“Can you believe these fires?” we’d say, peering off into the smoke that made the mountains disappear. “My brother had to evacuate, and the family spent the night at my house; they smelled like smoke when they arrived.” And: “It’s not close to our place, but it’s getting closer.” Then we would go back to the squealing kids.
An hour in, a cool breeze rushed in, and it suddenly felt like proper fall — lovely and perfect. Then the smoke followed, like it had broken through a wind barrier and was rushing in all around us. “It smells really bad, doesn’t it?” we whispered to each other. “It’s not just me? We should bring the kids in.” We shuttled more than a dozen children into a house, and soon we all left, driving on various freeways with little visibility.
When we got back to our neighborhood, even though we were far from the fires, the smell was so strong it reminded me of New York after 9/11. I lived in Brooklyn and woke up on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, to a fine ash covering the whole area. Here in L.A., like in New York all those years ago, it caused our eyes and throats to burn. It did not feel safe to be outside with a kid. So we stayed in for the next 24 hours with all the windows closed and the fan on, my daughter knowing little except there was “bad smoke outside.”
What on earth do you do with a small child inside for that many hours, trying to quell your own end-of-days anxiety?
I turned to my go-to in a crisis: Baking.
So while the fires burned and the last thing this city needed was more heat, I turned on the oven. My daughter Noa and I have been baking together since she could sit on the kitchen counter, so she mixed butter and sugar, measured out the salt, flour, baking soda and chocolate; I lined little scoops up on the baking trays. I could have eaten all the cookies myself — it was all I wanted to do — but then I turned to my daughter. “What if we bring these to the firefighters who are helping with all that smoke?”
“Yes!” she squealed, having walked by the fire station dozens of times. “But can I do it alone?”
Most of us are not sure what to do in a crisis, especially if we are not in immediate danger. After 9/11 I ran to CVS and bought bags of unnecessary medical supplies on my credit card and deposited them at a makeshift drop-off station in Union Square. I signed up to give blood at the hospital. My boyfriend at the time, who lived in Wyoming, talked about jumping on a plane and heading to Ground Zero, where they, of course, would not have let him in. We were desperate to help.
Of course there is always money, or political activism. These days I get 12 emails a day asking me to give — one more donation to the victims of shootings, of fires, of floods, of rigged elections, of candidates poised to make history, to the DCCC, to the DNC, to a senator in trouble, to a Go Fund Me for a friend without health insurance; one more call to your senator, congresswoman, the White House; one more chance to canvass. I have done all these things; now it feels as everyday to me as brushing my teeth. But most of it does not feel great — it is a minuscule, impersonal drop in a bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom.
Giving cookies to firefighters felt utterly useless. It seemed trivial at best. Who needs 24 chocolate chip cookies during a humanitarian crisis?
As I watched my daughter run into the fire station, boldly and proudly reaching out her hand to deliver the goods, it also felt like the most human — and humane — thing to do, and just the right lesson for her to absorb: Kindness matters. It’s a way of saying, “Can we offer you some comfort? Sweetness? A small taste of normalcy? An offering from our table, our home, our grateful family, to yours? Please, please accept our love. We give it freely.”
Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times; The Washington Post; The Cut; O: The Oprah Magazine; and Marie Claire, among other publications. She teaches writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Find her online at abigailrasminsky.com.