Disasters: Where There's Smoke... There's a Silver Lining

11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Satan's voice must ring prettier than mine right now. I woke up from having inhaled smoke all night from the burning mountains above my home in Altadena on Monday, August 31. Indeed, when I said good morning to my husband, I sounded like Linda Blair's possessed character in The Exorcist. My lungs are a bit clearer now and hopefully, by the time you read this, the notorious "Station Fire" will be receding into memory and I'll be back to sounding like an angel instead of Lucifer.

Stealing a line from my favorite Sci-fi TV show Stargate SG-1, I can say from experience that "Cowboy, this ain't my first rodeo." This is not my first disaster: I came close to losing my life in another one back in 1972 -- the Rapid City Flood that killed 238, a per capita death rate that exceeds even the Katrina death toll.

At the time I was a student at Allan Hancock College, a community college in Santa Maria, California. Jack and Carolyn Shouse, a lovely couple who were both teachers in the drama department there, led a group of a dozen students in a tour of operas and theater on the "continent." Before we left, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my parents in Rapid City, South Dakota, for a few days before we left for London. It turned out to be a life altering -- and saving -- decision.

Long story short, the neighborhood we lived in was hit very hard. Out of 27 people in our enclave, 7 people survived. Three of those survivors were me and my parents. Since neither of my parents knew how to swim, I ended up having to pull them to safety since I was a Red Cross trained lifeguard. If I'd not taken that side trip home before my "grand tour," my parents probably would have died.

Anyway, at the risk of veering too far into "cliché-ville," the collateral benefits of disasters are many. Granted, they are not benefits one would normally seek out. And I suppose the real trick to these benefits is to generate them without having to be close to losing everything, including your life.

What I learned in the flood, and was reminded of with our recent fires:

• Nothing matters other than your health and other people and pets. The rest is crap.

• For those things that are not really "crap" there are people standing by to help.

• Creating an inventory of what really matters to you is a good exercise even if you aren't afraid of dying. As I "inventoried" the materialistic things I care about they boiled down to other people's artwork, writing or activism that I care about too, i.e., paintings, Amelia Earhart's signature on her first book, a first edition book by Eleanor Roosevelt with her autograph, etc.

• Listen to your animals! If a cat or dog is acting funny, don't scold them -- listen. They know things, smell things, hear things, that we don't.

• People are incredibly generous with each other when there's a threat.

• Home is where the heart is -- I told you this would veer into "cliché -ville." But it's true! As long as I have my hubby and doggies, I'm good.

• There are only a certain amount of things you can actually control. Ultimately, the only control you truly have is how you behave under dire circumstances.

• Whether the current problem is fire, mud, water, wind, or earthquake, I love California and there's nowhere else I'd rather live

• Smoke is really bad for you. OK, that's a stupid one, but it deserves a mention because I'd forgotten just how overwhelming smoke can be. I don't care if the smoke is sourced by a wild fire or a cigarette. Breathing chunks of forest is bad! Breathing tobacco leaf residue is bad. You smokers out there, stop it! Please.

• There's nothing like a good disaster to remind you of your own mortality; stop waiting for "someday." You need to write that book, sing that song, smell those roses that California is so famous for, surf that wave. My Dad regretted nothing except that he hadn't taken the time to write about his life.

Finally, this column is dedicated to my neighbor and surrogate mom, Mignon Henriques, who passed away on August 26, 2009... 26 years to the day after her beloved husband Keith Henriques died. Also known as Minnie, she personified the kind of person who didn't need a disaster to appreciate life and living. Many people in Altadena and Pasadena knew Minnie. She was a central figure at Neighborhood Church for many years as well as Planned Parenthood. Minnie was a brilliant writer. I first got to know her well when she was a student in my Writers' Workout. I often thought how much my own father would have loved the class and Minnie, and would have loved to hear her stories of growing up in a well-off Jewish community in Kingston, Jamaica. Minnie's patois, and love of the Jamaican culture was always around her. You could smell the tropical nights and the big band sounds while everyone danced under the stars in her prose. Ah, Minnie... I miss her. Fortunately, we will always have her stories because she got them on paper and some of them onto tape, too.