“It doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving,” I said to a friend in response to her question about my holiday plans.

Since the election, my five-year-old-son’s best friend worries about whether bad things will happen to his dad, a Muslim from Africa. I hold my son’s hand as he sleeps and hang a dream catcher on the wall for his nightmares about monsters.

Listening to my friends’ post-election worries, tears are never far, my emotional state raw. Single parents whose taxes will leap upwards, families losing healthcare insurance, gay couples whose marriages may no longer be recognized.

*   *   *

The forest burns not with the crimson tipped edges usually indicative of late fall in Western North Carolina, but the smoldering smoke of forest fires.  Eighteen at last count. One is four-miles from my house. Smoke hangs in the air so thick that health advisors warn against spending prolonged amounts of time outdoors. 

My son and I cough often, our eyes red and agitated. The outside world becomes an unrecognizable white haze, I no longer see sunsets, the silhouette of mountains on the horizon, or the moon.

People are being evacuated. I check the whether forecast daily, the sun icon stretches across my laptop. There’s not a raindrop in the ten-day forecast.

*   *  *

A truck carrying paint thinner overturns in the Laurel River.

She was the first river I paddled after finding out I was going to be a mom. I’ve taken my son for walks on the trail that parallels the rapids and whispered their names into his ear, a promise we’d one day paddle there together.

*   *  *

A writing conference takes me less than a mile from where I lived in Lake Tahoe during my ski instructor days.  Jet-lagged, I wake at 5 a.m. and hike toward the Pacific Rim Trail, the first tentative rays filtering through the pine trees.

I round a switchback and lock eyes with someone.

Her grey coat blends in with the early morning light, a perfect camouflage with the logs on the ground that look like driftwood.

A coyote.

I turn my head a few degrees to the right and see her companion. Neither are skittish.

It’s clear I’ve intruded, that I’ve violated etiquette about their personal space so I shuffle backwards.

Up until then I’d been in my head, analyzing a piece I was crafting, planning for the day.

My whole body shook and my breath came out in short breaths. Fear takes residence in every inch of my body.

I remind myself not to run, but the coyotes know my fear. They track me for a mile and just when I’m sure they’ll pounce, I find a stump three-feet in diameter and just as tall.

I climb on it and stretch myself as big as I can, standing up taller and reaching my hands as wide as they’ll go, for once wanting to take up more space, not less. In that moment, I grow.

I stare at the coyotes.  I belong out here, I remind myself. There is less to fear in the forest than in the cities, I say.

Standing on that stump in a stare down with two coyotes, I remember I am a powerful being.

The coyotes turn and lope up the mountain, away from me.

*   *  *

I return to Western North Carolina.

The fires still burn, threatening my home and my community.  The places I hold most sacred are disappearing. There are no guarantees of when the fires will end or what will remain. There is no place to take refuge in this uncertain world.

It takes a seven-year old to suggest that perhaps the non-native insect called the woolly adelgid attacking the hemlocks might be destroyed with the fires. His mom reminds me of the mushrooms that will flourish in the wake of the flames.

With each day, democracy looks less like a promise and more like a responsibility.

This is what I’ve learned:

Gratitude is daring to hope.

Gratitude is the opportunity to get outside of my bubble and to do the work.

A chance to put myself in the way of other people, to look each person I meet in the eyes, and hold their stories with my heart.

I am grateful for this place where I’ve been introduced to the kindest, most powerful, and best version of myself yet.

I do rain dances. I volunteer more. I hold my son tighter.