Beauty In Ashes by Sarah Ann Noel

Like most of my best decisions, this one also was borne from a breakdown, a moment went I felt cracked open and scooped out and unsure of how to put back the pieces, fill myself back up—unsure of if that was even possible. 

I know it’s not unique to say that last year was the worst year ever, and I hope my saying that it was our worst year in no way diminishes the ways that it might also have been awful for you. The very act of existing felt like a challenge and a resistance all at once on some days; then 2020 sprinkled everyone’s servings with a little something special and a cherry on top. For me, that was experiencing some severe and terrifying invasions of privacy and, in a year when we were already isolated, choosing to dig further inward and isolate even more.

The problem with going further inward is, well, there you are. Sitting with myself day-in, day-out, I realized the truth of the things I’d been saying to my girlfriends during our virtual happy hours: I didn’t feel like a person. I felt human—oh, so rawly human, in that achey, desperate need to survive and provide for the people I love. But is that what makes a person?

In July, as wildfires raged throughout the west, it got extra personal when the mountain across our canyon started burning. I could see the flames sprouting up, my mountain-turned-volcano threatening to deprive us of everything we’d built. I tearfully collected the necessities, and then I collected the things that don’t go on a “necessities” checklist but feel more important than all the rest, little painted handprints or scribbles called love notes, every post-it he had ever left on my mirror to cheer me in the morning.

We sheltered in my parents’ house, released our fears to tears, and then we set to the business of asking ourselves the question you ask when you might lose everything: What would we do next?

This wasn’t the first time the bottom had fallen out. We’ve built up a life only to hand it over for the next adventure—again and again. Somehow, after that year, the one where plans were snatched away and privacies were distorted and pleasures were denied, it seemed a bigger thing. I decided I better get my affairs in order, which is to say, I better become a person again. The moment I committed to myself, I found the lie I’d buried in the truth I told friends: That I needed an inciting event to turn everything around. Because the truth is, our house didn’t burn down and we didn’t lose anything; but I no longer needed the deficit to know it was time to invest in myself.

Call it an accident, but I think I stumbled into those next steps by fate. How does a woman, consumed with artistic ambition and a heavy dose of wanderlust, who is mourning her old New York life and also some version of a career that never was, chase those dreams from her charred forest in Colorado while raising children in a tiny town during a pandemic? I couldn’t have come up with a better answer if I’d Googled exactly that. I found a low-residency MFA program that ticked more of those boxes than I could have imagined.

And I don’t know what it was in me that felt, with more confidence than I’ve had about anything in a long while, that this was the thing. That the admissions rates would still favor me, that I’d figure out the cost, that whatever scheduling magic I had to conjure in order to accomplish the work would be worth it. I think that confidence was really a mirror: I found this program and I saw myself as a person again. 

My upbringing was saturated by Biblical platitudes, and oddly, I have seen the literal fruition of the verse in Isaiah that promises beauty from ashes. That wildfire burned itself out and somehow, thankfully escaped from the flames, I was still refined. I was accepted into the program with a renewed sense of self and purpose, but also a renewed sense of timing. Of course, of course, of course following the worst year ever, beauty is born and meaning is found. 

I spent the first months of the pandemic writing articles about silver linings and what we could learn from quarantining, making our worlds smaller while also considering the magnitude of humanity. All important lessons, but this is not that. This isn’t some sparkly outline that we focus on to make ourselves feel better. This is a choice, a choice to say, whatever you find that becomes your mirror—applying to that program, signing up for that workshop, sending off the manuscript—sometimes it’s best to do it in these ugly moments. Examine yourself then, and you find the real you. 

(Thank you, Sarah! Photograph from a Catskill Mountains Chalet via LaTonya)

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