed. The results are seldom good when you let yourself get into a situation where the incident is getting ahead of you, not you ahead of it. That’s the reason you do continuing assessments throughout an incident, not just an initial one. Tactics at least, if not strategy as well, must be revised as conditions change.

So, it’s time. Time to shake up everything that’s left and see what happens. It’s scary and this isn’t my preference, but I’ve packed my parachute and my emergency backup. The stomach butterflies have started to dance their little slip jig. Now, the only way to know if I’ll fall or fly, is to jump.

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Some Straight Talk and Sage Advice From an Old, Rural EMT/Firefighter

On a trip to the closest grocery store tonight (30 mile round trip), I beheld a sight that made me change my mind about posting anything more before tomorrow.

There were two guys in camoflauge and good old boy caps standing in the middle of the lane in the parking lot. (It doesn’t have to be hunting season to see this in Williams, Arizona.) They were slow to move out of the way, and continued their loud, and somewhat colorful, conversation as I walked by. Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten. We are already into hunting season. And if I were a bettin’ woman, I’d bet that they’d had a few.

It got me thinking about past Labor Day weekends and the autumn madness that sweeps across northern Arizona’s high country every fall. I remembered the number of people I’ve backboarded, transported, and otherwise assisted out in the woods or along I-40.

Some were hunters, some were simply recreationists up for few days out of the heat of the Valley of the Sun. (Gotta love that euphemism.) They were usually pretty happy to see me and my cohort coming towards them, though some got a little testy about how long it took us to find them out in the woods. Hey, when you’ve got 180 square miles to cover…

Expert Tips For Surviving Your Trip to Northern Arizona

Here are some expert tips for anyone who goes out into the forest this fall in northern Arizona. May these keep you from having to meet some of my old compatriots under distressing, and often embarrassing, circumstances.

1) Just because you are the one with the gun and the elk or deer tag, don’t assume that the elk or deer won’t get you. They’re out there in the dark, along the roadside, and they’re waiting for you. Drive slower than the speed limit at night, so you can see them before they have the chance to jump out in front of you.

Give yourself the advantage of the increased reaction time gained from reducing your speed to around 65 on the highway. (Shall we be honest here? Were you going 75? Eighty? Faster?) Yes, the semis will pass you like you are up on jacks, thinking they are immune because of their size. They’re not. Ever see a caved-in windshield on a truck from a thousand pound elk tossed up into it like a rag doll? Think of what that would do to your vehicle.

2) Don’t drink and drive. Yes, you’ve heard this before. There’s a good reason. I backboarded too many people who had the smell of alcohol on their breath. I wanted to put this one first, but then I knew you might not read it. But this is the most important tip of them all. (Except for Number 6.)

3) Don’t drink and drive your ATV. See above. Too many weekend warriors end up with head and neck injuries and ponderosa bark embedded in their faces. I swear those trees are just as militant as the elk and deer, and the vegetable kingdom is only fooling us about being anchored in the ground. I’ve had patients tell me that the tree jumped right out in front of them…

4) Don’t use cruise control at night. That little chatter strip at the edge of the road saves lives by jolting drowsy motorists awake and causing them to lift their foot off the gas pedal. With cruise control on, you don’t get that split-second advantage that can keep a minor incident from becoming fatal. One of my Fire Science instructor’s favorite slide shows featured the results of someone losing consciousness while using cruise control. Think Braveheart meets the back of a semi. I won’t say more.

5) Remember that you have arrived in what is officially known as the boondocks. This means to let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Bring extra water, some extra warm clothes. It’s already getting down into the forties on some nights here, and with the monsoon thunderstorms still frequent, you could get wet and very, very cold. It doesn’t have to be freezing to get hypothermia.

Surprisingly, there’s fairly good cell phone coverage in many of the areas people will be visiting this fall. Bring your cell phone and an extra battery. A map and a compass are a good idea, too. Not that you should leave your vehicle if stranded, but they can help you orient yourself and give 911 some idea of where to send help.

6) Always, always, always wear your seat belt. Yes, another no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t, or who unbuckle once they leave the highway for the backroads. Some of the worst head injuries I’ve seen have been from rollovers on side roads. (Maybe because, on a backroad, people often survive things that they would not at highway speeds? It’s caused me to ponder my own mortality and my feelings about survival vs. “quick and clean.”)

Backroads here tend to be rough and winding, and are often covered with fine cinders, which can act much like a layer of marbles between your tires and the roadway. Go slow. Enjoy the scenery.

7) No matter what happens, don’t panic. With a little thought, preparation, and luck, you can deal with almost anything that happens. And it sure doesn’t help matters any to lose your cool. Even out here in the boondocks, there are folks that will help you out if you do get in trouble. EMTs and firefighters know they are not getting called out because you’re having a good day.

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:-) As an act of self-discipline, I made myself NOT write a blog post yesterday and got back to work on editing the novel. I’ve got a lot to do in two weeks.

With all of the various projects I’ve got going, it’s a struggle to keep some balance and order in my life. The optimum ratio of discipline to devotion is not always easy to find. It can be even more difficult to CHOOSE to do what I know will further my goals. Emotional baggage, habit, and distractions can all get in the way.

And, sometimes, it’s not easy to know if what you are doing is helpful or a hindrance. I took a break (a good thing) from my Drupal research and did a little blog reading. (Could be good, bad, or neutral.) I found one that I really liked – Random Acts of Reality – by an EMT with the London Ambulance Service. When I read “These Boots…” by Tom Reynolds, I went on a real ambo ride down memory lane. Yep, Ditto. I remember it well. I may have worked rural areas of northern Arizona, and my boots often walked through sand and sheep manure or kneeled on the side of the interstate rather than went up steep stairs in a “tower,” but the kinds of situations we faced when we got to the patient were pretty similar.

I took a few moments and remembered. I took a few more moments and let myself miss the work, the skills, the people. (Bad.) I don’t have much time for nostalgia; I have absolutely none for self-pity. Choice time. I thought, “OK, what from that time would help me now?” A little dose of the warrior attitude that is so necessary in that line of work wouldn’t hurt.

Get the job done despite the sinus headache. Stop whining about time constraints if you’re going to play LabPixies Trio on iGoogle. (No, no link – I’m not a pusher!) Get down on the floor and do the girlie pushups, because that’s where you’re at right now. It doesn’t matter what you once could do or what you plan to do in the future, what are you doing this minute? Is it getting you where you want to go?

Off to workout mat, then the guitar corner…and when I’m done with that, back to the novel.

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A couple of things happened this last week that prompted me to look back into the past with renewed interest. Friend 1 sent me a book of devotionals in an apparent “coincidence” (she had no knowledge of the role those specific devotionals once played in my life) and in my blog reading, one of my regular stops had a post about the seeming incongruity of the writer’s journey from paganism to Roman Catholicism.

The book was the same one we used to read at every lunch in the religious order I was once a part of. It brought back fond memories and resurrected lingering questions about the long, strange journey I have been on. The blog post, likewise caused me to reflect on that same time period, my choices, and where I am today, having traveled from heathen to Episcopalian to “Jubuan.”

Many years ago, in my early twenties, I was a postulant in an Anglican religious order. I loved it – the life, the work, the prayers, the people. I can still remember it like it was only yesterday. As I write this I can smell the incense, hear the singing, feel the joy I felt in taking my temporary vows, all excited to wear my habit, which as part of an active order was reserved for special occasions. I believed in the work we did and that the most important thing in life was to know and serve God.

The long line of tradition meant a lot to me, and I, in my innocence, believed that it was more than sturdy enough to hold up to scrutiny. In my thirst to know and understand, I delighted in learning more and asking questions. But I asked “too many questions,” and it would have been much easier on all concerned if those pesky little visions and psychic occurrences that have been with me all my life had simply ceased.

I still miss it sometimes, just like I miss firefighting and EMTing. It’s funny, though, the things that I miss are 1) the people, and 2) the tools. The people part is pretty self-explanatory, I think, but the other seems a little odd to me. I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure in the outer tools of my trade, whatever that happened to be at the time. I still miss my prayer book and rosary, just as I miss my fire trucks, the ambulance, my badge and blues. These days, I thoroughly enjoy my guitar and my laptop. But as much as I like the outer trappings, most of all it is the inner life that the trappings feed, support, and point towards and beyond, that I love. That has remained, despite the outward changes.

That said, I guess I’m still most comfortable in a “uniform,” even though I know that is only symbolic of how I gravitate towards collective efforts. Yet I always seem to run into trouble because of my need to speak my mind in a personal war against groupthink and narrowness. I wasted a lot of time figuring that it was my problem, that somehow there was something wrong with me because of that. I still distance myself off from groups because I do not want any more fights or disappointments. Whether or not that will always be the case, I don’t know. It’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I read about others’ winding journeys with such fascination. (I can still hope, can’t I?)

Once again I find myself on the lonesome trail, wandering and wondering. I sometimes question whether the extreme outer-directedness and the concreteness of fire service culture was not an attempt on my part to leave all the inner questions behind in a flurry of action. If it was, it certainly didn’t work. But when I really think about it, I know that it was not about leaving the questions behind as much as an effort to express my inward experiences in some outward form. And, just as in the religious order, it was a defined opportunity to serve as part of a group.

For now, the way is long hours of solitary struggle, doing art, music, writing, webwork (of both kinds!) in an attempt to put what I have seen and done and experienced, in both the outer and inner realms, into forms that can be shared with others. Agonizing. Ecstatic. Daunting, exhilarating, scary, and fun, all at the same time. Once again, my favorite Ed Abbey quote from Desert Solitaire comes to mind. “May all your trails be winding, crooked, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Ah yes, they have been and they have…

I find myself standing on a rocky outcrop, footsore and weary, gazing with awe and amazement, back at the trail behind, ahead to a wreath of clouds that crowns jagged, snowy peaks beyond. The trail climbs ahead higher, further, and is just as rugged, if not more so, than that which came before. Sigh. Smile. I may seem to be hoofing it alone, but I am accompanied by all of those, past, present, future, on similar journeys on similar paths, whether in a recognizable “uniform,” or just in raggedy, old, patched together traveling clothes like me. See you out there.

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As an ex-firefighter (female) with a lot of weight to lose, I decided to apply what I knew best. So far, I’ve lost 34 pounds and am feeling great. Here’s what has made the difference for me:

1. Know Where You’re Headed – I was going to title this “Get Directions from Dispatch,” but it’s more than just defining a goal. It also includes an element of risk management. Set your goal. Then, scrutinize it carefully. Is the goal doable? What is the best route – fastest, easiest, safest? You can design a program to maximize one or two of those, but not all three. Which are most important? That is up to you, and the answer will vary from person to person, but know which you are choosing and why.

Be honest with yourself if choosing fast over safe has led to failure before. I know it has for me. This time, I’ve chosen easy and safe, and am getting much better and more sustainable results.

2. Make It Real, Make It Urgent – I learned this one during drills at fire academy. We were tired, we were hungry, and we were getting lazy in our responses after repeated attacks. Our trainer came up as we were about to head into the burn tower for another go. He screamed, “There are babies dying in there!” Our hearts started pumping and all thoughts of lunchtime vanished.

Vague thoughts of health problems that may happen in 20 years aren’t enough to keep that gooey, sugary dessert off my plate right now. The deterrent must have a real, and timely, emotional impact. I have to think much closer in time to make it feel important enough to change my behavior. What are the short-term consequences, immediate results of this action? How will it keep me from my larger life goals? If that isn’t enough, I pull out the bigger guns – images of what not just once, but repeated instances of the behavior will do to me. We all know that it wasn’t just one piece of pie or one chocolate bar that got us where we are, now don’t we?

3. Plan for Failure and Know Your Weakest Link – On a fire scene that can be equipment, communications, or people breaking down. Or, all three. All hell can cut loose and you still have to get the fire out. No excuses. The only way you can do that is to be ready, to know where the most likely sources of failure will arise and plan ways to work around them. Will you fall off your program? Most assuredly. Will you manage to get back on it is the real question. Some good pre-planning, based on any past failures of your own, or a little study of the vast literature on weight loss, will point out lots of ways you could fail.

Okay. Assume that you will fail, that systems will break down. How can you still reach your ultimate goal? Write it down, visualize it happening and what you could do to make it just a blip on the screen and not an excuse to give up. For me, it helps to do an advance short-circuit of my weakest link – the late evening trip to the refrigerator. I put my scale in front of the refrigerator door, so that every time I start to open the freezer to reach for the Ben and Jerry’s (assuming that I’ve let it into the house in the first place) I have to confront the fact that I am letting habit and short-term indulgence divert me from ultimate health and happiness.

4. Pace Yourself – The effort expended to reach a big goal, like putting out a fire or losing fifty pounds, can be phenomenal. Especially something like weight loss, where it can take months to see really noticeable progress, needs to be broken down into smaller steps. Benchmarks are needed, just like on a fire, so you can know if you are making actual progress or merely slowing it down by squirting water at it. If all you’re doing is slowing the fire down, it will eventually outstrip your resources. Change tactics, fast. Fallback into defensive mode and regroup. Do whatever it takes to get you ahead of it.

Set waypoints, markers that you can use to measure your progress. Two pounds, five pounds, a reduced waist measurement, all of these and more can be used as flagging on the trail to your end goal. I’m a chart geek. I chart my weekly weights or my daily exercise to help me see how I’m doing and I use it to pace my efforts, so I don’t get down on myself for not having lost more, sooner. Small actions consistently performed, as long as they reverse the overall course of weight gain by even a small margin, will get you there.

5. Roll! Get Moving – Move that body! It doesn’t have to be a herculean effort or two hours of aerobics. Just turn off the TV and get your butt out of the recliner (Firefighter/EMTs favorite spot between calls) and move. It works even better when there is an emotional payoff and/or you can see a visible result from your efforts – clean out the shed, mow the grass, dance to your favorite music, shoot hoops with your kid, anything that will get your blood pumping and will leave you feeling better than when you started. The hard part is getting started.

Disclaimer: All of the above comes with the usual caveat. This is just what has worked for me. Don’t use it as a substitute for competent medical consultation or treatment. Always check with a competent medical professional before embarking on a changed or intensified exercise program. Think first, so you can be safe and smart about how you go about any major change in your life. ‘Nuff said.

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