This post was written by author and clinical psychologist Mary Flett, PhD, amid the California fires in October 2020. It is reprinted, with permission, from “Valuing Ourselves as We Get Older,” the first in Dr. Flett’s new three-book “Aging with Finesse” series. Dr. Flett, who worked extensively with aging adults, is the featured guest on the 125th Episode of Aging Insights TV.
I ran away this week. Fled. Gave up the ghost. Abandoned my post. It all finally became too much and so I fled to a place that wasn’t in the pathway of raging fires, appeared to have taken appropriate precautions for COVID and held happy memories of better times for me. I returned home, somewhat chastened, definitely improved in mental state and capacity to face what is a continuing challenge, but also keenly aware of how much I need sanctuary.
I was intimately familiar with the location I chose to flee to. My husband and I had spent untold hours driving around this area, exploring the back roads, dead ends, as well as shopping, dining, and getting to know the locals. Even contemplating it as a place where we would retire. It is incredibly beautiful, has a delightful small-town ethos, not just because it actually is a small town, but also because it has all the big-city amenities that we had come to expect.
But this time it was different. And different in that slightly off-kilter way when the audio is off from the video. The places I remembered were still there, but with new names, and restrictions, because of COVID. Some of our favorite hidden by-ways still remained but were now filled with new buildings and without the quaint, small-town feel. There was an edge to the exchanges with masked store clerks and customer service folks. Lines were long and shelves were thinly stocked.
Maybe it was my mood or maybe it was a combination of the weather, which was overcast but cool, but I could not find what I longed for – that feeling of relief and letting go that comes from being in a familiar, welcoming place.
I stayed in a perfectly lovely hotel, now barricaded with plexiglass because of COVID, but reassuringly hermetically sealed from the room entry to the prophylactic covering on the remote. Still, I felt like a caged animal.
I planned on staying for four days, assuring myself that in that time the danger from fire at home would have decreased, and I would have enjoyed a brief vacation. But circumstances conspired to cut the time short. So I returned home.
Not much had changed at home. The fires continued to burn, the air continued to be unbreathable, and there were still bills to be paid, calls to be returned, and appointments to be kept. But I had changed. This is what is so fascinating to me.
It was as if I had hit the “re-set” button. I realized that my home is my sanctuary, and in no small part because of the miscellaneous unconscious items that I take for granted. My shower head is adjusted to the way I like it. I know just how long it will take for the water to get hot. My coffee set-up is organized and the muscle memory to get that brew done requires only that I remember to boil the water. My favorite channels are easily accessed on my TV and radio. My bed has my sheets and pillows and my chair is molded to fit my body. The pictures on the walls, always just slightly askew, soothe my soul and bring happy memories to mind.
This level of familiarity is vacated when I am in a new place. And while the novelty of a different shower, coffee set up, working the TV and adjusting to pillows and chairs is an effective way of stimulating my aging brain, when I am depleted emotionally and psychologically, and when I am at my core threatened with extinction, that novelty drops to the bottom of the list and I am left even more fatigued.
I have seen this emptiness in the eyes of people whose homes have been incinerated in the fires. I have seen this surrender in the drooping shoulders of people who have stood in long lines only to be told the forms they need to fill out to start their lives over are located in another line, even longer. I have seen this in the shuffling strides of those who are homeless and now without work or purpose.
Where can I go when home is no longer safe? I am not the first to ask this question. Whether it be women who are physically and economically tied to partners who make their lives unsafe or whether it is the increasing numbers of people who are becoming climate refugees, where do we go when our homes are no longer there?
In my reviewing these last few days, I came to the conclusion that I was seeking sanctuary. I was seeking a place of refuge, a place where I would find peace and tranquility. An experience where I would feel connection and belonging. For me, this can be found in nature or in the company of others. What truly brought me “home,” was not just returning to my house, but lingering in conversation with friends who reached out to see if I was OK.
I find myself wondering whether my time here in California is spent. I have lived here for 41 years – the longest I have lived in any one state. While I can go through a checklist of places that have lower environmental risk and are possibly more economically advantageous as I approach retirement, I now realize that what is essential is that I am able to connect with and build community. And that is a daunting prospect in these current times.
I understand better why some people stay behind to protect their property. I have more compassion for those who return and put themselves in what are irrationally unsafe environments. It is hard to leave a place that brings such comfort from the unknown. What all this has taught me is that I am going to have to leave sometime. It will either be by my own choice or because I am forced to leave. The challenge is knowing when to exercise my options.
Mary L. Flett, PhD, is an author, clinical psychologist and nationally recognized speaker on aging. She has just published “Aging with Finesse,” a three-book series of short essays exploring valuing ourselves as elders, connecting with others, and acquiring essential skills for aging well
and aging better. She is the Executive Director of the Center for Aging and Values and is launching Five Pillars of Aging, where she will be offering online seminars on aging.