Flowers in the ash, painting by Patricia Prijatel.
Source: Patricia Prijatel
I hear the footsteps of the woman upstairs. A door shuts quietly somewhere in the building.
Outside, a car purrs down the hill, the light reflecting on the bedroom wall. Life continues. All is well. I sigh, calmed, and fall asleep.
The ambient noise and filtered light of my new home—a fourth-story condo in a six-story building—relaxes me. These are the sounds of people going about their business, the sounds of normalcy, and they settle my spirit. In the noise, I find quiet.
Communal living is new to my husband and me. Since the 1970s, we’ve lived in single-family homes, and when we considered moving to a condo, we worried that the noise of neighbors close by would annoy us, especially me. I have the hearing of a watchdog. Yet, since the day we moved here, I have slept beautifully—probably better than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, including our secluded mountain cabin. Initially I thought it was because this is, overall, a quiet building, with concrete walls and floors, a brick exterior, and great neighbors. I now realize another issue might be at play here. The sounds I hear are of life functioning as it should. They are the sounds of safety.
I am four stories up in a brick fortress. We were here in 85-mile-per-hour winds and the building barely noticed. Our street flooded once, but it didn’t even come close to our building. We have a secure entrance, in addition to our own locked front door. This building should withstand fires better than the wooden houses we’ve always lived in. I didn’t think too much about this when we decided to move here. Now I wonder if it might have been a subliminal motivation.
I’d thought I was over the PTSD from a wildfire that burned our mountain land 10 years ago. We escaped minutes before it rushed through, and firefighters saved our sweet little cabin. But the aftermath was brutal—floods that turned our quiet stream into a torrent full of tree trunks, and high winds that toppled burned trees and sent roofs sailing across the meadow. My heart still races when I think of the orphaned bear that tried to break in night after night, tearing down our screen door and breathing in my face as I shut the bathroom window he was clawing out. The poor guy was a disoriented 2-year-old who lost his mother in the fire. A 2-year-old bear is still huge, and a confused one is especially scary. I had used all my mental strength to deal with the fire and floods, but the bear was too much. After the bear, I admitted fear.
Now, 10 years later, it seems I remain fearful. I’ve seen climate change up close. It’s terrifying.
I faced my fears by writing about the fire, which was therapeutic. I did several paintings of the burned mountain land—charcoal trees and flowers growing in ash. That all helped. But apparently not enough. When we’re at the cabin, I tense at every little noise in the night; every sunset there looks like a potential wildfire. Rain is a stressor. And when I come back to my Midwestern home, my trauma comes with me.
We moved to this condo six years after the fire, for practical reasons. The upkeep of the house overwhelmed us, plus we weren’t here that much and didn’t need a big house that sat empty for months at a time. But we chose this condo quickly, after rejecting others all over the country. Why? It’s a fun, airy space, with a great view of acres of park across the street, the layout is smart, the rooms large. It has flaws that annoy me and make me question our decision—schlepping groceries from the garage to the building and up the elevator is a pain, it’s smaller than I’d like, and I miss a basement.
Still, at the end of the day, I sleep exceptionally well here. I hadn’t even realized I was feeling threatened until I began to question why I, a woman who hates noise, suddenly embraced it. The trauma of the fire left me with a deep inability to trust in my own safety. Here, I feel less vulnerable, less threatened by the elements or roaming beasts, although bears haven’t hung around this neighborhood for more than a century.
I’ve had fantasies of building a new cabin, one that is high off the ground so we can open windows at night without the fear of bears breaking in, on a hill away from flooding, made of brick to withstand fire. I didn’t pull that off on the mountain, but I have it here.
I can’t avoid the realization that none of us is safe. Our personal story of fire and escape is repeating itself daily across the globe, as flames ruin entire cities and turn landowners into refugees. It can happen anywhere, and it can take many shapes—fire, water, wind. But high up in a brick building, I feel, for the time being, secure.
A fire truck went by late the other night, lights flashing. I watched it go up the hill, then out of sight. The helpers are here, I thought. They are watching and responding. I said a prayer for whoever needed their help, then crawled into bed and went right to sleep.