I am still steeped in my recollections of the past, my own and the world’s, and trying to hold fear at bay as fire season in the West comes closer, with wildfires already burning in the Southwest—and it is only May! My friends in Santa Fe have been manning the frontlines, trying to protect their world and one another as the winds change and the fires leap. The only way I know to help them is to write about fear itself, which is up and real for me—and probably most of us—right now. How do we face a world so burning with uncertainties?

How do I?

It brings me right back to childhood, when I was always scared the grownups would finally blaze over the edge and burn themselves up, taking all us kids with them. These people were out of control with fear, my relatives who had barely made it out of the Russian shtetels alive, hidden beneath their mother’s skirts on ships loaded with refugees to the new country of America. It was clear we kids—my three boy cousins, my sister, and me—were not safe with the grown-ups because they were truly crazy. Their desperation was well-justified, and their stories horrific, so we kids had to watch out and know when to run!

Clara, our Alpha female, went to funerals of strangers to find release, using the old-country mode of hysterical shrieking and tearing her hair when she needed to vent. I wondered what those other families must have felt when they saw her coming, for surely she had a reputation in our part of town. At my father’s funeral she literally climbed in on top of him in the open casket, hollering for him to wake up and drive her home! This, after first going into the wrong viewing room and jumping onto another family’s beloved corpse! We heard her through the walls, and it took four of us to get her out of there and into the right room, apologizing like mad to all the horrified folks on our way out.

Vey iss mir! as we say in Yiddish.

Her hoarse battle shouts of that fateful day were the same ones she had used for chasing us kids down the block, one slipper in hand to smack us with when she caught us. “Get over here so I can kill you!” she would holler as we raced around the corner and scrambled under the hedges to hide.

In fact, she never killed anyone (although she did once push a pregnant daughter-in-law down a flight of stairs because she was jealous) but every last one of us was dependent on her for our survival. In truth, she earned her madness honestly as the eldest of five sisters escaping from certain death in Russia, huddled in the folds of their mother’s long skirt. Twice, as one sister had glaucoma and they were all sent back to Russia from Ellis Island the first time!

In our family we had no Alpha males; they were either “overseas” in the war or already dead. The older ones still home were silent men who spoke rarely, and I never saw them cry except for when two soldiers came to the door with a Purple Heart in a box, to tell us that my favorite uncle Leon, my mother’s brother, was dead.

We kids never forgot we were refugees who talked funny, kept hard secrets and sobbed helplessly in the bathroom when the war news was on the radio. Our ‘boys’ were in Europe fighting Hitler—many never coming back—and the women were going mad or worse back home. The kids either acted out like crazy, or faded into the wallpaper and watched.

I was the one who faded into the wallpaper.

I mostly kept secret my longing to dance because someone had to be there for the others, so I sat by the sidelines and watched the others play in the street, knowing better than to run around like a kid.

“See how nice she sits, doesn’t bother anybody,” Clara would say, praising my hard-won paralysis. “Do like she does and don’t bother me!

Our family may have been extreme, but we weren’t alone with this and we came by it honestly, as we’d already lost my favorite uncle Leon to the war, and my grandmother Sarah was already confined to a wooden wheelchair in a “Home for Jewish Incurables,” paralyzed from the neck down with Multiple Sclerosis. I spent every Sunday of my life there, and “The Home,” as we called it, still haunts my dreams.

Her own mother, Bubbe, was killed by a truck while shopping on Delancey Street, the Shabbos chicken still hanging in a bag from her wrist, and Clara’s sister Francis, who was the reason they had been turned back at Ellis Island the first time they tried to come in, later poisoned her baby by boiling his teddy-bear in Boric Acid to “sterilize it.” My own Mama cried insatiably for her brother, our family light, who died of a septic wound just as the war ended. I still have the postcard he wrote, telling the family he’d be home “any day now.”

My father, in his frustration at losing his wife to grief, started coming to me. I had to run fast because his grabbings frightened me, and always made my mother’s face get tight and look away. “Leave her…” the women muttered in Yiddish while I struggled to get out of his grasp.

Years later at my wedding, he would slap me across the face in my pretty white dress and lace mantilla, to everyone’s shock, and I spent my wedding night sobbing in Herb’s arms. “If you’ve changed your mind, we can annul,” I recall choking out to him in despair, “you don’t have to marry into my crazy family!” He just held me close as we wept together, our vows safely sealed for the rest of our lives together.

One last story about my father, and then I’ll stop: This one took place around the birth of our first child, which my father, in New York, was determined to be at in California “to make sure someone calls a specialist if anything goes wrong.” Convinced it was his right to be in the delivery room with us, he repeated these demands regularly, pestering our doctor as well as the head of the hospital throughout most of my pregnancy. How my stress from that affected our baby in the womb, I still cannot bear to think about, despite Herb’s and the doctor’s and the Head of the hospital’s reassurance that my father would never be allowed into the hospital, much less the delivery room, period!

But they didn’t know my father as well as I did, for he had a heart attack in New York exactly when I went into labor in Berkeley, successfully grabbing everyone’s attention while I was giving birth to our beautiful boy on the other coast.

I am telling these stories with a purpose. The fact is that I survived all this madness, and may even be the stronger for it, even though I would never recommend it to anyone as a technique. But I learned how to trust my own best instincts until I was free to let go of all that fear and follow my deeper imagination. I learned how to slip around wrong rules and make up my own, and to imagine myself dancing freely on a stage, my dress flaring about my legs as I ran like the wind. Dreaming up fanciful ways of living, I imagined alternatives to what everyone else was doing, even though I nearly flunked out of Elementary School in the process! It was those Multiple Choice tests, of course, as I was convinced all the answers were partly right.

I was a pretty lonely kid and I read insatiably, including Darwin, whose inspiration for the diversity of species caught my imagination early on, and I longed for years to go to the Galápagos Islands where he had seen how species evolved depending upon where they lived and what they had to eat. On the bare lava of volcanic islands, living is not easy, and a plant or a creature had to be very inventive to grab a toe-hold. For years I longed to see it for myself, and finally did in my 30s, tagging onto a group of geologists as a non-scientist on a scientific expedition.

I wanted to observe evolution in action and see all the ways plants and creatures have survived the disasters of the past, changing themselves to match challenging new conditions, creatively finding ingenious ways to live. Like me. On this tiny archipelago off the coast of South America, enough species of plants, birds, lizards and insects did this successfully enough to adapt and creatively try out life in a new place, evolving a unique eco-system on barren shores.

The result, all these eons later, is what is recognized as a laboratory of evolution: If there’s nothing to eat on all this black lava, why don’t we try jumping back into the sea to eat algae on offshore rocks? (marine iguanas…) If the ocean is full of fish and we can dive for them, who needs big wings to fly? (flightless cormorants…)

That’s what I’m keeping my eye on now: How to adapt to scary changes in the world. How can we take them on cunningly, rather than trying to fight them? Like iguanas and cormorants, how can we each be creative, swerving around obstacles in an unknown sea and finding other daring folks to swim with us? If creative solutions to brand new problems worked to keep lizards and cormorants alive on barren lava, why don’t we try a human version for ourselves?

That’s how change has always happened, both by chance and by design. Personally, I see it happening all around me when I look for it. I tend to keep an eye out for where the fun and chaos are, because that’swhere I find brand new solutions pouring out of the ground like geysers.

Have you noticed how skateboards have morphed from a quick ride to school to an art form by kids in just a few short years? Their bodies and minds have evolved before our eyes from straightaway skateboarding to swerving and jumping over obstacles, surfing concrete waves to the top and leaping into thin air, flying!

They seem to love learning new ways to balance, defying what we assume to be ‘gravity.’ Personally, I wonder if they are helping to expand our ordinary definition of Nature itself!

I am wondering if that’swhat it’s all about now, taking the risk to extend our imaginations and recognize that our Universe is a lot larger and more complex than we’ve been assuming all this time. The young ones are doing it—it’s already here—but so are the detractors, who often are nobody but ourselves, because we’re scared to take those leaps of faith.

But it’s time … it’s time to take our chances!

Please—it is time! And there is no time to waste.