The mountains have been burning. I live in Atlanta, and for days and days just north of here there has been a forest fire. The mountains that I can get to in just a short car ride are burning. Someone told me this was happening. There was one lone voice on my Facebook feed who had been shouting for months that there was a drought. She showed pictures of scrawny cows. She had grave concerns that this was going to land us in a fire situation. I mean, I guess I believed her. I knew that I should probably be praying for rain. When I thought about it I guess I realized that the dog park was a lot dustier than usual. Mostly, I didn’t think about it, mostly it wasn’t affecting me.
A few days ago the smoke finally reached my city. You go outside and it smells like a camp fire, but also like factory smoke. You stay outside and your lungs burn. I heard on the radio today that the air quality has been rated “unhealthy for everyone.” You come back inside and your clothes and hair smell like they did some late nights in college. You didn’t smoke but most of your friends on the speech team, and that cute boy you liked did. So you went outside when they needed a cigarette and you came back into your dorm room reeking as if you had lit up yourself. Everything smells like smoke. My lungs burn. Didn’t my friend tell me that the mountains were on fire?
I knew that the mountains were on fire, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t get it. I read somewhere that it is very very hard for the human brain to understand suffering we don’t see, that it is difficult to understand experiences that we have only heard about. I saw the skinny cows. I knew there was a drought. I knew this could lead to fire. I knew, I mean, I had heard, that the smoke was coming. I didn’t really understand until my lungs were burning.
I think I could say the same about Brexit. Some of my closest friends live across the pond. They were shocked and horrified that their country voted to exit the EU. They were stunned that people they knew and loved voted on the fear of immigrants and people who did not look like them. My British friends were looking at the rise of Donald Trump. They began telling me it was possible in America, that the same conditions, the drought of racially charged hate and fear, and brushing away of “it isn’t that bad” may very well lead to a fire. I shrugged. This couldn’t possibly be happening.
My friends of color tried to tell me of the fires they had seen in their own life. They tried to tell me that the mostly safe America with the occasionally bad racist person was not the America they knew. They tried to tell me that I knew more people who were going to vote for Donald Trump then I thought I did. They tried to tell me that their were more people than I thought who would ignore and explain away the racist vitriol as ‘just talk.’ I guess I knew that they maybe had a different perspective than I did. I saw maybe pictures of their reality, but I didn’t really understand. They told me how things were getting uglier and uglier. They had seen the fire, I still had not smelled the smoke.
The days following the election, I could finally smell the smoke in the air. I thought of my daughter’s kindergarten teacher who wears a hijab. I worried about my black friends in mostly white classrooms. I saw the terrified faces of my classmates. I hugged my LGBTQ friends. I processed my own feelings of betrayal. I opened my eyes to how many people in America were still totally unwilling to have a woman in the office, no matter who she was running against.
Because of my position in society I still do not see the fire very often, just moments of it here or there. But I can smell the smoke now. The breathing of it burns my lungs. I can smell the smoke and I am committed to not shutting myself indoors and hoping it will go away. I am committed to watching closely and better understanding. I am committed to praying for rain.