The brilliance in resilience…

The Oakland Firestorm, October 1991

Certainty is an illusion. Yet, as humans, we crave it. When we don’t have a feeling of certainty, our brains detect a threat to our survival and we react – fight or flight. I, for one, can testify that uncertainty happens. One day in October 1991, the Oakland Fire happened. On that morning, a fire breaks out some distance from our house. That afternoon, we’re told to evacuate, and by the next morning, our house is gone. In a day’s time, our lives are upended. Given the short time we had to evacuate, all we could grab were our two very young kids, our cat, a couple of days worth of clothes, and our address book. We left one of our cars behind because a friend left her’s with us and I wasn’t going to leave it behind. We just didn’t believe the fire was going to get as far as our house and that we’d be back in a couple of days.

As we tried to leave the neighborhood, the single lane roads were packed with cars. The police closed the entrance to the freeway, so there was only one way out. We started getting nervous since the smoke was getting thicker, sirens were more frequent, and we were barely moving. Finally, we started to move slowly and after a time, we made it to a friend’s house. We settled in and watched the news all night to track the trajectory of the fire. Given the wind patterns that evening, we were never sure whether our house made it through the night. My neighbor, from our Oakland neighborhood, called me to figure out how we could go together to see if our respective homes survived the firestorm. The fire at the time was the worst urban conflagration the US has seen. It took us two days to get back in.

All roads to the areas affected were closed by police checkpoints. My friend and I decided we would go to the police checkpoint at a very early morning hour. When we got to one of those checkpoints, we pleaded with the officers to let us through. At first they refused, citing safety due to downed power lines in the area. We appealed again and they relented. They agreed that one of the two officers would stay at the barricade and the other would drive us in the police cruiser just to see our homes and then immediately turn back to the checkpoint. We got into the police cruiser and the drive was a bit surreal since the entire way we saw the whole neighborhood intact; houses, trees, cars and all. Our hopes surged until we turned the last corner towards our homes. The houses were intact as well. Suddenly, we got to the corner where my and my neighbor’s homes were and it was as if we had just landed on the moon.

Though this isn’t my house, it’s close enough to what I saw of my own, two days after the fire.

From that point on, there was a gray, monochrome landscape of destruction. My house was gone except for the front facade which was still smoldering. The wall eventually collapsed and all that was left was the brick chimney. My neighbor’s house was the same. He owned a beautiful Alfa Romeo sports car which had disintegrated and all was left was a pool of cooled aluminum. We embraced each other and started to cry. We were in shock, in part on the visual before us, but also because our brains were processing the loss before us and the calculations of our impending futures. We rode back in the police cruiser to the checkpoint in silence, then got in our own cars and drove to the places we were staying. I walked in and Mary Ann and her friend were waiting in anticipation. I delivered the news and more tears flowed.

What happened next was a non-stop whirlwind of contractors, insurance agents, government processes, neighborhood meetings and of course, shopping, shopping, shopping. We had absolutely nothing in our possession. We needed to buy everything from underwear to clothes for work, toiletries, and other essentials. Luckily, Mary Ann’s friend’s neighbor was traveling for a month and offered her home to us. During that month, we both went back to work, got the kids to school, looked for a more permanent residence, did lots of shopping, met often with a contractor who represented us with the insurance company, all the time trying to create an environment of calm and steadiness for the kids.

Over the next two years, we lived in a small house in Alameda, secured funding from the insurance company and started down the path to recovery. We decided to clear our lot and rebuild a new house. A friend of ours was an architect who was eager to help and we all decided to move forward with designing a dream house, complete with the elements of Feng Shui to bring the most Chi (positive energy) throughout the house. What resulted was not only a beautiful home but a strong sense of resilience. What seemed impossible at one time became real.

After that experience, we thought we went through our one big disaster in our lives and that we could handle any adversity thrown at us from then on. Since then, our third child, Ethan, was born, both Mary Ann’s and my parents passed away, we moved out of our new home to Orinda to put our kids into better schools, and I was compelled to leave a horrid work situation right in the midst of the 2008 recession. Remind me of that expression, “God gives you what she thinks you can handle”? In our case, really? She didn’t need to be so kind.

Yet, through all of that, we learned that resilience resulted in circumstances better than what we imagined. Our experience with the Oakland fire was literally a Phoenix out of the ashes. Everything with us as a family seemed to have strengthened, as individuals, as partners in marriage, as parents. We also valued what life had to offer. And shedding all our material possessions was liberating (though if you looked at our garage now, you think we would have learned better). When it came time to build our house back on our old lot, we built the house the way we wanted, didn’t cheap out on materials, appliances, furniture. We bought art, I bought myself a new electric bass guitar I wouldn’t have considered before. Some door opened that made us less inhibited, more spontaneous. The acts of resilience made a positive impact on our lives that goes on until today.

Fast forward to 2018. On one of our daily morning walks, I feel I’m losing control of my right foot. As you already know, over the last almost two years, I’ve progressed in becoming a quadriplegic with no forewarning. Once again, uncertainty has returned to our lives. It has dwarfed the challenges of the Oakland fire in that we know what the future looks like. Of course we wondered what the hell did we do to deserve this, having already gone through what we have in our lives. Mary Ann and I yet again went through the shock of the hand we’ve been dealt, though this time we couldn’t hop in the car and drive to safety. This time, instead of contractors and architects, it’s been doctors and caregivers. One constant is the insurance companies. A new resilience has kept us moving through our lives by minimizing the hardships as best as we can, making sure our kids and family are “woke” to the realities to our situation, keep close to our family, friends, and community, and make every day count. Resilience is the same foundation we rely on today as we did in 1991. It allows us to keep laughing, keep loving, keep enjoying life and gives us hope.

Does this newspaper ad look at all familiar?

But as if that weren’t enough, a new layer of challenge has been heaved upon all of us. I know, dear readers, that you’ve had your own battles you had to fight before the 11th plague hit. All of a sudden, a global pandemic emerges within two months, and we’re being told to stop everything we’re doing, and shelter in place. When talking to friends, we all discussed the uncertainty of days. We couldn’t see more than a few days ahead of us, let alone planning anything months in advance.

We’re in the midst of uncertainty, with uncertainty being the only thing we can count on. We are all experiencing fatigue from our anxieties. No wonder our cocktails are so necessary and our Zoom calls with family and friends so important. Those are things we do to cope, which helps our resilience. If we’re going to get through this with our sanity and hope intact, we need to practice resilience every day. Resilience is an inner strength that must be exercised every day. Speaking from experience, there are surely things that will come out positively for all of us from this. One thing important to resilience is to adopt a vision of the future. Right now, one of the main sources of frustration is the news about our government. The future seems bleak. Yet, there is one thing I found to be helpful in times of adversity is the ability to visualize the future you want to see for yourself. It helps you set new goals and gives hope in achieving them.

Our resilience will be in part be a herd consciousness. There is power in positive thinking. We must believe, and act to make our collective visions come true. If anything, we must act for our health and the health of our planet and the health of society at the very least.

Resilience is the trust we put in ourselves to make our own futures happen. When Mary Ann and I went through the loss of our home, we spent some time grieving. Our lives changed overnight. Yet, we couldn’t be complacent and so we started rebuilding our lives. We kept our eyes on the prize. Our resilience grew as we were able to accomplish each need we had. And then, at some point, we realized that we had overcome our adversity with a better outcome.

Now is the time to put trust in ourselves to make a better future. There is much we can’t control that is outside our environments. But there is so much more we can do to build resilience. Limit the input of the news we hear that makes us anxious. Channel nervous energy by connecting with others. Volunteer or contribute to the election campaign. Focus on family (it’s my excuse for having my cocktail hours with them), escape into a novel, get some fresh air. But foremost, don’t lay any guilt on yourself that you’re not doing enough. We must care for our emotional health. Distraction is okay, as long as you channel it into something healthy. If it goes in the wrong direction, then reach out to someone for help. Be vulnerable and accept the help, whether from a family member, a friend, or a professional.

The brilliance in resilience is that there is a good chance that something good, if not great will come out of this. I truly believe the opportunity for real change is possible. As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see”. Work on your strengths so when the good times do arrive, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of it.

More to come…

25 thoughts on “The brilliance in resilience…

  1. Your writings are incredibly powerful and moving. Back in 1991 you and I were keeping in touch by writing letters back and forth (remember letters??) I very much recall your corresponding after the fire and one of the things you spoke of was the loss of all your pictures and asked me to send any I might have of you, which I recall doing.
    Memory and how it informs our lives remains so vital. Thinking of you and your family and looking forward to your next post 💙


  2. What an amazing writer you are. Thank you Harry for sharing your brilliance with us.
    Barbara Nuzzi (Berger)


  3. Another beautiful and wise piece, Harry. You are definitely one of the most resilient people I know. You and Mary Ann. You have been dealt a lot in life and yet you maintain your spirit, passion and commitment to people and causes that matter To you. Very inspiring.❤️🙏🌸


  4. Hi, Ashley Dickenson sent your blog to me, i live in Singapore. I enjoyed reading your blog, beautifully written piece. thank you


  5. I feel like I’m reading the words of a Tzaddik. I’m always moved by your wisdom and ability to share it so eloquently.


  6. Thanks for the message of resilience. Tying the loss of you home in 91 to your current situation made both even more poignant. When I pray, I ask to be released from shame, resentment, fear, and self pity. Those are my “resilience killers”. You are making a big and lasting contribution. Love, John Anning


  7. Although I may be older than you ( by 3 months ) I am certainly not wiser !!! xxx0x0x0x0 “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
    ― Maya Angelou


  8. As always, your perspectives through all that’s happening enlightens and inspires Harry. There is brilliance in resilience – and it’s you my friend!


  9. Thanks for the brilliance that you and Mary Ann bring into our lives every time we see you. Thanks for the reminders on how to stay positive in an unsettled time. You are the best. Enjoy those LeapFrog cocktails – we love you! Paula and Sandy


  10. Harry, You’ve been through more than any one person ought to have to endure. And yet you persist. And persist in amazing me. I’m sure the grief of losing everything can become fresh in a moment, as appears from your vivid recounting of finding the smoldering wreck of your home, but I, for one, take some solace in God’s mysterious ways, because that is what brought you and Mary Ann into Gail’s and my life, for which I am profoundly grateful. God works in mysterious ways — and she’s got a really funky sense of humor. Much love brother. I give thanks for the tortured path that brought us together.


  11. Thanks Harry for sharing your wisdom and outlook on life. You continue to inspire and motivate me. I am grateful to have you as a friend.


  12. So where we we ? Oh yes, you didn’t see my comment on this blog because this blog is tres popular and there are a lot of comments. I love this blog, so well-written, dots always connected, photos perfectly placed and the topic oh-so-timely. Hugs & finishes x0x0x0 you rock xx0x0 !!!


  13. Another very powerful piece. Harry, thank you for keeping up your writing. You are the most resilient person I have ever met. Your life is an inspiration. Life is filled with uncertainty. You teach us all about courage, perspective, and the love of life.


  14. Dear Brother, I am always in awe of how you manage to maintain your strength, good humor, interest in everything and everyone. How you manage to thrive. You just keep going forward. We are the children of Holocause Survivors and we have witnessed first hand the power the resiliance. Our parents had to leave everything behind they could not carry and go out into the unknown. After having lived through the unimaginable, they rebuilt their lives, created family and new extended family. They survived and thrived. Watching you go through your own personal holocaust, I can now see how much we did learn about resilience from them. Always proud of you, love you.


  15. I recall some precious Words of Wisdom from the Staffieri-Wittenbergs: “Be Dramatic — Kiss a Thespian.” (Although it might be prudent to ask in advance whether this is okay.)


  16. Well, if the shoe fits, if you catch my drift. It was a perfect example of responding to a dramatic time by a budding actor and male supermodel. I do miss those days. Oh, and Ingrid, too.


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