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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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One thing about writing about personal things in a public forum – sooner or later you will have to retract something you’ve said, apologize, or otherwise eat crow…

I need to correct something I said in my last post. I did believe it was true at the time, and the realization was quite freeing, but it is inaccurate. When I said, “I was finally able to admit what it is that I miss the most about firefighting. The danger,” I was wrong.

That sentence nagged at me all day and wouldn’t let me go. True enough that I enjoyed the danger. I do miss it, and facing it did develop qualities in me that I value, but it isn’t what I miss most. It took a few hours of acute writerly discomfort before I ran smack into what it really was that I missed most. Perhaps I should have known at the ease with which the first post rolled across the keyboard that I was missing the obvious. When something means as much to me as firefighting and EMTing did, it is never that emotionally glib.

I’ve been a frequent reader over at Steve Pavlina’s blog the last few days. I was merely preparing to do the exercise he recommends in his post, “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes,” when the truth hit me. Structural collapse. A rain of metaphorical burning embers and charred trusses fell around my ears. I guess I needed the old cosmic 2″ x 6″ up along side of my head after all.

I didn’t need to do the exercise; I’ve been doing it for a year and a half. Longer, even. My personal mission went through my mind as clear as a the crack of thunder a half-mile away during the summer monsoons. “To embrace the world, sing it a lullaby, and rock it to sleep.”

As simple as that. Pavlina says that the mission that is yours will make you cry. It did. I’m still almost woozy from the impact. I know that’s it. I can look back over my life and see so many ways I’ve tried to live that out unconsciously and unknowingly. I “mother henned” my crews and trainees unmercifully at times, try as I might to moderate what I identified as “misplaced maternal instincts.”

“To embrace the world, sing it a lullaby, and rock it to sleep.”

The first part of that phrase is right out of something I told M back when I first started firefighting, that it was a way to “embrace the world,” to help whoever needed it whenever, however, without question. When the tones sound, you roll. It is called the Fire Service for a reason. The thing that gives me the shivers at the moment is that it was also during that conversation that we discussed how I was dealing with the miscarriage I had had a couple of years previous. Sometimes it is like looking into the face of Persephone to gaze into the eyes one’s own unconscious. One half the year in the world of light, the other half shrouded in darkness…

I can think of many ways that this could play out. And I know that thinking is not how it will play out. It will be in the day to day living and dying, the quiet listening to my heart at those moments when I will be tempted to take the easier road, to go back into unconsciousness and denial. On the surface it makes no sense that a childless woman of nearly 50, who wanted children and could not have them, and whose husband (now-ex) once told her she wouldn’t have been a good mother anyway, would have such a mission. M’s reply… “Who better?”

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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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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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There’s smoke in the air, drifting in from somewhere in the area, but it’s been misty most of the day and I have no idea where the smoke is originating. As a result, I’ve been antsy all afternoon. I keep getting up and going outside and looking around; I feel like I should be doing something. It’s unsettling to be under the sway of such a strong, conditioned reflex that doesn’t have a place in my life anymore. You can take the firefighter out of service, but you can’t take the service out of the firefighter, I quess.

Actually, conditions are quite good in our immediate area right now. It’s cool and there’s a northwest wind of about 5 mph, the humidity is up, and it rained at least half an inch today. While a lot of the forest is still under extreme fire danger conditions, at the moment it’s pretty safe where I’m sitting.

The synchronicity of this is rather amusing, really. For one thing, I’m in the midst of re-reading Peter Leschak’s book, “Trials by Wildfire” as an antidote to feeling like I’ve gotten out of touch with much that was beneficial from working as a firefighter and EMT, particularly his notion of the emergency services as a “warrior calling” that serves as constant reminder of the fragility of life. Amen to that.

And, just two days ago I was going through the rest of the stuff from out of the van (I’ve put it up for sale) – two storage tubs that I continually carted around full of extra first aid supplies, fire investigation gear, several different kinds of gloves, various hats, glasses, goggles, binoculars, etcetera, ad infinitum – all kinds of equipment and supplies that will not be transferred to the PT Cruiser. Sorting through all of it has served as just one more reminder of what I’ve left behind.

There’s another storm cell moving in from the west. The temperature has dropped a few more degrees and the thunder is getting louder, so we may get even more rain by tonight. I can still smell smoke, but the agitation of feeling like I need to do something about it has passed. As soon as I’ve posted this, I’m headed over to the guitar corner for another round of practice.

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